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When Beliefs Are Stronger Than Practices: Success Factors in an Outstanding Chilean Public School

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

By Cristian Celedón

Understanding why some schools are more effective than others has been a longstanding topic of discussion among scholars. Since 1970, researchers have analysed hundreds of schools in tens of countries, trying to understand the differential school characteristics that could explain variance in the school effect. Although there is no consensus about what specifically constitutes an effective school, scholars have been able to obtain evidence of the link between several specific school characteristics and educational effectiveness. Evidence suggests that schools are able to add value to students’ outcomes through schooling, despite their initial circumstances. All this research has countered the position of authors such as Coleman and Jencks, who argued that schooling makes no difference.

In Chile, school effectiveness is highly correlated with the socioeconomic status (SES) of the student body, due mostly to the high level of socioeconomic segregation, depending on school type. Private and subsidized schools tend to attract more skilled students from middle and higher social classes, resulting in a concentration of the most vulnerable pupils in the public sector. According to the OECD, vulnerable Chilean students tend to perform more poorly than their peers from higher SES quintiles. As a logical consequence, evidence shows that public schools, overall, have lower performance than private schools. Nevertheless, there are public schools in Chile that are able to achieve outstanding results, prompting a strong interest among Chilean public authorities in trying to understand how, despite all of these disadvantages, those public schools, which serve large percentages of vulnerable students, are able to be effective.

With this framework in mind, I carried out qualitative research using case-study and thematic analysis as a methodological approach. I explored the perceived success factors in an outstanding Chilean primary school which serves an important percentage of socioeconomically vulnerable students. A purposive sample of teachers and school leaders participated in several formal/informal meetings, semi-structured interviews and class observations. The initial research questions were: (1) What are the perceived success factors that, according to school staff, can explain the outstanding performance of this public school? (2) How are these perceived success factors related to the theoretical framework on school effectiveness? (3) How can these perceived success factors explain the outstanding performance of this case-study?

As a theoretical framework, the Instructional Core model and the literature on school and classroom effectiveness were used. In this sense, the study aimed to identify the school’s success factors through a deep-analysis of the perceptions of school staff. Through a thematic analysis, 13 themes regarding school success factors composed of 40 codes were identified (see Figure 1). All themes were organized under 3 structural categories based on the constitutive elements of the Instructional Core model.

Figure 1

The analysis revealed that the beliefs and values shared by the school’s community where more relevant to explaining the success of the school than the concrete practices, pedagogical strategies or educational models applied by teachers. In this sense, it was not possible to observe structural practices shared among staff but, on the contrary, a wide range of different pedagogical strategies and education approaches were employed, dependent on the technical background, experience and personal interests of each teacher. Despite these differences regarding practices, it was possible to identify the existence of strong shared structural values and beliefs about the importance of their role in the school and their educational goals regarding students, families and community, considering their social and economic vulnerability. According to the analysis, it was these multiples values and beliefs (beyond a sense of belonging with the school) which shaped practices and pedagogical approaches, not vice versa. This is an interesting finding, considering Richard Elmore’s conclusions with regards to the constant failures in the implementation of best practices among schools in the US. Another key point to note is the importance of the interrelation among success factors for understanding the impact of these elements in school effectiveness. In this case-study it was not possible to observe isolated best practices, but rather a whole multi-layered and holistic system of interrelated, mutually dependent school characteristics and practices acting together, based on the identified success factors. In this sense, informants explained that one success factor cannot exist if the others are not present within the school. This complexity of interconnection among internal success factors is also concordant with Macbeath and Mortimore’s analysis, suggesting that school effectiveness is not just a check-list of characteristics or best practices. These authors conclude that the characterization and understanding of an effective school is always a multifaceted process.

Other findings such as the ongoing and changing nature of success factors, the strong influence of leadership and internal relationships, and the extended use of professional judgement, discretion and situated knowledge by teachers (similar to Lipsky’s observations), were also identified as key aspects for understanding the effectiveness of this school in the Chilean educational context.

Given the scarcity of case studies of effective schools in Chile, this research aims to contribute new evidence on this topic. Although there are limitations to this study regarding generalization, it is important to note the relevance of case studies in education, which provide key information that can be used by other practitioners that work in similar contexts. In my future research, more cases will be incorporated, studied and compared, investigating whether the success factors identified in this research are shared (or not) by other similar outstanding public schools in order to identify initial patterns within the Chilean public education system. Understanding why these schools are effective can help to promote more suitable improvement strategies for these institutions. Indeed, contributing to the promotion of school effectiveness among public schools in Chile is not only a technical issue but also a social justice imperative.

Many thanks to Cristian for this week's contribution. If you wish to read his research in full, it can be found in our publications section, or if you wish to get in touch with Cristian, you can do so via his member profile.


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