Proposing a New Federal Role to Support Better School Improvement Policy

Editor’s note: This is the third of three blog posts based on a series of Memos to the President produced by the Brookings Institution. This blog summarizes a memo recommending federal actions that encourage schools and colleges to apply improvement science methodologies to change efforts. It was co-authored by Anthony S. Bryk and Marshall (Mike) S. Smith of the Carnegie Foundation, Helen F. Ladd at Duke University, and Jennifer O’Day with the American Institutes for Research.

After decades of well-meaning but ultimately costly and ineffective reforms aimed at providing equitable resources for our most disadvantaged students, there is a noticeable shift across the country in the strategy that some school districts, universities, and state departments of education are using to enact changes in education. They are turning to improvement science, a systematic process that helps educators become effective and efficient at the work of teaching and learning. Improvement science is most effectively executed in Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), which are teams of academic researchers, practitioners, education leaders, and community organizations each contributing their expertise to collaborate on a specific issue.

The federal government can and should take a leadership role in advancing improvement science through policies that encourage this approach, but without the intrusiveness that has characterized the last 15 years of education reform, write the authors of “A shift in the federal role needed to promote school improvement.”

The report is one of 12 Memos to the President on the Future of Education Policy published by the Brookings Institution in December 2016 and January 2017, as a new administration prepares for office.

As a result of No Child Left Behind and similar state policies that defined success primarily on assessments, many districts pushed out a series of overlapping but unconnected short-term efforts aimed at raising test scores. In contrast, improvement science approaches problems, such as disproportionate high failure rates in college developmental math courses, as systemic issues requiring research, data, and input from the NIC members. It also requires an understanding of students’ and teachers’ needs before designing potential solutions, which are then continuously measured to ensure that the outcomes of those interventions are working.

At Florida State University, for example, Hispanic students have exceeded the graduation rate of their white classmates and black students have pulled nearly even ever since professors and officials applied improvement science to address the disparity in graduation rates. The program they designed lets counselors track student course taking in real time in order to intervene quickly when a student starts missing classes, shows signs of failing, or doesn’t enroll in necessary classes. In Wisconsin, the School District of Menomonee Falls implemented improvement science strategies to turn around behavior problems and to lower its suspension rate by identifying alternatives to removing students from school. What’s missing from these individual successes, however, is a formal structure for schools and districts to share their work — the ups and downs — as well as supporting and encouraging other education systems to follow.

“The major challenge now is to take these strategies to scale … to benefit both the children and adults in those systems.”

“The major challenge now is to take these strategies to scale — to reach more education systems and to implement them more deeply to benefit both the children and adults in those systems,” write the authors of this Brookings memo.

Going to scale isn’t simply a matter of lifting an initiative from one location and dropping it into another. Every school, district, and state varies by student demographics and needs; by technological infrastructure and ability; by economic conditions; and by policy requirements. “Put simply,” say the authors, “what works in some places often doesn’t work in many others.”

Improvement science is a proven method for cultivating quality systemic change that can be reliably scaled within diverse contexts. Over the past six decades, improvement science has evolved from a tool used largely in private industry to a vital process for problems in professional settings, such as health and social services. Following the 2003 outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, the World Health Organization mobilized its rapid response network, enabling experts around the globe to collaborate in real time. Within weeks, they had identified regions in greatest danger and created diagnostic testing to stop SARS from spreading. Over the past eight years, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has adapted and provided guidance on how to use improvement science to tackle complex education problems.

A different, not expanded, federal role

The federal government is integral to creating a structure that addresses variation in performance while promoting evidence-based improvement to increase academic achievement, graduation rates, and college success, especially for low-income, African-American and Hispanic students. The memo identifies two overriding recommendations for federal policy.

  • Create an improvement infrastructure that supports schools, districts, and states.
  • Create cultures of improvement and new forms of accountability at state and district levels that support improvement.

Calling for new federal policy in education may seem ill-timed, given the incoming administration’s predilection for less regulation and more market-based forces. On closer look, though, the memo’s recommendations fit nicely within the philosophical and practical shift away from top-down edicts and toward evidence-based improvement that underlie the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, approved last year by Congress.

The final guidelines for ESSA, printed in the November 29, 2016 Federal Register, give states authority to choose their own measures of academic progress and success for schools in which some subgroups of students are not thriving, but explicitly requires states to “demonstrate that measures in the Academic Progress and School Quality or Student Success indicators are supported by research that high performance or improvement on such measures is likely to increase student learning (e.g., grade point average, credit accumulation, or performance in advanced coursework), or — for measures at the high school level — graduation rates, postsecondary enrollment, postsecondary persistence or completion, or career readiness.”

ESSA also continues to support federal and state efforts to create accessible, high-quality data systems that practitioners and education leaders need to measure the success of their interventions.

Too often, reforms are implemented without identifying the specific problem, have little or no research evidence to support them, and are “based on little more than hunches,” write the authors. Teachers are left to implement these initiatives with no training or resources, nor any regard for whether they complement the panoply of other changes handed down from above. “This is an all too common recipe for failure.”

The Brookings memo outlines specific actions the federal government can take to inspire and strengthen improvement science capabilities for state and local education leaders and practitioners, without reverting to the widely unpopular prescriptive policies under No Child Left Behind. These include:

  1. Provide funding for small incentive grants in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that enable colleges and universities to add improvement science to the curriculum in their teacher, principal, superintendent training programs. A grant from a private foundation has enabled High Tech High, a charter school network in San Diego County, to embed this training in the curriculum at its graduate school of education.
  1. Encourage practical applications of education research by supporting partnerships between educational researchers and local practitioners to use the findings as a foundation for problem-solving ideas. This could include direct funding for NICs. In 2009, a NIC made up of academic researchers and community college math professors and administrators designed the Carnegie Math Pathways initiative. They launched it in 2010, and, within five years, the Pathways program had tripled the success rate of students in developmental math in half the time of their peers in traditional developmental math classes.
  1. Support cultures of improvement in schools to develop new and richer forms of accountability that rely on more factors than annual test scores. The memo describes systems in New Zealand and the Netherlands where teams of reviewers visit each school and write public reports based on formal rubrics or protocols. A school identified with problem areas is required to develop and implement an improvement plan and gets a return visit from the team to assess its progress.

Some of these recommendations will require federal financial support to states and districts to get the programs up and running, but the payoff will come when everyone in the schools feels they have a stake and a say in creating an educational system that works for all teachers and students.