School & District Management

Reform Model Found to Spur Gains in Kansas

By Debra Viadero — July 12, 2005 4 min read

Nearly eight years ago, the Kansas City, Kan., school system adopted an ambitious but untried plan to transform its schools into more personalized and academically rigorous learning communities.

An independent report released last week suggests the district’s long-running gamble is paying off. In secondary schools across the 20,000-student district, student attendance and graduation rates, dropout rates, and scores on state reading and math exams have improved faster than they have in other Kansas schools with similar enrollments, the report says.

Released by the New York City-based MDRC research group, the federally financed study is the second to document Kansas City schools’ success with the improvement model known as First Things First. (“‘First Things First’ Shows Promising Results,” March 9, 2005.)

Read “The Challenge of Scaling Up Educational Reform: Findings and Lessons from First Things First” posted by the MDRC research group.

But the new study also found that the same kinds of gains have yet to materialize in four other districts that have been using the program for a shorter amount of time in Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas.

“We know expansions and replications are hard, and they are uncertain, and we especially know it takes a while for effects to register,” said Janet C. Quint, the report’s lead author.

Coming at a time when many national policymakers are wringing their hands over the difficulty of improving high schools, Ms. Quint added, the new report offers some cause for optimism nonetheless.

MDRC published another report, in May, documenting a five-year improvement trend in Philadelphia, where middle and high schools have been experimenting with another improvement model, known as Talent Development. (“‘Talent Development’ Model Seen as Having Impact,” May 25, 2005.)

Taken together, Ms. Quint said, both studies offer proof “that effective things can happen in extremely low-performing high schools.”

“But that isn’t to say,” she cautioned, “that they will happen or that they will happen fast.”

Used in 70 schools nationwide, the First Things First model is based on three pillars: small school communities, a family-advocate system, and instructional improvement.

It calls for dividing large schools into separate academies or schools-within-schools of no more than 350 students. The program also pairs students with adults in the school building who monitor their academic progress, advocate for them, and act as liaisons between the school and families.

Commitment Called Key

To track progress under First Things First, Ms. Quint and her research partners compared test scores, dropout rates, and other data for the program schools with those for other schools with similar demographic and achievement profiles.

In Kansas City, for example, the researchers determined that, by the spring of 2004, the five First Things First high schools had 11.1 percent more students scoring at proficient levels on the state reading test than might otherwise have been the case. Likewise, they found, 15.5 percent fewer students were scoring at basic levels on the same test, compared with other schools. The same improvement pattern showed up on middle school reading tests, but not at the elementary level.

Ms. Quint said the districtwide commitment to the program in Kansas City, which has lasted through four superintendents, might have been one key to its success there.

“Right from the outset, Kansas City announced First Things First was going to be its major reform effort and was going to be implemented in all the schools in the district,” Ms. Quint said. “And the central office reorganized itself to provide increased support and supervision for implementation.”

In the other districts studied, only a few schools were using the program. The researchers also studied schools in: the 209,000-student Houston Independent School District; in Missouri’s Riverview Gardens district, which enrolls 7,877 students in suburban St. Louis; and in two rural Mississippi Delta school districts, the 7,900-student Greenville system and the 960-student Shaw district.

All five systems, including Kansas City, serve student populations that are predominantly poor and minority, but the four non-Kansas districts have been using the program for only two or three years.

“It wasn’t until our third or fourth year in the system that we started to see systemwide changes,” said Steve M. Gering, the deputy superintendent of teaching and learning for the Kansas City schools. “One of the worst things school systems do is, things don’t change quickly enough, so you bounce from one reform to another.”

James P. Connell, the psychologist who developed First Things First, said his organization, the Toms River, N.J.-based Institute for Research and Reform in Education, planned to continue working in the other districts as well as expand its efforts into other schools across the country.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion A Crisis Sows Confusion. How District Leaders Can Be Clear in Their Messaging
Choosing a go-to source of information is a good starting point, but it doesn’t end there.
Daniel R. Moirao
2 min read
A man with his head in a cloud.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion COVID-19 Ripped Through Our Emotional Safety Net. Here’s How My District Responded
Three years after overhauling its approach to student mental health, one California district found itself facing a new crisis.
Jonathan Cooper
2 min read
A young man stands under a street light on a lonely road.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion Students Need Better Connections. To Wi-Fi, Yes, But Also to Teachers
We have to fix our digital divide, but let’s not lose sight of the relationship divide, writes one superintendent.
Susan Enfield
2 min read
A teacher checks in on a remote student.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management Opinion Superintendents Have Weathered a Lot of Vitriol This Year. What Have We Learned?
The pandemic turned district leaders into pioneers, writes one superintendent. We had to band together to make it through.
Matthew Montgomery
2 min read
A person walks from a vast empty space towards a team of people.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images