Friday, April 8, 2011

Improving HS attendance and engagement: A case study

Recently-published research provides a case study of the positive results of efforts to improve student attendance and achievement at an urban high school in California. Though the results are for a single high school, they do bear out other research findings on the importance of relevance and relationships for high school students, and have implications for state policy.

Student attendance at the high school "was noticed, corrected and celebrated". A single absence triggered a note to the student's home--many students expressed surprise that anyone cared when they weren't at school! And various approaches were taken to reverse unexcused absences--home visits from a social worker or school faculty, a phone call to the parent, etc. Attendance was celebrated--and in fact made into a competition--by students and staff alike: "When we instituted a small reward for any class with perfect attendance ... we actually had entire grade levels conspiring to win[.]"

Instructional practices also changed. Professional development supported a transition from "teacher talk" to a research-based approach based on ‘‘ 'free exchange of information among students and/or between at least three participants that lasts longer than 30 seconds. The three participants may include the teacher, although the teacher may be deliberately silent during some discussions' ’’. Teachers videotaped short segments of classroom activity and shared them with other instructional staff in regular professional development sessions, learning from one another's best practices.

In addition, the staff undertook a shift toward more student group work in the classroom: "In the company of fellow novice learners, they ask questions of one another, clarify understandings, demand justifications, and formulate ways to complete the assignment. ... Students, otherwise left to fend for themselves through independent work, have the safety net to hone their learning before attempting it alone. The results, in our experience, are more engaged and motivated students who are confident in their abilities to do the work correctly and teachers who are better able to evaluate the effects of their instruction."

The school's attendance rate has risen from 90.3% to 95.6%. Students at the high school have narrowed the achievement gap on the state's grade 10 exit exam in English and math.

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