The Search for Progress

Elementary Student Achievement and the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative’s Focal Strategy

| Kristin Porter, Jason Snipes, Jean Eisberg

The Bay Area School Reform Collaborative (BASRC, now called Springboard Schools) in San Francisco, California, is a grant-making organization that supports districts’ system-wide efforts to improve the quality and equity of student outcomes. The organization pursues various reform strategies. This report discusses the “focal strategy,” which targeted six districts in the Bay Area (“focal districts”), beginning in the 2002-2003 school year. The strategy does not prescribe a particular curriculum or school structure. Instead, it promotes a vision of culture change, relying on three key features: coaching of district and school leaders; evidence-based decision-making at all levels of the system; and networking within and across schools to share experiences and lessons.

With funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit education and social policy research organization, is conducting an independent evaluation of BASRC’s focal strategy. This report, the first of two, analyzes the relationship between the focal strategy and improvements in student achievement. It compares progress in the focal districts in the first two years of the strategy’s implementation to progress in a set of carefully chosen comparison districts in the same area over the same period. Though differences in the outcomes cannot necessarily be attributed to the BASRC focal strategy, the comparison illuminates the relationships between student outcomes and the focal strategy.

Key Findings

  • In the years following implementation of the focal strategy, achievement among third-grade students in the BASRC focal districts slightly declined, while achievement in the comparison districts showed no change compared with the baseline period.
  • On the other hand, fifth-grade students’ performance in the focal districts improved over time, slightly outpacing improvements in the comparison districts in Year 2, but the differences were not statistically significant.
  • Among blacks and Hispanics, English Language Learners, and economically disadvantaged students, performance in the focal districts appeared to surpass the improvements in the comparison districts. The differences were most evident in reductions in the percentage of fifth-grade students performing below basic levels. However, the differences were modest, generally limited to Year 2, and not statistically significant.

The evident lack of a substantial, pervasive association between the BASRC focal strategy and student achievement may not be surprising given that the strategy primarily targets district leadership and does not specify how reform activities may lead to changes in instruction or to instructional supports. The BASRC focal strategy has the potential to strengthen district leadership for supporting school improvement, and it may set the stage for stronger systemic improvements that are designed to change instructional practices. Thus it will be important to continue to look at follow-up data to ascertain whether the differences between the focal districts and the comparison districts — differences that were concentrated in the second year of implementation — persist, grow, or fade over time.