High schools across the nation have long struggled to improve student achievement and reduce dropout rates. While reforms enacted over the past three decades have proven successful in some schools, transferring those reforms to others has been challenging, and many students continue to fall behind.
Education policy experts at The Florida State University will collaborate with researchers from Vanderbilt University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Education Development Center on a new $13.6 million grant to help improve high school performance in Florida and Texas.
“Today’s high schools have discouragingly low rates of student retention and learning, particularly among students from traditionally low-performing groups: minorities, low-income students and English language learners,” said Lora Cohen-Vogel, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Florida State and leader of the FSU research team.
In fact, according to Cohen-Vogel, gaps between black and Hispanic 17-year-olds and their white counterparts can exceed up to three years of learning. Gaps are wider still between native English speakers and English language learners.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the new National Research and Development Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools will work to bring tested practices to some of Texas and Florida’s lowest-performing high schools. Researchers will partner with district and school leaders and teachers from two large public school systems — the Dallas Independent School District and Broward County Public Schools — on the five-year initiative.
“Underperformance in high school is a persistent problem with extraordinary economic and educational consequences,” said Marcy P. Driscoll, dean of Florida State’s College of Education. “The policy expertise within the College of Education will contribute greatly to ensuring that all students not only graduate, but have the skills necessary to enter college or the work force.”
The center’s work will focus on identifying the combination of essential components and the programs, processes and policies that make some high schools in large urban districts particularly effective. Effectiveness will be measured using value-added models to identify high schools that improve student achievement in English/language arts, mathematics and science achievement; reduce the likelihood that students drop out before graduation; and increase enrollment in advanced courses among traditionally low-performing student subgroups.
But, according to Cohen-Vogel, being able to identify the essential components of high school effectiveness is only the first step toward realizing meaningful school improvement.
“Just as important,” Cohen-Vogel said, “is implementing the combination of practices through which the components can be sustained and transferred to less-effective schools.”
For nearly three decades, researchers and educators have worked to understand what makes some schools effective and others less so, said Stacey Rutledge, an associate professor in Florida State’s College of Education and co-investigator on the project. Rutledge noted that while progress has been made in developing that understanding, less is known about how to replicate successful programs across a range of schools.
“The new center will help us to solve that puzzle, so promising models can be brought to more students,” Rutledge said.
Beyond developing methods to identify effective and ineffective high schools, the Florida State team will visit schools, administer surveys and observe classrooms. Beginning this fall, Cohen-Vogel, her co-investigators and a cadre of FSU graduate students will together spend more than 60 weeks in Broward County high schools working with educators to design interventions and professional development that will make it easier for teachers and school leaders to support and sustain student success.
The Florida State University team draws on expertise from across two colleges: Education and Social Sciences and Public Policy. Led by Lora Cohen-Vogel of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (College of Education), co-investigators include Tammy Kolbe, Patrice Iatarola and Stacey Rutledge, also from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and Tim Sass of the Department of Economics (College of Social Sciences and Public Policy). Team members from other research organizations are Marisa Cannata, Ellen Goldring, Joe Murphy, center director Tom Smith and Matt Springer from Vanderbilt University; Dan Bolt and Rob Meyer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Cheryl King, Maria-Paz B. Avery and Barbara Miller of the Education Development Center.