The Conditions of Instruction


In many respects, the demands for standards for student performance and new forms of assessment are aimed at fostering changes in teaching, particularly for low-income students. Critics argued that the kind of didactic, teacher-directed instruction that traditionally characterized American classrooms did not lead to the high levels of learning the reformers wanted to encourage. And many argued that traditional tests encouraged teachers to place a premium on quick recall, rather than on solving problems in real-world contexts (Resnick and Resnick, 1992; Shepard, 1991).

Other studies, particularly in international research, showed that the type of teaching students were exposed to was linked to their achievement; simply put, students learned what they were taught (Schmidt et al., 1998). However, a number of studies had found gaps between the curriculum taught in schools with large numbers of low-income students and that taught in schools with more affluent students: the more affluent students were more likely to receive challenging assignments than their lower-income peers (Puma et al., 1997; Smith et al., 1998).

Newmann and Associates labeled the kind of instruction reformers advocated for all students “authentic pedagogy,” and found that such practices were associated with higher levels of achievement. By authentic pedagogy, Newmann and Associates referred to the following standards (1996:33):

  • Higher-Order Thinking. Instruction involves students in manipulating information and ideas by synthesizing, generalizing, explaining, hypothesizing, or arriving at conclusions that produce new meaning and understandings for them.
  • Deep Knowledge. Instruction addresses central ideas of a topic or discipline with enough thoroughness to explore connections and relationships and to produce relatively complex understandings.
  • Substantive Conversation. Students engage in extended conversational exchanges with the teacher or their peers about subject matter in a way that builds an improved and shared understanding of ideas or topics.
  • Connections to the World Beyond the Classroom. Students make connections between substantive knowledge and either public problems or personal experiences.

The small body of research that has examined classrooms in depth suggests that such instructional practices may be rare, even among teachers who say they endorse the changes the standards are intended to foster. In one study of 25 teachers in Michigan, James P. Spillane found that all teachers said they attended

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