District School Reform

Jill Shackelford. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publication. 2008.

For school systems across the United States, these are the “best of times and the worst of times.” A hot spotlight shines upon each school and school district in the United States to demonstrate progress toward assurance that no child has been left behind, and that gaps in achievement for students of color, learning disabled, or English language learners have vanished. These are both stimulating and productive times for schools and school districts. The press for accountability offers an opportunity for school districts to face the brutal facts, adopt and implement second order change that goes deep into the fiber of the school culture, and rebuild systems to improve student learning.

Putting First Things First (PFTF) is the story of Kansas City Kansas (KCK) Public Schools, which chose to reform the entire school district from top to bottom and selected First Things First (FTF) as the framework. This is a complex story about a complicated initiative which resulted in turning the tide and improving performance for students who previously had not come to school, performed poorly, and were not engaged in their school work. PFTF details the positive effects of FTF in KCK and demonstrates that entire school districts can change to produce sizable, pervasive, and sustained improved student achievement.

Press for Reform

The Nation at Risk report published in 1983 raised a red flag and sounded a dire warning about the state of the U.S. education system. In the mid-1990s, the Goals 2000 legislation drove state and district policy to focus on school readiness, school completion, student achievement and citizenship, safe and drug-free schools, and parent participation. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act into law, and plunged the U.S. education system into a new direction for accountability.

NCLB has created high-stakes accountability for schools and districts. NCLB forces schools to reduce the achievement gap, not only between White students and students of color, but also between students who are advantaged and disadvantaged by factors such as socioeco-nomics, disability, and language of origin. Schools and school districts that do not reach their annual performance targets in each subcategory do not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) and are subject to increasingly severe sanctions. Parents whose children attend a School on Improvement (one that has not made AYP 2 years in a row) are given the option to transfer their child to another school (with transportation provided) and are also provided with free tutoring. NCLB also provides free tutoring sessions for students in Schools on Improvement.

School Reform

The pressure imposed by NCLB to make AYP has caused school staff across the United States to assess their practices and determine which types of change will lead to improvement. Low-performing schools have been pressed to adopt comprehensive school reform programs based on reliable research and effective practice that would lead to improved achievement.

The comprehensive school reform (CSR) movement began in the early 1990s as an attempt to overcome the incoherence arising within schools, especially those serving high proportions of children from low-income families. The New American Schools Development Corporation sponsored approximately 18 different school reform models, which were designed to be essential driving forces of school improvement. Some programs considered school culture to be the real engine of reform; others used academic standards, technology, instructional materials, instructional methods or some other aspect of schooling. Each program developed a change model that began intervention at a specific part of the system and moved on to the whole school site.

The CSR movement was fueled by federal and state grants that required schools to adopt one of the New American Schools Models such as America’s Choice, Modern Red SchoolHouse, Talent Development, Success for All, Knowledge Is Power (KIPP), or FTF.

District Reform

In education, piecemeal reforms seldom work. Because schools are made up of intersecting and overlapping parts, any single intervention or school reform effort will influence and be influenced by the rest of the system. Thus, some school districts believe that a systemic, districtwide model of change is most appropriate for guiding school improvement.

Several urban schools have looked to the CSR models to drive school improvement throughout the district. They have taken a variety of pathways to get a systemic, cohesive approach to districtwide school improvement. Some districts such as KCK have required all school sites to adopt the same model. In KCK, the model has been FTF.

Schools for a New Society (SNS) recognized that high school transformations that would yield significant improvement in outcomes for all students would require bold reforms throughout the entire school district. To achieve high school reform, SNS required districts to define and alter policies, practice, beliefs, and values throughout the multiple layers of a district. Seven cities, including Boston, Massachusetts; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Houston, Texas; Providence, Rhode Island; and San Diego, California, implemented the SNS conceptual framework.

Demographics of KCK Public Schools

The KCK Public Schools is a medium-sized urban school district currently serving 19,000 students in 43 schools. Like many urban school districts, KCK has experienced a declining enrollment; at the onset of FTF reform in 1996, the district served 21,000 students in 47 schools. KCK is a majority-minority population, with a somewhat constant population of 17% Caucasian. Over the last 10 years, the African American population has declined from 55% to 47%, while the Hispanic population has increased from 17% to 38%. About 3% of the population is Native American, Asian, and other ethnic groups. The increase in the Hispanic numbers can be attributed to the increased number of recent immigrants from Mexico (most needing to acquire English as a second language). The percentage of KCK students who are economically disadvantaged and live in poverty continues to increase. Currently, 78% of KCK students live in poverty, bringing with them to school the issues of economic instability, mobility, crime, drugs, and violence.

