Schools make a difference

I am not going to recommend that every Monitor reader spend the next two hours reading a book entitled "Fifteen Thousand Hours." A team of researchers spent some thousands of hours studying just 12 secondary schools in London. They were interested in finding out whether or not it was possible to determine, objectively, if schools do make a difference.The team was as interested in knowing whether this was a researchable question as it was in the outcome of the research.

Hence the book -- although quite readable -- explains in some detail just how it researched the question. How it chose the schools; what about the schools it discovered; how it discovered what it discovered; and so forth.

It had to do this as the state of educational research is in its infancy and since other researchers, who did not carry out their own research but interpreted the research of others, have stated the opposite. Yet, "Fifteen Thousand Hours" found what most teachers and parents already suspect: ". . . that children benefit from attending schools which set good standards, where the teachers provide good models of behavior, where they are praised and given responsibility, where the general conditions are good, and where the lessons are well conducted."

The overwhelming evidence, according to the authors, points to good results from time spent on tasks, from praise for genuine efforts, from consistent practice coupled with feedback from teachers, from concerned teachers willing to tutor if necessary to get points across, and from an air of expectancy that a given child can actually succeed.

These are enormously important points, particularly the one about expectancy. There have been several studies now which have tried to measure the effect of this elusive quality, particularly on the part of the adults who work with the children. It has been found, for example, that if the adults did not expect much of the children, then they responded by not expecting much of themselves, but when children were surrounded by those wanting and expecting them to succeed that this had an enormously positive effect.

The authors found that the following, however measured, were not associated with good outcomes: small schools; modern buildings; a low teacher-pupil ratio; and firm discipline, coupled with severe punishment for unacceptable behavior.

If you don't believe that already, then you should spend a couple of hours reading "Fifteen Thousand Hours," published in Cambridge, Mass., by the Harvard University Press.

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