Issue Number 239 August 15, 2018

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, seven free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Dave Moursund’s newly revised and updated book, The Fourth R (Second Edition) is now available (Moursund, August, 2018). The 4th R of Reasoning/Computational thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the K-12 curriculum. The first edition, published December 2016, and the second edition have now had a combined 18,500 page-views and downloads.

Editor’s Note: The following article is published with Larry Cuban’s permission. I very much appreciate the work he is doing and his permission to reprint the article. This article and a large number of his other articles are available online at

Whatever Happened to Effective Schools?

Larry Cuban
Emeritus Professor, Graduate School of Education
Stanford University

Nothing. They are still around but with many aliases. As a label for a movement that began in the late-1970s to demonstrate that urban schools can overcome the ill effects of poverty, a coalition of researchers, practitioners and policymakers distilled the features of a small number of schools with largely low-income and minority students that exceeded predicted levels of academic achievement into a recipe for “success” for all schools. That was then. Effective Schools exist today but has switched labels.

When did the idea of Effective Schools originate?

In the mid-1970s, a small number of researchers began working to disprove the then mainstream policy wisdom that what largely determines students’ academic performance—as measured by standardized achievement tests—is family background. Research studies on the inability of public schools to overcome the effects of poverty and race had led national policymakers to call for reduced federal funding of programs (see here, here, and here).

Within this social milieu of pessimism about the failure of public schools to make a difference in the lives of poor minority children, the Effective Schools Movement was born. Believing deeply in the value of equity and expecting that urban schoolchildren would be especially harmed were such a prevailing consensus of opinion among policymakers to persist, this small band of activist researchers led by Ron Edmonds identified a handful of big-city schools enrolling large numbers of low-income minority children who scored higher on standardized achievement tests than would have been predicted by their socioeconomic status (see here, here, and here).

These researchers-cum-reformers extracted from these schools certain factors (e.g., clearly stated academic goals, principal’s instructional leadership, concentration on basic academic skills, strong emphasis on maintaining order in school, frequent monitoring of academic achievement, connecting what is taught to what is tested, etc.) that they believed were linked to the students’ higher-than-expected academic performance on standardized tests.

In creating the Effective Schools’ ideology and model programs, Ron Edmonds and others prized four values: All children, regardless of background, can learn and achieve results that mirror ability, not socioeconomic status; top-down decisions wedded to scientifically derived data can improve individual schools; measurable results count; and the school is the basic unit of reform.

What problems did Effective Schools aim to solve?

Primarily, the problem was that in the late-1960s most policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers believed that largely minority and poor children because of where they lived could not learn or achieve what their white peers learned and achieved. Even though President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” included the path-breaking law–the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)–that sent money into districts across the country enrolling poor and minority children and youth, this social belief held by most national, state, and local policymakers, reinforced by research studies in the late-1960s, permeated educational decisions. Ron Edmonds and colleagues across the country and in Europe identified high-achieving elementary and secondary schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students to undermine that belief.

What is an Effective School?

The common definition of an Effective School in the 1970s through the 1990s was one that possessed certain features extracted from those schools that exceeded predicted levels of achievement on state standardized tests. These common features, of course, are correlates–they are associated with test score success not what causes a largely minority and poor school to become a “success.”

These correlates expanded and changed over time. For example, Larry Lezotte, a staunch advocate of Effective Schools and colleague of Ron Edmonds, added one feature to Edmonds’s list:

  1. Instructional leadership.
  2. Clear and focused mission.
  3. Safe and orderly environment.
  4. Climate of high expectations.
  5. Frequent monitoring of student progress.
  6. Positive home-school relations.
  7. Opportunity to learn and student time on task

The amending and deleting of these common elements to Effective Schools occurred time and again as the movement spread from elementary to secondary schools, became targeted on middle-class white venues, and traveled to Europe.

Did Effective Schools work?

According to advocates who focused on rising test scores in inadequately resourced minority and poor schools that year after year posted higher-than-expected results, the answer was “yes.” Such results led to a rapid spread of the nomenclature and common features throughout U.S. urban and rural low-performing schools in the 1980s and 1990s. The federal government began using the vocabulary and by the end of the 1990s the U.S. Congress had passed the Comprehensive School Reform Act that embraced fully the rhetoric and features of the Effective School movement.

Researchers, however, began to raise serious questions beginning in the 1970s and since about the constantly shifting features of supposedly “effective” schools, the definitions used, the demographics of schools labeled, and the stability of those schools initially labeled as “effective” but in a few years lapsed back into low test scores (see here, here, and here).

