Category Voices
Author By Robert Balfanz, PhD

What makes the Center for Social Organization of Schools a special place to work is its combination of two things that do not often occur in the same place:

  • A long-term and dedicated focus on applied research and development in search of answers to some of our nation’s most pressing educational problems, and
  • The ability to provide schools, districts and states with the implementation support needed to use the Center’s evidence-based tools, models, and strategies.

My introduction to the applied nature of the work done by CSOS, and the powerful insights achieved by combining rigorous research and evaluation with direct implementation support work in schools, began with helping to acquire velvet rope lines.

I joined the Center in 1996 immediately after Jim McPartland had worked with Baltimore at Patterson High School and Doug MacIver had worked with Philadelphia at Central East Middle School, respectively, to establish pilot whole-school reform efforts based on the most recent research.

It was these efforts that were the origin of the Talent Development High School and Middle Grade Models. This occurred under the auspices of the federal Center for Research on Educating Students Placed a Risk (CRESPAR) and what would ultimately be a ten-year effort with Howard University to create enduring solutions to educating high-poverty students in high-needs schools.

Now, back to those velvet rope lines I mentioned above.

Patterson HS and Central East MS made significant and rapid improvements. This created a demand to scale the new, still emerging, Talent Development models. In the spring, before I started at CSOS, Baltimore City Schools asked Jim McPartland to help scale the new Talent Development High School model with Career Academies to three more high-poverty neighborhood high schools.

Central to the model was dividing large comprehensive high schools into a separate 9th grade academy and then multiple 10th to 12th grade Career Academies. The goal of the ninth-grade academy was to combat the anonymity that students reported as a contributor to their disengagement. Anonymity was endemic in large high schools organized on a departmental structure, which made it hard for teachers and students to get to know each other on a personal level.

The 9th grade academy was staffed by teachers who liked working with 9th graders. They were organized into teacher teams who shared common sets of students and were given daily common planning and collaborative work time to work as a team to provide their students with environment and supports they needed to succeed. During the 9th grade, students would take a freshman seminar course (developed by CSOS), part of which included a career exploration unit, where students would take the Holland Inventory (another CSOS-developed tool) to help them understand what types of occupations aligned with their talents, interests, and motivations. Using this information, students would then select one of several upper-grade Career Academies to join. This helped combat the apathy students also reported as a key driver of dropping out — not seeing the point or reason behind what they were studying and how it connected to adult success. One of the key learnings at Patterson HS was that for this all to work, the ninth-grade academy and the upper grade career academies had to be true “schools within schools” with their own dedicated administrators, teams of teachers, counselors, and separate parts of the building, with their own entrances and signage.

The challenge we quickly learned with the rapid scale-up was that the pressure to move fast (to improve the life chances of students in need) often leads to under-investing in the preparation needed to enable the reforms to take root and succeed. For example, at Lake Clifton High School, there was not time or funding over the summer to create truly separate spaces with separate entrances, for the schools within schools.

Hence the velvet rope lines.

The thought was if we could at least get students going in the right direction (and not use their customary routes through the building, which would have those from one academy crossing through another) at the start of the year, we could buy time for the construction to be completed to create truly separate spaces.

But where to get velvet rope lines on short notice?

So began my introduction to the CSOS spirit of doing what it takes to help schools succeed, as Jim McPartland, Will Jordan, and I drove around bargaining with movie theaters to secure velvet rope lines.

Did it work? For a while — but more broadly, the school struggled to implement on the compressed timeline, and the reforms never took root as they did at Patterson HS. The fundamental challenge was not traffic flow, but gaining the buy-in and support of the adults in the building.

Hence a valuable lesson was learned on the need for a full planning year, no matter how pressing student need, as long-term success was dependent on winning the hearts and minds of the adults in the building — which requires time, training, and participatory planning.

Spending significant time in the schools with which we were working to develop reforms was not only essential to successful implementation, but also provided most of the insights that led to later research findings. As we worked to help more schools implement the Center’s Talent Development Middle and High School models, a common pattern emerged in the high-needs secondary schools we visited and supported. There would be wild and impassioned graduation ceremonies that typically involved a little over 100 students, but these were juxtaposed with ninth grades that would have four hundred students, and often as many of them in hallways as classrooms.

This led us to wonder how common the pyramid of many 9th graders and few 12th graders really was.

