Redesigning American High Schools: the Long Game and the Short Game

Apr 11, 2016 by

By Barry E. Stern, Ph.D.

RedesigningHS2016V4 pdf version

Three volumes published in 2016 provide a compelling rationale for transforming the way America educates her teens and young adults. All agree that the longer students attend U.S. schools, the less engaged, productive, curious and creative they become. And the gap between what today’s employers want and what most schools and colleges produce is widening not narrowing, particularly in the areas of collaborative and problem-solving skills. All report that employers and colleges want entrants who can demonstrate high purpose and achievement in something, whether scholarly inquiry, athletics or a hobby. Participation in diverse activities to appear well-rounded is no longer enough to compete effectively for either university slots or career-track jobs.

Education for Upward Mobility edited by Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute calls for expanding several initiatives that are supported by a growing body of evidence. These include career-technical education (CTE), career academies, apprenticeships, dual enrollment, gifted classes and better counseling for low-income “strivers” (high achievers), school choice and multiple pathways, high quality early childhood education and wraparound services.

Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikil Goyal (a precocious 20-year old journalist and activist) wants students to have far more freedom to find and follow their passions and far less structure and standardization that tends to diminish one’s ability to take on adult responsibilities, think creatively, adapt to change and challenge conventional wisdom. Goyal also would like youth to have far more opportunity to structure their own education and find mentors from different walks of life to help them shape it.

There is Life After College by Jeffrey Selingo also argues for more authentic, deep, hands-on experiences in work and volunteer settings both before and during college. For example, he wants more cooperative education (e.g. Northeastern, Drexel and Waterloo universities) where students alternate periods of working with taking university courses for a job-relevant degree. Paid internships is another vehicle to provide work experience related to a student’s academic program; and long-term apprenticeships with employers build in enough academics for participants to be able to perform progressively more responsible jobs. Apprentices, coops and interns all take on work assignments of greater complexity as they gain skill through more training and job experience. Such work-based learning is perceived as the best way to develop the soft skills so prized by employers these days. Even better, students with these hands-on, in-depth work experiences graduate with far less debt, and they are far more likely to obtain career-track jobs that use their skills than students without these experiences.

Such recommendations in these well-written, researched and thoughtful volumes are all to the good. But without fundamentally restructuring the schools our teens attend, improvements in graduation rates, test scores and school attendance are unlikely to exceed the usual 3-10%, only to slip backward when the driven school leader departs.

Except for a few career academies, CTE programs and school redesigns such as Big Picture schools, High Tech High, School of One, City High Pittsburgh, YouthBuild Schools, Expeditionary Learning Schools, School without Walls (Washington, DC), Carpe Diem Schools and several alternative or democratic schools where students largely structure their own learning, the traditional comprehensive high school that more than 80 percent still attend is a major impediment to student engagement and mastery of skills. This “assembly line” system that requires students to change teachers, work groups and subjects in traditional disciplines every 45-90 minutes has never worked for half the students, less in large cities.

True, efforts to make this century-old design more proficient have improved conditions (e.g. most career academies, KIPP, GreenDot, High Schools That Work, A.V.I.D.), yet their success largely depends upon carefully vetted and well-trained teachers and leaders working long hard hours. On the whole, however, and despite federal (ESEA Title I) investments of hundreds of billions over 50 years to perfect this industrial era design in order to accommodate increasing numbers of low-income, limited English proficient and ethnic minority students, results continue to disappoint:

  • Graduation rates in our cities continue to hover between 30-60%; urban reading and math proficiency rates generally range from 15-40%.
  • High school reading and math scores have barely budged since the 1980s, whether the measure is NAEP, ACT or SAT. Meantime, real spending per student has nearly tripled.
  • Urban high schools continue to experience high rates of absenteeism, bullying, delinquency, which is largely the result of poor student engagement (see University of Indiana student engagement studies and Gallup’s annual, voluntary online student engagement survey with a Grades 5-12 sample approaching 1 million).
  • More than half of community college entrants need remedial English and/or math, yet less than 20% of those taking remedial classes earn a college credential within 6-8 years (NCES). Education Next’s recent analysis of the 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey found that remedial education is not confined to low income students. More than a quarter (28%) taking it come from upper middle or high income families ($74,001 +).


