How High Schools Become Exemplary: Ways that Leadership Raises Achievement and Narrows Gaps by Improving Instruction in 15 Public High Schoolsby Ronald F. Ferguson, Sandra Hackman, Robert Hanna, Ann Ballantine
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This report features 15 outstanding public high schools from Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Texas and Washington, DC. All were featured at the Fifth Annual Conference of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University in June of 2009. The Massachusetts schools had unusually high value -added test score gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) from 8th to 10th grade. In addition, they had recently narrowed test score gaps between each of their racial/ethnic groups and white students in the rest of the state.
Schools from the other states were highly recommended by experts. They too came with evidence of impressive achievement. At the conference, teams from each of the schools made brief presentations and then faced extensive questioning from experts about the methods by which they achieved such outstanding progress.
The main lesson from the presentations was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction. Core groups of leaders took public responsibility for leading the charge to raise achievement. Stakeholders crafted mission statements that later helped keep them on track; planned carefully, sometimes with outside assistance, for how they would organize learning experiences for teachers; clearly defined criteria for high quality teaching and student work; and implemented in ways that engaged their whole faculties. As they implemented their plans, these schools carefully monitored both student and teacher work in order to continuously refine their approaches.
Leadership teams succeeded initially because they used their positional authority effectively to jump-start the change process. Then they built trust. More specifically, they demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours; they studied research-based literature to expand their knowledge and competence; they persevered to follow through on the promises they made; and they found ways to remain respectful of peers, even when asking them to improve their performance. In these ways, leadership teams earned the respect of their colleagues and the authority to push people outside their comfort zones. With cultivated competence and earned authority, they were able to help their colleagues overcome the types of fear and resistance that so often prevent effective reforms in American high schools. All these schools remain works in progress, but they are not typical. Their stories convey critically important principles, processes, and practices that can help high schools across the nation raise achievement and close gaps.
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