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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The Promise of Standards-Based Education

 Schools across the country are making the move to standards-based education, which includes but is not limited to standards-based grading.  Why are they doing so?

The purpose of standards-based education and the system of grading it entails is to improve student achievement, increase the accuracy and fairness of grades, and enhance communication between classroom teachers and students, parents, colleges, and employers regarding what students are expected to know and do in each course and how well each student is performing in relationship to those expectations.  Student achievement is improved by using high-probability instructional practices in the classroom, including establishing clear learning targets for students based on state standards and giving students ongoing feedback on their achievement so that performance improves as mastery of learning is assessed over time. 

Grades are more accurate in that they are based exclusively on students’ demonstrated mastery of state standards and benchmarks rather than a mixture of academic performance, extra credit, behavior, and work habits as is often the case in more traditional grading systems.  Accuracy is also increased by basing grades on trend scores or what students know and can do at the end of instruction rather than on an average of what they knew (actually, what they didn’t know) at various points throughout the learning sequence.  And standards-based grading is more fair to students in that course outcomes and the quantity and quality of student work needed to get a particular grade will be consistent across teachers of the same course.  Presently in most districts across the country a student’s grade often depends in no small way upon the luck of the draw regarding with which teacher the computer schedules the student.

 Trend scoring, an integral component of standards-based grading, is built  upon the premise that, for grading purposes, the most accurate representation of a student’s mastery of a particular standard is his or her knowledge or skill level on that standard at the end of instruction.  To cite an example using traditional grading marks, a student who started out as a rather weak writer in 10th grade English and earned three  “Ds” on initial writing assignments but worked hard to improve his skills and earned three “Bs” by the end of the term should receive a “B” as a final mark on writing, not a “C” (the average).  Looking at performance trends over time encourages students to keep trying and to keep  improving.

Standards-based grading actually scores student work on a 0-4 ( no evidence of learning, some understanding with help, basic understanding, proficient, and advanced) scale, but for the purpose of communicating to parents, colleges, and employers final standard or benchmark trend scores are combined to arrive at a traditional comprehensive course grade,” A” to “F.”  Implemented properly, standards-based education and standards-based grading provide students, parents, colleges, and employers with a clearer picture of college and career readiness than has been available heretofore.

Standards-based education provides a school community with a window into the essence of effective instruction.  School leadership teams would be wise to consider standards-based education as a vehicle for school improvement.

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Standards-Based Education: What’s It Look Like in the Classroom?

I am often asked to describe what standards-based education looks like in the classroom.  What follows are two scenarios–a traditional classroom and a standards-based classroom–developed in an effort to address that question.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

Ms. Smith, a social studies teacher at a high school in the Midwest, teaches a three-week unit on Business Forms and The Global Economy in her semester-long economics class.  During the course of the unit she conducts several short informative lectures/question-answer sessions (on which she asks students to take notes), shows a recorded National Geographic special on outsourcing jobs, assigns textbook and periodical readings as homework, sprinkles in a few quizzes (primarily reading checks designed to hold students accountable for doing their homework), and then at the end of the unit gives a final examination. 

Ms. Smith has identified 26 related but in some cases distinct facts, laws, and principles she feels it is important for students to know in this unit.  She has to keep moving so that she can cover all 26 content items in the 14 instructional days allotted to this unit, approximately two facts, laws, or principles each class period.  Students’ final grades for this unit will consist of an average of their performance on all items.  For students the focus is on completing assigned activities and assessments and accumulating as many points as necessary to get the grade they want.  Some students are shooting for an “A” (92.5 percent), while others will be perfectly satisfied with a low “D.”

After grading the final examination Ms. Smith is both surprised and frustrated by the results.  In spite of “busting her butt” to prepare what she considers to be effective instructional activities for her students and offers to provide additional help outside of class time, more than a third of the class received “Ds” and “Fs.”

 Mr. Jones, who teaches the same unit, starts off his unit by sharing the two unit goals and their corresponding rubrics with his students and conducting a think-pair-share activity to make sure students have an initial understanding of the goals and the performance described at each level of each rubric.  He also devotes a small amount of time to engaging students in a discussion regarding why these goals are important.  Mr. Jones follows this discussion with a short pre-assessment to find out what students already know about the important facts, laws, and principles that form the content of this unit on Business Forms and The Global Economy.

