Washington, D.C.—Students in low-performing schools in Massachusetts that received state School Redesign Grants (SRGs) demonstrated greater academic improvement in English language arts and mathematics than students in comparison public schools, according to a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). A companion implementation study, using qualitative data from current and past SRG recipient schools, offers some insights into the strategies that characterize SRG schools showing improvements in student achievement.
Massachusetts’ School Redesign Grants are funded by the U.S. Department of Education Title I School Improvement Grants, federal dollars awarded to more than 1,800 low-performing schools nationwide and specifically designed to raise student achievement. In Massachusetts, the lowest performing schools in need of the most assistance but not yet under state control (Level 4 schools) are eligible for these grants and can be used to support a variety of research-based turnaround practices. According to the AIR study, schools receiving the grants saw gains in student achievement, and the achievement gap between English-language learners and other students shrank more than in comparison schools, as did the achievement gap between students with and without access to free and reduced-price school lunches.
“The achievement gains were robust across district and grade levels,” Christina LiCalsi, lead author of the report said. “Results of this size mean that within three years the gap in average achievement between students in these low-performing schools and students in other schools within the same district was halved. These results are substantial,” she said.
At the time of the study, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had provided grants to 56 low-performing schools since 2010. Of these, 22 demonstrated student achievement gains substantial enough to improve the school’s accountability level (from Level 4 to 3 or better) as of August 2016.
Although all SRG schools are expected to implement a turnaround plan aligned to four key practices, described in detail in the Massachusetts Turnaround Practices Indicators and Continuum, some specific strategies related to each practice were prevalent among the schools showing notable improvements and thus, suggesting that they may have been important drivers of the change, according to the AIR researchers responsible for the implementation study.
For example, leaders of successful SRG schools actively and strategically used the increased autonomy and flexibility that the department affords all Level 4 schools to recruit and assign appropriate staff and to modify the school-day schedule. As one principal said: “It's important to create schedules that allow for [teachers’] collaborative work during the school day.” Developing and implementing strategies for effective two-way communication between principals and teachers was also seen as very important or essential to school improvement, according to staff in successful schools.
Setting and communicating high expectations for instruction, conducting regular classroom observations by principals and other teachers, and providing teachers with targeted and actionable feedback aligned to those expectations were viewed as key to improving instruction. In successful schools receiving SRGs, data from classroom observations were also used to regularly inform school leaders’ decisions about schoolwide instructional practice and necessary educator supports.
Providing individualized attention and academic and nonacademic support to students in need of extra help was widely seen as integral to successful turnaround. One school reported that staff regularly reviewed students’ “ABCs”—attendance, behavior and course performance. Establishing and consistently implementing systems for identifying and providing social and emotional support to student populations with disproportionately high needs was deemed especially critical to these schools’ success. In successful schools, teachers developed good relationships with students and their families, and schools worked closely with external partners to provide “wraparound” services, such as physical and mental health supports to students and their families.
Because low-performing schools often face student behavior problems, improving school climate was also seen as vital in turning around these schools. Many successful SRG schools established, almost immediately upon SRG receipt, a consistent behavior plan to build a safe, orderly and respectful school culture, and expanded after-school and nonacademic clubs, athletics and other activities as a way to manage behavioral issues. In addition, staff were encouraged, if not required, to be more proactive in communicating with students’ parents about successes as well as problems.
Even though schools experienced gains overall, as evidenced by findings from the study, staff in these schools described ongoing challenges in successfully and consistently implementing turnaround strategies expected of SRG schools. For example, staff frequently cited insufficient staff time and school resources and competing turnaround priorities as obstacles to improvement. Even communicating a turnaround plan in struggling schools and building staff support for the plan can be difficult in these schools since, as one principal explained, many teachers are “demoralized by the previous administration, and so accustomed to blaming students and their families for the lack of achievement.”
The implementation study was primarily informed by extant data gathered through interviews and focus groups during annual AIR school monitoring visits and from surveys of staff in schools that have successfully exited Level 4. This study of the intervention’s effectiveness used a comparative interrupted time series design, which used changes in outcomes over time across 47 SRG schools and comparison schools to assess gains in performance attributable to the SRGs.
The new two-part AIR study is available at www.air.org.
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit www.air.org