Characteristics of school districts that are exceptionally effective in closing the achievement gap
Volume 9 Number 3, July 2010; Pages 245–291
Education policy in the USA has increasingly emphasised the role of the school district and its leaders in helping schools to meet accountability demands. A literature review of 31 articles has examined the characteristics of school districts that have been successful in significantly improving outcomes for their student populations. Almost all these districts serve disadvantaged communities. The districts worked to develop a clear and consistent vision of student achievement, which was used to guide strategic planning. They established achievement benchmarks, and aligned curriculum, instruction and assessment with these standards. They made widespread and effective use of data, developing efficient information management systems and ensuring that school staff not only had access to relevant data, but had the skills to interpret them. Additional achievement data were gathered to supplement state-level accountability data; the districts also drew on evidence-based research regarding best practices when responding to data. Building a sense of collective efficacy amongst staff was seen as a key element of their reforms, with districts working to provide appropriate professional development opportunities in order to help staff develop expertise relevant to the district's goals. Effort was made to support the learning of teachers and administrators by encouraging job-embedded professional development, as well as the development of professional learning communities and positive staff relationships. The districts also worked to build close ties with the wider school community, local businesses and other local organisations. Another element of the districts' success was the investment in instructional leadership. Principals, who were largely held accountable for their school's instructional quality and academic achievement, were given training and opportunities to improve their skills and to develop ways to distribute leadership roles, and were provided with a range of external resources and expertise, such as access to coaching, conferences and buddy groups. The districts approached school improvement in phases, building on established structures and procedures in a coherent step-by-step manner. They also engaged in a strategic manner with government policy and requirements, and worked to align infrastructures such as budgetary and personnel allocations with their vision of school improvement.
Subject HeadingsSocially disadvantaged
United States of America (USA)
Urban middle school students' perceptions of the value and difficulty of inquiry
16 July 2010
A recent study has explored the potential of inquiry-based learning to motivate students to learn science and to show students the relevance of science to their lives. The study, which took place in a large US city, involved 129 Year 7 students from five schools representing diverse demographic backgrounds. The students all undertook a three week guided-inquiry unit on plant biology. The factors that contributed most to students' motivation included opportunities for autonomous learning, an appropriate level of challenge, supportive teachers, a sense that the task was valuable to them personally and a prevailing commitment to mastery goals rather than performance goals in the classroom. Students assigned a high value to tasks that taught them how to obtain and work with data, an ability that they saw as beneficial to them within and beyond school. Girls valued such tasks as highly as boys did. The finding suggests that tasks offering empowerment to students are more motivating to them than exhortations about the value of science itself. Students saw the unit's inquiry tasks as only modestly different to their usual course work, a judgement evenly spread across all SES categories. However, low SES students valued this moderate difference much more highly than high-SES students did, suggesting that low-SES students can be strongly motivated by authentic inquiry tasks. The low-SES students did not find the inquiry tasks too difficult, suggesting that such students are likely to benefit from ambitious instruction. Students expressed high interest in the collection and analysis of data, perhaps due to the autonomous work offered by these tasks. Students indicated less interest in the explanatory, argumentation phase of the work, perhaps because it involved writing tasks. Their response suggests the need for teachers to scaffold tasks that involve writing and to highlight the purpose of argumentation tasks.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsScience teaching
Project based learning
Inquiry based learning
Teacher leadership: interns crossing to the domain of higher professional learning with mentors?
The role of intern, or associate teacher, can introduce pre-service teachers to leadership roles within a school. At QUT students in the final year of their Primary B.Ed. are assigned roles as interns after completing their placements. As interns they undertake 50 percent of the teaching load for a class, and are mentored by the classroom teacher with whom they work. An evaluation conducted by QUT has examined the impact of internship on 145 pre-service teachers. The interns reported that they were able to play leadership roles in a number of ways. One was curriculum development. Some took the lead in revising the scope and sequence of units. They also designed new units, a task which included creating new curriculum content, setting up learning experiences for the children and designing assessment tasks. In ICT the interns' role was particularly prominent. For example, they were asked to create websites, market the school online, and assist older teachers to update their technological skills through training or tips. Some led children's activities on community or environmental projects beyond the school grounds. Others played a prominent role with interacting with parents. At times this role involved working through disagreements over issues such as homework and parents' academic supervision of their children at home. Some interns promoted the teaching profession itself, by contributing articles to a professional journal, co-authored by a mentor, or writing for the local newspaper about their role at the school. Evidence from the evaluation highlights the benefits of giving pre-service leadership roles from the commencement of their teaching careers, on the understanding that they are supported and mentored through these processes. These scaffolded leadership roles encourage the interns' professional development, deepen their engagement with teaching staff, and help to spread leadership roles throughout the school.
