The Education Innovator #39
Volume III
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The Education Innovator
 October 27, 2005 • Number 39
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First Things First
What's New
Innovations in the News

"First Things First" Starts with Student Achievement as the Goal
Weary after a day of work, Rosa Parks sat down at the front of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her decision, nearly 50 years ago, galvanized civil rights activists. The strong, yet demure lady passed away this week at the age of 92, but her contribution to the civil rights movement endures. In 1988, Mrs. Parks called on the public to carry on her legacy by bringing America's youth "peace, justice, equality, love, and a fulfillment of what [their] lives should be."

The No Child Left Behind Act focuses attention on the civil right of every young person to have a good education. Five years before the federal law, a reform initiative called First Things First began its mission to close the achievement gap. Developed in 1996 by the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), First Things First (FTF) works with districts and schools to meet state and federal education requirements. School districts that partner with FTF must commit to strengthening relationships among students, school faculty, and families; improving students' engagement in school by aligning coursework with rigorous state academic standards, and allocating resources such as time and space to achieve these goals.

FTF implements three strategies to achieve its goals: instructional improvement, a "Family Advocate System," and small learning communities. FTF focuses on improving teaching and learning at each school around three instructional goals: Engagement, Alignment, and Rigor (EAR). FTF schools strive to be places where students are engaged, emotionally, behaviorally, and cognitively, in their coursework; instructional leaders help teachers align lesson plans, materials, and assignments to reflect the academic standards from the district and the state; and teachers infuse rigor into their classroom practices so these standards are clear to each learner. FTF also keeps teams of teachers with the same students for multiple years in elementary school, all three years in middle school, and all four years of high school to provide better continuity in the learning experience.

Administrators and other instructional leaders visit classrooms and use a technology-based tool called "Measuring What Matters" to assess teachers' effectiveness in achieving engagement, alignment, and rigor in their classes. During these visits, administrators use multiple research-based indicators of each of the EAR instructional goals. These checklists are loaded onto personal data assistants (PDAs). Data from the PDAs are then compiled into reports that are used to guide instructional improvement at the individual teacher, content area, small learning community, and building levels.

The Family Advocate System aligns with the program's goal of strengthening relationships among students and faculty in participating schools. In the Family Advocate System, each faculty and staff member within an SLC is assigned to work with 15 to 20 students and their families for the entire time those students attend the school.

Family advocates have a number of responsibilities, for which they receive training and ongoing support. The first includes working with students during an assigned period at some point in the school day. Every FTF school sets aside time for students to meet with their advocates, although the frequency varies from school to school. The objectives of the meetings are the same across FTF sites. During each 30- to 60-minute session, advocates focus on getting to know the students individually and as a group, developing positive relationships, establishing a sense of community, and providing support so that the students can excel in school. Many advocates use this time for one-on-one conferences, while the rest of the group is involved in activities such as writing in journals or studying in pairs.

Advocates also are responsible for contacting students' families informally each month by telephone or mail and meeting face-to-face at least once per semester during conferences typically held at the school. During a semester conference, at which the student is present, the advocate speaks with the family about the student's accomplishments and the challenges he or she is facing, both in terms of behavior and academic performance. The advocate then works with the student and his or her family to create an "action plan" that outlines behavioral and academic goals. The advocate, student, and family members endorse this plan, which is used to guide discussion in future sessions and conferences. The plan is revised throughout the year based on the student's progress.

Finally, in the FTF framework, school buildings are divided into more manageable, close-knit units called small learning communities (SLCs). SLCs typically consist of 10 to 20 staff members and no more than 180 students at the elementary level, and 325 students at the middle and high school levels. At the secondary level, students take all of their core classes in their SLC, but they may venture out of their individual communities to engage in music, art, physical education, or other elective classes across communities. Students remain in their SLC for multiple years. For example, students stay in their SLC throughout all three years of middle school and all four years of high school.

Summer training institutes offer additional time for FTF staff to focus on instructional improvement, as well as to orient new faculty. Family advocates receive training during this time, and teachers learn instructional strategies that are designed to accelerate the progress of students who are struggling in subjects such as reading and math.

