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The Surprises of London's Inner-City Schools

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London--During the 1960's and early 1970's, Peter Mortimore taught music in several inner-city London schools, where Cockney was more widely spoken than BBC English and the children's parents were more likely to be laborers than lawyers.

"All the schools I taught in took in roughly the same kinds of students," the British educator and researcher recalled recently. But the schools varied considerably, he noted. Some were cheerier than others, and their students behaved better--and, most significantly--learned more.

Influence of Family Background

But the former music teacher's observations did not match the conclusions of some influential American researchers whose works Mr. Mortimore had read. The Americans had concluded that family background exerts a more powerful influence in molding a child than do schools.

So Mr. Mortimore, now director of research for the Inner London Education Authority, and four British colleagues decided to find out for themselves. (The Authority performs many of the same functions as an American school board.)

The resulting research, directed by Michael Rutter, led to a book called 15,000 Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children. The book's title reflects the amount of time the average British child spends in school. But more important, it contradicts much of the American research, thus launching what Mr. Mortimore describes as "a new wave" in the continuing debate over whether schools make a difference in the social and academic development of their students.

Schools Play Crucial Role

Mr. Mortimore and his colleagues do not deny that family background is important. But they also believe that schools play a crucial role in educating children, and that some schools do a far better job than others.

Relaxing in his London office near Waterloo Station, the lanky and energetic researcher talked about his research. Although it is the work of British scholars, Mr. Mortimore believes that 15,000 Hours has profound implications for American educators.

"Nine years of teaching," Mr. Mortimore said, scanning a copy of his curriculum vitae before handing it to a visitor. "Those years were what encouraged me to write 15,000 Hours."

It was during those years, from 1964 to 1973, while he taught music in several inner-city schools, that Mr. Mortimore read the works of American scholars, including James Coleman and Christopher Jencks.

In the now-famous 1966 report by Mr. Coleman, entitled Equality of Educational Opportunity, the controversial University of Chicago sociologist argued that schools have a remarkably similar effect on pupil achievement when students' economic backgrounds are similar. Furthermore, Mr. Coleman concluded, variations in the facilities and curricula "account for relatively little variation in pupil achievement."

Mr. Coleman's viewpoint was strengthened by the findings of Mr. Jencks, a Harvard University sociologist, in his 1972 work, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. In a similar vein, Mr. Jencks concluded that schools, compared to family backgrounds, contribute little to social progress.

"Both researchers gave educators a very deterministic view of kids' achievement," Mr. Mortimore said. What's more, both fueled a negative attitude in the late 1960's and 1970's toward teaching, he believes.

'Damaging' Expectations

To the extent that teachers in the inner-city schools adhere to the Coleman/Jencks view, said Mr. Mortimore, they are apt to expect less of their students. And "that is damaging," he adds, "because children are very quick to pick up other people's expectations of their academic competence and their behavior. People tend to live up--or down--to what is expected of them."

In addition, Mr. Mortimore feels that potential teachers who wanted to make a difference were discouraged by the research findings from entering the profession.

What he read did not square with what Mr. Mortimore was finding in his own classroom. So in 1974, after returning to school for advanced degrees in clinical psychology, he began work on 15,000 Hours. "We wanted to see if Coleman and Jencks held true on this side of the Atlantic," he said.

The other four researchers contributed experience in social work, social administration, developmental psychology, child psychiatry, and statistics.

Student Behavior Tracked

Mr. Mortimore and his colleagues began by selecting 12 similar schools in working-class London neighborhoods. (Mr. Mortimore will not say whether any of them were schools in which he had taught: "That's a secret.")

Over four years, they tracked the students' achievement, behavior, and attendance. The results showed that students in some schools progressed better on the average in all three areas than their counterparts in other schools.

The researchers concluded that each school had its own "ethos" or ambiance, which is largely responsible for its success or failure.

Schools with a good ethos had several things in common: Teachers got along well with students and their expectations of the students were high. They assigned homework regularly, marked it rapidly, and returned it with helpful comments. They came to classes well prepared, managed classroom time well, moved smoothly from one activity to the next, and maintained appropriate discipline.

Mr. Mortimore was surprised to learn from the study findings that small schools are not necessarily better than large ones. "The conventional wisdom is that large schools have all sorts of problems, that a kid may be more isolated in a large school," he said. "We didn't find any evidence of that."

Special Adjustments

To the contrary, the largest schools, if sensitive to their size, usually made special adjustments to help their students feel welcome that smaller schools did not.

Mr. Mortimore acknowledges that 15,000 Hours does not totally repudiate the findings of the researchers Coleman and Jencks. The British research team did find that family background affects a child's academic achievement. For instance, over a period of time, the middle-class children in all 12 schools did better on average than children of working-class families, Mr. Mortimore and his colleagues discovered.

But, he noted, "In the better schools, all the students were jacked up. For example, the middle-class children in the best schools did better than the middle-class students in the worst schools, and the poorer children in the best schools did better than the poorer students in the worst schools. So without directly opposing Coleman and Jencks, that leaves us a little bit more hopeful."

Transforming an inner-city school with a poor record requires strong leadership and staff involvement, Mr. Mortimore said.

And finally, he added, it requires that teachers treat students consistently. A student from a middle-class background who sails a paper airplane the length of his geography class must be reprimanded in the same way that a student from a working-class background would be.

After Mr. Mortimore finished 15,000 Hours, he learned that some American researchers had simultaneously been working on studies that overlapped with his.

Among them were Ronald Edmonds, Harvard University lecturer and former assistant to the New York City Schools' chancellor for instruction, who wrote about what qualities foster effective schools; and Mr. Coleman, whose most recent work, Public and Private Schools, reported that school policies do affect achievement after all.

Importance of Good Teachers

Each author approached the issue of effective schools from a different viewpoint. But all concluded that schools exert a powerful influence on how children develop, and that good teachers are at the heart of a good education.

After a decade of negativism fed by such works as the Coleman and Jencks studies, educators are apparently greeting the new round of research with enthusiasm. "The results are most encouraging," said Paul Ylvisaker, the retiring dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education who brought Mr. Mortimore to Harvard last spring to participate in a special symposium. "Suddenly, you hear the clarion call that a public school can work."

Said Mr. Mortimore: "I think [15,000 Hours] has sparked lots and lots of teachers in this country. They are all using the book as an excuse to look critically at their own schools. That is terrific."

When asked if this latest research contains the potential to renew confidence in public education, Mr. Mortimore responded haltingly. "Maybe," he said, adding that such a renewal would involve convincing a sometimes skeptical public that schools do make a difference.

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