What causes some schools to be more effectively organized than others?

This is a very important question, and one that has been asked too seldom. If school performance is ever to be lastingly improved, it will not be enough to know what effective schools look like. Knowing that effective schools should have clear goals, strong leadership, and a professional structure will not necessarily help reformers make schools more effective. It may not be possible, for example, to train principals to be stronger educational leaders, or to encourage them to treat teachers like colleagues or true professionals. Yet reformers in every state are trying to do precisely these kinds of things today. Based on Effective Schools Research, many state departments of education have established effective schools programs to encourage or force their schools to develop more effective organizations. Schools are being instructed to raise their expectations, to establish priorities, to make decisions more cooperatively, and so on. But this approach assumes that schools have become poorly organized because they did not know any better. Once schools know how to organize themselves more effectively, they will do so – or so it is assumed. This assumption, however, is likely to be very wrong.

Unlike Effective Schools Research, which has shown little interest in those things that might cause schools to become ineffectively or effectively organized in the first place, our research is extremely interested in the determinants of school organization. We are struck by the fact that many schools in this country have become effective organizations without the benefit of any research showing schools the way. By the same token, we find it hard to believe that many of the worst school organizations in this country have reached their sad state because their superintendents, principals, or teachers did not know any better. More likely, schools in this country have organized effectively or ineffectively in response to various political, administrative, economic, and educational forces that demand organizational responses. If this is correct, the key to school reform is understanding how those forces work, and then making adjustments to them.

We examined simultaneously the effects of a large number of such forces on school organization. Many mattered little or at all. For example, when all else is taken into account, higher teacher salaries and more expenditures per pupil do not produce more effective school organizations. Even if expenditures are used toreduce student-teacher ratios, there is no significant impact. More effective organizations do not have more teachers per pupil, or by extension, smaller classes. Ultimately, more effective organizations are distinguished from less effective ones by two kinds of forces. One kind emanates from the students in the school, the other kind is applied by politicians and administrators outside of the school.

High schools are much more likely to organize effectively – to set ambitious priorities, practice vigorous educational leadership, and operate professionally – if their students are well-behaved, have above average entering ability, and come from relatively well-educated and affluent families. If the students in a school exhibit any one of these traits, the organizational effectiveness of that school is likely to rank one or even two quartiles above that of a school whose students do not have these traits. This is not to say that the impact of school organization on student achievement is artificial, however. Students still register higher gains in schools that are effectively organized, all things being equal. But a school is more likely to get organized to provide this academic boost if its students are more academically inclined to begin with.

Not too much should be made of the organizational advantage of educating bright kids, however. The single largest determinant of whether a school is effectively organized is not associated with the caliber of the students in the school but with the strength of the pressures outside the school. Specifically, the more a school is subject to the influence of administrators, unions, and indirectly, school boards, the less likely the school is to be effectively organized. Schools that have relatively little control over curriculum, instruction, discipline, and especially hiring and firing are likely to fall more than two quartiles in overall organizational effectiveness below schools with relatively great controls over these matters. This is true, moreover, when the influences of students and parents are held constant. Schools with less academically able students can be organized quite effectively, and succeed, if they are given the freedom by politicians and bureaucrats to do so!