FTF: A Framework for District Reform

FTF is a comprehensive school reform model “born” in 1996 in Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, and implemented on a districtwide basis. James Connell, president of the Institute for Reform and Research in Education, developed FTF out of his work in youth development, rather than from an educational background. Connell proposed that his theories supporting youth development applied in school systems.

The FTF theory of change set out pathways to achieve the ultimate goals—improving youth’s educational and developmental outcomes by providing increased supports and opportunities for students and adults. The intermediate outcomes are initiating change strategies and implementing school site reforms. FTF was designed to strengthen the connections between students and adults within the school in order to improve instruction. Districts that adopt the FTF model tailor it to fit their particular needs, circumstances, and contexts, and commit to a set of requirements essential to their success.

FTF Goals

The long-term goals for young adults are economic self-sufficiency, healthy family and social relationships, and the ability to contribute to the community/society in positive ways. The educational outcomes that lead to these goals are academic success, measured by grades and standardized tests, and commitment to their education, measured by attendance and a decline in suspension rates.

Supports for FTF Goals

Changes in the school environment are made to improve student commitment and performance. These changes must impact students and the adults, and must be of sufficient magnitude to impact the culture of the school. Specifically, students must receive stronger interpersonal and instructional supports, which lead to positive beliefs and engagement in school. Likewise, adults in schools need increased opportunities and support, which lead to positive beliefs about themselves and school, and greater engagement.

Critical Features: Parameters for FTF

The FTF framework calls for four types of structural changes for students and three instructional changes for adults. The following Critical Features are nonnegotiable elements for planning the initiative.

For students, the system must:

  1. Provide continuity of care by forming small learning communities, where teachers stay with the same group of students for 3 years in elementary and middle school, and 4 years in high school.
  2. Lower student-adult ratios to 15:1 during the critical subjects language arts and math, and increase overall instructional time (through the use of literacy blocks in elementary schools, and block scheduling in secondary schools.)
  3. Set high, clear, and fair academic and conduct standards.
  4. Provide enriched and diverse opportunities for students to learn, perform, and be recognized. For adults, the system must:
  5. Ensure collective responsibility.
  6. Equip, empower, and expect staff to improve instruction.
  7. Give small learning communities and schools the flexibility to redirect resources (time, money, people, and space) in order to achieve goals for student learning.

Pillars of FTF

The following changes to school and district structures and processes are designed to improve teaching and learning.

  1. Small learning communities (SLCs)—Schools are transformed into clusters of approximately 250 students who stay with the same group of teachers for multiple years (4 years of high school). All high school SLCs are theme based.
  2. Instructional improvement—Professional development activities must be centered on making lessons more engaging and rigorous, and better aligned with state and local standard.
  3. Family advocate system—Each student is paired with a staff member who meets regularly with the student, monitors his or her progress, and works with the student’s parents.

Core Goals of FTF

As FTF evolved, the district defined the following core goals:

  1. Strengthen relationships among students and adults.
  2. Improve teaching and learning.
  3. Reallocate budget, staff, and time to achieve the above.

Districtwide Implementation of FTF

Implementation of comprehensive school reform targeted to improve student learning within a system of schools is a daunting task. Eleven years ago, KCK accepted the challenge. This is the story of FTF in KCK.

The Decision

In 1996, KCK district administrators looked at their data and realized that a graduation rate of less than 50%, and only 3% of students proficient in math and 11% proficient in reading was not acceptable. Seeing the brutal facts of student performance, and responding with a clear mandate for change were the beginning steps on the KCK road to districtwide reform. The board of education seized this leadership opportunity and responded.

