Association of American Colleges and Universities, January 2001

Greater Expectations National Panel

Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution

National Association of Secondary Schools Principals (NASSP)

Reston, VA, Fourth Printing, 1999

Summary prepared by Ross Miller, AAC&U

Breaking Ranks contains a series of recommendations for reshaping the American high school in order to promote consistent, high achievement for all students. The parallels between the recommendations from Breaking Ranks and leading reforms in undergraduate education are interesting to note, especially during a time when efforts are being made to smooth the transition from high school to college for increasing numbers of students.


According to NASSP, over 80% of their members (including many middle school principals) are aware of the Breaking Ranks recommendations. The full report contains some 81 specific recommendations so it would be difficult to find a school that is not trying at least some part of this reform plan, whether consciously or not. Systematic and comprehensive use of the recommendations is much less common. The U.S. Department of Education and NASSP give annual awards to "New American High Schools," exemplary schools that uphold rigorous academic instruction for all students, while preparing them for future success. The selection criteria for the awards are based upon ideas and recommendations contained in Breaking Ranks. Twenty-seven awards were given this year. (For more on New American High Schools, click on the link at


The Six Main Themes of the Breaking Ranks report

1. Personalization: High schools must divide themselves into units of no more than 600 students, teachers should use a variety of instructional strategies that accommodate individual learning styles, and every student should have a Personal Adult Advocate and a Personal Plan for Progress.


2. Coherency: High schools should be clear about what is essential to learn. Students must be able to make sense out of what they learn and be able to apply it in the world outside school.


3. Time: Abandon or revise the Carnegie unit so that learning is not simply equated with seat time. Operate schools year-round. Assign teachers no more than 90 students per term, so students receive more individual attention.


4. Technology: High schools should have long-range plans for use of technology and should have a technology resource person to consult with and assist the faculty.


5. Professional Development: All educators in a school, including the principal, should have a Personal Learning Plan designed to equip them for the changing demands in their professional lives.


6. Leadership: The Principal must exercise instructional leadership for the school and be supported by teachers, students, parents, the school board, the superintendent, and community residents.


Major Recommendations
  • Curriculum: Offer essential knowledge, integrate it, and make connections to real life.
  • Instructional strategies: Engage students in their own learning.
  • School environment: Create a climate conducive to teaching and learning.
  • Technology: Make way for electronic learning.
  • Organization and time: Restructure space and time for a more flexible education.
  • Assessment and accountability: Establish and assess individual, collective, and institutional objectives. Report results. Assessment methods should be varied and valid, creating a clear picture of what students know and can do.
  • Professional Development: Help school staff members fulfill their potential.
  • Diversity: Find strength in differences.
  • Governance: Streamline the operations of schools and school districts.
  • Resources: Provide sufficient resources; funding should be the top priority of state fiscal policy.
  • Ties to higher education: Seek unity in purpose. Institutions on both levels must cooperate in all ways for the mutual benefit of students.
  • Relationships: Reach out to form alliances on behalf of students with parents, public officials, community agencies, business representatives, neighboring schools, and others on the outside.
  • Leadership: Cultivate leaders. The principal occupies the pivotal position in reform and must have a clear educational vision, be selected for excellence in leadership, be able to lead and manage change, and create an atmosphere that encourages teachers to take risks to meet the needs of students. The superintendent and other administrators must lead in the areas of planning, implementation, and maintaining the momentum of improvement. Teachers must lead through collaborating to redefine the role of the teacher and to identify sources of support as needed. Leadership among students, parents, and others in the school community can enhance the work of the principal and should be nurtured.

Each of these recommendations has from three to nine specific sub-recommendations for a total of eighty-one.



Traditions associated with the American high school (the Carnegie unit, summer break, academic tracking, "senioritis", local control and funding, etc.) are resistant to change. Piecemeal adoption of reform often fails to transform a school. "Comprehensive" high schools track many students into general studies, a dead-end program that is adequate preparation neither for college nor the world of work.


If the recommendations from Breaking Ranks were fully implemented, they would create dramatic changes that would comprehensively benefit students through improved learning and better preparation for postsecondary study and citizenship. The complex problems of American secondary education will not be addressed with a few quick fixes. Each of the eighty-one recommendations of Breaking Ranks is a link in a chain of reasonable and effective practice that can improve education for all of our children.