09 April 2007

What Are the Chances?

The typical child in the USA stands only a one-in-14 chance of having a consistently rich, supportive elementary school experience, say researchers who looked at what happens daily in thousands of classrooms.

The findings, published today in the weekly magazine Science, take teachers to task for spending too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies. They also suggest that U.S. education focuses too much on teacher qualifications and not enough on teachers being engaging and supportive.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, educational researchers spent thousands of hours in more than 2,500 first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms, tracking kids through elementary school. It is among the largest studies done of U.S. classrooms, producing a detailed look at the typical kid's day.

  • Fifth-graders spent 91.2% of class time in their seats listening to a teacher or working alone, and only 7% working in small groups, which foster social skills and critical thinking. Findings were similar in first and third grades.
  • In fifth grade, 62% of instructional time was in literacy or math; only 24% was devoted to social studies or science.
  • About one in seven (14%) kids had a consistently high-quality "instructional climate" all three years studied. Most classrooms had a fairly healthy "emotional climate," but only 7% of students consistently had classrooms high in both. There was no difference between public and private schools.

Although all teachers surveyed had bachelor's degrees — and 44% had a master's — it didn't mean that their classrooms were productive. The typical teacher scored only 3.6 out of seven points for "richness of instructional methods," and 3.4 for providing "evaluative feedback" to students on their work.

These excerpts are from a recent USA Today article talking about this large-scale study. I would be interested to see the rating instruments used by the researchers and some definitions for the terms, but the percentages determined seem about right for what I see while I'm out and about in schools. I do think that teachers are working very very hard---so why is the quality of instruction often "poor"? There are likely some factors that weren't taken into account. How many of these teachers work for principals who have directed them not to teach math, social studies, and/or art? How many teachers don't have the classroom management skills necessary to run a class where learning can effectively happen? What numbers of classrooms have regular parent volunteers?

The thing about classrooms is that they are notoriously difficult to tease apart. Each one is a little microcosm of influences. When we peek in the windows, we only get a snapshot in time. What are the chances that we'll really know what is making the difference for kids?

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Why would it be one or the other? Teach literacy and math by having the students work out astronomy problems and write them up. It's not a new idea.