CPRE : Consortium for Policy Research in Education

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Case Study

First Things First: A Case Study of Implementation in Three Schools

This case study describes school staff members’ understanding and enactment of First Things First (FTF) in three high schools and provides some insights into why enactment proceeded as it did. FTF is a whole school reform that endeavors to help schools to improve relationships among teachers, students, and parents; to improve instructional practices; and to reallocate resources to support those goals. The reform’s goal is to raise the level of student achievement. FTF requires that all high schools establish thematically-oriented Small Learning Communities (SLCs) in which teachers and students in grades 9-12 spend the majority of their instructional time. Teachers share common planning time with their SLC team members and are involved in a process of ongoing professional conversation and instructional improvement. High schools also implement a Family Advocate System (FAS) in which small groups of students meet with an adult mentor (Family Advocate) on a regular basis. The goal of the FAS is to ensure that every student feels connected with an adult in the school and has a place to discuss personal and academic issues of concern. The Family Advocate is also expected to maintain contact with students’ parents or guardians. FTF has also developed a system of monitoring and professional development that seeks to improve practices around student engagement, course alignment, and the rigor of high school content and instruction. The efforts to reform and improve high schools are led by FTF staff, a School Improvement Facilitator (SIF), SLC coordinators, as well as school and district staff members.

In all three study schools, we found teachers and administrators to be well-informed about FTF, with their understanding and implementation of the reform growing over time. In all of the schools, SLCs had been created and were being used to improve instructional practices and to build relationships among both teachers and students. The FAS was also in place in all three schools, though teachers reported less consistent use and satisfaction with this component than with the SLCs. This was particularly true in the two schools that were still relatively early in their implementation of FTF. In the study school that had several years of experience with FTF, both the SLCs and the FAS were highly embedded features of the school and were cited by teachers as important components of their ongoing efforts to improve student achievement.

FTF trains school and district staff members to monitor teacher practice, to measure a host of outcomes and implementation benchmarks, and to facilitate discussion about how to improve practices. As with the structural components, staff understanding and use of these tools were most well-supported at the study school that had been implementing FTF for five years. The schools that had been implementing FTF for only two or three years struggled more with their use of the tools intended to review teacher planning and practice. This is not entirely surprising, given that FTF recognizes the difficulty of changing teacher culture and practice and plans for this process to take place over several years.

Staff members generally reported that FTF helped build relationships in their schools (among both staff and students) and believed that these new relationships were helpful in improving student behavior and school climate. They also reported finding peers in their SLCs to be useful professional resources. The reform also altered the responsibilities of school leaders, placing increased responsibility for instructional Occasional Paper SeriesPage 2 improvement with the SIF and SLC coordinators. The new structures created new communication patterns in the school as teachers sought out and found new sources of advice and guidance about their professional practice.

FTF has been responsive to schools to meet their particular needs and to constantly improve the reform program that it offers. We found that teachers’ initial work and success with the reform played a significant role in predicting their ongoing commitment to the reform and the predictions they made about its sustainability. In the introduction and ongoing monitoring and support of the reform, the role of school and district leadership was shown to be vitally important. Across the three schools, leaders at these levels assumed very different stances with regard to the reform, and thus impacted the way in which the reform played out at the school level.

Publication Date

February 2007