In 1984, Cornell University scholar Karl Weick wrote an article that has become an enduring classic:  “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.[i]”  Since that time, others have validated his claim that “reformulation of social issues as mere problems allows for a strategy of small wins wherein a series of concrete, complete outcomes of moderate importance build a pattern that attracts allies and deters opponents.”

New Profit, a national venture philanthropy firm dedicated to identifying and scaling the most effective models for change in the social sector, recently documented an educational intervention in Massachusetts that we believe fits Weick’s insight to a tee.

In 2011, Lawrence Public Schools (LPS) in Massachusetts became the first school district in the Commonwealth to enter state receivership. At the time, the district ranked in the bottom one percent of districts across the state. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found inconsistent instructional quality, unstable leadership, lack of data access and use, and poor student support services.

In 2012, Jeff Riley was appointed to serve as LPS’ “receiver”— a superintendent with additional powers to effect change. A veteran district and school leader, Riley completed his own analysis of the district’s data, systems, and practices, and began implementing a District Turnaround Plan (Riley will begin his tenure as Education Commissioner in Massachusetts this coming July).

In the five years since entering state receivership, LPS has made impressive progress. State test scores are up in both absolute performance and student growth in English and Mathematics. As of 2016, 10 of the 33 schools in LPS now have the highest-level designation possible – Level 1. The high school graduation rate has increased from 47 percent in 2010 to 71 percent in 2016. For students with disabilities, the graduation rate was 21 percent in 2010 and has risen to 51 percent in 2016. Dropout rates in the district have continued to decline, from 8.6 percent in 2010 to 4.2 percent in 2016.

What accounts for this success? In a study published in 2016 that compared the academic performance of LPS students with their peers statewide and in similarly low-income districts, Harvard researchers examined whether one particular intervention— the Acceleration Academies— had observable impacts on student achievement. They found that participation in the Academies did indeed have a strong impact on student achievement for those who attended. It was a striking, statistically significant, finding.

The Acceleration Academies are Riley’s invention; he launched the first when he was a middle school principal in Boston Public Schools and noticed a group of strong math teachers in his school. He knew that students needed extra time with quality teachers and wanted to keep the teachers motivated, so he created a fellowship program and flew in a few other outstanding teachers from around the country. Together, they exchanged ideas and worked with students in small groups. When Riley became a deputy superintendent, he decided to expand what he had done in one school to many more in the district.

When Riley took the helm in Lawrence, he brought the Academies concept with him— first as a pilot in nine schools. The intervention is now in all but two of the 33 schools in the district. In five years, the program has grown to serve as many as 5,000 students during the February and April school vacation weeks. Recently a new 501(c)(3), Sontag Prize in Urban Education, was established to bring the Academies concept to other school districts.

New Profit wanted to better understand the elements of the Acceleration Academies’ success and get underneath the compelling quantitative data to identify their “secret sauce.” In partnership with Riley and his team, we recorded several dozen interviews with principals, teachers, students, parents, and central office administrators. We also visited and recorded 20 classrooms in April 2016. Along the way, we learned many lessons that have implications for replicating the Academies in other school districts and for integrating aspects of the Academies into the regular school day.

  1. The Academies are no ordinary academic boot camp, but rather a carefully crafted experience that appreciates and cultivates teacher talent, and builds and celebrates student perseverance— transforming the joyless compliance typically associated with remediation into a rigorous, joyful and highly coveted week of accelerated learning.  We learned that many of these practices do not require additional funding, but rather a significant shift in mindset about what both teachers and students can accomplish in an environment that encourages risk-taking and creativity.
  2. Learning how to learn is more effective than the outdated notion of “covering material.” John Dewey argued a century ago— and brain science now validates— that the best learning happens when students are able to perceive something in the world, act in response to that perception and then reflect on the experience or outcome. Our educational systems and policies need to better reflect what we know about learning that is “sticky.” Further, students have diverse learning needs; our teaching and learning strategies must learn how to accommodate them in the context of a regular classroom.
  3. Small class size is beneficial but not essential. While the small class sizes—typically, a 12:1 ratio—certainly contribute to the Academies’ success, there are plenty of things that teachers can do to simulate similar benefits in larger classes. Perhaps the most critical takeaway is that teachers need to know their students well— their needs, strengths and areas for improvement, and their backgrounds and experiences. Teachers also told us that they were highly intentional about creating a sense of community, which allowed for peer-to-peer learning and a sense of responsibility to one another.
  4. The regular school day is filled with many “missed moments.” During our classroom visits, we heard time and again that one of the benefits of the Academies was that students were given extra time to make a connection and understand a concept. Too often, teachers in the regular classroom have a scope and sequence to follow and are not given the time to work with a student who is stuck on a particular concept or operation. This results in students falling further and further behind. The extra time afforded by the Academies helped students gain a true sense of mastery.
  5. Teachers are professionals and should be treated and viewed as such. We heard from many teachers that they felt valued as professionals and that this brought them back to what motivated them to teach in the first place. They also appreciated the time to collaborate with like-minded colleagues. Students told us that teachers appeared much less stressed during the Academies compared to the regular school year.
  6. Mandates must be honored, but should not be the driving force for teaching and learning. Although the Academies are timed in proximity to state tests, teachers do not “teach to the test” or let the tests dictate their lesson plans or how learning happens.

We have captured these and many other lessons in a new multi-media case study called “The Golden Ticket,” which we are eager to share with educators, philanthropists, policymakers, and other leaders who care about meeting the needs of struggling students. That the Acceleration Academies— part of a suite of interventions in Lawrence Public Schools— have been a lever for larger change in the district should give educators a sense of hope about how small wins can, over time, result in meaningful change.

References[i] Weick, K. E. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39(1 ), 40-49.

Jane Feinberg, M.J.
Jane Feinberg is the founder and principal of Full Frame Communications, a consulting practice based in the Boston area.  Feinberg helps mission-driven organizations develop their communications, community engagement, and leadership capacities--as a foundation for driving meaningful and sustained social change. She believes deeply in the power of dialogue to move people toward solutions that are energizing, and that drive organizations and communities toward their highest aspirations.