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The Achievement First Approach: In the Schools

Achievement First's approach is not based on any "silver bullet" about how to achieve breakthrough student achievement. Rather, it consists of a set of basic principles that, when combined and executed well, have consistently demonstrated an ability to enable all students to succeed at the highest levels. Several critical elements of the school approach include:

  • More time spent learning
  • Regular use of interim assessments
  • Integration of performance data in planning
  • Recruitment and development of talented teachers and leaders
  • Intensive intervention for struggling students
  • Disciplined and joyful school culture

Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate that gap-closing student performance can be achieved at a scale. Achievement First plans to continue growing so that it will serve more than 12,000 students, of which at least 70 percent qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. At this size, Achievement First will have more students than 95 percent of all United States districts, and will be serving more low-income students than 97 percent of all United States districts.

All Achievement First schools share six core program elements that have emerged and are constantly refined: 

Unwavering Focus on Student Achievement

All Achievement First teachers and principals are focused on completely closing the achievement gap for our students, and student performance is the chief factor in school, principal and teacher evaluations. This focus is translated into practice through the Achievement First Essentials Observation Rubric and the Cycle of Highly Effective Teaching.

Focus on Talent

Achievement First firmly believes that one of the most important determinants of student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Likewise, the quality of school leaders is the most important driver of teacher success. Consequently, Achievement First goes to great lengths to recruit, develop, recognize and retain a team of talented teachers and school leaders. All new Achievement First school leaders train for two years before launching a new school, and all new Achievement First teachers participate in nearly four weeks of professional development. Achievement First schools release early on Fridays to provide two additional hours every week of staff meeting and learning time. Every Achievement First teacher has a coach (a principal, dean or lead teacher) who meets with them at least once every two weeks to provide individual coaching and support.

More Time Spent Learning

The Achievement First school day is nearly two hours longer than the traditional public school day, allowing many students to have two reading classes and an extended math class every day, with tutoring available during and after school, an average of one to two hours of homework per night, and an intensive independent reading program so that students READ, READ, READ both at home and at school.

Rigorous Curriculum

Achievement First has clearly defined "scope and sequence" documents that outline the ambitious academic standards that all Achievement First students are expected to master at each grade level, so that success in one grade can be seamlessly built on in the next. Teachers understand that "covering material" is not our goal; what is important is how well students master the standards.

Strategic Use of Data and Targeted Interventions

Every six weeks, Achievement First teachers give interim assessments (IA) that measure whether students have actually mastered what we have taught them. These results are then uploaded to Achievement First's Athena, a custom-built assessment system. Teachers and principals spend a "data day" after each IA dedicated to reviewing the individual assessments and together creating data-driven instructional plans that target whole class, small group and one-on-one instruction to address any gaps in student learning. There is designated time during the school day, after school and on Saturdays for small group and individual tutoring. Both teachers and students believe that we need to do "whatever it takes" to make sure all students learn.

Strong School Culture

Immediately upon entering an Achievement First school, you can feel a sense of urgency, order, rigor, focus and joy. Key elements of Achievement First's school culture include the following:

  • Core values: We call them our "REACH" values, and they are: Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work. They appear in every classroom and are taught, cultivated and reinforced as explicitly as academics.
  • Sweating the small stuff: In many urban schools, teachers and leaders "pick their battles," only addressing egregious instances of poor behavior. Achievement First, on the other hand, has adopted sociologist James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory that even small details can have a significant effect on overall culture, and we believe that students will rise to the level of expectations placed on them.
  • College focus: The message at Achievement First schools is that ALL students are going to college. We continuously expose students to college: all of our classrooms are named after universities, and students make field trips to college campuses, hear speakers talk about college, write research papers on colleges and, most important, master a college-preparatory curriculum. From the moment our students arrive, they know what year they are expected to graduate from college (our current kindergarteners are known as the "Class of 2029"). In our achievement-oriented culture, it is cool to be smart, and all students work hard to climb the mountain to college.
  • Teachers know and care: Achievement First schools are small learning communities in which all the teachers and leaders know the names of all the students. Achievement First schools use a co-advisor system in which a class of 25-27 students is co-advised by two teachers, which enables them to develop meaningful relationships with all the students in their advisory.
  • Parents as partners: At Achievement First schools, parents, students and school leaders all sign a contract that outlines their shared commitment to hard work and consistent support of one another. While this contract is not legally binding, it is an important symbolic commitment and plays an important role in strengthening the relationship between parents and the school.
  • Focus on attendance: At Achievement First schools, class time is sacred. Clear attendance goals are set, and strong, swift intervention with students and parents occurs if student attendance falters. A significant part of a dean's evaluation consists of his or her ability to maintain 97 percent or greater student attendance.
  • Uniforms: All Achievement First students wear their school's chosen uniform.
  • Joy factor: Achievement First believes that great education should be rigorous AND fun, challenging AND engaging, structured AND joyful. In fact, we evaluate teachers on their ability to ensure that the J-Factor (the JOY factor) is high in every class and dominates regular school-wide celebrations.
 
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