A new study of educators in five states finds that the Common Core State Standards have fostered significant instructional changes in U.S. classrooms. But the research offers less clarity on specific strategies that boost student achievement under the standards.
The study, conducted by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, used a random-sampling survey to capture the experiences of 1,500 English and mathematics teachers in grades 4 through 8, as well as 142 principals. The researchers then linked those surveys with student test results.
The respondents were based in Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Nevada, each of which used one of the two major consortia-designed common-core tests last year.
(The center is funded by several organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a leading supporter of the common core, and the Joyce Foundation. Both foundations also support coverage in Education Week.)
The study starts by addressing a common query: Are teachers embracing the common core? And in all five states, three-quarters of teachers said that they are.
Many teachers say they have increased their emphasis on particular instructional areas in response to the common standards.
Source: Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University
Respondents also indicated that their embrace of the new standards has corresponded with key instructional shifts. Three-quarters of English teachers and 82 percent of math teachers said they have altered their instructional materials because of the common core.
Math teachers have also been placing greater emphasis on conceptual understanding and real-world application of math, in balance with procedural skills.
In English/language arts classrooms, the survey confirms a rise in nonfiction reading that other studies have highlighted. The teachers said they were also putting a greater emphasis on writing, with 86 percent of English teachers indicating they’ve increased attention in that area.
While teachers are changing their instruction, the CEPR’s research is less conclusive in tying specific strategies to student-learning gains, as measured by students’ performance on the consortia exams in comparison with weighted results from past standardized tests. For math teachers, the study identifies just three school instructional-improvement strategies—and no specific teaching changes—that correlated with achievement gains:
• More observations with explicit feedback;
• Including standards-aligned student outcomes in teacher evaluations; and
• More days of professional development.
For English teachers, meanwhile, the study found no correlation between any specific instructional strategy or change and improved student performance—although the researchers note that the new exams appear to be “more sensitive” to teaching differences, particularly with respect to writing instruction.
In a conference call with reporters last week, Harvard economics and education professor Thomas Kane, who led the study, clarified that even for math teachers, observations conducted by principals and most teachers showed negligible effects; only observations with feedback by department chairs were linked with significant gains. Half of all teachers surveyed reported that no one ever gave them feedback on their observations.
As for tying teacher evaluations to standards-aligned student outcomes, the “outcomes” didn’t have to be from state tests; they could also have come from interim or district assessments, or student-learning objectives. New Mexico is the only state of the five that ties teacher evaluation statewide to student performance on the state test.
The report doesn’t offer an explanation as to why this strategy proved successful for math teachers and not for English teachers.
(From 2009 to 2012, Kane was the director of the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, which highlighted the role of observations, student surveys, and student-growth data in improving teacher performance.)
The study also throws some cold water on the recent enthusiasm around teacher collaboration. The authors write that they found no “significant relationships between the frequency of teacher collaboration and student achievement for either mathematics or ELA.”
That may partly be the result of a lack of constructive collaboration opportunities, however. For example, the study finds that less than 7 percent of the teachers had opportunities to observe other teachers. Other recent research has found that observations of other teachers can be an especially effective method of professional learning.
“Are there different types of collaboration we haven’t asked about yet that distinguishes valuable collaboration from not-valuable collaboration?” Kane said.
“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.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Five-State Study Examines Teaching Shifts Under Core Editors