Currently, FTF is operating in 30 elementary schools, 13 middle schools, and 24 high schools in Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Fourteen more high schools and four more middle schools in California, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, and Wisconsin will begin implementation next fall. Kansas City (KS) Public Schools was the first district to partner with FTF in 1998, placing the initiative in all 43 of its schools through a staggered process.

One of the most recent schools to join the First Things First family in Kansas City is Frank Rushton Elementary School. The school houses a diverse student body of approximately 46 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American, 20 percent Caucasian, and 4 percent Asian students. Eighty-four percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and many hail from areas as diverse as Mexico, India, China, Pakistan, Kenya, and the Caribbean. About twelve different languages are spoken at the school. The school has three small learning communities called the Red, White, and Blue Academies. Each academy contains kindergarten through fifth grade students and teachers. All teachers "loop" with their classes for two years. This strategy adds continuity to the program and allows teachers to devote more time to instruction once the students and parents are familiar with each other and with the teachers' expectations.

Last year, Frank Rushton met all targets for Adequate Yearly Progress determined by the state, and test scores show growth in achievement between 2004 and 2005. For example, in fifth grade reading, the percentage of all students scoring exemplary on the state reading achievement assessment rose six percentage points, with the percentage of African American students achieving at the exemplary level going from 0 percent to 4 percent and at the advanced level going from 0 percent to 25 percent. The percentage of Hispanic students reading at the exemplary level nearly doubled between 2004 and 2005.

Frank Rushton Elementary School's success mirrors results from a 2004 report from Youth Development Strategies, Inc. that examined FTF's impact on Kansas City schools. The report shows that elementary students in the district were 61 percent more likely to score proficient in 2002-2003 on the state reading test, as opposed to students in the rest of the state who were 8 percent more likely to score at that mark. Test scores on state math tests also improved after FTF was put into place. A more recent study from Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation shows that FTF results extend into Kansas City's middle and high schools as well. All middle schools improved reading and math scores over the eight years that FTF was implemented across the district. In the four high schools using FTF strategies, reading and math scores also increased. Attendance and graduation rates improved, and dropout rates decreased as well.

Nearly 50 years after Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus, this country continues to grapple with providing its citizens, especially its youngest ones, with equal rights, namely, with equal access to a high-quality education. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has called improving American education the "moral imperative of the 21st century."

In 1999 the former Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) at the U.S. Department of Education awarded IRRE a grant to expand First Things First into high schools in five locations: Kansas City, (KS); Houston, (TX); Riverview Gardens, (MO); as well as Shaw and Greenville, (MS). The initiative receives support from the Ford, Bill and Melinda Gates, Ewing Marion Kauffman, and William T. Grant Foundations.

Resources: Note: FTF was recently cited in a Government Accountability Office report download files PDF (5MB), to Congress as a program that shows potential for improving graduation rates.


What's New
From the U.S. Department of Education

National and state-by-state results of the 2005 Nation's Report Card in reading and mathematics, detailing fourth and eighth grade achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have been released. Results show steady growth and gains by America's schoolchildren, particularly among younger and minority students. African-American and Hispanic fourth-graders posted the highest math and reading scores in the 15-year history of the test, and African-American and Hispanic eighth-graders posted the highest math scores yet. (Oct. 19)

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings explained the value of testing and accountability in an OP-ED article in USA Today. She wrote, "Accountability assessments are valuable tools. They let students see the rewards of hard work...and parents know if their child's school is measuring up." Under No Child Left Behind, students in grades 3-8 are assessed annually, based on state academic standards. We are seeing results at the elementary school level, but "high school scores have barely budged," and "they need a boost." (Oct. 20)

Tom Luce, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, answered questions for Ask the White House, an online, interactive forum where the public can gain information from administration officials. Assistant Secretary Luce covered questions on NAEP results and closing the achievement gap. He also discussed tools available under No Child Left Behind to help spur student achievement. (Oct. 21)

Office of Innovation and Improvement

OII's Office of Non-Public Education, with support from the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has developed a brochure with information on how private schools can become supplemental educational services providers. The free brochure can be ordered from ED Pubs under item number EU 0149H. (Oct. 21)

