In the early 1990's many states tried to devise more robust and coherent instructional policies, in efforts to make teaching and learning more thoughtful and demanding. Policymakers and reformers pressed teachers to help students understand mathematical concepts, to interpret serious literature, to write creatively about their own ideas and experiences, and to converse thoughtfully about history and social science. But these efforts to reform instruction encountered skepticism about the link between policy and pedagogy. Skeptics ask if it is reasonable to expect state policies to steer teaching and learning sharply away from long-established conventional practice, noting that previous efforts to change practice on a large scale had failed.
As instructional policy moved to the top of many state education agendas in the late 1990s, interest in the relations between policy and practice has grown. In this issue of CPRE Policy Briefs, we report encouraging findings from an important study that addresses these relationships. We use data from a 1994 survey of California elementary school teachers to probe the classroom effects of state efforts to reform mathematics teaching and learning in California. We report that policy changes did lead both to changed classroom practice and to improved student performance.
In this brief, we develop a rudimentary model of the relationship between policy and practice. Student achievement is the ultimate dependent measure; teachers' reported classroom practice in mathematics is an influence on achievement, but practice also is a measure of the effects of teachers' learning opportunities about new math curriculum. We present results which show that teachers' learning opportunities influenced their practice, and that both teachers' learning opportunities and their practice influenced students' mathematics achievement. The results suggest that teachers' practice can change in ways that favorably influence student achievement, and that policy can play an important role in making those changes possible.
We begin with a review of the California reform, briefly describe the research approach, and then discuss the major findings.