High School Reform Strategies A Closer Look At Small - trailblazers

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Widener University

    High School Reform

    Strategies: A Closer Look At Small Learning Communities

Alicia K. Scelso

    Fall 2009

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    In recent years the educational system in the United States has been a major concern for many. Reform strategies such as the small learning community model, were implemented as a means of increasing student achievement while decreasing the achievement gap. It seeks to provide an alternative to large comprehensive high schools by providing smaller more privatized units that foster collaboration between student and teacher. This smaller high quality educational setting will ensure that the leaders of tomorrow are fully prepared for a life after graduation by providing them with the tools to succeed.

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    The quality of education in the United States has been under scrutiny for several decades. In 1983, President Reagan‟s A Nation At Risk, highlighted the concerns of the educational foundation to the

    American people. Furthermore, it promised them a continued commitment to high quality education that sought to prepare students to become productive members of society. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people (1983). The report also mentioned that upon completion of high school students should be prepared to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself (A Nation At Risk, 1983).

     In addition to A Nation At Risk, Goals 2000, and the requirements of the federal No Child Left

    Behind Act have mandated that schools be held accountable for the success of all students regardless of race, color, or socio-economic status. As a result, several educational reforms were developed that introduced new curriculum and new instructional methods into the classroom. The purpose of the reforms is to foster an educational environment in which all students are held to a high level of proficiency. Research on educational reforms yielded a variety of recommendations to promote student learning. One of those reforms included redesigning large comprehensive high schools into smaller more privatized units of study.

     Large comprehensive high schools have a reputation for violence and vandalism. A United States Department of Education posting from the late 1990s noted that schools of 1,000 or more students experience 825 percent more violent crime, 270 percent more vandalism, and 1,000 percent more weapons incidents, compared with those which have fewer than 300 students (Sammon, 2008). Grace Sammon (2008) also states that recent studies point to the frightening statistic that, as a nation, we now

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    graduate only 50 percent of African Americans, 51 percent of American Indians, and 53 percent of Latino and Hispanic students. For white and Asian students, the figures are 75 percent and 77 percent, respectively (Sammon, 2008).

     Society expects high schools to fully prepare students for all post-secondary outcomes whether it is workplace readiness or higher education that requires an increasingly high level of skills (Quint, 2008). Low performing high schools are the most at risk for not preparing their students for a life after graduation. The national data tells us that we are woefully unskilled as an educational community to meet the ever-demanding needs of a culturally diverse student population which must be prepared to take its place in a global economy (Sammon, 2008).

    In recent years, the implementation of small learning communities has helped to foster productive learning both by removing developmentally hazardous conditions that may be present in the school context and by providing the opportunities-to-learn, opportunities to teach, and learning supports that enable a school to become a positive, developmentally enhancing context (Felner et al, 2007). Therefore, the small learning community model can help raise academic achievement by creating an environment more conducive to learning while enhancing collaboration between teachers and students. Background

    The idea of small learning communities can be traced back to the late 1960‟s with the implementation of Barker and Gump‟s “campus model” (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). The campus school provides for repeated contacts between the same teachers and students; this continuity of associates probably leads to closer social bonds (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). A common sense theory is that the campus school welds together the facility advantages of the large school and the social values of the small school (Lee & Friedrich, 2007).

    Even though the idea of “small” began to emerge in the 1960s, the reform strategy did not gain momentum until the federal government passed the School-to-Work Act in 1994 and the Perkins Act in

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    2006. The School-to-Work Act tried to rejuvenate American education by raising academic standards to provide all children with the opportunity to succeed in both the workplace and postsecondary educational opportunities (Sammon, 2008). According to Grace Sammon (2008), the act was intended to increase young people‟s awareness of the variety of career opportunities to them, raise understanding and expectations about what students should know and be able to do in preparation for their future as lifelong learners and contributing members of society, and to develop a community of support that would change the way children learn and teachers teach through linkages with the educational, business, government, nonprofit, labor, and postsecondary communities.

    On the other hand, the Perkins Act sought to strengthen the bond between secondary and postsecondary education. Programs of study must incorporate secondary and postsecondary education elements, include academic and career and technical content in a coordinate, non-duplicative progression of courses, and lead to an industry-recognized credential or certificate at the postsecondary level, or an associate or bachelor‟s degree (Hyslop, 2009). According to Alisha Hyslop (2009), programs of study are designed to serve as a seamless education continuum, leading students through secondary and postsecondary education towards high-wage, high-skilled, high-demand careers.

