How to improve student achievement? Simply put – focus on the student.

A simple strategy for increasing student outcomes: Focus on the students

By Thomas W Tramaglini

In August and September, schools around the nation reopen for what everyone hopes will be an outstanding school year.  Yet, each year public schools and school districts face the consistent demand to improve student achievement.  Although how student achievement is measured varies from school to school (and state to state), regardless of the metric educators need strategies for improving student learning which work.

In my research as a doctoral student at Rutgers University, I asked this specific question.  What can school leaders do (that they can control) to improve student outcomes?

Find my dissertation here: (Tramaglini Dissertation)

You can acquire the book/chapter (Tramaglini & Tienken, 2015) here: Policy Perils – Book

How can educators use what they can control in schools to improve student outcomes?  During my study, I came across a great article written in the Journal of Educational Research by Margaret Wang, Geneva Haertal, and Herbert Walberg (1990).  In their research, the Wang, Haertal and Walberg studied this concept through meta-analysis and found that variables which were closer (proximal) to the student mattered more to student outcomes than the ones far away (distal) from the student.  That is, it is more likely that initiatives which directly impact students in the classroom (curriculum, instructional quality) will influence student outcomes more than those which are driven from far away from the student (when schools adopt state or federal mandates).

ASCD published a version of their article in December 1993/January 1994 in Educational Leadership.

Where to Start?

In my dissertation research, I operationalized the concept of using proximal variables versus distal variables and found similar results to what Wang, Haertal and Walberg found (1990).

Here is an article written by a local paper regarding the work that we did in Keansburg that focused on proximal variables and what the outcomes were:

The simple place to begin is by focusing on the student.  It’s a safer bet to invest your efforts and resources on things that directly impact the students. That is, place your efforts in things that build better teacher to student interactions, improved instruction, and better professional development versus a concept that your state department of education rolls out as an antidote to low student achievement.


Wang, M.C., Haertel, G.D., & Walberg, H.J. (1990). What influences learning? A content analysis of review literature. Journal of Educational Research, 84: 30-43.

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