Thursday, January 31, 2013

We Know Better (Part II): No More Research!


Previously, I wrote about our failure to learn from the successes of other countries, namely Finland, and their educational reform efforts that now provide international models for success. Our competitive nature got the best of us, and we missed the true lessons in our quest to be #1.

Not only have we ignored the important lessons in international practice, we have also dismissed research conducted over the last several decades that gives us powerful methods with sound reasoning to improve teaching and increase learning. Maya Angelou says, "We do what we know to do. When we know better, we do better." This is not the case in education.

Long before we started racing to the top, ranking educational systems by state, and comparing ourselves to Finland and Singapore, we were provided with some very compelling research and meta-analyses that show how to increase student achievement scores on standardized tests without using standardized tests. Yes, we have almost 40 years of evidence that shows what teacher practices and student abilities increase learning. Additionally, we have at least ten years of educational research that says when we tend to the social emotional learning of students, standardized test scores go up.

This research has been translated in many languages, cited thousand of times in educational journals and during staff meetings. This work appears in books for teachers, administrators, and all involved in the education of our children.

For the sake of space, I want to focus on three bodies of research on teachers and students that provide solid evidence that we can increase student achievement scores on standardized tests by focusing on important beliefs and practices that have absolutely nothing to do with standardized tests.

1. Students that are engaged in authentic assessments do better on standardized tests. When students have assignments that require higher-order thinking, in-depth understanding and elaborate communication and that have a real-life connection to their lives, students perform better on standardized tests than those who are not given authentic assessment. It is not enough to require students to think more deeply, they must see the relevance of what they are doing in order to engage.

For African-American students in high poverty schools, the effects of authentic assessment are even greater. 

2. Students who are taught particular strategies can gain up to 45 percentile points on standardized tests. The top three strategies that have the biggest gain are straight-forward and attainable by any classroom teacher. First, students must be able to identify similarities and differences, including being able to use similes and metaphors. Second, when students learn how to take notes and summarize, they are able to synthesize and analyze information, higher-order thinking skills. Third, my personal favorite, students need to be acknowledged and recognized for their effort. Thirty-five years of research shows that students believe their efforts lead to success.  Therefore, when their efforts are acknowledged, they learn more.

These strategies are available for any teacher at any time, given adequate resources and support.

3. Research and work done over 30 years on improving teaching show that increases in student achievement are predictable by two equally important reasons. First, teachers must that believe their students can learn. More than just this belief, teachers must have deep content knowledge. Even after taking into account all of those things that are used to excuse poor performance, teacher belief and teacher knowledge are the greatest predictors of student success.

The teacher remains the single most important predictor of student success.

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I was an English language arts teacher of high school students for 11 years. I went into teaching because I absolutely adored teenagers and because I had a passion for literature, for reading, for writing. I wanted to share that passion with students.

I don't believe there are many teachers who enter this profession that feel any differently. Not about their speciality, not about their students. We have evidence that shows how beliefs and practices are critical in increasing student learning.

But what have we done? We have stripped teachers of any self-efficacy or autonomy. We have put into place policies and procedures that prevent teachers from doing what they do best - teach. Instead, we have increased class sizes, removed school psychologists and guidance counselors, reduced administrative support, and now hold teachers in a national accountability spotlight. We have attempted to strip them of any sense of professionalism and leave them demoralized. We hold teachers responsible for more than what is humanly possible. Most disturbing is that we know that the teacher is the key to student learning, yet we stop them from teaching.

We know what works. We have more than 30 years of research that makes one thing crystal clear:  In order for teachers to do what they do best, we must provide them with the time, the structures, the resources, and support to do just that. We need to hold teachers up, not keep them down.

The last thing we need to improve education in the United States is to allocate money for additional research. We do not need a new program or person to suggest a fix to a problem that already has been solved. And the very last thing we need is another standardized test or any initiative that takes teachers away from their students any more than we already have done.

We know where the magic occurs, and we know that it is not really magic.

We know better.