    Since the inception of the “campus model” in the late 1960s, there have been various changes in

    the terms used to describe the reorganization of large comprehensive high schools. Houses and schools-within-schools appeared in the 1960s; magnet programs, career academies, and minischools, in the late 1970s; charters, in the late 1980s and 1990s; and small learning communities, today (Oxley, 2005). Collectively the terms signify a dedication to the implementation of an effective educational system that will, in time, yield positive results and close the achievement gap. In addition to an emphasis on small structure, curricular specialization, and choice, small learning communities also focus on the learner and learning in a collaborative framework between teacher and student (Oxley, 2005).

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Types of Small Learning Communities

    There are currently thousands of schools nationwide that have incorporated the small learning community concept into their educational structure. Although there is no universal definition or model to accurately depict a small learning community, the federal government has provided a comprehensive policy guideline for SLC and structural examples of SLC that are currently in place in SLC schools (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). Therefore, according to the United States Department of Education, the federal government identifies four main structures and six principal strategies of SLC (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). It is important to note that the design of an SLC is dependent upon the goal that one intends to reach.

    Major SLC structures include the academy, house plan, school-within-a-school, and magnet programs (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). The academy is a subgroup consisting of students and teachers, all of whom focus on particular themes (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). An example of a theme-based academy is the career academy which provides successful school-to-work transitions without compromising academic goals and preparation for college (Smith, 2008). Evidence also suggests that investments in career-related experiences during high school can produce substantial and sustained improvements in the employment prospects of students during their postsecondary years (Smith, 2008).

    The house plan is a popular SLC structure that divides students in a large school into groups of several hundred, either across grade levels or by grade levels (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). Students who participate in the house plan take their core courses together with the teachers who are assigned to their house. Houses may be themed or non-themed.

    A school-within-a-school pursues a small, autonomous program housed within a larger school building (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). Furthermore, schools currently employing this structure have different degrees of autonomy in operating their school-within-a-school structures, with each school representing its own culture, program, personnel, students, budget, and school space (Lee & Friedrich, 2007).

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    Finally, a magnet program draws students from an entire school district by highlighting an academic specialty focus (e.g. mathematics, science, and arts) and putting in place competitive admission requirements or open enrollment systems (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). Magnet schools are career-themed SLC that may include accelerated course-work for Gifted and Talented students (Wikipedia, 2009).

    In addition to the four major structural components of a small learning community, the federal government has also devised a list of six SLC strategies. Academic teaming, adult advocate systems, teacher advisory systems, alternative scheduling, freshman transition activities, and multiyear groups all designed to combine with the aforementioned SLC structures (Lee & Friedrich, 2007). Therefore, current SLC schools are polyglot in design, using more than one SLC strategy in conjunction with more than one SLC structure (Lee & Friedrich, 2007).

    Characteristics of a Small Learning Community

    Debra Heath (2005) defines five components that are crucial to the success of a small learning community; student and teacher teams, teacher collaboration and integrated curricula, separate space, distinctive thematic or curricular focus, and autonomy and flexibility. Heath then expounds on her components by stating that students as well as teachers are scheduled together in interdisciplinary teams (Heath, 2005). Secondly, teachers meet regularly to discuss students and plan integrated curricula during common preparatory periods (Heath, 2005). Next, SLC staff and students share a common space that is separate from the rest of the school (Heath, 2005). Lastly, each SLC has a distinctive thematic or curricular focus and has the autonomy and the flexibility to tailor instruction, schedules, hiring, professional development, curriculum and assessment to SLC interests and student needs (Heath, 2005). Additional research suggests that small schools should be made up of approximately 400 500 students

    and that SLC teams should house approximately 120 students and a minimum of 4 teachers (Heath, 2005).


