A frequent mantra of the high school reform movement is “rigor, relevance, and relationships.” These terms have been used to characterize the type of instruction that we need to help all students achieve to high standards. But two more R’s—Resources for Recovery—need to be incorporated into the lexicon to help all students graduate from high school.
Failing high schools need both funding and expertise in the form of resources to improve instruction, provide catch-up courses, tutoring, additional instructional time, and technical assistance. We could start by providing federal funding for high-poverty and low-performing high schools.
The Graduation Promise Act is one of a number of legislative proposals for providing funding and support for these schools. The legislation provides $2.4 billion for states to intervene in these schools and to develop research-based models to turn them around. States and individual school districts will also have to provide more resources and increase their capacity to intervene early—between 6th and 9th grades—before students fall too far off track.
The Alliance for Excellent Education, the Center for American Progress, Jobs for the Future, the National Council of La Raza, and Talent Development High Schools are joined in their support for this bill, which was introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress this spring.
Recent research only bolsters the arguments in favor of the two new R’s. Case in point: Bob Balfanz of the Center for Social Organization of Schools and Elaine Allensworth of the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research presented their research on dropouts and turning around low-performing high schools at a forum sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education on August 16. Dr. Allensworth’s research on the importance of high school grades in predicting high school and college graduation for students in the Chicago Public Schools is particularly noteworthy.
Freshman year grades were more predictive than any other factor of high school graduation. In fact, 81 percent of students who were on track to graduate at the end of their freshman year—meaning they failed one or fewer courses—graduated at the end of four years, while only 22 percent of freshman who were not on track at the end of freshman year graduated. Dr. Balfanz’s research also finds that most dropouts were failing their courses before they dropped out. School success, or lack of success, was a primary factor in whether students dropped out.
The high school reform movement has focused primarily on increasing academic rigor, but the findings of these researchers demonstrate that rigor alone is not enough. Dr. Allensworth noted that Chicago had used a college preparatory curriculum for more than a decade but that the curriculum alone wasn’t sufficient to improve student achievement in low-performing high schools. Both Dr. Allensworth and Dr. Balfanz argued for the need to intervene to improve the skills and habits of students to enable them to succeed in their courses.
Many policymakers and education analysts have relied too heavily on Clifford Adelman’s—formerly of the U.S. Department of Education—work that found that the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum was the most important factor in determining whether students completed college.
But his study was a transcript correlational analysis. It reported factors associated with students graduating from college. The study showed that students enrolled in a more rigorous high school curriculum were more likely to graduate from college. It did not demonstrate that by offering low-achieving students a more rigorous high school curriculum alone their prospects of graduating from college would improve.
One problem with the way Adelman’s research has been applied is that students who enrolled in a college preparatory curriculum likely differed from other students in ways that are not easily measured. Perhaps they had better study habits, writing skills, or more motivation. Or maybe it’s true that once students have graduated from high school, the rigor of their high school curriculum is the most predictive factor of their success in completing college. But a rigorous curriculum won’t necessarily help low-achieving students graduate from high school.
This is not to undermine the importance of a rigorous curriculum—but without other types of support a rigorous curriculum won’t be enough to help struggling students and schools. And here’s where the two new "R’s" for the high school reform movement come in to play: "Resources for Recovery" along with "rigor, relevance, and relationships" can make a meaningful difference.
Because so many students in high schools with low graduation rates are several years behind grade level, they need intensive intervention in order to get back on track. A study by Ruth Curran Neild and Bob Balfanz finds that in the majority of Philadelphia neighborhood high schools, less than 40 percent of entering freshman “did as well on the eighth-grade reading comprehension and math sections of the SAT-9 as the average seventh grader nationally.” Moreover, only 60 percent of students were first-time freshmen. These students could surely benefit from extra resources for recovery that could come from districts, states, or the federal Graduation Promise Act.
But overall the message from all these researchers is one of hope—we now can identify which students are less likely to graduate and which schools they attend, and we have some promising strategies for turning them around.
For more on this topic, see:
 Ruth Curran Neild, Robert Balfanz, “An Extreme Degree of Difficulty: The Educational Demographics of Urban Neighborhood High Schools.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 2006.