Current social, political, and cultural concerns have hastened the call for high school reform and have intensified an interest in producing high school graduates that are college ready (Kuo, 2010). Competition from up-and-coming economies such as China and India have challenged traditional American economic world dominance and are forcing policy makers to be concerned about making substantive changes in the educational system (Kuo, 2010). However, when positive attempts are made to reform high schools, they often are not sustained due to the fact that the people who initiated the changes moved on and the system reverted back to the way it was prior to the reform effort (Hamann, 2005). Thus, there is the need for wider-ranging changes in education.
Twenty-first century educational reform efforts will need to address three emerging issues related to the American educational system: globalization, the continuity of the system, and the wasted senior year. One answer to addressing these issues is the implementation of early college programs in schools. Early college programs (or dual enrollment programs in high schools) are a comparatively new reform effort and are a rapidly growing option that currently enrolls more than approximately 47,000 students nationwide (Steinberg, Johnson, & Pennington, 2006). The early dual enrollment programs were created to offer a head start for academically advanced students; however, more recent programs also target underrepresented and underserved students in an effort to offer them with a path to a postsecondary degree (Kuo, 2010). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (hereafter referred to as the Gates Foundation) has been a major backer for early college programs and has provided funding for many of the early college schools throughout the nation. Dropout rates in schools have been a particular concern and the hope has been that downsizing schools in terms of size and offering more practical dual programs will combat this situation.
Dual Programs and Dropout Rates
Transitions represent a vulnerable time, and this is particularly true for middle school aged adolescents. The move from a smaller personalized school to a larger, more impersonal, high school environment can lead to the beginnings of the student's disengagement from school. The high school dropout predicament is especially acute in between the ninth and tenth grades (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009). National figures indicate that more students fail the ninth grade than any other grade and students from low-income populations demonstrate as high as a 40% dropout rate after ninth grade (Steinberg et al., 2006). But schools that provide summer programs that are designed for students who are in need additional academic support before they enter high school are more successful in decreasing course failures and dropout rates (Cohen & Smerdon, 2009). Thus, smaller, more intimate classroom environments may protect against dropping out (Steinberg et al., 2006).
Patterson, Beltyukova, Berman, and Francis (2007) looked at potential ways to deal with the "freshman bulge," which describes the increase in freshmen who are held back in many urban schools. This leads to higher dropout rates for this class and more frustration, tensions, and poorer attitudes for incoming freshmen in high schools. Patterson et al. randomly placed 50 freshmen in smaller learning communities (SLCs). This group spent their school day with their cohort of 50 and shared the same four core teachers and the same gym teacher. Results indicated that significantly more SLC stated they were rarely bored at school and that their teachers helped them when they did not understand material than the rest of the freshman class. Significantly fewer SLC students disagreed that teachers blamed students when they did not understand, disagreed that teachers treated all students respectively and were fair to all students when they broke rules. The SLC students had significantly fewer in-school suspensions than their peers, fewer unexcused absences, and higher promotion rates than the control group. GPA for science was higher for the SCL students (but fell over the term), social studies GPA was higher for the control group, and math and English GPAs were not different. Thus, the SCL program appeared to affect discipline, promotion, and attendance, but not grades. Nonetheless the SCL program was considered a relative success.
However, despite the recognized need and the funding for these programs the research has been mixed regarding their effectiveness. For instance many urban high schools suffer from high dropout rates, poor academic performances by the students, a feeling of alienation between students and teachers, and overall blight. Huebner and Corbett (2004) noted that national graduation figures indicated that only 68% of students entering high school earn a diploma. This graduation rate is even lower for students from underserved groups. For example Black and Hispanic students have a little more than a 50% chance of graduating from high school (see also Jackson, 2004). Looking at five different smaller school programs (see below) they characterized the features of smaller more intimate programs that were fostering better teacher student relations and increasing the rates of graduation:
1. The programs were socioeconomically ethnically diverse.
2. Highly sought after by students of all abilities (some preliminary data indicated that low ability students were increasing their reading skills).
3. Programs are reengaging and rigorous.
4. Offer supportive learning environments.
5. Students are highly engaged in learning.
6. Standardized tests results indicated students were performing well academically.
Regarding the last point, studies of students in the Boston MA program indicated a drastic rise in the number of students whose reading and math skills reached grade level after only a short time in the program (Huebner & Corbett, 2004); however, other programs demonstrated more modest or no such gains.
Huebner (2005) reported on the New Schools Initiative in New York City funded in part by the Gates Foundation that attempted to downsize many high schools into smaller, more intimate schools. The transition from larger to smaller public school in New York City was designed to facilitate leadership supporting more effective instruction to students, create a mission that students, teachers, and administrators could relate to and support while at the same time fostering high and clear expectations for all students, caring relationships between students and teachers, and utilizes qualified teachers (Jackson, 2004). Preliminary data from the early initiative indicated that there were significantly higher attendance rates and a significant increase in the rate of students being promoted from the ninth to tenth grade. However, reading and math achievement scores still remained below expectation. Further research was needed to follow students and to understand how to deal with issues such as ESL students, cultural competency, and fostering relationships with large state and city organizations.
Lewis (2004) discussed the difference between many of the goals of the small school programs (relationship development, attendance rate increases) and the Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts report released by the American Diploma Project. This report defined student success solely in terms of meeting high academic standards, standardized standards (if that is not redundant) that would apply to all states. The claim is that a high school diploma in the U.S. lacks value as it does not prepare students for careers or for college. In discussing those students attempting to take college courses in high school she points out that it may require more time for them to graduate from high school, which would officially place these programs on the government needs improvement list. Moreover, the grades of students in these programs are not improved over traditional high school programs.
Other Benefits of Dual Programs and SLC-type Programs
Toch, Jerald, and Dillon (2007) reviewed the findings of the Gates Foundation regarding its development and funding of small learning communities. Findings indicated there were improvements in creating a personalized, caring climate but only mildly positive increases in reading scores and no other academic gains. Other gains such as better prepared students were noted; however, dropout rates did not seem affected significantly. The research also suggested that more rigorous curricula and higher graduation standards might be beneficial as opposed to detrimental to students.
According to Jordan, Cavalluzzo and Corallo (2006) The Education Commission of the States and the Bridge Project at Stanford University have supported dual enrollment programs as being practical methods to improve the quality of a student's high school experience and to help students bridge the transition from high school to college. Jordan et al. conducted two-day visits to five sites in the U.S. where these programs are in effect and the students take high school and community college classes. Based on Jordan et al.'s (2006) background research the benefits of these programs appear speculative and there is no mention of increased grades or skills for students in these programs. The reported mean GPAs for students entering these programs are not impressive (Jordan et al., 2006). The rest of the data is qualitative in nature, and interesting choice considering there is little evidence from quantitative students that these programs benefit learning in students (Rycik, 2007). At each site the authors performed a series of individual interviews or focus group discussions with faculty, administrators,…