Background: Policy discussion to change the nature of teaching practices overshadows how social and economic inequalities contribute to unequal education outcomes. Research on how teaching practices contribute to the variance in test scores on a broad scale or on whether the relation of instruction to test scores is moderated by social and economic inequalities among students is thin. This is the focus of this article.
Purpose: Two questions are addressed. The first question has to do with the relation of instruction and poverty at the individual and classroom levels to mathematics scores. The second question has to do with whether the relation between instruction and mathematics scores is moderated by poverty among students. This article examines test scores in five mathematics subtests.
Research Design: The sample consists of 13,054 students in 822 public and private kindergarten programs from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort data. The statistical model accounts for the unobserved heterogeneity among students who are taught by the same teacher using a fixed effect model of students nested in the same classrooms.
Results: The portion of the variance attributable to actions occurring in the classroom (between-classroom variance) ranges from 15% to 25%, depending on the subtest examined. Of this estimated variance, instruction explains 4%; the concentration of poverty in the classroom explains about 20%; and teacher characteristics (education, professional development, experience) explain about 2%. For the first question, the results show that activities with worksheets, building students' analytic and reasoning abilities, and activities in collaborative groups are significantly associated with mathematics scores. Worksheets are not very effective in improving scores in the addition and subtraction subtest, whereas building students' analytic and reasoning abilities does improve scores in that subtest. The adverse effects of poverty on test scores are larger than the positive effects associated with instruction. For the second question, the results show that analytic and reasoning activities are significantly related to the test scores of students in high-poverty classrooms, but this is not the case with students in low-poverty classrooms. The findings suggest that students in poverty would benefit to be in classrooms that emphasize problem-solving and reasoning skills with greater frequency.
Conclusions: The relation of instruction to test scores is generally modest when compared with poverty, suggesting that minimizing the social inequities that contribute to the adverse effects of poverty will play a greater role in closing the poverty score gaps in mathematics in elementary grades.