The past decades of often frantic "school reform" has yielded few turnaround models that have shown positive effects for students. Often, in addition to lackluster results, they've left a lot of detritus in their wake: overpaid consultants, demoralized teachers, and a fragmented community.
With millions of students possibly in need of extra support to make up for last spring's disrupted schooling, stakes are too high for approaches that won't pay dividends for student learning.
A strategy being used in Springfield, Mass., and several other Massachusetts districts as part of their school improvement efforts seems to be breaking the mold. It offers a powerful example of a student intervention that can work, and a proof point for extended learning time.
It's called an "acceleration academy."
How does it work?
The idea is fundamentally about providing extra learning time in smaller groups-though not as small as tutoring-without taking time away from core instruction. The academies take place during weeklong fall and winter breaks, or on a series of successive Saturdays, usually for about 5-6 hours a day. Teachers and school leaders use academic data to select the students who are invited to join the academies.
District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.
Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Full Report: How We Go Back to School
In Springfield, the initiative is run by the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, a partnership between the state, district, and teachers' union to free up a handful of schools from traditional rules and mandates.
In all, said Colleen Beaudoin, the co-director of the zone, students can get up to 120 hours of additional teaching in a subject over the course of an academic year, or the equivalent of about 20-25 regular school days.
The zone manages a small amount of funding to administer the program; its main costs are stipends for teachers and transportation for students. (The district is flexible on staffing, using both district teachers and others who apply from nearby districts.)
Springfield's empowerment academies have been embraced by both administrators and teachers. They work within the existing school system rather than as part of a governance overhaul. And finally, the model has gotten results in at least two of the cities it's been tried in. It's an unusual trifecta of success.
What gains have been shown?
Lawrence, Mass., pioneered the idea in 2013, in addition to instituting other reforms focusing on improving teacher quality and increasing school autonomy, and saw moderate gains in math and smaller gains in English/language arts. While all of Lawrence's elements of a broader turnaround plan probably played into those math results, the research indicates that nearly all the English gains are the result of the specialized academies.
Springfield took the model a few years later in 2015-16 and ran with it. In addition to the weeklong academies, it has begun a program specifically for English-language learners, which takes place over 15 Saturdays, as well as targeted, four- to five-week summer sessions. A randomized study in the city found that the weekly academy program raised the likelihood that a participating student would reach the proficient bar in middle-school math on the state test by 10 percentage points.
And there are signs that the effects go beyond academics: Students who participated in an academy had lower rates of out-of-school suspension during the school year than those who did not.
In the academy model, class sizes aren't quite as small as in high-dosage tutoring-they are usually about nine or 10 students to a teacher-but those who have taught in them say that has made all the difference, too.
"There is just a practicality of it," said Emily Burdick, a dean of curriculum and instruction at a Springfield school who has both taught in the ELA-focused academies and crafted some curriculum for them. "You have time to check in with each student when there are 10. When there are 25, you sort of just skim over students: 'They got it and they got it,' not, 'Do they need a recap? Do they need to be pushed further?'"
Teachers believe the academies particularly help English-language learners, who get more time to practice their speaking skills; district data show that the speaking portion of the state's English-language-proficiency exam is among the pieces students tend to struggle with.
"It's more comfortable for them to speak when there's only nine other students than with 25. We have seen a big change in them trying to speak English and trying to read," said Misael Ramos, a math teacher and coach who has also taught in the Saturday academy for English-learners.
What makes it workable across different schools?
There's flexibility in teaching, and principals play a large part in tailoring the programming. In some academies, they put students into groups based on the types of skills and content they need to practice. (This is a subtle but important distinction: Ability grouping for core instruction in reading and math has long had a terrible track record, but grouping kids as needed for supplemental instruction can be effective.) Others are taught in heterogeneous groups. In some academies, teachers rotate based on sub-specialty; and in others, they don't.
Springfield's academies were initially fairly loose on curriculum, allowing each participating teacher to craft their own. But now the zone is providing more supports to the teachers who work in it, like a foundational phonics and phonemic awareness sequence to bolster the English/language arts programming. And before each academy, there's training for teachers in research-based content teaching. (No more giving below-grade-level books in English class, for instance.)
