Achievement First – learning for MATs from a charter school network

Ever since the multi-academy revolution got under way it has seemed odd to me that neither policy makers nor MATs have tried to learn more systematically from the experience and lessons of the not-for-profit charter school networks in the USA. They are arguably the closest cousins that MATs have and they have been around for 10 to 15 years longer. The failure is all the more remarkable because as their approaches to school improvement have tended to be more systematic than have thus far been adopted in many MATs.

Over the past couple of months I have been in contact with Achievement First, a charter school network of 32 schools operating in three cities in Connecticut, in Providence, Rhode Island and Brooklyn, New York. Like many MATs Achievement First grew out of a strong school, which opened in 1999, with the charter school network established in 2003 by the founders of that school.

Most of the network’s schools are new schools – what we would call Free Schools – rather than turn-around schools. MAT leaders would also recognise Achievement First’s mission, which is to close the achievement gap and “to prove that urban students can achieve at the same high levels as their suburban peers”. Unlike MATs all pupils are admitted through a blind lottery system. Ninety eight per cent of students are African American or Latino and, reflecting the overall network average, over 80 per cent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch.

The network has a big central office team of 200. However, this includes principals and academic deans who are employed centrally. In the Brooklyn school I visited they had seven academic deans: three focused on coaching and instructional issues (one of them serving as school principal), one responsible for what we would call pastoral matters, one on attendance, behaviour and relations with parents, one on special needs and one on school operations.

In terms of their approach to school improvement I have picked out twelve characteristics of their model. I am not suggesting that MATs should be following these approaches – what is much more significant is that they have a theory of action. They have a clear strategy for improving outcomes for young people.

  1. Ambitious aspiration – the message at Achievement First schools is that ALL students are going to college and in four out of fives cases they will be the first member of their family to do so. The network continuously exposes students to the college ethos: classrooms are named after universities, and students make field trips to college campuses, hear speakers talk about college, write research papers on colleges and, as described below, master a curriculum designed to facilitate college entry.
  2. A strong focus on attendance – Achievement First schools view class time as sacred. Clear attendance goals are set, backed up by strong, swift intervention with students and parents if student attendance falters. A significant part of a dean’s evaluation consists of his or her ability to maintain 97 per cent, or greater, student attendance.
  3. More time for learning – the Achievement First school day is nearly two hours longer than the traditional public school day, starting with breakfast at 7.15 and finishing at 4pm. This enables 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. However, school finishes at 1pm on Friday, with Friday afternoon allocated for professional development, instruction on specific aspects of pedagogy and time for teachers to co-prepare lessons.
  4. A rigorous curriculum model – working back from the assumption that students need to be college-ready the network has clearly defined ‘scope and sequence’ documents that outline the ambitious academic standards students are expected to master at each grade level, so that success in one grade can be seamlessly built on in the next. Initially the network implemented this approach through having common units of work (equivalent to our schemes of work), with lessons planned in schools. However, Achievement First then bought in central expertise to write high quality lesson plans. Within each the school the academic deans work with teachers on reviewing the lesson plan content so that staff understand and own the content, and have planned in detail how to deliver the lesson to be appropriate to the context and progress of their students. Each segment of a lesson is tightly scripted and timed. This highly scaffolded approach partly reflects the fact that many of the teachers in Achievement First schools are new to teaching.
  5. Real time assessment – in key areas (maths and ELA – English language arts) short weekly tests are administered, with results reviewed by academic deans and followed up with coaching for individual teachers or extra support for specific pupils as required. Every six weeks teachers undertake interim assessments (IA) that measure whether students have actually mastered what they have been taught. 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.
  6. A heavy emphasis on building the capacity of teachers – in addition to helping with lesson plans a key role of the academic dean is coaching teachers. Teachers will be observed several times a week. Although the school day is long teachers have an extended amount of time away from the classroom each day to spend on lesson preparation, sessions with their instructional coach, interaction with individual pupils and parents and assessment/marking.
  7. Incentivising good behaviour – merits and demerits are awarded to pupils for upholding (or not) the network’s ‘REACH’ values (Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work). Each week pupils get a printout that includes their account balance – a summary of their credits and deductions – the credits convert into school dollars that pupils can invest in different types of reward at the student store. If students have an average of 80 school dollars they can earn special privileges and field trips. Demerits are tiered and have different point values, based on severity.
  8. Systematic routines – there are clear procedures for just about everything, and they are written down. From the way students call for attention in class, to using the elevator, to moving from class to class, to going to the bathroom, to building relationships, to diffusing difficult situations, to setting the right climate for the school, the network has built on its experience and codified its standard operating practices.
  9. Personalised pastoral care – Achievement First schools are small learning communities in which all the teachers and leaders know the names of all the students. The 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 group.
  10. Creating a joyful culture – the discipline of Achievement First’s approach is evident but the network also believes that great education should be ‘rigorous AND fun, challenging AND engaging, structured AND joyful’. Teachers are in part evaluated on their ability to ensure that joy is high in every class and dominates regular school-wide celebrations.
  11. Investing in leadership development – Achievement First has developed a Charter Network Accelerator programme: an intensive training program for charter management organisation (CMO) leaders that draws on the tools, practices and lessons of other high-performing CMOs. Achievement First makes a point of collaborating, learning from and sharing its practices and resources with other CMOs (including making resources available on an open-source basis).
  12. Change management – Achievement First has drawn on the thinking of John Kotter and the Harvard Business School to help build ownership amongst staff for their approaches to working with students. In Brooklyn, for example, the staff work through their values towards the end of each school year so that they are ready to share them with new staff joining them that autumn.

