Effective Schools Help Students Outperform Expectations Based on Cognitive Skills

Martin R. West: martin_west@gse.harvard.edu, 617-496-8302, Harvard University
Ashley Inman: ashley_inman@hks.harvard.edu, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Effective Schools Help Students Outperform Expectations Based on Cognitive Skills

Differences in school effectiveness have important consequences for students’ academic achievement.

Effective schools help students achieve at higher levels than one would expect, based on their cognitive skills, a recent study finds, rather than enhancing students’ core abstract-reasoning capabilities. In a new article for Education Next, now on the web at www.educationnext.org and soon available in the journal’s Fall issue, researchers examine learning gains at highly effective schools. The research team used data from more than 1,300 8th graders attending 32 public schools in Boston, including traditional public schools, exam schools that admit only the city’s most academically talented students, and oversubscribed charter schools.

The authors distinguish two aspects of cognitive ability: crystallized knowledge, which comprises acquired knowledge such as vocabulary and arithmetic; and fluid cognitive skills, the abstract-reasoning capabilities such as the ability to recognize patterns and make extrapolations needed to solve novel problems independent of how much factual knowledge has been acquired. At any point in time, the two are highly correlated: people with strong fluid cognitive skills are at an advantage when it comes to accumulating the kinds of crystallized knowledge assessed by most standardized tests. However, fluid cognitive skills decline with age starting in one’s twenties, while crystallized knowledge tends to increase.

The team of researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found:

• After adjusting for prior test scores and demographics, the school a student attends explains 34 percent of the variation in their math test scores and 24 percent of the variation in their reading test scores, but just 2 percent of the variation in their fluid cognitive skills.
• Each year of attendance at an oversubscribed charter school increased the math test scores of students in the sample by 13 percent of a standard deviation, a roughly 50 percent increase over the progress typical students make in a school year, but had no impact on their fluid cognitive skills.
• Students attending these schools therefore achieve at higher levels, relative to what would be expected based on their fluid cognitive skills, than other students.

These differences in school effectiveness have important consequences for students’ academic performance. Among students who fell below the midway point on the researchers’ measure of fluid cognitive skills, only 20 percent of those attending a traditional public school were proficient in math as defined by Massachusetts on its 8th-grade math test. In oversubscribed charter schools, 71 percent of such students were proficient.

The scholars conclude that educators should expand efforts to develop and rigorously test the effects of interventions to raise students’ fluid cognitive skills. Improved abstract-reasoning ability has important benefits in its own right and is highly related to important skills such as reading comprehension. Deficits in students’ fluid cognitive skills may also prevent even the most effective schools from raising all of their students’ academic performance to the desired level.

What Effective Schools Do: Stretching the cognitive limits on achievement,” by Martin West, Chris Gabrieli, Matthew Kraft, Amy Finn, and John Gabrieli, is available on https://www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Fall 2014 issue (late August) of Education Next.

About the Authors

Martin West is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and deputy direc­tor of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. Chris Gabrieli is adjunct lecturer at HGSE and executive chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning. Matthew Kraft is assistant professor of education at Brown University. Amy Finn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where John Gabrieli is professor of health sciences and technology and cognitive neuroscience.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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