Successful California Schools in the Context of Educational Adequacy
This report presents the results from a seven-month study of successful schools in California performed by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). This study is part of a larger group of studies coordinated through Stanford University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Stuart Foundation.
The study explored some of the concepts underlying the “successful schools” approach to defining education adequacy and considered their implications for analyzing educational adequacy in California. The overall purpose of the paper is summarized in the following research questions:
- How has the successful schools approach been used to consider educational adequacy?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of these alternative applications?
- How might successful schools be identified in the state?
- What resource differences are observed or reported by these schools?
- Can we predict academic performance by levels of resources and types of students enrolled?
- Is there any evidence that successful schools use their resources more efficiently?
- What other factors appear related to their success?
- What are the implications of these findings for defining education adequacy in California?
The successful schools approach seeks to determine the cost of the education needed to reach a specified level of educational outcomes by identifying districts achieving these outcomes and determining how much they are spending. This study sought to improve on this basic approach by selecting schools that have been consistently performing at a higher level than the one predicted by their demographics, rather than selecting successful schools that are above an absolute level of performance in a given year or over a given period of time. We analyzed these schools that were “beating the odds” (BTO) with regard to student achievement and compared them to low-performing (LP) schools—schools that had been performing at a lower level than predicted by their demographics. We also conducted telephone interviews with a total of 23 schools from both groups in an attempt to understand their resource allocation practices and to identify common themes in the factors principals deemed necessary for success.
A major premise underlying all approaches to education adequacy is that success is directly linked to the resources available. This study explored this assumption by looking for evidence to confirm or disprove the idea that resource quantities constitute the primary distinguishing factor between successful schools and all others. Thus, the first question was whether BTO schools have more resources than LP or other schools. The second question was whether BTO schools are using their resources in more efficient ways than other schools in the state. We did not intend to estimate an “adequate” level of spending for all schools in California based on these BTO schools, but instead shed some light on whether successful schools have more resources and/or use their available resources in more efficient ways than other schools in California, and the
extent to which the total amount or mix of resources or their unique use appears to explain their exceptional academic achievement levels.
One striking finding of our study is that only a small number of schools (103 schools) met all the requirements to be considered a beating-the-odds school. Beating-the-odds schools were those that were outperforming similar schools during a four-year period (three years in the case of high schools). The same was true for low-performing schools. We found considerable instability in their test score results: schools could outperform one year, and the next perform as expected or underperform. For example, 365 elementary schools were beating the odds during 2002 and 307 schools were beating the odds during 2003; however, only 61 elementary schools were beating the odds every year over the 2002-05 time period.
We focused our resource analyses predominantly on the allocation of personnel resources because these are so fundamental to the educational process and are such a large component of educational spending. We found some differences in staffing between BTO, LP, and other California schools, but these did not appear to be substantial. The most important difference
appears to be the level of experience that administrators hold: elementary BTO administrators have more experience than their colleagues in other public schools. Fewer LP school administrators have advanced degrees, and they have less experience in education-related work.
In addition, it is worthy of note that LP schools have less-qualified teachers (measured by education and experience level), and more staff focused on providing pupil support (e.g., counselors), which may be a reflection of the higher needs at these schools.