Developed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE), First Things First is a whole-school reform that calls for changes in school structure, instruction, and governance in an effort to increase student and teacher engagement and academic achievement in low-performing schools. First tested in Kansas City, Kansas, the initiative — with support from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education — has expanded to include 6 additional schools in Kansas City as well as 12 middle and high schools in Houston, Texas; St. Louis County, Missouri; and Greenville and Shaw, Mississippi. All these schools are characterized by large percentages of nonwhite students and students at high risk of academic failure.
MDRC is evaluating the implementation and effects of the reform at the expansion schools outside of Kansas City, which were phased in over two years, in two groups. This report covers the first year of program implementation (the 2001-2002 academic year) at the first group of schools, focusing on three vehicles for putting the reform’s key principles into effect: small learning communities, consisting of up to 350 students who study their core subjects with the same group of teachers for several years; the Family Advocate System, which pairs students with school staff who maintain regular contact with students and their families and work to support students’ progress; and instructional improvement strategies, including professional development programs designed to train teachers in the use of cooperative learning methods. The report draws on quantitative data from staff and student surveys and on qualitative findings from interviews and observations.
- By the end of the first year of operations, the reform’s basic structural elements were in place at most sites, although their implementation was far from complete.
- Teachers knew more about and felt better prepared to undertake the initiative after implementation began. Nevertheless, implementing a major reform of this kind proved difficult and stressful, and survey data point to an “implementation dip”: Teachers expressed less commitment to the reform during the implementation year than they had during the planning period.
- Teachers increased their use of cooperative learning strategies during the implementation year, but lessons remained centered on memorization of facts and other low-level cognitive activities.
- At this early stage, when structural changes must be put in place, the commitment and support of the principal and leadership team appear to be more essential to successful implementation than does a high degree of staff support for the intervention.
- Students reported feeling more supported by their teachers during the implementation year than they had a year earlier, but they also reported experiencing a lower degree of academic engagement — perhaps in part because teachers’ attention was diverted from instruction. This suggests that instructional improvement should be the focus of the next phase of the demonstration.