Opportunities to Learn in America's Elementary Classrooms

Robert C. Pianta, Jay Belsky, Renate Houts, Fred Morrison, The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Child Care Research Network Science
Volume 315, March 30, 2007

This short article and the more in-depth data and analysis findings describe the results of a set of intricately structured observations of more than 1,000 first-, third-, and fifth-graders across more than 1,000 schools (and ten U.S. cities). The NIH-funded research team, which precisely monitored 44 types of behavior, found that teachers spent the bulk of their time on literacy and math (e.g., 62 percent in fifth grade) and only a small portion on social studies and the sciences (in fifth grade, 11 percent and 13 percent respectively). Perhaps this is why USA Today quotes one education school professor complaining that the study "ignores the larger reality of mandates such as the federal No Child Left Behind law," which might be pushing teachers to narrow the curriculum (see here). And the authors themselves can't resist editorializing that their results support "arguments that a focus on standards-based reform and teacher credentialing may lead to instruction that is overly broad and thin." But such conclusions are careless: 75 percent of this study's classroom observations took place during 2001-02, just as NCLB was being born, and the authors make no attempt to compare teacher behavior before and after NCLB. But other conclusions are worth pondering. For example, the "emotional climate" of classrooms was generally positive, though teachers spent the bulk of their time lecturing and little of it providing feedback or small-group instruction. Also, classroom ratings were not correlated with the teacher's degree status or experience and, unsurprisingly, poor students were less likely to receive the best instruction. It's an intriguing article, available online here ($10; free for AAAS members).

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