Instructional Differences in High-Poverty Elementary Schools: High vs Low Performing

Instructional Differences in High-Poverty Elementary Schools: High vs Low Performing

As of the 2013-2014 school year, 25% of U.S. public schools were designated as high poverty (37). The status of these schools not only reflects the economic position of the 20% of American children who live in poverty, but also the ever-widening academic achievement gap (37). In their paper, “Exploring instructional differences and school performance in high-poverty elementary schools,” authors Regina G. Hirn et al. note that there is a well-documented link between socioeconomic status and school achievement (37). They remark that compared to affluent students, poorer students are less likely to “become proficient in reading or math” and tend to have “poor trajectories throughout their lives—including being more likely to be in poor health, to have children with poor health, to have children as teenagers, and to have children who do not do well in school” (37-38). Along with student poverty, Hirn et al. explain that high-poverty schools’ hiring trends also negatively contribute to student achievement. In particular, high-poverty schools “tend to employ teachers with less experience, lower levels of education, and lower retention rates than those in wealthier areas” (38).

For Hirn et al., No Child Left Behind, licensure, and credential requirements have failed to address the achievement gap problem in the United States. They argue that to address the problem of low achieving schools, it is necessary to examine the teaching practices within those schools (38).

“Despite the abundance of risk factors for low student achievement among students in high-poverty schools, teachers are increasingly held accountable for ensuring students’ progress in curriculum. Given these extremely difficult circumstances, teachers must take advantage of empirically supported strategies designed to maximize student engagement and learning” (45).

For this study, Hirn et al. focus on teachers’ implementation of two teaching strategies that have been empirically linked to student success in the classroom: student engagement and positive feedback (39). Here, engagement “is defined as the degree to which the student is attending to, interacting with, and responding to the curriculum” (38). This involves teacher-directed opportunity to respond (OTR), in which the teacher directs students to carry out an action or to give a verbal or non-verbal response (38). The authors also explain that positive feedback, rather than negative feedback, has also been linked to improving student performance. In contrast, “reprimands are more predictive of future negative teacher-student interaction…the use of negative feedback for a given behavior is an indication that instruction is not working” (39).

Hirn et al. investigated the teaching practices in 22 different high-poverty elementary schools in one state in the southeastern United States. All of the schools were (1) similar in size, (2) receiving Title I funding, and (3) had similarly high levels of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch. Of these 22 schools, 11 were “high-poverty, high-performing” (scoring 70% or higher on state testing measures) and 11 were “high-poverty, low-performing” (scoring below 70% on state testing measures). During the study, the researchers observed classes—particularly a teacher’s interaction with one randomly chosen student in the class—and coded into a handheld device teacher-student behaviors, including OTC and types of feedback.

The Findings

  • Teachers in high-poverty/high-performing schools had much higher rates of “opportunity to respond” (OTR) than teachers in low-performing schools
    • Low-performing schools had 1 OTR every 1.5 minutes, while high performing schools had 1 OTR every minute (42)
    • Low-performing schools had OTR roughly 10 times in a 15-minute period, while high-performing schools had OTR 14 times
    • Across four 50-minute content classes, this is 136 OTC for low-performing vs 188 for high-performing

“In just five days of such instruction, students in high-performing schools may have had 260 more opportunities to respond, or become actively involved with a teacher in regard to curriculum” (43).

  • Teachers in high-performing schools had significantly less negative feedback
    • High performing schools had negative feedback once every 100 minutes, while low performing schools had negative feedback once every 42 minutes (42)
  • The more suspensions a school had, the more negative feedback teachers gave in class
  • Teachers tended to use negative feedback to address behavior problems rather than academics (43)
  • When controlling for number of school suspensions, there was little difference between teachers’ use of negative feedback at high- and low-performing schools (43)

To conclude their paper, Hirn, Hollo, and Scott argue that to help boost school achievement, it is essential for teacher pre-service training programs and for on-going professional development to equip teachers with strategies to actively and frequently engage students in the classroom (45).


Paper Title:  Exploring instructional differences and school performance in high-poverty elementary schools

Authors: (a) Regina G. Hirn, (b) Alexandra Hollo, and (a) Terrance M. Scott

(a) University of Louisville, KY    (b) West Viginia University, Morgantown, WV

Full Paper:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1045988X.2017.1329197

Published: Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, Volume 62, No. 1, 2018, Pages 37-48