May 26, 2018
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Reform Efforts Evaluated In New Urban Institute Book On America's Schools



WASHINGTON, D.C., November 18, 2009—Eighteen education policy experts put the past decade’s surge in high-school reform efforts to the test in Saving America’s High Schools from the Urban Institute Press.  Led by coeditors Becky Smerdon and Kathryn Borman, the team of authors size up national reform trends and draw on at least five years of research in Baltimore, New York City, Chicago, Ohio, and North Carolina.


Their analyses come none too soon. The last decade has seen a proliferation of high school redesign efforts—more than $1 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has funded improvement projects in more than 2,000 schools—but research on the effectiveness of the reforms has been scarce. “Even where the research does exist,” Smerdon and Borman write, “it comes nowhere near giving sufficient guidance to schools and policymakers about how to improve secondary schools to the extent society and the economy are now demanding.” Saving America’s High Schools helps fill that research gap for leaders dedicated to reinvigorating secondary education.

The numbers the researchers cite are sobering. “High schools are not working for a substantial number of the 14 million adolescents they are charged with educating,” Smerdon and Borman point out. “At best, one in four public high school students does not graduate in four years. More alarmingly, high school graduation is only a ‘50-50 proposition’ for low-income and minority students.”


Reducing high school size became a common objective for educators and policymakers in the 1990s and 2000s, but Smerdon, Borman, and their colleagues find that getting positive results for students requires more complex changes. A school’s small size, the authors saw, can be beneficial, but does not improve student performance directly. Instead, a small school is a pathway to personalizing instructional methods and relationships, building students’ sense of responsibility, keeping students accountable, and permitting greater collaboration among educators.


For school systems seeking transformation, and for the Gates Foundation (which funds many of the projects), academic rigor is a key to successful school reform. Saving America’s High Schools finds that student engagement, motivation, and attendance in several redesigned schools improved, but that student achievement has been mixed. In Baltimore’s redesigned schools—where, among other changes, leaders reduced school sizes, increased staff accountability for student achievement, and raised standards for student performance in core subjects—most students have not passed English and algebra assessment exams and two-thirds have not graduated from high school, despite some rises in student achievement.


Sarah Edith Jones, Monica Martinez, and Cindy Cai report that teaching approaches did not change after similar reforms in Ohio and student outcomes did not improve. Academic performance did not improve in Chicago post-reform either, though graduation rates rose in some small schools, write Joseph E. Kahne, Susan E. Sporte, Marisa de la Torre, and John Q. Easton. Eileen Foley and Elizabeth Reisner’s study identified a bright spot in New York City’s revamped schools: a 78-percent graduation rate for the class of 2005, compared with just 61 percent in comparison-group schools.


Smerdon, Borman, and Jane Hannaway underscore the importance of research-tested instructional practices, writing that significant student learning gains require improved curricula and highly effective teachers. At the same time, these experts put weak academic achievements in newly overhauled schools into context, pointing out that keeping low-performing students from dropping out may reduce schools’ average test scores.


Saving America’s High Schools recounts the successes and challenges in improving various high schools. “Without the push to put forward the lessons learned from these efforts, many rural and urban high schools will continue to cling to notions of the ‘comprehensive’ high school as the best option,” Smerdon and Borman observe. “Clearly, it is not, and efforts such as those described in this volume must continue as we seek to create schools for all students.”


Kathryn Borman is a professor of anthropology and is affiliated with the Alliance for Applied Research in Education and Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Becky Smerdon is a founder and managing director of Quill Research Associates, LLC. Contributors to Saving America’s High Schools are Cindy Cai, Jennifer Cohen, Geoff Coltrane, Marisa de la Torre, John Q. Easton, Eileen Foley, Joseph Garcia, Jane Hannaway, Sarah Edith Jones, Joseph E. Kahne, Monica Martinez, Barbara Means, Karen Mitchell, Elizabeth Reisner, Todd Silberman, Mengli Song, Susan E. Sporte, and Charles Storey.


Saving America’s High Schools, edited by Becky Smerdon and Kateryn Borman, is available from the Urban Institute Press. (978-0-87766-758-2, paperback, 244 pages, $26.50). Order online at, call 410-516-6956, or dial 1-800-537-5487 toll-free. Read more, including the introductory chapter, at


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The Urban Institute, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.



STORY TAGS: reform, education, school, schooling, black, african, american, minority, urban, class, high school, new urban institute, report, study, urban institute press, saving america\'s high schools, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, low income, poor


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