4 Instructional Practices with Impact on Student Achievement

Among 32 instructional practices examined in a recent research project, teachers' general instruction and classroom management — and not their prowess with reading and writing instruction — made the difference to student achievement. Four practices had the biggest impact: fostering student engagement, having students participate in discussions, having fewer class period disruptions and developing a classroom climate that was conducive to instruction. What didn't? Connecting lessons to the real world.

The project was undertaken by researchers Scott Richman, Alicia Demers and Dmitriy Poznyak at Mathematica Policy Research. The data they worked with came from a larger randomized controlled trial evaluating EL Education's Teacher Potential Project (TPP), funded by a five-year Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. EL Education was the funder for the latest research too. TPP was designed to improve the instructional capacity of English language arts teachers in two ways: by implementing content-based ELA curriculum designed for grades 3 through 8 and aligned with the Common Core State Standards; and through embedded professional development support such as coaching, learning institutes and online resources, all aligned to the curriculum. The bigger TPP evaluation included a wide mix of elementary and middle schools in 18 districts. Two cohorts of schools were randomly assigned within each school district to the treatment or control groups during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.

The currently reported study used data collected from 10,716 students taught by 214 ELA teachers in 63 schools that participated in their first year of the TPP evaluation. The data was pooled for the two study groups, and only those teachers and students with "nonmissing" data were included.

The team collected information about teachers' instructional practices through surveys in which they self-reported the type of practices they typically used and through classroom observations that "systematically captured information about teachers' practices." These were tallied into a framework that identified 31 instructional practices — such as engaging students in multiple types of writing, using student independence and instilling a positive classroom climate — and an additional instructional practice that provided an overall summary measure. Those 32 practices were analyzed against student data, both demographic and academic, including end-of-year test scores.

As a report on the findings noted, "More collaborative discussion practices, student engagement in class, a positive classroom climate and student participation in discussions were positively related to higher student achievement."

Yet, teachers who connected instruction to students' personal experiences or the real world "was negatively associated with higher student achievement." As the researchers explained, "Although making real-world connections to students’ learning can help foster student interest and engagement in a topic," those teachers who overdo it "might be reducing the amount of instructional time in the class period for other activities."

And while fewer reports of classroom disruptions were associated with higher student achievement, increases in teachers' management of their students' behavior were linked to lower student achievement levels. Fewer classroom disruptions, of course, allowed teachers and students to stay on track during class; so if teachers needed to spend more class time "actively managing their students' behaviors," the report noted, that would reduce the amount of time available for instruction. Another explanation offered was that classroom management that could "effectively [promote] students' taking charge of their own behavior" could also increase their "investment in their own learning and academic performance."

Other instructional practices didn't show any significant link to student achievement — including those in the reading and writing instruction areas.

However, where schools had higher-than-average racial and ethnic diversity, the frequency in which teachers had students read, write and speak about texts had a positive effect on student achievement. And where there were "relatively higher" proportions of students to teachers, student achievement went up where there was an emphasis on the frequency and importance of students' use of text evidence.

In other words, the researchers wrote, "there might not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all approach" for identifying what teacher practices will be most effective. Researchers and educators were advised to look at the "larger school context when aiming to improve student achievement."

The researchers also cautioned that the study was "exploratory" in nature, and therefore the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

The full report is openly available on the Mathematica website.

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