In this manuscript, Irvin Scott adds a new dimension to the historical debate and discussion regarding improving the effectiveness of America's high schools. Scott does this by observing, describing, and analyzing the evolution of one small, urban high school: Washington High School in Providence, Rhode Island. Using the case study method, Scott chronicles the work of the school community as it tries to balance the internal and external commitments in pursuit of improvements in teaching, learning and student achievement.
This study looks particularly at how district leaders, the school principal, and teachers work collaboratively to maintain a focus on not only improving the climate and culture of the school but also the Instructional Core of the school. Drawing on Richard Elmore's theory of the Instructional Core, this study pays close attention to how the various internal actors (i.e. principal, teacher-leaders, and teachers) along with external actors (i.e. Superintendent, and central office administrators) communicate and execute on the goals of the District's Small High School initiative. The first research question that guides this study seeks an answer to how the small schools initiative contributes to or detracts from improvement in the core of instructional improvement: that which impacts students, teachers, and the content taught. The second research question that guides this study seeks an answer to how the collaboration between central office leaders, the Washington principal, teacher-leaders, and teachers influences their reform efforts.
Along with the theory of the Instructional Core, this study draws on a conceptual framework that was developed by Scott. This conceptual framework is derived from a blend of research and practice. As a former teacher and principal, Scott uses the framework as a method for making sense of the complex, inter-woven, multi-faceted work of improving one American high school. Through the use of these two frameworks, Scott provides an intricate analysis of one high school's journey toward improvement.
The findings in this study lead to four major takeaways. First, Scott highlights the importance of district and school leaders over-communicating a set of clear goals for instructional improvements. Assuming that everyone knows why high school reforms are taking place or what successful reform looks like is an erroneous assumption. As an example, Elmore's Instructional Core framework provides a set of organizing principles from which to guide a system. The second takeaway stresses the importance of the supporting conditions that must support any effort to improve the instructional core of school. Scott suggests that improving the instructional core in a sustainable way can not happen without impacting key structures (teacher leadership, teacher teams, time, and financial resources) that foster productive, collegial relationships. These structures enable a school culture where adults learn from data as well as one another. The third takeaway focuses on the vital interaction between the school community and the school district that it is nested within. Scott contends that to ignore this relationship is to ignore a key player in any high school's reform effort. Finally, the research affirms what other studies have elucidated: the critical role of the school principal in guiding, buffering, and sustaining reform efforts.