Comprehensive High School Reform Strategies

A Framework for School Improvement and a Review of the Evidence

By Rebecca Unterman, William Corrin, Madeline Price

Obtaining a high school diploma helps open doors for young people; however, while overall graduation rates are improving, persistent disparities in graduation rates among groups of students remain, and must be addressed. High school reform is a viable approach to addressing these disparities. Early College High Schools, Small Schools of Choice, and Career Academies are all secondary school reform models that have been rigorously studied and shown to improve student outcomes in many areas, including math and reading achievement, high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and earnings later in life. This report seeks to assist practitioners and policymakers in education in making systematic, evidence-based decisions. The authors:

(1) Reviewed 13 evaluations of comprehensive reform efforts, identified the features of the models evaluated, and categorized them to create a high school reform framework that can be generally applied. The authors hope that school and district leaders can compare their current efforts with the framework to identify how they might refine or augment those efforts.

(2) Compiled information on prevalent features of reform models that have proven promising for improving student outcomes. Reformers can draw on this information as they use the framework. The following features appeared commonly across models and were associated with positive effects on student outcomes: personalized relationships with school staff members, increased academic rigor, teacher/student respect, teacher professional development, teacher/parent communication, principal leadership, and teacher mutual support. In reviewing their own efforts to strengthen high schools, policymakers and practitioners may want to consider seriously how they are addressing these aspects of the high school student experience.

The report concludes with some questions that may be helpful when beginning this work:

  • How do your current programs and initiatives line up with the features described in the framework?
  • Where are there gaps in your efforts to improve your schools?
  • Do you have a plan for monitoring the implementation of changes?
  • Are you prepared to assess whether you improve the educational outcomes of students?
  • Do you have support in the district and the community for your intended reforms?
  • Have you thought through how you can sustain changes you make if they prove to be successful?

Document Details

Publication Type
June 2023
Unterman, Rebecca, William Corrin, and Madeline Price. 2023. Comprehensive High School Reform Strategies. New York: MDRC.