Slow and Steady in the Race to Reform

As we’ve posted recently, much of the RTTT, as well as School Improvement Grant, reforms will focus on high schools. A recent report from the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University provides some timely lessons about how high schools improve and become exemplary[1].  

The AGI report details the stories of 15 high schools in six states and highlights five steps that these high schools took to become exemplary:

  1. Accepting their responsibility to lead the change process.
  2. Declaring the purposes of the work in mission statements that focused on a few key ideas and priorities that stakeholders could understand and embrace.
  3. Designing strategies, plans, capacity, and incentives for broadly inclusive adult learning.
  4. Developing and refining quality standards for judging teacher and student work.
  5. Skillfully and relentlessly implementing plans, monitoring quality, and providing appropriate supports and incentives.

None of the high schools became exemplary by adopting a “silver bullet” approach or implementing pre-packaged programs. Rather, the transformation happened under competent and committed leadership teams focused on improving instructional practice in phases over the course of several years. The five steps are not drastic measures, but do place significance on the cycle and system of problem solving that is required to build and sustain school improvements efforts over time. 

Lessons learned from the AGI report are consistent with the tenets outlined in the National High School Center’s Eight Elements of High School Improvement: A Mapping Framework. Our mapping framework recognizes the interconnectivity and interdependence of elements in a school system (e.g., curriculum and instruction, assessment and accountability), as well as the need to adapt to particular school cultures.  As reflected in the AGI report and the Center’s framework, sustainable improvement requires great attention to the challenges of leading comprehensive change within respective organizational contexts. 


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

[1] Ferguson, R., Hackman, S., Hanna, R., & Ballantine, A. (2010). How High Schools Become Exemplary: Ways that Leadership Raises Achievement and Narrows Gaps by Improving Instruction in 15 Public High Schools.  Report on the 2009 Annual Conference of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University.  Available for download at



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