Research Framework

This page summarizes some aspects of our research framework. To access the Research Framework for ISHS Case Studies supplement document, please click on the following link:
To learn about specific aspects of the framework, please click one of the following links:


Research Questions

  1. Is there a core set of candidate critical components shared by well-established ISHSs and how are these components implemented in each ISHS?  
  2. What are the contextual affordances/constraints that influence each ISHS? 
  3. How do student STEM outcomes compare with state and school district averages (STEM achievement measures, graduation rates, college intentions)?


  1. College-Prep, STEM Focused Curriculum for All. Rigorous courses in all 4 STEM areas, or, engineering and technology are explicitly, intentionally integrated into STEM subjects and non-STEM subjects in preparation for college. (Atkinson et al., 2007; Brody, 2006 as cited in Subotnik, Tai, Rickoff, & Almarode, 2010; Kaser, 2006 as cited in Means et al., 2008; Means et al., 2008; Rosenstock, 2008; Scott, 2009)
  2. Reform Instructional Strategies and Project-Based Learning. STEM classes emphasize instructional practices/strategies informed by research found in Adding It Up (NRC, 2001), Taking Science to School, (NRC, 2007), Learning Science in Informal Environments (NRC, 2009), Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change (NSF, 1995), Fostering Learning in the Networked World (Borgman, Abelson, Dirks, Johnson, Koedinger, Linn & Szalay, 2008) for active teaching and learning (Lynch, 2008) and immersing students in STEM content, processes, habits of mind and skills (Atkinson et al., 2007; Means et al., 2008; Scott, 2009). Opportunities for project-based learning and student production are encouraged, during and beyond the school day. Students are productive and active in STEM learning, as measured by performance-based assessment practices that have an authentic fit with STEM disciplines (Atkinson et al., 2007; Means et al., 2008; New Tech High, 2010; NRC, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010; Rosenstock, 2008; Subotnik et al., 2010; Scott, 2009).
  3. Integrated, Innovative Technology Use. Technology connects students with information systems, models, databases, and STEM research; teachers; mentors; and, social networking resources for STEM ideas during and outside the school day (Means et al., 2008; NRC, 1999, 2009; New Tech High, 2010; Rosenstock, 2008). The school’s structure and use of technology has the potential to change relationships between students, teachers and knowledge (Borgman et al., 2008; Coburn, 2003; Elmore, 1996; Rosenstock, 2008) and flatten hierarchies (Atkinson et al., 2007; New Tech High, 2010; Scott, 2009).
  4. STEM-rich, Informal Experiences. Learning opportunities are not bounded, but ubiquitous. Learning spills into areas regarded as “informal STEM education” and includes apprenticeships, mentoring, social networking and doing STEM in locations off of the school site, in the community, museums and STEM centers, and business and industry (NRC, 2009; PCAST, 2010, Rosenstock, 2008). As a result, the relationship between students, teachers and knowledge changes (Coburn, 2003; Elmore, 1996), and hierarchies flatten to “…substantially alter the traditional roles of learners, teachers, and instructional resources in the learning environment” (NSF-DR-K12, 2010, p. 7).
  5. Connections with Business, Industry, and the World of Work. The school boundaries extend beyond the larger school community by creating partnerships with business and industry. The school environment intentionally reflects the workplace whereby students have the opportunity to think like STEM and non-STEM professionals through internships, mentorships, projects, research, and other work related activities. Students can interact with industry professionals and present their work in professional venues.  Such opportunities occur within or outside the normal school day/year.  (Atkinson et al., 2007; Brody, 2006 in Subotnik et al., 2010; Kaser, 2006 in Means et al., 2008; Kolicant & Pollock in Subotnik et al., 2010; Means et al., 2008; Rosenstock, 2008; Stone III et al., 2006 in Means et al., 2008). This is envisioned in DR-K12 solicitation: “The responsibilities for meeting the goals of formal education will undoubtedly shift to include a broader community of stakeholders, such as informal institutions, STEM professionals, parents and caregivers” (NSF DR-K12, 2010 p. 7). 
  6. College Level Coursework. School schedule is flexible and designed to provide opportunities for students to take classes at institutions of higher education or online (Atkinson, et al., 2007; Martinez & Klopott, 2005; Means et al., 2008; Rosenstock, 2008; Subotnik, Rayback & Edminston, 2006 as cited in Means et al., 2008).
