What High Schools Can Do for ‘Unprepared’ Students

In Mike Petrilli’s post on Monday, he asks if our schools have “an answer” for students who are unprepared for high school—a group that makes up, as he says, as much as 80–90 percent of students. He also points out, correctly, that all that many districts offer these students is a chance to muddle through four years (or more) in a large, comprehensive high school, in hopes of earning a diploma that by no means signals readiness for college or a career. It is an indictment of our educational system that many do not achieve even that.

Fortunately, there are models out there that show that it is indeed possible to structure high schools to do much more for underprepared students. A recent book by Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge of American Educationfor example, describes what the authors call “high schools that improve life chances,” pointing in particular to small, nonselective high schools created in New York City by the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools. Explicitly designed according to a set of design principles that stress academic rigor and personalization, attention to youth development, strong community partnerships, and accountability for results, these schools have produced powerful results for students—many of whom fall squarely within the cohort of the “underprepared.”

Extensive studies of these same schools by two independent teams of researchers, one from Duke and MIT and one from MDRC, found that it is indeed possible to provide adolescents—even those who enter high school substantially behind—with a challenging curriculum that enables them to catch up, get on track, and graduate ready for college. The key, they explained, is a school environment in which students feel safe, respected, and engaged with results and in which adults hold students to high expectations.

Both of us were deeply involved in developing New York’s small schools and in establishing the central support systems that made them possible and sustained them, during the years when we worked in the New York City Department of Education in the administration of Chancellor Joel Klein. More recently, we drew heavily on those experiences to create Opportunity by Design, an initiative of Carnegie Corporation of New York that is enabling a select group of urban districts to design new secondary schools that serve all students, particularly those who are underprepared and need to accelerate and recuperate their learning. To guide their work, the districts are working with a set of design principles that encapsulate what has been learned in New York City and other high-performing schools.

We believe these “new designs for new schools” will produce a set of schools that show districts across the country that high schools can provide underprepared young people with the supports they need to graduate from high school, go to college, place out of remedial courses, and stay in college for at least two semesters at substantially higher rates than are commonly achieved today. The stakes are particularly high today as we raise standards for high-school students in schools across the country. We need to see many more investments in efforts to create new high-school designs aligned to design principles, as well as in learning resources that specifically target the needs of underprepared high-school students. Young Americans depend on our nation’s high schools to prepare them for productive work and for the postsecondary education that is increasingly necessary for all but the most marginal jobs. We cannot afford to let them down.

-Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton

Michele Cahill and Leah Hamilton are vice president of national programs and program director, respectively, at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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