The typical child in the USA stands only a one-in-14 chance of having a consistently rich, supportive elementary school experience, say researchers who looked at what happens daily in thousands of classrooms.
The findings, published today in the weekly magazine Science, take teachers to task for spending too much time on basic reading and math skills and not enough on problem-solving, reasoning, science and social studies. They also suggest that U.S. education focuses too much on teacher qualifications and not enough on teachers being engaging and supportive.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, educational researchers spent thousands of hours in more than 2,500 first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms, tracking kids through elementary school. It is among the largest studies done of U.S. classrooms, producing a detailed look at the typical kid's day.
The researchers found a few bright spots — kids use time well, for one. But they found just as many signs that classrooms can be dull, bleak places where kids don't get a lot of teacher feedback or face time.
Among the findings on what teachers and students did and how they interacted:
• Fifth-graders spent 91.2% of class time in their seats listening to a teacher or working alone, and only 7% working in small groups, which foster social skills and critical thinking. Findings were similar in first and third grades.
• In fifth grade, 62% of instructional time was in literacy or math; only 24% was devoted to social studies or science.
• About one in seven (14%) kids had a consistently high-quality "instructional climate" all three years studied. Most classrooms had a fairly healthy "emotional climate," but only 7% of students consistently had classrooms high in both. There was no difference between public and private schools.
Although all teachers surveyed had bachelor's degrees — and 44% had a master's — it didn't mean that their classrooms were productive. The typical teacher scored only 3.6 out of seven points for "richness of instructional methods," and 3.4 for providing "evaluative feedback" to students on their work.
Whether a teacher was highly qualified, had many years of experience or earned more mattered little, says lead researcher Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia.
Of the standard measures studied, "none of them makes a noticeable difference," he said.
Prior research has shown that highly skilled, engaging teachers can eliminate achievement gaps between rich and poor kids. Pianta says his new findings support that conclusion and suggest policymakers should focus more on how individual teachers can improve on these measures.
Kathy Schultz, director of teacher education at the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education, says studying how teachers teach is helpful, but ignores the reality of larger mandates such as the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Teachers, she says, are under enormous pressure to increase basic skills.
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