For all the current emphasis on standardized testing and teaching requirements, the quality of elementary school instruction is mediocre at best, according to a study from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development study published in the March 30 issue of Science magazine.

"Any given child has less than a 20 percent chance of having a rich classroom experience consistently through elementary school," says Robert C. Pianta, lead researcher and Novartis US Foundation Professor of Education in the University of Virginia Curry School of Education. And for low-income children, the percentage is even less.

Based on live (not taped) observations of more than the same 1,000 children around the country in more than 2,500 of their first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms, Pianta and colleagues reported in the article, "Opportunities to Learn in America's Elementary Classrooms," that pupils are not getting the kind of rich, challenging academic experiences that would enhance their learning and improve their test performance.

"Clearly, what we find is contrary to what is considered to be essential for a high-quality classroom," said Pianta, director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. Jay Belsky, Birkbeck University of London, Renate Houts of RTI International, and Fred Morrison, University of Michigan, also co-authored this study, based on longitudinal research supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"If you asked educators what's the most effective way to teach in a classroom, they would probably include small-group instruction, for example, but we found it occurred less than 10 percent of the time in those three grades," he said. For fifth grade, the occurrence is 7 percent.

High-quality teaching challenges children to use reasoning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, with lots of teacher-student interaction, and it involves emotionally supportive interactions and engaging activities but that kind of experience is not typical, the study found.

The learning environment in classrooms is more likely to be passive than active, with teachers lecturing to the whole group or giving students individual seatwork about 90 percent of the time, Pianta said.

In instruction time, fifth-grade teachers spent 37 percent of the time on basic literacy skills, 25 percent on math, 11 percent on science and 13 percent on social studies, the classroom analysis found. These exposures are not consistent with stated national aims to improve math and science education.

In addition, students received only perfunctory feedback on their performance.

Related studies have shown that high-quality factors observed in the instructional climate do predict higher achievement gains and even close the achievement gap for first graders.

"Fifth-grade classrooms are pretty well managed and positive in terms of emotional support. They are not rich and intense in ways that would elicit thinking and learning," he said. "When it comes to instructional quality, there is room for considerable improvement, and it is apparent that teachers require different supports, perhaps more relevant to their actual work in classrooms."

Whether teachers have advanced degrees, many years of experience or meet state and federal standards consistent with "highly qualified" (the term used in the "No Child Left Behind" Act) have little to do with the instructional climate they create in their classrooms.

"It is troubling," the article says, "that opportunities to learn in classrooms are unrelated to features intended to regulate such opportunities and that students most in need of high-quality instruction are unlikely to experience it consistently."

Pianta warns that relying on regulations and test scores as the metrics for the quality of schools may not actually drive improvement in "actual opportunities to learn."

The researchers call for more observation-based studies actually looking at what goes on in classrooms, because they may reveal ways "for improving classroom teaching and the preparation of teachers."

Written from a news release by University of Virginia.