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Research Paper Influential Person Elementary

At one point in your life — if you are lucky — an inspiring leader will change the way you see the world. All of the educators on this list have done that, in various ways, for students, teachers, and lifelong learners across the globe.

They’ve created cutting-edge tools to increase access to learning; built new schooling models from the ground up; anticipated the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century; and inspired other teachers to give the best of themselves in the classroom. In a wide range of ways, these educators are innovating the ways we learn.

Our Noodle team has extensively investigated the movers and shakers of education — and selected these 67 educators as the ones to watch in 2015. To frame our search, we decided that we would define educator broadly. On this list there are teachers as well as administrators, bloggers, journalists, policymakers, researchers, and activists who are transforming the education space as we know it. A few are also Noodle Experts, a group of thought leaders who regularly share their knowledge on our site to help students make better education decisions.

While the influencers on this list cover lots of educational ground, they also share several key characteristics. All are currently active in the education world, doing something influential in 2015, affiliated with a highly-regarded institution and/or personally well-known, and making an impact on the larger field beyond their classrooms or offices.

We’ve divided the list into groups, featuring the top educators in ed tech, education analysis (research and journalism), higher education, and K–12 education (charter, public, and private schools). We cannot wait to see how these 67 educators continue to change our world this year, and we are thrilled to see who will stand on their shoulders to reach new heights next year.

Table of Contents

Below is the full list of educators. To read a specific profile, click on the person's name.

Ed Tech

Anant Agarwal
Steven Anderson
Adam Bellow
Laura Blankenship
Richard Byrne
Rafranz Davis
Vicki Davis
Jeff Dunn
Lucy Gray
Angela Maiers
Salman Khan
Nichole Pinkard
Joel Rose and Christopher Rush
Eric Sheninger
Shelly Sanchez Terrell
Sebastian Thrun
Tom Whitby

Education Analysis

Amy Chua
Larry Ferlazzo
Jackie Gerstein
Elizabeth Green
James Heckman
Tatyana Kleyn
Doug Lemov
Diane Ravitch
Will Richardson
Sir Ken Robinson
Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj
Carolyn Strom
Shauna Tominey
Paul Tough
Audrey Watters
Lois Weiner

Higher Ed

Kaushik Basu
Jonah Berger
Andy Hargreaves
Catharine Bond Hill
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang
Maria Klawe
Donna Linderman
Carlos McCray
Ben Nelson
Pedro Noguera
Ted O'Neill
Trevor Packer
Jonathan Plucker
Steven Strogatz

K–12

Seth Andrew
The Blocks
Michael Brown
Geoffrey Canada
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin
Miriam González Durántez
Greg Green
Aileen Hefferren
Sheldon Horowitz
Ileana Jiménez
Wendy Kopp
Jamie Martin
Eva Moskowitz
Kyle Redford
The Sandefers
Rev. Timothy Scully
Randi Weingarten
Angelina Zeller

Ed Tech

Anant Agarwal

Founder and CEO of edX

What He's Doing

Anant Agarwal created and manages edX, which offers online courses and educational content across a wide range of subject areas. A collaboration between MIT and Harvard, edX draws upon an “xConsortium” of institutional partners to create resources for learners worldwide. In addition to being a leading provider of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, edX also conducts and publishes research on learners and learning. Beyond his work with the company, Agarwal teaches electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, where he has worked for nearly 27 years.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Agarwal’s innovative open-source platform is designed to inform and empower students and educators alike. With some of the world’s leading universities as collaborators, edX is both expanding access to education and helping us better understand how we learn online.

What His Background Is

Agarwal earned his bachelor's degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, and went on to receive his Ph.D. at MIT. Before joining edX, Agarwal served as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Agarwal is also recognized for his captivating teaching — he won several teaching prizes at MIT and had an audience of 155,000 students across the world when he taught edX’s first course.

What May Surprise You

Until 2014, Anant Agarwal held the Guinness World Record for the largest microphone array.

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Steven Anderson

Co-founder of #EdChat on Twitter, Education consultant

What He's Doing

More than five years ago, Steven Anderson helped start #EdChat on Twitter, along with Shelly Sanchez Terrell and Tom Whitby. Through this hashtag, educators around the world can contribute advice or ask questions about their experiences. Once a week, moderators guide a discussion about a specific topic, and educators contribute their input. Additionally, Anderson leads workshops and professional development sessions about how to be a tech-savvy educator and administrator.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

#EdChat connects teachers around the world and uses a common pool of knowledge to create stimulating debates and enable users to find best practices. This was one of the first big education movements on Twitter — and it is still going strong. Anderson is also working to share what he has learned on #EdChat through the professional development workshops he leads.

What His Background Is

Anderson received his B.S. from Western Carolina University and holds an M.A. in education from East Carolina University. Before becoming a speaker and consultant, Anderson was a teacher. He has won several awards, including the Edublogs Twitterer of the Year, plus a Bammy for #EdChat.

