The first and absolutely essential step in improving low graduation rate high schools is to have a deep understanding of why they are not currently succeeding. This needs to be known both in the general sense of why we have low graduation rate high schools and in a deeply specific sense for the particular high school in need of improvement.
In the author’s experience when efforts to reform low graduation rate high schools fail, more often than not their failure is rooted is in poor understanding and diagnosis of the challenges at hand. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to assume that the diagnosis is obvious and rush forward with a solution.
All of these maybe true but they are more often than not symptoms not the underlying cause of the low performance.
The other common diagnostic mistake is to assume that all low performing schools are similar and that as a result, something which appeared to work in one will or should work in all.
One of the things that slowed down early efforts at high school turnaround, for example, was the often implicit assumption that models which worked with elementary schools would be just as effective with high schools.
A deep understanding of the challenges faced in low graduation rate high schools, however, shows why this is not usually the case.
Why Do We Have Low Graduation Rate High Schools?
Low graduation rate high schools are schools currently not able to meet the educational challenges they face. There is a miss-match between adult capacities and actions and student needs and motivations.
High schools are large and complex organizations, on average they educate about 1200 students with varying levels of prior preparation and current motivations and employ 100 adults with varied levels of skill, experience, and years working at the school. These students and adults are mixed and matched throughout the day, with multiple shifts, spread over a large physical plant.
Success requires extensive coordination and consistency all constrained by the inherent limitations of human bandwidth and communication and the typical social organization of high school in which teachers are organized by subject area departments and spend most of their day, isolated from other adults, teaching 125 to 150 students usually just for a year in duration.
This makes the typical high school challenging to run well. But most low graduation rate high schools are not typical high schools, most educate primarily, often exclusively students of color who live in poverty.
As a consequence, their students are often impeded by the impacts of poverty from attending school regularly, focusing in class, and completing their assignments. Yet these are the core student behaviors teachers and administrators depend on for instruction to succeed and to meet accountability metrics.
It is not unusual for a low graduation rate high school to have chronic absenteeism rates of 50% or more, to suspend more students than graduate, and have average GPA’s somewhere between a D+ and C-. Typically, they also have higher, sometimes much higher than average rates of students with learning differences and/or English Language learners and recent immigrants. This makes the work in high poverty high schools, consistently hard, constantly stressful, often unpredictable and filled with set-backs.
As a result, some of the adults make accommodations to the environment by lowering expectations (given their low levels of skills we do the best we can) or engaging in triage (we will teach the ones who come), or they exit it. These pull-back or leave actions under-mine relational trust among the adults in the school and further increase the challenges faced by those who stay and try to push through.
The result is overall adult capacity is diminished, as is the ability to work collectively and collaboratively in the very schools that require the highest levels of both.
The environmental drivers of low graduation rates, play out differently across high schools depending on their intensity and the responses of the adults in the school. Consequently, the required reforms will vary as well. Broadly speaking, based on the authors experience, low graduation rate high schools typically fall into one of three categories.
In these high schools sufficient adult capacity to meet the educational challenges faced largely exists but is not currently being fully or effectively applied.
These are often high schools where student populations have shifted rapidly or there is more of a mix in terms of the socio-economic status of the student population, and as a result it has not historically or in the eyes of some even currently viewed as a low performing high school. These are also often high schools that have maintained very traditional departmentalized school organizations.
As a result, these high schools, likely may not even be aware of their chronic absenteeism rate and may have enacted counter-productive discipline policies. They may also have fairly tracked opportunities to learn, with minority and low income students over-represented in the lower tracks.
These are most commonly the schools, that make considerable improvements with leadership changes, as the key factors are re-orientating the mission of the school to doing what is needed to enable all students to succeed, creating organizational structures to unlock and better apply existing adult capacity to achieve the mission, and stopping the use of counter-productive strategies.
In these high schools, the existing adult capacity even when it is better applied is not sufficient to meet the educational challenges faced by the school.
These are often schools, that have made some progress with reform initiatives aimed at increasing adult capacity-they may have 9th grade academies for example, or at least for a period of time when grant funds where available additional teacher training and coaching, they may be currently attempting to implement a restorative justice program as an alternative to suspensions.
As a result, that may well have seen improvements in attendance, behavior, the percent of students earning on-time grade promotion and even achievement and graduation rates. However, since they started from a low baseline, their graduation rate remains below 67% and many students are not graduating college-ready.
Here the challenge is twofold. First a careful analysis of which of their reform efforts are still functioning and effective, which were implemented insufficiently, and what is missing from a comprehensive approach. Second, an analysis of the scale and intensity of student need. Some of these schools may well have hundreds of students who are chronically absent, being suspended, and retained in grade (in good part because they are not handing in their assignments). Student need of this scale, overwhelms traditional whole school reform efforts which focus primarily on building adult capacity.
As a result, until mechanisms are added to address the scale and intensity of student need, traditional whole school reforms may lead to modest improvements but not succeed in making the school effective for all students.
Both locked capacity and over-matched high schools can become dysfunctional over time.
In locked capacity schools’ attitudes towards the students who are not succeeding can harden, and devolve into open frustration and even contempt-captured by the sentiment-that the school’s struggles are because the students have changed not the behaviors of the adults. Students then react to school climates and structures they perceive as indifferent at best, and often openly hostile by either fleeing-i.e. skipping more school or fighting-acting out even more.
In over-matched schools, frustration at hard work having only modest results, can lead to high levels of faculty and administrative turn-over, and the stopping of effective, if not sufficient reform efforts. The replacements are typically less experienced and feeling over-matched and as a result, may implement, often unknowingly, counter-productive strategies which ultimately make things worse. These typically involve strategies which attempt to place more responsibility on students for their own success e.g. making course failure automatic if students miss a certain number of days.
The continual staff churn also undermines the ability to have collective and collaborative actions and over a surprisingly short period, the school’s primary focus can become “putting the fires out” and getting through the day and the year with as few disruptions as possible. In this environment sustained teaching and learning stops.
These are the schools that in one form or another need a re-start.
Leadership changes, evidence based whole school reform efforts aimed at building adult capacity, and enhanced student supports in themselves will not be sufficient. They will all be needed, but may struggle to succeed unless that toxic teaching and learning environment that may have been ingrained over years is also addressed.
In some locales this has been effectively achieved by replacing the school with a number of new small schools. In others, a community informed and participatory re-design process has led to the school being re-designed and re-booted.
Just as it possible to paint a broad picture of why a high school has low graduation rates, it is also possible to show what it needs to have to succeed.
At the most fundamental level student needs must be met with an adult response that builds reliable, robust, and durable pathways through high school and onto to post-secondary schooling or training.
To graduate high school college and career ready- students need to
To enable students who live in high poverty environments and attend low graduation rate high schools to graduate college and career ready the adults/teachers in the school need to:
Be able to create discipline and credit recovery polices and strategies that enabled earned recovery as the primary response (e.g. restorative practices and second chance opportunities to demonstrate competency) rather than punishment or leniency.
Five Things that Show a Low Grad Rate High School is On Track to Success
Progress towards students graduating college and career ready in high poverty low graduation rate high schools can monitored through a set of metrics which capture both student and adult success factors. Thus these metrics can be used to help determine the reform progress low graduation rate high schools are making