Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Academic Challenge in High-Poverty Classrooms

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Academic Challenge in High-Poverty Classrooms

Article excerpt

The first large-scale, systematic study of outcomes from enriching the learning diet in high-poverty classrooms has shown that instruction aimed at producing meaning yields results superior to those of conventional practice, the authors assert.

Educators and policy makers have long been concerned about the education of children from low-income families. In recent years that concern has begun to focus on issues of educational quality and the continuing inequities of schooling in America, especially as these relate to the access of children from low-income backgrounds to high-quality instruction. Strengthening students' grasp of "advanced skills" - e.g., their capacity to reason mathematically, to read with full comprehension, or to compose written texts - is a case in point. As many reformers have pointed out, instruction in these advanced skills has been scant in American education, especially in the education of children from low-income families.

The case for focusing more closely on advanced skills in high-poverty classrooms has been made repeatedly. In previous articles in the Kappan, we have attempted to lay out this argument and its grounding in cognitive research, in thinking about cultural discontinuities, and in existing scholarship regarding effective instruction.(1) Some small-scale research has been done to support this argument(2) - but until now, a large-scale, systematic study of the prospects for enriching the learning diet in high-poverty classrooms has not been done.

In this article we report the findings of such an investigation, which described and analyzed instructional practices in approximately 140 first- through sixth-grade classrooms located in 15 elementary schools that serve large numbers of children from low-income families.(3) To increase the likelihood of identifying a variety of effective practices, schools in six different districts across three states were chosen that had attained better-than-average performance on conventional measures of academic achievement. Within these schools, experienced teachers were selected at each grade level to represent variations in approach to mathematics, reading, and writing instruction. We studied classrooms in these schools over a two-year period, drawing together a variety of sources of data, including periodic observations of classroom teaching, repeated interviews with the teachers and others, examination of curricular materials, informal conversations with children, daily teacher-kept logs of what was taught, and various forms of student assessment.(4)

Instruction That Maximizes Academic Challenge

Current practice in many, if not most, high-poverty classrooms reflects a widely accepted "conventional wisdom," bolstered by several decades of research, about the best ways to teach in such settings.(5) These approaches emphasize curricula that proceed in a linear fashion from the "basics" to "advanced" skills (though seldom reaching the latter), instruction that is tightly controlled by the teacher, and ability grouping that often hardens into permanent tracks at an early age. "Good" instruction is that which keeps children at work on academic tasks. Children who fail to keep up are targeted for reteaching and extra practice on discrete skills, often through a supplemental instructional program. Although these approaches may improve children's grasp of basic skills (and there is evidence that they do), they risk shortchanging the learning of more advanced skills in comprehension, reasoning, and composition.

We found such conventional practices well-established and generally implemented effectively in approximately one-third of the 140 classrooms we studied. But other classrooms departed in some fashion from conventional practice. These departures put advanced skills at the center of the learning opportunities afforded all children, and in so doing they placed emphasis on meaning. Not all classrooms departed from conventional skills-oriented practices to the same degree, but in about one-third of the classrooms we studied teachers placed consistent and sustained emphasis on alternatives to conventional practice in one or more of the three subject areas we examined (mathematics, reading, and writing). …

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