School Community, Teaching

Partnering Research and Practice in High Schools

The last decade has seen concerted efforts to improve elementary school students’ literacy and math skills. Supported by the implementation of evidence-based practices and programs, there has been measured success; provincial testing agencies have consistently shown year-to-year higher literacy and numeracy scores. Yet this success has not translated clearly into improved high school graduation rates. As a result, governments are now looking at ways to improve success rates of high school students. This may prove to be a daunting task.

Would we accept a 15 percent unemployment rate in the economy or a 15 percent hospital mortality rate?  Yet, 15 percent failure is considered acceptable for high schools.

Systems measure success by outcomes. In the healthcare system, measures of successful or positive outcomes include lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy. In education, high school graduation rates are the measure of a successful outcome. Educational systems, like Ontario’s, have set a goal of 85 percent. This is impressive, when measured against 50 percent graduation rates half a century ago, but even with an 85 percent graduation rate, 15 percent of the student population will not graduate with their peers. Is this an acceptable outcome for our educational systems and society as a whole?  Would we accept a 15 percent unemployment rate in the economy or a 15 percent hospital mortality rate? Yet, 15 percent failure is considered acceptable for high schools. Accepting a 15 percent non-completion rate suggests that this group of students is institutionally marginalized by both schools and policymakers.

This has large lifelong implications for this cohort, both in employment and in quality of life. Historically, there would have been a place for these young people in lower paying employment. But, the workplace has radically changed in the last decade. In fact, a high school diploma alone is no longer a passport to a good job. As western economies move rapidly away from manufacturing to knowledge economies, governments are rethinking successful educational outcomes, moving their expectations beyond high school to post-secondary programs.

At the same time, post-secondary institutions are identifying large cohorts of new students arriving with insufficient levels of the literacy and numeracy skills necessary for further training. A recent New York Times article identified that even in the worst economic downturn since the great depression, low-end manufacturing jobs sit unfilled because applicants lack the basic literacy, numeracy, and computer skills essential for doing basic work.[1] Today, high school education is only a transitional step towards full participation in society. As the research shows, both rates of employment and salaries increase with the number of years completed in post-secondary education. In the United States, the federal agency responsible for education is now looking at 100 percent graduation rates for secondary education.

The fact that we accept a marginalized 15 percent as an outcome of our education system begs two questions: who makes up this group of non-graduates, and why are they not part of the educational strategy to promote successful outcomes?

Though this group is quite diverse and represents a cross-section of our society, a disproportionate number are special education students. Special education students make up between 12 and 14 percent of high school populations. At least half of these students are identified with learning disabilities (LD) and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These students have the intellectual competency to succeed, but they experience cognitive processing difficulties that undermine their ability to either take in information or out-put it for evaluation. According to American data, only 38 percent of high school students with LD enter post-secondary education, compared to 61 percent of their peers. The ratio is as significant for students with ADHD.[2]

The goal of the public educational system is to allow every student the opportunity to achieve his or her potential to be an active and productive participant in our society. Within our schools, this is to be done in a fair and equitable manner. On the one hand, educators agree with this vision; they differ only on the extent to which it is possible or realistic. On the other hand, researchers in the field of education believe that it is possible and can’t understand why it isn’t realized.

For those who design and implement education curricula and programs, it is becoming more and more evident that change will not happen until researchers understand the culture of education and integrate it into their research, and teachers make new knowledge part of their practice ethic.

Challenges to Researchers

In the last decade, the importance of research-based programs and practices has been recognized in the elementary panel. This is particularly relevant in helping special education students who fall within the LD/ADHD group. Evidence-based interventions in reading, and to a lesser extent in writing and math, are now available to teachers across Canada. Yet, their implementation within the high school systems is limited. The translation of research into school practice continues to be a challenge. A big part of the problem is the disconnect between what researchers study and what teachers believe is needed to improve their teaching practice.

If researchers wish to improve outcomes for all students in high school, they need to ask three key questions when devising studies:

  • Does my research help improve student outcomes?
  • Can my research be implemented in a classroom?
  • Can it be scaled up and sustained across a school system?

