When it comes to documenting what goes on in classrooms, education scholars tend to fall in two camps. On one side are researchers who send in paid observers, usually graduate students, to meticulously track the goings-on, like proverbial flies on the wall. In the other camp are those who go the cheaper—but less accurate—route of surveying teachers once a year or so.
Well, thought a team of researchers from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or CPRE, there’s got to be a better way. Their solution: pay teachers to keep daily logs of the instruction they provide to individual students in their classrooms. The researchers say the logs present a more true-to-life portrait of instruction than an occasional survey can. Yet they are inexpensive enough to use on a large scale.
“People might argue that the gold standard might be the trained observer,” said Brian P. Rowan, an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and one of the lead researchers on the project for CPRE, which has its headquarters at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But who would know better,” he said, “about the instruction that’s being provided than the teacher who is providing it?”
Mr. Rowan is spearheading the use of teacher-maintained logs as part of a six-year research project known as the Study of Instructional Improvement that he is undertaking with Michigan colleagues Deborah Loewenberg Ball and David K. Cohen.
Involving a total of 120 elementary schools in 17 states, the multimillion- dollar, mixed-methods project is tracking what happens inside classrooms over time when schools adopt an instructional-improvement program. Funders for the project include the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Researchers zeroed in, specifically, on three of the most popular reform designs in use around the country—Accelerated Schools, America’s Choice, and Success for All—and are investigating how elements of those instructional strategies affect learning for cohorts of pupils as they pass through elementary school.
A Natural Choice
Though final reports on the closely watched project are still six months to two years away, the tools that the research team has devised along the way are piquing interest in and of themselves. One of those tools is a test for measuring teachers’ knowledge for teaching mathematics, rather than just how much math they know. Ms. Ball developed the method. (“Teaching Mathematics Requires Special Set of Skills,” Oct. 13, 2004.)
The other is the instructional log.
With more than 1,500 classrooms to track, the CPRE researchers needed to find an inexpensive measure of classroom instruction. Surveys cost little, but research has shown that they tend to overestimate the amount of instruction that goes on in classrooms.
The researchers also needed a tool sensitive enough to pick up on subtle instructional differences in the improvement programs under study.
Logs, long used by scholars in other fields to track everything from dieting habits to television-watching choices, seemed a natural choice.
Some researchers, such as Andrew C. Porter, a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., had been using the technique since the late 1980s. Still, it was not yet a mainstay in research on instruction. And no one had used it on as large a scale as the Study of Instructional Improvement.
To check the logs’ potential accuracy, Mr. Rowan and his colleagues sent cadres of trained observers into classrooms and asked the visitors and teachers alike to keep logs of the lessons teachers gave. They found that the teachers’ and the observers’ logs were in sync 72 percent to 84 percent of the time—only slightly less than the match between the two observers in the same classrooms.
Researchers also compared teachers’ log reports for language arts instruction with results from teacher questionnaires filled out weeks later. As expected, the study found, teachers reported providing more instructional time on the surveys than they did on the logs. But the differences were strikingly large: an average of five more days on instruction in word analysis and three days more of reading comprehension and writing lessons.
As time passes, the researchers explain, teachers sometimes forget that students lost a day of instruction to a school assembly or that Johnny was absent for a particular lesson.
“If you ask teachers closer to when it happened, you’re more likely to get an accurate picture,” said Eric M. Camburn, the researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who did that evaluation. “It’s important because people look at descriptive data like this and make policy judgments.”
On the downside, he added, researchers spend more time prodding teachers to keep up their logs than they do with annual surveys.
Whether busy teachers would stick to the logging regimens was indeed an open question. Participants had to complete daily logs over six weeks or more on as many as eight students—a task that could nibble away from five to 20 minutes of a teacher’s school day.
One teacher who came to the task reluctantly was Jerome L. Sanders, who teaches 5th grade in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It wasn’t as cumbersome or involved as it first seemed,” said Mr. Sanders, who earned about $150 for his efforts. (All participating teachers were guaranteed confidentiality, but Mr. Jackson agreed to be interviewed for this story.)
In fact, Mr. Sanders said, he found the exercise to be helpful. “It just made me look at my planning and preparation of the lessons a little more closely,” he said.
In the end, compliance was high. Now, five years after the study began, researchers are analyzing results. In the area of language arts—logs were kept for both language arts and math—preliminary findings show that:
· More than half the teachers studied spent less than 90 minutes a day, on average, teaching reading.
· Only 15 percent of the 1st grade classrooms in the study struck what the researchers called “a comprehensive balance” between lessons in word analysis and comprehension.
· Two teachers in the same grade level can vary by as much as 40 percent to 60 percent in how often they present common curricular topics.
· No reading instruction at all occurred on a quarter of the classroom days the researchers tracked.
“It’s hard not to be surprised by what you see,” said Mr. Rowan. “I’m recommending that professional communities inside of schools use this technique to begin to look at their practice.”
The methodology is also spreading to other areas of educational research. James P. Spillane, a researcher from the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is using variations of logs in two studies of instructional leadership.
In one of them, he said, researchers use hand-held electronic-messaging devices to regularly beep principals and prompt them to record what they are doing. In the second study, teachers and administrators are recording their activities at day’s end.
Mr. Spillane credits the growing pressure on education researchers from policymakers to produce bigger, more definitive studies with driving some of the new interest in logging techniques.
“There’s a big push for more randomized trials now,” Mr. Spillane said, referring to experiments in which participants are randomly assigned to groups that either are or are not subject to a particular intervention. “When you have randomized trials, you need large samples, and it’s very difficult to shadow 50 or 60 principals on a regular basis.”