Read Full Report

Date: Dec. 2, 2003
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Relationships, Rigor, and Relevance:
The Three R's of Engaging Students in Urban High Schools

High schools that successfully engage students in learning have many things in common. They set high academic standards and provide rigorous, meaningful instruction and support so that all students can meet them. Their structure makes it possible to give students individual attention. The teachers take an interest in students' lives, drawing on their real-world experiences and current understandings to build new knowledge. Teachers also show students the connections between success in school and long-term career plans.

Unfortunately, too few of the nation's high schools fit this description. For many teens, school is an impersonal and uncaring place. The situation is especially troubling in urban areas, where high schools are often beset by low expectations, student alienation, and underachievement. Resources frequently are inadequate and teachers poorly trained. Moreover, curricula and instruction seldom reflect student needs and interests – especially for those who are racial minorities, who speak English as a second language, or who have not been well-prepared for high school work.

The nation can do a better job of engaging these students, says a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. This conclusion is supported by a growing body of scientific research on adolescent development and how people learn. The research provides clear guidance on the most promising strategies that high schools -- especially those in urban areas -- can use to nurture enthusiasm for learning among all students. Schools do not control all of the factors that shape students' motivation to learn, but schools can be structured in a way that significantly influences attitudes and behavior.

Foremost, the academic program must be appropriately challenging and engaging to students from diverse backgrounds, said the committee that wrote the report. Schools should provide instruction that responds to the wide differences in what students already know and that helps them acquire the skills necessary to master demanding coursework. Schools also are encouraged to abandon the practice known as ability "tracking," in which students of similar achievement levels are taught together, because it often isolates low-performing or unmotivated students and reinforces low standards and expectations.

Educating heterogeneous classrooms with challenging curricula can be successfully accomplished, but only if teachers are well-trained, the report points out. Teacher-education programs should train practitioners to work effectively with academically and socially diverse groups of students and to use teaching strategies that actively involve students in problem solving. School districts should provide experienced teachers with ongoing opportunities for professional development and collegial exchanges to expand their knowledge of adolescent behavior and development, and to enhance their mastery of subject matter and innovative teaching techniques.

In addition, standardized tests commonly used to evaluate students should be better aligned with academic standards that promote deep understanding and critical thinking, the report says. Currently, standardized test results rarely offer teachers the feedback they need to improve instruction or learning. Also, educators should use various classroom assessments to routinely monitor the effectiveness of specific curricula and teaching practices.

High schools that meet urban students' academic and developmental needs look more like well-functioning families than the mass-production factories that were templates for the organization of America's contemporary high schools. All students – urban, suburban, rural – need and benefit from supportive and stable relationships with adult staff members, the report emphasizes. One way to encourage personalization is to create small "learning communities" or mini-schools within large urban high schools. Organizing education in a way that allows students and teachers to spend more time with each other is also useful. Two common techniques are "block scheduling," where classes meet for 90 minutes or more, and "looping," where teams of teachers are assigned to the same group of students for multiple years.

Counseling services should be totally revamped, the report says. In many large urban high schools, individual guidance counselors are overwhelmed by the responsibility of working with hundreds of students. Monitoring the needs and progress of individual students should be done by all professional staff members, including teachers, administrators, and counselors, as well as any qualified support staff. A promising new strategy is to pair each student and family with at least one trained adult advocate on staff who, as part of an ongoing relationship, can consult with or refer the student to experts for specific needs.

Further, community assets are important for urban high schools, the report says. School administrators should establish or strengthen partnerships with local groups and social-service providers to help students address health problems and other personal issues that interfere with their education. And the broader community should be regularly mined for experiences and resources that can enrich classroom instruction, such as community internships and direct interactions with local civic or business leaders and artists.

Much is known about what needs to be done to raise the level of academic achievement in urban high schools. The will to use this knowledge, integrating research findings into everyday school practices and education policy, is needed – as well as a realignment of resources to support school improvement, the committee said.

The report was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Engaging Schools: Fostering High School Students' Motivation to Learn are available from the National Academies Press for $44.95 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or order on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This announcement and the report are available at ]

Institute of medicine
Board on Children, Youth, and Families

Committee on Increasing High School Students'
Engagement and Motivation to Learn

Deborah Stipek (chair)
School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Carole Ames
Professor of Educational
Psychology, and
College of Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing

Thomas J. Berndt
Professor and Head
Department of Psychological Sciences
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Ind.

Emily Cole
Urban Education Center
University of Houston

James Comer
Maurice Falk Professor of
Child Psychiatry
Child Study Center
Yale University School of Medicine
New Haven, Conn.

James Connell
President and Director
Institute for Research and Reform in Education

Michelle Fine
Social/Personality Psychology Program
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
New York City

Ruth T. Gross
Professor Emerita of Pediatrics
Stanford University
New Orleans

W. Norton Grubb
Professor, and
David Gardner Chair in
Higher Education
Graduate School of Education
University of California

Rochelle Gutierrez
Assistant Professor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
College of Education, and
Assistant Professor
Latina/Latino Studies
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
University of Illinois

Carol Lee
Associate Professor of Education
Learning Sciences Program
School of Education and Social Policy
Northwestern University
Evanston, Ill.

Edward L. McDill
Professor Emeritus
Department of Sociology, and
Principal Research Scientist
Center for Social Organization of Schools
Johns Hopkins University

Russell Rumberger
Professor of Education, and
Linguistic Minority Research Institute
University of California
Santa Barbara

Carmen V. Russo
Chief Executive Officer
Baltimore City Public School System

Lisbeth B. Schorr
Lecturer in Social Medicine, and
Project on Effective Interventions
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.


Timothy Ready
Study Director