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Organizing schools to improve student achievement: Start times, grade configurations, and teacher assignments

September 27, 2011


The Problem

Education reform efforts have generally overlooked the areas of school organization, management, and administration. Many decisions about how to organize schools are guided by allocation of resources without also considering how organization impacts student achievement and factoring these into a cost-benefit analysis.

The Proposal

Three organizational reforms to improve student achievement would address these concerns. Since new research has shown that middle school– and high school–aged students thrive with later start times, the school day should be shifted later for these ages. Additionally, since most students perform better when grades K–8 are in a single building, districts should reconfigure the grades offered across school when possible. If physical structures prohibit such reconfiguration, additional supportive services should be in place for students as they transition to middle school or junior high school. Finally, better teacher assignments can be made to maximize their effectiveness. For example, because new teachers gain from experience, assigning them to teach the same grade and subject matter across years will yield the fastest learning gains.


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, we argue 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 paper, we describe 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).

We conservatively estimate 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 we describe, but we argue that the cost of such proposals is likely to be quite small relative to the benefits for students. While we recognize that these specific reforms may not be appropriate or feasible for every district, we 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