Rigor, Relevance, And Results: The Quality Of Teacher Assignments And Student Work In New And Conventional High Schools


Mitchell, K., Shkolnik, J., Song, M., Uekawa, K., Murphy, R., Garet, M., & Means, B. (2005, July). Rigor, relevance, and results: The quality of teacher assignments and student work in new and conventional high schools. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research and SRI International.


The Need for Change in Secondary Education

America’s high schools offer strikingly different experiences for different students. While some secondary students are tackling not just college preparatory but also college-level work, others take general or remedial courses that do not provide them with the skills required for higher education. Low-income and minority students are particularly likely to either drop out or take courses that leave them underprepared for higher education. Little more than half of the African-American and Latino youth who start ninth grade finish high school with a diploma. Fewer than 30% are ready to enter higher education without doing remedial work (Green & Winters, 2005).

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s High School Grants initiative seeks to catalyze the creation of a new kind of American high school—one where every student has a challenging academic program that provides sound preparation for college and for family-wage jobs and the demands of good citizenship. The foundation believes that to better serve all students, high schools need to become places that combine rigor in the academic program of each and every student (not just those in an honors or higher track) with relevance to their interests and potential career choices, supported by positive relationships that can inspire students both academically and personally.

The foundation’s national high school reform work began in 2000–01 with the award of grants to 12 nonprofit organizations charged with creating high schools that would embody these ideals. These intermediary organizations received grants to establish high schools, either by starting new schools or by redesigning existing comprehensive high schools into smaller, more focused units (separate “learning communities” or “academies”). In either case, the foundation expected the resulting schools to be characterized by a coherent vision, high expectations for all their students, and powerful teaching and learning. These expectations were articulated by the foundation in the form of seven attributes of highperforming high schools and three attributes of powerful teaching and learning. The foundation expected that schools created under its initiative would be small in size (typically no more than a hundred students per grade) not because “small” was an end in itself, but because the greater personal attention that comes with a small size is conducive to implementation of the practices and climate of effective schooling.

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