High Schools That Work and Whole School Reform
Raising the Academic Achievement of Vocational Completers Through the Reform of School Practice
School-wide efforts to improve the education of American students have been implemented in many schools throughout the nation. The Southern Regional Education Board’s High Schools That Work (HSTW) network stands out as one of the few consortia to coordinate that effort and to collect and analyze data as part of a service to its participants.
On a biannual basis, the participating schools assess their graduating vocational completers in science, mathematics, and reading using the HSTW Assessment. They also collect data on student course-taking patterns, student behaviors and attitudes, and teacher attitudes and characteristics. In addition to creating useful comparison data for benchmarking the progress of individual sites, the assessments enable SREB to test theories about basic associations between certain practices or attitudes and student outcome measures.
Several underlying questions, however, remained unanswered, such as, “Can we look into the black box of whole school reform and provide evidence of particularly effective practices?” Using the test scores from 1996 and 1998, demographic variables to control for changes in the tested student body, and variables that correspond to the key practices of High Schools That Work, this analytic study attempts to provide insight regarding individual practices or program elements. In order to reach findings that might prove useful to schools attempting to raise student achievement, all data were aggregated to the school level.
For the 424 schools in this study, the mean gain in the three assessment subjects between 1996 and 1998 ranged from 4 to 13 points. We looked specifically at six clusters to represent the key practices promoted by HSTW: (1) curriculum standards, (2) instructional goals, (3) academic/vocational integration, (4) guidance counseling, (5) teacher practices, and (6) work-based learning. Some of the clusters were more easily captured by data elements than were others. In addition, it appears that some clusters were more operational within schools than were others. In other words, schools had room for improvement and made positive changes between 1996 and 1998 for some clusters, while for others, the opportunity for improvement on these measures was slight or not taken advantage of.
This analysis predominantly explores the individual impact of each cluster on student achievement, while controlling for changes in student demographics. Overall, increases in the proportion of students meeting HSTW curriculum standards had a large impact on achievement gains in science, reading, and math. Changes in the proportion of students perceiving that their academic and vocational teachers were working together to improve students’ mathematics, reading, and writing skills had almost as much positive effect in the statistical model as curriculum changes. Likewise, increases in the amount of time that students spent talking to their guidance counselors and teachers about their school program were directly associated with increases in the schools’ mean assessment scores. The other clusters seemed to have little or no explanatory power for predicting school changes in student academic achievement.
In any analysis of such places as schools, cause and effect are difficult to determine, and corresponding data are difficult to collect. Our primary purpose in this study was to examine the correlates of success in the HSTW network using the HSTWAssessment and survey data. However, we also hope that this analysis—using fairly simple models with school-level data—might spark others to consider similar data presently used for report cards as a source for thoughtful research and study.