Two different blog posts caught my eye last week and got me thinking once again about the perfect storm of factors that leads to student achievement. First up is Jenny D., who---much to my delight---is blogging again now that her pesky PhD is out of the way. She points the way to some Good Research examining why some small school programs have led to better results than others. She notes from the study that "a good small high school also needs the right type of leadership and a cohesive and collaborative group of teachers interested in working to improve instruction" and wonders if the "small" part is really that important of a factor. Meanwhile, over at Joanne Jacobs, it is noted that it's the culture of a class, not its size, that makes a difference for student achievement. Her source is based on anecdotal evidence, unlike Jenny's, but they are both getting at the same idea: it's the "right" mix of people in a classroom that make magic happen.
This is all well and good to note, but my question is, "Can it be replicated?"
I've had close to 90 different groups of students over the years. And even if I think about those groups which were studying the same thing (e.g. "biology"), I can't think of any who were identical in nature. The dynamics of every class are different. I'm different every year and every class period as my energy ebbs and flows. Probably every teacher has a story of how the presence of one single child could completely change the tone of a classroom---either for better or worse.
Educational research will likely get better at describing the general classroom level factors which lead to improved student achievement, but no one is going to be able to determine the recipe for bottling and selling it. We can do all we can to implement best practices, use strong curriculum, and valid assessments...but at the heart of it all are people. And small people at that. Young people with their own home lives to make sense of and development to deal with. That doesn't excuse schools from providing the very best they can and holding high expectations for every child. It's just a recognition that at some point, we have to acknowledge the limitation in all of our research is that we're talking about human beings.