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Monday, November 07, 2005 | Academic success appears less affected by parental involvement, teacher collaboration and good student behavior than it is by high expectations for students, alignment of standards-based curriculum, extensive evaluation of assessment data and availability of instructional materials, according to a recent study.
The comprehensive study, released recently by EdSource, a nonprofit organization based in Mountain View, Calif., was based on survey results from approximately 5,500 classroom teachers and principals at 257 elementary schools throughout California serving high numbers of disadvantaged students in grades kindergarten through fifth. The schools in the study, all given anonymity, have similar student demographics and comparable percentages of low-income students. Yet some are academically successful whereas others are not.
In some cases, the differences in achievement are dramatic, varying by as much as 250 points on the latest 2005 Academic Performance Index. The API is a statewide rating system that assigns a number to public schools between 200 and 1,000 based primarily upon the results of annual testing and assessment data. The state has set an API of 800 as the target for all schools.
Different about this EdSource study is that it did not select a group of high-achieving schools to try to identify particular approaches to teaching and learning, as many other studies have done. Instead, it examined schools with similar demographics, regardless of student performance. It then backed into the data by attempting to isolate which practices correlated more frequently to the higher-performing schools in that demographic zone.
The study – titled “Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better?” – is available online at
Researchers sought to identify which schools might have had policies and practices that resulted in higher achievement. They found that four interdependent practices, integrated together to form a cohesive structure, were key to success. Those schools that engaged in all four were most likely to score higher API numbers.
“These practices tended to occur together, creating a cumulative effect,” EdSource researchers stated. “No single action or category of actions provides a clear advantage to student performance.”
First, according to the report, the more successful schools tended to give students clearly-stated objectives and high expectations. High expectations were also well-defined for teachers by principals, and for principals by district staff. As a result, teachers and administrators on-site reported a keen sense of responsibility for student improvement.
Second, the report found that lessons and instruction at higher-performing schools are strongly aligned with California’s academic content standards, adopted in the late 1990s and considered by educators across the country to be among the most rigorous in the nation. Content standards clearly state what students should know in each subject at each grade level.
Also important was a coherent curriculum, which the report said means that “all students within a grade cover the same material, and the material students learn in one grade builds on the material they learned in the previous grade.” This alignment of curriculum from grade to grade is also called curriculum mapping.
Coherent, standards-based curriculum and instruction was a critical element in the study’s findings and was identified based on dozens of survey questions to teachers, such as the following sample statements (responders were asked to indicate whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree):
– “I have detailed knowledge of the content covered by other teachers at my school.”
Third, the EdSource study concluded that extensive use of testing and assessment data by principals and school districts was common practice at higher-performing schools. School staff used a variety of assessment information to identify struggling students so resources could be devoted to students’ particular needs and lesson plans could be developed to address weak areas. Researchers said they were surprised at the intensive use of test data at many schools to pinpoint academic concerns.
Data were also used to identify teachers and principals needing help. Staff was evaluated based upon student achievement data, and teachers and principals felt accountable.
Fourth, schools with sufficient, up-to-date instructional materials seemed to perform better, the study found. And schools with principals and teachers who had at least five years of experience seemed to correlate directly with higher API numbers.
“Socio-economic factors are clearly not the sole predictor of academic performance,” said Trish Williams, EdSource’s executive director and study project director, in a prepared statement.
The surveys also addressed issues related to parental involvement, teacher collaboration and policies designed to elicit good behavior from students. “Although each of these types of practices made some contribution to a school’s API score, they were not nearly as strongly correlated with higher school performance as were the four key interactive, interdependent school improvement practices,” according to EdSource.
Typical characteristics of students at the schools participating in the study were as follows:
– 40 percent English learners
Calling this study “a large-scale survey of California elementary schools serving low-income students,” EdSource claims this research dispels the commonly held notion that demographic statistics determine achievement results. The study is also important, researchers say, because it reveals practices that can be replicated at most other schools.
EdSource, an independent, impartial organization that studies California public education issues, conducted the study in conjunction with researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the American Institutes for Research.
Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at