In a nutshell, despite spending hundreds of billions over a half century, the U.S. still hasn’t figured out how to get the lowest performing 20-40% over the bar and complete training that is required for most family wage jobs.


Starting Over: Elements of Redesign

Perhaps it is time to completely redesign how we educate our teens. The aforementioned whole school redesigns exhibit several of six core principles that our high schools might well emulate for a total makeover, particular in large cities where they have little to lose:

  1. House system. Traditional high schools and middle schools are run by academic departments – English, social studies, math, science, and then there’s health & physical education, the arts and career-technical education. Departments and the assistant principals to whom they report tend to be subject-focused as opposed to kid/family/community-focused. In the house system 4-6 teachers from different disciplines are accountable for the success of 40-80 students usually in the same grade. In effect, this team of teachers runs its own small business. Within a defined budget based on the nature of their student population, the instructional team does whatever it takes and brings in whatever resources necessary to engage students and ensure their progress, personal safety and satisfaction. Ideally, each house has its own quiet location within the school without interruption from school bells and announcements. Students rarely get lost in this system because instructors go to where they are, not vice-versa as they do in traditional high schools.[1] The best career academies exhibit many of these same features.
  2. Chunking. Today’s teens, particularly those from low-income and/or single parent families, are subjected to too many courses, teachers and work groups a day, typically 5-8 per day, 4-5 if the school block schedules. These courses are largely disconnected from one another, and their teachers rarely confer about or even know the students they mutually teach. As industry and some community colleges are learning, intensive “sandwich” team-taught courses accelerate learning and satisfaction by providing students with enough concentrated time together to produce excellence, much like an after school sports or robotics team. “Chunked” team-taught courses typically provide the following:
  • Individual and team projects. Sometimes students develop and carry out projects that benefit the community as well as themselves.
  • Blended classroom-computer assisted instruction with frequent diagnostic testing to speed progress
  • Individual attention and counseling by teachers and mentors
  • Opportunities for peer leadership and mutual assistance, and
  • Competency-based progress and credentialing.
  1. Cross-disciplinary courses, lessons and projects. In a growing number of workplaces, problems are solved by cross-disciplinary teams. Yet the predominant instructional model in school remains closing the classroom door and staying within one’s disciplinary silo. Enlightened schools are discovering that teens like to see their teachers collaborate and work with them to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to identify and solve problems like those they will encounter someday in the world of work. Imagine, for example, a school where the science, math, and computer technology teachers co-teach cross-disciplinary lessons and projects (g. computer-assisted mathematical modeling to calculate the force and area affected by earthquakes and tsunamis in parts of the world with different geological characteristics), and where teachers of English, social studies and the arts integrate literature, original historical sources and the arts of an era to help students better understand the reasons for important historical events.[2]
  2. Strength awareness and ability to transfer knowledge. Successful schools and programs help students apply across more situations and contexts the “nuggets” they learn in class and on the job. Transfer principles apply also to learning how to use more consistently one’s strengths in order to improve performance across situations. Specifically, people handle life better when they are aware of how they function when at their best and can apply their strengths to learn faster, make friends, become better team players and select their careers. Two major strengths are to know one’s (1) preferred information processing or thinking style and (2) high performance pattern. Both emerge early in life, although experience can somewhat alter them (brain plasticity). Once members of a group identify their respective thinking styles and high performance patterns, they can use this information to improve team performance by supporting one another’s high performance pattern while calling out teammates when they are off pattern.
  3. Deliver on social contract. Successful schools reward students for keeping their end of the bargain. That is, they deliver on a well understood social contract that school authorities develop with the students. When students complete an evidence-based “success sequence” upon which students and the school largely agree, their teachers help them attain an outcome they value. For example, staff helps program completers who meet academic, attendance and attitudinal requirements transition successfully to higher level school courses, college and/or career-entry jobs.


