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Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Memphis Study Tracks Gains in Whole-School Designs

Memphis Study Tracks Gains in Whole-School Designs

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The closely watched effort in Memphis, Tenn., to enhance learning by encouraging the adoption of reform designs that encompass the entire school appears to be paying off.

A study released last week found that 25 elementary schools that began implementing the whole-school designs in 1995-96 showed much greater gains on state tests two years later than did a control group of schools that had not adopted the reform models.

Gerry House

The report by researchers at the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore provides some of the first hard evidence of learning gains in schools that have adopted designs sponsored by New American Schools. The Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group helps schools adopt research-based reform designs with the goal of creating a critical mass of restructured schools.1

Until now, evidence of the success of those widely promoted designs has been largely anecdotal.

In addition to the six NAS models, some of the elementary schools in the Memphis study used Accelerated Schools or Paideia, two other well-known approaches.

Steven M. Ross

The 110,000-student district is unusual in that it has encouraged individual schools to choose from a menu of reform designs. So far, 73 of the district's approximately 160 schools are using a whole-school design. Beginning next school year, every school must implement such a plan.2

Superintendent Gerry House said last week that the study's findings show that the district is on the right course. "This supports the district's decision for every school to implement a redesign model next year," she said.

'Quite a Reversal'

To determine whether the redesigned schools were improving, the researchers looked at year-to-year gains on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a state-mandated standardized test.

The researchers used the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, developed by William L. Sanders at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to see whether students in the 25 schools were making as much gain in a year as a nationally representative sample of students who had also taken the tests.

In 1995, before the design models were adopted, students in the 25 schools were making significantly less improvement from year to year across all grades and subjects than students in either the control schools or all other elementary schools in Memphis.

By 1997, students in the redesigned schools were making significantly greater gains than other students. Their average learning gain of 107.5 percent means that students across all grades were improving at a faster rate than the national average--100 percent--and notably faster than students in either the control schools (93 percent) or other Memphis elementary schools (96.4 percent).

"It's quite a reversal from 1995 to 1997," said Steven M. Ross, a professor of educational psychology and research at the University of Memphis who was the primary author of the report.

Combined with classroom observations that the researchers have been conducting since 1995, he said, the study "provides strong evidence that the redesign initiatives are having a positive impact on student learning."

"We're seeing different methods of teaching, we're seeing less didactic instruction, and fewer workbooks where students are passive," Mr. Ross added. "Even in the worst schools, teachers are meeting and planning more than ever, and that has to have some impact."

Roots & Wings Shines

Mr. Ross said he had been skeptical at first about whether the designs could produce gains in high-stakes standardized tests, particularly since the models tend to emphasize more hands-on, project-based learning.

"The teachers were telling us over and over again that what they were doing with these designs was not going to facilitate good performance on these specific skills," he said.

Whether such gains will continue in the long run remains to be seen, he added.

In the next few weeks, the researchers expect to complete a paper summarizing their study, which was presented to the Memphis school board on May 18. That paper, Mr. Ross said, will also show that some designs appear to be yielding larger gains in student learning than others. But he cautioned against reading too much into such results because they are based only on two years of experience in one district and, for some designs, in only two or three schools.

With the exception of the Roots & Wings design, which includes a strong emphasis on reading performance, the researchers do not anticipate identifying the designs by name. The school district asked the researchers to do a separate analysis of Roots & Wings, which was developed by Robert E. Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, because it is being used by the largest number of schools--20--in the district.

In 1995, the eight Roots & Wings schools included in the study had an average learning gain of 95.9 percent. By 1997, they had an average gain of 118.1 percent, which Mr. Ross described as "highly statistically significant."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Page 9

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