"We have high expectations for teachers to teach at the grade level, no matter where a student may be functioning. But we need to give the teachers the training they need to keep the grade-level content, and the rigor high, and how to bridge the unfinished learning gap," Beaudoin said.
The academies are also significantly cheaper than high-dosage tutoring. Lawrence spent about $800 per student for a weeklong academy, according to analyses of the program. Springfield's academies started at about $600 per student, but more recent figures from Zone officials estimate they now cost about $240-$325 per student. (The costs vary depending on class size, a function of student/family uptake.)
How can academies work in a remote or hybrid setting?
Other than costs, the challenge for school districts who want to replicate the model has to do with how to translate the core tenets of its academies into a remote or hybrid learning environment.
Springfield already offers some ideas it tested this summer. Knowing that crafting lesson plans and resources for online learning differs markedly from in-person teaching, it shifted to having "lesson designers"-expert teachers in content areas-create the online learning pieces for the academies, and "lesson implementers," who are the teachers who actually do the instruction. It will use some of those strategies for core teaching in the Zone schools this fall as well.
Ramos has also translated the grades 6-8 online math lessons into Spanish so that parents of English-learners can be more involved in helping their children succeed at remote learning.
Many of the core strategies to keep kids engaged remain the same, though. Students used to win small prizes and snacks for maintaining good attendance at an academy; now, Empowerment Zone Partnership officials plan to mail them or drop them off. And students used to come early to the academy sites to play board games, use the gym, or hang out. So this summer, when Emily Burdick began her academy classes, the first 15 minutes are open-ended, allowing for students to socialize or for Burdick to play a few rounds of "Would You Rather?"
"Bring the joy factor into teaching, even if it's online," she recommended. "We still need to build a very real sense of community when we're apart. And having these small moments brought them into showing up every day."
Establish a centralizing force behind the academies.
Springfield's Empowerment Zone Partnership is a partnership between the state, the local teachers' union, and the school district. The zone takes care of many of the administrative pieces of the academies, including reserving building space, advertising for tutors, arranging bus transportation, and paying stipends.
The goal of this centralized arrangement is to take the burden off principals and teachers who are already tasked with making the core 180-day school year work.
"Because this is additional time, we feel like we can be diluting or taking away from a principal or educator's focus on getting those 180 days perfectly right. We want to take it off the plate of our leaders and our learners," said Beaudoin. "So we're making sure it's hitting the criteria of good teacher training and tools, the right students, clear identification of the unfinished learning gaps, and all of the operational issues to make it work."
Districts interested in an acceleration academy may want to find a nonprofit partner to help with those roles, or they could replicate the structure by designating administrators in the central office to manage the extended learning time and coordinate with schools and parents on the ground.
Make the intervention appealing, not punitive.
Too often, interventions feel punitive. Springfield messaged the program not around student "failure," but as an avenue for their teachers to spend more time with students working on fun, exciting lessons.
The Empowerment Zone offered incentives like gift cards and prize raffles to encourage attendance. Those nudges get students in the door, but they tend to return because of the program's caring adults, community of peers, and an opportunity to show they can master learning goals.
"Once they've been there before, they want to come back. Kids will go home and text their friends, and kids we haven't even invited will show up," Beaudoin said. "The kids love the small groups and targeted attention they get; and they feel more successful."
Surveys of students showed that they overwhelmingly valued the time. In Springfield, 81 percent of attending students who completed a survey reported learning new math skills and 80 percent said they'd return.
Collect data to tailor the academies and make changes as needed.
Springfield has used a mix of both test-score data and teacher knowledge to guide its programming.
It uses benchmark assessments given periodically to track pupil progress and supplies that data to schools to inform teachers' and principals' decisions about which students could most benefit from attending an empowerment academy. (Ultimately, it's the educators who decide which students to recommend for the program.) It's also used to pinpoint the specific plan for each student.
The zone has also moved nimbly to evolve programs as needs arrive. For example, a Saturday program for English-learners was developed once it became clear too many middle school ELL students had not received enough explicit teaching in foundational reading skills, which aren't typically taught at the middle school level.