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Redesigning High Schools: 10 Features for Success

Two high school students work together in science class holding up a model skeleton

Too many students still experience the factory model evident in most U.S. high schools, which were designed to put young people on a conveyor belt and move them from one overloaded teacher to the next, in 45-minute increments, to be stamped with separate, disconnected lessons 7 or 8 times a day. While these factory-model designs may have worked for the purposes they were asked to serve 100 years ago, they do not meet most young people’s needs today.

Many teachers, principals, and district leaders, along with students and parents, understand that schools must change in fundamental ways if they are to prepare today’s diverse student population for higher-order thinking and deep understanding. Yet the inertia of existing systems is powerful. The good news is that models exist: A number of schools that have been extraordinarily effective and have helped other schools to replicate their success have important lessons to offer, based on the elements they hold in common.

This publication outlines 10 of those lessons that constitute evidence-based features of effective redesigned high schools that help create the kind of education experience students need: safe environments where exciting and rigorous academic work occurs and where all groups of students succeed academically, graduate at high levels, and go on to college and productive work.

Feature 1: Positive Developmental Relationships

Effective schools create structures that allow for the time and space needed to support positive developmental relationships between adults and young people, and among young people themselves. Teachers can help young people learn more effectively when they know their students well, both emotionally and intellectually. When schools are designed to encourage such relationships, they can create a cultural context that reinforces cognitive development and allows young people to thrive. This is particularly important for adolescents, who seek strong senses of connection, belonging, and personal identity.

The following key practices enable positive developmental relationships:

  • Smaller learning communities
  • Student-centered staffing models
  • Structures for stronger relationships over time
  • Advisory systems for supporting student success

↓ Download PDF: Feature 1

Feature 2: Safe, Inclusive School Climate

For students’ full learning potential to be unleashed, they need to be in an environment that is both physically and psychologically safe, calm, and consistent—a place where they can experience trust and belonging, so they can take risks and thrive. Because fear and anxiety undermine cognitive capacity and short-circuit the learning process, students learn best under conditions of low threat and high support. Stresses are exacerbated when students experience bullying or harassment on campus, creating a fight-or-flight response and further undermining learning. Good schools do not wait for such incidents to occur; they work proactively to create environments where all students feel safe and included.

The following key practices create a safe, inclusive school climate:

  • Community building
  • Social and emotional learning
  • Restorative practices

↓ Download PDF: Feature 2


Feature 3: Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching

An important part of creating an educational community in which young people can thrive and learn is ensuring that all students feel valued for who they are. Students who hold identities that are stigmatized in society regularly encounter messages that undermine their conception of their own ability to succeed. These identities may be related to race, ethnicity, language background, immigration status, family income, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, among other things. Effective schools create an environment that is identity safe—where all students feel welcomed and included, where their identities and cultures are not a cause for exclusion but a strength to be valued and celebrated.

The following key practices support culturally responsive and sustaining teaching:

  • Counteracting stereotype threat
  • Building empathy
  • Supporting culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy

↓ Download PDF: Feature 3


Feature 4: Deeper Learning Curriculum

Students learn at different paces and in different ways that build on their prior experiences and connect to their interests, modes of processing and expression, and cultural contexts. The most powerful mode of learning for human beings is generated by meaningful inquiry that awakens the brain to search for answers. An inquiry-oriented curriculum aimed at transferable learning—that is, learning that can be tapped and used in other settings—engages students and challenges them to understand concepts deeply, find and integrate information, assemble evidence, weigh ideas, and develop skills of analysis and expression.

The following key practices lay a foundation for deeper learning curriculum:

  • Learning through inquiry
  • Project-based learning
  • Linked learning

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Feature 5: Student-Centered Pedagogy

Just as an effective secondary school curriculum must take into account the needs and interests of students themselves, so too the pedagogy—how the curriculum is taught—must be personalized and student-centered. By contrast, assuming that all students learn in the same way—and if they do not, then they ought to be separated into different classrooms or tracks to be taught different material—usually results in marginalized students receiving a lower-quality curriculum from less experienced teachers without a greater benefit to students with stronger academic skills. A student-centered pedagogy recognizes that each student is a unique individual who learns in their own way and who needs individualized support to meet their full potential.