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     Is school size associated with achievement and dropout rates? There have been mixed results. Some research studies suggest that within the last ten years smaller schools have outperformed larger ones yet other research studies have found the opposite. Students in small public schools perform better academically, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, experience fewer behavior problems and participate more frequently in extracurricular activities (Shakrani, 2008). According to Dr. Sharif Shakrani (2008), additional research shows that students who stand to benefit the most from small school environments are those most in need, namely low-income students in low-achieving high schools in large urban areas, where graduation rates and low attendance are major problems. He continued by citing a recent study by New York University‟s Institute for Education and Social Policy. In 2007, the institute reported that small schools have been shown to provide a positive social as well as academic environment for students and more effective interaction between students, teachers, and administrative staff, which contributes to higher attendance and graduation (Shakrani, 2008).

    In 2008, ASCD published an article in their Educational Leadership journal entitled Small Learning Communities. The author, Jane L. David, analyzed and interpreted research regarding the effectiveness of small learning communities compared to the traditional comprehensive high school setting. According to the analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, Lee and Smith (David, 2008) cautioned that schools can be too small, limiting curricular options for students. In addition, the researchers found that achievement gains averaged across four subjects were slightly higher in large school (David, 2008).

    Jane L. David (2008) also noted that the Gates Foundation concluded that positive climates in newer schools existed, which included more personalized relationships for students and collegiality among teachers, compared with traditional high comprehensive high schools. Additional studies reported evidence of a more rigorous and relevant curriculum in English (David, 2008). The authors did conclude, however, that successful small learning communities rarely result from breaking up large schools. Dr. Shakrani (2008) also confirmed the research as well as the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative.

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    According to Dr. Shakrani, there is very little research based evidence to show students in newly converted urban small high schools outperform their peers in larger, traditional schools (Shakrani, 2008). The redesign initiative concluded that reforms such as small learning communities may improve school climate, however the school climate is not reflected in achievement gains (David, 2008).

    On the other hand, research performed by Debra Heath (2005) reported that Albuquerque Public Schools implemented the key components of the research-based SLC model and achieved notable improvements in school climate, student attitudes and academic persistence. Qualitative and quantitative results showed that: (1) compared to their non-SLC counterparts, SLC students feel more visible, more safe, and more supported by peers and teachers; (2) SLC students experience higher academic expectations, feel more engaged in their schoolwork, and better understand the connections between school and careers; and (3) SLC students are more likely to attend classes, earn enough credits to pass to the next grade level and stay in school (Heath, 2005).

    In the late 1990s, Jonathan A. Supovitz and Jolley Bruce Christman conducted a research study containing two urban school districts small learning community initiative. The purpose of the study was to determine if the key to widespread improvement in student learning through teacher collaboration is the formation of communities of instructional practice that are focused on improving the instructional core of schooling (Supovitz & Christman, 2005). Supovitz and Christman concluded that both reforms did influence school environments positively. However, the school improvements did not translate into greater instructional focus (Supovitz & Christman, 2005).They contribute the failure to the lack of instructional focus, largely because the learning communities did not spend enough time discussing instruction (Supovitz & Christman, 2005). Furthermore, Supovitz and Christman (2005) suggest that practitioners need ongoing opportunities to reflect on and analyze their teaching as well as strategies that will help them plan, assess, and revise their individual and collaborative efforts.


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    st As society moves towards the 21 Century, the educational system must undergo alterations to

    meet the needs of an ever-changing technological society. With the implementation of the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind, students as well as teachers are held to higher standards. Educational systems are now charged with the responsibility of providing an education that fully prepares students for all postsecondary outcomes and a productive life after graduation. This new high quality education seeks to ensure that curriculum is both rigorous in nature and relevant to the society in which we live. Therefore, high school reform initiatives such as the small learning community model should be implemented as a means of increasing students‟ academic success while closing the achievement gap.

    While there is a saturation of information regarding the definition and implementation of small learning communities there is a lack of longitudinal studies in regards to their effect on academic success in particular test scores. However, there are no current studies to suggest that implementing the small learning community model has any adverse effects on the educational system. One can hypothesize then that an increase in student attendance and an overall positive educational environment will yield academic success. Therefore, data analysis and professional development must be completed as a means of sustaining the organization. Alan Richard claimed that, “the United States could recoup nearly $200

    billion a year in economic losses and secure its place as the world‟s future economic and educational leader by raising the quality of schooling, investing more money and other resources in education, and lowering dropout rates” (Sammon, 2008).

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