Yes, we do know the recipe for effective schools, as Greg Anrig explains in this post. He is vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation and author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

By Greg Anrig

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, who runs the education policy shop at the Brookings Institution and was director of President George W. Bush’s Institute of Education Sciences, dislikes a recent book about a seemingly successful school district in New Jersey because it is inadequately socially scientific. He argues that the district under scrutiny isn’t all that successful, isn’t representative of other districts, and in any case has no supporting evidence from academic literature that might be useful in guiding districts toward practices that would improve student outcomes. The book, titled Uncommon Scholars, focuses on Union City, New Jersey, and was written by David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Whitehurst writes pointedly that Kirp “is a lawyer and journalist, whereas I am a social scientist.”

While Whitehurst acknowledges that research identifying distinctions between successful and unsuccessful schools could be useful in theory, he argues that in practice such studies, emblemized by the so-called effective schools movement dating back to the 1970s, has not produced much in the way of actionable insights. Whitehurst writes: “We learn from effective schools research that in good schools there is a shared commitment among staff to the school’s mission and priorities. But we don’t learn the process by which such a commitment can be created.  It is sort of like buying a self-help book on running a restaurant and reading that serving good food is really important.”

Although Whitehurst’s critique of effective schools research was valid as recently as five years ago, more sophisticated recent studies have been published that undercut his argument while reinforcing the insights to be found in Kirp’s case study of Union City. The most important project of this type was conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, led by Anthony S. Bryk, who is now the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and published in a 2010 book titled Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago.  The consortium’s study derives from demographic and testing data from 1990 through 2005 from more than 400 Chicago elementary schools, as well as extensive surveys of stakeholders in those schools, to gain information about their institutional practices. Using advanced statistical methods, the consortium identified, with a high degree of reliability, the organizational traits and processes that can predict whether a school is likely to show above-average improvement in student outcomes.

The consortium’s central finding was that the most effective schools had developed an unusually high degree of “relational trust” among their stakeholders. And it identified five key organizational features to advancing student achievement:

• A coherent instructional guidance system, in which the curriculum, study materials, and assessments are coordinated within and across grades with meaningful teacher involvement;

• An effective system to improve professional capacity, including making teachers’ classroom work public for examination by colleagues and external consultants, and to enable ongoing support and guidance for teachers;

• Strong parent-community-school ties, with an integrated support network for students;

• A student-centered learning climate that identifies and responds to difficulties any child may be experiencing;

• Leadership focused on cultivating teachers, parents, and community members so that they become invested in sharing overall responsibility for the school’s improvement.

These pillars identified as keys to progress consistently emerge in other recent studies as well. For example, the National Center for Educational Achievement, a division of the company that develops the ACT college-admissions exam, sent teams of researchers to 26 public schools with a high proportion of low-income students in five states, where students were beating the odds on math and science tests over a three-year period.

The common practices they found in those schools included a high degree of engagement between administrators and teachers in developing and selecting instructional materials, assessments, and pedagogical approaches; embedded time in the workweek for teacher collaboration to improve instruction; an openness among teachers to being observed and advised; close monitoring by administrators and teachers of testing data to identify areas where students and teachers needed additional support; and personnel who dedicate time to extensive outreach to parents and coordination with community groups and social-service providers. That is, the highly rigorous, sophisticated research of the National Center for Educational Achievement yielded findings that strongly overlap with the highly rigorous, sophisticated work using a different methodology of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Those practices amount to guidance to school leaders and other stakeholders much more analogous to recipes in a cookbook than Whitehurst’s dismissive reference to just “serving good food.”  Kirp’s book adds even more nuance by affirming the very same conclusions of the more rigorous social science research while providing granular details about how one high-poverty district transformed from dysfunction to generating test-score and graduation rankings comparable to much wealthier districts. Conveying stories provided by administrators, parents, teachers, students and other school stakeholders, as well as Kirp’s own observations, can help to engage readers and thereby add value much as the Food Channel makes cooking entertaining and informative.  Moreover, by looking at student outcomes only in a single year while ignoring the long-term and sustained progress in Union City, Whitehurst undercuts his own purported attentiveness to the standards of social science.

Rather than “Deconstructing Union City” – the title of Whitehurst’s critique — public officials, educators, scholars, and parents should be paying much closer attention to emerging research providing the blueprint for building more comparably successful school districts.  Those successful strategies include engaging teachers in curriculum and assessment development, using assessment data as diagnostic tools to identify areas where students and teachers need additional support, embedding time in the work week for teachers to collaborate on improving their classroom effectiveness, and actively cultivating strong communication with parents and community organizations. Those aren’t magic pills that will solve every problem facing urban districts, but together they are practices that consistently characterize schools that have made the most substantial, quantifiable progress.

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