The result was one of the Center’s signature research findings. Nettie Legters and I documented in Locating the Dropout Crisis that there were, in fact, about 2000 high schools where the senior class was 40% or more smaller than the freshmen class. These high schools, where graduation was not the norm, almost always educated only low-income and minority students. They represented roughly 12% of the nation’s regular and vocational high schools that enrolled 300 or more students, but collectively they produced half of the nation’s dropouts. Shockingly, at the time of this research in 2001, 42% of the nation’s African American students and nearly a third of its Latino students attended one of these schools.

CSOS’s Talent Development Middle and High School models showed that much better outcomes could be achieved in these schools by applying comprehensive evidence-based reform models with sufficient implementation support. These models, along with the research on Locating the Dropout Crisis, helped provide both the impetus for broader national efforts to reform these schools and the evidence that it could indeed be done.

The Center’s research also helped lead to federal efforts specifically targeted at supporting reforms in these schools — from comprehensive school reform demonstration grants, to small learning community grants, to (finally) school improvement grants during the Obama administration specifically targeted at high schools with graduation rates of 60% of less. These efforts paid off: from 2001 to 2014 the number of low-graduation-rate high schools was cut in half, from 2000 to 1000, and the number of students attending these schools dropped by over one million students each year. The percent of African American and Latino students attending them dropped to less than half of what it had been. This, in turn, contributed to the significant rise in national graduation rates, from 72% to 83%, which was primarily driven by gains among low-income and minority students.

Where to next?

The most exciting thing about working at the Center is that with its R and D focus and long term programmatic efforts, we always have one model in the field, one in the shop, and one in our heads.

The next evolution of the Talent Development model, for example, was Diplomas Now — which combined the Center’s signature whole-school reform models with enhanced student supports, provided by City Year and Communities In Schools, and an early warning and intervention system (another CSOS model and tool).

Diplomas Now was based on our finding that the adult capacity-building focus of the Talent Development models could help struggling schools improve considerably. However, even with these improvements, too many students were being left behind. Our early warning indicator research showed that in high-poverty secondary schools there were often hundreds of students who were struggling to attend every day, focus in class, behave in school, and get their assignments done. It was clear that we needed to bring more person power into these schools to meet the scale and intensity levels of students’ needs, and that we needed to use an early warning system to help get the right supports to the right students at the right time.

The model went through a rapid prototype and design phase, and then we won a $30 million Investing in Innovation (i3) award to validate its impacts. This seven-year effort, which is concluding this year, is one of the largest and longest randomized field trials ever conducted in education, involving over 80 schools, 12 school districts, and 40,000 students.

Interim results showed we could “bend the river” and turn a student’s life course from heading towards dropping out of high school towards graduating.

In short, the model did what it was designed to do — help schools and increase the number of students who ended the 6th and 9th grades (the key transition years) with no early warning indicators (which research indicates could swing their odds of graduating successfully from 25% to 75%).

These advances brought more insights and more questions, and newer models yet.
Currently we are partnering with City Year to design and support a 6th-to-12th grade public charter school in Denver: Compass Academy, which is based on an integrated academic and social-emotional competency based model we helped design.

One of the central design questions we are working to solve here is how to build students’ internal engines — their agency, self-management, learning, and leadership competencies — so that they have the wherewithal to succeed in post-secondary schooling and training.
Our design team also entered the XQ competition with an out-of-the-box model for communities like West Baltimore, which have experienced inter-generational concentrated poverty for generations. The premise of our design was that in these locales, students need to not only graduate from high school with a strong pathway to post-secondary schooling or training, but also an avenue to wealth creation. Hence, we worked on a design where student coursework would be organized around hands-on experiences with all aspects of home and business ownership; including construction, design, accounting, real estate, marketing, environmental inspection, and law, with the notion that students would graduate with a diploma, a post-secondary pathway, and share in home or business ownership.

This design did not ultimately win, but it provided a lasting insight. The low-graduation-rate high schools which remain are found almost exclusively in communities that are economically and socially isolated from the 21st century economy.

Secondary school improvements in these communities cannot only be centered around helping more students graduate; instead, these high schools (and the middle schools that feed them) need to be redesigned to become the engines of economic development and social integration for the entire community — places that serve as business incubators and maker spaces, and provide apprenticeships and inter-generational skill building activities.
One of the greatest assets these communities have is their young people. Thus they will need to play a central role in their communities’ growth. It is to this work and the designs, tools, and strategies it will require that we are now turning our applied attention for R and D and implementation support.

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