Becoming a Great High School

“Why some companies make the leap and others don’t.”  Early in this century Jim Collins challenged business leaders and those of us in the public sector, including schools, to think about how good is good enough and why some organizations rise to a level of productivity and corresponding public recognition above that of other organizations with seemingly similar or even worse input and other contextual factors of production.

High schools across the country are under pressure to improve.  Schools on academic watch must improve significantly to avoid sanctions, possibly including reconstitution and even closure.  But even high schools that have long-standing reputations in their communities as “good schools” are being asked to improve graduation rates, increase the percentage of graduates that are workforce and college ready, and equip all students with 21st century skills—in other words, to go from good to great.  Today’s increased expectations added to what has always been a very demanding leadership challenge can leave high school principals, other members of school leadership teams, and teachers feeling overwhelmed by information, programs , and options and underwhelmed by direction, focus, and cohesiveness.  While the forces of change are many, the “remedies” proposed to improve high schools are legion.  What to do?  Where to start?  How to make sense of it all?

What high school leaders and leadership teams wishing to significantly improve their schools need is a comprehensive and practical researched-based model to guide them to those strategies and initiatives that have a proven track record of increasing student achievement.  Developing such a model has been the subject of my research over the last several years and is the focus of a recent ASCD publication titled Becoming a Great High School:  6 Strategies and 1 Attitude That make a Difference.

There is guidance available for high school leaders who want to lead their schools in become great schools—schools that consistently get uncommon results from rather common collections of students—without succumbing to the “try-everything-that-comes-down-the-pike-and-hope-to-get-lucky” approach.  Four decades of research by such familiar names as Boyer, DiMartino, DuFour, Fullan, Goodlad, Guskey, Marzano, Reeves, Schmoker, Sizer, Wiggins, and others tells us a lot about how high school students learn, about good teaching, about effective leadership, about positive school cultures, and about the working conditions under which teachers are the most productive.  As researcher and author Robert J. Marzano is fond of pointing out, there is a science as well as an art to effective teaching and effective leadership in schools.


The lead strategy great high schools employ is that of establishing clear learning goals at the course level, and sometimes at the grade level, department level, and/or school level as well.  Establishing clear learning goals is referred to as a lead strategy because it is difficult if not impossible to implement the other five strategies without the reference point provided by clear, common learning goals.  The best high schools in this country leave nothing important to chance.  Instead they are very deliberate about exactly what students are to learn, in tenth grade English for example, and what it looks like when they get it right.

With learning goals in place, teachers in high-performing high schools plan instruction using an adopted and usually adapted framework of effective instruction.  In other word, teachers (and administrators) in the schools we are talking about here have developed and use a common language of instruction.  They can talk about how best to approach a particular concept or skill because they share a common reference point provided by their frequently-referenced instructional model or framework.  This is in contrast to the “you-do-your-thing-and-I’ll-do-mine” approach found in most high schools.

We know what we want students to learn, we have selected and are employing what we think are instructionally sound instructional strategies, but are the students getting it?  Teachers in the best high schools in this country don’t wait until the unit test to find out whether students have mastered the key content and skills identified by the unit learning goals.  Instead they use a variety of planned formal and informal assessments frequently throughout the unit of instruction to gauge student progress and, when warranted, adjust teaching and learning strategies.  Frequent formative assessment may be the most powerful tool at our disposal to increase student learning.

The use of frequent formative assessments also allows teachers and students to track student progress at the student, class, and course levels.  Simple graphs and charts allow students to keep track of their progress, which in turn encourages them to continue working.  Teachers can aggregate formative assessment results at the class level to motivate members of the class to work together to reach class goals, and course-level data from formative assessments can be used during PLC time to help teachers determine what is and what is not working.

Of course it does little good to administer formative assessments and track student progress if plans aren’t in place for timely intervention when students struggle.  Experience tells us that not all students are going to respond as we hope they would to planned and delivered instructional activities.  Alternative approaches and materials can often be identified in advance by experienced teachers who can anticipate where students might experience early difficulties.  At other times individual teachers and groups of teachers will need to make adjustments “on the fly.”  In any event, it constitutes malpractice to know students aren’t mastering key elements in a learning progression and do nothing to try to correct the situation.

Finally, high-performing high schools have identified and employ effective strategies for celebrating success.  Using data from formative assessments, teachers and students take pride in individual and class progress toward individual and course-level learning goals.  Not everyone will do “A” work, but everyone, or at least most everyone, will make progress under the tutelage of a good teacher.  Non-tangible rewards such as recognition tied to established criteria are often more effective than prizes and pizza parties.

These six strategies—knowing where we are going and what it looks like when we get there, identifying and using high-yield strategies for teaching specific concepts and skills, checking along the way to see how students are progressing, charting that progress so students and teachers can literally visualize growth, intervening early when students struggle, and celebrating success—are hallmarks of high schools that go from good to great.  But these strategies are accompanied by one more element conspicuously present in high-performing high schools, a “we-expect-success” attitude that permeates every person, policy, and practice in the school.

Great high schools in the country—high schools that consistently get uncommon results from a common collection of students—expect all students to meet high standards and provide the structures and supports students need to do so.  Great high schools do not allow students to languish in dead-end remedial and general tracks.  Teachers and administrators in these schools do not expect the bell curve to predict student achievement, and they do not give up on (or give in to) students even when students seem to give up on themselves.

We know how to create great high schools in this country.  What is needed is a road map for going there and the courage to travel down that path.

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