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Published in Print: May 16, 2007, as The Gift of Bleak Research


The Gift of Bleak Research

How the Pianta classroom study can help schools improve immediately.

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Let’s not squander the moment made possible by an important new national study, “Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms.” In it, the University of Virginia scholar Robert C. Pianta and his colleagues report, in painful detail, the most vital if overlooked fact about our schools: Most teaching is “mediocre,” or worse.

Published in the March 30, 2007, issue of the journal Science, the Pianta study is based on observations of 2,500 classrooms in 400 school districts across the United States. It shows that the typical child in these classrooms has a 1-in-14 chance of learning in a rich, supportive environment. Fifth graders spend 91 percent of their time listening to the teacher or working alone, usually on low-level worksheets. Three out of four classrooms are “dull, bleak” places, the researchers report, devoid of any emphasis on critical reasoning or problem-solving skills.


Decades of school reform have kept us from seeing that simple problems demand simple, direct action. An ever-growing contingent of researchers is beginning to concede that instruction itself probably has more impact on learning, and on achievement gaps, than any other factor. So the key to better schools is not commissions or new commercial curriculum materials, or even professional development. Each of these lacks the most basic, critical ingredient: a willingness to establish clear expectations for instruction, to arrange for teachers to work in teams so they can meet and exceed those expectations, and to institute simple routines for honestly and continuously monitoring teaching to ensure its effectiveness.

If you think that any semblance of this occurs now in most schools, you are badly mistaken. As Harvard University’s Richard Elmore and others have been saying for a long time, we don’t inspect instruction—we never have. Effective teaching, Elmore tells us, is voluntary, and therefore rare.

Join the related discussion, “Schools and Teacher Effectiveness.”

If we took direct action to correct this, the impact would be swift and seismic. Prominent researchers have concluded that about three years of effective teaching can result in a 35- to 50-percentile gain for students, especially for those who are low-achieving. This is a life-changing difference. It would translate to all that we hold dear: lower dropout rates, a higher proportion of low-income students graduating from college, and a richer, more engaging education for all.

The Pianta study is no fluke. It is another welcome entry in a series of similar studies dating back decades. In the 1980s, John I. Goodlad and his research teams visited thousands of classrooms. Their observations left them aghast. In English and language arts classes, “students rarely read or wrote.” They “scarcely even speculated on meanings” or discussed alternative interpretations of their readings, according to Goodlad’s A Place Called School. Another landmark study of the 1980s, one whose findings formed the basis of The Shopping Mall High School, confirmed Goodlad’s research, lamenting a “wholesale absence of intensity about thinking” in the country’s secondary schools.

For us, the opportunity to improve instruction and close the achievement gap is especially vivid in the area of literacy instruction—in any course, not just English and history, but math and science too, where students should be reading analytically and writing. Instead of having students read and write and discuss good books and articles in their classes (which any teacher can do with practice, with increasing levels of skill), teachers have students making collages and mobiles, or filling out worksheets. As hard as it is to believe, we have seen students spending staggering amounts of time coloring in early-grade reading classes. Kati Haycock and teams from the Washington-based Education Trust have found, in fact, that coloring occupies more class time in some schools than reading and math activities combined.

How much longer will we look past the immense opportunity implicit in such findings? A few years ago, a new teacher came to one of our communities and taught with great success at the most diverse low-income school in town, one with the worst writing scores by far. Observing this teacher, it was obvious that he employed only the most basic, well-known methods—those every teacher in America has learned and could begin to use now.

Decades of school reform have kept us from seeing that simple problems demand simple, direct action.

If schools made even reasonable, systematic efforts (just an hour a month, for example) to monitor instruction for improvement purposes, we could immediately increase the proportion of teachers who employed these same well-known methods. They might then begin to achieve the same results as this teacher. After just one year, and largely on the basis of his efforts, writing scores at this teacher’s entire school shot up by 26 points, surpassing those of the other two schools in the community and resulting in the largest writing gains in the state.

This story contains the promise of what could happen if we monitored instruction, and if we had teachers working in teams to help each other reinforce and refine effective teaching methods.

Both of us, like many others, have visited hundreds of classrooms with central-office or building administrators. These tours often are an epiphany for the administrators, as they are forced to have authentic encounters with the largely mediocre quality of teaching in their schools. They realize that all their plans, programs, and workshops don’t ensure effective teaching. Most teachers, regardless of these efforts, adapt their instruction to fit the local norms. If lots of worksheets and scant amounts of reading, writing, and discussion are the norm, then that is what instruction becomes.

In fact, the plans themselves are often the problem. Another national study looked at truly effective 4th grade teachers—ones whose classrooms looked very different from those observed by Pianta and his colleagues. The researchers in this study concluded that the most effective teachers largely ignored their districts’ improvement plans, which still allowed (or even required) the use of the worst kinds of deadening, commercially developed programs, materials, and workbooks. Had they followed those plans, the teachers in this study would have been far less effective—and more like the other teachers in their schools.

The urgent question is this: Why do we create strategic plans that interfere with effective teaching, make no arrangements for teachers to work in teams to improve their lessons, and fail to ensure that instruction is at least occasionally monitored, so that we can celebrate progress and identify areas for further improvement?

In this era when using scientific evidence to inform decisions about instruction is emphasized, many federal, state, and local educational leaders have largely ignored the obvious: Students need lots of opportunities to read and write, and to talk about what they read. These actions are pivotal to college and life success. But such engaging, life-changing activities aren’t what Robert Pianta and his colleagues observed. These activities, if we truly care about them, must be monitored and talked about and reinforced at every faculty and central-office meeting.

Why do we create strategic plans that interfere with effective teaching?

The research is clear. In their meta-analysis, the reading researchers John T. Guthrie and Nicole M. Humenick found tremendous benefits for students who learned in classrooms with lots of interesting books, who could choose much of their own reading material, and who spent lots of time reading and discussing books and articles in class (a rare thing, we find). These conditions produced effect sizes that were four times those the National Reading Panel reported for students who received systematic phonics lessons.

At the core, however, the problem remains one of incredibly limited visions of what good teaching looks like. We need to identify and disseminate effective instruction, and then let teams of teachers observe and refine good lessons and models of teaching, as they improve these on the basis of assessment results.

And educators cannot continue to give so little attention to monitoring the quality of the instruction. When we speak to superintendents, assistant superintendents, and principals, we often ask, “How often do you visit classrooms? Do you, even once a month, systematically visit a handful to look for patterns of effectiveness or problems?” The answers are usually depressing. Very few leaders do this.

Both of us grew up in Michigan. People there know better than most that the big three automakers have never recovered from the effects of a culture in which executives and managers were isolated from what happened on the factory floors. In this, executives were not unlike the school leaders of today who often have no idea what the quality of instruction is in the schools they lead.

This new study of elementary classrooms is a gift—an opportunity, a window to the soul and the center of schooling, and a view of what might be the best ways to improve it. In response to its findings, will we take the simple, direct actions sure to make schools vastly better, and more relevant and engaging for tens of millions of children? Or will we, after the dust settles, dismiss this report, like all the others before it, and go back to the easier work of adopting new textbooks or programs and launching yet more reforms and improvement plans?

How long must kids wait, in the words of the University of California, Berkeley, educator Judith Warren Little, until we finally get around to doing “the tough work of school improvement”?

Vol. 26, Issue 37, Pages 28-29

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