Project Transition

Testing an Intervention to Help High School Freshmen Succeed

| Janet Quint, Cynthia Miller, Jennifer Pastor, Rachel Cytron

Much of what MDRC has learned about interventions for people who have dropped out of high school points toward the need to prevent school failure in the first place. As the nation seeks to ensure the effectiveness of its schools, we and others have argued that it is important to focus on the points of transition. How can schools improve the transition to kindergarten from Head Start, day care, or a state’s pre-kindergarten program? How can the school-to-career transition be supported? And the question animating this report: How can high schools assist the transition from middle school, particularly for students at risk of school failure?

This is a report on the implementation and effects of Project Transition. Project Transition combines strategies that are becoming more common in K-12 settings across the nation: student-teacher clusters, extra time for teachers to work together, and a teacher “coach” meant to support instructional change. When implemented as a package, such an intervention tries to respond to two issues. First, can school be changed in ways that make students and teachers feel less anonymous and more engaged? Second, can this translate into improved student performance?

Because the elements of Project Transition are promising and are in the family of reforms being tried in a variety of schools, several years ago we decided to shine a hard light on what such a package might produce. To do so, we launched Project Transition’s implementation in two large, urban high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Kansas City, Kansas.

The report finds that Project Transition succeeded in creating a more supportive atmosphere for both students and teachers. At the school where the project was more fully implemented, it also produced positive though modest effects on students’ academic outcomes. Given the strong research design underlying these results, the study provides reliable evidence on what such interventions can accomplish in a very short period of time. The report also clearly lays out the limits of such a strategy. As with all educational change, an intervention planned is not an intervention delivered. Further, this study shows that while a rather inexpensive but well-run intervention can improve important aspects of school performance, the effects are not dramatic. This underscores the need to consider well-implemented transition programs as just one element, albeit an important one, of a broader K-12 strategy.

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