Low-Performing High Schools in
Comprehensive Reform Model
There is hope for transforming some of America's most troubled high schools, according to the results of an evaluation being released this week at a national education conference in Baltimore.
By reorganizing into smaller learning communities, adopting curricula to address students' learning gaps and supporting and training teachers, these underperforming schools may have a better chance for success. Those are the components of a reform model known as the Talent Development High Schools, created 10 years ago by school-based educators and researchers at The Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR). Talent Development has received high marks in its first independent evaluation, by the New York-based non-profit firm MDRC. The study is available online at www.mdrc.org/publications/388/overview.html/.
The evaluation focuses on five schools in a large northeastern city that is not being identified. The schools in this study are among the most troubled high schools in the country, where graduating is not the norm. The evaluation focuses largely on ninth grade improvements because the program has been in place the longest at that grade level. Also, ninth grade is a crucial year because failure to do well and earn sufficient credits to be promoted often leads to dropping out.
According to the evaluation, "Talent Development has positive and significant impacts for increasing course completion and promotion to 10th grade. Thus, Talent Development helps keep ninth-grade students on track for graduation, which is one of the most important goals of current high school reform efforts." The evaluation also showed that these schools reduced absenteeism, a chronic problem at troubled high schools.
"A big debate in high school reform is 'Can you fix these schools?' This evaluation shows that you can,' said James McPartland, the executive director of Talent Development High Schools. "These are among the most challenging high schools in the country because they are in high-poverty neighborhoods, and their students often do not come to high school with the skills needed to succeed in demanding courses."
"Also, many of the students are apathetic and disinterested," he added. "With our support, leaders in these schools were able to create a personalized environment within the confines of a regular high school, and get results." Though the study focused on the Johns Hopkins program alone, the findings have broader implications for comprehensive school reform programs in general, according to Robert Balfanz, a research scientist with CRESPAR and Talent Development co-director. It buoys the comprehensive reform movement, which has come under fire recently for being too expensive and "one size fits all" to be viable. The schools in the Talent Development evaluation all used federal comprehensive school reform funds, slated to be cut in the FY 2005 budget, to support their changes and improvements.
"This evaluation shows you can turn the most troubled high schools around," said Nettie Legters, another Talent Development co-director. But changes cannot be piecemeal, she said: "It takes comprehensive and sustained reform." Balfanz and Legters recently co-authored a report that identified 2,000 "dropout factories" nationwide — high schools where the senior classes had 40 percent or more fewer students than the ninth-grade class four years earlier (the complete report "Locating the Dropout Crisis" is available at www.csos.jhu.edu/tdhs/rsch/Locating_Dropouts.pdf).
Educators from around the country will get their first look at the MDRC evaluation during the Talent Development High Schools Principals' Institute Wednesday at the Sheraton Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Following that meeting, nearly 200 teachers and administrators will attend Talent Development's National Conference there Thursday and Friday. The conference will celebrate the 10th anniversary of this reform program.
Nearly 50 schools serving more than 50,000 students in 10 states and the District of Columbia are using the Talent Development model.
MDRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization dedicated to learning what works to improve the well-being of low-income people. It was created in 1974 by the Ford Foundation and six federal agencies in the wake of the Great Society anti-poverty programs of the 1960s. Information is available online at www.mdrc.org/about_experienced.htm.
To speak with the researchers or cover the "Changing Schools, Changing Lives" conference at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore, contact Amy Cowles at 443-287-9960.
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