New Brief Identifies Specific School Features Linked to Elementary Achievement Scores

Washington, DC –  According to a new research brief from Child Trends, three elements of elementary school environments – strong principal leadership, high academic standards, and frequent teacher meetings to plan instruction – are associated with higher third grade math and reading scores.


Schools with a fourth element – low teacher turnover – generally have better behaved children.  Higher teacher turnover, which can indicate an unstable school, is related to lower rates of student self-control and school engagement among third grade students.


“This research provides initial evidence that at least four elements of the school environment influence children’s academic and behavioral outcomes by third grade,” said Brett Brown, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist and Director of Social Indicators at Child Trends.


Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 children who started kindergarten in fall 1998, researchers found that many children do not experience key elements in their schools that maximize their learning outcomes:


  • 30 percent of all children attend elementary schools that do not have strong principal leadership
  • Just over half of all children are in schools where their teachers meet together regularly to plan sequenced and coordinated instruction.
  • 15 percent of children are in schools where teacher turnover is a problem.

The findings show that low-income children are more likely to attend schools with poor learning environments.  Children living below 100% of the federal poverty line are twice as likely as children with family incomes over 200% of the poverty line to attend schools with low academic standards (20% versus 10%).


Similar disparities in teacher turnover are found by children’s race/ethnicity.  Over 20% of Black and Hispanic children go to schools where teacher turnover is troubling versus 11% of White non-Hispanic students.


Kimber Bogard, Ph.D., Program Associate at the Foundation for Child Development and co-author of the brief, noted, “There are large differences, based on children’s race/ethnicity and their family’s income, in access to high quality elementary schools.  At the same time, many children are not attending schools with all four quality indicators in one school year; and the likelihood that they experience positive learning environments from kindergarten through third grade is even less. This is particularly troubling since success by third grade is crucial for future learning.”


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center serving those dedicated to creating better lives for children. This research was supported by the Foundation for Child Development.