13 June 2009

It's the Instruction, Stupid

I keep seeing a lot of posts and articles about the drive for national standards for literacy and math (and perhaps science on down the road). Recently, Washington state has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to revise its math and science standards (and recommend "aligned" instructional materials).

I can't help but be a bit mystified by all of this.

I understand the purpose of a standards-based education for every child. What I don't understand is the assumption that better standards (whatever that means) will equal increases in student achievement. It comes from another false conclusion that the reason scores on student achievement measures are low is because there must be something wrong with the current academic standards.

Sorry, but that dog just won't hunt. Standards are all well and good in their place, but they are not some sort of magic bullet for student learning. Even before the days of NCLB, standards, and standardized testing, there was an achievement gap. The presence of those things does not seem to be making much more difference than their absence.

I have to wonder how much greater impact on students we could have if all the money and energy was actually spent on supporting good instruction. Just imagine what could be accomplished if the focus on creating national standards was repurposed into instructional coaching, time/money for teacher collaboration, or other practices that have a direct impact on kids. What if we left the standards and assessments we have in place long enough to get the instructional pieces determined?

At some point, we have to look seriously at classroom instruction. To only focus Legislative attention on the framework (standards, instructional materials) and output (testing), neglects the most important part of the process: what happens in a classroom between a teacher and students.


Paul C said...


I have to say up front that I am a big fan of your writing. I've drawn much inspiration for my own grading practices from you.

With that said, however, I have to disagree about the issue in this post. I think that sorting our our assessment issues, which requires fixing standards, must come before we pump money down a hole into instructional practices. I say this as a classroom teacher who would benefit from the latter and often gets frustrated by the former. We must clarify where we are going and how we will measure success before we can improve the work that is done to reach that goal. There will be no clear way to gauge the effectiveness of changes in the classroom unless we have meaningful objectives that are reasonable and [relatively] well-funded, and student mastery is assessed in a more authentic way. I think that it has to be: Standards then Assessments then Classroom, not the other way around.

BTW, this is not meant to imply that I support national standards. I'm still on the fence about that contentious issue.

The Science Goddess said...

I would agree that clear standards are important. "Students can hit any target they can see." My problem is that the standards are now a moving target.

Which standards should we use in the classroom? In science, I have WA state standards (old and new)...national standards provided by NSTA...AAAS has a version...and, potentially, the feds will provide me with a set.

None of these, in and of themselves, are going to improve student achievement. They are words which have to be brought to life within classrooms. At some point, we need to pick a system and stay with it long enough to understand what is and isn't working. I think that schools inherently understand this---but Legislators at all levels do not appear to.

Dorothy Neville said...

Have you ever read The Teaching Gap? About the 1993 TIMMSS video study? I just finished and thought it was fascinating. Says we keep trying to improve teaching by all sorts of these big things (curriculum and standards) but that we are missing that teaching has a strong cultural component that resists change. Not because the culture is bad, just because it isn't being accounted for. Demonstrates how Japan works on curriculum in a very different manner. Even with a national curriculum, teachers work hard to create the curriculum one lesson at a time. They are the researchers, they are the professionals. And change is allowed to -- expected to- be incremental. Changing the culture of teaching. It explains the phenomenon where US teachers take decent "reform math" lessons and unconsciously tweak them to fit the culture but end up eliminating the actual math content. And explains it without the conclusion that our teachers are idiots. I strongly suspect the same thing happens with the inquiry science kits.

The Science Goddess said...

I think that may well be a major factor---especially at the high school level. Not that I don't meet "reluctant teachers" at every grade, but high school seems to have a preponderance of them. If we (as a society) put a premium value on the collaborative efforts you describe (as opposed to reinventing the standards ad nauseum), would we be able to change that culture? I'd like to think we could see some gains after a 5 years or so.

Interesting that you mention the inquiry science kits. One thing that came up during the Instructional Materials Review for WA (and was not addressed) was the issue of "fidelity." The vast majority of elementary teachers will implement a given science kit with fidelity. That could be due to lack of time...lack of science background---but it doesn't make a difference. They will teach it as it is written. Secondary teachers? Part of the currency among your peers is your ability to modify, junk and replace, and/or ignore the lessons as written and groove your own way. I have no beef with this choice---my issue was that to make recommendations based on "conceptual understanding" built in a curriculum is a bit of a joke (as is valuing its ability to think for the teacher). Districts will purchase these materials, thinking it will solve their issues with secondary science...only to discover that nothing will change. Sigh.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Permission to quote you, SG?

You have nailed it.

The Science Goddess said...

Help yourself, Hugh! :)

Roger Sweeny said...

This is extreme and cynical and may be true:

Trying to improve instruction means telling ed Schools they have failed (and even if you don't come right out and say it, they'll catch the drift).

You can then try to create alternative institutions that "go around" the ed schools. But they are so powerful that this will go nowhere.

Alternatively, you can "work with" the ed schools to improve instruction. This will not improve matters but it will cost a significant amount of money and teacher time.

The Science Goddess said...

Roger, I would be hard pressed to find a teacher who believed that their ed school "prep" for the classroom was anywhere near adequate. I'm uncertain as to whether that speaks to the failure of ed schools...the difficulties of the classroom...or both.

I do think that even with the constraints faced by ed schools in terms of programs, I do think they could do a much better job (another post for another time).

Would you consider "Teach for America" an institution which is circumventing the ed schools? I admit that it will never overpower the ed schools (and probably shouldn't), but it seems to have taken deep root and be moderately successful at producing teachers. Are there lessons there which could be transplanted to traditional institutions?