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Wednesday, December 26,2012

Grading the graders

A study of 96 classrooms in the Lansing School District

by Sam Inglot
Lansing School District teachers are creating positive relationships and classroom environments for their students, but their teaching techniques could use improvement, according to results of a recent study. 

The study, conducted for the administration and modeled after research from the University of Virginia, was done in 96 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms in the district. The data focused on interactions between teachers and students and how teachers use their instruction time and materials. Four areas were looked at: emotional support, classroom organization, instructional support and student engagement. 

“This is a really powerful instrument,” said Mara Lud, director of elementary and middle years education for the district. “The teachers and administration are able to look through the lens of the child’s experience.” 

The study was unique because it provided feedback to teachers about how they teach and interact with students, rather than just providing numbers on how students performed on standardized tests, which is how teachers normally grade their teaching styles. 

Rita Stanton, a fourth-grade teacher at Mt. Hope Elementary who’s been with the district for 15 years, said this is the first time in her tenure with the district that “such a broad spectrum” of teaching variables was looked at. Normally, she said, teachers are only provided with Michigan Educational Assessment Program — MEAP — data at the end of the year. By the time they get the results, the only improvements they can make are for the next year. Having this data mid-year would be valuable, she said.

Six trained and vetted data collectors observed the classrooms for one day and ranked the teachers on a seven-point scale, one being the lowest and seven the highest.

On average, Lansing teachers scored 4.49 in emotional support, which looked at areas like creating a positive classroom environment, teacher sensitivity and regard for student perspective. In classroom organization, Lansing teachers scored a 4.18, which covers behavior management, productivity and negative climates. Teachers received the highest marks for student engagement at 5.30. The lowest scoring area was instructional support at 2.96, which covered several aspects of instruction processes and engaging in higher-level thinking skills. 

When looking at comparative data from studies at three other schools outside the district, Lansing scored higher in emotional support dimensions but was ranked lower in instructional support. This particular study, called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, has been tested in eight other schools — four in Michigan and four in North Carolina, Lud said. 

Responding to the low instructional support grade, Lud said the study was conducted in the fall at a time when areas like classroom organization and behavior management are just starting to take hold. 

“You have to have the first two pieces (emotional and classroom support) in place to get to the third (instructional support), then you can deliver curriculum,” she said. “There needs to be a lot of student engagement and interactions socially and then you can teach.”

Lud said overall it was an area of weakness, but the timing of the study may have had something to do with the lower score. However, she said the district is not ignoring or discounting the lower grades. Lud said action plans are being developed in the schools to improve that particular area. 

“I was pleasantly surprised that so many areas were as high as they were,” said Stanton, the fourth-grade teacher at Mt. Hope Elementary. “I have an idea of where to start to improve my practice. The other area, of course, is including more higher-level thinking, or working at getting my students to a point where they can get to some higher level thinking.”

Analysis and inquiry, one of the dimensions looked at under instructional support, covers higher level thinking skills and was the lowest grade on average for the district at 2.09. Higher-level thinking skills mean being able to assert an opinion and having the ability to back it up with facts. For example: predicting what would happen if a variable were changed in a science experiment. 

Stanton said getting students to push themselves in the higher-level thinking skills is not a quick fix, but a longer process of learning. She said it’s one of the more difficult areas of teaching. 

“In terms of higher-level thinking, we have to get them to that point, we have to keep supporting their efforts and their learning,” she said. “Some kids get so frustrated when things are hard. We can’t just jump to that point. We have to support them along the way. That’s not always easy.”

With the study in hand, Stanton said the positive results were reassuring that teachers are doing certain aspects of their jobs beyond par, while also giving them an idea of where they need to improve. She said the depth of the study should reassure parents that the schools are taking professional development seriously.  

“If I could show (parents) our averages by school, I would certainly point out the things we’re very strong in,” Stanton said. “I think we get a negative wrap a lot of times in the Lansing School District. I think there are a lot of things we do very well. I think parents would be happy to know that we’ve dug this deep into our practice to help their student improve.”

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