IRRE began in 1988 as a research project based at the University of Rochester developed by IRRE’s current president and Dr. Louisa Pierson. We brought educators from a single urban elementary school to the University to examine what research on student motivation had to say about how schools were structured, and how strengthening relationships between adults (at home and at school) and students could result in stronger academic engagement.
The promising results from this project led to an expansion to middle and high schools through a three-year grant from the William T. Grant Foundation and to the development of the “critical features” of First Things First in 1993. In 1995, Dr. Connell and his colleagues from the Aspen Institute had just completed their first edited volume on the “theory of change” approach to planning and evaluating comprehensive community initiatives. Dr. Connell was invited to Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas) to conduct a Roundtable sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation where a theory of change approach applied to education reform was the topic. This Roundtable led to a partnership with the Kauffman Foundation and the Kansas City Kansas School District that was to last almost a decade. This partnership resulted in the first district-wide, single-model comprehensive school reform in the nation – where the critical features of First Things First were implemented in 30+ elementary, middle and high schools in this urban community over a five-year period. The results were dramatic. Two independent, longitudinal evaluations reported major gains district-wide in achievement scores, attendance, graduation rates and student engagement.
The success of the partnership with Kansas City Kansas led to IRRE receiving significant investments from the US Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the expansion of First Things First to districts nationwide including rural and urban districts. Dr. Connell continued to act as an advisor to national foundations and state and federal agencies on education reform and youth development issues and work with these and other partners to develop theories of change to guide their investments in education, community change and youth development. Throughout this period, IRRE’s research staff were developing metrics and methodologies for assessing both the implementation and outcomes of the First Things First program – some of which have been adopted by other national research projects.
In 2008, IRRE’s research partners from four Universities received the first federal grant of its size to study instructional improvement in high schools using a randomized cluster design. This project represented a departure from IRRE’s exclusive implementation of the comprehensive First Things First model toward a tighter focus on the instructional elements of the program. Every Classroom Every Day resulted in positive impacts of what we now call “Curriculum and Instructional Benchmarking” on math achievement in a two-year intervention with 10 comprehensive high schools serving economically disadvantaged students. Curriculum and Instructional Benchmarking is now the centerpiece of IRRE’s Field Services division. This multi-tiered program incorporates opportunities for districts and schools to: take a research-based and data-driven approach to the introduction of Common Core State Standards; make the required instructional changes to ensure students’ active engagement in the learning of these new standards; and build teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical repertoire and their instructional leaders’ capacity to ensure successful implementation. Metrics and ongoing reporting of results on implementation and outcomes of these activities are part of the Curriculum and Instructional Benchmarking program.
In 2011, IRRE launched its Strategic Consultation and Evaluation division through a partnership with the Skillman Foundation in Detroit. This partnership began with an analytic review by IRRE of the foundation’s ongoing 10 year, $120M investment in six Detroit neighborhoods to improve the lives of children and youth living there. This work has since evolved into a thriving partnership with theories of change being developed for multiple strands of this initiative – education, safety, youth development and community leadership; metrics and results being produced to guide the initiative and programmatic strategies formulated in response to these results. Since 2011, IRRE has developed partnerships with several state departments of education as well as other private foundations with major investments in children and youth outcomes in economically disadvantaged urban and rural communities. Several of the work products from these partnerships – including IRRE’s customized Education Quality Rating Systems – are now available for use by other clients.