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Adam Bellow

Creator of eduTecher and eduClipper

What He's Doing

Adam Bellow started eduTecher, a website that helps teachers use education technology and Web-based tools through webinars and blog posts. Additionally, he created eduClipper, which has been called a "Pinterest for education." It's a clipboard-style site providing a platform for educators to curate and share Web content with one another.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Both eduTecher and eduClipper make sharing best practices and creating a tight-knit, international community of educators possible. These easy-to-use platforms also allow teachers to explore, share, and distribute resources and materials to their students.

What His Background Is

Bellow received his B.A. from Hofstra University, and holds two master's degrees in education — an M.A. in special education from City University of New York–Hunter College and an M.A. in education technology from Long Island University–Post. Before beginning his entrepreneurial journey, he held several positions within the College Board educational technology department. Bellow is also is a well-known speaker and published author in the ed tech space.

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Laura Blankenship

Founder of GeekyMomBlog.com, Chair of computer science at The Baldwin School

What She's Doing

A woman who wears many hats, Laura Blankenship is a mother of two, a prolific blogger on the nearly decade-old Geeky Mom blog, and the computer science chair at The Baldwin School, an all-girls private preparatory school. There, she is trailblazing a computer science curriculum geared toward students as young as eleven years old.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Blankenship has become an authentic voice in education issues, which she often contextualizes through her own experiences as an educator and mother. She is a strong supporter of female involvement in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields like computer science, and she participates in nationwide workshops and presentations.

What Her Background Is

Blankenship has a B.A. from Rhodes College and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of Arkansas. She is a self-taught programmer.

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Richard Byrne

Founder and author of the Free Technology for Teachers blog

What He's Doing

For more than six years, Richard Byrne has been compiling a list of free and useful educational resources and posting it on a blog, Free Technology for Teachers. Byrne also discusses relevant issues within the ed tech space, updating a community of educators on best practices and innovations. He has amassed a daily following of more than 60,000 and continues to blog and speak worldwide.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

He believes all valuable education technology serves one of three purposes: discovery of information, discussion of information, and demonstration of knowledge. His carefully-curated collection of highlighted apps and websites has created a standard for the ed tech world.

What His Background Is

Bynre holds a bachelor's degrees from the University of Maine and has done graduate work at the University of Phoenix. He taught social studies at a public high school in Maine for eight years before launching his blog. Free Technology for Teachers has won several Edublogs awards for its quality content, and Byrne has traveled around the world talking to teachers about how to engage students successfully in a digital classroom.

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Rafranz Davis

Instructional technology specialist for Arlington, Texas school district

What She's Doing

Rafranz Davis's current work supports technology implementation and professional development for teachers. She is a writer, speaker, and advocate for passion-based learning and the consideration of diverse perspectives in the development and implementation of education technology. Her most recent book, The Missing Voices in EdTech: Bringing Diversity into EdTech, discusses the dangers and lost opportunities of failing to incorporate the viewpoints of women and people of color in education technology.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Education reform and technology initiatives frequently overlook considerations of pedagogy and motivation, as well as issues of culture, class, identity, and gender. Davis is not only personally invested in the use of technology in educational settings, but also has a keen sense of the potential pitfalls within the education technology and reform movements.

What Her Background Is

Davis holds an associate's degree from Navarro College and bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas A&M University–Commerce. Her professional life has been heavily steeped in the use of technology in educational settings since her undergraduate years, during which she participated in a teacher-quality grant program that challenged prospective teachers to incorporate digital tools into their classrooms. She was a middle school math teacher before becoming a curricular strategist and technologist.

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Vicki Davis

Creator of Cool Cat Teacher Blog, IT administrator and teacher at Westwood Schools

What She's Doing

Vicki Davis currently teaches business and computer skills at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia, where she is also the IT administrator. She is, however, best-known for her Cool Cat Teacher Blog, where she shares advice about ed tech, teaching, and social media. Additionally, Davis hosts a show called Every Classroom Matters on BAM! Radio Network, and she provides professional development and workshops to schools and organizations.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

A key aim in modern education is to graduate culturally-literate and globally-competent citizens. One of Davis’s books, Flattening Classrooms and Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time, outlines her philosophy: Teachers in the 21st century must leverage globalization and communications technology to connect students and educators worldwide in international collaborative learning.

What Her Background Is

Davis earned her bachelor's degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Davis has been a teacher and IT administrator for nearly 13 years, and her insights into teaching have been noted by researchers and writers, including Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat. Her blog has received recognition from Edublogs, and Davis has also won the ISTE Online Learning Award.

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Jeff Dunn

Co-founder of Daily Genius and Edudemic, Online education specialist at Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)

What He's Doing

Jeff Dunn’s site Daily Genius helps education professionals learn about new topics in education, tech, and ed tech. At the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit dedicated to securing and stewarding how we access the Internet, Dunn helped launch an online learning portal and assists members of the global ICANN community in connecting with one another.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

In the rapidly-evolving world of ed tech, Daily Genius allows teachers to stay informed about developments that can enhance their classrooms. At ICANN, Dunn works with diplomats, executives, and global thought leaders to help encourage better understanding of highly technical (mostly Internet-related) topics.