Subject HeadingsTeacher training
Teaching and learning
Teaching with interactive whiteboards
November 2009; Pages 80–82
An interactive whiteboard is a large display screen connected to a computer and projector and usually mounted on a floor stand or attached to a wall. The teacher or another individual can interact with the computer by touching areas of the screen, while other learners interact through accessories such as student response systems. The value of interactive whiteboards as a means to improve student learning was tested in a study last year. The study involved 85 teachers and 170 classrooms. The teachers used the interactive whiteboards during a set of lessons, which they then taught to other students without using the interactive whiteboards. The use of the interactive whiteboards was associated with a significant increase in student achievement. Three features of technology stood out as particularly effective. One was students' use of hand-held 'voting' devices to respond to questions. Another was the use of still or mobile images, including graphs and charts and video clips, to present information. The third factor was the use of 'reinforcer' applications that indicated correct or incorrect answers in stimulating ways such as virtual applause. However, a minority of teachers achieved less well in terms of their students' results when interactive whiteboards were used. The researchers examined videotaped lessons from these teachers to identify reasons for these results, and found four common elements in their lessons. First, the responses students gave through their voting devices were simply recorded, not used as a point of departure to explore students' answers. Secondly, too little time was allowed for students to consider and discuss the visual material on the screen. A third problem was the use of too many visual images. Fourthly some of the teachers focused too heavily on reinforcing features such as visual applause, which distracted from the content.
Subject HeadingsInformation and Communications Technology (ICT)
Teaching and learning
The influence of university coursework on pre-service middle and high school teachers' experiences with multicultural themes
Volume 20 Number 4, August 2009; Pages 313–332
With classrooms becoming increasingly diverse, science teachers need to be able to provide inclusive learning environments that support students from a range of backgrounds. Using interviews and observations over a two-year period, the evolving multicultural perspectives of eight pre-service teachers in the USA are examined. The respondents received ongoing instruction relating to multicultural education as part of their coursework. The respondents' initial understandings of multicultural themes and diversity fell on a continuum, with some teachers largely failing to consider cultural diversity when asked about students' different experiences and backgrounds, but with others demonstrating some awareness of multicultural themes. The participants were largely unable to define any specific strategies designed to meet the needs of diverse learners, and had limited expectations of the types of diversity they would encounter in the classroom. Most, for example, anticipated that the major challenges they would encounter would be related to students' English language skills and several raised the issue of the extent of their responsibility in providing an environment supportive of language learners' needs. The respondents provided conflicting perspectives on the need to address diversity as part of their coursework, with some indicating that they would have preferred more opportunities to examine specific cultures and specific strategies for dealing with particular groups of learners, and others feeling that a more general overview would be sufficient in allowing them to extrapolate particular cultural experiences to suit the needs of their future classrooms. After completion of a classroom-based practicum, the students indicated that they used the ideas and strategies presented as part of the program in their fieldwork experiences, and indicated that they had developed greater awareness and more critical perspectives. However, the respondents struggled to fluently integrate inclusive strategies into the classroom when they began teaching. This indicates a need for pre-service teachers to receive ongoing experiential and immersion opportunities that help them to become familiar with and subequently incorporate such themes into their lesson planning and instruction.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsScience teaching
Teaching and learning
The move to faculty middle management structures in Scottish secondary schools: a case study
Volume 30 Number 3, July 2010; Pages 249–263
As a way of ensuring that teachers spend more time in the classroom, schools in Scotland have been encouraged to 'flatten' their management structures. As a result, various individual subjects are now grouped into faculties, with one senior teacher in charge of each faculty. Preliminary feedback has indicated that the changes have resulted in more systematic and streamlined approaches to teaching and learning, as well as improved cross-subject collaboration. Concerns, however, have been raised about the lack of experienced guidance and support available from senior teachers whose subject specialisms differ. Other concerns have included reduced opportunities for promotion and the inappropriate grouping of subjects. As part of the current study, questionnaires were used to examine 43 religious education teachers' experiences under the new faculty model. RE was chosen because of its status as a 'small' subject; such subjects are most likely to be affected under the new model. Almost two-thirds of the respondents worked as part of a faculty arrangement, usually within the humanities area, but sometimes within areas such as modern languages, art or even IT. Only one of the faculty-based respondents had an RE specialist as their faculty head. While almost seventy per cent of the respondents working within the more traditional subject-based model were positive about their experiences, only a third of the faculty-based respondents was positive about this arrangement. The benefits identified by this small group of faculty-based respondents included improved cross-curricular provision and communication, and the availability of generic support and feedback. In contrast, the teachers who were unhapy with the faculty-based arrangement raised concerns about RE having a low profile, and about faculty heads' lack of RE subject knowledge and their inability to offer guidance and feedback specific to the subject area. Many felt that RE remained 'out on a limb', and essentially operated on its own. This meant that the RE teacher was effectively fulfilling the responsibilities of a faculty head but without the appropriate remuneration and support. In contrast, teachers working in the traditional subject-based model generally had access to the RE-specialist subject head on a regular basis, and were able to obtain appropriate feedback and developmental support.
