Wednesday / April 24

Want to Improve Student Learning? Look at your “Instructional Environments”

Standards Don’t Teach. . . Teachers Do!  How to Improve Classroom Success

 Dear Colleagues,

It’s easy to get personally overwhelmed in today’s day and age. We are bombarded by the 24/7 news cycle, constant e-mails, social media, and a world (for good and for bad) that is literally “at our finger tips”—or, at least, our “mouse clicks.”

The same is true in our professional lives. Relative to school improvement and maximizing student learning, new national (or international) reports are published daily, new experts seem to emerge weekly, and new approaches are marketed constantly.

And then, there are the “mixed messages”—especially from the U.S. Department of Education and many state departments of education. These messages come in the form of guidance instructions, white papers, websites and webinars, state-wide professional development programs (paid by the taxpayers), and even targeted grant proposal requests.

While our state and federal leaders say, “This is voluntary”… they typically communicate, “We know better than you”… and they often mean, “You would be well-advised to do this.”

I have seen this recently—and for too long a period of time—as it relates to the “options” for school improvement, PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), identifying and treating dyslexia and learning disabilities, and RtI and multi-tiered services.

The result, for many harried and overwhelmed educators, is to just assume that the “experts” sending us e-mails or in our state capitols have field-tested and validated their approaches. However, even when their approaches don’t make sense, many educators often accept them anyways, because they either want to be “in compliance,” or they don’t have time to research and vet the alternatives.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Staying Grounded

Educators need expertise that provides specific “evidence-based blueprints” (or road maps) that guide effective teaching, steer differentiated classroom instruction, and address students who are not learning, mastering, or applying the information that is being presented. These blueprints must flex with different student and staff conditions, while maintaining the integrity needed to accomplish functional and real student outcomes.

And just like the blueprint to a house that provides exact dimensions, plumbing and wiring locations, and decorative details… the blueprint for an effective school and classroom needs to look at the intersection of curricular factors, teacher-instructional factors, and student factors.

And why? Because teachers and administrators are dealing with real students, real situations, real resources (of the lack thereof), and colleagues who are doing the best that they can with the information and skills that they possess.

While I constantly “live” this reality in the schools I work with across the county, it was even more evident than usual during the past two weeks as I traveled from Michigan to New Jersey to Kentucky to Ohio.

For example, in one school, I found myself restraining a third grader who decided to turn over every desk in the in-school suspension room, and begin to use pencils as darts.

In another day treatment school, I watched as the local police handcuffed and arrested an adolescent boy and girl who had brought a box cutter and a butter knife to school in what staff thought was the beginning of a gang-related act of violence.

And in a third school, I had to argue with a new and inexperienced vice principal who did not have the knowledge and skills to recognize the limitations of the state’s PBIS training that she had just attended. At the same time, her building principal (with whom I have worked for over a decade) knew that the evidence-based approaches we have collaboratively implemented in her school do work—it is just that her staff stopped doing the work.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Another National Survey on Literacy Standards: Classroom Implications?

Last week (October 13th), the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) released a report, Building Literacy Capacity:  The Conditions for Effective Standards Implementation. This report summarized a May, 2015 on-line survey of over 1,400 building-level educators who disproportionately (50% of them) taught at the high school level.

Critically, the survey was sent only to building-level educators in public pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 schools in states that had recently adopted or revised their literacy standards (that is, a limited, pre-targeted sample). While educators with different school roles (principals, librarians, instructional coaches) were originally surveyed, this Report analyzed and focused only on the “findings specific to classroom teachers.”

Significantly, the Report’s author noted that those responding to the survey represented a “sample of convenience.” It was also noted that, given the disproportionate number of high school respondents, “sample weighting procedures were used to increase the relative weight of responses from elementary teachers in all summary statistics.” All of the data were reported in percentages with no grade-level differentiation.

_ _ _ _ _

While I am not criticizing the motivation behind this Report, it is concerning that:

  • The survey questions seem to be tailored to the mission, focus, and “theory of action” of this organization (which consists of stakeholders that include over 10 national education associations). Thus, the results appeared to be biased toward supporting most facets of the organization’s model of literacy learning.
  • As noted above, there were a number of methodological weaknesses in the study which likely impact the validity and generalizability of the results. As an Editorial Board member and reviewer (over the years) for half a dozen refereed professional journals, I have my doubts that this study would have been published in any of them.
  • Regardless, the Report was unveiled through a national Press Release, a social media deluge, and coverage in a prominent Education Week Teacher The media coverage emphasized only the summary and primary outcomes of the study.  It was left to the individual professional to read the Summary of Findings document where the methodological limitations and statistical transformations noted above were discussed.

_ _ _ _ _

Once again, my point is that this study represents many studies that, over the years, have been commissioned or sponsored by different governmental agencies, national associations, coalitions, foundations, university institutes, and others and have been released into our media-saturated professional worlds.

Ultimately, it is our obligation as responsible consumers to decide when (a) the “research” questions are self-selected to produce self-fulfilling results; (b) methodological and other weaknesses are present and de-emphasized; and (c) a study’s conclusions support an educational or political agenda favored by the sponsoring group.

All of this puts the “burden of proof” on the individual to determine the quality, importance, and generalizability of any study and its outcomes. And yet, there just isn’t enough time. Given the speed and demands of our professional lives (see the Introduction above), we sometimes accept the results of studies that confirm our beliefs, rather than analyze them in an objective and discerning way.

