Disappointing picture emerges in third-grade classrooms

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network recently presented findings from an observational study of 780 third-grade classrooms in the United States. They observed and recorded the settings, classroom activities, child-teacher interactions and the overall classroom climates to which children are exposed. They examined these in relation to structural aspects of the classrooms (class size, teacher education and experience) and child behavior. In addition, one child in each classroom was targeted for in-depth study. Observations were carried out during academic instruction times.

The most frequently observed forms of activity were whole-group instruction or individual seatwork. The largest portion of time was allocated to literacy-related activities. By a ratio of almost 11:1, the instructional activities across all content areas were focused on basic skills rather than analysis/inference or synthesis. There was wide variation in the frequency of most activities across classrooms. Students’ engagement in academic activities was higher in classrooms that provided more instructional and emotional support.

This study found third-grade classrooms varied greatly in the quality of experiences and activities. Overall, there was a strong emphasis on learning basic skills, with structural factors showing little relation to what children experience. There was relatively little evidence of the kinds of teaching activities that have been shown to engage students and lead to high achievement.

This study examined the wide range of teacher and child behaviors and classroom quality. It investigated the nature and quality of children’s experiences and the extent to which these experiences were associated with factors thought to reflect good educational practice. The classrooms under study were located in 250 public school districts and 123 private schools. No significant differences were seen between public and private schools. Each class was observed on eight separate days for 25 minutes and again for a whole day.

Observers recorded the setting (whole class, small group, individual), activities (literacy, math, science, transition, etc.), teacher behavior (attends to child, teaches basic skills, teaches analysis/inference, managerial instruction, positive affect, negative affect, disciplines), and child engagement. Classrooms were also given global ratings (ranging from 1 to 7) of over-control, chaos, positive emotional climate, negative emotional climate, detachment of the teacher, teacher sensitivity, productive use of time, and richness of instructional methods. Observers were trained with practice videos and studied a manual that provided extensive descriptions of each item to be scored.

Teachers completed a questionnaire providing information on their years of teaching, monthly salary, education, in-service training in the last year, and their perception of support fro m their principal. They also completed the Teaching Self – Efficacy Scale, a reliable and valid indicator of a teacher’s beliefs and feelings of efficacy related to aspects of her role as a teacher.

Classroom settings, activities, and teacher behavior

The average student-teacher ratio was 18:1, but there was considerable variability, ranging from 4:1 to 33:1. These classrooms were staffed by experienced teachers with about 12 years of teaching experience on average. Their ages and salaries varied widely. The average student worked most of the time in whole-class (52 percent) or individual seatwork (39 percent) settings. About half of the time, children were engaged in a literacy activity.

Children were exposed to transition/managerial activities (collecting lunch money, lining up) at about the same rate as they were exposed to math, and they received very little exposure to science or social studies. More than sixty percent of the literacy time was spent on comprehension rather than word-level work. In math students spent 77 percent of their time on computation. However, activities varied widely across classrooms. Day-long observations in classrooms revealed that students in some classrooms received very little exposure to a particular type of activity while others spent nearly all their time on that particular activity. Teachers fairly often offered instruction on how to manage materials or time.

Global ratings of the classroom environment

Observers had generally positive impressions of the social aspects of the classrooms, rating teachers well on sensitivity and positive climate (5 out of 7). Teachers and students tended to be busy and made productive use of time. However, on aspects related to the quality of instruction – the richness of instructional methods – the average rating was 2 out of 7. In each observation period, children generally were exposed to only one method of instruction, such as a vocabulary worksheet, watching the teacher do math problems on the board, or listening to a whole-class lesson in social studies.

What children do

Children were engaged more than twice as often as they were unproductive or not engaged. However, highly engaged/enthusiastic behavior was rarely seen. Children were engaged in learning basic skills versus other types of learning at a ratio of about 13:1. Collaboration with peers occurred rarely. Children were more likely to be engaged in an academic activity when the classroom setting involved more academic activities. In classrooms in which there were more nonacademic activities (free time or transitions), children were less likely to be engaged. More positive climates led to higher rates of child engagement.

Classroom features and teacher education and experience

The climate was more positive in classrooms in which teachers felt more efficacy, and climate had a small but significant association with in-service training and more years of experience. Smaller classes had higher rates of academic activity. Less-experienced teachers had higher rates of nonacademic activity.

Stability of experiences from first to third grade

There was great variability between classrooms. Thus, children were likely to have very diff e rent classroom experiences from one grade to the next. Third-grade teachers were less emotionally supportive and somewhat less engaged with their students than teachers in earlier grades. There was no association between the number of math or literacy activities offered to children in first and third grades. Child engagement was fairly stable, however. Structural features of classrooms such as class size were the most stable elements.

Detailed observations of a typical day in almost 800 third-grade classrooms reveal a pattern of high variability in activities and children’s experiences. Yet, there are similarities. Activities are dominated by basic skills work, about half of which is literacy-based. This work nearly always occurs in whole-class or individualized seatwork settings. Considerable time is devoted to activities involving passive responding. The social climate is mostly positive, but instruction appears to be low in quality. Children are unproductive about one-third of the time during lessons. Cooperative learning activities and activities in technology, social studies or science are rare. Students do not typically engage in learning experiences that include opportunities for higher-order thinking, analysis, or inference.

These results confirm earlier reports fro m smaller studies. There is great variability between classrooms. This was true even though the study limited observation times to days and times when teachers reported that the most academic activity occurred. There was high consistency across days for the same classroom, indicating that these results are not due to day-to-day variation in classroom s but instead are a reliable indication of between-classroom differences. Based on the results of this large-scale study, these researchers conclude that the typical child in the United States is not assure d access to high-quality education in the primary grades. The variation in classroom activities and quality is not a function of class size or teacher experience that policymakers typically use to regulate the quality of instruction.

“A Day in Third Grade: A Large-Scale Study of Classroom Quality and Teacher and Student Behavior”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 105, Number 3, January 2005, pp. 305-323.

Published in ERN March 2005 Volume 18 Number 3

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