Simultaneously, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (Kauffman), a national philanthropic foundation based in Kansas City, Missouri, became familiar with the reform model created by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education (IRRE). Kauffman commissioned Dr. James Connell, president IRRE and author of FTF, to develop a white paper to apply his ideas of youth development to schools. In May 1996, Kauffman invited KCK leadership to an exploratory session to present the FTF framework, map the pathway to change, and explain the realities of putting the Critical Features in place. When the superintendent, district administration, and school board determined that FTF fit their needs and could help synthesize their efforts to improve, the collaboration with IRRE was formed. The Kauffman Foundation joined the partnership and fueled the project, first with a 1-year and then with longer-term investments.

Unlike most comprehensive reform models that require 85% staff approval, the decision to adopt FTF was a district-level decision. There was no collaboration or initial efforts at buy-in with the principals, staff, the local National Education Association (NEA) unit, or the community. The superintendent determined that all schools needed to improve and directed that the adoption of FTF was nonnegotiable.

Phasing in FTF

Preparing the education community for the implementation of FTF, and supporting school buildings as they planned for and began the reform, was complex. The district made the crucial decision to phase in FTF by introducing it successively to clusters of schools (a cluster consisted of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools). Between May 1996 and May 1997, district leadership participated in planning activities to prepare for implementation of FTF. The first cluster of schools began planning during the 1997-98 school year, and implemented FTF the following year. The second cluster planned in 1998-99, and implemented FTF 1999-00. The last two clusters planned in 1999-00, and implemented during 2000-01. By 2001, all 43 schools were implementing FTF, and districtwide implementation had begun.

District Activities

The role of the district was an important aspect of successful implementation of FTF. By nature, districts are large bureaucracies which are resistant to change. For KCK, the role of the district was clear: to lead and support FTF in all schools. There was a single reform for the entire school district, with a common vocabulary and common outcomes. The superintendent expected the district leadership and staff to lead the effort and restructure the central office to make that happen.

To explain FTF and build support and buy-in for implementation, several roundtables were held. These brought together major stakeholders from the school clusters, including the local NEA unit. Led by the district superintendent, the content of the roundtables included a presentation of the FTF theory of change, with a focus on the seven Critical Features. Roundtables were crucial in providing the basis for the school team to begin planning for implementation in their school site.

Policy and resource decisions needed to be made in order to structure, support, and guide schools with the implementation of FTF. The Central Office responded by reassigning and reconfiguring resources in order to support implementation of FTF, without allocating any additional resources. The following district actions enhanced school implementation of FTF:

  • Reallocated former districtwide staff to schools as school improvement facilitators (SIFs) responsible for FTF implementation at the school site;
  • Created the position of Executive Director of School Improvement to lead the planning and implementation process;
  • Created executive directors of instruction, who reported to the superintendent and supervised school administrators and SIFs to provide both pressure and support for school-level instructional improvement;
  • Gave schools increased authority over hiring and purchasing;
  • Provided a weekly 2-hour staff development time within the school day, and common planning time for each small learning community;
  • Developed and implemented school walkthroughs to assess whether key FTF components were being implemented; and
  • Distributed student performance data by cluster, small learning community, and family advocate group.

School Site Activities

In order to implement FTF, a balance between FTF mandates and school-level initiative had to be established. Because the district had attempted to implement other models of school reform (Comer Model, Basic School), it was felt that some staff would have the attitude that “this too shall pass” and would not believe the district would stay the course. Bob Bayer, an assistant principal in one of the high schools, was quoted as saying, “First Things First came in and I thought: ‘More of the same.’ I didn’t want any part of it.” Other staff did not believe the district would really give the school staffs the autonomy to design the FTF features for their site. Although resistance to change was evident, the overwhelming enthusiasm and sense of urgency to “do something” prevailed.

Schools in each cluster were given a year to develop their plans for implementation of FTF. Supported by the district leadership, the principal and SIF from each school selected leaders from within their school and formed a stakeholder group to facilitate planning. The rest of the school staff joined committees—organized around the seven Critical Features for elementary schools, and budget, staff, small learning communities, facilities, and professional development for secondary schools. These committees engaged in planning and decision making, which resulted in the development of a School Improvement Plan.

It was difficult to change the structure of school organization to form small learning communities, to satisfy the continuity of care critical feature. The FTF critical feature that empowered and enabled teachers to make these difficult decisions was instrumental to success of the process. It was important to set the parameters for decision making (Critical Features), then step back and let the teachers design how they would work.

High school teachers found it stressful to leave a department and create a small learning community made up of 10-12 core teachers (English, math, social studies, science) and elective teachers. Each small learning community centered on a theme that complemented the elective teachers’ content area (such as Performing Arts, Health Care, Business, and Communication). For high school teachers, being in a small learning community meant remaining with the same group of students for 4 years, teaching multiple courses (which required multiple class preparations). This made it even more critical that the district find and hire teachers with strong academic backgrounds and train them well.

This system also sometimes required changing the location of particular teachers’ classrooms so that the entire small learning community would be in the same area of the building. While many of these changes were difficult (and indeed, caused some teachers to leave the district), in the end, most teachers were able to adapt because they connected the changes to the greater good of improved student achievement.

In forming small learning communities, care was given to matching teachers’ personalities, and giving them choices. The phrase “small and tall” was developed to characterize the need to keep the numbers of students in each small learning community small, and the availability of courses and électives aligned with the theme expansive. A few elective lanes were developed to schedule students from all small learning communities into band, orchestra, and vocal music classes. The goal was to keep the small learning communities pure, with students taking as many classes as possible within their SLC. The power of the model is in the autonomy of the teachers within the small learning community. The teacher’s role has been broadened to handle all but the most grievous discipline problems, to decide how to allocate time and money, and to participate in filling staff vacancies. Teachers were given the autonomy to plan, schedule, budget, and design learning to meet the needs of their students.

Middle schools committees of teachers were allowed to decide to organize either by horizontal small learning communities (having a sixth-grade SLC, a seventh-grade SLC, and an eighth-grade SLC) or by vertical SLCs (with each SLC containing sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students mixed together). Either model required that a set of core and elective teachers teach the same group of 150-250 students for multiple years. In the horizontal model, the sixth-grade teachers move (loop) with their students to the seventh grade, and then on to eighth grade the following year. These decisions often caused the relocation of classrooms, and created the need for teachers to teach and prep for multiple classes and/or learn a new grade-level curriculum.

Elementary teacher committees decided to restructure their schools to loop with the same students for at least 2 years. Larger elementary schools formed vertical small learning communities to place students K-5 into a unit. Smaller schools often organized into a primary small learning community of K-2 students, and an intermediate community of three to five students. Changing grade levels and looping up with their students from first to second grade was a significant change for teachers, because elementary teachers are responsible for all subjects, and looping with their students means learning a new complement of grade-level standards and curriculum each year. To get to a student teacher ratio of 15:1 in reading and math, many schools used art, physical education, and music teachers, their librarian, paraprofessionals, and principal to teach a reading or math group.

Evolutions of FTF in KC

Decisions regarding the formation of small learning communities seemed to consume most of the energy and attention during the beginning stages of planning and implementation of FTF. The 2-hour weekly professional development time during the school day (students were released early) was instrumental to successful planning and implementation of the FTF Critical Features. Over the years, school sites refined and strengthened the small learning community structures by making data-driven decisions based on the needs of their students.

For example, several high schools noticed that with the 4×4 block schedule, many students weren’t taking math second semester, and struggling on the math portion of the state assessment. Teachers worked together to create multiple opportunities for students to learn and do math during the spring semester, including tutoring sessions, work with professionals from a local architectural firm, and district-wide math competitions. Overall, teachers in small learning communities evolved into professional learning communities that gather data and collaborate to improve instruction. High school small learning communities began creating new électives, which connect their theme to the world of work.

Once the structural decisions were made, school sites focused on instructional improvement. The elementary schools began to make curriculum and instructional change, which spread to the middle schools and ultimately inched their way into high schools. Teachers within small learning communities came together in professional learning communities in order to begin the second order change of instructional improvement. Teachers were given the instruction needed to learn and work together to make data-driven decisions. They learned how to use student assessments to collaborate with others to discover changes and modifications in student instruction needed to improve student performance.

Structural innovations continue to occur. One recent change is that in high schools, each small learning community now has a college and career coordinator who works with students to improve their readiness for and access to college. There is also a push to increase enrollment in dual credit courses with the community college, and for more students to take the American College Testing (ACT) test. Finally, a one-to-one laptop initiative was implemented to provide each high school student with a laptop, in order to increase the rigor of classroom interaction and provide the individualized learning needed to close achievement gaps in reading and math.

