Want students to produce better work? Give them harder assignments.
That's the simple conclusion of a study of 12 elementary and middle schools in Chicago. Teachers who challenged their students got significantly better results than those who gave easy assignments.
The Chicago Annenberg Research Project evaluated writing and math classes in Grades 3, 6, and 8. It looked for class work that avoided routine use of facts, focused on in-depth study, and yielded work that "has meaning or value beyond success in school."
Such work was too-often absent. The study gave a "no challenge" rating to 43 percent of assignments in third-grade writing and math classes. In eighth grade, 56 percent of writing assignments and 71 percent of math work offered either no challenge or "minimal" challenge. Inserting words into a set format or memorizing math facts were common. Kids rarely had to explain their work or do original writing.
Fred Newmann, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin and an author of the study, says the findings may have several roots. Many teachers' assume that "fill in the blank" exercises are key to boosting basic skills needed for standardized tests. They may also not want to discourage kids by giving difficult assignments. And, of course, schools typically offer inadequate time for teachers to prepare and then correct challenging assignments.
Expecting more can have dramatic results. Just check out our story about Teach for America teachers. But it had better come with an equally dramatic openness to changing old ways.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society