The Most Effective, High-Leverage Instructional Strategies

Guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction. Studies show that the difference in achievement for students who have the most effective and the least effective teachers is an entire year – that is, students who are fortunate enough to have the best teachers gain 1-1/2 years in an academic year while those who draw the short straw gain half a year. What do highly effective teachers do? (a) They challenge their students with high expectations and believe that students can get smart through effective effort. (b) They forge close relationships with students within positive classroom environments. And (c) they intentionally match instructional strategies to learning goals. “They not only know what to do to support student learning,” says Goodwin, “but how, when, and why to do it.” McREL’s research has focused on nine of the most effective instructional strategies:

- Identifying similarities and differences;
- Summarizing and note-taking;
- Reinforcing effort and providing recognition;
- Homework and practice;
- Nonlinguistic representations;
- Cooperative learning;
- Setting objectives and providing feedback;
- Generating and testing hypotheses;
Questions, cues, and advance organizers.

Interestingly, differentiation is not on Goodwin’s list of exemplary classroom practices. He acknowledges that the case for differentiation (made most forcefully by Carol Ann Tomlinson), sounds logical, “but there’s one problem,” says Goodwin. “To date, no empirical evidence exists to confirm that the total package of differentiated instruction (e.g., conducting ongoing assessments of student abilities, identifying appropriate content based on those abilities, using flexible grouping arrangements for students, and varying how students can demonstrate proficiency in their learning) has a positive impact on student achievement… The extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success.” This could be because the research hasn’t been done yet. Or it could be because “differentiated instruction is such a large undertaking that it’s difficult to implement well and thus, difficult to study.” Or it could be that the basic premises of differentiation are flawed (see page 13-14 of the study for details on this).
Ensure curricular pathways to success. This means providing all students with standards that embody high expectations, and at the same time giving all students personalized learning opportunities. “Standards and personalization are not mutually exclusive,” says Goodwin. “…Standards should not be the ends of education, but rather the beginning, the platform for creativity, innovation, and personalization.”
Intervene early and get to the heart of the matter. Step one is early intervention. “Learning difficulties are far simpler to address early,” says Goodwin. “If left unchecked too long, learning difficulties may snowball to a point that even the most intensive (and costly) of interventions will produce, at best, mixed results… Unless educators begin to act proactively rather than reactively, they will remain in a perpetual state of emergency.” Step two is addressing the deep causes of student performance: home environment, prior knowledge, interest, and motivation. “Educators should not consider students’ environments, background knowledge, or motivation (which account for as much as 80% of the variance in student achievement) as being beyond their reach,” says Goodwin. “Many programs and interventions have been shown to positively address all three, and they must be addressed to change the odds for students.”
Create a high-performance school culture. There is significant variance in the quality of instruction and classroom management among different teachers in the same school. Goodwin says that “leadership behaviors that focus on developing teachers appear to be much more powerful than those that focus on developing the organization. Thus, leaders would do well to focus attention and energies on improving classroom instruction.” While working with individual teachers is important, it’s also crucial to develop a schoolwide ethos of high expectations for academics and behavior. Exemplars are: “Be Kind, Work Hard, Get Smart” for students (the motto of E.L. Haynes School in Washington, D.C.), and “Can Do” for adults.
Develop data-driven, high-reliability systems. This includes hiring effective teachers, setting clear, “no excuses” goals for teaching and learning and monitoring progress during each year, adopting a flexible yet consistent approach to instruction, supporting great teaching with individualized staff development, and ensuring great teaching through evaluation and accountability. “Just as an airline or nuclear power plant would never set a goal of being anything less than disaster free,” says Goodwin, “school systems should focus on ensuring the success of 100 percent of their children.” This means “developing a healthy preoccupation with failure, prevention, and intervention,” he continues. “To be high-reliability organizations, school systems must adopt data and diagnostic systems that identify error patterns as soon as they occur, putting in place processes for responding to them, and learning from failures in the spirit of kaizen, or continuous improvement.”

“Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most” by Bryan Goodwin, a special issue of Changing Schools from McREL, 2010