The third core element of FTF was the implementation of the Family Advocate System (FAS). The purpose of FAS is to provide a structure to increase and enrich relationships between students and teachers, and between teachers and parents. All teachers, administrators, and other adults in each school became family advocates for 15-18 students. Each student was paired with a family advocate, and the two met regularly to assess student academic and developmental progress. These groups of teachers and students stayed together for multiple years. Schools had weekly family advocate periods, during which students met with their advocate in a group setting. Traditional Parent Teacher Conferences evolved into Family Advocate Days. Instead of having parents speak to all of their student’s teachers (five to seven teachers), schools began to have student-led conference with the student, parent, and Family Advocate. Instead of focusing on grades, the FAS session expanded to include student goals, interests, and progress toward graduation.


Dr. Jim Connell and the IRRE staff were critical to the conception, design, and implementation phases of FTF. IRRE was viewed as a team which provided technical assistance. IRRE came on a monthly basis to monitor FTF, and provided the pressure and support to the superintendent and district leaders who made the enormous task of districtwide implementation happen. Although the IRRE role was crucial to FTF implementation, Jim Connell’s visits were not always pleasant for the schools or the district office. The executive director for FTF jokingly reported that “teachers ran him out of the school.”

Results of FTF

Implementation Results

KCK implemented the Critical Features of FTF as established. Evidence indicates that schools made significant progress in lowering the student-teacher ratio and providing continuity of care in all 43 school sites. All schools were organized into small learning communities in order to provide looping and continuity of care. Collective responsibility was evident within schools, and between clusters of schools. The policy of flexible allocation of resources was accomplished districtwide. SLCs enjoyed decision-making authority over space and supplies and participated in hiring and budget decisions. In terms of instructional improvements, small group strategies have increased and students have experienced high academic standards, supported by aligned curriculum material and measured by local assessments. Teachers reported greater support from district administration and their level of engagement with their work increased.

Student Achievement Improved

Before FTF, reading and math performance were far below state norms. With the implementation of FTF, reading test scores improved significantly. In 1996, before FTF, district reading performance for all grades averaged 11% proficient, with high school reading proficiency in the low single digits, middle schools in the teens, and elementary schools in the twenties on the Kansas Assessment Test. By the third year of implementation of FTF, reading progress began to be evident. By 2004, the average percentage of students proficient in reading rose to 40%; by 2006, 53% of all students were proficient in reading. A closer look at high school reading performance over the 10-year span indicates proficiency rose from 7% in 1996 to 48% by 2006. KCK was also closing the achievement gap between White students and African American and Hispanic students at a faster rate than the rest of the state. Gaps of 17 percentage points between performances of White students and minority groups shrunk to between 10 and 13 percentage points, while all groups improved.

When FTF began in 1996, math performance lingered far behind reading performance. Only 3% of all students in KCK were proficient in math. Elementary and middle school performance were in the single digits, although slightly higher than the dismal high school levels of proficiency. FTF caused the system to focus on instructional improvement in math, so that after 3 years of alignment of math standards, adoption of new standards-based curriculum and stronger local math assessments, math performance began to improve. By 2004, the district average of student’s proficiency in math rose to 46.5% and then by 2006 continued to climb to 53% proficiency.

After FTF implementation, high school attendance improved from 85% in 1999 to 91% in 2002. In subsequent years, the graduation and dropout rates improved. When FTF was fully implemented (2002), the graduation rate (the percentage of students from ninth grade that graduate in 4 years) averaged 48%. (The four comprehensive high schools, whose graduation rates hovered around 20%, were being offset by a selective high school that reported a 100% graduation rate.) With the implementation of FTF (and the continuity of care features in particular), the graduation rate rose to 84% in 2006.

Student Relationship and Engagement Improved

Stronger student relationships and student engagement in the classroom are the cornerstones of FTF. A student’s relationship with his or her teachers has an impact on learning, and students who pay attention in class, ask questions, and focus on assignments are more likely to earn higher grades and score higher on state and local assessments.

