From pandemic to progress? Yes, now is the time for a national Institute for Education Improvement.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This guest post is in response to a new series of briefs from Bellwether, From Pandemic to Progress, which puts forth eight ambitious but achievable pathways that leaders and policymakers can follow to rebuild education – and student learning and well-being – as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As part of Bellwether’s new series of briefs, From Pandemic to Progress, Allison Crean Davis makes the case to establish a national Institute for Education Improvement (an IEI), stating the need for continuous improvement across the American education system. Davis says, “If the U.S. education sector is to dramatically improve outcomes for students, it needs large-scale, consistent, and sustained organizational support for continuous improvement.”

Hopefully soon, our students will be coming back to in-person learning, but now is not the time to come back to the way things were pre-pandemic. We have a new administration in Washington, and with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, an educator in the White House. Now is the time to stop jumping from one disconnected education policy initiative to the next and focus our national efforts on evidence-based policies and measurable indicators that actually matter for student success.

Continuous improvement is not about creating the next policy but instead focusing on improving what’s happening in the classroom and helping teachers and administrators do their work more effectively.

Continuous improvement is happening in education—look to our cities for lessons learned.

Davis notes that “continuous improvement is not new,” citing decades of continuous improvement in industry and healthcare. Continuous improvement is also happening in education at the city and district levels. Research-practice partnerships all over the country, including our own partnership between the University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, have led to policies and practices that build capacity for systemic school improvement.

In 1998, just over half of Chicago Public Schools students graduated from high school. By 2019, the graduation rate increased to 82 percent. A 30-percentage-point increase in graduation rates is an incredible achievement, accomplished through rigorous attention to data and dedication to continuous improvement within the district.

When we started to look at what matters most for high school graduation, there were numerous competing hypotheses, including an assumption that Chicago’s students were academically unprepared for high school. Many of those assumptions turned out to be false. What matters is supporting students through the shifting context and changing responsibilities that occur in the transition to high school. By monitoring progress of grades and attendance during freshman year, using the Freshman OnTrack indicator, we formed a research base that educators could use in practice.

Through annually evaluating rates of Freshman OnTrack, high school graduation, college enrollment, college persistence, and college graduation, we have seen consistent progress in educational attainment. These improvements are possible because schools have access to research on what matters most for high school and college attainment, and data to monitor whether their strategies are working. Supporting more students to earn college degrees must include their entire education experience, and recently we’ve expanded our research-practice partnership to include City Colleges of Chicago to support Chicago’s students from pre-k through post-secondary success.

We’re asking questions and testing assumptions to learn what matters most for college success. For example, there is a misconception that GPAs are inconsistent across high schools, and that standardized test scores, like the ACT, are neutral indicators of college readiness. In fact, we found that students’ high school grades are five times stronger than their ACT scores at predicting college readiness and graduation, regardless of which high school a student attends, while ACT scores have different relationships with college graduation depending on a student’s high school.

Five Lessons We’ve Learned at the City Level

  1. Improvement comes from a back-and-forth between practice and research. Collaboration between research and practice allows practitioners to know what is working and how it’s working, and allows researchers to understand issues in nuanced ways so they can conduct studies that are useful to practice.
  2. Create metrics for things people believe are important but lack the data to measure progress. The Chicago partnership not only led to the development of Freshman OnTrack measures, but annual data on school climate and organization so we know if students feel safe, challenged, and supported, and how those factors are affected by different policies. It led to the creation of a post-secondary tracking system so schools could see whether their efforts to prepare students for college were really working.
  3. Identify where educators DON’T need to put their attention. Educators have a lot on their plates. Instead of piling on more with new policies and programs, it’s vitally important to know what they can take off their plates and what is critical. Many policies and programs do not show benefits for students, even as they increase the burden on educators—spending time preparing students for standardized tests is one example.
  4. Test assumptions to learn what’s most important for student success and what levers schools can use to affect change. Improvement requires change, and change can only occur with evidence that things are not working the way people think they should. When we began developing the Freshman OnTrack indicator, there was an assumption that students were struggling in ninth grade because they were academically unprepared. In reality, some students have difficulty transitioning to high school because it’s a new environment with increased responsibility.
  5. Pay attention to more student outcomes than test scores—students’ work effort, engagement, and experience of school as a learner are much more important for their long-term outcomes. Is this a school environment where students feel their work is meaningful? Is this school a place where students feel that they belong to a community of learners? Do students feel adults in the school believe in their ability? Do students believe they can succeed? Social-emotional factors are critical for students’ long-term outcomes.

Change the narrative we’re telling our students—and our educators.

There is a lot of emphasis right now around the risk of a “lost generation” of students resulting from remote learning during the pandemic. But what might this message inadvertently tell our students about their ability to succeed in the face of the odds? Research tells us that students are resilient, that learning loss may not be as insurmountable as we think, and what students will need when they return to school is a safe, supportive, and challenging environment in which they believe they can succeed.

Elaine Allensworth is Director and Jenny Nagaoka is Deputy Director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.