Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
The Instructional Reforms We Need
What guidance does research offer public high schools with a pressing need to improve instruction?74 What should they do? What should researchers, educators, and policy makers be doing to help them? The policy environment for high schools is, to say the least, demanding. Standards-based reforms are asking high schools to do something they have never before been required to do—to succeed at some significant level with substantially all students. There is a growing public consensus both that schools should take on more responsibility for equalizing student outcomes and closing "gaps" and that the outcomes for all students should be more ambitious, more "world class," more rigorous. The nation's education policies have changed dramatically in recent decades, as have the economy and societal expectations, and it is clear that instruction—teaching and learning—has to change as well. Yet human differences being what they are, exposing all students to the same content and practice for the same amount of time will inevitably result in widely differing outcomes. For student outcomes to be more equal or, perhaps more reasonably, for substantially all students to master the core knowledge and skills needed for further education, for success in the modern economy, and for responsible civic participation, educators will have to vary the amount and nature of instruction to take account of students' differences in motivation, dispositions and aptitudes, experience, and instructional needs. At the moment, however, as the review of evidence in this article demonstrates, neither researchers nor educators have an adequate idea of how to do that. Assertions that educators and policy makers know what to do, but lack the will to do it undermine the possibility of making the needed investments in research, program development, and teacher training. As we show in this article, the educational community has a lot to learn about how to meet the standards that policy rhetoric has set. It would do everyone involved a disservice to pretend otherwise.
The point is for schools to take responsibility for each student and to try continually to do better. Schools should promote the use of proven practices such as structured student groups and dialogic discourse. But they must also adopt instructional approaches in which teachers deliberately and systematically attend to how students vary in what they are learning, regularly adapting their instruction in response to students' progress and needs, in the process learning more about what variations in instruction respond most effectively to common variations in students' learning. This approach need not lead to tracking, as some fear, but rather to real-time interventions in classrooms, regrouping within or across classrooms, or the provision of additional instruction through tutoring or supplemental experiences.
The process we are describing is sometimes known as personalization, but we prefer the term "adaptive instruction," which makes clear that the focus is instruction and not merely relationships. Adaptive instruction could incorporate the effective instructional approaches we have been reviewing, but add the power of real-time feedback and continuous improvement, for the student, for the teacher, and for the profession. Although little direct evidence supports the claim that adaptive instruction will help high schools meet the challenges of the new century, the considerable body of evidence showing that formative assessment improves student performance is relevant to our argument. Adaptive instruction is an analogue of, indeed the point of, formative assessment.75 Teachers who use formative assessment are trying to enable their students to reach some learning goal, and they assess students regularly to see whether the students are on track to reach the goal. If the assessment indicates they are not, the teachers will use information gained from the assessment to modify their instruction and try again to help students move toward the goal. They will then evaluate the results of their new effort and, once again, try something else if it has not been successful. This is adaptive instruction. To make sustained progress, the process must be coupled with provisions for capturing and evaluating the instructional responses to the formative feedback to build and manage knowledge about what might work in comparable situations in the future.
The evidence that formative assessment can have substantial effects on students' learning comes from studies that have focused on classroom uses in which teachers gather evidence of whether or not students are learning in the course of day-to-day, or even moment-to-moment, instruction and adapt their teaching on the basis of that evidence while the lesson or instructional unit is still in progress.76 The evidence is often based on teachers' observations of student work, on student responses to teachers' questions, or on the use of techniques that allow students to give continual feedback about whether they understand the material. In some cases, researchers have used more formal assessment tools but in this short-term way. This work, and earlier studies of mastery learning, has its roots in evidence that one-on-one tutoring has large effects on learning—on the order of 2.0 (two standard deviations). Indeed, both formative assessment and adaptive instruction can be viewed as attempts to replicate at the classroom level the responsiveness of individual tutoring.77 The studies cited in support of these approaches typically were small in scale, and as yet no studies have been conducted of similar interventions that try to use these classroom-level approaches at scale in whole school systems or that try to encourage the adaptation of instruction based on evidence of students' performance and progress gathered during longer cycles of instruction, such as with the interim assessments that have become so popular.
It is important to recognize that what is being "adapted" in adaptive instruction is not the learning goals for students, but rather the instructional strategies and supports offered to help students reach the goals. This instructional approach is consistent with both standards-based education and outcomes-based accountability. It also goes to the heart of the difference between the earlier conceptions of opportunity to learn based on equity in exposure to content and the newer conceptions based on ensuring greater equity in outcomes. Achieving the latter will require appropriate adaptations in the interaction between teacher and student to ensure that learning progresses. This view of instruction in a standards-based environment stands in sharp contrast to some contemporary conceptions of content standards, particularly grade-by-grade content standards that all students are supposed to meet at the same time, supported by pacing guides and interim assessments. Instead, it recognizes and accepts that students may vary greatly in their rate of progress toward the standards and in the kinds of instructional support they need to meet them.
The wide variation in instructional practices within and across schools in systems has led some policy makers to seek more control over instruction to ensure that students experience a common curriculum. By adopting district-wide curricular materials, curricular roadmaps, pacing guides, and similar tools, policy makers aim to provide greater quality control over teachers' practice and to make teaching more uniform across systems. But these management tools work at cross-purposes with the use of adaptive instruction, which requires variations in instructional strategies and pacing and even in the micro-content of the curriculum. If policy makers want to encourage adaptive instruction, they must take a different approach to quality control and design a set of tools that focuses on teachers' use of formative assessment, selection of appropriate responses, and progress toward raising performance and closing gaps. Policy makers must make greater investments in building strong communities of practice, supervision, knowledge management, and coaching, and less in standardizing the instructional process.
Given the rather weak knowledge base on instruction and given today's policy environment, we believe that making such investments would put the nation's high schools on the path toward improving instruction and meeting the challenges they face. But we recognize that the evidence supporting our arguments is thin and that competing theories about how to improve instruction also deserve attention and testing.
We further recognize that persuading teachers to use adaptive instruction will be difficult and will require the development of easy-to-use instructional materials and assessment tools designed to support this approach. Monitoring individual progress and providing appropriate instructional responses will be more difficult in high schools than in elementary schools given the number of students the typical teacher works with each day and the complexity of the curriculum, but new applications of technology such as the hand-helds being used to track students in elementary classrooms and the cognitive tutors widely used to supplement classroom instruction in colleges might be adapted for use in high schools and make the work manageable. Many teachers will want to hold on to the old norms of coverage and selection, but faced with growing pressures to serve all students and evidence that their peers are making progress toward this goal by embracing adaptive instruction (or other instructional approaches that prove to be robust), we believe they also will change their practice as most teachers want their students to succeed.