Global Navigation Element.

Winter/Spring 2004 Vol. 4 No. 1

Table of Contents

©Creatas A New Outlook for Urban High Schools

Changes Can Help Improve Inner-City Education

For many teens, school is an impersonal and uncaring place. The situation is especially troubling in urban areas, where high schools are often beset by low expectations, student alienation, underachievement, and high dropout rates. Frequently, resources are inadequate and teachers poorly trained. Plus, curricula and instruction seldom reflect actual student needs and interests -- particularly for those who are racial minorities, who speak English as a second language, or who have not been well-prepared for high school work.

These schools are not lost causes, however. Research on motivation and engagement provides clear guidance on the most promising strategies that nurture enthusiasm for learning among all students, says a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. Schools do not control all of the factors that shape students' eagerness to learn, but they can be structured in a way that significantly influences attitudes and behavior.

Foremost, the academic program must be challenging and engaging to students from various backgrounds. Instruction should respond to wide differences in what students already know and help them acquire the skills necessary to master rigorous coursework. The report also encourages schools to abandon the practice known as ability "tracking," in which students of similar achievement levels are taught together. Studies have shown that it often isolates low-performing or unmotivated schoolchildren and reinforces low standards and expectations.

Educating heterogeneous classrooms with demanding curricula can be done, the report says, but only if teachers are properly trained. Teacher-education programs should prepare future instructors to work effectively with academically and socially diverse groups of students and to use teaching approaches that actively involve young people in problem solving. And school districts should provide experienced teachers with opportunities for ongoing professional development, both to expand their knowledge of adolescent behavior and to enhance their mastery of subject matter and innovative teaching methods.

In addition, counseling services should be totally revamped. In many large high schools, individual guidance counselors are overwhelmed by the responsibility of working with hundreds of students. Instead, monitoring the needs and progress of each student should be a duty shared by all professional staff members, including teachers, administrators, and counselors -- as well as qualified support staff, the report says.


Likewise, students need caring and stable relationships with adult faculty and staff members to clear academic hurdles. All young people benefit from such bonds, the report emphasizes. One way to encourage a close, personal atmosphere is to create small "learning communities" or mini-schools within large urban high schools, which often enroll more than 2,000 pupils.

When it comes to assessment, standardized tests commonly used to evaluate students should be better aligned with academic standards that promote thorough understanding and critical thinking, the report says. Currently, standardized-test results rarely offer teachers the feedback they need to improve instruction or learning. Also, educators should use various classroom assessments to routinely track the effectiveness of specific curricula and teaching practices.

Education extends beyond the schoolhouse, as well, the report points out, and community assets are important for urban high schools. School administrators should establish or strengthen partnerships with local groups and social-service providers to help students address health problems and other personal issues that interfere with their education. And the broader community should be regularly mined for experiences and resources that can enrich classroom instruction, such as community internships and direct interactions with local leaders and artists.

The ways to bring about progress in urban high schools have grown increasingly clear, the report says. The will to use this knowledge, integrating research findings into everyday school practices and education policy, is sorely needed -- as is a realignment of resources to support school improvement.   -- Vanee Vines

Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students' Motivation to Learn. Committee for Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn, Board on Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2003, 304 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08435-0, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Deborah Stipek, dean, School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The study was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Previous Table of Contents Next

Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences