Categorizing my thinking

Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University recently launched the Developing Effective Schools Center (DESC), a national research and development center on identifying programs, practices, processes and policies that make some high schools more effective at reaching certain students than others. The DESC notes that consensus has grown among practitioners and researchers around the essential components of a successful high school. These include quality instruction, a rigorous curriculum, a culture of learning, professional behavior, connections to external communities, systemic use of data, system performance accountability, and learner-centered leadership.

Marzano (2003) reviewed 35 years of research of ‘what works in schools.’ He organized his results into three general factors of  influence on student achievement. These are 1) school-level factors (viable curriculum, challenging goals and effective feedback, parent and community involvement, safe and orderly environment), 2) teacher-level factors (instructional strategies, classroom management, classroom curriculum design), and 3) student-level factors (home atmosphere, learned intelligence and background knowledge, motivation).

As I reviewed the two lists, I wondered if considering these components and categories would be helpful as I continue to organize my thoughts regarding a new Christian high school. It seemed that each component and category could be applied to a Christian education context with little difficulty. I then recalled my recent site visitation experience at Monroe Christian School which introduced me to the accreditation standards that are central Christian Schools International. These are Standards 1) Community, 2) Staff, 3) Students, and 4) Curriculum. I mapped my understanding of the components suggested by DESC and the Marzano categories of what works in schools to the four CSI Standards and decided to include those additional components that a private institution needs to consider. This led to following organizing framework:

1. School

  • centrality of vision and mission of the Christian school (including the philosophical foundation of education/school)
  • connections to external communities (including parent and community involvement)
  • responsibilities & relationships among all participants in the learning process (including the student-level factors of home atmosphere, motivation, and learned intelligence and background knowledge)
  • systemic use of data to guide decision-making and inform system performance
  • facilities

2. Teacher

  • teacher development and support
  • healthy, professional, and biblical teacher leadership
  • developing a culture of learning

3. Students

  • discipleship and development
  • student services & programs
  • enrollment (admissions & retention)
  • graduation requirement

4. Curriculum & Instruction

  • a guaranteed, viable & rigorous curriculum
  • quality instruction & classroom management
  • learning environment
  • educational technology

I am going to start categorize and/or tag my posts in this blog according to this framework. This should help me as I continue to reflect and act upon this “whisper” for a Christian High School.


Christian Schools International. (2006). Vision to action. Retrieved October 12, 2010 at

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Peabody College of Education. (2010, Fall). Ideas in action. Peabody Reflector. 11.

Lessons from different high school models

Different public school initiatives and charter schools in the US have worked at reinventing the high school experience by just ‘starting over.’ Whether it is for the purpose of assisting our students to “develop the broad knowledge of the world that would help them succeed in the 21st-century global environment” (Jackson, 2008, p. 58), or simply to “reclaim our students” (Forbes & Richelieu Saunders, 2008, p. 42), unique models of high schools are being considered for learning in the 21st century.

There are some common lessons being learned from these models:

1. Learning needs to be relevant for students. This is not a new idea, but one that appears to be stressed more in the current dialogue on high school reform. High school students learn best when they see their education as relevant to their lives and the world around them. Work-based learning components, internships, partnerships with industry and commerce, and school-based enterprises also help provide real-world connections.

2. The need for a strongly developed curriculum. Such a curriculum needs to be purposeful, yet not sacrifice academic rigor for relevancy. Traditional courses need to integrate knowledge and skills about the world and how the world works. The in-depth study of disciplines such as math, science, English and social studies, is applied to authentic problems and applications. The study of a foreign, global language helps expose students to other cultures. Overall, international content and perspectives should be included in engaging coursework that is often project-based.

3. Project-based learning. The curriculum briefly described above should lead to engaging project-based learning for students. This requires a shift from teacher-directed, whole class lessons to personalized, student-directed projects. In this approach, students study necessary content as well as essential skills to research and problem solve. Students are encouraged to develop their strengths and reflect on their weaknesses so as to improve themselves. Projects then culminate in presentations where students share their findings, demonstrate their content understanding, and talk about the learning strategies and processes they followed in front of teachers, their peers, parents, and even panels of community members and other guests.

