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Published in Print: April 21, 2004, as Studies Find Benefits From ‘America’s Choice’ Design

Studies Find Benefits From ‘America’s Choice’ Design

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Research PageFrom the very beginning, the America’s Choice school improvement model has been based on research. The founders of the standards-based program traveled the globe to study education systems and figure out which ones worked and what made them successful.

As a result, they decided to create a school design that would influence leadership, teachers’ professional development, curriculum—and everything in between.

"We were interested in learning how to create whole systems in which ordinary people can run effective schools," as opposed to concentrating on single schools, said Marc S. Tucker, the president and founder of the National Center on Education and the Economy, the Washington-based nonprofit organization that operates the America’s Choice reform program.

The group’s emphasis on research didn’t wane after its design was adopted by school systems around the country. Aiming to make America’s Choice more effective, the center contracted with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, to study its program. Having an external evaluator was essential, Mr. Tucker said: "We said from the beginning that we would live or die by our results."

The consortium, known as CPRE, has done research on the program since 1998, and has published eight studies, ranging from in-depth looks at how effective the strategy has been in particular school systems to specific aspects of the program, such as literacy workshops and teacher coaches. The mounting evidence suggests that America’s Choice can indeed help boost student performance.

Other comprehensive school improvement programs sometimes use research they conduct on themselves, said Arthur W. Gosling, the director of the National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, located at George Washington University in Washington.

But America’s Choice relies on research that is performed by an outside agency, he pointed out. "In our judgment, it is one of only a handful of comprehensive school reform designs that schools should look at and consider using," he said.

In 1997, Congress enacted a competitive grant program—administered by states and primarily aimed at schools that receive federal Title I money—that promotes comprehensive approaches to reform. Under its rules, schools are urged to choose programs that are based on research. ("Reform Programs Backed by Studies Find Fewer Takers," this issue.)

The federal grants, now known as the Comprehensive School Reform program, spurred the growth of America’s Choice. Since 1998, more than 500 schools in 15 states have used the design.

Last week, the National Center on Education and the Economy released its own report on America’s Choice, highlighting some of CPRE’s research. "Results! From Schools, Districts, and States Using the America’s Choice Design" also includes short case studies of schools that have adopted the approach.

Results in Rochester

The latest CPRE study, included in the report, examines how well students in America’s Choice schools in Rochester, N.Y., performed when compared with students in schools that have not adopted the model.

Six of Rochester’s 52 elementary schools were using the America’s Choice design in the fall of 1998. Four years later, more than a third of district’s elementary and middle schools were using the program.

Jonathan A. Supovitz and Henry May, the authors of the new CPRE report, looked at the impact America’s Choice had on student performance in the 37,000-student district between 1998 and 2003.

They found that students in America’s Choice schools "learned significantly more than did students in other Rochester schools." In reading in grades 4-8, they outperformed other Rochester students by an average of 17 percent a year; in the same grades in mathematics, they did better by 26 percent a year.

In addition, America’s Choice schools in Rochester tend to serve minority students and pupils from low-income families.

At the K-6 Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in northeast Rochester, roughly 95 percent of the 870 students are either African-American or Hispanic, and 96 percent live in poverty, according to Vicki Gouveia, the principal.

Since the school began using America’s Choice in 2001, test scores have risen slightly, she said, but the real improvements have been in the way the school operates.

For one, teacher turnover has not been a problem in the past three years, Ms. Gouveia said. In 2001, the school had 19 first-year teachers, and 36 of the school’s 42 teachers were "probationary," or in their first three years of teaching.

Since that year, only one teacher has left the school, the principal said.

The structure that comes with the design has been a major improvement for the school, she said. Now, teachers work in grade- level teams, each class has a 2½-hour block of time for literacy, and the school works from a master schedule, which means that generally, every classroom in a specific grade is covering the same subject at the same time.

Every day revolves around instruction, Ms. Gouveia said, "rather than other, nonessential or less essential activities."

The research behind America’s Choice was not the deciding factor for staff members at Bethune Elementary, however. Instead, they chose it because they "felt it was something they could embrace," Ms. Gouveia said. The added professional development that comes with the design was also very attractive to the teachers, she said.

‘Georgia’s Choice’

But the research did play a major role in Georgia’s decision to adopt America’s Choice as the state’s preferred comprehensive school reform design for districts in need of such programs.

"Many companies will give you a lot of research," said Lissa Pijanowski, the director of the division of school improvement at the Georgia Department of Education. Because the research on America’s Choice was done by an outside contractor not directly associated with the group, she said, it was "much more valid."

The state started using America’s Choice in the 2001- 02 school year and has been building the capacity it needs to run the program on its own, under the name "Georgia’s Choice."

Currently, 118 schools in the state are using the program, a number that Ms. Pijanowski expects will increase. Budget constraints, though, have caused some districts to back out of the program, she added.

As America’s Choice becomes "Georgia’s Choice," and the state starts operating the program on its own, the price should go down.

Nationally, America’s Choice costs between $70,000 and $105,000 per school, depending on factors such as student population. In the coming school year, Georgia elementary schools will pay $37,000, Ms. Pijanowski said.

The model relies heavily on student-performance standards, which also appealed to the state’s education leaders. "What attracted us," Ms. Pijanowski said, "was that it focused on students and their progress, rather than traditional systems being focused on the adults in the schools."

The comprehensiveness of the program—including a tool that allows districts to measure the level at which schools are implementing the approach—was another plus, she said.

Georgia’s Choice requires a collaborative effort at the state, district, and school levels. "It is not just ‘Here is your initial training—go forth and do good work,’ " Ms. Pijanowski said.

And the effort appears to be paying off. In 2001, only 21 percent of 5th grade students in Georgia’s Choice schools were scoring at or above the proficient level on the state writing test. The state average was 37 percent that year.

Now, 45 percent of 5th grade students in Georgia’s Choice schools are scoring at that level on the writing test, and the state average is 56 percent. Even though the schools that are using Georgia’s Choice are still lagging, Ms. Pijanowski said, it is evident that they "are making progress and closing the gap."

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 32, Page 8

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