(Davie Hinshaw/Charlotte Observer/AP)
Columnist

The fifth-grade math class was a disaster. Fifty minutes in, students were still working on four warm-up problems. The teacher told an observer that the initial exercises were just to “calm [them] down from gym.” As the class ended, little had been learned.

The observer, an experienced teaching coach, wrote: “The lesson moves at an almost unbearably slow pace. The teacher moves through the operations on the board, not checking whether her students understand, [nor] pausing to answer questions, or asking students to do much of the work. She solves most of the problems herself, and on one occasion does so incorrectly.”

This is what educational research hardly ever gives us: a look inside classrooms. That is why the nonprofit research and teacher training organization, TNTP, formerly known as the New Teacher Project, has been so essential in revealing how often children encounter teachers who lack the skill or support to help them learn.

The observer’s account is from TNTP’s latest inside report, “The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down — and How to Fix It.” The researchers persuaded five school districts, rural and urban, to let them inside by promising not to identify the schools or teachers. In nearly 1,000 observed lessons, students met the demands of their assignments 71 percent of the time.

But those activities and assignments often did not meet the district’s and the state’s learning standards. The slow-motion math class was typical. Seventy-four percent of lessons observed were below grade level. “Even when we did see students offered grade-appropriate assignments, their teachers engaged them effectively with that content less than half the time, and students had the chance to do the deep thinking of the lesson just a quarter of the time,” the report said.

The observers assessed not only how many lessons were grade-appropriate, but also whether teachers encouraged students to think about what they were learning, if they engaged their interest and also held them to high expectations. The researchers reviewed almost 5,000 assignments, more than 20,000 student work samples and nearly 30,000 student surveys.

The classroom instructors often stumbled, but the report emphasized that “teachers too have been subject to a false promise. Their time has been wasted on expensive and lengthy teacher preparation programs that don’t prepare them for the realities of the classroom and development opportunities that don’t help them improve; on having to sift through far too many mediocre materials; with guidance that pulls them in a thousand directions but doesn’t help them do their jobs well — all while being undervalued and undercompensated.”

The report confessed that TNTP itself has erred. For many years, the report said, “we trained new teachers to lead compliant students through a standard curriculum” without making sure students were challenged. Students need to be “trying out new skills and wrestling with new knowledge,” the researchers said, “rather than just receiving information.”

The schools they studied wasted time and told lies. The researchers found that students in an Advanced Placement physics class spent an entire class period making a vocabulary poster. One student transferred to a new program her district said would further her dream of a medical career, only to find that there were no AP math or science courses available.

Citizens and educators must watch for unkept promises, the report said. “If you don’t know specifically, with direct evidence, how these commitments are being upheld in your classroom, school, system, or state, then they are not being upheld,” it said.

But how are parents ever to know that? One district, Buffalo, has revealed that it was part of the study, but TNTP spokesman Andy Jacob said the confidentiality agreement means his organization can’t tell me, or even the school, the name of the disorganized fifth-grade math teacher.

Jacob said that in some places, school leaders “will embrace their responsibility to give parents more honest information,” but in others, “it’ll take students, parents, and local advocates lobbying for the transparency they deserve.”

I’m a big optimist. But even I don’t see how parents and students are going to break through a school district’s natural tendency to hide mistakes. If they do, I will let you know.