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Parents are often stymied by the process of picking a good school for their kids. Word-of-mouth recommendations can be misleading. High test scores provide only a limited picture of a school’s effectiveness since they often reflect family income with wealthier students scoring better. Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson believes two additional elements point to an effective school: social and emotional skills and student behavior.  He argues that schools that boost those two plus test scores propel more students to graduate high school, go to college and reduce the number of students who get arrested. 

“We’re talking about schools that have a positive, causal impact on children’s subsequent outcomes,” said Jackson. “Not everyone buys into these non-test score measures of school effectiveness. I think what we’re showing here is that they do require attention.”

To prove his point, Jackson studied more than 150,000 ninth graders in Chicago public high schools from 2011 to 2017. He picked Chicago because the school system annually surveys students about their social and emotional skills. Students report how much effort they believe they put into their school work and how they feel about their relationships with peers. All the answers can be quantified on a scale of one to four, enabling Jackson to calculate how much students’ social and emotional development improved at each school, along with increases in test scores and decreases in disciplinary incidents, such as suspensions. Then he combined it all into one composite index, somewhat similar to how a combined SAT score adds together math and verbal tests. 

He found that Chicago high schools that ranked high on his three-part index for ninth graders subsequently reduced the number of arrests at school while increasing high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Students at schools that only produced the highest growth in test scores had less impressive long-term outcomes.

The non-test score aspects of school quality seem to be driving many of the results. Schools that improve student behavior the most had the largest drop in school-based arrests. Schools that boost social and emotional skills had larger increases in college attendance.

Jackson’s study, “Who Benefits From Attending Effective Schools? Examining Heterogeneity in High School Impacts,” was conducted with three other researchers, including John Q. Easton, the former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences and a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.*  The team also included Shanette Porter, research director at the Mindset Scholars Network, which promotes “soft” skills, such as the belief that intelligence can be developed through hard work. 

The study is still a draft, working paper, which means it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, but it was circulated by the National Bureau of Economics Research in December 2020. The ideas in it rely on previously published research about the benefits of social and emotional development and fostering good behavior

The names of Chicago’s more effective high schools were not disclosed because of the researchers’ data sharing agreement with the city’s public school system. That’s too bad because parents might appreciate knowing that information. All students benefit from attending more effective high schools that boost a combination of test scores, behavior and social and emotional skills, the researchers found. 

However, students with the weakest eighth grade academic records, who are the most likely to drop out of high school, received larger benefits from attending one of Chicago’s most effective schools while more advantaged students were more likely to attend these higher quality schools in the first place. 

For example, a disadvantaged student in the bottom 10 percent would be 3.4 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, 2.2 percentage points more likely to enroll in college and 2.1 percent less likely to be arrested by attending a high school in the top 15 percent of effectiveness compared to an average high school. For a more advantaged student at the other end of the spectrum, there were very small improvements in high school graduation and arrests but college going rose by almost as much as it did for disadvantaged students. 

The researchers also noticed a shift in college behavior. Disadvantaged students were more likely to end up at a two-year community college after attending a more effective high school. Wealthier students were not only more likely to go to college but also more likely to enroll in a four-year college. “You’re getting a shift from two-year to four-year colleges among those that are more advantaged,” said Jackson. That’s a good outcome because graduation rates are much higher at four-year institutions than at two-year community colleges and adults with bachelor’s degrees generally earn higher salaries.

It’s unclear whether the researchers’ index would be as useful outside of Chicago in cities with more affluent students. Chicago’s schools are overwhelmingly poor; 86 percent of the ninth graders in the study were from disadvantaged families whose incomes were low enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Forty-two percent were Black students and 44 percent were Latino students. Only half of the ninth graders subsequently attended college.

If this approach to measuring schools turns out not to be useful for affluent students, that’s okay. Our problem in America isn’t figuring out which schools serve upper middle class students well  but how to educate children living in poverty. And this study is shining a light in a new direction. Unfortunately, this study didn’t delve into exactly what the effective high schools are doing to improve students’ soft skills and behavior. We don’t know if the schools were following specific programs or staffed by caring adults or some combination of both. The next step is to figure out exactly what these effective Chicago high schools are doing and bottle it. 

* Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described John Easton’s title at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

This story about effective schools was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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