There are five factors found in successful schools, according to a recent Harvard report
. These are: frequent teacher feedback, data driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and a focus on academic achievement.
The researchers found that a school’s underlying philosophy mattered less than these five factors. The more successful schools gave pointers to pupils more frequently, used assessment to plan instruction, met with pupils in small tutor groups more often to discuss their progress, taught for more days and longer hours, and had high expectations.
The report came, however, with a warning. The researchers only looked at a few charter schools in New York and although they sifted through reams of data there were factors which they admit they did not observe, such as the effectiveness of the principal or whether pupils were selected by lottery. They also said that they only considered a subset of charter schools which could differ from other similar schools in such a way as to limit the researchers’ ability to generalize from the results, although that didn’t stop Mr Gove from doing just that in his speech of 4th January
. The researchers intend to study public schools to discover if the same factors are present in successful public schools.
Evidence from Finland
, the top-performing European country, shows that teachers in Finnish schools frequently assess pupils and use the data to plan teaching, are trained to deal with the whole ability range, and have high expectations. However, Finnish children spend fewer hours in the classroom than children in other countries.
Yet the Harvard researchers found that, as Mr Gove put it in his speech, one of the factors that drive achievement was “the number of hours children actually spent at their desks.” Mr Gove is enthusiastic about longer terms but he should remember that while the successful schools in the researchers’ sample taught for 191 days annually – eleven days more that NY public schools - English community schools, by law, have to offer a minimum of 190 days already. Academies, of course, can opt out of this requirement.
Mr Gove quoted the research to link the “principles that underpin great schools” to academies. But these attributes are not confined to academies. He forgets that a school does not have to be an academy to be a great school. And being an academy doesn’t guarantee high results. In any case, do high results necessarily mean a great school? The Education Endowment Fund
found that many “below-floor” schools were, in fact, doing a good job in difficult circumstances. Ofsted failed a grammar school
in 2009 for not offering an adequate level of education. And in Ramsgate
in 2010 the school with the worst GCSE results in England had a much higher Contextual Value Added score than two neighbouring grammar schools.
So, what makes a successful school? Is it just because of the five factors found by Harvard? Or are there more characteristics? The researchers mentioned an effective principal – is this an important feature? And what is success, and how can it best be measured?