Interview With the Author: Jordan Horowitz
"We collected information in many ways, including surveys and interviews with teachers, administrators, project directors, and even students themselves. This information helped us to understand what was happening and why — to open up the black box of high school improvement."
Q: Why should we care about high school education?
A: There is widespread agreement that America's high schools are failing a lot of children. I don't mean failing, as in getting an F in algebra (although that certainly is a concern). I mean our high schools are preparing students for a life that is different from the lives they realistically are going to live. For example, there is concern among America's business leaders that our high schools are not graduating students with the skills necessary for successful employment. We know from data that high school dropouts earn a lot less than those who finish school. There's also a huge earnings gap between workers with a high school diploma and those with a college diploma. It's in everyone's best interest to increase the number of college-ready high school graduates.
Q: How did you conduct the research for this book?
A: This book is the result of seven years of fact-finding conducted by WestEd's Evaluation Research program. The California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) commissioned our study. We evaluated three groups of school programs, each with a slightly different focus, but all working to increase college-going rates among schools underrepresented in the college population in California. We collected information in many ways, including surveys and interviews with teachers, administrators, project directors, and even students themselves. This information helped us to understand what was happening and why — to open up the black box of high school improvement. We also crunched the numbers — we looked at the number of available courses required for college so more students could take them, who was taking these courses, and how they performed academically. We also examined standardized test scores such as the SAT and California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), and of course the rates at which students applied to, were accepted to, and attended college. We wanted to see what kinds of kids were benefiting from specific programs and activities, and then we wanted to figure out how to help other kids and schools use the same successful methods.
Q: What is the primary significance of your findings?
A: It's hard to boil down all the research to one thing, but I think it's this: Teachers can do a lot to help kids succeed, especially when they are given support, resources, and knowledge. It's so important to develop a community of high school teachers so that teaching is no longer a solitary activity conducted behind a closed door.
Q: Why do you think so many of today's high schools need help to improve the quality and results of their education offerings?
A: High schools are expected to do so much - it can feel overwhelming at times. They are expected to have high academic standards, strong instructional practices, faculty professional development, fiscal management, technology, building management — the list goes on and on. It is unrealistic to expect the high school system to be the holder of all of this. There are a lot of resources and a great deal of knowledge held by individuals and organizations outside the high school systems, and that's where we should look. Some of these can be accessed for free, while others are more costly. We can help focus our high schools on what really matters by holding them responsible for knowing (a) when there is a problem; (b) how to access the necessary resources and knowledge; and (c) how to apply and implement what they learn.
Q: Based on your many years of helping high schools improve student achievement, what is the single, hardest thing for teachers and administrators to embrace as they begin the reform process?
A: Probably the need for instructional leadership. The hard part is the risk involved in challenging one's own colleagues and examining one's own beliefs and performance about instruction. An individual, or perhaps a group, needs to take charge of examining what is going on in the classroom and make the necessary changes. Often these changes require that teachers and administrators give up their pet activities and projects if they cannot demonstrate student learning. This can be very difficult. But, when conducted with the support of a professional community, this reform process can be invigorating and exciting.
Q: If you had the chance to speak directly to high school students about what they can do to ensure their own success, what message would you impart?
A: I think one message is embedded in the question being asked. Namely, only they can ensure their own success. Whether their goal is going to college or not, they should be planning to succeed in a college-preparatory course of study. There is so much to be gained by reading challenging texts, learning to write well, understanding the lessons from science and history, and applying mathematical knowledge. It's worth the extra effort. Also, they should visit some colleges and see that there are students there who are just like they are.
Q: Ten years from now when you look back, what do you hope your research and this book will have accomplished?
A: I'd like to think that the book will have acted as a catalyst for more teachers in more schools to provide more students with challenging and engaging work that prepares these students to contribute positively to their society, country, and culture. And I firmly believe these teachers will enjoy the challenge of doing so.
Downloads for this webinar, such as audio recordings and PDF's of the PowerPoint Presentation, are available on the SchoolsMovingUp event page.