Opinion
Federal Commentary

Measure Actual Classroom Teaching

By Robert C. Pianta — November 06, 2007 5 min read

The No Child Left Behind Act is far from perfect, but it has had a positive impact on our schools. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the law, it should not toss out the program, but fix what is broken. In particular, Congress should revise the legislation’s definitions of teacher quality, which currently do not ensure effective classroom teaching.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Among its many provisions, NCLB affirms a child’s right to a “highly qualified” teacher. Since the original legislation was signed into law in 2002, states have been scrambling to define, assess, track, and regulate what that means. Amid all the debate over definitions and procedures, however, no one has suggested that classroom visits to watch teachers teach, employing standardized assessments of good teaching, could be used to accomplish this objective.

Instead, proxies for teaching are the order of the day. “Highly qualified” is most often defined in terms of teachers’ degrees, training, or certification, or their consistent production of test-score gains among their students.

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But Congress should use caution as it considers these proxies as measures of academic quality. There is only a weak connection between teachers’ advanced degrees or certification and their students’ gains on tests. Being certified or having a master’s degree doesn’t guarantee interactions with students that produce learning. Moreover, defining teacher quality (and determining pay) on the basis of students’ standardized-test performance creates perverse incentives for teaching to tests. It may work for the allocation of raises, but it says nothing about what actually happens in the classroom.

As a researcher with the long-running Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, I was part of a team that visited more than 2,500 elementary school classrooms around the country. Funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, this longitudinal study was the largest of its kind ever undertaken. Our results—descriptions of our daylong classroom observations of 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades—were published in the March 30, 2007, issue of Science (“Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms”).

The teachers we observed met many states’ standards for “highly qualified” elementary school teachers. The vast majority of them, 90 percent, were credentialed by their states; all had a bachelor’s degree, and 44 percent had master’s degrees.

Yet we found that opportunities to learn for the mostly middle-class students in our sample were highly variable, and did not match the high performance standards expected for them or for their teachers as described by most state teacher-certification and -licensure documents. In particular, we found that classroom dynamics were not related to teachers’ degree status or experience. Quoting from our study: “Teachers met credentialing standards, but their classrooms, even if emotionally positive, were mediocre in terms of quality of instructional support. Children who needed support were unlikely to receive it consistently. These results are consistent with arguments that a focus on standards-based reform and teacher credentialing may lead to instruction that is overly broad and thin.”

On the other hand, our experience in conducting standardized observations of elementary school classrooms suggests that visits by trained professionals can objectively and effectively assess classroom teaching. Our work also shows that observations—of good and not-so-good teaching—can generate strategies that are directly tied to, and can improve, classroom teaching.

We found that nearly all the teachers we observed fit the definitions used by their states to determine who was “highly qualified.” Yet the variations we observed across classrooms were striking—even in the same school, at the same grade level, and using the same curriculum, students had very different opportunities to learn based on the abilities of their teachers. One teacher might routinely have failed to capitalize on opportunities to deepen and extend her pupils’ knowledge, while another coaxed more-complex skills and understanding from the same lesson.

Changes in the law that included measurements of classroom teaching would direct attention to teaching in the same way that testing has directed attention to curriculum.

Watching teachers in action, using systematic, validated observational approaches, allows trained observers to see very clearly what good teachers do to foster learning. Such data can be used by those of us in schools of education to improve the array of programs in place for training new teachers, providing professional development for existing teachers, and supporting the research efforts of graduate students and faculty members working to improve the understanding of teaching—what works and what doesn’t.

Changes in the No Child Left Behind law that included actual measurements of classroom teaching would direct school systems’ attention to teaching in the same way that testing has directed their attention to the curriculum. But to be effective, such measurements must not only connect to student learning gains in terms of test performance, but also in terms of capturing classroom interactions that foster social skills, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These are all skills that children will need once they leave school and enter a working world of intense global competition.

The nation’s schools of education have the technology and the expertise to go into classrooms, watch good teachers teaching, and understand their methods. Our mission is to disseminate that understanding to improve teaching and learning in our schools.

Our classrooms currently do not reflect the best of what America can offer its children or what we need as a society. But together, considering the realities of everyday interactions between teachers and children, we can change this.

Change must start with Congress, which soon will have the chance to improve the law, so that truly no one is left behind.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Measure Actual Classroom Teaching

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