Behind the Classroom Door

Behind the Classroom Door      

For the past century the major project in schools has been and is to improve instruction by implementing research based instructional practices. Findings from the Study of Instructional Improvement (SII) gives even more insight into why the project has been and will continue to be so difficult.

The study was conducted (2004-2009) by the University of Michigan to follow the progress of schools that had adopted one or another of the Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) models promoted by the U.S.Department of Education.[1] The part of the study that gives insight into the difficulty of the improvement project is its look behind the classroom door.

The unit of reform has traditionally been the school. Our accountability system gives report cards to schools and districts. It is assumed that what is said about the school is also true about the class rooms in that school.

To test this assumption, the SII asked the question: what is really happening day by day in individual classrooms of the 112 participating schools?  Each teachers in each of the participating schools was asked to keep a detailed log of what he or she taught each day. A log would record, for example, “today we worked on word analysis,” or “the emphasis today was on reading comprehension.”

Reading the logs from the several hundred teachers was like opening classroom doors.

The most significant finding was that what took place day to day differed considerably class room to class room, even at the same grade level in the same school.           

For example, a fifth grade teacher’s day to day work in reading would be different from his or her next door neighbor’s class room. One teacher would spend 140 out of 180 days working on reading comprehension while his or her neighbor spent 40 days on comprehension and 140 days on word study. Another teacher would teach a highly structured writing process while a neighbor would ask the kids to produce much more writing and comment extensively on each paper. 

The important point is that what a child is likely to learn on a given day is highly variable in both the topic and the cognitive level. One student might experience ELA in terms of a lot of writing, while another student in the same grade at the same school would spend his or her time identifying subjects and verbs on worksheets.   

The study underlines a long understood but seldom discussed fact about schools. The differences from classroom to classroom in any given school are greater than differences between individual schools. (

When the school is the unit of measure, the averaging of the data washes out the variations.  In contrast the view from inside the classroom shows a much more complex world in which a teacher interacts with a group of kids by using a set of instructional materials that are enacted based on the individual teacher’s understanding of the task based his or her individual understanding of mandates from the school’s administration.       

Given what we see behind the classroom door, one student’s learning experiences are likely to differ significantly from another and what she does or does not learn will also differ.

The quest to improve learning is more than implementing an “innovation.”  It also means that the teachers who work in a school need to come together as a team who agree on certain basic understandings about how each enacts the school’s instructional program.


[1]You can read more about the study at (


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