And, sometimes, this is exactly what some sponsoring groups depend on.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Getting Back to the Classroom

All of the critique aside, the NCLE Report’s conclusions were anchored by the group’s “Theory of Action,” and organized in five blueprint areas: Assessment, Instruction, Leadership, Professional Learning, and Curriculum.

While all of these areas potentially impact classroom instruction, the Report’s findings and recommendations discussed the kind of global, school-level, top-down strategies that sound great, but are open to interpretation and misinterpretation.

For example, the Report’s Press Release discussed the characteristics below as part of the “emerging” standards-based literacy instruction blueprint:

  • Assessment needs to be used to provide feedback on the learning process.
  • Instruction needs to be aligned with standards.
  • Leadership needs to provide clear direction accompanied by teacher ownership.
  • Professional Learning should be an investment where time is available for teacher collaboration.
  • Schools need to provide the time and support that allows teachers to review, adapt, and even create their own curricular materials to reflect instructional standards.

_ _ _ _ _

While this is all well and good, for our “how-many-e-mails-did-you-get-today” educators, we have got to target their classrooms, instruction, and students.

That is, if we truly want to improve student learning, we need to stop inundating and overwhelming educators with top-down generalizations, and give them clear and explicit guidance that focuses on the Instructional Environment.

_ _ _ _ _

The Instructional Environment involves the integration of curricular, teacher-instructional, and student characteristics and factors. The Curricular Characteristics and Factors involve the different academic curricula taught in a classroom, as well as their connection to state standards and benchmarks, and district scope and sequence objectives (i.e., “What needs to be learned?”).

Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Does my curriculum specify the particular objectives that the student is expected to master for each instructional unit?
  2. Does my curriculum specify the particular skills that the student must possess as a prerequisite to meeting the instructional objectives for each unit?
  3. Does my curriculum task analyze specific skills, when appropriate, such that sequential and mastery-oriented learning results for all students?
  4. Does my curriculum provide a range of levels to accommodate the different cognitive and language levels that might exist within an integrated classroom?
  5. Does my curriculum introduce new skills such that students have a high probability of success and provide sufficient positive practice opportunities for students to attain mastery?
  6. Does my curriculum have built-in opportunities for students to transfer new training to other academic situations, applications, and contexts?
  7. Does my curriculum have horizontal skill books and other materials available for students who need extra instruction and/or practice to attain mastery?
  8. Does my curriculum follow research-based methods of instruction relative to student mastery and other relevant outcomes?

_ _ _ _ _

The Teacher-Instructional Characteristics and Factors involve the teachers who are teaching specific academic curricula, and how they organize and execute their classroom instruction (i.e., “Are appropriate instructional and management strategies being used?”).

Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Does my instructional environment support the learning/educational process?
  2. Am I being effective with all students?
  3. Can I adapt or modify the curriculum such that there is an appropriate student-curriculum match?
  4. Is my instruction programmed for student success?
  5. When students are not responding to effective, differentiated instruction, is there a problem-solving process available to determine the root cause of the problem, and can the assessment results be linked directly to intervention?
  6. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, do I have the knowledge, skill, confidence, objectivity, and/or interactional skills to maximize success?
  7. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, are there appropriate resources, support materials, and staff available to me to maximize success?
  8. When academic modifications, accommodations, or interventions are needed, are the recommended interventions acceptable, socially valid, and able to be implemented effectively and realistically?

_ _ _ _ _

The Student Characteristics and Factors look especially at whether students are engaged in learning; are responding to effective instruction and sound curricula; and are motivated and able to learn, master, and apply academic material (i.e., “Is each student capable, prepared, motivated, and able to learn, and are they learning?”).

Among the questions that teachers need answered in this area are the following:

  1. Do all of my students have the prerequisite skills for the required/desired academic tasks?
  2. Do all of my students have the self-competency, cognitive/metacognitive, motivational, social/interactive, executive, and other supportive skills or strategies needed to for successful academic engagement and execution?
  3. Do all of my students have and/or use the appropriate learning styles and approaches needed to successfully complete all academic tasks?
  4. Are all of my students motivated to learn, dedicated to independent learning, and able to work individually, in small group settings, and in whole-group instruction?
  5. Are all of my students able to evaluate their own academic performance, or respond to formative and summative feedback that reflects on their progress, accomplishments, and goals?

These are the questions that teachers and administrators need answered when we approach them with new studies or national reports that describe (sometimes) new strategies, programs, or initiatives.

As working practitioners dealing with real students in real classrooms, these educators need fewer global, school-level, top-down strategies, and more direct, practical, step-by-step, field-tested, and student/staff friendly strategies and interventions. . . especially when they have academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


If we are really committed to better, high, and achievable outcomes for all students, we need to focus more on characteristics and factors that are directly related to our classrooms- – our Instructional Environments.

This is what our research tells us, and this is what our educators—especially our teachers—want and need.

National surveys and reports are important. But they sometimes get more media attention than they should… and sometimes, this attention persuades district and school administrators to begin professional development initiatives that are misapplied, misguided, and doomed for failure.

This is especially problematic when the studies and reports are flawed, when they are published anyways, and when their flaws are not transparently acknowledged.

_ _ _ _ _

I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts. Know that I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. I look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.



Dr. Howie Knoff

Director, Project ACHIEVE

Director, Arkansas Department of Education State Improvement Grant

Past-President, National Association of School Psychologists


Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

No comments

leave a comment