Standards-based initiatives will not work if teachers aren’t learning how to improve their instructional practices and parents aren’t involved in their children’s education, a federal study suggests.
The review of 71 high-poverty elementary schools found that student achievement rose the fastest in those where teachers reported they had high-quality instruction in improving their craft and worked actively with parents on students’ education.
“It confirmed what we already know about professional development and parental outreach,” said Daphne K. Hardcastle, the project officer at the Department of Education who oversaw the three-year project.
“The Longitudinal Evaluation of School Change Performance in Title I Schools” is free from the U.S. Education Department. It can also be ordered through ED Pubs, Editorial Publications Center, U.S. Department of Education, PO Box 1398, Jessup, MD 20794-1398.
What’s more, the study of Title I schools found that the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders it assessed performed better in reading and mathematics if their teachers emphasized higher-order thinking over basic skills. According to Ms. Hardcastle, the findings support the view that high-poverty students need to learn basic skills in the primary grades, but that schools need to lean toward more creative learning in the upper-elementary grades."You may need to do some [basic-skills instruction], but you shouldn’t overemphasize it,” she argued. “It shouldn’t exclude thinking skills.”
While the study, released this summer, lacks the scope and randomized design needed to be considered scientifically sound, its findings ring true with a number of people who are working to improve the achievement of impoverished students. Helping teachers explore new and creative ways to teach reading has been a big part of standards-based initiatives in El Paso, Texas, according to Joanne Bogart, the director of dissemination and policy for the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence.
“It’s an ongoing professional development,” said Ms. Bogart, a former federal Education Department official. “We’re working with teachers so they’re always working to improve their practices. We don’t just say, ‘Here are some materials. Use this script.’ ”
One of the results has been that several elementary schools in the area are listed as “exemplary,” the highest category in the Texas accountability system, she said.
For the report, Education Department contractors tracked the achievement of a cohort of 3rd graders until they reached the 5th grade. The 71 schools in the study had more than 35 percent of their students coming from low- income families and received aid under Title I. The largest federal program in precollegiate education aims to improve the schooling of disadvantaged children.
Researchers surveyed teachers to check which services and interventions might have the greatest impact on student achievement.
The analysis found that:
- Student progress was 20 percent higher in reading and 50 percent higher in math when teachers gave high ratings to their professional-development experiences rather than low ones.
- When 3rd grade teachers actively worked with parents of low-achieving students, the test-score gain was 50 percent higher in reading and 40 percent higher in math than when the 3rd grade teachers didn’t engage in such parental outreach.
- Test-score growth was 10 percent lower in reading and 17 percent lower in math when teachers emphasized basic skills over higher-order thinking.
Westat and Policy Studies Associates conducted the research for the department.
The study was designed by a panel formed by the Clinton administration to evaluate Title I. But its findings support the Bush administration’s agenda of improving reading by helping teachers change the way they teach the subject, according to an Education Department spokeswoman.
While that reading agenda emphasizes teaching basic skills in the early grades, the administration believes the approach to teaching should turn toward higher-order-thinking skills in the late-elementary years, according to Melinda Kitchell Malico, the spokeswoman.
Reading research, in particular, has noted that phonics instruction becomes less important once students become independent readers, said Louisa C. Moats, a clinical associate professor for the Center for Academic and Reading Skills at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “The research consensus now is that about 3rd grade, the emphasis has to shift to comprehension and vocabulary development,” Ms. Moats said.