Comprehensive school reform has been tried since the mid- 1990s. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, when graduation rates began to rise after 30 years of stagnation, many years of school reform were beginning to bear fruit, and there is general agreement on the principles that underlie success. Effective comprehensive reform involves:
- A research base for the organizational, structural, instructional, curricular and assessment models used in the school.
- Organizational and structural reforms that create small learning environments in middle and high schools, more time for teaching and learning, and a focus on building teams of students and teachers. These innovations make school a more personal place, where there is mutual respect and stronger, caring relationships between adults and students. They enable frequent experiences that show students how school is connected to their futures, create expectations that all students will succeed, and provide support for helping them do so.
- Instructional, curricular, and assessment reforms, backed by sufficient and appropriate help, that meet students where they are and take them where they need to be to succeed in high school and beyond.
- Curriculum, instruction and experiences that relate learning to life and work (and which offer a prime role for community and business involvement).
- Effective and strong leaders who are committed to the comprehensive reform plan, and to continued fine-tuning, implementation and use of data to guide both instruction and improvement. Leaders must also be strong managers committed to teaching and learning. The reforms that strong leaders implement distribute key responsibilities to multiple adults and rethink staff and administrative responsibilities.
- Highly qualified teachers who not only know their subject matter but also know students.
- Professional development reforms that provide content learning opportunities, and peer-mentoring, induction and support.
- Rigorous, transparent and equitable teacher and administrator evaluation systems. While there remains national discussion about the exact form productive educator evaluation systems should take, there is growing consensus that improved and meaningful evaluation systems should focus on personnel development and growth, just as in good businesses. These systems should be designed and developed with teachers and principals, reward those who are successful with students and either retrain or replace those who are not.
- Use of data to support ongoing analysis, identify successes and areas needing improvement and encourage collaborative problem-solving. Progress on benchmark tests and assessments is important. So are data related to early warning and intervention systems: attendance, behavior indicators (suspensions and referrals) and course passing and credit accrual that keeps students on pace to be promoted and graduate. Schools need to be able to use real-time student data to assess progress from the beginning of the school year.
- Teaming among educators. Data should be readily accessible to teams of teachers and other staff members who work directly with students. Teams then will design and carry out interventions for groups of students and/or individuals with warning indicators.
- Family and community involvement every step of the way. Research shows that family and community involvement at all levels positively affects student achievement.
These general principles of comprehensive whole school reform become the “guts” of the work of turnaround schools, restarted schools and transformed schools. They also become the guts of improvements in schools that simply seek to become better, as well as the schools that have strong promotion and graduation rates for some groups of students but have achievement, promotion and graduation gaps for students with disabilities, English language learners, minority students and economically disadvantaged students.