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Study: Give Weak Teachers Good Lesson Plans, Not Professional Development

A recent study found that giving middle school math teachers access to inquiry-based lesson plans and online support significantly improved student achievement—and benefited weaker teachers the most. 

The effect on learning was about the same as moving from an average-performing teacher to one at the 80th percentile. 

The authors, C. Kirabo Jackson, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, and Alexey Makarin, a Ph.D. student in economics at the university, conducted the study with about 360 teachers in three Virginia school districts. Teachers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a control group that maintained business as usual, a group that received a login for the online curriculum, and a group that received both a login and some online supports for using the lesson plans.

The teachers had access to seven lesson plans, which revolved around real-world situations and were intended to be used over two to five class periods. "The lessons directly talk about things like the XBox, McDonald's, the NBA—students are interested in those topics," said Kirabo in a phone interview. In these inquiry-based lessons, "the teacher is really more of a facilitator," he added. "She's certainly guiding them toward a goal but not telling them what to do."

Least Effective Teachers See Most Benefit

Use of the lesson plans, all created by the company Mathalicious, was voluntary. On average, teachers taught about two or three of the lesson plans.

Even so, the authors saw some noteworthy effects. Giving teachers both the lesson plans and support had a positive, significant effect on students' end-of-year math test scores, according to the study, which was published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. (These teachers increased their students' test scores by about 10 percent of a standard deviation relative to the control group.) Only giving teachers access to the lesson plans also had a positive effect, though it was not statistically significant.

The weaker teachers, those who were generally less effective at improving student performance, saw the greatest benefits from being given the "off-the-shelf" lessons. "For these teachers who are not that strong, it's allowing them to use that lesson instead of their efforts at teaching these topics and [giving students a] deep understanding," said Jackson. "They also don't have to spend time coming up with lessons so it frees them up to do other things."

'A Much Better Investment'

Jackson noted that the intervention is also very low cost—only about $430 per teacher. 

"A bunch of studies that look at professional development find the effect is zero," he said. "This is a much better investment than a lot of the PD that's currently being implemented by schools." (A 2014 review of 600 studies on math professional development for K-12 teachers found just two studies showing positive effects on students' math proficiency, as we've written.)

Giving teachers lesson plans is also cheaper and easier to scale than other interventions aimed at improving student achievement, such as removing ineffective teachers and giving teachers incentives to put in greater effort, the study notes. 

The results of the study are likely somewhat generalizable, said Jackson, but a key takeaway is that the lesson plans given to teachers must be well-designed and promote deep understanding. "The difference here would be the quality of the lessons, not that you have a lesson per se," he said. 

However, it's important to note that determinations about which instructional materials are "high quality" have caused many a feud. Recently, such debates have centered around whether both textbooks and materials that are freely available on the Internet are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Related stories:

For more news and information on reading, math, and STEM instruction: 

For more information on this topic, read Education Week's special report, Navigating New Curriculum Choices.

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