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Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Instruction in High Schools: The Evidence and the Challenge
Tom Corcoran Megan Silander


The combined effects of standards-based reforms and accountability demands arising from recent technological and economic changes, say Tom Corcoran and Megan Silander, are requiring high schools to accomplish something they have never been required to do—ensure that substantially all students achieve at a relatively high level. Meeting that challenge, say the authors, will require high schools to improve the effectiveness of their core technology—instruction.

The authors first examine how organizational structures affect instruction. Most high schools, they say, organize instruction by subject or discipline, thus encouraging an isolated and independent approach to teaching rather than one in which teachers are guided by a shared vision or goals. Many schools have focused on increasing teacher collaboration, often through teaming, interdisciplinary teaching, or professional learning communities. Citing limited evidence that these reforms improve instruction and learning, Corcoran and Silander urge researchers to examine whether the changes help schools implement specific instructional reforms and support sustained efforts to improve instruction.

Next the authors explore the effects on student learning of instructional strategies such as interdisciplinary teaching, cooperative learning, project-based learning, adaptive instruction, inquiry, and dialogic teaching. The evidence suggests the power of well-designed student grouping strategies, of allowing students to express their ideas and questions, and of offering students challenging tasks. But, the authors say, less than half of American high school students report working in groups, and little class time is devoted to student-centered discussions.

The authors conclude that schools should promote the use of proven instructional practices. In addition, teachers should systematically monitor how students vary in what they are learning and adapt their instruction in response to students' progress and needs, in the process learning more about what variations in instruction respond most effectively to common variations in students' learning. The authors argue that such "adaptive instruction" has the greatest potential for success in today's standards-based policy environment with its twin values of equity and excellence.