Teacher perceptions of student needs and research priorities are often at cross purposes in high schools.

Almost all education researchers feel that ultimately their work will contribute to improving student performance, either directly or indirectly. Yet, from a teacher’s perspective, research needs vary based on a variety of factors. For example, the needs of teachers may vary based on how long they have been teaching or who is in their classroom. Novice teachers often look for information on classroom management, while more experienced teachers search out instructional strategies. Teachers in the early grades focus more on teaching and improving core skills in literacy and math. By the time students arrive in high school, teachers assume core skills are in place and they are more interested in methods of engaging and motivating students.[3]

Teacher perceptions of student needs and research priorities are often at cross purposes in high schools. For example, research has shown that high school students with ADHD often have difficulty with reading comprehension because of fluency difficulties (speed of reading) rather than decoding problems. Yet teachers often see what, in fact, is a reading comprehension problem as a motivation problem in their students. Teaching good reading comprehension strategies can go a long way to reducing frustration while increasing motivation for high school students with ADHD. They can range from general strategies to subject specific strategies. In fact, teaching subject specific reading strategies can benefit all students.

A second question researchers should ask is whether their interventions can be successfully implemented in a classroom. Here the waters get a little murky, especially within the high school context. Interventions that address core reading and writing deficits are often designed for younger students, to be delivered in an intense and sustained manner over a block of time, and requiring a constant evaluation to guarantee consolidation of learning. They also require intensive teacher training. This presents two immediate problems for the high school context. First, teachers teach to a subject-based curriculum. High school teachers assume that students arrive in their classes with appropriate reading and writing skills. Second, even when teachers do attempt to teach core skills, they often look for off-the-shelf programs that require minimal training – and, unfortunately, lack any research to support their claims of success. Teachers soon become disheartened with the results and blame all research.

Finally, do interventions have scalability and sustainability? Often, research interventions work well in laboratory situations or when significantly resourced in specific schools. But, if the intervention is too onerous to move across whole school systems, it doesn’t make sense. It lacks any external validity. This is especially evident in high schools, where the diverse nature of the teaching staff within each school requires that an intervention make sense to all subject area teachers, be they teachers of English, Science, or Geography.

Challenges to Teachers

High School teachers receive limited training in adjusting their instructional practice according to student needs. As a result, high school teachers focus on delivering the curriculum more than on mentoring each student to ensure successful learning. This is not to blame teachers. They face two big obstacles when it comes to changing practice to reach every student. One is the underlying system of beliefs and values associated with being a high school teacher, and the other is the institutional nature of the high school itself.

Many observers have pointed out that high school teachers work in isolation. They are separated both within their own schools and from outside communities. As a result, they are unable to observe or share practices that work. Instead, they develop personalized and idiosyncratic teaching styles. Both in the popular media and within school communities, excellent teachers are seen as creative and autonomous. Unfortunately, what we really get is a huge variation in teacher quality and effectiveness, without any knowledge base of what constitutes good teaching. This promotes a culture that is resistant to change, especially from outside the teaching community.[4]

Even within schools, sharing instructional strategies beyond individual departments is rare. When full staff development does take place, it is usually a one-day workshop with an externally imposed topic. Ownership and opportunity for implementation are not brought into the process; as a result, there is little motivation to use different practices.

Without a solid understanding of what constitutes good instructional practice, special education teachers often find it daunting to promote new instructional practices or accommodations for students with LD and ADHD. Concepts like the use of advance planners, shortening blocks of information (reducing cognitive load), and using immediate feedback for lessons taught may not make full sense without a sound understanding of how learning occurs.

The other problem is an institutional one. It is fair to say that high school, as an institution, is struggling with an identity crisis. Historically, high schools have acted as gate-keepers, streaming students into tracks leading to either university, community colleges, or the workplace. Within this context, high school teachers have seen themselves as teachers of subjects, rather than teachers of students. Subject-based teachers often point out that they are trained to teach their subject area, not special education. As well, they identify that students with learning problems can always be streamed into curricula that match their ability levels. In fact, research has consistently pointed out that schools with low expectations can expect poor outcomes from their students.[5] Students with LD and ADHD are able to access concepts and knowledge across subject areas; their struggle is with absorbing, retaining, and representing that knowledge.

