Changes in Rigor, Relevance, and Student Learning in Redesigned High Schools

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s national high school grants initiative is based on the premise that America’s high schools are neither designed nor equipped to meet the needs of today’s youth. While some secondary students are doing college-preparatory or even college-level work, others languish in remedial courses. Many students have difficulty seeing the relevance of what they are taught in high school to either their present or their future lives. The impersonal environment of traditional comprehensive high schools provides fertile ground for social cliques, bullying, and disaffection. Teachers who see 150 or more students a day have trouble remembering their students’ names, let alone their individual learning needs. 

Across the country, many high school students fall through the cracks, just putting in time or dropping out. Little more than half of the African-American and Latino youth who start ninth grade finish high school with a diploma (Swanson, 2004). Fewer than a quarter of these students are ready to enter higher education without the need for remedial work (Greene & Forster, 2003). The vision prompting the last major reshaping of U.S. secondary schools—that of a large, efficient high school that would promote equity by bringing together students from diverse backgrounds and offering a comprehensive set of courses—has clearly fallen short of its goal for many students, especially traditionally underserved students from high-poverty urban communities.

The foundation believes that to better serve these students, high schools need to become places that combine rigor in the academic program for every student (not just those in an honors or higher track) with relevance to their real lives and potential career opportunities, supported by positive relationships that can inspire students both academically and personally (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005).

To this end, the foundation launched its national high school reform work in 2000–01 with the award of grants to 12 nonprofit organizations charged with creating high schools that would embody these ideals. Some of the schools were to be created from scratch with a newly assembled school staff. Many of these new schools are small, often with no more than 100 students per grade. Among these schools, several were trying to replicate model schools that the foundation identified as succeeding with hard-to-serve youth. Most began operating with just a ninth grade, planning to add a new grade in each of the next three years. Schools are also being created through the redesign of existing comprehensive high schools into multiple small, independent schools or small learning communities (the distinction being that the latter have somewhat less autonomy and generally share a campus-level principal). The foundation continues to refine its strategy by addressing the roles of states, districts, and local communities in education reform. As part of a larger evaluation carried out by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and SRI International between 2001 and 2007, this study examines the rigor and relevance of assignments given by teachers and the quality of student work in foundation-supported schools. Last year’s report on this study compared the quality of teacher assignments and student work between the new schools created from scratch and traditional large high schools (AIR/SRI, 2006). This report focuses on the changes in the quality of teacher assignments and student work in 12 large high schools from the year prior to redesign to 2 years after redesign. We seek to understand whether these redesigned schools provide more challenging learning opportunities for students and, if they do, whether students rise to the challenge to produce high-quality student work. 

Specifically, the following research questions are addressed in this report:  

RQ1: To what extent do assignments become more rigorous and relevant after large high schools are redesigned into small learning communities? 

RQ2: To what extent does student work quality improve after large high schools are redesigned into small learning communities? 

RQ3: To what extent is student work quality associated with the rigor and relevance of assignments? 

RQ4: To what extent are test scores associated with the quality of student work? 

Mengli Song
Principal Researcher