Category Voices
Author By Martha Abele Mac Iver, PhD

CSOS has been “learning to improve” as a continuous improvement organization over the past five decades. We learned from our public health colleagues about the importance of preventing problems like high rates of high school dropout rather than simply reacting to the problems after they occurred. Like the tale told frequently by public health researchers, we did not simply try to rescue drowning students who were floating downriver from the bridge. We hiked upstream to the bridge, found the holes in the bridge where students were falling through, learned about best paving tools and materials, and began repairing the bridge.

CSOS colleagues have worked together to develop early warning systems to alert schools to when students showed one of the signs of not graduating on time from high school. We specified the ABCs of early warning systems–Attendance, Behavior, and Course performance. Now, over half the public high schools in the country are using some sort of early warning system. Together with others, CSOS colleagues have developed and tested many kinds of organizational structures, instructional practices, and other interventions to help struggling students to get back on track to graduation, and many of these innovations have been adopted by schools across the country.

Building on earlier research on school transitions by CSOS faculty Joyce Epstein and Douglas Mac Iver in the 1980s and 1990s, our work on Early Warning Indicators has focused on key transition points–particularly the transition to middle school in grade 6 and to high school in grade 9. As Tony Bryk and his colleagues point out, these transitions are like the shift change at the hospital when patients are particularly at risk, and “students may fall through the cracks as they move from one school to another.” Ninth grade is a particularly critical transition – a “make or break year” as the Chicago Consortium has characterized it.

At CSOS, we noticed that just as students are making the critical transition from middle to high school, family involvement in their education declines precipitously. Although there had been much research on each of these issues, the connection of these two challenges at the transition point from middle to high school had been largely ignored in education research and in secondary school policy and practice. That is, at this critical juncture in their lives when students need age-appropriate family guidance and support, schools’ efforts to engage families decline. Schools and families were missing opportunities for partnership activities that could significantly improve students’ chances of success in high school. We decided to focus on how to repair this hole in the proverbial bridge.

We starting by collecting information on current practices of family engagement at critical transition points and reporting findings in the High School Journal. The new knowledge grew into a Continuous Improvement in Education research proposal to the Institute for Education Sciences that was funded in 2015. Together with colleagues Joyce Epstein, Douglas Mac Iver, and Steven Sheldon, I leveraged an ongoing partnership with Seattle Public Schools, a member of the National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS), to partner with us in improving their family engagement during the transition to high school. We reached out to include our School of Education faculty colleague, Eric Rice, to serve as the ethnographer for our work.

Together with Seattle Public Schools, we have launched a continuous improvement initiative: Engaging Families in High School Success. The continuous improvement process operates at several levels. In partnership with Seattle district leaders, we are seeking to improve the guidance and support given to middle and high schools to work on engaging families during this crucial transition. We are working with the district to place more emphasis on the importance of family engagement as a way of helping more students pass their ninth grade courses and move—on time—to the tenth grade. At the school level, we are seeking to help school teams engage in cycles of inquiry around their family engagement work. We are trying to equip school teams to evaluate how they plan family engagement activities to focus more sharply on improving the key ninth grade student outcomes of attendance and course performance. We hope to learn how the knowledge gained from the exploratory work with Seattle Public Schools can be useful in other districts in NNPS so that more districts can work with schools to improve family engagement at the secondary level, particularly during the critical transition from middle to high school.

Now, almost halfway through our third year of this work with Seattle, we have learned a great deal as a team. There have been many challenges. As commonly occurs in school improvement projects, we have seen considerable turnover among district and school partners over the past three years. We are continually building new bridges of partnership within the district and at schools. Not all schools have been willing to undertake this work or continue it after their first attempts. Even among our partnering schools, some school leaders do not see how they can devote the needed human capital resources to engage in a systematic and regular cycle of inquiry process to continually improve goal-linked family engagement efforts.
But there are 22 middle and high schools that are continuing to engage in this work with us. Most of these schools have tried new ways of engaging families and providing information and support during the critical transition to high school. New partnerships between sending middle and receiving high schools have been forged. School teams have reflected on their work and identified how they need to improve. School leaders are becoming more focused on how to link family engagement activities to improve specific student outcomes. Our CSOS team of researchers has begun to systematically analyze how schools are implementing the cycle of inquiry process and what they are learning from it.

Uniting our family engagement research to our work on early warning systems is just one way that CSOS is engaged in continuous improvement. In many projects, we continue “learning to improve” how to equip schools to improve results for students. We will keep identifying holes on the bridge that need attention and new paving strategies. And we will keep building bridges between research programs to unify the work of many CSOS projects into a coherent whole – a comprehensive approach to improving student outcomes.

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