Lessons from different high school models

Different public school initiatives and charter schools in the US have worked at reinventing the high school experience by just ‘starting over.’ Whether it is for the purpose of assisting our students to “develop the broad knowledge of the world that would help them succeed in the 21st-century global environment” (Jackson, 2008, p. 58), or simply to “reclaim our students” (Forbes & Richelieu Saunders, 2008, p. 42), unique models of high schools are being considered for learning in the 21st century.

There are some common lessons being learned from these models:

1. Learning needs to be relevant for students. This is not a new idea, but one that appears to be stressed more in the current dialogue on high school reform. High school students learn best when they see their education as relevant to their lives and the world around them. Work-based learning components, internships, partnerships with industry and commerce, and school-based enterprises also help provide real-world connections.

2. The need for a strongly developed curriculum. Such a curriculum needs to be purposeful, yet not sacrifice academic rigor for relevancy. Traditional courses need to integrate knowledge and skills about the world and how the world works. The in-depth study of disciplines such as math, science, English and social studies, is applied to authentic problems and applications. The study of a foreign, global language helps expose students to other cultures. Overall, international content and perspectives should be included in engaging coursework that is often project-based.

3. Project-based learning. The curriculum briefly described above should lead to engaging project-based learning for students. This requires a shift from teacher-directed, whole class lessons to personalized, student-directed projects. In this approach, students study necessary content as well as essential skills to research and problem solve. Students are encouraged to develop their strengths and reflect on their weaknesses so as to improve themselves. Projects then culminate in presentations where students share their findings, demonstrate their content understanding, and talk about the learning strategies and processes they followed in front of teachers, their peers, parents, and even panels of community members and other guests.

4. Learning in community. As part of this process, group work is essential to help students collaborate with others and communicate with each other about how they learn and how they overcome challenges they are facing as they learn. Group work should include problem-solving and support for each other’s learning.

5. Technology. In all models, learning and instruction capitalize the use of various technologies to such an extent that technology is a seamless part of the teaching and learning process. Such use of appropriate technology helps underscore the fact that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Related to this, teachers are proactive in guiding and encouraging students towards a positive digital citizenship and a professional and ethical use of technology for learning’s sake.

6. Adequate time for teacher preparation. The positive impact of qualified, prepared and motivated teachers cannot be understated. These various models are consistent in their need for a core group of teachers who share a vision for the model of high school and are committed to personalizing the learning experience for their students. As a result, a common feature of the models is sufficient time for teachers to collaborate together to develop curriculum and plan for instruction. Teachers need to be ready with advising, appropriate counseling, and additional instruction as necessary. For these reasons, the provision for adequate, site-based professional development to better serve the students is important, too.


Forbes, J. D., & Richelieu Saunders, C. (2008, May). How we reinvented the high school experience. Educational Leadership 65(8); 42-46.

Hoachlander, G. (2008, May). Bringing industry to the classroom. Educational Leadership 65(8); 22-27.

Jackson, A. (2008, May). High schools in the global age. Educational Leadership 65(8); 58-62.

Quint, J. (2008, May). Lessons from leading models. Educational Leadership 65(8); 64-68.