Focusing Improvement


Several years ago, a teacher—let’s call her Jane—came to us with a problem: she was working hard to improve student outcomes in her middle school English Language Arts (ELA) classroom, but was not seeing results. Jane had been diligent, spending extra hours meeting with parents, volunteering lunch to work with students, and returning graded assignments much more quickly. Still, her students’ growth continued to be marginal.

Our recommendation? Do less! Consistently, we at Ed Direction have observed that a narrow focus on Evidence-Based Instructional Strategies returns the greatest improvement in student outcomes. Teachers who work to implement a single but high-yielding instructional strategy with fidelity have a greater impact on outcomes than those who attempt to implement multiple strategies simultaneously. In this case, less is literally more.

To determine which instructional strategy to choose, Jane compared the effect sizes of multiple strategies. Effect sizes are a statistical metric that reflect the impact of a strategy on student achievement. Strategies with an effect size of 0.40 or greater are associated with more than 1 year of growth in student performance. By this logic, any fully-implemented instructional strategy with an effect size of 0.40 or higher will give students a better chance of catching up and narrowing gaps in achievement, sometimes with two or three years’ growth in a single school year.[1]

Jane selected Feedback (effect size of 0.73) but was initially disappointed that this strategy seemed too simple. After all, she already communicated regularly with parents and always returned students’ assignments within a week. As she continued to research this strategy, Jane realized that there were multiple levels of complexity, each offering opportunity for mastery through sustained practice.

In the following months, Jane worked hard to gain fluency in this instructional strategy. She promptly corrected errors and encouraged students to share or demonstrate the correct responses; she used positive and specific verbal feedback: “good job” became, “you showed you understood by…”. She allocated class time for students to correct their work and celebrated the occasional “beautiful oops” so students knew that mistakes were part of the learning process, and felt that the classroom was a safe and supportive place to practice. She incorporated peer feedback into the writing process, structuring pair and group feedback with rubrics. By focusing her improvement efforts on one high-effect strategy, Jane discovered a wealth of opportunity for personal growth, began to achieve a degree of mastery of the feedback strategy, and began to see real changes in her classroom environment.

Jane’s story is a common one. In an effort to better support student learning, teachers often try to tackle multiple improvement strategies but spread their efforts thin: they find quickly themselves overworked and unrewarded. In most cases, the solution wasn’t working harder but working smarter: focusing efforts on a single, high-impact instructional strategy and practicing that strategy regularly. Research has confirmed this conclusion: Marzano and Toth (2013) observed that teachers who narrowly focus on instructional techniques and demonstrate high levels of skill in those strategies are more likely to have a strong impact on student learning.[2] While this shift may seem simple or even counterintuitive, Ed Direction’s collective century of experience in education has confirmed that a narrow focus works to improve student outcomes.

[1] Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Related to Achievement. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. Print.

[2] Marzano, Robert J., and Michael Toth. Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference: A New Model for Teacher Growth and Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013. Print.

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