Improving High Schools through Rigor, Relevance and Relationships


Research shows that successful high schools provide rigorous academic coursework, relevant learning opportunities, and meaningful relationships with instructors who are qualified to help students achieve high standards.

Rigorous Academic Coursework

Research shows that the rigor of high school curriculum is one of the top indicators for whether a student will graduate from high school and earn a college degree.  In fact, a study by the U.S. Department of Education found that the rigor of high school course work is more important than parent education level, family income, or race/ethnicity in predicting whether a student will earn a postsecondary credential.

Unfortunately, most recent high school graduates report being only moderately challenged in high school.  In the 2005 survey of almost 1,500 recent graduates, just 24 percent of graduates said they were significantly challenged during high school.  One in five recent high school graduates said that “expectations were low and…it was easy to slide by.”  Among those graduates who reported being significantly challenged in high school, 80 percent felt well prepared for the expectations of college.

A rigorous high school curriculum requires challenging instruction and support for each student to meet high standards.  Components of a rigorous high school curriculum include higher expectations for all students, with support for low-performing students through intervention programs and extended learning opportunities, and a requirement that each student complete a college- or work-ready curriculum in order to graduate from high school.

Higher expectations for all high school students

  • Studies show that higher expectations for high school students—that they will go on to some form of postsecondary education—significantly improve performance. When California’s San Jose Unified School District required all students to enroll in a college-prep curriculum, the test scores of black 11th graders increased nearly seven times more than those of other black students across the state.

Requirement that all students complete a college- or work-ready curriculum to graduate from high school

  • Studies show that aligning high school standards to college and workplace expectations is a critical step toward giving students a solid foundation in the academic, social and workplace skills needed for success in postsecondary education or a career.
  • Students who are adequately prepared for postsecondary education are unlikely to require remedial classes in college, a key indicator for college success. Although approximately 45 percent of all students who enroll in postsecondary education will ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree, only 17 percent to 39 percent of students who take remedial courses will successfully earn that degree, depending on the number and type of remedial courses taken. Among students who take no remedial courses, 58 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • The American Diploma Project has found that there is a common core of knowledge and skills—particularly in English and math—that students must master to be prepared for both postsecondary education and well-paying jobs.  The research shows that there is a strong correlation between scores in high school math and English and wages earned once in the workplace.  Students who are taking below-average or functional/basic English increase their likelihood of being employed in a low-paid or low-skill job.  Students in the top quartile of mathematics scores earn significantly more in the decade following high school than do students in the lower quartiles.

Relevant Learning Opportunities

Research shows that creating multiple pathways to graduation, through a variety of learning opportunities, provides students with a meaningful high school structure that links subject areas and encompasses both personal experiences and connections to the world of adult work.  Relevant learning opportunities may include in-depth projects that take place both in the classroom and the work place and internships or community partnerships that provide students with a vision of their future and an understanding of how their school work is linked to what they will do after graduation.

Personalized learning opportunities

  • A new body of research is finding that learning works best when it is personalized. Personalized learning opportunities provide students with an opportunity to plan and prepare for life after high school and to understand how their school work is related to postsecondary and career goals. Personalized learning means designing a blend of courses and experiences that match the needs and interests of each student.
  • The career academy is a model of high school design that creates personalized learning opportunities through career-related experiences during high school. Career academies originally were developed to prepare students who otherwise might drop out of high school for the world of work. Since the early 1990s, the focus of career academies has expanded to prepare a mix of high-performing students and high-risk students for both postsecondary education and employment. Recent research finds that career academies improve labor market preparation and successful school-to-work transitions without compromising academic goals and preparation for college. There is compelling evidence that investments in career-related experiences during high school can produce substantial improvements in the labor market prospects of youth during their postsecondary years.

College-level learning opportunities in high school

  • Research shows that the expansion and financing of college-level learning opportunities in high school has the potential to greatly increase the number of students who successfully complete postsecondary programs after graduation. Sometimes referred to as early college programs or dual enrollment programs, college-level learning opportunities in high school have a number of benefits for students, including preparing students for the academic rigors of college; lowering the cost of postsecondary education by enabling them to earn free college credits and shortening their time to degree completion; and providing students with information about the academic skills they will need to succeed in college.
  • A 2001 study conducted by the University of Washington found performance of students enrolled in the state’s dual enrollment program was comparable to college students enrolled in two-year institutions. Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona found that students who participated in dual enrollment programs experienced lower drops in their grade point averages during their freshman year, compared with other University of Arizona freshmen.

Understanding of postsecondary admissions and placement processes

  • Research shows that effective college awareness programs can educate students and their families about the need to obtain a college education, how to prepare for college, how to apply for enrollment, and how to apply for financial aid.  College awareness programs can help raise expectations for high school students so that all students are expected to participate in some form of postsecondary education.

Meaningful Relationships

Research shows that students perform better when they are in schools where they have a personal relationship with a caring adult.  Elements of meaningful relationships include the following.

Excellent teachers and principals

  • Effective teachers are critical to helping all students meet rigorous high school coursework and standards.  Excellent teachers have high-level skills and knowledge in the subjects they teach and are trained in helping low-performing students succeed.
  • Excellent principals provide important leadership in schools and are accountable for results in student achievement, attendance and truancy rates, graduation rates, and staff retention.  Effective principal training programs include in-school clinical opportunities for observing excellent principals and on-the-job experience.

Continuous interaction between students and adults

  • A key concept in high school reform is the idea that successful high school students are able to form meaningful relationships with instructors who can help them meet high standards, both academically and socially. Evidence shows that this personal connection with an adult helps ensure that students have an advocate who understands their interests, struggles and ambitions.  n example of continuous interaction between students and adults occurs at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (“the Met”) in Providence, Rhode Island.  In ninth grade, students are assigned to an advisor who works with them throughout high school.  The advisory groups have 14 students and serve as a constant community for each of the students.  The student and his or her advisor, with input from parents and mentors, create an individual learning plan that reflects the student’s needs and postgraduate plans.  The Met high school has seen great results from this personalization. Every student in the school’s first two graduating classes was accepted to college.  Most of these students were the first in their family to attend college.

No anonymity for high school students

  • Research suggests that, when each student is well-known by at least one adult, they are more likely to achieve. Having smaller teaching loads allows teachers to focus on both the academic and social development of students and allows students to demonstrate their knowledge to adults in a personalized structure. When teachers and students are able to build relationships, both are motivated to make the high school environment successful.

  1. Clifford Adelman, Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1999).
  2. Peter D. Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? A Study of Recent High School Graduates, College Instructors, and Employers (Washington, D.C.: Achieve Inc., February 2005).
  3. The Education Trust-West, The A-G Curriculum: College-Prep? Work-Prep? Life-Prep - Understanding and Implementing a Rigorous Core Curriculum for All (Oakland, California: The Education West-Trust, 2004).
  4. Clifford Adelman, Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, 2004).
  5. Anthony P. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers, Connecting Education Standards and Employment: Course-taking Patterns of Young Workers (Washington, D.C.: Achieve Inc., 2002).
  6. James J. Kemple and Judith Scott-Clayton, Career Academies: Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes and Educational Attainment (New York, New York: MDRC, 2004).
  7. Thomas R. Bailey, Katherine L. Hughes, and Melinda Mechur Karp, What Role Can Dual Enrollment Programs Play in Easing the Transition Between High School and Postsecondary Education? (New York, New York: Columbia University, 2002).