CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Case Study

High Schools That Work: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools

Drawing on interview and survey data collected over a two-year period, this case study describes school staff members’ understanding and enactment of High Schools That Work (HSTW) in three schools. The case includes a brief overview of the reform’s main principles and theory of action, a description of how the enactment process unfolded, and a discussion of the factors that influenced that process.

HSTW aims to improve student achievement by creating “a culture of high expectations and continuous improvement in high schools” (Southern Regional Education Board [SREB], 2005, p. 2). The reform calls for high academic standards, rigorous curriculum, and increased graduation requirements. Teachers are expected to adopt instructional and assessment practices that hold all students to the same high standards and provide them with extra help and opportunities to revise their work until those standards are met. Student engagement is central to the reform’s instructional approach. HSTW is based on the premise that for students to be engaged, they must develop strong relationships with teachers, and see the purpose and relevance of their academic learning beyond high school. To those ends, the reform calls for creation of an advisory system and closer linkages between academic and career studies. Support for each of these components is provided in the form of professional development (both on- and off-site), participation in a network of schools implementing the reform, and on-site technical assistance from an HSTW provider liaison.

While schools implementing the design are expected to adopt all of these components, they have considerable latitude in determining the sequence, prioritization, and specific strategies for doing so. School change in the HSTW design relies on teacher engagement, empowerment, and collaboration. Teachers are organized into issue-driven groups, called focus teams. Focus teams plan, lead, and evaluate the implementation of schoolwide organizational and instructional change. The goal is to build consensus around the need to change, then to empower teachers to enact changes deemed necessary. Through ongoing teacher collaboration and reflection, a culture of continuous improvement emerges.

All three schools made efforts to adopt a more rigorous curriculum and increase graduation requirements. Beyond that, the flexibility that is built into the HSTW design allowed them to follow different implementation pathways. Each school emphasized different aspects or components of the reform. One school focused on extra help for students, another created a ninth grade academy, and the third implemented a student advisory system. The decision about which aspects of the reform to prioritize was influenced by district policy, the presence of other reforms, and availability of resources. Most significantly, these decisions were generally made by school leaders without significant teacher input. As a result, we found considerable variation in teacher engagement and depth of implementation, both within and across schools. Teachers assigned to focus teams whose work was a priority were highly supportive of the reform effort and most 1 We use the term “provider liaison” to refer to the individual employed by HSTW who oversaw the reform effort in the school. These HSTW staff members coordinated and supplied guidance, technical assistance, and general implementation support. Occasional Paper Series inclined to report that HSTW had influenced their practice. Those assigned to teams whose work was less of a priority felt less empowered and saw less value in the reform.

Across schools, the degree to which the enactment of reform components precipitated substantive changes in professional practice was a function of a number of factors, including teachers’ perceptions of the value of HSTW; emergence of informal leadership and communication networks around the reform; and support from the provider, district, and school leadership.

For teachers and administrators who come to general consensus about a vision for change for their schools and are willing to invest time and effort in realizing that vision, HSTW offers a participatory structure and a wealth of professional expertise than can significantly advance reform efforts. Our data suggest that under the right conditions, the reform can empower teachers; engender a deep commitment to reform; and facilitate improvements in instruction, professional collaboration, and teacher-student relationships. The challenge, it seems, is one of scale. The tendency of school leaders to formulate a reform agenda without broad teacher input appeared to conflict with the reform’s stated goal of engaging and empowering teachers to plan and carry out reform. Additionally, while teachers who received direct professional development from HSTW reported that it was of high quality, few mechanisms were in place at the school level to allow teachers to share what they learned with colleagues. School and district leaders can be proactive in addressing these challenges by encouraging widespread input and participation in the reform process, and by working closely with the provider to develop school-level supports for instructional change.

Publication Date

February 2007