Cover Story

When APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, was in elementary school, his teachers took one look at his low IQ score and lowered their expectations. The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy--a cycle of low achievement that didn't stop until a fourth-grade teacher named Mrs. Alexa decided he could do better.

"She thought I had the ability to do well and conveyed that to me," says Sternberg, now the IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale and director of the university's Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise. "I wanted to meet her expectations and did."

Sternberg's later research confirmed what his experience suggested--that students do better when teachers like Mrs. Alexa help them recognize and capitalize on their strengths. It also inspired his APA presidential initiative called "Education That Works for All Children," which aims to reform the educational system to better serve the needs of all children, whether they're strong in such traditional skills as memory and analysis.

In line with Sternberg's campaign, more psychologists are bringing their expertise to bear on such questions as what defines a high-quality teacher and what practices represent effective teaching.

With poor student outcomes spurring renewed interest in accountability among state and national policy-makers, psychologists are influencing education policy (see sidebar). They're transforming teacher training programs, creating models that put a greater emphasis on evidence, the liberal arts and mentoring. They're making existing research more accessible to teachers. And they're conducting new studies on everything from using computers in the classroom to promoting the teaching of such skills as resilience and responsibility.

In the process, they're bringing rigorous science to a field long characterized by anecdotal evidence.

Shifting emphasis

Although hard-nosed empirical studies dominated the education literature in the 1960s, say educational psychologists, qualitative studies that were far less focused on student performance outcomes became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now the pendulum is swinging back to rigorous science, says Herbert J. Walberg, PhD, research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the last three to five years, legislators and the public have become interested in results again.

Psychologist Daniel Fallon, PhD, chair of the education division at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, welcomes that renewed emphasis on scientific methods. When he reviewed the education literature for the American Council on Education in the 1990s, he found that fewer than 25 of the 500-plus refereed journal articles about teaching he examined were scientifically rigorous enough to trust.

"There's a lot of touchy-feely stuff," says Fallon, noting that the education literature is dominated by case studies. "As a result, a kind of folklore develops that is not very scientific and doesn't allow you to generate broad principles."

After preparing the council's influential 1999 report, "To Touch the Future: Transforming the Way Teachers Are Taught," Fallon started putting what he learned into practice.

Among the many educational reform programs Carnegie funds is Teachers for a New Era, which aims to create innovative teacher training programs to serve as models for the field. Over the life of the initiative, Carnegie and its collaborators expect to spend more than $65 million to transform teacher education. Grant recipients include New York City's Bank Street College of Education, California State University at Northridge, Michigan State University, the University of Virginia, Boston College, Florida A&M University, the University of Connecticut, Stanford University, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Although the five-year grant program gives these participating institutions a certain flexibility, they must agree to adhere to three basic principles to radically transform teacher training:

  • Programs must be guided by a respect for evidence. Institutions must assess their training programs' effectiveness by tracking how much children learn from teachers who have graduated from the programs.

"It challenges institutions to ask what Sally knew in September, what she knew in May and what the value added by the teacher was if you subtract September from May," explains Fallon. Institutions will then identify the teaching practices that facilitated children's learning and use that feedback to further improve their teacher training programs.

  • All arts and sciences faculty--not just education department faculty--must be engaged in training teachers. It's not enough for students to major in the subject they plan to teach, says Fallon, since majors don't necessarily gain the comprehensive knowledge they need to teach. If teachers want to be seen as well-educated professionals instead of mere employees, they also need a thorough grounding in the liberal arts.

  • Participating institutions must transform teaching into what Fallon calls an "academically taught clinical practice profession." In most teacher training programs, he explains, student teaching is trivialized. Student teachers often receive inadequate supervision, teach in lab schools rather than real ones and feel too vulnerable to ask advice from colleagues or supervisors once they start teaching for real. In Carnegie's program, institutions are responsible for mentoring graduates for two years.

The program's dissemination plans are simple: If results show that these principles really do improve student outcomes, Carnegie hopes that states will start embedding them in public policy.

"Everything is built on the principle of evidence," says Fallon.

Rigorous research

In the meantime, other psychologists are busy getting such evidence into teachers' hands and developing new evidence:

  • Lauren B. Resnick, EdD, Janet Schofield, PhD, and other psychologists on an interdisciplinary team at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) concentrate on producing scholarly research and making it accessible to educators. Psychology professor and LRDC senior scientist Schofield's five-year study of a large school district, for example, revealed the importance of using computers and other technologies only when they provide a comparative advantage over other teaching methods.

Helping such findings reach teachers is the goal of LRDC's outreach arm, the Institute of Learning.

"You have to consider what the research as a whole says and present it in a form teachers can actually make sense of," explains Resnick, director of both LRDC and the institute. The institute's Principles of Learning CD-ROM series draws on more than 25 years of research and includes video and audio clips, full-text articles and other resources to help educators learn to teach more effectively. Currently in use in several school districts, the products will soon be released more broadly.

  • Herb Walberg, PhD, also synthesizes research for an international audience. The Educational Practices Series he edits for the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's International Bureau of Education use simple language to distill research on a given topic into a dozen or so principles. Published in collaboration with the International Academy of Education, the booklets cover such topics as how children learn, effective educational practices and motivation to learn.

  • Jacquelynne S. Eccles, PhD, McKeachie Collegiate Professor of Psychology, Women's Studies and Education at the University of Michigan, explores the mystery of why kids lose motivation as they transition from sixth to seventh grade.

"People often attribute these declines to hormones, increasing peer interest and detachment from adults," says Eccles. "Such explanations blame the kids and are based on stereotypes about adolescent development."

In an ongoing longitudinal study of students in math classrooms, Eccles has discovered that ineffective teaching plays a large role in undermining motivation. Half the 3,000 students in the study had seventh-grade teachers who used developmentally inappropriate teaching techniques: Compared with sixth-grade teachers, these teachers focused on less-challenging cognitive tasks, felt less confident about their teaching abilities, used more controlling disciplinary techniques and had lower-quality emotional relationships with their students. The result was kids who experienced lower motivation performed poorer than predicted all the way through high school.

  • Robert Sternberg, PhD, is intent on helping teachers reach students not reached by conventional teaching's focus on memorization. Dubbed Teaching for Successful Intelligence, the alternative he developed builds on conventional teaching but asks teachers to add analytical, creative and practical learning to their teaching and assessment methods. In several small studies, Sternberg found that students taught this way outperformed other students. Now he and collaborator Elena L. Grigorenko, PhD, are finishing up a National Science Foundation-funded project that extends the experiment to approximately 15,000 fourth-graders. Although the final data aren't in yet, Sternberg says the preliminary results look good.

  • Rena F. Subotnik, PhD, director of the APA Education Directorate's Center for Psychology in the Schools and Education, will be principal investigator of a project that's an off-shoot of Sternberg's education initiative. The multisite collaboration of researchers and practitioners will develop and test a research-based model for infusing what Sternberg calls "the other three Rs"--reasoning, resilience and responsibility--into elementary education. As many as six pilot sites will test and evaluate an intervention that will train teachers to develop these attributes in their students. In June, APA received a $497,000 grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to fund the project.

Further Reading

For more educational research findings, visit the education section of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies Web site at www.behavior.org.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.