Pathways to Increasing Meaningful High School Graduation

The Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE) has been working in Detroit for five years with multiple partners committed to improving high school graduation rates.  In our research capacity, we analyzed school performance data from 2010 to 2015 representing over 90,000 K-12 students and survey data from approximately 32,500 4th – 12th grade students from 2013 to 2015. We also reviewed results of our own and our partners’ efforts to strengthen graduation rates in Detroit area schools. 

In an earlier article, we reported:

  • graduation rates in Detroit have improved over the last five years; 
  • significant challenges remain to secure meaningful high school graduation for all Detroit students; and,
  • a set of solutions exists but depend on certain conditions being in place to implement them.

The Challenge

One out of ten Detroit students are ready to do high school math when they enter 9th grade, and one out of four are ready for high school English courses. 

What will it take to get at least 60% of middle grade students proficient in both subjects in a critical mass of schools?

According to our Detroit results and national research, it will take significant changes in the quality of teaching and learning in middle grade classrooms.

IRRE has examined efforts to move the needle on instructional quality in Detroit and other urban communities.  Several critical barriers exist that, unless reduced significantly, will continue to thwart efforts to change instructional practices in ways that allow more students to be ready for high school work.  These barriers include:

  1. The demands placed on educators to implement new practices are perceived as adding on to already overwhelming responsibilities.
  2. Turnover in teachers and especially instructional leaders erodes the effectiveness of interventions and capacity building efforts.
  3. Educators’ wariness about investors’ long-term commitment to improvement initiatives results in compliance with, rather than engagement in, the change efforts.
  4. Technical assistance providers do not fully recognize or address the variation in baseline skills of educators.

We can reduce these barriers when system leaders and outside partners address them head on and provide intense and sustained support for educators to do the same.  In the rest of this article, we specify the scope, scale, timeframes and readiness required for such an effort.

Proposed Solutions

Phase I

Recruit and convene a consortium of public and private funders, researchers, educators, and citizens.  Make their exclusive focus preparing middle school students for high school work in English and Math.

Articulate in advance a core theory of change such as that shown in Figure 1 to clarify what the early, intermediate and long-term outcomes of the initiative will be and gather baseline data on all of them.

Plan a 3- to 5-year timeframe for the first cohort of schools that includes at least 20% of all middle grade students and teachers in the community. 

Make sure the first cohort includes neighborhood and charter schools that are distributed across communities, and with representative concentrations of students with learning challenges.

Build accountability and feedback mechanisms using the above metrics to maintain intense and sustained focus by all partners.

Phase II

Provide professional development sufficient to implement new approaches far in advance of full program implementation.

Provide opportunities for educators to practice and be coached on how and when to substitute new strategies for old.

Phase III

Supply responsive on-call supports during and following implementation.

Build a portfolio of shared practices with other educators who work in schools facing similar challenges.

Monitor and adjust implementation supports based on early and intermediate outcomes.

Phase IV

Use implementation progress, early outcomes from students and refined cost estimates from the initial cohort to determine the timing, resources needed and scale of expansion to other schools.

Bringing Down the Barriers

Educators’ sense of being overwhelmed can be mitigated by ramping up implementation as a function of their readiness and early results rather than an externally imposed schedule. 

With at least 20% of middle grade teachers and building leaders involved, encourage staff wishing to transfer to stay within the participating cohort of schools.  

With 3-5 years to achieve full implementation, the new and more effective practices, rather than the personnel, can become the stabilizing force for educational improvement.

Careful assessment of baseline student and educator skills followed by high-quality professional development can also address the challenge of variation in educators’ baseline capabilities. 

For educators, advance notice of the important metrics and terms of commitment from system leaders and investors should help clarify expectations and strengthen confidence that “this too will not pass.”

Final Thoughts

We can ensure more students achieve a meaningful high school education by better preparing them in middle school. Clearly, more study will be needed to adapt this approach to any local context. However, our research and experience tell us these considerations of scope, scale, sequencing, timeframes, metrics and implementation supports will be critical to any successful effort to do so.


Follow us on Twitter (@InstResReform) and Facebook to learn more about how these suggested strategies look through the eyes of teachers, students, and administrators.  We will be posting additional articles on other solutions to the challenge of increasing the meaningful high school graduation rates.

We are grateful to the Skillman and GM Foundations, United Way of Southeast Michigan and our other education partners in Michigan and nationally for the opportunity to learn about the many factors affecting students’ and educators’ success. The challenges identified and the solutions and strategies proposed in this article are IRRE’s alone, not necessarily those of our partners.