  1. Earned freedom and discretion. The more students keep up with academic expectations and abide by group norms (g. attendance, punctuality, remaining drug free, demonstrating interpersonal respect, teamwork), the more discretion and freedom they earn to pursue what to study, when and how. Oftentimes program completers are rewarded with no-cost opportunities to obtain marketable credentials of their choosing, oftentimes online (e.g. Comp TIA IT certificate). Others might be invited to participate in school problem-solving groups and even governance.

There are many variations across these six themes to meet local needs. The first step, however, is for school boards and officials to begin phasing out the traditional industrial era high school. It cannot be made much more proficient than it is even with better technology, standards and instructional methods. Yet it is all that the vast majority of our school leaders know. Even superintendents who come from business or the military must depend for curricular advice on former teachers promoted into administrative roles. Though educators are well-intentioned and encouraged to “think outside the box,” inbreeding within the educational establishment is so pervasive that it is unlikely that the vast majority whose careers have been nurtured by the current system are going to be able to transform it. The exceptions, of course, are career academies, apprenticeship, CTE and dual enrollment programs that are joined at the hip with community employers whose very survival depends on a continuing supply of highly competent, work ready entrants. In such cases educators simply have to keep up with  – indeed, get out ahead of – emerging skill needs.



Fast Break: An Instructional Framework Incorporating the Six Redesign Principles


Fast Break is a template for secondary school redesign to accelerate student learning and emotional growth. This intensive 300-hour module concentrated into 8-16 weeks is a bite size step that schools could take to prove the concept with little downside risk. It could either supplement current redesign efforts or stand on its own as the basis for a thorough high school makeover.


The framework equips students with soft skills so valued by employers and colleges while quickly raising their skills in reading, math, computer applications, oral and written communications. It conclusively demonstrates that high level integration of soft interpersonal skills with hard academic skills helps students make large academic gains in a short time while contributing enormously to their ability to develop and sustain healthy relationships.
The late Prof. Martin Haberman, 2009 recipient of the American Education Research Association’s lifetime achievement award, believed that along with schools not hiring enough educators with the right temperament, their industrial era design is a major reason for lackluster performance and poor morale among too many youth. Fast Break offers an alternative design to reach and teach all students, including those who are underperforming. Its whole-brain, team-taught, cross-disciplinary, project- and competency-based framework aligns well with research on what adolescents value, how they learn and like to be treated.


History of Fast Break

Fast Break’s prototype was developed 25 years ago by Focus:Hope in Detroit (called “Fast Track”). Their 8-12 week, 5-8 hours-a-day program targeted low-income unemployed youth who wished to enter Focus:Hope’s world class machining, manufacturing engineering and IT training programs that were supported by the U.S. Department of Defense. It addressed the issue of too many entrants not having the career direction, basic skills, teamwork, customer service, time management, communication skills and other essential work habits to benefit from high level technical training.


The program was so successful that other training organizations in the mid-1990s attempted to replicate it, including ones in Philadelphia, St. Louis and the 3-year demonstration this writer directed in Los Angeles with support from the National Science Foundation and local aerospace companies. Two governors (MI and AL) in the early 2000s broadened its focus to improve the overall effectiveness of their state’s career education and workforce development programs.


Since 2009 the Haberman Educational Foundation has been adjusting Fast Break to keep up with technological advances and research linking thinking styles and the practical applications of emotional intelligence to the learning environment. The Foundation earns fees by training teachers how to implement the Fast Break framework (
Abstract – Fast Break: Accelerated Learning Solution for Underperforming Teens and Young Adults.

Fast Break is an alternative way of deploying time, talent and technology to rapidly bring up reading, math, oral and written communications, computer, and employability skills to workplace/college entry standards. The 300-hour program concentrated into 8-16 weeks simulates a high performance collaborative workplace. Along with improving basic skills it helps participants gain career direction and effective work habits. The 4-8 hours-a-day program is team-taught, cross-disciplinary, computer-assisted, highly experiential, project- and competency-based. Typically, cohorts of 25-60 students are led by a cross-disciplinary team of 3-5 teachers who collaborate in real time much like coaches of sports teams do or managers of highly successful enterprises.

