To the Editor:
Your Feb. 6, 2008, story on the What Works Clearinghouse’s examination of dropout-prevention programs has glaring omissions (“U.S. Review Finds No Proof That Reform Model Works”).
Sometimes characterized as the “Nothing Works” Clearinghouse, this fairly new federal research organization continues to offer disappointing information. Both the clearinghouse and your article fail to describe the clear and growing evidence that the First Things First school reform model raises student achievement, increases students’ attendance, and changes students’ attitudes about school.
A review of reform models by the Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center at the American Institutes for Research put First Things First among the top five of 18 school reform models in having evidence of positive effects on student achievement (“CSRQ Center Report on Middle and High School Comprehensive School Reform Models,” 2006). In addition, a study headed by Henry M. Levin of Teachers College, Columbia University, found that the First Things First program was more effective at increasing graduation rates than are class-size reductions, the Chicago child-parent center, and teacher-salary increases. And the program was by far the most cost-effective school improvement model (“The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America’s Children,” 2007).
Unlike these researchers, the What Works Clearinghouse based its conclusions on just a tiny part of a single study. A full research report by MDRC looked at schools in Kansas, Texas, Missouri, and Mississippi and found increased student attendance and graduation rates, reduced dropout rates, and higher test scores in every school that had implemented the program for more than three years. But the clearinghouse only examined change in persistence rates at three schools in Houston in the first year of implementation.
Educators know that the first couple of years in any reform are a transition period, so a summary of evidence based on only the first year is worse than useless. It is confusing and misleading to a field hungry for clarity and guidance.
James P. Connell
Institute for Research and Reform in Education
Toms River, N.J.
The Institute for Research and Reform in Education is the developer of First Things First, a reform framework currently at work in 13 districts with 73 schools.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as Clearinghouse’s Review of Dropout Programs Faulted