Part III of a series on student achievement: What is the role of the school environment?

Part III of a series on student achievement: What is the role of the school environment?

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell / Currey Ingram Academy

I focused on the roles of the student in October, the home in November and for this month I will focus on the school environment.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

What if you could combine the results of 50,000 studies into one study that specifies the key factors for learning and student achievement?

As I introduced last month, researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning study did just this. It is the largest-ever collection of research into what actually works to improve learning.

It is called Visible Learning because Hattie provides visible and objective evidence to build and defend a model of teaching and learning.

Hattie found that there were 138 influences on student achievement (variables) that could be classified into six general categories that influence how well students learn. Those categories are:

  • The student
  • The home environment
  • The school environment
  • The curricula
  • The teacher
  • Teaching strategies

I focused on the roles of the student in October, the home in November and for this month I will focus on the school environment.

Does Money Matter?

Yes and no. From the results of Hattie’s megastudy, money spent over and above a certain threshold only seems to have a direct impact on student achievement when it is intentionally targeted for recruiting, retaining and rewarding truly outstanding teachers.That is, money spent on facilities, programs, resources, and technology is not a lever that can, by itself, improve student achievement gains.

This does not mean, however, that the money spent to provide extracurricular programs, for example, does not have other positive outcomes, such as enhancing self-esteem, improving fitness, etc. It really only means that student achievement is really only impacted by spending money on top-notch teachers.

Class Size?

In another result that may be counterintuitive, study after study showed that simply reducing class size, even from 25 to 15, nets little gain in student achievement. The main reason for this is that reducing class size without adjusting instruction is pointless. Without additional strategies (e.g., giving more feedback, instructional adjustments, etc.), the benefit of smaller numbers is masked. The important point is that class size, by itself, is not a panacea.

Ability Grouping?

Ability grouping is essentially putting “smart” kids in a class together, “average” kids” in a class together, and “below average” kids in a class together. The results show that ability grouping on its own has minimal effects on learning outcomes, especially for “average and below average” students.

Within-class Grouping?

Within-class ability grouping also has minimal impact on student achievement. Although “above average” students tend to benefit slightly more and ability grouping in large classrooms (30+ students) also is more impactful on student outcomes, within class ability grouping overall is a red herring when it comes to impact on student achievement.

Holding Students Back a Grade?

Retention, or making low-achieving students repeat a year, is one of the few areas where it is difficult to find a single study with a positive effect. Very rarely is it a good idea, at least in terms of academic achievement, to have students repeat a grade. This can rarely make sense for social reasons when a child is old for a grade, but it is not an effective approach in improving student achievement.

The Take-Away

If you came to my school, Currey Ingram Academy, you may wonder why we do what we do, after reviewing this research. We use small classes, ability grouping and more to improve student achievement. Here is why: There is a great deal of research on the effectiveness of using small student-to-teacher ratios (ours is 4:1, approximately) and differentiated instruction to help students with learning differences ranging from dyslexia to giftedness (our mission).

I firmly believe that our success with this approach is due to how we are using this time, i.e., matching instructional methods to specific learning types, encouraging students to advocate for their learning styles, and employing the best teachers for our mission.

It all boils down to this: recruit, retain and reward great teachers. That’s the simple answer, and that’s the challenging answer. And, if you are going to have small class sizes or ability grouping, do so with intent.

With that in mind, next month we will discuss what research tells us about the nature of great teaching. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts, feel free to reach out to me at


John Hattie is Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. This summary refers to his book Visible Learning (2009).

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.

Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.

Earlier Extra Credit columns:

About The Author

Kelly Gilfillan is the owner-publisher of Home Page Media Group which has been publishing hyperlocal news since 2009.

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