This element of FTF was evaluated using surveys for students in third to twelfth grades in order to measure and track changes in student-teacher relationships and classroom engagement. After 3 years of implementation, 85% of elementary school, 60% of middle school, and 82% of high school students reported better relationships with their teachers than before FTF began. Students also reported higher levels of engagement.

Instructional Strategies and Standards Improved

Providing enriching and diverse learning opportunities is one of the critical features of FTF. Implementation of this concept moved from field trips and project-based learning to a structured and strategic approach called the Teaching and Learning Framework. This approach placed more emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, hands-on learning, and student interaction. Survey data for secondary students reported a move from more passive to active instructional strategies. These changes in instructional strategies were consistently observed during classroom visits.

Staff Engagement and Support Improved

FTF suggested that for teachers to be successful, they need support from colleagues and administrators, and they need to be engaged in their work. Staff surveys indicated that the degree of support the staff felt from colleagues did not change, but the degree of support from principals and district leadership showed significant improvement. The staff reported feeling more engaged in that they perceived they were doing what was needed to get the job done.

National Recognition

FTF has received significant attention from researchers and other school districts across the nation. Twice a year, the district hosts a conference for other districts that are interested in learning about FTF implementation. In addition, the American Institutes for Research studied the 18 widely used school improvement programs for middle and high schools and found only 10 models merited a “moderate” or “limited” rating for effectiveness and impact on student achievement. FTF was one of six programs listed for “limited” effectiveness.

Factors Contributing to the Implementation of FTF

Putting FTF in place in 43 schools was a major undertaking. Survey data from KCK staff indicate that several leadership and relationship characteristics contributed to high-quality implementation.

The leadership ability of the principal, school improvement facilitator, and small learning community coordinator were essential. Principals who cared about the staff, were visible in classrooms and hallways, and pitched in with instruction were important. Communication needed to be open and direct. School improvement facilitators (SIFs) who modeled collaborative behavior and facilitated professional development contributed to staff acceptance. SIFs who demonstrated competence in instruction were the ones to whom teachers would turn to ask questions about instruction. Small learning community coordinators were well respected by teachers, particularly for their use of effective facilitation skills.

Decision-making elements and professional development opportunities were also important factors. Staff needed to have sufficient information to make informed decisions, and their decisions needed be honored. Small learning communities needed to meet frequently and discuss issues openly.

Professional development was a key factor. The common planning time and 2-hour early release features enhanced implementation. It was important to the staff that the professional development was relevant, and that teachers were engaged and allowed to practice, assess, and refine new practices.

Relationships were important to the implementation of FTF. Staff and student relationships are the centerpiece of FTF. Evaluation of FTF indicated that students could identify at least one adult they could turn to for help, staff members knew more about students, listened to student concerns, and were more willing to handle discipline issues.

Peer relationships were enhanced by communication that was open, based on mutual respect, and focused on constructive conversations rather than complaints.

District Role in FTF Reform

Large school districts are difficult to reform. The KCK district leaders placed several strategies in place that contributed to the successful implementation of FTF. The strategies focused on three areas: commitment, consistency, and clarity.


District leadership at all levels demonstrated their commitment to FTF. District administrators, who were initially seen as interfering and controlling, were later viewed much more positively. Because teachers perceived the reform was having an impact, the perception of top-down decision making changed. Central office roles were changed, much the same way that school staffs were asked to change how they did business. District leaders were visible in the schools and involved in the learning and development opportunities. Central office leaders made budget decisions and sought additional resources that would support FTF reform and instructional goals. Significant resources were used to develop the capacity of principals and school improvement facilitators to lead the change effort. Even the teacher’s union, somewhat hesitant at first, eventually stepped up to support the implementation of FTF.

The board of education played a vital role in adopting and sustaining FTF. Most importantly, they selected superintendents dedicated to the implementation and sustainability of FTF. That long-term continuity of leadership has proven critical. Even though four individuals have served as superintendent from 1996 to the present, the focus on reform via FTF has not waned. This is a tribute to the leadership role of the board of education. Another critical decision the board made was the approval of an early release policy for the 2-hour weekly professional development. The board has continued to approve early release as part of the school calendar for 10 years, because they understand that professional development is a key factor in the improvement of student performance.

The board and district leaders continued to stay the course and deflect the naysayers until finally, after 3-4 years of implementation, elementary schools began to register reading improvement, followed by middle schools. It would have been easy to fold and water down the reform. Commitment over time was crucial.