What has happened to Effective Schools?

If Edmonds’s work in the late 1970s spawned a cottage industry of Effective Schools aimed at ensuring equity for low-income, minority students, the linkage of public schools to the economy with the report, A Nation at Risk (1983), in effect, nationalized the Effective Schools movement while dropping the brand name. Federal and state policymakers, believing in education as the engine for the economy and using the same Effective Schools research, sought a broader and speedier impact on the nation’s schools than the slower school-by-school approach. They called for national goals, curriculum, and tests.

Throughout the 1980s, U.S. Secretaries of Education William Lamar Alexander and William Bennett talked about “good schools” and “effective schools” in the same breath. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn spearheaded the production of a popular pamphlet called “What Works” that drew directly from the effective schools research.

President Bush and his policy advisers organized the nation’s governors to endorse six national goals in 1989. A movement toward national goals, curriculum, and tests received the stamp of approval from a Republican president who styled himself the “Education President.”

When administrations changed, top policy advisers to Democrats also drew from the same well of Effective Schools ideology and research. Within an article that became a script for national and state policy elites, for example, Marshall Smith and Jennifer O’Day (1990) made clear that the ancestry of “systemic reform” was in the Effective Schools movement. “The most effective schools,” they said, “maintain a schoolwide vision or mission, and common instructional goals which tie the content, structure, and resources of the school together into an effective unified whole” (p.235). Moreover, the school mission provides the criteria and rationale for the selection of curriculum materials; the purposes and the nature of school-based professional development, and the interpretation and use of student assessment.

Smith later served in the Bill Clinton administration as Deputy Secretary under U.S. Secretary Richard Riley. Smith drafted many of the Clinton administration’s bills on national goals and testing and accelerated the shift toward nationalization of the Effective Schools movement without once using the phrase “effective schools.”

The Comprehensive School Reform Act (1998) leaned heavily on the ideology of Effective Schools and the strategy of whole-school reform, that is, changing one school (rather than district or state) at a time.

The bipartisan reliance of policy elites on Effective Schools research continued into President George W. Bush’s administration with the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) that laid out clearly that all schools, regardless of neighborhood, could become “good” schools without once mentioning Ron Edmonds or the Effective Schools movement three decades earlier.

Under President Obama, NCLB was enforced and efforts to turnaround “dropout factories” into “successful” schools continued, often invoking features trumpeted by the Effective Schools’ literature.

With parental choice expanding since the 1990s and the spread of charter schools, the label Effective School seldom appears. What does show up are “No Excuses” schools and networks of charter schools that embrace many of the features listed by an earlier generation of Effective Schools champions such as KIPP, Aspire, Success Academy, etc. These are the present day aliases for the half-century old Effective Schools movement.

Larry Cuban References and Resources

All of the references in Larry Cuban’s article are clickable hot links embedded in his article.

Additional References and Resources

Moursund, D. (2018). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/6/2018 from  

Moursund, D. (1/4/2018). Larry Cuban: Retrospective Look at 2017. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/6/2018 from

Moursund, D. (August, 2018). The Fourth R (Second Edition) online at Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from

About the Author

Larry Cuban is an  Emeritus Professor at Stanford University. Prior to becoming a professor, he taught high school social studies in ghetto schools, directed a teacher education program that prepared returning Peace Corps volunteers to teach in inner-city schools, and served seven years as a district superintendent. Quoting from

Trained as an historian, he received the B.A. degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1955 and the M.A. from Cleveland's Case-Western Reserve University three years later. On completing his Ph.D work at Stanford University in 1974, he assumed the superintendency of the Arlington, Virginia Public Schools, a position he held until returning to Stanford in 1981. Since 1988, he has taught three times in local high schools semester-long courses in U.S. History and Economics.

His major research interests focus on the history of curriculum and instruction, educational leadership, school reform and the uses of technology in classrooms. His books include: Oversold and Underused: Reforming Schools through Technology, 1980-2000 (2001); How Scholars Trumped Teachers: The Paradox of Constancy and Change in University Curriculum, Research, and Teaching, 1890-1990 (1999);Tinkering Towards Utopia (with David Tyack), 1995; The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988); Teachers and Machines: The Use of Classroom Technology Since 1920 (1986); How Teachers Taught, 1890-1980 (1984); Urban School Chiefs Under Fire (1976); To Make a Difference: Teaching in the Inner City (1970).


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