Charter Schools

CharterAmerica, the first weekly worldwide webcast dedicated to charter public schooling, was launched for back-to-school. The October 19 program welcomed charter school leaders who are passionate about arts-based schools. Another program focused on dual-language schools for deaf students (see Innovator, October 13, 2005 for article on Minnesota North Star Academy featured on the program). Sponsors of the program include Volunteers of America of Minnesota, Leadership for Educational Entrepreneurs, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (Oct. 19)


The American Enterprise Institute will sponsor a conference on educational entrepreneurship on November 14 in Washington, DC. The conference will cover why entrepreneurship matters, what risks are associated with it, and how to participate. Speakers will present research and practical guidance for entrepreneurs and policymakers interested in opportunities in the education marketplace. (Oct. 19)


The OII grantee, Project Grad (see Innovator, March 8, 2004), was cited along with First Things First (see feature) in the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report download files PDF (5MB), to Congress as a program that shows potential for improving graduation rates. The report on what education can do to help states better define and enhance graduation rates said that Project GRAD-Atlanta officials noted higher test scores and increased college attendance as indicators of the success of the program. (Sept. 2005)


Innovations in the News

Charter Schools
According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, 4th graders who attend charter schools are making strides in reading and math, based on the results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP test results show that low-income and minority charter school students, in particular, are making gains. [More-U.S. Newswire] (Oct. 19)

Educational providers such as Michigan-based National Heritage and New York City-based Mosaica and Edison Schools are expanding into Ohio. Mosaica opened nine schools in Ohio this fall and is implementing its signature academic model: a strong liberal arts curriculum administered to students through technology and individualized learning plans. The schools also will have a longer school day and academic year to reinforce students' learning. A recent study from WestEd found that Mosaica students surpassed their expected academic growth rates by over 17 percent. [More-The Plain Dealer] Oct. 17 (see also the Innovator, Sept. 8, 2003)

Raising Student Achievement
Engineering is a recent addition to the curriculum of some Massachusetts' high schools. Students apply the principles of civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering in hands-on science experiments as they build various inventions. The new curriculum is part of the broader effort to introduce more students to careers in engineering. Today, over 100 of the 316 high schools in the state offer engineering and are preparing students to take the new engineering and technology MCAS exam. While the test does not currently count towards graduation, it will be one of the four science tests that students must pass to graduate starting in 2010. [More-The Boston Globe] (Oct. 15)

Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), an OII grantee, made the first "Gift of Reading" awards to four individuals and one company for their support of children's literacy. The awardees are Rebeca Maria Barrera, founder of the National Latino Children's Institute; Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen; Hugh B. Price, former president and CEO of the National Urban League; James E. Rohr, chairman and CEO of the PNC Financial Services Group; and the Committee for Economic Development. The honorees endorse ideas such as access to preschool, having reading material in the home, and parents reading daily to their children. [More-Hispanic Business] (Sept. 27)

Capital One has teamed up with RIF through a three-year $1.25 million grant. RIF will use the funding for the Family of Readers program, which provides free books, parent workshops, and literacy resources to at-risk students from birth through eight years of age and their families at locations across the country. [More-Corporate Social Responsibility] (Sept. 28)

Students enrolled at Clement Middle School (CA) are using iPods to help them with their reading. Books are recorded onto the portable MP3 players. This enables students to read along in a book while the audio plays on their earphones. While tapes and CDs make it difficult to go back to earlier parts of the story, the iPod makes it easy to repeat dialogue or sections of interest. With the help of the iPod, students learn the pronunciation of new words and read books at their own pace. [More San Bernardino Sun] (Oct. 18)

Students at Rea Elementary School (CA) are enrolled in the Read 180 project a new program that uses technology to improve the reading, speaking, and writing skills of students who are below grade level. This fall, Rea became the first elementary site in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to implement the Read 180 program for students struggling with English. Classrooms consist of three stations: a row of computers where students engage in reading and writing activities, a table for independent reading, and another table where students do exercises with the teacher. [More- The Daily Pilot (The article is available from the Daily Pilot online archives for a fee)] (Oct. 18)


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Last Modified: 08/12/2009