Whatever Happened to Effective Schools?

Nothing. They are still around but with many aliases. As a label for a movement that began in the late-1970s to demonstrate that urban schools can overcome the ill effects of poverty, a coalition of researchers, practitioners and policymakers distilled the features of a small number of schools with largely low-income and minority students that exceeded predicted levels of academic achievement into a recipe for “success” for all schools. That was then. Effective Schools  exist today but has switched labels.

When did the idea of Effective Schools originate?

In the mid-1970s, a small number of researchers began working to disprove the then mainstream policy wisdom that what largely determines students’ academic performance—as measured by standardized achievement tests—is family background. Research studies on the inability of public schools to overcome the effects of poverty and race had led national policymakers to call for reduced federal funding of programs (see here, here, and here)

Within this social milieu of pessimism about the failure of public schools to make a difference in the lives of poor minority children, the Effective Schools Movement was born. Believing deeply in the value of equity and expecting that urban schoolchildren would be especially harmed were such a prevailing consensus of opinion among policymakers to persist, this small band of activist researchers led by Ron Edmonds identified a handful of big-city schools enrolling large numbers of low-income minority children who scored higher on standardized achievement tests than would have been predicted by their socioeconomic status (see here, here, and here)

These researchers-cum-reformers extracted from these schools certain factors (e.g., clearly stated academic goals, principal’s instructional leadership, concentration on basic academic skills, strong emphasis on maintaining order in school, frequent monitoring of academic achievement, connecting what is taught to what is tested, etc.) that they believed were linked to the students’ higher-than-expected academic performance on standardized tests.

In creating the Effective Schools’ ideology and model programs, Ron Edmonds and others prized four values: All children, regardless of background, can learn and achieve results that mirror ability, not socioeconomic status; top-down decisions wedded to scientifically derived data can improve individual schools; measurable results count; and the school is the basic unit of reform.

What problems did Effective Schools aim to solve?

Primarily, the problem was that in the late-1960s most policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers believed that largely minority and poor children because of where they lived could not learn or achieve what their white peers learned and achieved. Even though President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” included the path-breaking law–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)–that sent money into districts across the country enrolling poor and minority children and youth, this social belief held by most national, state, and local policymakers, reinforced by research studies in the late-1960s, permeated educational decisions. Ron Edmonds and colleagues across the country and in Europe identified high-achieving elementary and secondary schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students to undermine that belief.

What is an Effective School?

The common definition of an Effective School in the 1970s through the 1990s was one that possessed certain features extracted from those schools that exceeded predicted levels of achievement on state standardized tests. These common features, of course, are correlates–they are associated with test score success not what causes a largely minority and poor school to become a “success.”

These correlates expanded and changed over time. For example, Larry Lezotte, a staunch advocate of Effective Schools and colleague of Ron Edmonds, added one feature to Edmonds’s list:

  1. Instructional leadership.
  2. Clear and focused mission.
  3. Safe and orderly environment.
  4. Climate of high expectations.
  5. Frequent monitoring of student progress.
  6. Positive home-school relations.
  7. Opportunity to learn and student time on task

The amending and deleting of these common elements to Effective Schools occurred time and again as the movement spread from elementary to secondary schools, became targeted on middle-class white venues, and traveled to Europe.

Did Effective Schools work?

According to advocates who focused on rising test scores in inadequately resourced minority and poor schools that year after year posted higher-than-expected results, the answer was “yes.” Such results led to a rapid spread of the nomenclature and common features throughout U.S. urban and rural low-performing schools in the 1980s and 1990s. The federal government began using the vocabulary and by the end of the 1990s the U.S. Congress had passed the Comprehensive School Reform Act  that embraced fully the rhetoric and features of the Effective School movement.

Researchers, however, began to raise serious questions beginning in the 1970s and since about the constantly shifting features of supposedly “effective” schools, the definitions used, the demographics of schools labeled, and the stability of those schools initially labeled as “effective” but in a few years lapsed back into low test scores (see here, here, and here)

What has happened to Effective Schools?

If Edmonds’s work in the late 1970s spawned a cottage industry of Effective Schools aimed at ensuring equity for low-income, minority students, the linkage of public schools to the economy with the report, A Nation at Risk (1983), in effect, nationalized the Effective Schools movement while dropping the brand name. Federal and state policymakers, believing in education as the engine for the economy and using the same Effective Schools research, sought a broader and speedier impact on the nation’s schools than the slower school-by-school approach. They called for national goals, curriculum, and tests.

Throughout the 1980s, U.S. Secretaries of Education William Lamar Alexander and William Bennett talked about “good schools” and “effective schools” in the same breath. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn spearheaded the production of a popular pamphlet called “What Works” that drew directly from the effective schools research.

President Bush and his policy advisers organized the nation’s governors to endorse six national goals in 1989. A movement toward national goals, curriculum, and tests received the stamp of approval from a Republican president who styled himself the “Education President.”

When administrations changed, top policy advisers to Democrats also drew from the same well of Effective Schools ideology and research. Within an article that became a script for national and state policy elites, for example, Marshall Smith and Jennifer O’Day (1990) made clear that the ancestry of “systemic reform” was in the Effective Schools movement. “The most effective schools,” they said, “maintain a schoolwide vision or mission, and common instructional goals which tie the content, structure, and resources of the school together into an effective unified whole” (p.235). Moreover, the school mission provides the criteria and rationale for the selection of curriculum materials; the purposes and the nature of school-based professional development, and the interpretation and use of student assessment.

Smith later served in the Bill Clinton administration as Deputy Secretary under U.S. Secretary Richard Riley. Smith drafted many of the Clinton administration’s bills on national goals and testing and accelerated the shift toward nationalization of the Effective Schools movement without once using the phrase “effective schools.”

The Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998) leaned heavily on the ideology of Effective Schools and the strategy of whole-school reform, that is, changing one school (rather than district or state) at a time.

The bipartisan reliance of policy elites on Effective Schools research continued into President George W. Bush’s administration with the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) that laid out clearly that all schools, regardless of neighborhood, could become “good” schools without once mentioning Ron Edmonds or the Effective Schools movement three decades earlier.

Under President Obama, NCLB was enforced and efforts to turnaround “dropout factories” into “successful” schools continued, often invoking features trumpeted by the Effective Schools’ literature.

With parental choice expanding since the 1990s and the spread of charter schools, the label Effective School seldom appears. What does show up are “No Excuses” schools and networks of charter schools that embrace many of the features listed by an earlier generation of Effective Schools champions such as KIPP, Aspire, Success Academy, etc. These are the present day aliases for the half-century old Effective Schools movement.





Filed under Reforming schools

8 responses to “Whatever Happened to Effective Schools?

  1. Reblogged this on The Sausage Machine and commented:
    Over onderwijshervorming als hervorming van scholen in de VS: historiek van “effective schools”.

  2. Janet Chrispeels

    Having had the excitement of being a part of the early Effective Schools Movement, developing training programs based on the research and helping school staff assess and then implement and develop missing elements with concomitant improvements in student learning, it was gratifying to be reminded of how important and influential that work was in helping school improve. However, the work is never done–with constant turnover of teachers, principals, superintendents, board members, as well as federal and state policies and changing student populations and their needs it is a wonder American students do as well as they do.
    The International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement is still going strong and continues to build the knowledge base of effective schools. Thank you Larry for the journey down memory lane,
    Janet Chrispeels

  3. Pingback: ¿Qué pasó con las escuelas efectivas? – AGATE

  4. I am heartened to see reference to the Effective Schools movement here on this blog and glad to see to see that it is still present, although in different guise. Thank you for taking the time to shed some light on this topic! I am in the process of completing a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction and my study is about high-achieving, high poverty high schools who beat the odds in helping their students to not only succeed academically but also achieve 2-year associates degrees by graduation. Since reading your post I have renewed confidence in using the Effective Schools correlates and school reform movement as part of the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

  5. Pingback: ¿Qué pasó con las escuelas efectivas? – MOURSUND AGATE FOUNDATION

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