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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 American high school is often characterized by reformers as a failing institution, a place in which teaching is teacher-centered, boring, and impersonal, where students are expected to master a fragmented curriculum disconnected from the world outside the school, where too many students fail to graduate and many others graduate lacking skills essential for success in college or the workplace. Is this a fair portrayal of American high schools at the beginning of the twenty-first century? We want to say right off that in our view it is not. While it is true that national graduation rates and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been stagnant for decades and that there are too many weak, bureaucratic, and impersonal high schools, there are many more that offer good teaching and engaging and relevant programs, and even some that have made dramatic improvements in student performance in recent decades.1 In most communities in the nation, parents, students, community leaders, and policy makers are happy with their local high schools and believe their schools are changing to keep pace with the demands of the twenty-first century. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed in 2007 in the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll gave their local high schools an A or a B, up from 32 percent in 1981.2 The images of alienation, stagnation, and failure so often portrayed in the media arise primarily from a focus on the large, under-resourced schools characteristic of the nation's inner cities and older suburbs, and here the situation is alarming enough that calls for action are being heard from all quarters.

The performance of many of the high schools serving low-income and minority students has been dismal at best, and pressure from school reformers, policy makers, business leaders, and the public for significant improvement of these schools has built to a crescendo. Rising academic expectations, however, are posing unique challenges for the nation's high schools regardless of whom they serve because of the widespread belief that the curriculum for all students should be more challenging. Most states have raised their course requirements for graduation at least once over the past twenty years, and many have adopted graduation tests. Now state policy makers are considering raising the bar once again. Some are reviewing their standards. Others are making their graduation tests tougher. Some have begun to specify the content to be covered in high school courses. But at the same time that high schools are being asked to offer more rigorous preparation for larger numbers of students, they are also being asked to ensure that all or almost all students meet rising academic standards and that dropout rates decline.

To meet these challenges, high schools will have to improve the effectiveness of their core technology—instruction. As conventionally used, the term "instruction" focuses solely on teacher behavior and is defined as a formal act of helping someone learn a skill or acquire new knowledge. We take a broader view, following David Cohen and Deborah Ball and others, who define instruction as the interactions between teachers and students around curriculum content,3 and James Hiebert and Douglas Grouws, who modify this definition by focusing as well on learning goals.4 We define instruction as the interactions between teachers, students, and content directed toward helping students achieve learning goals. Instruction is a narrower concept than "teaching," which includes such responsibilities as guidance, supervision of students (in loco parentis), and curriculum development.

Some argue that it is difficult to improve instruction in high schools and support their argument by contending that instruction in high schools has not changed much in recent decades. But in fact it has changed a great deal. Among the many instructional reforms that have swept through the nation's schools are reductions in tracking (the grouping of students in classes by their prior achievement or measures of academic potential), mainstreaming of special education students, increased use of technology, increased focus on measured outcomes as a result of new state assessments and graduation examinations, the introduction of block scheduling to provide more time for student work and investigations, and the expansion of participation in Advanced Placement courses. Yet it seems to be true that the basic patterns of classroom interactions between teachers and students have remained relatively stable.5

What is it about instruction that most influences student learning? What changes should educators be trying to make to the instruction offered in high schools? Does research offer guidance about how to make instruction more effective? Answering these questions would help high school faculties meet the challenges they face. Because other articles in this volume focus on two of the three key components of instruction—students and curriculum—we emphasize in this article the contributions of teachers and their instructional approaches to student learning. Although it is not possible to discuss what teachers do instructionally without touching on their interactions with students and content, our focus is on how teachers can improve their work and contribute to a school's capacity to offer good instruction.

We address two central topics—the organization of instruction in high schools and the effectiveness of various instructional methods— and explore what researchers know, or don't know, about how each affects learning. First we examine the evidence concerning how different organizational structures affect instruction, and then we turn to the evidence about the efficacy of various instructional strategies. Finally, we consider the implications for instruction of standards-based reforms and the demands for higher levels of performance.

In each case, we examine the quality of the research evidence, highlight the major findings, and consider the warrant the evidence provides for taking action. We identify the gaps in the knowledge base concerning high school teaching, and we conclude by discussing the issues raised by the research evidence with regard to improving teaching, including issues of equity and the impact of current policies.