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Baltimore City's High School Reform Initiative

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Document date: December 16, 2007
Released online: December 16, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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This report presents findings from the first detailed study of Baltimore's 5 year high school reform. Using administrative data, Urban Institute researchers found that test scores and attendance rates were higher for students in Baltimore's innovation high schools than in the city's comprehensive or newly formed neighborhood high schools. Students in innovation and neighborhood schools also showed more stability in their enrollment than their counterparts in comprehensive schools. These findings remained after controlling for students' backgrounds and previous achievements even though students at innovation schools were more academically advantaged than their peers in other schools prior to entering high school.


In 2001, the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) released its blueprint for reforming the city's high schools. Central to the blueprint were plans to create eight innovation high schools and to convert all nine large, comprehensive high schools into smaller neighborhood schools. The innovation and neighborhood high schools were expected to reflect three guiding principles: (1) strong academic rigor, (2) small supportive structures, and (3) effective, accountable instruction and leadership.

Neighborhood schools are small schools created by breaking up large comprehensive high schools. Innovation schools are new, independent small schools developed by or with outsider operators or technical assistance providers. Unlike neighborhood schools, innovation schools are given autonomy in hiring staff and selecting and implementing curriculum. Student enrollment in innovation schools is, and always has been, based on student interest. Student enrollment in neighborhood schools was originally determined first by geography, and then by student interest as space allowed. By 2005, however, BCPSS had instituted a citywide system of choice and neighborhood school enrollment that was no longer assigned by geographic boundaries. The creation of both innovation and neighborhood schools has unfolded more slowly than expected. As of 2007, only four of the nine comprehensive schools have been broken into smaller schools and only six of the eight planned innovation schools are underway.

Since May 2003, the Urban Institute has been conducting a five-year evaluation of the implementation of Baltimore's high school reform efforts. During this time, we administered annual surveys to all students and teachers in each of the reforming high schools and analyzed data provided by the Maryland State Department of Education (e.g., standardized test scores, attendance rates). The evaluation reports described the academic and social environments in the district's innovation, neighborhood, and remaining comprehensive high schools. While BCPSS also has selective and "other" (i.e., alternative high schools for special populations), these schools were not included in previous evaluation reports.

Over the course of the evaluation, conversations with school personnel and key stakeholders suggested concerns that reform efforts in Baltimore had further stratified the city's high schools. Specifically, some stakeholders voiced apprehension that, for a variety of reasons, the innovation high schools were attracting and admitting more academically promising students and, perhaps, discouraging more challenging students. In short, a process of student sorting was possibly taking place. In a system of school choice a variety of factors-student motivation and interest, parent involvement, peer influence, geography, and encouragement from school personnel-can affect which students attend which schools. As a consequence, more academically successful students or more academically challenging students, for example, may end up in some schools than would be expected if students were randomly assigned to schools. The extent of sorting raises valid questions about the value added of schools that enroll more academically motivated students and how the performance of such schools should be compared to schools that enroll less motivated or able students.

Additionally, stakeholders voiced concern that because innovation high schools were small in number and enrollments, only a minority of Baltimore's students would have the opportunity to attend them. Absent an expansion of innovation high schools or similar choice options, those interviewed raised questions about educational opportunity and equity for secondary students in the city.

In this report, we address such questions using student-level administrative data and the survey data collected by the Urban Institute. Specifically, we answered the following questions:

1. a) Are students enrolled in innovation high schools more socially and academically advantaged than students enrolled in other BCPSS high schools (i.e., neighborhood, comprehensive, selective and "other"/alternative)?

b) Are the social and academic characteristics of students enrolled in the neighborhood high schools significantly different from students enrolled in the original comprehensive high schools or from one another?

2. Do students in innovation high schools perform better (i.e., test scores, attendance) than students in other BCPSS high schools (i.e., neighborhood, comprehensive, selective and "other"/alternative)? Are these differences due to the characteristics of the students enrolled in these new high schools?

3. Do reforming high schools (i.e., innovation, neighborhood, and comprehensive) differ from one another on their implementation of the guiding principles (e.g., support, effective instruction and leadership)? Are any differences related to the characteristics of the students they enroll? Do the levels of implementation relate to student outcomes?

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Topics/Tags: | Education

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