i3 Projects Look Back on Progress and Lessons Learned

“We’re in the middle of the work and it’s a time to look back, also see the finish line, review data we’ve gathered, and do some reflecting,” is how Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton began a May 30th Education Policy Briefing i3 grantee representatives (left to right) Justin Jones (The Achievement Network), Debbie Kasak (Schools to Watch: School Transformation Network), and Robert Balfanz (Diplomas Now) with Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton. that featured three Investing in Innovation (i3) grantees whose work began two-and-one-half years ago. All are working to improve student achievement in low-performing schools with the support of national reform networks.

The grantees ─ Schools to Watch: School Transformation Network; Diplomas Now; and The Achievement Network ─ shared data and lessons learned with an audience of both ED staff and interested stakeholders that included the International Reading Association, the Learning First Alliance, the National PTA, the National Title I Association, and the Rural Education Trust.

The School Transformation Network i3 project is building on the Schools to Watch (STW) initiative of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform that began in 2002 to recognize academically excellent and socially equitable middle schools. With an i3 Development grant, the National Forum is engaging 18 high-poverty, low-performing middle schools in three states to adapt some of the core ideas that drove the Schools to Watch initiative and apply them to school turnaround.

The i3 project employs a multi-layer system of interventions, supports, and networking, with coaching and mentoring, for both principals and teachers, playing a central role. Specially trained coaches visit the schools twice each month, helping principals with leadership and planning, setting high expectations, and fostering a culture of shared decision-making and collective responsibility for student learning. At the outset of the transformation process a new school can visit other STW schools in the national network and experience firsthand such components as professional learning communities, which is a key feature of the STW model. “By seeing what was working at the STW schools,” one new i3 project principal remarked, “my staff analyzed how they could implement the same ideas or modify them in order to implement them at our school.”

Progress in the schools is tracked in part with the STW Self-Study and Rating Rubric, a four-domain metric of criteria for both the academic achievement and developmental needs of young adolescents, as well as for a school culture that provides social equity for all students and the support structures and resources necessary for high-level achievement. In each of the four domains, STW i3 schools have made steady gains on the rubric’s four-point scale the past two years.

Diplomas Now (DN) harnesses the expertise and resources of three national networks to implement its theory of action ─ a strategically assembled and delivered set of interventions in the relatively small number of middle and high schools nationally that are responsible for the majority of the nation’s dropouts can keep those As part of Diplomas Now’s comprehensive support system, a City Year corps member tutors a student at Burke High School in Boston.students on the path to high school graduation, college readiness, and adult success. Research by Robert Balfanz of The Johns Hopkins University, who is a co-director of the i3 project, determined that students who are most at risk of dropping out of school can be identified as early as middle school through key indicators ─ poor Attendance, unsatisfactory Behavior, and Course failure in math and English (the ABCs of Diplomas Now). When one of these off-track indicators is exhibited as early as the 6th grade, students have only a 10- to 20-percent likelihood of graduating from high school.

To turn that around, the i3 project combines a series of interventions targeting multiple levels: the entire school, the classroom, groups of students, and the individual student. To provide these interventions, the project combines the Talent Development whole school turnaround model developed by Balfanz and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins with social and academic supports provided by City Year and Communities in Schools, two of the project’s key nonprofit partners.

City Year, an AmeriCorps program employing recent college graduates, provides “near-peer “ mentors for struggling students. As Balfanz describes the ways that the mentors encourage and support their mentees, they are changing nagging into nurturing, providing academic support to their mentees, but also connecting with them in non-academic areas like popular music. A second type of intervention, provided by Communities in Schools, bolsters student support by placing social workers in schools to assess needs, make referrals to community social service providers, and provide small-group and individual counseling. And rounding out the support is Talent Development Secondary, which brings a substantial research base as well as expertise in programs that specialize in reforms to school organization, curriculum, and school climate to make the whole school a better place for students to learn. A recent PBS NewsHour feature takes a look at how Diplomas Now is turning around Broadmoor Middle School in Baton Rouge, La.

As a Validation grant, the DN i3 project is implementing the largest national random control trial of secondary school reform in the country, involving 30 high-poverty middle and high schools in 12 cities. The purpose is to validate the impact of the DN turnaround model to determine if it can substantially reduce the number of students entering high school below grade level as well as achieve high school graduation rates of at least 80 percent.

Schools supported by The Achievement Network focus on teacher collaboration grounded in learning standards and data. (Photo courtesy of Michael & Susan Dell Foundation)A laser-like focus on teachers both understanding the Common Core and using achievement data to get breakthrough results for students is the two-prong approach of The Achievement Network (ANet), an i3 Development grantee that is testing its theory of change and assessing the impact of its program. By delivering an integrated set of services that include classroom-level coaching and networking between teachers and schools to share and learn from best practices, the ANet theory of change calls for schools to adopt a defined set of proven practices that result in student achievement in math and English language arts.

While the first set of achievement scores from the randomly assigned schools participating in the ANet project will not be available until this fall, other data are pointing to positive changes in the treatment schools versus ones in the control group. Teachers in the treatment schools, for instance, reported significantly higher rates of satisfaction with their abilities to analyze student data and to improve instruction. The i3 grant has also fueled substantial growth of The Achievement Network ─ a nearly fourfold increase, from 90 schools in 2009, the year before the i3 funding began, to more than 350 in 2012.

OII’s Acting Assistant Deputy Secretary Nadya Dabby moderated a question and answer portion of the briefing in which the three project representatives touched on the effects of the Common Core State Standards on their projects’ plans, formative evaluation efforts being undertaken, and prospects for sustaining the impact of the i3 projects beyond five-year grant periods. Click here to view a video (with captioning) of the policy briefing.