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School-Based Risk Factors

A school in which students are performing at a much higher (or much lower) level than might be predicted using such standard measures as family SES is often described as an "outlier."

Studies of outlier schools have overwhelmingly concentrated on positive outlier schools. Variously referred to as studies of "exemplary schools" (Weber, 1971), "unusually effective schools" (Levine and Lezotte, 1990), and "high-flying" schools (Anderson et al., 1992), these positive outlier studies have made important contributions to the field (for a review, see Stringfield, 1994).

Of the studies that have examined both positive and negative outlier schools, the largest and longest running has been the Louisiana School Effectiveness Study (Stringfield and Teddlie, 1988, 1991; Teddlie and Stringfield, 1993).

Classroom practices in ineffective schools (regardless of community SES) were characterized by significantly lower rates of student time on task, less teacher presentation of new material, lower rates of teacher communication of high academic expectations, fewer instances of positive reinforcement, more classroom interruptions, more discipline problems, and a classroom ambiance generally rated as less friendly (Teddlie et al., 1989).

Stringfield and Teddlie (1991) also conducted detailed qualitative analyses of the 16 case studies. Those analyses added significantly to the quantitative findings. Qualitative differentiations were made at three levels: the student, the classroom, and the school.

At the level of student activities, ineffective schools were found to be different from more effective, demographically matched schools in two ways.

First, students' time-on-task rates were either uniformly low or markedly uneven. Time on task is a good predictor of achievement gain (Stallings, 1980). In some schools, very few academic tasks were put before any students, and in other schools there were marked differences in the demands made of students, with only some students being required to make a concerted academic effort. Students in positive outlier schools were more uniformly engaged in academic work.

The second student-level variable was whether tasks were put before the students in what appeared to the students to be an organized and goal-oriented fashion. When interviewed, students at ineffective schools were much less likely to be aware of why they were being asked to do a task, how the task built on prior schoolwork, and how it might be expected to lay a foundation for future work.

At the classroom level, ineffective schools were characterized by a leisurely pace, minimal moderate-to-long-term planning, low or uneven rates of interactive teaching, and a preponderance of "ditto sheets" and other relatively unengaging tasks.

One of the most readily observable of the classroom differences was that teachers in ineffective schools simply failed to cover all of the district-mandated materials by year's end. These students were not being provided equal "opportunity to learn." (For a discussion of the power of opportunity to learn, see Muthen et al., 1991).

Finally, ineffective schools were structured such that teachers almost invariably taught in isolation from one another; there was little focus on building a professional knowledge base within the school. An additional factor, class size, is related to achievement (Mosteller et al., 1996).

During the kindergarten year, there is evidence that teacher-child relationships are important for later school achievement. Studies have defined the significant qualities of these relationships (Howes and Hamilton, 1992; Howes and Matheson, 1992). One study used a scale based on these findings that describes teachers' perceptions of different qualities of their relationships with their students (Pianta and Steinberg, 1992).

Another study compared results on this scale and readiness tests and found that two global qualities of the teacher-child relationship, dependency or conflict, were related to poor performance (Birch and Ladd, 1997). Dependency is an index of the child's overdependence on the teacher; conflict is an index of friction in the teacher-child relationship. Closeness in the teacher-child relationship was associated with better readiness performance. Closeness is an index of warmth and open communication in the teacher-child relationship.

At the school level, ineffective schools were observed to be different from their demographically matched peers along seven dimensions:

  1. they were not academically focused
  2. the school's daily schedule was not an accurate guide to academic time usage
  3. resources often worked at cross-purposes instructionally
  4. principals seemed uninterested in curricula
  5. principals were relatively passive in the recruitment of new teachers, in the selection of professional development topics and opportunities for the teachers, and in the performance of teacher evaluations
  6. libraries and other media resources were rarely used to their full potential
  7. there were few systems of public reward for students' academic excellence

Similar descriptions of a smaller set of negative outlier schools have been provided by Venezky and Winfield (1979).


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Anderson, L., J. Sears, L. Pellicer, M. Riddle, C. Gardner, and D. Harwell. (1992). A study of the characteristics and qualities of "High-Flying" compensatory programs in South Carolina as examined through the framework of the SERVE model for effective compensatory programs. Columbia: Department of Educational Leadership and Policies, University of South Carolina.

Birch, S.H., and G.W. Ladd. (1997). The teacher-child relationship and children's early school adjustment. Journal of School Psychology 35(1): 61-79.

Howes, C., and C.E. Hamilton. (1992). Children's relationships with caregivers: Mothers and child care teachers. Child Development 63(4):859-866.

Howes, C., and C.C. Matheson. (1992). Sequences in the development of competent play with peers: Social and social pretend play. Developmental Psychology 28(5):961-974.

Levine, D., and L. Lezotte. (1991). Unusually Effective Schools. Madison, WI: National Center for Effective Schools R & D.

Mosteller, F., R. Light, and J. Sachs. (1996). Sustained inquiry in education: Lessons from skill grouping and class size. Harvard Educational Review 66(4):797-842.

Muthen, B.O., C. Kao, and L. Burstein. (1991). Instructionally sensitive psychometrics: Application of a new IRT-based detection technique to mathematics achievement test items. Journal of Educational Measurement 28(1):1-22.

Pianta, R.C., and M. Steinberg. (1992). Teacher-child relationships and the process of adjusting to school. Pp. 61-80 in Beyond the Parent: The Role of Other Adults in Children's Lives. New Directions for Child Development, No. 57, R.C. Pianta, ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stallings, J. A. (1980). Allocated academic reading time revisited, or beyond time on task. Educational Researcher 9(11):11-16.

Stringfield, S. (1994). Outlier studies of school effectiveness. Advances in School Effectiveness Research, D. Reynolds, B. Creemers, P. Nesselrodt, E. Schaffer, S. Stringfield, and C. Teddlie, eds. Oxford: Pergamon.

Stringfield, S., and C. Teddlie. (1988). A time to summarize: Six years and three phases of the Louisiana School Effectiveness Study. Educational Leadership 46(2):43-49.

Stringfield, S., and C. Teddlie. (1991). Observers as predictors of schools' multi-year outlier status. Elementary School Journal 91(4):357-376.

Teddlie, C., and S. Stringfield. (1993). Schools Make a Difference. New York: Teachers College Press.Teddlie, C., P. Kirby, and S. Stringfield. (1989). Effective vs. ineffective schools: Observable differences in the classroom. American Journal of Education 97(3):221-236.

Venezky, R.L., and L.F. Winfield. (1979). Schools that succeed beyond expectations in reading. In Studies in Education. Technical Report No. 1.Newark: University of Delaware.

Weber, G. (1971). Inner City Children Can Be Taught to Read: Four Successful Schools. Occasional Paper No. 18. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.



Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Excerpted from: Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. Editors. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Chapter 4: Predictors of Success and Failure in Reading.. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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