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Effective Schools Research

How It All Started

bookIn 1966, a federal paper was written to discuss the effectiveness of American education. The paper was funded by the U.S. Office of Education and written by James Coleman, a prominent education researcher. Effective Schools Research emerged in response to this controversial paper.

Concluding that public schools didn't make a significant difference, Coleman's report credited the student's family background as the main reason for student success in school. His findings proposed that children from poor families and homes, lacking the prime conditions or values to support education, could not learn, regardless of what the school did.

Ronald Edmonds, then Director of the Center for Urban Studies at Harvard University, responded vigorously. Edmonds, and others, refused to accept Coleman's report as conclusive, although they acknowledged that family background does make a difference. They set out to find schools where kids from low income families were highly successful, and thereby prove that schools can make a difference.

Edmonds, and other researchers, looked at achievement data from schools in several major cities- schools where student populations were comprised of those from poverty backgrounds. Nationwide, they found schools where poor children were learning. Though these findings contradicted Coleman's conclusion, they (Edmonds, Brookover, Lezotte plus other school effectiveness researchers) were left without an answer as to why certain schools made a difference and others did not.

Finding Answers

The period of 1966-76 launched many descriptive studies of individual effective schools. Researchers from other countries began duplicating these findings, although their causes were not yet understood. The puzzling question remained why some low-income schools were successful while others were not. To learn more about the phenomenon, researchers began to compare high-achieving schools with schools where similar children were not learning. What was it that the effective schools were doing differently.

a child studyingThe next phase of the research documented the characteristics of effective schools. Throughout the 1980's, networks of researchers and school-based practitioners probed deeper, observing in detail what was happening at the school and classroom level. A list of common traits and processes present in these schools was identified. These unique characteristics became known as the effective schools correlates because they correlated with high levels of student achievement. These correlates appeared consistently in high-performing schools in many different systems regardless of the backgrounds of the children.

In Action

Today the effective schools research has evolved from descriptive to prescriptive. The acquired knowledge base about practices in effective schools is being shared to enable the processes to be replicated in other buildings. Researchers are documenting how to introduce these practices to produce positive changes in the way adults interact with each other and with students.

This improvement model involves a collaborative effort by principal, teachers, staff and school community. It is characterized by a primary focus on teaching and learning, a strong emphasis on documented outcomes, analysis of evidence to monitor for quality and equity among student groups, and instructional interventions based that feedback.Thirty-five years later, the result is a body of scientific evidence to lay Coleman's theory to rest and claim that schools do indeed make a difference. In today's environment of increasing expectations for schools to produce high levels of achievement regardless of student backgrounds, this research base is increasingly relevant.