Eight Elements of High School Improvement

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[box class=”grey_box”]Developed by the National High School Center at AIR, with contributions from Circe Stumbo[/box]

Research on comprehensive school reform suggests that improvement strategies have the best opportunity for success and sustainability when they take into account the broad array of elements that make up the system being improved. Yet, many current high school improvement initiatives are focused only on specific priority topics (e.g., dropout prevention), specific intervention strategies (e.g., advisories, small schools), or program initiatives (e.g., Check and Connect). Although such approaches can have an important impact, their reach is too frequently limited to a subset of systemic reform elements. Implementing such initiatives may lead to success in addressing specific needs, but the probability of widespread improvement is small when initiatives are implemented in isolation from the broader education systems within which they operate.

The National High School Center’s goal is to encourage researchers, policymakers, and practitioners at all levels to engage in comprehensive, systemic efforts to maximize attainment for all high school students, with a focus on those students who have been historically underserved. To this end, we have developed a framework that consists of eight core elements and provides a lens for mapping school, district, and state high school improvement efforts. The exercise of mapping should inform strategic planning and implementation efforts by illuminating the connections among elements, revealing strengths and gaps in current state and district policies, and highlighting the stakeholders who should be aware of and involved in future improvement efforts.

This document offers descriptions of the eight elements of high school improvement:

  • Rigorous Curriculum and Instruction
  • Teacher Effectiveness and Professional Growth
  • Stakeholder Engagement
  • Organization and Structure
  • Assessment and Accountability
  • Student and Family Involvement
  • Effective Leadership
  • Sustainability


Four points are important to note. First, the particular combination or separation of the elements is less significant than an understanding that these elements, which are often treated as discrete, actually are inter-related parts of a single system. Each element has an impact on the others, so understanding their interconnectivity is a critical task. Second, a major challenge of using this framework is the risk of overwhelming those involved in the work. Every high school improvement initiative does not need to have some activity in each of the elements at every moment. Rather, mapping the implications of an improvement initiative among all affected elements at the outset will lead to more strategic decisions initially and over time. Third, every high school and related high school improvement initiative is situated in a unique geographic, cultural, demographic, political, and societal context, which influences the school’s vision, mission, structure, culture, and outcomes. Any efforts at high school improvement must take into account these particular school- and system-level contexts. These considerations affect each element and must be explicitly addressed when improvement strategies are devised. Fourth, if scalable and sustainable improvement is the ultimate goal, it is likely that the implementation of improvement efforts will require organizational change. No strategy can be complete without attention to the challenges of leading change within the respective organizational cultures.

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