Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Subject Categories

Education | Educational Sociology | Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education | Sociology


Middle School, School Organization, Social Capital, Successful Schools, Teacher Effectiveness, Teacher Professional Community


This dissertation analyzes how one high-functioning, public, non-selective middle school in New York City, the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS/MS348), consistently gets strong student achievement gains. For the past three years, WHEELS has ranked near the top of all middle schools on the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) School Progress Reports, which measure student academic growth and performance in each school. At the same time its students, assigned randomly and coming from the neighborhood catchment zone, rank in the bottom decile in terms of economic advantage, and the bottom quartile in terms of elementary school academic performance upon entering WHEELS. WHEELS' success is also exemplified by the fact that it is an Expeditionary Learning (EL) Model School, a NYCDOE Demonstration School, and its achievement gains have been documented in a handful of quantitative reports as well.

This study is the first in-depth academic analysis of the school's inner workings. I use a mixed-methods case study approach including seven years of informal and formal ethnographic participant-observation in all areas of the school; interview data from teachers, students and administrators; NYCDOE parent and student Learning Environment survey data; and NYCDOE school-level student achievement data. I document that WHEELS' success is driven by the collaboration, coordination, expertise, and empowerment of its strong teachers. I describe the school's structures, policies, and shared pedagogical practices, and analyze how they operate together to allow for cohesive teams of teachers to have maximum impact on students. In doing this, I extend teacher-student social capital theory, synthesize collective efficacy theory with the research on relational trust in schools, and analyze some strong instructional techniques and supports.

My findings will add to the relevant educational and sociological research and theory on teacher-teacher and teacher-student social interactions, school organizational characteristics, teacher quality, and student engagement and achievement processes. Of particular interest for readers contemplating educational policies and questions of replication may be the fact that as a non-charter, non-selective, neighborhood public middle school, WHEELS operates within the parameters of the teacher's union contract, and NYCDOE regulations and funding levels.