What lessons can be learned from the Acceleration Academies? How can a bright spot – a single intervention, well executed – be a force for broader change within an entire school district? Moreover, how might the Academies – or the lessons from them – be taken to scale in other school districts across the country? Through our investigation, we unearthed a number of highly interconnected elements that we believe contribute to the success of the Acceleration Academies, as well as the progress of the district’s turnaround efforts more broadly. These elements are what we think of as the enabling conditions – the values, structures, and practices that are deeply embedded in the Academies, providing the foundation for their success.
There is no quick “how-to” guide for Acceleration Academies. To lift the Academies out of Lawrence and simply insert them someplace else likely would not yield the same results. Much work must be done to build the conditions for success in order for the intervention to stick. Some aspects of this work are technical and administrative; others are adaptive and require patience and nuanced understanding. In all cases, there are implications for decision makers at the state, district, school, and classroom level.
The Acceleration Academies offer a number of insights that can help policy-makers at the state level better support district and school improvement efforts. One of the most salient takeaways is that to be successful, individual programs must be components of a coherent, comprehensive strategy – and conditions must be created that enable that strategy to be effectively implemented.
With state receivership comes more autonomy for school districts, which allows space for innovation. Increased autonomy enables thoughtful consideration about how time and other resources can most effectively be utilized to reach improvement goals.
- Strong leaders can translate a state mandate into the local context. In Lawrence, under state receivership, Superintendent Riley was charged with pulling the district out of chronic underperformance, and his strategy has largely rested on identifying and augmenting existing assets and strengths within the community to address the myriad areas of need.
- Districts and schools need air cover for innovation. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens this door with an accountability frame that broadens the definition of success beyond a single measure of academic achievement.
School culture and climate impact student achievement, and creating an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning is a vital aspect of improvement efforts. One of the non-academic measures within the ESSA legislation is related to school climate, recognizing that teachers and students need to feel safe and supported across multiple dimensions to do their best work. They also need a sense of self-efficacy, which can be enhanced through encouragement and recognition of progress. Most importantly, school must be perceived as a welcoming, positive place that is a steppingstone to a successful future.
- The role and value of teachers must reflect an appreciation of excellence. Excellent teachers actively seek opportunities to hone their craft, and are driven by a belief that they are capable of producing gains in student learning. The Sontag Prize and Acceleration Academies recognize and reward excellent teachers, and elevate the regard for the profession. This type of opportunity is rare in urban education, yet it may well serve to attract and retain effective teachers, and may be a vehicle for building a national teacher talent pool.
- Though accountability is key to the Academies’ success, the greater emphasis is on building from existing strengths and the intrinsic value of learning. This asset-based mentality runs counter to the more extrinsic and deficit orientation that has often driven policy at the state level.
- Structures and systems might be reconsidered to better support teaching and learning, especially as ESSA legislation provides more latitude to the states to determine their destinies. Structures and systems that inhibit teaching and learning should be replaced, and all structures and systems should align with performance and improvement goals. This includes assessing how resources such as money, time, and personnel are being allocated, and encouraging flexibility and differentiation in order to be responsive to the needs within a particular school, district, or community.
- Providing more time for learning can enable the creation of schedules that are more adaptive to students’ academic and non-academic needs. The amount of time students spend in school, or in other educational activities, should be commensurate with the amount of time they need to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their academic careers and beyond. A program such as the Acceleration Academies expands the school year for students who are likely to benefit most from this type of intervention.
- Innovative and effective uses of technology and other resources can enable teachers to work with smaller groups of students. Reducing class sizes is infeasible in many school districts; however, there are innovative and effective ways to use technology and other resources to enable teachers to work with smaller groups of students.
- Data are a powerful tool that can be used to continually gauge student understanding and progress, and provide invaluable information to teachers. States can support districts by providing consultation about the importance of tracking data and incentivizing data collection.
- State-sponsored professional development and peer mentoring may help teachers build skills in using data and utilizing new instructional strategies.
- State-level policies could provide teachers with greater autonomy and flexibility to create engaging lessons, including project-based or blended learning. In addition, state-sponsored professional development could empower teachers and better equip them to effectively meet the diverse needs of all learners.
- Robust policies to incentivize and support teacher collaboration – within and across schools and districts – could be extremely beneficial. Research shows that creating a culture in which educators work together and rely on each other’s experience and expertise to increase their own effectiveness is a critical aspect of school improvement efforts.
Strong district leadership is key to school improvement efforts, and LPS demonstrates its approach to supporting schools through the Academies. Central office sets clear expectations and creates a culture around the program, and then provides the resources necessary for school and classroom leaders to achieve results.
- Support for the program must come from the highest levels of leadership. In Lawrence, the superintendent and the leadership team embody the spirit and culture of the program, demonstrate enthusiasm and support for the initiative, and lead by example. There is no ambiguity about the value that district leadership places on the program, and its successful execution is a clear and unwavering priority.
