Real-world experiences empower and inspire students to take control of their own learning. Small learning communities can create the conditions to allow for the use of personal learning plans (PLPs), student-led conferences, project-based learning, service learning, and other innovative strategies to promote active student engagement in education (Clarke 2000).
Alternative forms of assessment can be used to gauge what a student knows and is able to do. Using student exhibitions and portfolios is a powerful alternative to using standardized testing to identify students' depth of knowledge in a subject area (Cushman Brandjes 2003; Levine 2002).
Experiential learning programs like Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound provide students with the opportunity to test their physical limits by learning skills like team building and self-reliance, while continuing academic growth in literacy, science, and math (NSDC 2000). Soliciting student input in formal meetings or informal conversations can provide the school with a picture of students' needs and interests. It can also help staff to design coursework around those needs and interests (Park & Smith 2003).
The research on redesigning high schools is about both size and quality. The discussion about size focuses on the various ways to reorganize large schools into smaller learning communities and the persuasive findings that smaller can be better in terms of student performance and engagement in learning. The discussion about quality refers to improving the teaching and learning environments so that they are also more student-centered, more individually relevant and rigorous in content, and more versatile/effective with respect to teaching strategies.
Most studies of high school redesign look at "best practices" in concert and as elements of unified and systemic change. In a 1999 New American High Schools publication, Key High School Reform Strategies: An Overview of Research Findings, authors Visher, Emanuel, and Teitelbaum listed ten reform strategies with two warnings:
First,...none of the strategies by themselves should be expected to make a significant difference in any one school. That is, the available evidence suggests that it is the gathering of several strategies under one roof, especially certain combinations of strategies, that matters . . . Second, schools should adapt strategies to fit their own unique circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no single, correct way to implement reforms . . . (p. 2).
Having identified the essential elements of reform, researchers have since turned to focusing on the barriers to improvement that schools have encountered. All Over the Map addresses what states can do to help. New Small Learning Communities: Findings from recent literature looks at numerous barriers and their roots.
Researchers also continue to probe the interplay of reform elements with other factors such as individual school cultures, teacher and administrator capacity, and racial and economic inequities. Research About School Size and School Performance in Impoverished Communities by Craig Howley, Marty Strange, and Robert Bickel (ERIC Digest, 2000) reviews the findings of the Matthew Project, a multi-state study that replicated findings showing that small schools significantly reduce the achievement gap for low-income students. All else equal, larger school size benefits achievement in affluent communities, but it is detrimental in impoverished communities (Howley & Bickel, 1999). Even in affluent communities, however, schools serving 1,500 or more students might have diseconomies of scale and bureaucratic operating modes that are not educationally hospitable. Indeed, a wide consensus seems to have emerged (cf. Fulton, 1996) that schools larger than 1,000 are unwise choices for any community. The consensus clearly suggests that schools in impoverished communities should be much, much smaller.
DiMartino, J., Clarke, J., and Wolk, D. editors (2003). Personalized Learning: Preparing High School Students to Create Their Futures. ScarecrowPress, Lanham, MD.
This book, written by 23 education practitioners, administrators and policy-makers highlights current initiatives aimed at personalizing learning for high school students. Personal Learning Plans that tie the learning to the talents and aspirations of the student are described. Classroom teaching that allows individuals to gain knowledge while pursuing their own hops is explored. Sections describe high school designs that engage students in democratic processes and systemic changes that must accompany and support personalized learning for all students. Written by practitioners with practical interest in moving high schools toward personalization, this book will excite others to initiate reforms that enable ALL young adult learners to meet common standards while designing and pursuing a unique pathway toward adult roles.
Jenkins, J.M. & Keefe, J.W. (2002, February). Two schools: Two approaches to personalized learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(6), 449-456. Copyright 2002 Phi Delta Kappa International.
The authors believe that the kind of vital personalization exemplified at Haney and Parker-not state testing or rigid standardization-must become the cornerstone of school renewal if educators and the communities they serve hope to change, in any significant way, the basic grammar of schooling.
Nagel, J.E. & Smith, P. (2001, November). The art of personalizing learning. Principal Leadership, 2(3), 36-39.
Creativity is often reserved for the traditional arts, but personalized learning is an art of its own.
Clarke, J. (2000) Dynamics of Change in High School Teaching. A Study of Innovation in five Vermont professional development schools.
Cohen, E. (1994). Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cohen, E. and Lotan, R. A., eds. (1997). Working for equity in heterogeneous classrooms: sociological theory in practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cushman Brandjes, E. Assessing to Engage: Developing Personal Profiles for Each Student. Chapter 2 in DiMartino, J., Clarke, J., and Wolk, D. editors (2003). Personalized Learning: Preparing High School Students to Create Their Futures. Lanham, MD: ScarecrowPress.
Darling Hammond, L., Snyder, J., Ancess, J., Einbender, L., Goodwin, A. L., & Macdonald, M. B. (1993). Creating learner-centered accountability. New York: National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the Classroom: Mediated literacy instruction and assessment. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Levine, E. (2001) One Kid at a Time: Big Lessons from a Small School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Park J. and Smith P. (February, 2003) Turn Up the Volume. Principal Leadership 37-40.
Wehlage, G. G., Rutter, R. A., and Tumbaugh, A. (1987, March). A program model for at-risk high school students. Educational Leadership 45: 70ú73.
Breaking Ranks in Action
New Report Tracks Progress of Groundbreaking Research
School Redesign Network at Stanford University
Internet Resources on Starting Small Schools
Top 5 websites with links to research on small schools
The Research in Brief:
New Small Learning Communities: Findings From Recent Literature
Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story
Current Literature on Small Schools
Affective and Social Benefits of Small-Scale Schooling
Research About School Size and School Performance in Impoverished Communities
Curriculum Adequacy and Quality in High Schools Enrolling Fewer Than 400 Pupils (9-12)
ASK ERIC Internet Sites:
Youth at the Crossroads: Facing High School and Beyond (Winter 2001)
Transforming the American High School: New Directions for State and Local Policy (2001)
High Schools That Work
The New American High Schools Initiative
High Schools of the Millenium
State Graduation Requirements
Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey (August 2000)
1994 Bibliography on School Restructuring
I. General References on School Restructuring
These topics reflect specific research projects conducted at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools