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High Quality Teaching of Foundational Skills in Mathematics and Reading

Linda Valli

Robert Croninger

Math, Reading

Background: The High Quality Teaching study was based on the now widely-accepted notion that teachers have a significant influence on student learning. We studied 4th and 5th grade reading and mathematics because these are arguably the two most important subjects in the elementary school curriculum, yet many students at these grade levels still struggle with foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Understanding better what teachers and schools do to promote the acquisition of these basic skills has important policy/practice implications for scaling up and sustaining effective pedagogy. Our conceptualization of high quality teaching is informed by various fields of education research literacy, mathematics education, cognitive psychology, and sociology which tells us that high-quality teaching is a complex, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is best studied through a variety of over-lapping, complementary strategies.

Purpose: This four-year study examined what teachers do to help students succeed in reading and mathematics, as well as the various educational policies and organizational factors that influence the ability of teachers to scale up and sustain effective pedagogy over time. Our primary research questions were:

  • What do highly successful 4th and 5th grade teachers do to help students acquire foundational skills in mathematics and reading?
  • What do these teachers do to help close the achievement gap between high-and low-performing students in these subject areas?
  • How do successful teachers change their pedagogical practices to respond to new educational challenges and priorities?
  • How do various education policies and organizational factors influence the quality of teaching that occurs in 4th and 5th grade classrooms?
  • What is the correspondence between our constructs of high quality teaching and student achievement?

    Setting: The sites for the study were 20+ elementary schools in a large, rapidly diversifying school district in the mid-Atlantic region. Student enrollment was less than 50% White, after having been more than 90% White in the early 1970s; more than 30% of students received Free and Reduced-Price Meal Services (FARMS); 20% of all students were currently or had previously enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.

    Research Design: Our mixed methods design divided the investigation into two complementary lines of inquiry one quantitative, the other qualitative. We used quantitative methods to identify case sites, summarize a wide range of data about teachers and schools, and test multilevel models of how schools and teachers affect student achievement in reading and mathematics. We used qualitative methods to refine data collection instruments, refine models of teaching quality, and enhance the validity of findings. Qualitative case studies are developed on selected lessons and schools. Using the combined methods we developed a detailed, multi-faceted, longitudinal dataset appropriate for investigating how teaching quality influences foundational learning in reading and mathematics. Data gathering techniques included classroom and school observations, teacher and principal interviews, teacher logs, and document review.

    We selected schools with moderate to high levels of poverty that had higher than expected levels of student achievement or were nominated as good sites for studying 4th and 5th grade reading and mathematics. When possible, we following teachers in the original sample who transferred to other schools within the school district. Sixty-seven (67) teachers participated in the first year of the study, 73 in the second year, 77 in the third year, and 72 in the fourth year. In the fourth year, we also selected three of the participating schools for a more in depth analysis of the policy and organizational context of teaching. These schools that were at the high end of the poverty scale, had a mixed record of success with the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation, and had a successful history of grant participation.

    We employed four main types of data collection strategies and instruments: time sampling observation protocols, attribution scales, daily logs, and descriptive case studies/interviews. We then linked these data to student achievement scores. The time sampling observation protocols were programmed the protocols on laptops and prompted observers every three minutes to enter data in major categories, such as teacher activity, student activity and lesson content. At the conclusion of each time sampling period, observers completed an Attribution Scale that captured the gestalt of the lesson in terms of the relative demonstration of teaching practices considered important to student learning within the psychological literature. The teacher logs were kept daily and measured curriculum coverage and its distribution across students within a classroom. The descriptive case studies and interviews enabled us to understand high-quality teaching, and the context for that teaching, from the perspective of the participants. We also collected audio-tapes of lessons with exemplary features of high-quality teaching and fieldnotes of teachers' meetings.

    Findings: We summarize here some key findings about the construct cognitive demand, which we regard as a core component of high quality teaching:
  • When teachers press for cognitively demanding responses, students tend to rise to the occasion. More cognitively demanding requests from teachers led to more cognitively demanding responses from students; less cognitively demanding requests led to less cognitively demanding student responses. When compared to other factors such as lesson content, classroom organization, or teachers' years of experience, the quality of teachers' requests was the most important predictor of the quality of students' responses in both reading and mathematics lessons, irrespective of students' academic and social backgrounds. If teachers ask students to reflect more thoughtfully on subject matter, students do so.
  • Some teachers were more effective at getting students to think deeply about subject matter than other teachers. In reading, teachers' requests for more thoughtful responses were more successful in eliciting thoughtful answers if teachers also demonstrated efficient classroom management skills; in mathematics, teachers' requests were more successful if teachers used small group instructional designs.
  • The curricular focus of classes and schools played a role in encouraging more cognitively demanding exchanges between students and teachers. In reading, higher levels of student-teacher dialogue occurred in classes where the school had implemented more cognitively demanding curriculum content. In mathematics, students responded with more complex and thoughtful answers in classes where teachers emphasized conceptual understanding or required students to connect procedural and conceptual knowledge instead of focusing dialogue on mathematical procedures.
  • Students in high-poverty mathematics classrooms benefited most from teaching practices that promoted greater cognitive demand and the management of instructional activities, while students in moderate poverty classrooms benefited most from lesson content that encouraged students to link mathematics concepts and procedures.

    Some key findings on the policy and organizational context of teaching are:
  • Complex instructional designs were prevalent in many of the study schools. Although the current teacher accountability proposals assume that one teacher is responsible for a given set of students, many of the classrooms we studied were characterized by forms of instructional design that rely on multiple teachers. This finding raises policy-relevant questions about holding individual teachers responsible for student learning. In addition, accountability systems that focus on individual teachers might adversely affect other promising school-reform efforts, such as teacher collaboration and data-based decision making.
  • Teachers' roles intensified and expanded as multiple policy directives increasingly dictated practice. Especially in schools at risk of not meeting AYP, this policy environment often resulted in teachers feeling overwhelmed, relating to students more as learners than persons, and enacting pedagogies that were sometimes at odds with their vision of best practice.
  • With the press of high-stakes assessments, teachers' conceptions of teaching quality seem to be narrowing. In addition to their practices being characterized by less cognitively demanding instruction, their discourse about teaching began to focus more on curriculum coverage, aligning content to assessments, pacing the curriculum, monitoring student performance, modeling assessment formats in their classroom assignments, practicing for the test, and providing better accommodations for students during the test. They seemed to be adopting a learner-driven (test-oriented) rather than a learner-sensitive conception of high-quality teaching.

All publicly available papers, as well as data collection instruments, can be found at

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