On average students make 2+ grade-level gains in reading and math in just 2-3 months, and they obtain employable skills in computer applications, as well as teamwork, customer service, time management, conflict resolution and other job readiness skills. The model has helped thousands of young adults in Detroit, Los Angeles, Flint and other communities move ahead to career entry positions or college, placing 80% of completers within six weeks. Employers are highly satisfied with the grads they hire and colleges with the ones they admit. Invariably the 17-25 years old participants say that had such a program been available in high school or the first year of college, they would have been much more engaged and learned much faster. The federal government, two states and a major non-profit organization invested millions in developing and demonstrating the model. The Haberman Educational Foundation trains teachers and administrators in how to implement it.

Fast Break

  • Integrates basic skills, computer literacy, emotional intelligence and career development into a holistic, highly experiential and applied instructional framework.
  • Helps students develop a compelling vision of successin a career field they select through systematic analysis of their skills, interests and high performance patterns in relation to the needs of the job market
  • Builds strong relationships among students and teachers and ensures students understand the relevance of what they are learning
  • Gets students ready faster for advanced courses and the workplace than other programs
  • Improvessafety and cooperation by providing students with tools to de-escalate and resolve conflicts and to understand the thinking styles and high performance patterns of themselves and others.
  • Accommodates large classes quite well and produces more learning per dollars spent than other programs.

Key features:
Fast Break is a culture-changer and belief-changer, establishing relevance and relationships on the way to achieving rigor/academic success. It could serve as an alternative to traditional ways of delivering basic skills, the front end of career-technical education programs, a “college success” program, a ninth grade academy/high school readiness program or a dropout prevention/recovery program.

A combination of strategies that differ considerably from how schools and colleges typically deliver basic skills and career guidance is responsible for students’ high rate of learning and emotional growth:


  • High intensity work groups – 25-60 students remain with a cross-disciplinary team of 3-5 instructors for 4-8 hours a day for 8-16 weeks
  • Team taught – math, English language arts, computer, and career development teachers in classroom at the same helping one another
  • Cross-disciplinary projects/lessons with as much application as possible to solving workplace-type problems
  • Courseware-assisted – instructors integrate (off the shelf) courseware (e.g. WorkKeys/KeyTrain, Core Skills Mastery, e2020, Apex, NovaNet, etc.) and other software with small group classroom instruction
  • Thinking styles – students learn how to apply their style and high performance pattern to accelerate learning, understand others, function effectively on teams and choose their career
  • Emotional intelligence & soft skills – interpersonal relations, teamwork, customer service, time management, conflict de-escalation/resolution all integrated with academic program and community service projects
  • Computer applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) integrated with instruction in math, reading, oral and written communications
  • Career planning – several activities build up to career speech where students defend their written career plan (final “oral exam”) and begin to carry it out while still in the program
  • Employability skills – resumes, interviews, job applications, cover letters, business writing.
  • Attendance and punctuality – strongly emphasized; students expected to make up work they miss
  • Placement assistance/social contract – staff helps completers (those who meet academic, attendance and attitudinal requirements) transition to higher level high school courses, college and/or career-entry jobs; staff follows up for 6 months to ensure graduates’ success at the next level.


Despite the millions who benefit from innovations such as career academies, charter schools, work-based learning, and online/computer-assisted instruction, the U.S. still hasn’t figured out how to get the lowest performing 20-40% over the bar and complete training that is required for most family wage jobs. The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions trying. While encouraged by efforts to promote great teaching, high standards, efficient yet fair accountability, pay systems that reward excellence, small high schools, pathways to college and careers, etc., high school curricula remain insufficiently aligned with the way work has changed and how today’s learners differ from those of previous generations. Dr. Haberman believed Fast Break is an answer because it gets students to care and persist by linking academics to their career development and emotional growth and by keeping together a student cohort and their instructors for enough time to establish mutual trust and high-level teamwork.

Former ice hockey great Wayne Gretsky famously said, “I skate to where the puck will be.” If experience with Fast Break is prescient, future teachers will need two new but essential skills: (1) how to collaborate with other teachers in integrating and co-teaching their subjects and (2) how to use technology to reach and teach students of varying ability in the same class.

