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Study Finds Inconsistent Teaching Quality In First Grade Classrooms

February 20, 2009

A nationwide study of first grade classrooms finds that while many teachers create positive social environments in the classroom, most provide inadequate instructional support. The report is published in the March issue of The Elementary School Journal.

Authors Megan Stuhlman and Robert Pianta (University of Virginia) used direct observations to assess the social and instructional quality of interactions between teachers and students in 820 first grade classrooms. Previous studies have indicated that the quality of such interactions can have a significant impact on student learning, especially in early grades.

The researchers found 23 percent of classrooms to be of “high overall quality,” with teachers getting high marks for creating a positive social climate in the classroom and for providing strong instructional support to students. Twenty-eight percent of classrooms were deemed “mediocre,” with teachers scoring just below the sample mean on all study measures. Seventeen percent were “low overall quality.”

A fourth category of classrooms characterized by “positive emotional climate, low academic demand” accounted for 31 percent of classrooms””the largest category in the sample. In these classrooms, Stuhlman explains, teachers are warm and do not discipline using threats, but they tend not to give constructive feedback that helps students understand concepts.

“We found that quality, particularly instructional features of teacher behavior, was rather low across the sample,” Pianta says. “In other studies we have demonstrated the connection between these observed teacher-child interactions and student learning gains. So what we are seeing here may influence the extent to which children can perform at standards consistent with accountability frameworks such as No Child Left Behind.”

The study also casts doubt on traditional assumptions about the factors that influence educational quality. Class size and teacher credentials, for example, had little impact on quality. And in a finding that may come as a surprise to advocates of private school vouchers, public school classrooms actually fared a bit better than private school classes.

“[M]ore public schools were categorized as high overall quality than would be expected by chance,” the authors write. “Moreover, equal proportions of public and private schools were in the lowest rated classroom type.”

The results suggest that educational opportunity will not be improved simply by shipping students to private schools, Pianta says. “Instead, strong, instructionally-focused, and effective professional development for a large number of teachers is perhaps the most important next step.”

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