The following key practices contribute to student-center pedagogy:

  • Multiple pathways to learning
  • Universal design for learning
  • Additional classroom supports
  • Supports beyond the classroom
  • Explicit teaching and scaffolding
  • Feedback and revision

↓ Download PDF: Feature 5


Feature 6: Authentic Assessment

Redesigned schools take more meaningful approaches to assessment, which begins with clarity about what students should know and be able to do when they graduate and continues with opportunities to develop, refine, and exhibit those skills in authentic ways that reflect how knowledge is used in the world outside of school. Performance assessments—widely used around the world and increasingly sought in the United States—allow students to demonstrate their knowledge more fully by directly exhibiting a skill, reporting on an investigation, producing a product, or performing an activity. By measuring students’ abilities to apply knowledge to solve pertinent problems, such assessments encourage and support more rigorous and relevant teaching and learning.

The following key practices facilitate authentic assessment:

  • Clear and meaningful expectations
  • Performance assessment
  • School supports

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Feature 7: Well-Prepared and Well-Supported Teachers

One of the most important school determinants of student achievement is the quality of teachers. Teaching in ways that connect with each student and enable them to learn deeply is one of the most complex and difficult jobs there is. Redesigned high schools invest in training and supporting their teachers and provide them with time and opportunities to create a coherent set of practices and become experts at their craft. Teachers with these opportunities are more effective and likely to stay for the long run, with a payoff in student achievement.

The following key practices develop well-prepared and well-supported teachers:

  • Teacher preparation
  • Ongoing learning for teachers
  • Time for teacher collaboration
  • Strategies for teacher learning

↓ Download PDF: Feature 7


Feature 8: Authentic Family Engagement

Educators’ most important partners, aside from students themselves, are students’ families and caregivers. Family engagement is a priority in many elementary schools, but it is difficult to sustain in most traditional secondary schools when there are few opportunities for teachers and families to meet or talk on a regular basis. Just as strong teacher–student relationships can provide students with invaluable support, so too are solid partnerships between teachers and families a key component of student success.

The following key practices stimulate authentic family engagement:

  • Communication with families
  • Home visits
  • Family involvement

↓ Download PDF: Feature 8


Feature 9: Community Connections and Integrated Student Supports

Schools cannot educate students effectively without attending to their other needs—including access to stable housing, healthy food, mental and physical health services, and the technology required for 21st-century learning. One way to do this is by working in partnership with others in the community. Through trusting relationships and well-coordinated support, schools can ensure that students receive the health, social service, and learning opportunities they need to be successful. When such relationships take root, the school can truly become a center of the community.

The following key practices can bolster community connections and integrated student supports:

  • Knowledge of the community
  • Community schools

↓ Download PDF: Feature 9


Feature 10: Shared Decision-Making and Leadership

The ongoing success of a redesigned school depends on staff, students, and family members all understanding and supporting the community’s vision. This requires shared decision-making and leadership. Teacher participation in school decision-making is associated with greater retention for teachers and improved academic achievement for students. There is also evidence that involvement of families and community members along with faculty strengthens school climate and outcomes. Authentic shared decision-making and leadership at the school level models the collaborative work that effective teachers expect from their students and enables schools to make significant improvements in their practices with the full endorsement and engagement of all members of the school community.

The following key practices create space for shared decision-making and leadership:

  • Shared norms and values
  • Agency and voice

↓ Download PDF: Feature 10

Redesigning High Schools: 10 Features for Success by Linda Darling-Hammond, Matt Alexander, and Laura E. Hernández is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

This research was supported by the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders. 

Cover photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages.