Survey Confirms Rapid Spread of ‘Effective Schools’

By William Snider — September 27, 1989 4 min read

Washington--More than half of the nation’s school districts have begun or are planning to implement programs based on “effective schools” research, according to a new survey by the General Accounting Office.

The findings offer the first official confirmation of the rapid spread of the effective-schools movement, which is based on a set of principles gathered through the study of schools where low-income and minority children were succeeding at levels equal to or greater than their more advantaged peers.

Only 17 percent of the school districts that reported having effective schools programs had them in place before the start of the 1984-85 school year, the survey found.

During the 1987-1988 school year, when the survey was taken, 41 percent of all districts responding reported having effective-schools programs in place and 17 percent were planning to implement such a program within the next two years. Forty-two percent indicated they had no plans to start such a program.

The survey results were contained in a briefing report, “Effective Schools Programs: Their Extent and Characteristics,” prepared by the gao for Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“We had no idea prior to this report of the extent to which effective-schools research was being implemented in schools around the country,” said John Smith, a committee aide.

“Of course, some of these school districts only have pieces of the effective-schools model,” he said. “Others are what I would call classical in terms of the models they have adopted.”

Mr. Smith is also a co-author of a second report, “Improving Education: School Districts Implementing the Effective Schools Model,” which was released by the committee’s majority staff this month.

The committee’s paper examines the process used to start effective schools programs in nine districts and one county office of education.

The Hawkins-Stafford Act

The districts profiled were chosen because they reflected the legislative definition of an effective-schools program included in the Hawkins-Stafford School Improvement Act of 1988.

The act defines effective-schools programs as those that exhibit the following characteristics: strong and effective administrative and instructional leadership that creates consensus on instructional goals; an emphasis on the acquisition of basic and higher-order thinking skills; a safe and orderly school environment; an expectation that virtually all chil4dren can learn under appropriate conditions; and continuous assessment of students and programs to evaluate the effects of instruction.

Mr. Hawkins has emerged as one of the nation’s most forceful proponents of effective-school programs because he believes, Mr. Smith said, that “for some schools and some school districts, this works.”

The Hawkins-Stafford Act marked the first time that effective-school principles were included in a federal law. The act makes effective-schools programs an explicit option that districts can fund with either Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 aid. It also requires states to spend 20 percent of their portion of Chapter 2 funds for such programs.

Both new studies are intended as guides for policymakers and school officials who want to begin effective-schools programs, Mr. Smith said.

The committee’s report notes that much of the research on effective schools is based on schools where teachers and principals attempted to raise the academic performance of students through what was an essentially “bottom-up” process.

“The committee’s focus on school districts offers an opportunity to explore how the research can be applied through a ‘top-down’ process, from district central offices or county offices to individual schools,” the report says.

Neither report offers an objective evaluation of the recent wave of effective-schools activity, because much of it is too new to have produced substantial results, Mr. Smith said.

The committee’s surveys asked school officials to provide indicators of success for their programs, but the report notes that the responses were “particularly uneven.”

“Nevertheless,” it states, “officials of many of the districts ... assert that their projects have indeed improved educational outcomes.”

Many Programs Incomplete

The gao report looked only at the characteristics of existing programs, and determined that many of the approximately 6,500 school districts with effective-schools programs do not include components that the research indicates are desirable.

Only 27 percent of the nation’s school districts, for example, have programs that include both written plans for improving school effectiveness and school-level teams on which teachers and administrators work together to plan and monitor their programs.

And only about 13 percent of school districts break down their student-achievement data by socioeconomic status or ethnicity, the survey found.

The breakdown of test scores, attendance and dropout rates, and other data is considered a key component of effective-schools programs because it allows school officials and the public to determine whether improvement efforts are having the desired impact on disadvantaged populations.

Copies of the gao report, “Effective Schools Programs: Their Extent and Characteristics,” are available from the General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20877.

Copies of the Education and Labor Committee’s report, “Improving Education: School Districts Implementing the Effective Schools Model,” are available from the Superintendent of Documents, Congressional Sales Office, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Survey Confirms Rapid Spread of ‘Effective Schools’