Comprehensive reform programs are works in progress
Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, when addressing the nation’s governors in February, called American high schools "obsolete" and "designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age."
Gates and other reformers are pushing for a complete overhaul of the present structure and the creation of an equitable system that results in all students being prepared for post-secondary success – whether in college or the workplace.
In Philadelphia, though high schools’ overall performance remains dismal, several high school reform efforts have long been underway, and in some cases they show signs of positive change.
Supported by federal Department of Education’s Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) grants, three nationally recognized models – High Schools That Work, the Coalition of Essential Schools and Talent Development High Schools – are being implemented in a number of Philadelphia schools to help deliver "whole-school reform."
The CSR program and "whole-school" models are intended to introduce a coherent set of schoolwide improvements covering virtually all aspects of a school’s operations, rather than piecemeal, fragmented approaches to reform.
However, as noted in a January 2005 report, the national CSR Quality Center found, "The evidence of effectiveness for most approaches is inconclusive because of a lack of studies, flaws in the methodologies used in available studies, and mixed evaluation results."
Here are details of the three most widely used models in Philadelphia.
High Schools That Work
Led by the Southern Regional Education Board, High Schools That Work (HSTW) fostered an idea that was nothing short of radical when in 1987 it called on schools to eliminate the so-called "general track" – that "Neverland" populated by non-college, non-vocational or technical students.
Locally, Bok, Dobbins, Randolph Skills Center and Swenson use HSTW, which is premised on the conviction that all students can master higher-level academic content – historically taught to only the best students – if given the opportunity to learn that material, and taught in engaging ways.
HSTW provides intensive professional development to teachers and principals, training them to deliver meaningful, higher-level courses to students who previously had not considered taking college preparatory or advanced courses. According to Gene Bottoms, HSTW Executive Director, "It takes three to five years to learn how to teach Algebra 1 and 2 to all students."
Students are required to take four years of college-prep English, three years of math starting with Algebra 1, three years of laboratory sciences (two at a college-prep level) and either a concentration of courses in fine arts, a foreign language, or a planned career sequence and at least one Advanced Placement core course.
According to Benjamin Di Tullio, veteran teacher at Bok, HSTW "focuses the entire school staff on infusing higher levels of achievement in mathematics, science and language arts in vocational/technical curricula."
Signs of the program’s strength in Philadelphia include that Swenson staff regularly act as leaders for school-based, citywide and statewide professional development; and that Bok made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2004.
Coalition of Essential Schools
When Theodore Sizer and his Harvard University colleagues studied secondary schools in the early 1980s, they found that students in unfocused, "shopping mall high schools" were not learning at high levels. That study led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which since 1984 has maintained Sizer’s vision of linking teachers and schools across the country in a shared commitment to new ways of thinking about what goes on in the classroom.
According to JoAnn Caplan, executive director of the mid-Atlantic region Coalition office, the model addresses challenges that schools have with the process of reform. So, unlike schools that start with structural change, Coalition schools start with deepening the curriculum. They do this in line with Sizer’s idea of the "triangle of learning" linking teacher, student, and subject matter, and with his passionate conviction that all children can learn to use their minds well. Developing professional learning communities in which teachers share practices and build upon one another’s knowledge and skills is considered crucial in Coalition schools.
Philadelphia’s Coalition high schools – Mastbaum, Douglas and Furness – are charged with adopting several principles:
intellectual goals must apply to all students;
each student is known well;
the school models democratic practices and strives for equitable outcomes;
school and community resources are redirected to focus on the school’s intellectual purpose; and
diplomas are awarded on the basis of mastery.
The principles aim teachers toward a shift in attitude about what constitutes authentic student understanding, about how to teach for it, and about how to recognize it. As Caplan indicated, the Coalition model is, "Working to retool the whole thing."
In addition, students are encouraged to participate in every aspect of their learning experience: what their studies will include and why, how they will learn, and how well they are progressing.
Talent Development High Schools
Designed as a dropout prevention model by teachers and researchers from Howard University and Johns Hopkins University, Talent Development High Schools with Career Academies (Talent) invites teachers to improve their schools by rearranging physical plants, strengthening teaching and instructional methods, and using research data to drive decision-making.
Locally a project of the Philadelphia Education Fund, Talent has been adopted by Franklin, Edison, Strawberry Mansion, Germantown, Gratz, Kensington and South Philadelphia (Southern) high schools.
Before undertaking a year of intensive planning, school staff vote on whether Talent should be adopted. For George Anderson, a former Academy Team Leader at Southern, the vote to buy in was an important feature of the model. "Teachers’ perception is that we already know how to teach, and we tend to resist having school reorganization imposed from the outside," said Anderson.
A significant component of the model is its "over-the-shoulder" coaching, meaning that professional development and training support is provided by an on-site team of coaches.
Talent high schools are organized into academies – each in its own area of the building. New ninth graders are separated from older students in a Success Academy; students in upper grades choose one of various career academies.
For students who are behind in reading and math, the goal is to be at grade level in those subjects by 11th grade, and students can potentially earn as many as 32 credits at the end of four years (in Philadelphia, a student needs 23.5 credits to graduate).
"Students who go to Talent Development schools are better prepared for college," asserts Hattie Staten, Germantown’s Home and School Association president. "The block roster gives students the opportunity to get what they need."
There are hopeful signs in Philadelphia: Franklin has received a Pennsylvania Secondary School Association (PSSA) grant for improved attendance, and, along with Strawberry Mansion, made AYP in 2004.