Testing won’t determine them, Pianta says
By Anne Bromley
|Robert Pianta says observing what teachers do in the classroom that engages children to learn is a better way to measure high-quality teaching.
With a federal deadline looming at the end of the 2005-2006 school year, all public school teachers will need to be assessed state by state to see if they are “highly qualified” under the definition included in the federal legislation, “No Child Left Behind.” They’ll probably be tested on the subject they teach. But U.Va. education professor Robert Pianta says the tests in all likelihood won’t measure real teaching or learning, particularly for elementary school teachers. For example, Pianta’s work shows that neither their years of training nor passing content tests predicts the quality of K-5 teachers’ classrooms or the performance of their students.
Pianta can tell right now that only about 25 percent of first- through fifth-graders are exposed to classrooms offering high levels of instructional and emotional support, even though the vast majority of those teachers fulfills the NCLB definition of “highly qualified”: having full state certification, a bachelor’s degree and competence in subject knowledge and teaching.
Pianta, the Novartis US Foundation Professor of Education and Professor of Psychology, has been working on a better way to show what high-quality teaching is all about — developing measurement systems for directly observing what teachers do in the classroom and connecting those observations to how much the students are engaged and succeeding in learning. Observing classrooms is not a new way of gathering information about teaching — in Pianta’s work it is the large-scale but objective measurement of thousands of classrooms and the ways observation is linked to support for teachers that is unique, and a direct contrast to how NCLB approaches teacher quality and improvement.
Through his newly established Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), recently buttressed by more than $7 million from two National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research grants, Pianta has brought together projects at the Curry School of Education, and collaborated with colleagues across the country, to delve behind the façade of test scores into what makes real learning take place.
Based on thousands of hours of live and videotaped observations from preschool through fifth-grade classes, Pianta and a team of education researchers are documenting how teachers’ social and instructional interactions with children make a difference. In a study just published in the journal Child Development, Pianta and his teams show that teachers who provide high levels of instructional support and emotional support for children close the achievement gap for at-risk children— they get higher marks on standardized tests and are better adjusted.
Although at-risk children from low socioeconomic areas need high-quality classrooms and teachers, they are also more likely than their peers not to receive them, in part because it’s hardest to get the best teachers to problematic, low-paying schools. But a very clear finding from Pianta’s work is also that for all children, a high-quality classroom experience is mostly a matter of luck — for 1,000 children observed across first, third, and fifth grades, fewer than 200 are in a moderately high-quality classroom on all three occasions.
What does the high-quality elementary classroom that contributes to students’ learning and positive adjustment look like? The children interact with one another and the teacher in a positive manner, the teacher moves around the room monitoring activities and offering support as children need it, using a positive, friendly voice. The teacher notices the subtle ways children show cues for help, and she responds to those cues before children get frustrated or act out; and the children are comfortable asking for help. The teacher provides children rich opportunities to learn and use language; she challenges them to use reasoning and problem solving; and it is clear that students know they are in class to learn and they know what the goals and expectations are for different activities. Daily activities are not passive, such as filling out worksheets; instead the key ingredient of a high-quality classroom is active and focused interaction among teachers and children.
In addition to giving emotional and social support to students, the high-quality teacher uses a variety of formats to keep children interested in course content and gives them a range of opportunities to display and perform new skills. Good teachers give expanded, detailed feedback beyond a right or wrong checkmark on a test.
What is critical about Pianta’s work is that these aspects of classrooms can be observed objectively, and these observations can be conducted in the wide range of K-5 classrooms present all across the country. So in a sense, what research tells us that really matters about classrooms can indeed be assessed, but not by testing teachers. Even more important, from Pianta’s perspective, is that once effective, high-quality teaching can be observed and identified, it is possible to use those observations as a target for training and supporting teachers anywhere.
“If we’re serious about training teachers and helping them get better, we should look at how to support them in meaningful ways,” Pianta said.
Using videotapes of these observations, his group provides one-on-one feedback and support to teachers, as well as detailed videotaped displays and explanations of the teaching skills successful teachers use. Pianta and his colleagues at CASTL have employed Web-based technology to provide feedback and support to teachers in Virginia and Wyoming pre-kindergartens in a project called MyTeachingPartner. Pianta noted the interest of states such as Massachusetts and Ohio in his work, and he is now working on applying these approaches in pre-service, university-based teacher education.
In short, CASTL teaching programs offer an alternative to highly qualified — high quality.