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.