School Characteristics and Process
General Findings

Developed: W. Huitt
Last modified: May 23, 1998

Return to | Updated Paper | The Teaching/Learning Process | EdPsyc Interactive |

Prior to the 1960's, most research done on the processes of teaching and learning investigated such factors as family background, location of the community in which the student lived, amount of money provided for education, as well as teacher and student characteristics considered important. Relatively little research was done on the school and classroom processes that related to student achievement. This type of research culminated in the works of Coleman et al. (1966) and Jencks (1972) who reported that school factors explained little of the variance in student learning; rather it was home and community factors that were really important.

During the 1960's and 1970's, a number of researchers began to investigate the classroom factors related to student achievement. Much of the work was based on Carroll's (1963) model of school learning which stated that learning is a function of time spent divided by time needed. During this two-decade period a variety of researchers, bolstered by unprecedented levels of funding for research and development, provided evidence that, in fact, classroom and school processes do make a difference in terms of student achievement. McIlrath and Huitt (1995) summarize several models that provide a knowledge base for the teaching/learning process.


There are a variety of perspectives that can guide the development of a knowledge base for teacher education. During the period in which the knowledge base was developed the dominant research paradigm was the behavior approach to learning. Some research was done from a cognitive and humanistic perspective, but until recently it has been relatively minor.

More recently the information processing and systems approaches have begun to guide much of the research in teaching and learning. The systems approach proposes that the what goes on in the classroom, especially the teacher/student interaction, is central to a model of teaching and learning. The primary influences or contexts influencing these more central components are the institutions of family, school, and community. State, national, and international contexts also play a role.

Focusing on the classroom level, current research suggests that learning (or educational outcomes) are a function of context, input, and process variables. That is, the context and input variables studied initially prior to the 1960's combined with the classroom process variables related to teacher and student classroom behaviors studied during the last three decades, provide a more complete picture of a model of the teaching/learning process that can serve as one part of a knowledge base for teacher education. Additional literature suggests that the appropriate level for successful educational reform is the school level.

The research on effective classrooms and school is generally based on outcomes as measured by standardized achievement tests of basic skills (i.e., reading, language arts, and mathematics.) Other measures such as higher order thinking skills, problem solving, social/personal skills, adjustment, etc. are generally not considered desired student outcomes.

Earlier research that school, teacher or student characteristics (e.g., school location, years of teaching experience, learning style) are the best predictors of student achievement were generally based on self-report data. It was not until the 1960s that data were collected via systematic observation in actual classrooms. In addition, early research did not take into account extraordinary school or classroom processes.

Reseach over the past 30 years has demonstrated that teachers, as individuals, and schools, as units of instruction, can produce extraordinary learning. As a rule, student classroom behaviors (e..g., academic learning time: time on task, time on target, academic success), when measured accurately and objectively, are seen as intermediate outcomes and are often the best predictors of student achievement.

School-level Research

School Characteristics

There are a variety of student characteristics that appear to be related to student achievement. One such variable is school size. In general, appropriate school size appears to be about 300 to 500 for elementary schools, 500 to 800 for middle grades, and 1000 or less for high school.

Location is a second variable, although this can be thought of as a community, rather than school, variable. Students in suburban/small cities seem to score better on standardized tests than student in urban areas who in turn score better than students in rural areas.

The length of the school year appears to be another important variable. As reported in an Atlantic Monthly report (1990) the United States ranked 12th of 15 industrialized nations in length of school year (Japan--243 days; South Korea--220 days; England--192; Canada--186). All of these countries are ahead of the US in terms of achievement in reading and mathematics.

School Processes

School climate is an important school process variable. The principal, as the instructional leader of a school, exerts a tremendous influence over instructional practices within a school and can influence the school climate. When principals evaluate teachers and eliminate ineffective teachers, achievement increases.

Academic emphasis, orderly environment, and high expectations for success are additional school process variables that research has shown to be important.

Suggestions for School Improvement

There are a variety of suggestions for school improvement ranging from longer, and more, school days to increased parental control through voucher systems and charter schools. Additionally, there are alternatives for improving achievement by changing what goes on in schools such as developing and implementing appropriate measurement, placement, and pacing routines for students (e.g., accurate knowledge of student achievement by objectives, place students in learning situations for which they have the prerequisite skills; accelerate learning for those with deficiencies.) Most school reform recognizes that the principal provides the necessary leadership for school reforms. It is especially important that she or he reviews student success and remediation efforts.

Classroom-level Research

Student Characteristics

  1. Prior learning--as much as 80% of variance in post-test scores may be accounted for by pretest scores
  2. Academic achievement--2/3rds of variance in 11th grade achievement can be predicted by achievement at end of 3rd grade
  3. These relationships are a direct result of holding time constant for all learners, regardless of time needed to learn, as well teacher expectations and classroom practice

Teacher Expectations

  1. Prevailing attitudes about student failure
    1. Genetic inferiority
    2. Lack of parental responsibility
    3. Lack of father in home
  2. Teacher expectations in early elementary years seems to produce changes in student achievement
  3. Teacher expectations after grade 3 seem to maintain student achievement

Teacher Behaviors

  1. Teachers most likely to consider activities rather than instructional objectives (research done mostly in 70s; may be different now with so much emphasis on objectives)
  2. Attention to student's prior learning can reduce relationship between that particular student characteristic and post-test
  3. Instructional overlap (ratio of content objectives covered by texts and tests) is very small (at best about 40%); therefore careful planning and additional materials are required
  1. Analyze tasks of first few weeks in detail and predict what will confuse or distract students
  2. Present rules, procedures, expectations, and assignments to students in clear, detailed manner and establish classroom routines
  3. Establish system of student accountability for behavior and academic work
  4. Consistently monitor behavior and work and provide feedback on its appropriateness (and WHY)
  5. Structure physical environment to avoid distractions
  6. Plan smooth transitions between activities
  7. Pace activites so that students remain interested
  8. Avoid negative affect when controlling students' behavior
  1. Presentation
    Overview (Review, What, Why)
    Students demonstrate understanding
  2. Practice
    Periodic review (6/9 weeks)
  3. Performance
    Daily work (success rate)
    Unit tests (weekly/biweekly)
Grade Language Arts  Mathematics

2nd grade

34-127 30-59

5th grade

57-156 23-76
Grade Language Arts  Mathematics

2nd grade

9-88 2-92

5th grade

15-81 8-89
Grade Language Arts  Mathematics

2nd grade

19 min/day 11 min/day

5th grade

35 min/day 14 min/day



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