How Do Training Needs Change as Schools Learn to Improve?
The Building Assets, Reducing Risks program—an intervention designed to ease students' transition to high school—is working to find out how professional development changes for new and more experienced schools implementing the program. BARR is the first intervention funded under the federal Education Innovation and Research program (and its predecessor, the Investing in Innovation program) to build up enough evidence over time to move from initial development to full scale-up. Its current study could help policymakers understand how to sustain school improvement programs in the long term.
Under BARR, incoming freshmen are grouped into cohorts of about 30 who take the same core reading, math, and science classes together. They also receive a 30-minute lesson each week on social-emotional skills, taught on a rotating basis in a core class. Teachers meet every week for a check-in on every student in their cohort, evaluating weekly progress on both academic and social-emotional goals.
A 2011-12 randomized trial found that compared to students who were not assigned to BARR, those who were: earned more high school credits, failed fewer courses, and performed better on state reading and math tests. The American Institutes for Research is in the final year of a larger randomized controlled evaluation of the program at 11 high-poverty schools using the program in California, Maine, and Minnesota; early results seem to be showing similar benefits for students in the program.
"Our growth has been organic," said Angie Jerabek, a former Minnesota guidance counselor who developed the model. "In some ways, we've just kept testing the model in different school environments to see if it would break."
As the program grew, though, it found that its initial year of training for staff wasn't enough to establish BARR in the culture of the school. It has expanded from one year of professional development, including remote coaching, to three years of ongoing, in-person mentoring.
"It usually takes a half semester just for the school to settle into the model," Jerabek said. "They are much more receptive in their second year [of implementation.] The schools didn't know what they didn't know."
BARR still spends the first year explaining and demonstrating core elements of the program such as how to analyze data, conduct efficient meetings, and organize student cohorts, but now, program administrators conduct quarterly audits and feedback meetings on each school's implementation.
BARR also added "advanced" professional development, in response to common problems their experienced schools reported. For example, Jerabek said, while teachers were originally trained to focus on ways to build on a student's strengths, implementation audits and feedback suggested staff needed support to scrutinize their own assumptions about students' backgrounds and needs. "The team meeting is supposed to be focused on a strength-based lens," she said. "So what are the stereotypes teachers might have about a Hispanic student with a large family, and how can we flip that, to focus on potential strengths?"
Now, in the second year a school implements BARR, teachers get training on equity issues, such as identifying and addressing disproportional education access or discipline and incorporating trauma-informed care into planning interventions for students.
Based on feedback from some of its veteran schools, the group has also added training in the third year focused on recognizing and addressing substance abuse among students, as well as supporting students who have family or friends dealing with substance abuse.
Program administrators are also exploring which parts of the program are implemented differently in rural or urban, struggling or high achieving school districts. "We're learning what part of the model is necessary, what parts are firm but flexible," said Rob Metz, BARR's deputy director. Along with evaluating data on students' progress and graduation rates, the program has also started to collect data on teacher turnover, to understand whether working in the cohort teams changes how teachers see their own roles and support in the school.
BARR has set a goal to expand to 250 schools by 2021. The final evaluation is expected next year.