Everything You Know About Education Is Wrong

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A groundbreaking study of New York schools by a MacArthur "genius" challenges the typical  understanding of what makes a good school

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Shutterstock / Sandra Cunnigham

Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake.

Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard. Its take away: Schools shouldn't focus on resources. They should focus on culture.

The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" earlier this year for his research into the driving forces behind student achievement. Fryer gathered extensive data from 35 New York City charter schools, which generally cater to underprivileged and minority communities. He interviewed students, principals, and teachers, reviewing lesson plans and watching classroom video, to try and pinpoint factors that correlated with higher test scores.

His findings could add some new fire to the debate about what makes a good school. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

What did make a difference? The study measures correlation, not causation, so there are no clear answers. But there is a clear pattern. Schools that focused on teacher development, data-driven instruction, creating a culture focused on student achievement, and setting high academic expectations consistently fared better. The results were consistent whether the charter's program was geared towards the creative arts or hard-core behavioral discipline.

IT'S THE CULTURE, STUPID

If small classes, credentialed teachers, and plush budgets aren't adding up to successful students, then what is? Fryer measured school culture in a way no academic before him had. He looked at the number of times teachers got feedback. The number of days students got tutored in small groups. The number of assessments for students. The number of hours students actually spent at their desks. Each correlated with higher student scores.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools that claimed a "relentless focus on academic goals" also tended to produce better test scores. Schools that focused on self esteem and emotional health? Not as much. (Sorry Gen Y.)

The findings all get summed up in a group of handy tables. First, here are the ingredients you think of as being important to a school -- what Fryer calls "traditional" resource-based inputs. Most of those factors don't have a statistically significant relationship to school performance. Some actually have a negative effect.

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Then Fryer compared less traditional cultural factors to student performance. Teacher feedback and instruction time had the strongest connection. In sum, these six factors explained about 50% of the variations between charter school outcomes.

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There's an obvious caveat to all this. It's easier for schools to offer intensive tutoring, extra classroom time, and teacher coaching when there's enough money to go around. Otherwise, you're schooling model becomes: "do more with less." But Fryer's findings show that money alone isn't enough. Neither are sterling teaching credentials. It's what you do with them that makes a difference for students.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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