Mr. Jones also does some lecturing, engages his students in several in-depth activities, assigns homework, and gives quizzes, targeting the Level 4 (Proficient) description in each rubric.  In each case special attention is made to insure students understand the connection between the activity or assessment and the pertinent learning goal and rubric.  Nothing is assigned or done that is not tied directly to one of the learning goals, or a component of it.  In some but not all cases, students have a choice as to which of a limited number of alternative activities or assignments to complete. 

Throughout the unit Mr. Jones observes and gives students corrective feedback vis-à-vis the desired performance outlined in the two unit rubrics.  Students also peer-assess and self-assess their learning.  Frequent formative assessments mirror the final unit exam (or project, or performance, or portfolio, or demonstration, or…) Mr. Jones has developed in collaboration with his colleagues, and students are given reasonable opportunities within a reasonable timeline to redo, correct, or retake assessments.  Mr. Jones and his colleagues have also planned interventions for points along the learning progression where students typically experience difficulty.    Students are motivated to keep trying because they know that early attempts will not hurt them if they end up demonstrating high levels of learning later on in the unit.

Mr. Jones administers the final exam when he is certain students are ready and is not surprised to find that all but two students attained a final unit trend score of 3.5 and above.  Instead of recording a final grade for the unit, Mr. Jones records a final trend score for each of the two goals for each student, and those two scores are then averaged to get a final Business Forms and The Global Economy unit rubric score.  Final unit rubric scores are averaged (weighted or not) at the end of each grading period and converted to a course letter grade (A-F) using the district grading scale.

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Standards-Based Grading

I work with several schools and school districts in various stages of moving to standards-based grading, from those in the beginning exploration stages to those in full implementation.  Parents, and particularly parents of students who are accustomed to getting high grades, are interested in knowing how standards-based grading will affect grades.  More to the point, they want to know “Will it be harder for my son or daughter to get an A?” 

It is impossible to predict the effect on grades for individual students and teachers.  Some teachers operating under traditional grading systems hold students to high academic standards, generating course grades largely uncontaminated by factors unrelated to the academic standards identified in the district’s stated curriculum.  Likewise, some students receiving high marks for performances that, for high school students for instance, equip them to succeed in entry level college course work without remediation.  For these teachers and students, the move to standards-based grading is likely to result in little change to the number of high marks awarded and received.

However, national data suggest that grades, at least at the high school level, often overstate students’ knowledge and skill levels.  ACT, The College Board, and numerous independent and university-sponsored research reports chronicle the disillusionment and expense suffered by students who enter college with GPAs of 3.00 or higher unable to do college work.  Upwards of one-third of college students across the nation have to enroll in remedial courses costing colleges and taxpayers, according to one report in The New York Times, between $2.3 and $2.9 billion annually.  And graduation rates of students who take remedial courses in college are dismal, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 out of 4.  For such students, students who receive high marks for work that does not prepare them for life after high school or performance unrelated to essential academic standards (extra credit, class participation, etc.), course grades could very well be lower and more accurate.  Giving students grades that misrepresent their readiness for further study in the interest of high GPAs does them a great disservice.  The goal isn’t to get in to college.  The goal is to do well and graduate.

 We also know that there is another side to this coin; that is that some students who know course content and skills at high levels receive lower grades than their academic performance merits because they choose not to comply with extraneous expectations of their teachers, expectations that are sometimes whimsical and rooted in a need to control.  How many students have had their marks reduced because they turned in a paper that was not double spaced or that was enclosed in the forbidden plastic cover?  How many students receive grades lower than their academic performance deserves because of the devastating effect of a zero for a missing assignment, an assignment the student did not need to do to demonstrate mastery of the targeted content or skill.  How many students receive low grades on assessments because expectations were unclear and they studied “the wrong things?”  For such students the move to standards-based grading will enhance their chances of earning high marks.

Two additional aspects of standards-based education and standards-based grading result in increased student achievement (which is, after all, the goal)–formative assessment and trend scoring.

Formative assessment, an indispensable component of standards-based grading, ensures that students get opportunities to learn from mistakes made early in a learning sequence and demonstrate improvement, before the final score for the skill or content objective goes in the grade book.  Trend scoring means that final course grades reflect students’ mastery of key knowledge and skills at the end of the learning sequence rather than an average of what they knew when learning began and when it ended.  Research consistently shows that these two strategies, formative assessment and trend scoring, are the most powerful strategies for increasing student achievement over which teachers and schools have influence. 

How does standards-based grading impact student achievement?  Research is unequivocable with regard to the answer to that question.  How will standards-based grading impact your son’s or daughter’s GPA?  Well, that depends doesn’t it.



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