What Really Matters in K-12 Teaching and Learning? “Getting Beyond Folklore”

January 30, 2012 - 1 Comment

Over the past 40 years in the U.S., our student to teacher ratio has dropped from 22:1 to 17:1. Our teachers are better educated than ever – fully 62% today own a Masters degree, compared with only 23% in 1971. And we continue to spend – our nation’s investment in K-12 places us 4th in the world at $11,000 per student, trailing only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway.

So, what’s happened to our reading and math test scores over these past four decades? Virtually flat.

Why is this?

Roland Fryer, the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard, would argue it’s due in part to the fact we really do not know what the problems are. His view: “it’s time to apply some science to the problem of student achievement in our schools.”

Fryer, who heads up EdLabs in Cambridge and is working currently with the Digital Promise team, is aiming to change all that. He uses an in-class scientific method of observation and analysis to determine statistically which issues are the largest contributors to poor student performance, and which are the top predictors of increased achievement. He runs the data to be quick-turn, based on rapid and frequent sources of key input — say 15 uniquely charted classroom observations across a two-week period.  No multi-year studies for Fryer: “We can’t wait – he says. At this pace it will take a generation to change things, and by then that will be too late.”

In a recent Digital Promise/ EdLabs schools webinar hosted by Cisco, Fryer reviewed elements of this scientific approach, and talked about the ability to zero in, with data, on predictors of positive outcomes. “In Education for years we have been throwing a lot against the wall, all in a honest effort to help our schools, students and teachers. But do we really know, of all the levers available to us, which ones we can pull for a particular school or district?” he said. “Merit pay, smaller schools, charter schools, after-school programs, instructional coaching, culturally-sensitive curriculums…of all these, what can really close the gap? What works?”

The webinar, attended by members of the League of Innovative Schools, some of the leading technology innovators in USA K-12, reveals interesting highlights, observations, and results from EdLabs work. Many of the district attendees expressed interest in connecting with these studies and offering up their schools to be part of the downstream research program.

Among the diverse factors that Fryer analyzes >> What are the most effective models of teacher development? How can student incentives improve use of technology? What is the most effective instructional technology? What role could new video and collaboration tools, provided by companies like Cisco, play in the future of teaching and learning?

As Educators, when we look at the myriad challenges before us, clearly we have neither the time or money to “tackle everything.” Roland Fryer has built a compelling approach –  if he is right – we should focus our big bets on only a handful of factors. And you may be surprised to hear, in his own words on the webinar, what those are.

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  1. I have been coaching for 10 years and the one thing I notice with people is the progession of learning is different for everyone. Their are many different methods of delivering information as well. It may be time to look at grouping children on how they learn instead of trying to fit everyone into how the academics want them to learn.

    Food for thought,