Talent Development



The problems of urban middle and high schools are rooted in the inadequate preparation that too many students receive in elementary schools, and these problems become most visible in the ninth grade, when students encounter more demanding coursework and tougher requirements for grade-level promotion. In troubled high schools, a large percentage of ninth-grade students either drop out or are held back, and failure to advance successfully and on time to tenth grade is a major predictor for dropping out. In the pipeline leading toward graduation, the point of ninth-to-tenth-grade transition is less a leak than a rupture.

The Talent Development model is especially responsive to the challenge of helping young people make healthy transitions from middle to high school and through high school to graduation. The model, developed by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR) at Johns Hopkins University, is part of a larger trend in educational reform that aims to improve student performance and engagement through major changes to both the organizational structure and educational processes of middle and high schools.

The Talent Development model for high schools encompasses five main features: small learning communities (a Freshman Academy and career academies for students in the upper grades); curricula leading to advanced English and mathematics coursework; academic extra-help sessions, including “catch-up” reading and math courses for ninth-graders; staff professional development strategies; and parent and community involvement in activities that foster students’ career and college development. The middle school model includes a systematic reorganization of each school into small learning communities; academic courses in English, language arts, mathematics, science, and U.S. history that are based on nationally recognized standards; professional development for teachers on the use of the curriculum and accompanying instructional practice; curriculum coaches to help support teachers on an ongoing basis; and catch-up opportunities during the school day to students who are struggling with mathematics or reading.

The Talent Development model is one of several initiatives being supported under the U.S. Department of Education’s Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration program. (MDRC’s Scaling Up First Things First Demonstration is another such initiative.)

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

MDRC’s evaluation of the Talent Development model includes both middle schools and high schools and addresses three key questions:

  • How does the Talent Development model affect student engagement and performance at the middle and high school levels?

  • How are the model’s organizational and curricular elements implemented and sustained, and what types of supports and learning opportunities do they create?

  • Which components of Talent Development and what contextual factors facilitate the reform’s successful implementation and positive effects on student achievement?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The analytic approach that will be used for this study combines two particularly strong quasi-experimental evaluation methods: an interrupted time series analysis and a comparison schools technique. In the interrupted time series analysis, measures of student performance in schools that implemented the intervention are compared with the performance of similar students in the same schools prior to the implementation. The difference between performance levels in the two groups is referred to as a “deviation from the baseline.” A second interrupted time series analysis is conducted for a group of comparison schools in the same district that have characteristics similar to those of the intervention schools. The difference between the deviations from the baseline in the intervention schools and the deviations from the baseline in the comparison schools represents the estimated impact of the intervention.

The Talent Development evaluation focuses primarily on five large, nonselective, comprehensive high schools and nine middle schools that implemented the model in the school district of Philadelphia, the locus of Talent Development’s initial and most extensive scaling-up effort. Philadelphia is considering a broad school reform initiative based on the model’s underlying principles, and since the beginning of this evaluation, several more of its middle and high schools have begun implementing the model.

The primary data sources for the evaluation include student school records and transcripts, annual surveys of students and teachers, and field research activities including school observations and interviews with principals, teachers, and Talent Development organizational facilitators and curriculum coaches.