The Challenge of Scaling Up Educational Reform
Findings and Lessons from First Things First
First Things First (FTF) is a major comprehensive school reform that includes three central components: small learning communities of up to 350 students and their key teachers who remain together for several years; a family advocate system, in which each student is paired with a staff member who meets regularly with the student, monitors his or her progress, and works with the student’s parents to promote success; and instructional improvement efforts aimed at making lessons more engaging and rigorous, as well as better aligned with state and local standards.
FTF was initially launched in Kansas City, Kansas, and subsequently tested in 12 middle schools and high schools in four additional districts (Houston, Texas; the Riverview Gardens School District in suburban St. Louis County, Missouri; and Greenville and Shaw, Mississippi) through the Scaling Up First Things First Demonstration, a five-year research and demonstration project supported by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. The scaling-up project was a collaboration of two organizations: the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), which developed the program model and provided support and technical assistance to partner schools and districts, and MDRC, which evaluated the initiative. This report describes the implementation and effects of the program model in these five districts, all of which serve high proportions of minority and economically disadvantaged students.
With respect to implementation, the researchers found that FTF has evolved continuously not only at the sites but also in the minds of its developers, as IRRE personnel have learned from both successes and challenges. Implementation progressed further in settings where district and school leaders provided consistent support for the initiative and IRRE staff offered intensive technical assistance; predictably, changes in structure (for example, the creation of small learning communities) took hold more easily than changes in instruction.
The impacts of FTF were measured using a comparative interrupted time-series design. In summary, the key findings are:
- Middle and high school students in Kansas City, Kansas, registered large gains on a wide range of academic outcomes that were sustained over several years and were pervasive across the district’s schools; similar gains were not present in the most comparable schools in the state. The improvements occurred over the course of eight years of substantial effort by the school district and IRRE to implement FTF as the district’s central educational reform.
- It is not yet clear whether the expansion sites, which had operated FTF for two or three years at the time of the research follow-up, will replicate the impressive findings for Kansas City.