  7. Well-Prepared STEM Teachers and Professionalized Teaching Staff. Teachers are qualified and have advanced STEM content knowledge and/or practical experience in STEM careers. The school had opportunities for in-house professional development, collaboration and interactions with STEM professionals. (N. Spillane, 2015; Means et al., 2008; Subotnik et al., 2010).
  8. Inclusive STEM Mission. The school’s stated goals are to prepare students for STEM, with emphasis on recruiting students from underrepresented groups (Means et al, 2008; PCAST, 2010; Scott, 2009, Obama, 2010).
  9. Flexible and Autonomous Administration. The organizational structure of the school is mission-driven (Scott, 2012).  School leaders have a well-defined strategy for STEM instruction and it is implemented with fidelity within all aspects of school administration (Childress, Elmore, Grossman, & Johnson, 2007).  The school may have partnerships with charter networks, non-governmental organizations, or the business community, and these partners work with the ISHS to develop shared goals as well as to provide leverage, expertise, leadership, and resources to the school, supporting it as a long-term partner (Miron & Gulosino, 2013; Farrell, Wohlsetter, & Smith, 2012).   In this sense, the ISHS’s administrative structure exhibits an external awareness to the community outside the school that promotes a bias towards innovation and action, while also increasing the collective capacity of the school (Crowther, 2011; Dinham, 2005).
  10. Supports for Underrepresented Students. Supports such as bridge programs, tutoring programs, extended school day, extended school year, or looping exist to strengthen student transitions to STEM careers. Such supports result in altered, improved opportunity structures, i.e., students are positioned for STEM college majors, careers, and jobs; and student social structures and identities change to accommodate new opportunity structures (Carnegie Corporation, 2009; Lynch, 2000; Means et al., 2008).
  11. Dynamic Assessment Systems for Continuous Improvement. The school community supports continuous improvement through data systems. Teachers use summative assessments (e.g., mastery based learning) to inform future instruction and to enhance student learning. School leaders and teachers examine standardized and summative assessment data to inform teaching strategies, student supports, professional development opportunities, and resource allocation. Teachers monitor students’ progress through online data management systems, and allow supports as needed, or offer additional learning opportunities. Data is available to students and parents (Means, Padilla, & Gallagher, 2010; Means, Gallager, & Padilla, 2007; Mandinach, Honey, & Light, 2006).
  12. Innovative and Responsive Leadership. The school leadership is proactive and continuously addresses the needs of teachers, students, and the greater community through innovative solutions, open communication, and uplifting leadership (Hargreaves, Boyle, Harris, 2014). Leadership is distributed formally and informally, among administrators and a teachers creating a flattened hierarchy to manage a complex school environment (Gronn, 2009; J. Spillane, 2006). Teachers are professionalized and have some autonomy over the curriculum and instruction in the classroom (N. Spillane, 2015). In this sense, the school leadership is characterized by flat, organic leadership structures and attends to the needs and functions of the school (J. Spillane, 2012).
  13. Positive School Community and Culture of High Expectations for All.  ISHSs have a school environment where students and staff feel a sense of personal, intellectual, and socio-emotional safety. Students are required to take rigorous courses in STEM and become well-equipped for higher education. Students understand that it is acceptable to make mistakes in the learning process and encouraged to take intellectual risks. Teachers are also encouraged to collaborate and take risks in innovative instructional practices. The school environment is personally safe (e.g., free from bullying), and fosters the development of personal identities and interests within a STEM context (Bruce-Davis et al., 2014; Engels et al., 2008; Edwards et al., 1996). (J. Spillane, 2012).
  14. Agency and Choice. Students choose to attend a STEM-focused high school and understand the challenges that will be involved and develop a sense of  purpose coherent with the school mission Merseth, 2009), committed to a different approach to high school due to its STEM focus (cf., Bargerhuff, 2013; cf., Orfield  & Frankenberg, 2013; Rutledge et al., 2015). Students had the agency (Bandura, 1989) that follows from having choices about the school that they attend; and multiple opportunities to make more choices about STEM academic opportunities, accompanied by increasing personal agency and responsibility outside of school. The emphasis on agency and choice broadened students’ sense of belonging in the STEM community and the scope of possibilities.