Cover: Designing Innovative High Schools

Designing Innovative High Schools

Implementation of the Opportunity by Design Initiative After Two Years

Published Sep 21, 2017

by Elizabeth D. Steiner, Laura S. Hamilton, Laura Stelitano, Mollie Rudnick


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Research Questions

  1. What are the key features of each school's model, and how is each school implementing the ten Design Principles? How well are the schools' implementation activities aligned with their models?
  2. What conditions hinder or facilitate high-quality, high-fidelity implementation of the Design Principles, and how do school staff respond to these conditions?
  3. How does each school's approach to implementation evolve over time as the initiative matures and external conditions change?

The Carnegie Corporation of New York's (CCNY) Opportunity by Design (ObD) initiative is intended to address the ambitious goal of preparing students for postsecondary success, based on the premise that promising high school reforms need to be integrated into a comprehensive school design and accompanied by appropriate, sustained levels of financial, policy, and implementation supports. The ObD initiative was founded in 2013 to support the design and launch of a network of small high schools of choice that focus on ten design principles, which, if fully implemented, should result in a school that functions differently from a traditional high school. Springpoint: Partners in School Design supports the ObD districts in using innovative school design to enable broader district reforms.

RAND began conducting a five-year formative and summative evaluation of the ObD initiative in June 2014 when the first schools opened. This interim report describes findings from the first two years of implementation across two cohorts of schools. The findings from this report are based on principal, teacher, and student surveys; interviews with teachers, principals, and district staff and with leaders at CCNY and Springpoint; student focus groups; parent focus groups in four schools; classroom observations; and a sample of artifacts from each school. This report provides detailed examples of how the design principles are implemented in the ObD schools along with rich descriptions of facilitators and challenges. The report examines areas of similarities and differences across schools and districts, as well as comparisons across cohorts and over time.

Key Findings

Key Strengths

  • Implementation of key design principles (e.g., alignment of mission with school design, emphasis on mastery and personalized instructional approaches) was reportedly strong across schools and has improved over time and across cohorts.
  • Cohort II teachers reported more extensive adoption of mastery-based and personalized instructional practices, and fewer obstacles to adopting such practices, than Cohort I teachers.
  • Springpoint provided key supports to ObD districts and schools by helping spread best-practices and align systems in a way that has the potential to facilitate the spread of innovation.

Early Challenges

  • Efforts to personalize instruction and implement mastery-based approaches were often inconsistent and limited by varying access to data, external pressure to advance students at a certain pace, and the significant time required to create instructional materials.
  • Persistent teacher vacancies limited collaboration and strained teacher capacity, and principals reported difficulties finding and retaining qualified, experienced teachers.
  • High-quality instructional materials were not readily available, and although some teachers reported valuing the autonomy to create their own materials, they struggled to find the time to do so and received limited district support.
  • Schools revised their models based on broad feedback, but most schools had yet to develop clear systems for data-driven improvement, instead addressing issues as they arose.


  • Provide teachers with support and assistance to develop and select curriculum materials.
  • Ensure teachers have access to high-quality data to implement mastery-based and personalized approaches and the support to use them effectively.
  • Develop systems and processes to ensure that all students receive high-quality instruction and are held to high expectations.
  • Offer specialized support for recruiting, hiring, and retention, while encouraging autonomy and flexibility in district policies.
  • Consider ways to offer principals continued support beyond the first two years of implementation as they refine their models and hire new staff.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by RAND Education.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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