Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments

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November 21, 2011

The Brookings Institute released a new report in September 2011 that cited school start times as a way to improve student achievement.

According to their report, education reform proposals are often based on high-profile or dramatic policy changes, many of which are expensive, politically controversial, or both. In this paper, the Brookings Institute argues that the debates over these “flashy” policies have obscured a potentially important direction for raising student performance—namely, reforms to the management or organization of schools. By making sure the “trains run on time” and focusing on the day-to-day decisions involved in managing the instructional process, school and district administrators may be able to substantially increase student learning at modest cost.

In this report, there are three organizational reforms that recent evidence suggests have the potential to increase K–12 student performance at modest costs: (1) Starting school later in the day for middle and high school students; (2) Shifting from a system with separate elementary and middle schools to one with schools that serve students in kindergarten through grade eight; (3) Managing teacher assignments with an eye toward maximizing student achievement (e.g. allowing teachers to gain experience by teaching the same grade level for multiple years or having teachers specializing in the subject where they appear most effective).

The Brookings Institute report conservatively estimates that the ratio of benefits to costs is 9 to 1 for later school start times and 40 to 1 for middle school reform. A precise benefit-cost calculation is not feasible for the set of teacher assignment reforms described, but they argue that the cost of such proposals is likely to be quite small relative to the benefits for students. While it recognizes that these specific reforms may not be appropriate or feasible for every district, they encourage school, district, and state education leaders to make the management, organization, and operation of schools a more prominent part of the conversation on how to raise student achievement.