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New Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University Study Reveals Keys to Exemplary High Schools

The report presents key reforms, principles, and practices at 15 diverse public high schools in six states that improved over the past decade and achieved outstanding gains on state accountability exams.

The Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University released today a new report, How High Schools Become Exemplary, exploring 15 public high schools that made outstanding gains on state accountability exams over the past decade. The report shares key reforms, principles, and practices of laudable public high schools from Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and Washington, D.C., and includes case studies based on presentations each school made at the Fifth Annual AGI Research-to-Practice Conference at Harvard University in June 2009.

"Their stories convey critically important principles, processes, and practices that can help high schools across the nation raise achievement and close gaps," said AGI Director and Faculty Co-chair Ronald Ferguson. In the report's introduction, Ferguson writes about the important lessons that can be learned from these schools, and links them conceptually to prior research on the topic.

Among the biggest lessons demonstrated in the report is how student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction. A common set of actions made by these high schools involved a core group of leaders, who took public responsibility for leading the charge to raise achievement with other stakeholders by:

  • crafting mission statements that later helped keep them on track;
  • planning carefully, sometimes with outside assistance, for how the school would organize learning experiences for teachers;
  • clearly defining criteria for high quality in both teaching and student work;
  • implementing adult learning in ways that engaged their whole faculties; and
  • carefully monitoring both student and teacher work to continuously refine their approaches.

The leadership teams succeeded initially because they used their authority effectively to jumpstart the change process. Additionally, the teams built trust, demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours, studied research-based literature to expand their knowledge and competence, persevered to follow through on the promises they made, and found ways to remain respectful of peers. 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.

The eight Massachusetts public schools that the report features 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. Seven public schools from the other states were recommended by experts and provided evidence of impressive achievement.

Download the PDF report and videos of the entire conference on the AGI website.

About the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University
The Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) is a university-wide effort initiated by the Harvard Graduate School of Education to focus academic research, public education, and innovative outreach activities toward eliminating achievement gaps. The AGI is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Ronald F. Ferguson, Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Research Associate at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, is the AGI director and a faculty co-chair. The other faculty co-chairs are professors Richard Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

Robert Hanna