Instructional practices, learning strategies, and accommodations that work for adolescents have been thoroughly researched; in fact, many of those instructional practices and learning strategies would benefit all high school students. As for accommodations, many teachers resist them because they see them as bestowing an unfair advantage to the recipient. Again, research has pointed out that accommodations improve the performance of disabled students to a significantly greater extent than that of non-disabled students.[6] High schools should realize that many of the accommodations they continue to resist are regularly implemented in post-secondary settings.

The solution …will have to come from bridging what researchers have learned and what teachers know about their school context.


The challenge to create a fully inclusive high school that sets a 100 percent graduation rate as its goal is daunting, but it is not an impossible task. Many of the pieces are already in play. Many education jurisdictions have created multiple pathways toward a high school diploma. These pathways do not represent the old “streaming” model that was based on the levels of learning, but focus rather on different ways to acquire credits leading to a high school diploma. Credit courses that reward experiential learning, dual-enrolment programs that allow students to experience college courses while working on their high school diploma, and alternative courses that appeal to student interests all are a step in the right direction. But, they are not enough because they still do not address how students with learning difficulties learn and how teachers can support this cohort to successfully learn.

The solution to expanding teacher knowledge around “learning and instructional practice” will have to come from bridging what researchers have learned and what teachers know about their school context. That will come when equal partnerships between schools and research centres become a reality. In these partnerships, research centres will become part of the school over years, helping teaching cultures to become research sensitive and researchers to recognize how schools work. Only as teachers and researchers share their knowledge and experiences on a daily basis over an extended time will teaching practices move beyond personalized style to standardized, evidence-based practices. It is only when this happens that all teachers will know how to teach all students.

EN BREF – Les systèmes d’éducation ont fixé un objectif de 85 pour cent – impressionnant, en regard du taux d’obtention de diplôme de 50 pour cent d’il y a un demi-siècle, mais qui laisse toutefois 15 pour cent des jeunes sans diplôme. Un nombre disproportionné d’élèves qui ne finissent pas leurs études secondaires ont des besoins d’éducation spécialisée et au moins la moitié d’entre eux ont des troubles d’apprentissage (TA) et/ou des troubles d’hyperactivité avec déficit de l’attention (THADA). Ces élèves détiennent la compétence intellectuelle nécessaire pour réussir, mais ils connaissent des difficultés de traitement cognitif qui nuisent à leur capacité soit d’assimiler de l’information ou de la restituer pour évaluation. On en sait beaucoup sur les façons d’aider ces élèves à réussir. Un taux d’obtention de diplôme de 100 pour cent est réaliste. Mais les choses ne changeront pas avant que les chercheurs comprennent la culture d’éducation et l’intègrent à leurs recherches et que les enseignants incorporent les nouvelles connaissances à leurs pratiques éthiques.

[1] M. Rich, “Factory Jobs Returning, But Employers Find Skills Shortage,” New York Times, 1 July 2010.

[2] N. Gregg, Adolescents and Adults with Learning Disabilities and ADHD: Assessment and Accommodation (New York: Guilford Press, 2009).

[3] Ontario College of Teachers, Transition to Teaching Report, 2004. www.oct.ca/publications/pdf/transitions04_e.pdf

[4] D. Burney, “Craft Knowledge: The Road to Transforming Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 87, no. 7 (March 2004): 526-31.

[5] R. Rumberger and G. Palardy, “Does Segregation Still Matter? The Impact of Student Composition on Academic Achievement in High School,” Teachers College Record 107, no. 9 (September 2005): 1999-2045.

[6] Gregg.

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter Chaban

Peter Chaban is head of the School Liaison Project for the Community Health Systems Resource Group (CHSRG) at The Hospital for Sick Children. The mandate of the CHSRG is to move evidence-based research into the community to improve the quality of life for children and youth.

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