Keeping Your Eye on the Prize: Raising High School Student Achievement

Note: Today's guest post comes to us from Gerry House, President, Institute for Student Achievement.

In the last 25 years, both as a school superintendent and in my current role as President at the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA), I have seen firsthand the challenges that exist when attempting to achieve significant gains in student outcomes at the high school level. Recent findings indicate that U.S. high schools are not adequately preparing students for what they need to know and do to succeed in college.

In 2013, the ACT reported that only 26 percent of all high school graduates tested met the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks for college level work in English, science, math and reading skills. Of those students, African Americans were the lowest performing, with a mere 5 percent meeting all four benchmarks.

It has been my mission to provide opportunities for underserved and underperforming high school students and prove that it is never too late to make a positive impact on student achievement. Working with schools and districts in some of the nation's most challenging urban areas, ISA has developed an impressive track record of increasing student achievement and helping students to become college and career ready. Our results are self-evident and have often prompted other educators to inquire about the ISA approach.

The following are lessons we have learned over the years that have guided our intervention efforts and resulting success:

Leadership matters most.

The school principal, as the keeper of the instructional vision, must guide staff in identifying and implementing the instructional priorities that will achieve desired student outcomes. He or she must prioritize and enact ongoing teacher development initiatives to support these goals. This means that the principal is not only managing school operations, but taking on the responsibility of maintaining the instructional focus.

Although the principal is the lead, leadership must be distributed so that all members of the school community take ownership of the school's mission and the urgency to achieve it. In ISA schools leadership is distributed through a leadership team comprised of administrators and teachers, and in some instances parents and community leaders. The team takes part in planning and decision-making processes, presenting ideas that will enact the mission, offering solutions to problems, raising questions, and providing support. The engagement offered by distributed leadership promotes internal accountability and collective responsibility for school and student outcomes by ensuring that key stakeholders have a commitment to student and school success.

An internal safety net is essential.

A counselor and grade level teams of teachers, who teach the same cohort of students, meet regularly to monitor student progress, problem solve academic, social and emotional issues that arise, generate and initiate interventions. This system allows learning and behavior problems to be identified early, preventing students from falling through the cracks.

Another component of safety net is the student advocate. ISA schools establish student advocacy mechanisms such as advisory so that each student has a school adult go-to person, who knows him/her well and takes responsibility for being the school-family connection. Faculty leverage these close trusting relationships to elicit improved achievement and behavior.

These mechanisms distribute counseling across the staff so that all take responsibility for students' academic, social and emotional development rather than the compartmentalization of roles found in traditional schools. Counselors support teachers in applying appropriate counseling strategies to their pedagogy, offer individual and group counseling to selected students and develop external relationships to provide additional supports and resources to students and families.

A rigorous and coherent school-wide instructional program prepares students for the demands of college classes.

Many schools identify a set of habits of mind as the instructional framework, which, when aligned with a college preparatory curriculum and the Common Core State standards, provides a powerful guide for teaching and learning in every class. While course content may vary, the pedagogy focuses on experiences framed by the habits of mind and CCSS so that all classes emphasize higher order thinking, writing, content literacy, and curriculum embedded assessments.

A culture of continuous improvement is critical.

Schools establish a culture that values the use of multiple sources of data to continuously assess progress toward goals that are collaboratively articulated in an annual action plan. The data sources include statistical data such as test scores and attendance, but teacher assignments and student work samples as well. Some schools have students present and defend portfolios of work or capstone projects. In addition to their own self-assessments, some schools invite organized teams of colleagues from high-performing, like-minded schools to participate in external assessments of their work.

This interdependent constellation of strategies designed to support, student achievement and teacher commitment can enable schools to graduate their students ready for college and career.