Bringing Theory into the Classroom

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The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 marked the beginning of the flow of billions of dollars that would be spent on programs to improve achievement in basic skills.

Within the past few years, however, a frustrated public has questioned the impact of that massive financial commitment. While there have been loudly trumpeted gains in reading scores in Philadelphia and in other major cities, we are still faced with nearly 20 percent of our adult population who function at a fourth-grade reading level.

Evaluations of funding efforts have been able to identify those elements associated with successful programs, yet 17 years after ESEA there has been negligible evidence of the use of those research findings in urban school systems. The challenge is no longer to discover what components work, but rather to replicate those approaches that we know to be related to school success. Briefly, here is what the studies have shown that can make a difference in helping students achieve.

  • Large-scale research in Washington, Milwaukee, and England (as well as in numerous other places) indicates that students do well when their teachers, parents, and principals have high (but realistic) expectations for their performance. The recent adoption of a policy in the New York City schools, holding students to standards for promotion, is a good example of a way to raise expectation and increase reading performance.
  • When teachers praise students for their efforts and give recognition through awards and certificates, students achieve better. Praise helps encourage learning, particularly with poor children, and works as a factor toward academic achievement.
  • A teacher must be able to organize a classroom for instruction before any teaching and learning can take place. Teachers who tell students what specific tasks must be done, use signals rather than raised voices for getting attention, govern by group rules, post written schedules to follow, have procedures for use of time when assignments are finished, and contract with students for completion of work are effective classroom managers.
  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a periodic nationwide measure of learning, has recently cited writing as an area of critical concern--as has been the case with reading and math. (The Florida legislature is now considering a bill to require weekly themes of all high-school students.) Research shows that group writing, in which an entire class participates with a stimulus by the teacher; daily individual writing in a journal or personal folder; and unified criteria for grading in all classrooms within a school can help students to write more clearly and correctly. Writing more often helps writing get better. In schools in which communication skills are taught as a totality, rather than as isolated subjects, students have made far-reaching gains.
  • Teachers who take the time to read to students and who provide a variety of reading materials signal to students that reading is valued. In classes in which "super quiet individual reading time" (SQUIRT) is a daily designated part of the curriculum, an allotted period of time when teachers and students all read books of their own choice, both test scores and attitudes have improved.
  • Consistency in curriculum is a variable that is also correlated with student success. While the materials in themselves don't make a difference in learning, using a limited number of textbooks and approaches within districts where student mobility is high provides students with smoother transitions and cuts down on loss of valuable classroom time.
  • Principals who are strong leaders and observe in classrooms are those whose students succeed. In schools with a written academic plan that is developed with the teachers and the community and is monitored by the principal, researchers find the greatest gains. Such role models in Detroit and Baltimore have been cited nationally.
  • Teaching for mastery of specific reading and math skills, with extensive practice for those who need more time, is a structured approach to reading that has brought forth noteworthy gains in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver. In these settings, students know what must be accomplished in each lesson and that mastery of 80 percent is required before going on to new material. Schools that operate on a mastery-learning approach communicate to students that passing is based on performance, not on merely attending school.
  • Involving parents in their children's education underlines the reality that learning doesn't stop at 3 P.M. Parents who participate in some way--selecting schools that their children attend, being part of learning contracts, ordering the newspaper to be read at home--can expect better achievement from their children. School personnel must act on these ideas and include parents as their partners.

The tendency until recently has been to blame students for low achievement, but perhaps it's the professionals who have been most at fault in not narrowing the gap between researchers and practitioners. University professors often view research as an end in itself, without taking the necessary steps to influence what happens in the classroom, and the dichotomy between theory and practice is nowhere more pronounced than on the "separate floors" of large-city school systems. Evaluators decry the failure of those in instruction to use data in decision-making; curriculum specialists say that statistics, in themselves, are insufficient evidence of what constitutes success. While one office views its purpose as teaching, the other is concerned with learning--as if these two functions were at odds. Meanwhile, findings go unheeded to the detriment of the consumers (i.e. the students).

With the prospect of still-decreasing funding for schools and less support for public education, affixing blame is self-indulgence we can ill afford. Instead, these no-cost, easily observable factors associated with success must be institutionalized within school systems. The most important issue is not which office should administer programs, but rather that top-level leadership insist on utilizing what has worked toward increased achievement for all students. Certainly, our nation's children deserve no less.

Vol. 02, Issue 04, Page 15

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