- The district gives schools increased autonomy in exchange for delivering results. As an overarching philosophy, the superintendent recognizes schools’ effectiveness and/or improvement by granting school administrators “earned autonomy,” that is, increased discretion over their programs and operations.
- Program leaders are responsible for identifying, deploying, and optimizing talent. A key role of program leaders is to identify, attract, and retain excellent teachers; and then provide support and the enabling conditions that allow those teachers to perform at the highest levels.
- The role of central office is to support schools in their efforts to maximize teaching and learning. Central office staff are responsible for coordinating the lion’s share of the logistical and human resource concerns so that school faculty and staff can focus on what’s happening in the classroom, and on creating a worthwhile experience for students.
- The tone for the academies is set at the district level, and that tone influences the extent to which stakeholders – principals, teachers, students, and families – will commit to the program. Superintendent Riley and his leadership team have created a program that people want to take part in because it is framed as an opportunity rather than a consequence. The Acceleration Academies are opportunities for excellent teachers to be recognized and celebrated, while also enabling them to learn and grow as professionals. They also are opportunities for students who struggle academically to learn and build skills, without being stigmatized or stereotyped.
- The district’s role is to support and facilitate effective practice at the school and classroom levels. The district sets parameters and expectations, but relies heavily on the expertise of the educators within the school buildings.
- The district is responsible for creating and enabling the structures and systems that facilitate personalized learning. This includes setting aside a time and place to hold the program; allocating and/or raising funds to adequately support the program; negotiating contracts as necessary to ensure proper staffing; and coordinating logistical elements to keep the focus on teaching and learning at the school and classroom levels. One of the key enabling conditions for the Lawrence Acceleration Academies is the Sontag Prize itself, which draws excellent teachers and provides both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to participate.
- District leadership models effective use of data. The district leadership team uses multiple sources of data to inform decisions about policies and programs, and encourages school leaders and teachers to use data to inform their work as well. To that end, the district makes data available to schools throughout the year, as well as to support student selection and curricular planning for the Academies.
- The district’s “open architecture model” applies to the Acceleration Academies. Rather than espouse a one-size-fits-all approach across the district, LPS leadership sets basic policies and operating procedures to ensure common standards, but allows room for innovation at the school level. High performing schools are granted substantial flexibility to design their own programs, whereas schools that require additional support from the district to raise student performance have more limited autonomies.
- Innovative programs need not be cost prohibitive. Existing federal, state, and local funding can be leveraged to support a district’s goals and priorities, and additional funds can be raised to supplement the budget.
- The Academies have opened up the conversation in LPS about how teachers collaborate around instruction and school improvement. The district has seen that many schools for the first time have begun to embed the time for collaboration and meaningful conversation in their school schedules.
- The Academies are informing how summer school programming in the district is structured. For example, they have inspired the creation of a new internship pipeline, whereby recent college graduates or college-level education majors in their senior year are paired up with mentor teachers. This is intended as a recruitment mechanism and as a way to provide effective training to the future workforce.
- The district’s role is to support the work in classrooms and allow teachers to focus on their students. Central office staff provide guidance, resources, and support – but are not prescriptive – regarding curricula. They make available the data teachers use to devise lesson plans and select instructional strategies, and provide the materials that teachers wish to use to deliver their lessons. In addition, central office staff conduct developmentally-focused observations that are not tied to formal evaluation. The purpose of these observations is to get a sense of what is happening in and across classrooms, and to provide support to teachers as needed. It is also a quality assurance mechanism to identify teachers who may not be the best fit for the Academies in future years.
- The district is selective about who receives the Sontag Prize for Urban Education. Typically, fewer than two-thirds of applicants are chosen to teach in the Academies. Teachers who are not accepted on the first try may apply again and often see it as an incentive to continue honing their craft. The Sontag Prize, in other words, is prestigious and coveted in the field. In the teaching field, its brand recognition continues to grow.
- Professional development considers multiple factors to better equip teachers to effectively reach their students. While the Academy week itself serves as professional development opportunity, the Sontag Prize’s professional development weekend goes beyond the typical topics related to pedagogy to cover broader topics such as leadership, team-building, brain development, and non-cognitive factors related – directly or indirectly – to student performance. It is meant to be expansive, respecting the intelligence of teachers and the positive impact of being exposed to new ideas.
The Acceleration Academies illustrate how district initiatives can be customized to meet the needs of individual school communities. They also serve as an example of the power of constructive relationships between and among: school and district leaders; principals and teachers; school administrators and families; and teachers and students.
- Trust and autonomy are multi-directional. At the school level, autonomy and trust manifests as principals trusting their teachers and feeling trusted by the district. Program leaders at the district level provide guidance and parameters, but school administrators have flexibility with regard to student selection, schedule, and other program components. This allows school leaders to make shifts in the program to best meet the needs of their schools and to serve as a support to teachers through the week.
- Productive relationships and communication among the members of the school community enhance the experience for all stakeholders. School leaders use the opportunity to foster and reinforce relationships among teachers, students, and parents, as well as between principals and teachers.
