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How much does school quality impact academic performance?
That’s because, when most people think about education, they think education equals schools, so school quality must be the main reason for good or poor academic performance.
So, what does the research say about how much school quality impacts academic performance?
Well, students learn a lot of different things in school so let’s just talk about math. One could argue that math is the subject that schools impact the most because while children may read, play music, or paint outside of school, fewer students engage in math for fun outside of school.
So, what does the research say about how much school quality impacts math performance? Well, educational researchers spend most of their time trying to figure out the recipe for what makes students successful in different subjects. Statistics is one of the tools educational researchers use to discover these recipes.
Sometimes researchers collect data on lots of schools and use statistics to determine the recipe for the outcomes they care about like math performance or reading performance. This kind of research is valuable because it allows researchers to separate out the influence of student factors, classrooms, teachers, schools, school districts, etc., into the several “layers” that exist in real life.
Based on these kinds of studies, the research suggests that if we divide up math performance into two parts, school and everything within those schools like teachers, textbooks, technology, and afterschool programs versus everything outside of those schools like a student’s nutrition, their neighborhood, the amount of sleep a student gets, etc., differences between schools and everything within those schools describes at most 26% of a student’s academic performance. (http://jrre.vmhost.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/22-10.pdf).
Does this percentage seem too small? Is this surprising? Maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, only 14% of a student’s time in a year is spent in school (https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass0708_035_s1s.asp). And not all of the time spent in school is on mathematics (http://timss.bc.edu/timss1999b/mathbench_report/t99bmath_chap_6_3.html). In fact, students spend on average 2% of their time in a year on in-school mathematics instruction. So, it’s actually surprising that school quality has this much of an impact on math performance.
Also, let’s try to put this 26% in perspective. What would it mean if 100% of math performance was due to school quality? It would mean that 0% was due to factors outside of the school. For example, it would mean that the influence of a student’s community, parents, friends, whether the student is homeless, struggles with mental health issues, has a developmental disability, and any other factor outside of the school just doesn’t matter for math performance.
So if math performance, something that should be most influenced by school quality is mostly explained by non-school factors, performance in other subjects such as reading and science are probably also largely explained by non-school factors.
So what does this suggest about how to help students succeed academically? What does it suggest about how to close achievement gaps between different groups of students?
Well, if we focus only on improving school quality, and make sure that every student attends the highest quality school, has the best teachers, text books, technology, etc., 74% or more of the achievement gaps in various subjects would remain. Put another way, if we take a student who is in the lowest quality school and is at the 10th percentile of math performance and we place him in the highest quality school, but don’t change anything else in that student’s life, the most we can hope to achieve is getting the student to perform at the 46th percentile.
So, while the focus on improving school quality goes a long way to helping address academic performance, we also need to support the other 74% of students’ lives that impact their academic performance. After all, it really does take a village to raise a child.
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