Study shows how dumb we can be
A little-noticed but unusually detailed study of teaching practices, reported by Robert Rothman in the November/December issue of the Harvard Education Letter, delivers a depressing message you should keep in mind whenever you read anything about raising school achievement. I don’t care if it’s by an education school dean, or a state governor, or the U.S. secretary of education, or even me. If this new study is true then none of us really knows what we are talking about.
Consider all the ink and electrons my Post colleagues and I, plus the leaders of our local schools and commentators far and wide, expend on how each of our public schools have performed on the annual tests. These assessments are required under No Child Left Behind. They are wired into the culture now. They will continue in some form no matter how Congress changes that law.
Some of us freak out over even relatively small differences between schools, like a ten percentage point gap in proficiency rates. Districts have changed principals and curriculums based on such results. Give that low-performing elementary school more phonics. Get some reading coaches into that middle school where the scores dipped.
But the Study of Instructional Improvement document described in Rothman’s article rips a big hole in the idea that changes in those schools’ reading programs will have much effect on what going on in their classrooms.
The study led by Brian Rowan of the University of Michigan found extraordinary differences in what teachers in adjoining classrooms were doing, even in schools supposedly ruled by comprehensive reform models that dictated how everyone used every hour of the day.
“For instance,” Rothman reported, “the study showed that a fifth-grade teacher might teach reading comprehension anywhere from 52 days a year to as many as 140 days a year. Similarly, first-grade teachers spent as little as 15 percent to as much as 80 percent of their time on word analysis. Thus, the study found, students in some classrooms may spend the majority of their classroom time on relatively low-level content and skills, while their peers in the class next door are spending much more time on higher level content.”
Okay, you say, that’s easy to fix. Just watch the teachers more closely. Make sure they are all using the higher level content. Guess again, said Rowan’s colleague Jenny DeMonte. She discovered the student gains from highest level practices, such as examining literary techniques and sharing writing with others, were no better than those produced by low-level practices, like asking questions that have answers at the back of the textbook chapter and summarizing story details.
I know. It’s just one study. But few others have tried so hard to gauge educator choices. Teachers at 112 schools kept daily logs of the amount of time they spent on reading and language arts, what they emphasized in particular topics, and what content and methods they used.
I am excited about a new Web tool devised by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a non-profit organization that promotes D.C. charters schools. Go to the focusdc.org site and watch it display changes in proficiency rates of individual D.C. schools, both regular and charter, over the last three years. This is an obsession for those of us following the efforts to turn the school district around.
Does the Michigan study mean that group’s work was wasted? Many experts don’t think so. The Michigan data show that on average some reform models did better than others. We have long known that teacher practices vary widely. We can work at that, and study some of the team-oriented schools that have closed those gaps. We can try to figure out why high-end methods don’t work better than low-end.
But we ought to resist what history shows is our instinct to forget inconvenient results and keep doing what we are doing. Ignoring hard truths is not the best way to help our kids.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| January 10, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories: Metro Monday | Tags: teacher variability; myths on raising achievement; school reform models; Robert Rothman; Brian Rowan; Harvard Education Letter;
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