CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Study of High School Strategies for Instructional Improvement

This project was a continuation of CPRE's long-term core study of state and local policy changes, their implementation, and their effects, but the focus of this phase was on how policymakers and educators tried to close the gaps between externally defined performance expectancies and the performance of students. The new performance expectations appeared to require schools and districts to move beyond conventional efficiency responses, such as aligning curriculum and altering time allocations, to consideration of deeper changes in curriculum and instruction, and interventions intended to change student aspirations and effort. To sustain increases in performance, to move beyond the plateaus often reached after three or four years, and to deepen instructional improvement, much greater instructional capacity will be required.

Phase I
Phase I of this study looked inside high schools to see how accountability policies shaped the goals and improvement efforts described in high schools. Researchers examined how high schools that performed below average incorporated their state’s accountability goals into their own goals, identified their challenges, and searched for strategies for instructional improvement. The focus was on how high schools of differing performance levels and contexts, residing in states with different forms of high-stakes accountability and support systems, identified, understood, and responded to the gap between their current levels of performance and external expectations for their performance.


Holding High Hopes: How High Schools Respond to State Accountability Policies (Margaret E. Goertz and Diane Massell). Policy Brief No. 42, January 2005

Holding High Hopes: How High Schools Respond to State Accountability Policies (Betheny Gross and Margaret Goertz, Eds.).  Research Report No.56, June 2005

Holding High Hopes Research Report Chapters, separated, for easier download:

Table of Contents, Acknowledgments
Chapter 1: Introduction: State Accountability Policy and Our Special Focus on High Schools
Chapter 2: The Press From Above, the Pull From Below: High School Responses to External Accountability
Chapter 3: Got You Under My Spell? How Accountability Policy Is Changing and Not Changing Decision Making in High Schools
Chapter 4: Overview of Actions Taken by High Schools to Improve Instruction
Chapter 5: Stuck in the Middle With You: District Response to State Accountability
Chapter 6: Summary

Phase II

Phase II expanded on the earlier research focusing on high school responses to external accountability pressures and had three strands. The main body of work related to the second phase focused on the introduction, strategies, and influences of external reform organizations as they entered into and worked with existing complex high school environments. A second strand looked at high school data use in California. The third strand focused on high school students' understanding of their work and its relation to high-stakes accountability testing. The three strands shared these goals:

  • to develop a conceptual framework for examining a school's capacity to acquire and apply knowledge  about instruction;
  • to conduct exploratory investigations of the relative effectiveness of various assistance strategies in  situations of varying capacity and performance pressure; and
  • to advise school districts and states on the design and management of external assistance to schools

The external reforms examined in this research project included: First Things First, High Schools That Work, the Penn Literacy Network, Ramp-Up to Literacy, and SchoolNet. These reforms were selected as representative of the types of external assistance found in high schools during previous CPRE research. The providers included two whole school reform models, two literacy programs, and one strategy to increase data-driven instruction. Data for this study was collected between 2004 and 2006 in a total of 15 high schools in 15 school districts across the United States. The 15 schools in our sample were selected based on recommendations from the reform organizations. The resulting case studies drew from interview and survey data from teaching and administrative staff at the schools.

The research presented here is not an evaluation study and thus is not generalizable to other schools and districts. It was designed to illuminate a deep understanding of teacher and administrator experience with the reform and their sense of the reform's progress in the three schools. References to "change" or work related to the reform are based not on external measures such as classroom observations or student achievement, but instead reflect the perceptions of school, district, and reform organization staff as expressed through interview and survey data. In addition, because we were most interested in documenting and understanding the process of re-interpretation and enactment that happens between schools and reform organizations early in their work together, our findings heavily emphasize the experience of those schools that are relatively early in their implementation processes.


Case Studies of External School Reform Organizations, 2007
(Joy Anderson, Margaret E. Goertz, Matthew Goldwasser, Kate Hovde, Diane Massell, Jennifer A. Mueller, Matthew Riggan, Catherine Dunn Shiffman, Jonathan A. Supovitz, and Elliot H. Weinbaum).

Five case studies are available for download:

First Things First: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools
High Schools That Work: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools
Penn Literacy Network: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools
Ramp-Up to Literacy: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools
SchoolNet: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools

Data Use, English Language Learners, and Literacy Programs in California High Schools: A Principal Survey  (Frank Adamson, Martin Carnoy, Nii Addy, Brooke Ricalde, and Lori Rhodes) Research Paper, 2007

High School and the 3R's: Students' Perspectives on "Good Work" (Matthew Goldwasser and Amy Bach) CPRE Occasional Paper No. OP-06, 2007