Study: Methods That Improve Teaching Common-Core Math Don’t Help in English

By Ross Brenneman — February 09, 2016 5 min read
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A new survey report finds that the Common Core State Standards have fostered significant instructional changes in U.S. classrooms. But the research offers less clarity on specific schoolwide instructional-improvement strategies that boost student achievement under the standards.

The study, conducted by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, examined two sets of issues related to common-core implementation: Are school faculties changing practices around the common core, and if so, what strategies are effective for improving learning?

The random-sampling study used a survey of 1,500 4th-8th grade teachers, as well as 142 principals, then linked those surveys with test results. All those who participated hailed from five states: Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Nevada. Each of those states uses one of the two major consortia-designed common-core tests and tie teachers to individual student test-score results.

The CEPR is funded by several organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, both of which also help support coverage in Education Week.

Are Teachers Changing Instruction Around Common Core?

The survey starts by answering a basic premise: Are teachers embracing the common core? And in all five states, three quarters of teachers say that they are:

Respondents also showed that their embrace of common core correspond to the kinds of instructional shifts that standards’ proponents had been expecting. Three-quarters of English teachers say they have altered their instructional materials because of the common core. For math teachers, the rate was higher (82 percent).

The survey suggests that other instructional changes have been significant in degree, too:

As the chart shows, teachers have been placing greater emphasis on conceptual understanding and real-world application of math. The drop in emphasis on procedural skills doesn’t necessarily reflect a drop in the perceived importance of procedural skills. Rather, as my colleague Liana Heitin has covered, this shift might just be about balancing all areas of math instruction as more attention is paid to conceptual understanding.

For English, this survey confirms a rise in nonfiction that other studies have pointed to, including a 2015 analysis conducted as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The other big difference in English/language arts is a greater emphasis on writing, where 86 percent of teachers overall say they’ve increased attention. The researchers also suggest that teachers who emphasized writing instruction in turn saw gains on tests, with evidence pointing toward a simple reason: Pre-consortia assessments didn’t really test students on writing, while consortia-designed assessments do.

What Strategies Help Improve Instruction in the Common Core?

Here’s the meat of the CEPR’s research.

For math teachers, three school instructional-improvement strategies showed correlation with improving student achievement:

  • having more observations with explicit feedback;
  • including standards-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations; and
  • having more days of professional development.

If you’re an English teacher, however, researchers found no correlation between any of those strategies and improved outcomes on tests. In fact, almost no strategies, aside from the aforementioned emphasis on writing, seemed to correlate with student-learning gains for ELA teachers.

So that’s a bit of a sticky wicket.

In a conference call with reporters on Feb. 8, researcher Thomas Kane, who led the study, said observations of math teachers conducted by principals and most teachers showed negligible effects, but observations with feedback by department chairs showed significant effects. One possible problem with some observations: Half of the teachers said they don’t actually get feedback from them:

As for tying teacher evaluation to standards-aligned student outcomes, the “student outcomes” didn’t have to be from state tests; they could also have come from interim or district assessments, or student-learning objectives. The report declined to offer an explanation as to why this strategy proved successful for math teachers. (New Mexico is the only state of the five studied that ties teacher evaluation to student test scores.)

Ready for another finding? I bet you are:

We did not find any significant relationships between the frequency of teacher collaboration and student achievement for either mathematics or ELA. Moreover, we did not find that other factors—such as getting more frequent observations, receiving feedback, changing instructional materials, developing one's own materials, receiving more professional development—accentuated the effect of collaboration."

One issue with that: The survey laid out several kinds of collaboration, but while educators took advantage of many, less than seven percent of those surveyed had the opportunity to observe other teachers’ lessons. Other research shows that observations of other teachers are an especially effective method of increasing student learning. It’s also unclear how the findings about observations could show gains for math teachers, but not be listed as a form of effective collaboration.

“Are there different types of collaboration we haven’t asked about yet that distinguishes valuable collaboration from not-valuable collaboration?” Kane asked during the conference call. “It’s simply not true that more collaboration [in general] is what makes the difference. We need to zone in on what kind of collaboration is going to be helpful.”

Another thing for math teachers: The study found that whether they changed instructional materials or not didn’t seem to affect student achievement, nor did using CCSS-aligned practice tests.

There was one other strategy that showed some promise for English/language arts teachers. The survey included a section on “school context,” a composite of questions that asked whether a school is a good place to work, and has high professional standards, well-behaved students, and supportive parents. English teachers who gave their school a higher score in this section saw higher student achievement gains. There was less correlation with math teachers, though it is not clear why.

To Recap Then

This is a complicated report, because implementation is a complicated subject, and there are a lot of moving parts to the common core. But it boils down to this: Teachers are changing their instructional practices, there is a mix of vague and specific strategies that can help math teachers, and none of those strategies benefit English teachers. But the new state tests are at least better at picking up on ELA teachers’ work in writing instruction.

If you’re a teacher or a principal, this might be a frustrating study. If you’re a researcher, though, it shows a path forward on what areas of common-core implementation need more investigation.

More on the impact of Common Core State Standards:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.