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Links to Good Teaching

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It seems like a given: Teach a teacher well, and that teacher will teach students well. Teach students well, and they learn more.

But few researchers have seriously tried to find out whether one effort necessarily leads to the other--until now.

University of Michigan researchers David K. Cohen and Heather C. Hill explored the links between professional development for teachers, changes in teaching practice, and improved student achievement in a decadelong study of a comprehensive school reform program in California.

In 1985, California officials approved a new curricular framework for teaching mathematics that called for intellectually more ambitious instruction, more open-ended discussion about math in classrooms, and less memorization of facts and operations. The state also produced a test based on the new standards and incorporated the framework into its textbook-adoption process.

Mr. Cohen and Ms. Hill surveyed 1,000 elementary school teachers across the state in 1994--a few years into the changes--with an eye to the kinds of professional-development opportunities those teachers had. In particular, they wanted to know whether teacher workshops and in-service programs had been grounded in the new curricula. Many teachers, for example, learned about pieces of the new curricula through workshops that focused on specific math topics, such as fractions for 5th graders. Those courses, taught by the private Marilyn Burns Institute, were called "replacement units" because they were intended as something teachers could drop into the curriculum.

But other kinds of professional-development opportunities offered to teachers focused on more cross-cutting issues, such as gender, linguistic, class, and racial inequalities in math.

What the researchers found was that teachers who spent more time in curriculum-grounded in-services were more likely to report that their students discussed different ways of solving problems, worked on extended math projects, or used problems with multiple solutions---all practices advocated in the new program.

In addition, schools in which high percentages of teachers reported that their practices were consistent with the new math frameworks tended to score higher on the state's 1994 math tests. Likewise, teachers who attended the curriculum-centered workshops or who learned about the curriculum by helping to score the new state tests also tended to have better-performing students.

"This suggests that well-planned state efforts to improve instruction can successfully influence not only teaching but also student learning," the researchers write.

The Consortium for Policy Research in Education, based at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, supported the study. The findings will appear in a book on the subject to be published this year.

Ironically, the findings may be too late for California. After parents in recent years complained that the framework and tests gave short shrift to basic arithmetic skills, state officials threw out the test and revised the math guidelines to reflect a more conventional approach.

"One of the unfortunate things about California," Mr. Cohen says, "is that no one did this kind of research before."

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