Education and Skills

What makes a school successful?

Bridget Ansel
Assistant Editor for Publications and Development, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
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What makes a U.S. primary or secondary school successful? Traditionally, education policy has focused on factors such as teachers’ advanced degrees and training, the class size, and spending per pupil. Yet research by Harvard University economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., has challenged our notions of what makes our nation’s schools most effective. Fryer, this year’s recipient of the prestigious John Bates Clark medal, given to the most promising American economist under 40, is the first African American to win the coveted prize.

Fryer’s research is characterized by rigorous empirical testing of theoretical hypotheses such as whether smaller class size and increased spending per pupil are correlated with improved school effectiveness and better student outcomes. His research and subsequent award are part of a larger trend of the economics world embracing empirical work as opposed to just theoretical modeling.

Fryer and his colleague, Will Dobbie of Princeton University, looked at 39 New York City charter schools. Because these schools are not subject to the uniform standards that public schools must follow, the two researchers were able to compare a diverse range of educational strategies. Some schools, for example, focused on immersing their students in the arts in order to inspire success. Other schools were defined by a more militant “no-excuses” environment characterized by frequent testing, long school days, and harsh discipline for even the smallest infractions—what has been called the “broken windows” educational policy.

Fryer and Dobbie’s research found that a strictly controlled environment seemed to work best in fostering success among charter school students. Out of the 500 variables they studied, they found that five policies employed by “no-excuses” charter schools accounted for almost 45 percent of the variation in the school effectiveness. Fryer wondered whether these five “tenets” of student achievement—frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, frequent and high-quality tutoring, extended school day and year, and a culture of high expectations—could be successfully scaled up and broadly adopted by public schools.

So, in 2010, he began working with Houston school superintendent Terry Geier to implement a program based on Fryer and Dobbie’s five tenets. The program, deemed “Apollo 20,” after Houston’s historic role in the U.S. space program, targeted 20 of the city’s worst performing schools, including four that were slated to close before Fryer stepped in. The program was controversial because it involved firing most of the principals at the selected schools and due to its high costs, which were covered mostly by public funds.

According to a follow up report done by Fryer himself, the results have been mixed. While students made significant gains in math, reading remained stagnant, highlighting the problem of trying to replicate charter school success stories on a larger scale. Regardless, other cities have taken note. Select schools in Denver and Chicago have since adopted similar programs. Fryer has recently acknowledged the differences between public and charter schools and has suggested tweaks to the Apollo program that might make it more effective.

Fryer’s empirical work follows in the footsteps of other recent John Bates Clark medal winners, such as Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley and Raj Chetty at Harvard University. They and other prominent economists, among them Amir Sufi at the University of Chicago, are more focused on the kind of data-driven research that results in effective policy interventions rather than on theoretical models that may or may not translate into actual policy directives for the real world.

Fryer, however, has gone to greater lengths than most economists to implement the findings of his research. And, as we saw with the Apollo project, he also uses this empirically driven approach to find holes in his own research—and is open to addressing approaches that do not work. As an expert on the racial achievement gap who himself grew up in a troubled home, Fryer has a boots-on-the-ground approach to combatting inequality through a dual approach of research and application. In doing so, he is a role model for the ways in which the academic world can provide evidence-based solutions to make the world more efficient and prosperous.

This article is published in collaboration with The Washington Centre for Equitable Growth. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Bridget Ansel is Equitable Growth’s Assistant Editor for Publications and Development.

Image: Coloured pencils are pictured in a wooden box at a nursery school. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle.

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