- Choice plays a major role in creating the atmosphere during the week. Both students and teachers participate in the academies by choice, which is both telling of the program’s draw and indicative of the tone. Students recognize and appreciate that their teachers are giving up vacation time to help them achieve their academic goals. In turn, students are aware of the expectation and come prepared to work, learn, and have fun.
- Collaboration is the norm. Teachers at the Acceleration Academies reported that one of the best aspects of the week is the ability to meet and exchange ideas with other excellent teachers. Starting with the professional development weekend at Harvard University and through the week, teachers are part of a community rather than isolated practitioners.
- Schedules are tools that can be adapted to enhance teaching and learning. The Academy schedule is deliberately and thoughtfully developed to provide a balance of time for instruction, enrichment opportunities, and teacher planning. Enrichment classes provide students with opportunities to recharge for their academic lessons and gain exposure to new ideas and activities – and give teachers time to reflect, prepare, and collaborate. Dedicated common planning time enables teachers to work in teams within and across grade levels to analyze data and devise cohesive strategies to address students' learning needs.
- Student selection is deliberate and aligned with the purpose and goals of the program. School leaders carefully consider student achievement, attendance, and behavioral data, as well as input from teachers, to determine which students are likely to benefit most from the intervention.
- Each school has the opportunity to customize the Academies in a way that is specific to its context and local traditions. The subjects covered and the number of seats per school are determined at the district level, but from there schools have a great deal of discretion over how they run their programs. Whether it’s building time into the schedule each day for a closing school-wide assembly or offering additional incentives for participation, there are many ways that schools can create an experience that is uniquely relevant to their own school community.
- Excellent teachers crave authentic and relevant professional development opportunities. The Acceleration Academies serve as a professional development opportunity for teachers, and an opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas with excellent teachers from both inside and outside the district. Ideas that have worked well in the Academies have frequently been exported into the regular classroom, providing an ongoing laboratory for innovation.
- Success can be achieved through many different styles of instruction. As Sara D'Alessandro describes, "The success of the Acceleration Academies was not concentrated in one grade level or one school. It was clear that it was having an effect across grade levels, across teachers, across schools. And none of those teachers was mirror images of each other. So it's clear that there are many ways to get to that end result. There's no one perfect way to structure a lesson."
During the Acceleration Academies, excellent teachers are given the tools and resources that enable them to create positive learning environments and utilize effective instructional practices. A great deal rests on what happens inside each classroom; therefore, district and school leaders focus on removing barriers to teaching and learning and on empowering teachers through professional development and individual and common planning time.
- Teachers are true leaders of their classrooms, and there is a sense of partnership with students. The teacher is positioned as the expert with the energy and experience to provide exciting and effective instruction, and the students are respected as learners with diverse needs. Together, they create a safe learning community.
- Mindset matters. A constant and consistent message to students is that if they work hard, they will build their skills during the week. Growth mindset is pervasive throughout the Academies – and increasingly throughout the district more broadly – and students are encouraged to “fail fast” and “fail forward” in order to learn from mistakes and apply that learning to future endeavors.
- There is clear celebration and appreciation of students, and a focus on making learning engaging and fun. Students feel special to be selected to participate, and while they might initially be hesitant to give up vacation to attend school, most find the experience to be overwhelmingly positive.
- Classes are smaller than during the regular school year. Each class has 10 to 12 students per teacher, and students are grouped based on the use of data.
- Longer, uninterrupted instructional blocks allow teachers to be more creative and flexible with their lessons. If students need additional help with particular concepts, or are fully immersed and engaged with a topic, teachers can take a deeper dive. Students are able to concentrate more fully on the topic at hand because they aren’t being asked to switch mental gears at prescribed, and sometimes arbitrary, intervals throughout the day.
- Instruction is data-driven. Teachers use data about their students to identify the primary areas of need, and plan their lessons accordingly.
- Teachers approach the standards in whatever ways they see as most advantageous to their students. Because they are selected based on their ability to get results, teachers are entrusted with developing their own curricula and lesson plans.
- Teachers have the time, flexibility, and materials to conduct project-based lessons. Hands-on activities help to keep students engaged, and also can bring to life and highlight the relevance of abstract concepts.
- Teachers create opportunities for individualized attention. For example, students might be divided into teams, both to build students’ cooperation and other relevant skills, and also to allow teachers to work with students one-on-one or in very small groups of two to three students.
- Additional time and personalized instruction reduces the need for some types of accommodations. Some students struggle in their regular classes because it takes them longer to master a concept than the instructional blocks allow, or because they may need information presented in particular ways to align with the way they learn. When offered adequate time and differentiated, individualized instruction, many of these students experience academic success that eludes them during the rest of the school year.
- Teachers are highly intentional about building trusting relationships with their students, identifying their learning needs, and building a strong sense of community in the classroom. Creating this type of learning environment is important because it empowers students to take academic risks and challenge themselves.