What Makes a School Effective?

Updated on Nov 21, 2013

Dr. Larry Lezotte was one of the pioneers of the Effective Schools movement, which began in 1966 in response to a controversial report written by sociologist James Coleman. Coleman’s report stated that schools could do little to support students’ academic achievement, because achievement was predominantly related to the demographics and socioeconomic class of the surrounding community.

Lezotte's Effective Schools research, articulated in his 2010 book What Effective Schools Do, aimed to prove that schools could have a significant positive impact on their students’ achievement regardless of other circumstances. At its heart, Lezotte’s research stressed the seven “Correlates of Effective Schools.” These factors were characteristics of effective schools across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum. To be an effective school, a school must:

Be a Safe and Organized Place

An effective school must first be a place where students can feel safe, physically and emotionally. It must be a supportive community where kids—and teachers—of all backgrounds can focus on learning. To create a climate of safety, halls and classrooms must be free of behavior like fighting, bullying, and harassment. That said, a safe environment is not created merely through punishment.

A 2011 study by Michael Thompson, researcher and director of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, shows that suspension and expulsion as discipline for “discretionary violations” actually do more harm than good for the individual student. They also damage the sense of community within the school. Students who receive suspensions and expulsions for discretionary violations are three times more likely to end up in a juvenile detention center the following year, and an authoritarian system creates an oppressive atmosphere where learning and school effectiveness are impaired.

To achieve a safe environment where kids are free to reach their potential academically, Thompson advocates for schools to focus on preventing misbehavior by implementing school-wide “positive behavior interventions.” According to Thompson, these interventions should stress social skills and emotional learning, to teach students conflict resolution and cultural understanding.

Lezotte advocates similar methods of positivity. According to Lezotte, teachers, parents, and other mentors need to encourage a learning environment in school-age kids by treating schools as “sacred places.” How society values school as a whole culture has everything to do with how students will engage with their own education. When students regard school as an institution with higher respect, they will enter the school with attitudes more conducive to learning, Lezotte says.

Set High Expectations for Students

Effective schools expect students to succeed. Because of that, students at these schools learn more. Psychology researcher Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in the 1960s where teachers were given a class of randomly selected students, and were told that these students’ IQ test scores indicated that they had a high potential for growth that school year. When they took the IQ test again at the end of the year, the results showed that “the kids actually got smarter when they were expected to get smarter by their teachers,” says Rosenthal. Students in classes where the researchers didn’t plant these expectations did not show the same dramatic improvement. This happened because teachers gave more praise, remedial instruction, and opportunity for classroom participation to the students who were perceived as more capable. Students in turn found the lessons more interesting and approachable.

Teachers at effective schools genuinely believe that every kid has the raw materials to be a successful student, according to Lezotte’s research. In a practical sense, this means that effective teachers make a conscious effort to give equal opportunity for all students to respond during class, provide thoughtful feedback to every student, and are willing to re-teach concepts that students have not mastered.

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