Subject HeadingsEducational administration
The mismatch between students' mental models of acids/bases and their sources and their teacher's anticipations thereof
Volume 32 Number 12, August 2010; Pages 1617–1646
Students bring particular preconceptions about science to the classroom; without intervention, these preconceptions can influence their conceptual learning of science topics. Teachers therefore need to have an understanding of students' mental models, as well as how to overcome them. As part of a wider study, the authors examined the preconceptions regarding acids and bases held by three high-achieving and three low-achieving Year 9 students in Taiwan. Their teacher's understanding of these preconceptions was also examined. Before instruction, many of the high-achievers' preconceptions were already aligned with the Scientific Model of understanding, which draws on theoretical perspectives, while the low achievers' were in line with the Phenomenological Model, stemming from their own personal experiences. After instruction, almost all of the high achievers demonstrated understanding in line with the Scientific Model, while the low achievers' understandings generally shifted to the Character-Symbol Model. The conceptions of students using this model are influenced by the presence of particular scientific representations, and students make superficial connections accordingly: for example, students may assume that the presence of OH in a solution universally signals that the solution is basic. These students were also influenced by the superficial meanings of Chinese characters, such as those with radicals implying 'acidity' or 'neutrality'. Interviews with the teacher found while she was able to readily anticipate the high-achieving students' mental models, she struggled to identify and address the low-achieving students' preconceptions. After instruction, she tended to attribute the high-achieving students' correct conceptions to her classroom approaches, but the low-achieving students' alternative understandings to their intuition. However, examination of her instructional processes indicated that her emphasis on imprecise rule-of-thumb formulae and on the danger of handling particular substances may have reinforced rather than dissuaded these students' incorrect notions. Teachers need to be aware of all students', and particularly low-achieving students', preconceptions prior to instruction, and ensure that instruction is targeted in a way that will lead to revision of these mental models. They may need to rethink their methods of instruction and presentation to ensure that alternative conceptions are not reinforced.
Key Learning AreasScience
Is it wrong for us to want good things? The origins of Gompers Charter Middle School
Schools in the USA that have failed to meet progress goals are given several 'turnaround' options, one of which is transformation into a charter school. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted a degree of curricular and organisational autonomy in return for meeting certain outcomes. The authors document the processes behind the transformation of a failing public middle school into a charter school designed to promote a university-oriented culture of learning. The decision to move to the charter school model was a response to the school community's perception that drastic change was needed to meet students' needs. The change was seen as a way of ensuring greater local control over teaching and learning and encouraging parent and teacher accountability. However, while parents were largely supportive of the proposal, the local district board presented a number of challenges. The charter school proposal conflicted with a district-wide policy focusing on literacy skills through a centralised, comprehensive curriculum, and it took some time for the proposal to be endorsed. District rules also required that signatures supporting the proposal be obtained from parents and teachers, which was a time-consuming endeavour. Other challenges included the district's transfer of the principal into an off-site administrative position and issues relating to unionisation that resulted in reticence from some teachers. The proposal was, however, supported by a local university, which offered both material and intellectual resources to support the transformation. The charter school proposal was eventually passed, but further challenges arose in terms of the substantial actions that needed to be undertaken before the school opened. These included hiring new staff, designing a challenging and appropriate curriculum, securing textbooks and resources, obtaining funding and establishing a new school board. To help meet these demands, the new leadership instituted a 'culture camp' designed to ensure that staff shared a common language, expectations and ways of working with students. Professional development with an emphasis on instruction was extended to both permanent staff and the school's pool of substitute teachers. Uniform rules, a new school motto and a school mission were put in place as symbols of the school's new orientation. Since the transformation, the school has demonstrated steady academic progress on national tests.
Subject HeadingsSchool leadership
United States of America (USA)
Literacy attitudes, habits and achievements of future teachers
Volume 36 Number 3, August 2010; Pages 291–302
Teachers who are keen readers are more likely to be positive reading models for their students, and to select appropriate classroom reading strategies. However, research has indicated that many teachers are not readers in their spare time. The reading attitudes and habits of 227 pre-service teachers in Canada were examined using a detailed questionnaire; the respondents' reading comprehension and writing skills were also tested. Sixty-five per cent of the respondents reported reading often or very often, with almost as many associating reading with enjoyment. However, ten per cent reported reading seldom or not at all. The most common types of materials read were newspapers and magazines, while email was the most popular format used for writing. Respondents who reported reading frequently, who had positive reading habits, who enjoyed reading, and who had positive childhood recollections of reading tended to achieve at significantly higher levels on the comprehension and writing tests. A very wide range in respondents' reading and writing skills was found however. Some respondents, usually those with poor reading attitudes and who read infrequently, scored at levels consistent with primary level reading achievement. These disparities in pre-service teachers' reading ability, attitudes, and habits should not be ignored. Intervention programs may be appropriate in some instances, while in others efforts to cultivate positive attitudes and lifelong reading habits will not only benefit pre-service teachers in their future teaching careers, but will also have a positive impact on their students. Pre-service teachers should be encouraged to keep records of their daily reading and writing habits, and should be given access to a variety of texts, as well as time to enjoy and reflect on these texts.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
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