Teachers with these collaborative, organizational and technological skills will be able to produce the kinds of graduates that former California Congressman George Miller says are needed in the world today – ” self-starters who can collaborate effectively within and across work groups, companies, and countries both ‘live’ and virtually”. If the Congressman is right, then teachers must model such collaboration. Yet the predominant instructional model remains closing the classroom door and staying within one’s disciplinary silo.

Given how Fast Break engages students, bumps up reading and math scores, equips students with soft skills so prized by employers and colleges, and improves student and teacher morale, it represents a low-risk way to begin to move to less fragmented and more holistic, cost-effective educational model.
The Haberman Educational Foundation is seeking 3-5 urban high schools in a region that would be willing to implement this “disruptive” Fast Break framework as a template for modifying their traditional design. As they experience success in implementing its basic features schools would likely become receptive to one or more of the whole school redesigns listed earlier.


We also invite businesses and philanthropies to help interested schools underwrite the transition costs of moving in this direction and to procure a capable experienced evaluator.

Links to pertinent articles:– describes Fast Break from a student perspective.– describes Fast Break‘s team approach.

BEYOND THE NUMBERS: , by Richard Froeschle and Teresa Theis. – good conceptual framework for why workplace basics such as those learned in Fast Break are essential for performing career-track jobs.

Barry Stern is an educational and workforce development consultant and senior adviser to the Haberman Educational Foundation. He is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of education, and director of policy and planning for the Michigan Department of Career Development. His email address is


[1] Many traditional schools have moved in the direction of the house system through advisories where a teacher is assigned to 10-30 students and meets with them daily to a few times a month. Advisory periods tend to be shorter than a typical class, perhaps 20-30 minutes long, and they are often used as an alternative to more traditional homeroom periods. Their broad purpose is to ensure that at least one adult in the school is getting to know each student well, making sure their learning needs are being met, and encouraging them to make good academic choices and plan for their future. Advisories are designed to foster stronger adult-student relationships and a stronger sense of belonging and community among students. Advisories often pair groups of students with individual teachers for a single school year; others pair them for multiple years (e.g. all four years of high school). Some advisories are used to personalize learning and better meet student interests and needs, especially when support from a known teacher and group of peers helps assure a satisfying outcome (e.g. catch up on basic skills, small group community service projects, short units of studies on controversial topics like drug abuse prevention and police-youth relations.) The house system, on the other hand, takes all of the components of advisories and extends them to all teachers, all students, all of the time typically with much better results than the traditional system where students change teachers, work groups and subjects several times a day.

[2] The following problem requires students to integrate several skill sets  –  reading, math, writing, teamwork and computer application skills (spreadsheet, word processing, and presentation skills).


Foster Book Company sent the invoice below that overcharges for books you purchased. Split into groups of 4-5 and help your group determine how much they overbilled and for which items. Ensure your revised invoice is correct in all respects. When your group has reached a solution, raise your hands, write the correct total you should have been billed onto a sheet and give it to the monitor. Let’s see which team in the room is the fastest in coming up with the correct solution. You may use whatever tools you have on hand.

Quantity Description Price (Find) Incorrect amounts   Correct solution
5 Law books  $        12.80  $              68.00  $            64.00
3 Geography books  $        15.55  $              53.00  $            46.65
7 History books  $        14.00  $              98.00  $            98.00
12 Science books  $        23.00  $           356.00  $         276.00
20 Worksheet packets  $          0.68  $              25.60  $            13.60
Subtotal  $           600.60  $         498.25
30 % discount on purchases above the first $100.00  $         (150.15)  $       (119.48)
Taxes @ 6.5%  $              29.28  $            24.62
Grand Total  $           479.73  $         403.40

Now send a letter to Foster Book Company indicating what you would like them to do and why? Share your draft with other members of your team and incorporate the best elements into a team letter that you will display to the class on a PowerPoint slide. Whole class will assess the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s letter and then combine the strengths into a class letter using the track changes feature of MS Word.


Question:  suppose the book company’s mistake was in your favor, i.e. they under-billed you. What would you do? Discuss!


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