Think of the ingredients that make for a good school. Small classes. Well-educated teachers. Plenty of funding. Combine, mix well, then bake.

Turns out, your recipe would be horribly wrong, at least according to a new working paper out of Harvard. Its take away: Schools shouldn’t focus on resources. They should focus on culture.

The study comes courtesy of economist Roland Fryer, an academic heavyweight who was handed a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” earlier this year for his research into the driving forces behind student achievement. Fryer gathered extensive data from 35 New York City charter schools, which generally cater to underprivileged and minority communities. He interviewed students, principals, and teachers, reviewing lesson plans and watching classroom video, to try and pinpoint factors that correlated with higher test scores.

His findings could add some new fire to the debate about what makes a good school. Fryer found that class size, per-pupil spending, and the number of teachers with certifications or advanced degrees had nothing to do with student test scores in language and math.

In fact, schools that poured in more resources actually got worse results.

What did make a difference? The study measures correlation, not causation, so there are no clear answers. But there is a clear pattern. Schools that focused on teacher development, data-driven instruction, creating a culture focused on student achievement, and setting high academic expectations consistently fared better. The results were consistent whether the charter’s program was geared towards the creative arts or hard-core behavioral discipline.

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