Friday, April 02, 2010

Effective Elementary School Teaching

I read a research study today that investigated how to improve elementary school teaching. The study looked specifically at 5th grade math, but there are some important generalizations that can be made. The major findings:
  • Experience teaching that grade (5th) for that subject (math) led to higher student achievement. Other experience did not lead to better student achievement. Apparently, experience in one area or grade doesn't translate well to other areas or grades.
  • Connections from one team (i.e. all the 5th grade math teachers) to another team (e.g. 8th grade math or 5th grade English) didn't improve student achievement either. Again, the practices of one don't translate well to others.
  • When one teacher (among the 5th grade math team) had an advanced degree, all of the other teachers in that team (other 5th grade math teachers) were able to learn from and use what he/she had learned. Any additional investments in formal higher education for the team did not lead to better student achievement.
  • Strong ties from a teacher to the principal led to better student achievement of his/her students. But the benefits of these ties did not spread to students of other teachers on the team like the advanced degree did.
  • Strong connections developed between effective teachers so that they shared best practices and both improved. But the less effective teachers required the whole team to have a strong social network among all of the teachers in the team. Apparently, the effective teachers don't share as much with the less effective teachers unless the entire social network among the team is strong.
  • Schools should invest in formal higher education for one member of each team, but not more. Additional funds should be used to provide incentives and tools to help teams develop strong ties and a dense social network so that all of the teachers can benefit from the insights and abilities of each.
  • Once a team is formed, stability is important. The school should try to identify where a teacher is best suited and keep them in that position for a long time.
The researchers note that the study is relevant to elementary school teachers, but not for other domains. The boundary conditions are likely to be very important. For example, University teaching best practices are probably more generalizable between years and subjects.