Exceptional schools can dramatically improve test score results, a new study published in the journal Psychological Science notes, but so far there is limited evidence that the schools have done much to change the "fluid cognitive skills" of the students.
The journal article, by Harvard professor Martin R. West and four colleagues, was summarized in a shorter version in Education Next.
Sampling 1,300 Boston students drawn from public schools, the researchers focused on how much impact different schools have on outcomes, controlling for where the students began.
In part, they used the natural experiment that stems from oversubscribed charter schools, which then choose their students by lottery. This allowed them to compare outcomes with very similar students.
While test-score gains for students in the better-performing schools were substantial, the authors conclude, these gains largely result from shifts in "crystallized knowledge," rather than improvements in "fluid cognitive skills."
These two categories — "crystalized knowledge" and "fluid cognitive skills" — relies on the groundbreaking work of the late Raymond Cattell. The first represents the "stuff" learned and stored, the latter reflects problem and puzzle-solving skills that can be applied to unforeseen future problems.
Cognitive psychology now divides fluid cognition into three main categories, all of which can be tested: processing speed, working memory and fluid reasoning, as outlined in a 2000 article in Biological Psychology.
West and his colleagues found that school itself accounts for an enormous amount fo the variation between students on subject test scores — 34 percent of the difference on math scores and 24 percent on reading scores. But they found that the school accounted for just 2.3 percent of variation in fluid cognitive skills.
West et al. conclude by appealing for more research. They note that the gains the schools offer in crystallized knowledge are remarkable and evidence suggests that they have real impact on life chances and future earnings. However, they argue, even greater gains might be possible if schools could generate commensurate gains in fluid cognitive skills as well.
Here, West and his coauthors move into a very contested and controversial space.
A 2008 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that drills aimed at improving working memory could enhance fluid intelligence, but later research has struggled to replicate those results.
A 2013 review of existing research published in Developmental Psychology concluded that "memory-training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize," adding that "current findings cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory-training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning in typically developing children and healthy adults."