Reviving research on effective schools

The effect of socioeconomic factors on children’s academic achievement is a perennial concern for educators the world over. Karin Chenoweth – writer-in-residence at the Washington-based Education Trust and creator of the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast – considers some often-overlooked research into the power of good schooling.

‘One of the common responses of practitioners to any piece of research in the social sciences is that it seems to be a tremendous amount of hard work just to demonstrate what we knew already on the basis of experience or common sense.’

Sir Michael Rutter, 1979

Back in the 1970s Michael Rutter1 became interested in the question whether schools could affect student achievement. At that time Rutter was already well established as a child psychiatrist but had not yet achieved the international regard that he later garnered after doing landmark work on autism, resilience, and the experience of Romanian orphans after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Rutter was intrigued by the findings of American social scientist James Coleman who had found, in 1966, that when he correlated all kinds of school factors with student background, background almost always explained student achievement results. ‘The school appears unable to exert independent influences to make achievement levels less dependent on the child’s background,’ the Coleman Report2 said, casting doubt on whether it was possible to educate children living in poverty.

Rutter found a clever way to test Coleman’s finding. He took advantage of a large-scale study of thousands of children in a rather dismal and economically depressed area of London in the 1960s that had collected all kinds of information, including class status (using the proxy of father’s job status), academics, delinquency, and health. He and a team of researchers were able to follow up with the 12 high schools most of the students fed into.

After controlling for prior achievement and socioeconomic factors, Rutter’s study concluded that a student’s achievement depended heavily on which school a student attended. ‘We may conclude,’ the study says, ‘that schools can do much to foster good behavior and attainments, and that even in disadvantaged areas, schools can be a force for good.’

That is to say, he found that schools can make a difference. A big difference.

He and his research team went on to identify the factors that caused some schools to be more effective than others, and the key was school leadership that provides strategic vision and creates what he called a school ‘ethos’, which he later3 defined as:

‘An orderly atmosphere, an attractive working environment, appropriate well-conveyed high expectations, the involvement of pupils in taking responsibilities, positive rewards with feedback and clear fair discipline, positive models of good teacher behavior, a focus on achievement and good behavior, and good teacher-pupil relationships in and outside the classroom.’

The book that emerged from his study was 15,000 Hours, a reference to the amount of time most students spend in school.

The really stunning thing about the work Rutter and his team of researchers did is that it is almost totally forgotten. The Coleman Report continues to be cited,4 along with its many descendants which demonstrate correlations between students’ achievement and mothers’ educational levels, the number of books in their homes, the number of words they hear in babyhood, and lots of other markers of poverty.

There is a distinguished and rigorous research pedigree for those who believe that schools can open worlds and create opportunities for children whose life opportunities would otherwise be circumscribed by their family background.

Rutter’s report, which pointed to ways that schools might break the correlation between poverty and achievement, is not often mentioned.

The research of American Ronald Edmonds has suffered much the same fate. Like Rutter, Edmonds sought to test Coleman’s conclusion and he re-analysed Coleman’s original data and studied a large sample of elementary schools in Michigan to find what he called ‘effective’ schools – that is, schools that eliminated the difference in achievement between children living in poverty and those not living in poverty. His most succinct conclusion echoed Rutter’s:

‘What effective schools share is a climate in which it is incumbent on all personnel to be instructionally effective for all pupils.’

To establish such a climate required quite a few things, he said, including an atmosphere that is ‘orderly without being rigid, quiet without being oppressive, and generally conducive to the instructional business at hand’ and ‘strong administrative leadership, without which the disparate elements of good schooling can neither be brought together nor kept together’.

That is to say, he found5 that the way in which schools are organised makes a big difference in whether children living in poverty achieve. Similar to Rutter, he didn’t conclude that there was one particular programme, practice or policy that made the difference.

‘No one model explains school effectiveness for the poor or any other social class subset. Fortunately, children know how to learn in more ways than we know how to teach, thus permitting great latitude in choosing instructional strategy. The great problem in schooling is that we know how to teach in ways that can keep some children from learning almost anything, and we often choose to thus proceed when dealing with the children of the poor.’

Teachers in low-performing high-poverty schools can attest to the last sentence in that quote. The faddishness and the lack of empirical rigour in evaluating programmes, practices and policies that confronted Edmonds in the 1960s and 1970s continue to this day, plaguing the field and preventing generation after generation of children from learning what they need.

Perhaps it isn’t all that important to revive the work of Rutter and Edmonds. Others, such as the UChicago Consortium on School Research, have taken up the research mantle of trying to understand what makes an ‘effective’ school and how to create one.

But educators with a research bent should know that there is a distinguished and rigorous research pedigree for those who believe that schools can open worlds and create opportunities for children whose life opportunities would otherwise be circumscribed by their family background. That is not to say that poverty has no effect on student achievement. But how schools organise themselves to respond to the effects of poverty has an even greater effect.

Karin’s latest book is Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2017). She will be a speaker at the researchED US conference in Philadelphia in October 2018.