The Achievement First systematic approach is proving effective. You can read about its results on its website as well as its approach to special needs and providing catch-up support. You will also find details about a more innovative approach to schooling that it is trialling  at its  Greenfield site in Connecticut.




7 thoughts on “Achievement First – learning for MATs from a charter school network

  1. I did try on my Fulbright! Was a little stymied by the whole FOI court case thing. But one of main things I learned is that it’s actually very difficult to make equivalences. As you describe, the charters in NYC are more typical of free schools and they operate in a very particular setting with very particular teacher recruitment, curriculum and assessment frameworks. The lack of national qualifications in the US makes it very difficult to draw parallels between the schools as they operate towards such fundamentally different exit points. There is some overlap with SATs/national tests, though not much.

    In terms of organisation of the very few MAT-like charter networks, most are only doing things that strong MATs in England are already doing: strong recruitment and training, a clear ethos, well-embedded behaviour systems, etc. I don’t know how innovative this is in terms of school management, though. Much of it would also have been said for thriving schools two decades ago.

    The bit, for me, that’s really exciting is about how these networks come into and out of existence. Are there conditions that make the creation of an Achievement First more likely or more successful? Living out in Missouri it was noticeable that the sorts of effective chains that sprung up in NYC or New Orleans were not springing up in St Louis.

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura. They do now have the Common Core State Standards initiative that is allowing more meaningful comparisons.

      Where I disagree with you is your characterisation of MAT-like Charter networks. CMOs such as Aspire, Achieve First, Mastery, KIPP, High Tech High and LEAD have a lot to teach us about running groups of schools based on having a clear theory of action for improved classroom learning. I would suggest that fewer that 10% of MATs would pass this test. These CMOs are using different models (there is no blueprint) for improving the quality of teaching and learning. Some put a heavy emphasis on coaching, others on collaborative lesson planning, others on teachers as researchers, others prioritise the curriculum and others use a combination of these approaches. Leaders are expected to spend their time on instructional learning. These CMOs know their core business:they are clear in their model for systematically supporting better teaching. Yes, the best MATs in England meet this standard but there not that many of them that are practising it consistently across all of their schools. Look at the stats on the variation within as well as between MATs.

  2. This is a really helpful summary . I am working with a group of state school primaries and researching establishing a ‘ community education trust ‘.
    A systematic approach to school improvement and learning from other models is essential if we are to avoid some of the pitfalls.
    I was under the impression the Future Leaders scheme and REACH Academy chain had researched & embedded the best of what Charter School have to offer ? We can also learn so much from what has gone wrong as well as the positive outcomes!
    I welcome your blog and always find it useful . Thank you .

    • Thanks for the comment Jan. Future Leader (now Ambition School First) and the IoE/Deloitte programme have both drawn on charter school practice – but few MATs actually are as systematic as CMOs. Reach 4 (not renamed Astrea) has adopted a more structured approach to school improvement across its schools. The Outwood Grange family of schools, Harris and Ark also fall into this category. There are some others as well – but it is not the norm in my experience.

  3. I would welcome a return to local networking, with agendas set by local professionals.

    I did a lot of work back in the 2010-12 era setting up groups of schools around collaborative companies, where the Heads (and sometimes the Chairs also) were the Directors and they took an overview of their geographic area and what needed to be done to improve education. Meant entire agenda was set by local professionals and representatives. Where they really got stuck in, it bore much fruit – years later one such group is setting itself up as a small MAT.

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