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Gaining Traction: Study of Success Factors in Urban Schools

At a forum held April 9, 2007 in Milford, the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (MA EQA) and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute presented findings and facilitated discussion of a two-year study of factors influencing achievement in the Commonwealth’s urban public schools. The study, titled Gaining Traction: Urban Educators’ Perspectives on the Critical Factors Influencing Student Achievement in Comparatively High and Low Performing Urban Public Schools, involved  extensive analysis of MCAS student achievement data and interviews with over 600 educators from 30 public schools in 10 urban districts.

The study found that higher performing schools displayed greater focus and competency in three broad areas of practice: leadership and staffing; school culture; and curriculum and instruction. The study report outlines specific strategies employed by higher performing schools with respect to each of these areas of practice and presents illustrative case vignettes drawn from these schools. It also makes specific recommendations to urban districts and schools, and state policymakers.

In addition to the presentation of study findings by MA EQA officials and UMass Donahue Institute researchers, the event featured a panel of principals from five of the study schools, who discuss the factors that support and hinder student achievement in their buildings. The program also featured a panel of educational leaders and researchers, including Andy Calkins, Mass Insight Education; David Magnani, former Senate Education Committee Chair; Mary Nash, Assistant Superintendent, Boston Public Schools; Jamie Gass, Director of Education Research and Programs, Pioneer Institute; Buzz Nembirkow, Superintendent, Brockton Public Schools; and Karla Baehr, Superintendent, Lowell Public Schools. This panel discussed the implications of the study’s findings for policy and practice in Massachusetts.

“The goal of the EQA is to provide educators, citizens, and policymakers with data as well as tools for assessing educational quality and steering all Massachusetts schools in the direction of success. This study provides us with important qualitative data to understand the challenges of reform beyond the demographics, and with strategies to improve performance in urban schools,” said Joe Rappa, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

The UMass Donahue Institute researchers employed a case-study methodology to engage educators from pairs of demographically and otherwise similar schools within the same district. Each case pair included one school that performed well in comparison to district averages for MCAS achievement in ELA and Math and another that performed at or below these averages. The study engaged schools from Boston, Brockton, Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester.

According to the study’s Research Manager, Steve Ellis, of the UMass Donahue Institute, “This study provides insight into the factors that influence the success of urban public schools and their students. It presents approaches that urban educators feel have been critical to their success and reflects their understanding of what changes or resources may be required to further improve urban schools. Among the findings, it is perhaps most important to note the tremendous role that school culture plays in school success and the range of factors that contribute to an effective school culture.”

School officials who participated in the study cited many challenges in achieving success in urban schools, where funding remains tight, despite the passage of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993. Principal Darlene Campbell of the Edgar B. Davis School in Brockton believes that “The Gaining Traction report sets out in clear language what schools and districts need to focus on to improve student achievement. As a principal of a large, diverse city school, I find the report quite helpful in identifying the core elements of effective schools.”


Gaining Traction: Urban Educators’ Perspectives on the Critical Factors Influencing Student Achievement in Comparatively High and Low Performing Urban Public Schools

For more information please contact:

Steven Ellis
(413) 587-2405

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