4. Learning in community. As part of this process, group work is essential to help students collaborate with others and communicate with each other about how they learn and how they overcome challenges they are facing as they learn. Group work should include problem-solving and support for each other’s learning.

5. Technology. In all models, learning and instruction capitalize the use of various technologies to such an extent that technology is a seamless part of the teaching and learning process. Such use of appropriate technology helps underscore the fact that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Related to this, teachers are proactive in guiding and encouraging students towards a positive digital citizenship and a professional and ethical use of technology for learning’s sake.

6. Adequate time for teacher preparation. The positive impact of qualified, prepared and motivated teachers cannot be understated. These various models are consistent in their need for a core group of teachers who share a vision for the model of high school and are committed to personalizing the learning experience for their students. As a result, a common feature of the models is sufficient time for teachers to collaborate together to develop curriculum and plan for instruction. Teachers need to be ready with advising, appropriate counseling, and additional instruction as necessary. For these reasons, the provision for adequate, site-based professional development to better serve the students is important, too.


Forbes, J. D., & Richelieu Saunders, C. (2008, May). How we reinvented the high school experience. Educational Leadership 65(8); 42-46.

Hoachlander, G. (2008, May). Bringing industry to the classroom. Educational Leadership 65(8); 22-27.

Jackson, A. (2008, May). High schools in the global age. Educational Leadership 65(8); 58-62.

Quint, J. (2008, May). Lessons from leading models. Educational Leadership 65(8); 64-68.

Being small is not enough

A high school that is small in size is not enough to ensure student learning and post-high-school success. Ancess (2008) suggests that the four following characteristics are essential in an effective small school:

1. Caring Relationships – appear essential for student achievement. This includes relationships between students and teachers, as well as relationships among teachers. Students need unwavering teacher access, support and appropriately, teacher-imposed pressure for the learning process. Teachers and students need to get to know each other and have ongoing conversations that encourage learning. These conversations can be both formal, focused on learning, and informal, where the topics may be centered on a student’s life, problems, successes, or aspirations. As the bond between teacher and student develop, teachers can leverage the relationship to further encourage and persuade student growth. This can help students transcend their own perceived limitations.

Caring relationships among teachers, who need to work together in support of their students’ learning, should also develop as teachers share planning times, collaborate, and problem solve together. Teachers feel a sense of collective responsibility for their students’ learning. These caring relationships are characterized by interdependence, respect, and trust.

2. Unified School Community – The school needs to be a community where learning and relationships are valued. There should be shared educational beliefs, goals, rituals, commitments and norms. Professional development for teachers includes a focus on these further. The community works together to support students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. All adults are mentors and advisors in this process.

3. Strong Safety Net – Multiple systems can be set in place to safeguard student development. Through an advisory program, every student is assigned to an adult who takes responsibility for the student. This includes close communication with parents, access to community- and church-based support organizations, and a four-year sequence of activities that help prepare students for necessary post-high school decisions. Grade-level teams meet to share information and monitor student progress. Professional development opportunities help teachers strengthen this safety net by offering necessary guidance strategies in their work.

4. Intellectually Transformative Experiences – As students encounter success in school and produce high-quality, intellectually focused work, they gain a greater appreciation for their ability and future. They develop an interest in learning, which fosters, in turn, greater motivation for using their minds. Using their minds means “getting [students] to analyze, reason, mount a logical argument and defend it, solve problems, conduct research, negotiate conflicting perspectives, imagine possibilities, question their own and others’ assumptions, and use the power of their ideas to persuade others to change their opinions” (Ancess, 2008, p. 51). Teachers need to provide school tasks that are worthy of their engagement.


Ancess, J. (2008, May). Small alone is not enough. Educational Leadership 65(8); 48-53.

Recommendations for successful high school reform

A few more thoughts from the same articles on high school reform:

National high school reform efforts have merely “propped up an antiquated system instead of rethinking and repairing it” (Wise, 2008, p. 10).

What preliminary recommendations have emerged from those reform efforts of the high school experience that appear to be successful?

