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Lessons Learned from Five-Year Evaluation of the Corporation’s Opportunity by Design Initiative

New report from RAND corporation looks at model for designing innovative high schools


A report commissioned by Carnegie Corporation of New York provides new insights into the process of designing and launching small urban high schools organized around the principles of personalization, mastery-based instruction, and positive youth development. The five-year evaluation by RAND Corporation followed the foundation’s Opportunity by Design initiative, which launched in 2013 in response to a challenge paper that detailed the urgent need to “do school differently” in order to prepare students for postsecondary success.

The Corporation set three overarching goals for the initiative, including opening innovative new schools that promote student-centered learning, building the capacity of school districts and partners to create innovative schools, and generating knowledge for the field about what it takes to design, launch, and sustain new school models in a variety of contexts. Building on the existing research base for highly effective schools, the Corporation outlined a set of design principles that served as a blueprint for designing the schools and seeded a new school design and technical assistance non-profit, Springpoint, to support that work. The RAND study team followed the design and launch of 16 new schools exemplifying the design principles, including one charter school, that opened across six cities between 2014 and 2017.

Overall, this research found negligible evidence that the initiative changed student outcomes. This finding is based on estimating the effects of the initiative on academic achievement, attendance, and suspension outcomes in the final year of the initiative. The researchers also conducted an in-depth implementation study and compared Opportunity by Design teachers’ reports about their instructional practice with those of high school teachers nationally. RAND found that educators involved with the initiative were more likely to report using practices related to mastery, personalization, and positive youth development than their counterparts nationally. In summary, while the initiative promoted a different approach on the part of educators who prioritized practices, including data-driven instructional design, those early implementation efforts did not boost student achievement in the short run.

 "If we hope to improve public education at a large scale, we must take risks and try new approaches. Even when strategies emerge from research, their implementation is always complicated and challenging," said Saskia Levy Thompson, director of the Corporation’s New Designs to Advance Learning program area. “From the start of the Opportunity by Design initiative, we expected to see both successes and failures, which is why we invested in a rigorous evaluation alongside our programmatic grants. We believe that the RAND report, particularly the implementation section, offers powerful lessons about where to start as educators work to more deeply engage and differentiate instruction for young people.”

Among the lessons learned that might be instructive to the education field: 

• Make sure the right data and resources for mastery-based instruction are available. Ensure that teachers can access the data they need easily and frequently, and that assignments and assessments provide detailed information about student mastery.

• Partner with teachers to select and/or develop high-quality curricula. Teachers need more expert assistance in identifying and vetting curriculum materials suitable for mastery-based and personalized learning.

• Focus on positive youth development and social and emotional learning. Schools should help students to develop the communication, critical thinking, and collaboration skills needed to achieve their academic and postsecondary goals.

• Design resilient school models that anticipate leadership turnover and school change before they occur. Develop school operations manuals and provide targeted support for new principals and district leaders to help ease transitions.

For more than a decade, the Corporation’s education program has been focused on improving the quality of the nation’s high schools so that all students are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need to fully participate in democracy and thrive in college, careers, and life. The core principles of Opportunity by Design continue to inform the education program’s investments in high school redesign and improvement, and the RAND evaluation offers important lessons about how to effectively translate those ideas into practice. While the initiative concluded in 2019 before the start of the pandemic and recent unprecedented challenges for high schools, the findings of the study may be especially relevant for educators and leaders seeking to personalize instruction, utilize a mastery-based approach, and meet the holistic needs of students in both remote and in-person settings.

DOWNLOAD 2020 RAND Report
Building and Sustaining Innovative High Schools: Findings from the Opportunity by Design Study

DOWNLOAD 2017 Interim RAND Report
Designing Innovative High Schools: Implementation of the Opportunity by Design Initiative After Two Years

DOWNLOAD 2013 Challenge paper
Opportunity by Design: High School Models for Student Success



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