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Low-Hanging Fruit in School Improvement Efforts?

Are school start times, grade level configurations and teacher assignments low hanging fruit for school improvement efforts?

The University of Michigan’s Brian Jacob and Columbia Business School’s Jonah Rockoff think so. At The Hamilton Project’s (http://www.brookings.edu/projects/hamiltonproject.aspx) recent forum on how to improve student performance in K-12 education, they joined a conversation on their recent paper Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement (http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2011/09_organization_jacob_rockoff.aspx), which discussed how these “mundane” reforms could lead to substantial achievement gains at relatively low cost and avoid the fierce political battles that erupt anytime we mention charter schools, teacher tenure or new academic standards.

The authors reviewed the evidence on each of the three reforms they propose, calculating the possible academic benefit of each and converting it to lifetime earnings gains per student. They also estimate the potential costs of implementing each, coming up with a benefit/cost ratio suggesting that districts seriously consider enacting them.*

For example, their review of the research suggests that starting secondary schools later in the day results in an estimated benefit in lifetime earnings per student of $17,500. They also find that implementing this reform is relatively cheap, costing $0 to $1,950 per student (depending on context; transportation costs were thought to be the largest component here), making the benefit/cost ratio 9:1 or more.

Of course, the politics of this issue can get sticky. In a panel discussion, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Peter Gorman pointed out that when his district tried to move middle school start times, there was great concern about how the change would impact middle school football. But by scheduling games on Wednesday nights at high school stadiums (which, unlike middle school fields, have lights), the problem was solved. Added bonus: The kids love the chance to play on the high school field. [The authors do address conflicts with after-school activities in the paper and offer suggestions as to how a district can work through those issues, though they acknowledge but do not address other concerns with later start times for older students, such as having younger students wait in the early morning dark for buses, and do not address other issues, such as younger children arriving home from school before their older siblings, who often double as babysitters while parents work].

The second of the authors’ “low-hanging fruit” involves grade configurations; specifically, the use of middle schools, requiring students to adapt to a new environment at a time when they are emotionally fragile. According to the authors, districts with middle schools often experience a drop in achievement at the point of transition. They suggest moving to a k-8 system, or at least dedicating more energy to effectively managing students’ transition to a middle school building.

While the authors recognize that reconfiguring grade levels can have large upfront costs, in the end they estimate the cost at $50-$250 per student. They believe this change has the potential to add $10,000 in additional lifetime earnings per student, for a benefit/cost ratio of 40:1 to 200:1.

The final piece of low-hanging fruit offered up here: Teacher assignments. We all know that teacher assignments can vary year to year. In New York City, about 38% of teachers switch grades from one year to the next; in North Carolina, about 30% of third through fifth grade teachers do. Yet a recent study suggests frequent grade switching may reduce a teacher’s effectiveness.

While the authors acknowledge that there are a number of reasons for grade switching (changing cohort sizes year to year and turnover, for example), they do recommend that school administrators take this research into consideration.

Personally, I am not sure about the feasibility of any of these particular proposals in any particular district. But what I appreciate about this paper is summarized in the conclusion of the policy brief based on it:

“Jacob and Rockoff’s proposals are not meant to radically transform public education as we know it. … The purpose of the proposal is to point out that all these small decisions about the organization of schools and school days impact student achievement, and that these types of choices need to be carefully scrutinized by school districts.”

Amen! So why don’t we hear about these types of reforms more? Why do we talk so much about teacher evaluations and charter schools, not about the organization of the system?

As Jacob pointed out, these issues are not sexy. We need a mindset shift towards less flashy policies.

But as two panelists hint at, the lack of focus on these issues may be a blessing in disguise. Given the current state of politics, getting the government involved in such conversations could turn these reforms into pawns in a political game.

And in addition, educators need the flexibility – in these as in other improvement ideas – to meet the needs of the students and community in question. We don’t need late start times for high school students mandated. And if the government required we get rid of middle schools, hundreds of great schools would be closed down – and thousands of students would likely be adversely impacted.**

So maybe in some ways it’s easier that politicians and the media are distracted with the sexier reforms. It leaves those on the ground the ability to make the improvements needed in their own community.

*This conference seemed geared towards economics, where my background is limited. If you are interested in the methodology used, I encourage you to check out the paper.

**The researchers made clear they understood and agreed that these policies should not be mandated, but that the needs of each community should be assessed and school improvement strategies developed based upon them.

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