All KCK leaders were “on the same page” and making decisions consistent with support of FTF. The FTF framework provided a common set of principles, a common vocabulary, and common language that allowed school district employees to be team players in the reform. This consistency in message chipped away at those who thought, “This too shall pass.” When they realized that FTF was not going to wither away, many staff members retired earlier than they might have, and other staff left the district.

Every change and decision was made with FTF as a filter. Grant opportunities were encouraged and developed or declined based upon whether they would enhance or impede FTF implementation. Through a series of budget cuts, the district office struggled to keep the student-teacher ratio intact, and even added instructional coaches. At the site level, FTF provided a frame for school improvement, and provided the umbrella for site improvement plans. This protected the site from external pressures to adopt interventions and programs that might interfere with or distract energy from implementation of FTF and the instructional programs of KCK.


Clarity was the most difficult area to achieve. Because some elements of the critical features sharpened as FTF moved forward, it was difficult for the district to strike a balance between the need of school sites to design a personalized learning environment for the critical features, and the desire to develop a cohesive, intensive districtwide approach to reform. Recent studies have examined the factors that help create the clarity needed for meaningful change at the school level.

  • Staff need to establish high, clear, and fair academic and behavioral standards. Good relationships among staff and students are linked to positive long-term outcomes.
  • Systemic instructional approach—A coherent systemic curriculum and instructional approach is needed. Instructional coaches in every building are vital.
  • Professional development—Ongoing allocation of resources for professional development is important to allow staff to collaborate for data-driven dialogue and decision making, and to train in instructional strategies.


For districts intending to implement a districtwide reform like FTF, there are some important factors that need to be considered. The first is that leadership matters—from the top of the organization to the bottom. From the board of education, superintendent, central office, principal, school improvement facilitators to teacher-leaders. All have to be committed to the initiative and willing to change to improve student learning. Second, structural changes and instructional improvement must be present for schools to improve. Structure has a huge impact on instruction, and without changes in the structure, the instructional changes won’t last.

Positive, supportive relationships are at the center of successful implementation. Frequently, school reform efforts ignore relationships, but they are critical. Finally, time and perseverance is crucial; reform may take 4 or 5 years of implementation before improvement in academic achievement is observed.

Other factors that need attention include:

  • Leadership stability
  • Strategies focused on improving instruction
  • Making sure the reform involves all schools
  • A collaborative relationship with teacher union
  • Strong external partners
  • A balance between district level mandates and school level decision making
  • New forms of collaborative leadership
  • Significant resources in professional development to improve quality of teaching

Policy Implications

Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) indicated the experience in KCK points to four conditions sufficient to produce meaningful impact on a wide array of outcomes in schools serving disadvantaged populations. Whether these conditions are also necessary remains an open question.

  • A districtwide focus, with the district staying the course for many years in its provision of pressure and support for the reform changes
  • Schools that operated FTF for many years
  • Balancing a need for more personalized learning environments with a comprehensive and intensive approach for improving instruction that emphasizes alignment, rigor, and student engagement
  • Intensive and responsive technical assistance from providers who are willing to make midcourse adjustments where needed


PFTF is a story about turning the tide in an urban district that serves economically disadvantaged youth, from a district with disaffected students who do not come to school and who perform poorly, to one with students who attend school regularly, are engaged in their work, and develop the necessary skills for a successful transition to adulthood.

The transformation of the KCK school district offers an inside perspective on the planning and implementation of FTF, a comprehensive and complicated initiative. The lessons learned teach others that instructional improvement must go hand in hand with structural changes; that leadership at all levels is vital; and that strengthened relationships are at the heart of the FTF reform. Implementation findings indicate that mounting the intervention is hard: doing it well requires commitment, persistence, and effort. The positive effects of FTF in KCK are sizable, pervasive, and sustained. Success in KCK points to the critical role that districts play in providing a unified message, along with the pressure and support that all educators need to keep their eyes on the prize: better teacher-student relationships and improved teaching and learning in the classroom. The KCK story of FTF has demonstrated that districtwide reform can be accomplished and sustained. FTF provides a blueprint for districts that also need to find a way to turn the tide might follow.