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Maryland Reports Achievement Gains Follow Use of New Teaching Methods

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Four years ago, Maryland education officials decided to try an experiment, using some of the strategies identified by the federal government's National Diffusion Network, to see whether the effectiveness of elementary-level teachers could be improved.

The experiment worked, according to a new analysis by Research For Better Schools Inc., the Philadelphia-based center supported by the National Institute of Education. And it produced what the researchers call "unexpected gains" in the performance of pupils whose classroom work had previously been weakest.

"A lot of states are implementing school-improvement programs that involve looking at how individual schools match expectations on a prescribed set of goals or standards," said Richard M. Petrie, assistant deputy state superintendent of education. "But as far as I know, Maryland is the only state that has approached school effectiveness through adopting proven models for instruction."

Four Models Selected

The Maryland program began in 1980, when the State Department of Education chose four teaching models from the National Diffusion Network and made them available to the state's 24 school districts as part of the Maryland School Improvement Through Instructional Process Program.

At four state conferences, the programs' developers described the methods to district officials. The officials were asked to choose at least one teacher-improvement plan to introduce in their district. The state provided each district with $5,000 in the first year and $1,000 to $3,000 on a matching basis each additional year. The state will no longer fund projects that have received three years of support; by now, the programs should be fully incorporated in the curriculum, according to Mr. Petrie.

The four instructional-development programs are:

Active teaching: a classroom-management technique designed for mathematics teachers that provides them with a series of steps to be followed on a daily basis;

Mastery learning: a method that involves testing students' progress in mastering learning objectives and curriculum materials in a prescribed sequence;

Student-team learning: an approach that uses peer tutoring and team competition to help children learn; and

Teaching variables: a program that encourages teachers to observe one another in class to see whether they are spending adequate time on teaching the content that most needs to be taught.

All Maryland districts have established at least one or two of the projects, according to Mr. Petrie. The rbs study indicates that by the end of last year, three districts had introduced one of the methods in all their schools. Most methods were being tested in a group of schools or in a "lighthouse" school. According to the study, the experiment included a total of 139 projects involving 986 teachers and 34,955 students.

Teachers Cite Improvement

Two-thirds of the teachers involved in the active-teaching and mastery-learning programs and half of the teachers in team-learning programs said their participation had improved their teaching. Only 28 percent of the teachers who used the teaching-variables approach said that they noticed improvement.

The finding on teaching variables is probably a consequence of the fact that many participating teachers felt they had already received adequate time-on-task training before the experiment began, according to the report.

Student Achievement

Under each of the programs, according to the report, gains in student achievement as indicated by test scores "were greater than normally expected, with the most significant improvement found for low- or middle-achievement students." In most cases, the study found, students attending schools involved in the program "did better than students in 'regular' classes, with gains made most consistently by below-average students.

All four of the teaching strategies, participating teachers told the researchers, appeared to improve students' attitudes toward learning and school and their ability to learn. The teachers also reported improvement in their students' mastery and retention of facts and skills. Both teachers and students thus benefited from the focus in the teaching strategies on "instruction presented in a structured, consistent format with a clear understanding of teacher expectations," according to the report.

Data from the mastery-learning classes supported, the rbs researchers said, the findings of other studies indicating that when the method is successfully applied, at least 80 percent or more of the students achieve mastery, defined as meeting 80 percent or more of the course objectives.

"Students knew the difference between [School Improvement Through Instructional Process] programs and regular instruction. They found the lessons relatively easy, enjoyed and understood them, considered that in comparison to regular lessons they were better, and learned more and got better grades," the report said.

Benefits, Drawbacks

Although low-achieving students seemingly benefited the most from the program, the best students were not neglected, according to Sue Ann Tabler, administrator of Project Basic, the state's competency-based education program.

In the team-learning approach--which parents of gifted and talented students tend to be most concerned about, Ms. Tabler said--gifted children who work with less capable students are able "to work through the process and still have time to do the enrichment activities that would have been part of the regular classroom." In addition, she said, bright children who spend years competing among themselves but never get the feeling of satisfaction of working with someone else are given a "chance to learn to cooperate and work collectively."

"The best students learn to listen to others and become much more accepting of others," she added.

Unresolved Problems

Some problems did surface as the experimental teaching strategies were put into effect, teachers told the researchers.

With the active-teaching program, many teachers said that their creativity was inhibited and that they did not have adequate staff or resources to meet their needs. Teachers most often reported dissatisfaction with mastery learning because excessive amounts of time, they said, had to be alloted for unit and test development and recordkeeping.

Teachers involved in the team-learning method said their biggest problem was the extra burden involved in controlling and conducting classes. And some teachers who took part in the teaching-variables project reported feeling resentment or apathy about "local implementation decisions and about the model design," according to the study.

Future Plans

The state department of education will continue to support the dissemination of the teaching methods, an official said last week.

Although teacher-improvement projects that have received three years of support will no longer receive state funds, "districts have been encouraged to extend second-year instructional improvement projects or to implement one of the other methods using the state matching funds,'' according to Joseph H. Morton, an administrator of Project Basic.

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