Cooperative elementary school model provides more equitable learning experience

Using cooperation as the theme for school-wide change, elementary schools produced important academic and social benefits for a wide range of students. By comparing these cooperative schools with traditional elementary schools, Robert J. Stevens, Pennsylvania State University and Robert E. Slavin, Johns Hopkins University, conclude that the experimental, cooperatively structured schools provided more active and equitable learning experiences and a more supportive social environment for their students and teachers. In the experimental schools, cooperative learning was widely used in academic classes. School staffs coached one another and worked together on scheduling and instructional planning to mainstream learning-disabled students in regular education classes.

Two-year study

Five elementary schools, matched for average student achievement, ethnicity and socioeconomic background participated in the study. Two of these schools volunteered to experiment with a cooperative model. All five schools allocated the same amount of time to reading, language arts and math, and all used basal reading programs. The three schools serving as comparisons, used traditional teaching methods and district-adopted texts.

A steering committee in each experimental school gradually implemented the cooperative model during the first year of study. The Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition (CIRC) program (see March/April 1995 issue of ERN) was the first element of the cooperative model to be introduced because it was considered the most complex. As teachers were ready, additional cooperative instructional programs were implemented. Teachers were trained in Team-Assisted Individualization for mathematics (TAI), and then in three more general cooperative programs for use in other content areas. Each program had a detailed manual, simulated demonstration lessons and hands-on training. The research staff observed teachers using the programs in their classrooms. They provided feedback to help teachers improve the quality of their instruction and maintain fidelity to the program.

By March of the first year all of the curricular elements of the cooperative model were in place. The only aspect of the the program not fully implemented in the first year was the mainstreaming of learning-disabled students. By the end of the first year, only 60 percent were fully mainstreamed. To achieve mainstreaming of all learning-disabled students, schools found that they had to plan the schedules of regular and special-education teachers jointly before school opened.

During the second year, learning-disabled students in the cooperative schools received all of their instruction in regular classrooms. Special- and regular-education teachers team taught reading, language arts and math. Students worked in mixed-ability learning teams, but additional instruction was provided in relatively homogeneous teaching groups drawn from the various teams. Typically, the regular teacher provided the initial, whole-group instruction and the special-education teacher provided follow-up.

There were many opportunities to visit one another’s classes and provide feedback in cooperative schools. Teachers who successfully implemented a cooperative learning program served as peer coaches. The principals encouraged this by offering to teach classes for coaches while they observed colleagues’ classes. Also, teachers were given time to plan strategies, instructional content and activities in grade-level meetings.

Comparing results

Standardized test scores measured achievement during the two-year study. The California Achievement Test (CAT) scores in reading, language and mathematics served as pre- and post-tests. All second- through sixth-grade students in the five schools were compared on their Total Reading, Total Language and Total Math scores.

On the pretest, all five schools were comparable, except in math, where the two schools who volunteered to try the cooperative model, scored lowered than the other schools. After one year of the study, this disadvantage had disappeared and, in addition, the experimental schools scored significantly higher in reading vocabulary. By the end of the second year students in experimental schools scored significantly higher in reading vocabulary, reading comprehension, language expression and math computation.

There were no significant differences noted in students’ attitudes toward their schoolwork, but students in cooperative schools reported larger and more diverse groups of friends than students in traditional classes.

Effects on learning-disabled and gifted students

Learning-disabled and gifted students in the cooperative schools made greater achievement gains than average students and greater gains than their counterparts in traditional schools. During the second year, learning-disabled students demonstrated nearly a full standard deviation difference from their counterparts in traditional schools. Gifted students in the experimental schools had significantly higher achievement in all areas than gifted students in traditional schools who attended a part-time enrichment program.


Because the experimental program had so many components, it is not possible to determine which elements were responsible for its success. This study indicates that cooperative learning can be the primary method of instruction, and that when it is integrated with other cooperative strategies in organization and planning, it can increase student achievement. Results after just one year were small, probably because of the gradual implementation of all the elements. However, after two years students in cooperative elementary schools outperformed their peers in more traditional schools. The differences in achievement were significant. It is important to note that these differences were obtained on standardized achievement tests whose scores are difficult to influence due to their limited overlap with curriculum and their strong correlation with general ability.

These researchers conclude that learning-disabled students have much to gain by being mainstreamed in an all-inclusive cooperative program. They warn, however, that these results are dependent on (a) the students’ integration in mixed-ability learning teams; (b) the cooperative learning programs’ use of group goals based on individual accountability; and, (c) special-education teachers providing additional support and instruction to these students in regular classrooms.

Teachers report that the cooperative learning programs gave them more instructional flexibility to accommodate the increased diversity in mainstreamed classes. They say that students in cooperative programs take more responsibility for their learning, freeing teachers to spend more time with individuals and small groups.

Students in the cooperative elementary schools showed much better social acceptance of learning-disabled students.

Since the experimental schools in this study volunteered for the cooperative model, these results may not be replicated in schools where the model is mandated.

“The Cooperative Elementary School: Effects on Students’ Achievement, Attitudes, and Social RElations”, American Education Research Journal, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 1995, pp. 321-351.

Published in ERN November/December 1995 Volume 8 Number 5

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)