Teaching assistants make a positive difference on pupil outcomes

A working paper from the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research finds evidence that teaching assistants can have positive effects on pupil outcomes.

Charles T. Clotfelter and colleagues examined the role of teaching assistants and other non-teaching staff in elementary (primary) schools in North Carolina to identify causal effects on pupils’ test scores in maths and reading.

Positive effects were identified on test scores in reading, but for maths, positive effects were only found for minority pupils’ test scores. For both reading and maths, the effects on minority pupils’ test scores were larger than the effects on the test scores for white pupils.

The report also found that more teachers (and therefore smaller class sizes) had a number of positive effects on test scores, particularly for minority pupils, and were also associated with lower absentee rates and a lower probability of high rates of in-school suspension.  

Source: Teaching assistants and nonteaching staff: Do they improve student outcomes? (2016) National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER)

Breakfast clubs boost reading and mathematics results for primary school pupils

Breakfast clubs that offer pupils in primary schools a free and nutritious meal before school can boost their reading, writing and maths results, according to the results of a randomised controlled trial published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Over the course of an academic year parents of around 8,600 pupils from 106 primary schools in England with higher than average numbers of disadvantaged pupils were encouraged to send their child to free breakfast clubs. The independent evaluation by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Children’s Bureau found that for Year 2 children the provision of a breakfast club led to a significant improvement in the main outcome measures of mathematics (Effect Size = +0.15) and reading (+0.10) when compared with schools running “business as usual”. For Year 6 children, the impact on assessments were positive but slightly smaller in reading (+0.10) and mathematics (+0.08). Surprisingly, there were larger improvements for pupils not eligible for free school meals than for those eligible.

The evaluators also reported that pupils’ behaviour and concentration improved. Attendance at school also improved for pupils in breakfast club schools, resulting in about 26 fewer half-days of absence per year for a class of 30. The findings suggest that it is not just eating breakfast that delivers improvements, but attending a breakfast club. This could be due to the content of the breakfast itself, or to other social or educational benefits of the club.

Source: Magic Breakfast: Evaluating school breakfast provision. Evaluation report and executive summary (2016), Education Endowment Foundation

Have gender gaps in maths closed?

A study, published in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, explored the early development of gender gaps in mathematics achievement, including when gaps first appear, where in the distribution they develop, and whether these gaps have changed over the years.

Cimpian and colleagues compared two cohorts in the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: the kindergarten (Year 1) classes of 1998-1999 (N = 21,399) and 2010-2011 (N = 18,170). They observed that the gender gap at the top of the distribution (among the highest achievers in maths) begins in early elementary school (Year 2) and continues to get worse, and has not improved over the last decade. In both the 1998-1999 and 2010-2011 cohorts, girls represented less than one-third of students above the 99th percentile as early as the spring of kindergarten. By Grade 3 (Year 4) for the 1998-1999 cohort and Grade 2 (Year 3) for the 2010-2011 cohort, girls made up only one-fifth of those above the 99th percentile.

In addition to maths achievement, students’ learning behaviours and teacher expectations were examined, as these could be two potential contributors to the gender gaps. When boys and girls behaved and performed similarly, teachers in both cohorts underrated the maths skills of girls as early as Grade 1 (Year 2). In other words, in mathematics, for teachers to rate girls equally with boys, girls must work harder and behave better than the boys.

Source: Have gender gaps in math closed? Achievement, teacher perceptions, and learning behaviors across two ECLS-K cohorts (2016), AERA Open

Specialist teachers in primary schools

Would primary schools be more successful if, like secondary schools, they used specialist teachers for particular classes?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports on an experiment that tried to establish just that. In Houston, Texas, 50 elementary schools were randomised into treatment or control groups. Treatment schools altered their timetables to have teachers specialise in subjects such as maths, science, social studies, and reading based on each teacher’s strengths (assessed by the school principal). A class might be taught by one teacher for maths and science, and another for reading and social studies. Other classes had one teacher for maths, another for reading, and a third for science and social studies.

The results were negative. In the first year, schools with specialist teachers saw an effect size of -0.07 on maths and reading achievement. Over the first two years, the effect size was -0.05 for maths and -0.04 for reading, with the maths result statistically significant. For children in special education, the results were even worse, with an impact of -0.15 for reading and -0.20 for maths.

A teacher survey measured views on lesson planning, teacher relationships with students, enjoyment of teaching, and teaching strategies. Teachers in treatment schools were significantly less likely to report providing tailored instruction for their students. All other survey outcomes on teaching strategy were statistically identical between treatment and control.

Source: The ‘Pupil’ Factory: Specialization and the Production of Human Capital in Schools, National Bureau of Economic Research (2016)

Early oral competence linked to literacy

A new article published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology describes a three-year longitudinal study exploring the predictive relationship between oral narrative competence at age 5/6 and written narrative competence during the following two years.

A total of 80 Italian children participated in the study. They were followed for three years and tested three times:
  • Oral production was assessed at the end of the first year of the study, when the children were at the end of the equivalent of Year 1. This was in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure).
  • Written production was assessed at the end of the equivalent of Year 2 in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure) and orthographic competence (spelling).
  • Written production was assessed at the end of the equivalent of Year 3 in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure).
Overall, the study demonstrated that oral narrative competence in Year 1 predicted written narrative competence in the following two years, with orthographic competence (spelling) playing a relevant mediating role.
The authors conclude that their results suggest the importance of practising oral narrative competence in Year 1 and Year 2 and the value of composition quality independent of orthographic text accuracy.
Source: The Relationship Between Oral and Written Narratives: A Three-year Longitudinal Study of Narrative Cohesion, Coherence, and Structure (2015), British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4).

How parents respond to increased class size

A new working paper from the Swedish Ministry of Employment explores the responses of parents to variations in class size caused by a maximum class size rule in Swedish schools. This includes analysis by parental income.

The authors found that in response to an increase in class size: (1) only high-income parents helped their children more with homework; (2) all parents were more likely to move their child to another school; and (3) only low-income children found their teachers harder to follow when taught in a larger class.

Data for the study was taken from the Evaluation Through Follow-up (ETF) project, run by Göteborg University. This contains measures of pupil performance in the final year of upper primary school for roughly a 10% sample of the cohorts born in 1967, 1972, and 1982, and a 5% sample for the cohort born in 1977. The project included questionnaires distributed when pupils were 13 with information about the behaviour of parents, children, and teachers. In addition, data on parental income and education was taken from the Income Tax Register and the Educational Register.

The authors suggest that their findings help explain why the negative effect of class size on achievement is greater among low-income pupils.

Source: Parental Responses to Public Investments in Children: Evidence from a Maximum Class Size Rule (2015), Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy.