Scaling Up First Things First


Developed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), First Things First is an ambitious comprehensive school reform model that seeks to address the impersonal nature and poor performance of many secondary schools serving disadvantaged students. Calling for changes in structure, instruction, governance, and accountability in low-performing middle and high schools, the model is grounded in substantial research on factors that contribute to high engagement and achievement among adolescents, as well as on the organizational change literature and on the practices of schools that have succeeded with students who might otherwise be at high risk of school failure. Key program elements include: the establishment of small learning communities to promote a more personalized atmosphere, a “Family Advocate System” to further the development of strong teacher-student bonds, and the introduction of professional development activities geared toward making classroom instruction more rigorous and involving.

Promising early results in Kansas City, Kansas, where First Things First was initially mounted, led the U.S. Department of Education to select the initiative for expansion and testing as one of several comprehensive school reform models participating in its Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program. (MDRC’s Evaluation of the Talent Development Model is also receiving support under the same Department of Education research initiative.) Specifically, MDRC’s charge is to study the implementation and effects of First Things First in 12 middle and high schools, located in four school districts that are part of this expansion effort, as well as in additional schools in Kansas City, Kansas. If the approach is effective and adaptable to these new contexts, it can serve as a model for turning around low-performing schools.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Under way since 2000, the Scaling Up First Things First study addresses the following key questions:

  • To what extent are the program’s key features operating successfully in the expansion sites, and what factors promote or impede successful implementation?
  • Does the program register impacts on student attitudes and on their academic performance?
  • How are program implementation, student and teacher attitudes, and student performance related to each other?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

In Scaling Up First Things First, IRRE, the reform’s developer, provides support and technical assistance to the schools and districts into which First Things First has expanded, while MDRC acts as project manager and evaluator.

The analytic approach used for this study combines two particularly strong quasi-experimental evaluation methods: an interrupted time series analysis and a comparison schools technique. In the interrupted time series analysis, measures of student performance in schools that implemented the intervention are compared with the performance of similar students in the same schools prior to the implementation. The difference between performance levels in the two groups is referred to as a “deviation from the baseline.” A second interrupted time series analysis is conducted for a group of comparison schools in the same district that have characteristics similar to those of the intervention schools. The difference between the deviations from the baseline in the intervention schools and the deviations from the baseline in the comparison schools represents the estimated impact of the intervention.

By design, one group of expansion schools began implementing First Things First one year after the other group of schools. Thus, three years of post-implementation data are available for the earlier-starting schools and two years are available for the later-starting schools.

The expansion sites in MDRC’s study of First Things First include secondary schools in these urban, suburban, and rural school districts:

  • Houston Independent School District (Houston, Texas)
  • Riverview Gardens School District (suburban St. Louis County, Missouri)
  • Greenville Public Schools (Greenville, Mississippi)
  • Shaw Public Schools (Shaw, Mississippi)

Information about program implementation comes from annual surveys of teachers and students and from field interviews with district and school administrators, teachers, students, and others. Data sources for the impact study include school records on attendance, promotion, and test scores. A classroom observation study was also conducted to ascertain changes in instructional practices.