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Why US high school reform efforts aren't working

Despite a host of reform efforts, only half of low-income and minority students in US high schools graduate. Some programs are trying to change that.

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Since it began in 2004, the Baltimore Talent Development High School has posted some impressive graduation rates and achievement scores, among other things.

Even more notable, efforts by educators at nearby Johns Hopkins University to replicate the school’s gains in dozens of other locations have also met with some success. Slowly, the network of Talent Development High Schools is helping student groups that often seem most at risk.

But good news at the high school level is unusual. Despite vigorous calls for change and a host of major reform efforts, encouraging results have been scarce. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores – considered the “Nation’s Report Card” – tend to be stagnant for high-schoolers, even when they rise for elementary school students.

Only about half of low-income and minority students in US high schools graduate, and many of those who do are unprepared for college. The isolated examples of success often fail when administrators or education reformers try to reproduce them on a large scale.

In short, US high schools don’t seem to be working.

“High schools are really large, and it’s harder to coordinate work in them,” says Elaine Allensworth, interim coexecutive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “There’s a different kind of culture in high schools, where teachers think they’re teachers of subjects rather than teachers of students.... And the expectations of high schools have changed dramatically without their general structure changing.”


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