1. Align what schools expect of students with the demands of college and the workforce. Research by ACT (American College Testing) suggests that the skills needed for work readiness mirrors those needed for college readiness.  As a result, we need to set common, high expectations and a common set of standards for students to acquire the knowledge and skills that will lead to post high-school success whether they attend college or enter the workplace.

2. Offer a rigorous, option-rich curriculum in order to personalize learning. As we set high standards for learning and share our expectations that our students can attain them, we need to develop and offer a rich curricular experience that allows students to personalize their own learning in response. Such an experience should be option-rich so that students can explore and learn across disciplines.

3. Support learning. Schools, then, need to provide the necessary advising and support programs to ensure student success. This includes offering smaller learning environments, fostering long-term relationships among faculty and students, and creating advisory systems to ensure needed academic and personal support for the student, the family and other teachers that the student encounters. This will require smaller class sizes and providing teachers with more time to teach their students by tailoring instruction to their strengths, needs, background, experience and interest.

4. Improve instruction by mining data and using digital technologies. In order for teachers to better serve their students, they need to know how to inquire and reflect on their instructional effectiveness as it positively impacts student learning. Teachers need to know how to make informed pedagogical decisions based on data as they help personalize the learning experience of their students. Teachers need to know how to support classroom instruction through the use of appropriate technologies and best practices.

5. Professional and Collaborative Learning. In order for teachers to better serve their students, they need considerable time to plan, collaborate and learn from each other. This time should be allocated on an at least weekly, if not daily, basis and also include sufficient learning in-service days during the year. Teachers should meet regularly in grade-level groups and in discipline-specific groups to engage in focused inquiry on problems of practice.


Darling-Hammond, L. & Friedlaender, D. (2008). Creating excellent and equitable schools. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 14-21.

Wise, B. (2008, May). High schools at the tipping point. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 8-13.

Going to high school: A moral and economic imperative

A few thoughts as I reviewed some articles on high school reform:

As a society we need to acknowledge that all students have a right to a high-quality secondary school education that will prepare them to meet the challenges they will face upon graduation. This is especially important in today’s knowledge-based economy where essential 21st century skills for success need to be developed in school. I admit that I still need to fully understand what most educators would agree regarding this set of skills, and I look forward to learning more. In any case, high school students should feel equipped and confident for either continued study in college or entering the workforce after grade 12.

Unfortunately, it is becoming evident to me that today’s high schools are not necessarily designed with this in mind.  Most high school experiences have been designed for a different era. They follow what has been coined as “the 20th century factory model” (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008, p. 14). At the beginning of the 20th century approximately 10% of high school-aged students actually went to school. This was a luxury for a choice few. Today, attendance laws require all high school-aged students be in the classroom or be held accountable for their time. As a result, the high school has developed in a manner that typically processes as many students as possible. This model favors size and efficiency over relationship (Darling-Hammond & Friedlaender, 2008). Students are gathered in relatively large class sizes, they attend multiple classes in a day and are taught by multiple teachers, many of whom rarely have the opportunity to collaborate effectively with their colleagues over instructional improvement and best practices. To me, the typical US high school is too large and impersonal.  My opportunities to visit high schools in the Puget Sound have left me thinking that they are detached communities filled with many students who are not necessarily engaged and interested in learning.

In the light of greater global economic competition and any related demands from the workplace, our schools need to help students meet the new requirements of the 21st century. Wise (2008) rightly describes this as a “moral and economic imperative” (p. 9) for us to address. I believe that society expects our students to be ready for the challenges they will face upon graduation. They want students to be well-prepared to be active contributors in the global community. Parents expect more from our high schools  for their children. They want to know that their children are prepared and able to lead productive lives. Students want to be engaged and can be motivated to learn more. Perhaps the current model of high school needs to change in order to meet these expectations in light of this new reality.


Darling-Hammond, L. & Friedlaender, D. (2008). Creating excellent and equitable schools. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 14-21.

Wise, B. (2008, May). High schools at the tipping point. Educational Leadership, 65(8); 8-13.