With new standards and assessments for students being adopted across the country, many education groups are urgently trying to demonstrate that their teaching interventions have a positive effect. Two years of recently completed independent research show one way of accomplishing just that, with a program that anticipated the coming changes and is aligned with them.
During the last two academic years (2010-2011 and 2011-2012), ALTA Solutions Group conducted a pilot study of “Writing Matters,” a curriculum developed by Teaching Matters for use in urban middle schools. Writing Matters content was coupled with a strong teacher team-coaching component.
The collaboration was important; when paired, this content and delivery model created excellent outcomes for students. Previously, teachers selectively implemented the curriculum and did not advance student results. With the new pairing, on average the approximately 1,000 6th graders participating in Writing Matters improved by nearly 4 percentage points in their writing skills, while some schools posted average gains for their students of more than 5 percentage points. Meanwhile, scores in some comparison schools declined.
Just what exactly are teacher teams? They are groups of educators who meet in what are also called “Professional Learning Communities,” or PLCs, to discuss the challenges their students face and how best to address them. Looking at student work and tests, these teachers analyze how well each child is doing, and figure out what needs to be done when there are failures to absorb new material.
In the Writing Matters program, teacher discussions focused concretely on student writing successes and challenges. Professional development coaches helped teachers come up with the best solutions for problems.
What happens without effective coaching? The numbers show that a good curriculum is not enough. Before coaching was systematically integrated with Writing Matters content, the only significant gains made by students were among children in the bottom quintile of those studied. When collaborative teacher supports were instituted, there was improvement across the board in each of the six sample Writing Matters schools.
It remains true that those children in the bottom fifth who had the longest road to travel improved the most in both Writing Matters and reference settings, but in reference schools comparable children improved less, and some actually suffered a decline in their writing performance during the studied year. Happily, in Writing Matters schools nearly 60 percent (58.2) of students showed writing gains. In reference schools, fewer than a quarter (23.4 percent) did.
With states moving toward “Common Core” standards that lay out what students need to know, and by when, another important finding of the study is that Writing Matters schools gained in “argument writing,” one of the Common Core’s key components. What distinguishes new common core standards from many previous measures is the ratcheting up of teaching and learning standards to focus on depth of understanding, rather than mere superficial knowledge. Writing Matter’s argument writing unit is closely aligned with what will be assessed. More Writing Matters schools saw improvement on argument writing, and their improvements exceeded those of reference schools.
Beyond the numbers, teachers told researchers that the Writing Matters program had helped them differentiate among student needs, and led them to have more conversations with their students about their learning. They gave substantial credit to their collaboration with Teaching Matters and the coaching they received for their students’ improvements.
In an era where employment and life success is increasingly dependent on a good education, it’s vital that schools use the right tools to help their students master skills and acquire necessary knowledge. There are ways to speed and improve the process – and one of them has just been convincingly validated in some of New York City’s most challenging middle schools.
For a copy of the full report, see www.teachingmatters.org.
Lynette Guastaferro is the executive director of Teaching Matters, Inc, a New York nonprofit that works to increase teacher effectiveness and equip students with critical thinking and college readiness skills.