Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

We’ve recently begun helping districts use improvement science to work on problems of practice. To develop a more rounded view of the problems, teachers have been working in their schools to gather the stories of diverse students and other teachers about their experiences with teaching and learning. When we bring teachers and administrators back together to talk about what they’ve learned about the causes of low student achievement, we overwhelmingly hear talk about the quality of the instructional materials used in classrooms. Teachers state that students speak keenly about the lack of thinking required of them in the tasks they are asked to engage in, and teachers speak about the lack of quality resources afforded to them.

This isn’t surprising. Historically, research has shown that students most in need of rigorous instruction and cognitively demanding tasks are the least likely to be given opportunities to engage in higher-level instructional tasks (Clare & Aschbacher, 2001; Matsumura, Garnier, Pascal, & Valdés, 2002; Matsumura, Slater, & Crosson, 2008; Newmann, Bryk, & Nagaoka, 2001). When we look to help districts increase the academic success of their students, we begin by engaging teachers and administrators in analyzing the intellectual work of tasks using the English Language Arts Text-Based Task Analysis Guide introduced in the feature article of this month’s newsletter.

In professional development (PD), we work with teachers to understand the intellectual work required to respond to both lower-level and higher-level instructional tasks by asking teachers to complete both types of tasks. Engaging in the tasks and noting what a higher-level sequence of tasks does for student learning are critical components to understanding the knowledge and skills the tasks require and build. As Tony points out about the tasks created for “I Have a Dream,” teachers quickly note the difference in the intellectual work required for the higher- and lower-level tasks. Teachers also see how a sequence of tasks supported by the appropriate classroom routines help students to build understanding of a complex text over multiple readings, writings, and conversations with peers. A sequence of authentic high-level questions sets the expectation that you may not get “it” right the first time, and that’s okay because there are additional opportunities to build understanding. Lower-level, test simulation questions provide students few, if any, opportunities to revise thinking and use metacognitive skills to reflect on how their thinking about a text changed over the course of work and why that change occurred.

During PD, we ask teachers to use the higher-level tasks as guides to create tasks for another complex text and then as part of a framework for evaluating (and potentially redesigning) the tasks they use with students. When teachers apply a critical lens to the tasks in their curriculum, they quickly understand the frustration expressed by students in regard to the lack of intellectual challenge they face in their content area classes. Teachers also feel empowered to create tasks that will challenge students and scaffold student learning.

We’ve heard from several of our teachers in our school-based improvement science teams who are using the English Language Arts Text-Based Task Analysis Guide to evaluate their own work, and they were surprised by the lack of higher-level tasks in their own curriculum. Teachers have begun the work of revising the tasks they use (and some have begun searching for new texts after discovering the texts they use with students don’t support a lot of higher-level work) and have found the work to be challenging, especially developing the initial comprehension questions, because it requires a shift from asking students to do recall work to asking students to create and talk about evidence-based statements. However, through collaborative work that involves planning, peer and self-reflection, and post-lesson conversations, teachers are persisting through some of the initial challenges and finding success in providing high-level work to every student.


Clare, L., & Aschbacher, P. R. (2001). Exploring the technical quality of using assignments and student work as indicators of classroom practice. Educational Assessment, 7(1), 39-59.

Matsumura, L. C., Garnier, H., Pascal, J., & Valdés, R. (2002). Measuring instructional quality in accountability systems: Classroom assignments and student achievement. Educational Assessment, 8(3), 207-229.

Matsumura, L. C., Slater, S. C., & Crosson, A. (2008). Classroom climate, rigorous instruction and curriculum, and students’ interactions in urban middle schools. The elementary School Journal, 108(4), 293-312.

Newmann, F. M., Bryk, A. S., & Nagaoka, J. K. (2001). Authentic intellectual work and standardized tests: Conflict or coexistence? Improving Chicago’s Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago Research.