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Similar Students, Different Results: Why Do Some Schools Do Better? A large-scale survey of California elementary schools serving low-income students



Why do some California elementary schools serving largely low-income students score as much as 250 points higher on the state's academic performance index (API) than other schools with very similar students? This study sought answers to that question by surveying principals and teachers in 257 California elementary schools serving similar student populations and analyzing the results to determine which current K-5 practices and policies are most strongly associated with higher levels of student achievement.

Our study differs from previous effective-schools studies primarily in its scale, standards-based content, and targeted yet comprehensive approach. Strong participation rates within schools provided extensive data from approximately 5,500 teachers and 257 principals across the state.

We examined statewide implementation of California's standards-based reforms, yet focused on schools serving large numbers of low-income students. Using the API as our measure, we included high-, medium-, and low-scoring schools, which gave us a basis for comparing practices.

The policy context for the study is California's standards-based accountability system. Many experts consider this state's K-12 academic content standards, adopted in the late 1990s, to be among the nation's most challenging. School APIs are based on student test scores on the California Standards Tests, which measure how well students at each school are mastering grade level academic standards. Given this context, we used each school's most current (2005) API score as the primary performance outcome.

The sample of schools was drawn from the 25th to 35th percentile band of the state's 2003-04 School Characteristics Index where student demographic challenge factors are substantial, but not the most severe.

After reviewing the effective schools literature, we developed and field tested the principal and teacher surveys, which were designed to explore school qualities, policies, and practices related to school success. Specific domains explored were: implementing a coherent, standards-based instructional program; involving and supporting parents; using assessment data to improve student achievement and instruction; encouraging teacher collaboration and professional development; ensuring instructional resources; enforcing high expectations for student behavior; and prioritizing student achievement.

Extensive analysis of the survey findings used regression analysis to determine which activities more common at high-performing than at low-performing schools were correlated with higher API scores. The practices found to be associated with high performance were:

Principals were more likely to be in higher performing schools if they reported that: the district has clear expectations for student performance aligned with the district's adopted curriculum, and the district evaluates the principal based on the extent to which instruction in the school aligns with the curriculum.

Besides signaling critical, interrelated practices of more-effective schools, these findings indicate that the principal and the district play key roles in school success. Specifically, it appears that:

Across California, schools serving similar types of student populations can vary widely in how well they score on the API. The 257 elementary schools studied were drawn from a fairly narrow student demographic band. Yet their 2005 Growth API scores varied by about 250 points. This range of scores suggests that while student socioeconomic background is one predictor of academic achievement, it is not the sole predictor. What schools do--and what resources they have to do it with--can make a difference. With that in mind, the interrelated practices identified in this study may help schools in their efforts to improve student achievement.


Label Value
Author Williams, Trish, Micahel Kirst, Edward E. Haertel, et al
Outcome Area
  • academic performance
  • teacher practice
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)
  • high school (14-18 years old)