What His Background Is

In 2010, Dunn founded Edudemic, one the world's largest education tech websites, and worked as the executive editor there for several years. He was also a former communications manager at Harvard Law School. He holds an A.L.M. from Harvard and a B.A. from Trinity College (Hartford).

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Lucy Gray

Education consultant, Co-founder of the Global Education Conference

What She's Doing

As a consultant, Lucy Gray has advised a range of educators and organizations, including Edmodo and EdSurge, on best teaching practices using 21st-century technology. She is an Apple Distinguished Educator and the founder of the Global Education Conference, which brings together an online network of students, educators, and organizations to share ideas and projects related to global education. Most recently, Lucy has been working on individual projects related to innovation with CUE Inc., Kajeet Education, the Convergence Academies, and an international school based in New York City.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Gray is a leading voice in the conversation about 21st-century learning initiatives, and she is helping influence the way educators use technology to modernize their teaching practices. Through the Global Education Conference network, she is also working to foster worldwide dialogue about education issues.

What Her Background Is

Gray earned her B.A. from Beloit College and went on to receive her Ed.M. at National-Louis University. She began her career as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. Gray has also worked at the University of Chicago in a variety of roles related to education technology, including at the Urban Education Institute and the University’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.

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Angela Maiers

Founder of Maiers Educational Services, Teacher, Writer

What She's Doing

Maiers is a star consultant and founder of her own firm, Maiers Educational Services. She specializes in curricular planning, technological literacy, parent outreach, and motivation. She is the author of The Passion-Driven Classroom and Classroom Habitudes, both of which discuss methods for creating classroom cultures of curiosity, adaptiveness, and technological literacy. She is also the author of the forthcoming e-book Liberating Genius in the Classroom.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Technological literacy, the capacity for lifelong learning, and other 21st-century skills are essential competencies in our modern society, which is marked by rapid technological change and global interconnectedness. Maiers has a proven and impressive track record of motivating and helping educators across the country transform their classrooms to meet the needs of today’s students.

What Her Background Is

Maiers has run her consultancy for 25 years. She has also taught elementary school reading classes and worked in middle school dropout prevention. Maiers completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and she received her master's degree from Drake University.

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Salman Khan

Founder and Executive Director of Khan Academy

What He's Doing

Salman Khan is the founder of Khan Academy, a free online educational site that provides practice exercises, instructional videos, and other personalized learning tools across a variety of subject areas. Khan Academy is a nonprofit organization that has been able to grow exponentially through user donations and support from high-profile funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, and Google.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

With more than one million unique students per month, Khan Academy is the most-used educational video source on the Internet. Khan and his company are at the forefront of developing innovative online education tools with the mission of providing “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” Khan Academy continues to democratize the education space with its accessible and affordable content; recently, the organization has partnered with established education organizations, such as the College Board and the American Association of Medical Colleges, to create free test-prep materials for the SAT and MCAT.

What His Background Is

Khan holds three degrees from MIT and is a Harvard Business School graduate. He worked as a financial analyst before founding Khan Academy.

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Nichole Pinkard

Associate professor at DePaul University in the College of Computing and Digital Media

What She's Doing

Nichole Pinkard believes that digital literacy will lead a revolution in the world of education. To turn her belief into action, she founded the Digital Youth Network in 2006. The Network aims to support educators so they can better teach technology and digital media. It also seeks to ensure that technology is available to a wide range of students, regardless of socioeconomic background or the presence of home Internet access.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

An associate professor at DePaul, Pinkard also teaches beyond the walls of the classroom: Digital Youth Network has spurred her to partner with the Chicago Public Library to develop the YOUMedia Learning Lab Network, which has undertaken the task of transforming libraries, museums, and community centers into innovative spaces that allow students to “hang out, mess around, and geek out” — all while being completely supported by a team of mentors.

What Her Background Is

Pinkard is a co-founder and chairperson of Remix Learning, a learning network for primary and secondary education. She holds a B.S. from Stanford and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Northwestern.

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Joel Rose and Christopher Rush

Co-founders of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, Creators of School of One

What They're Doing

In 2009, Joel Rose and Christopher Rush helped the New York City Department of Education develop School of One, a personalized learning platform that analyzes each student’s performance on a daily basis and customizes the following day’s lesson depending on the student’s learning style and needs. In their desire to spread this cutting-edge technology across the country, the duo founded New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to provide the personalized learning platform, now called Teach to One: Math. The organization is using the program to teach math to more than 6,000 middle schoolers.

How They're Changing the Ed Space

A study conducted by Douglas D. Ready showed that students who used the program had collective gains that were 47 percent higher than the national average. Allowing space for differentiated learning in a classroom has been a challenge that many educators have struggled to address, and New Classrooms Innovation Partners has the capacity to offer a widely-applicable solution.

What Their Background Is

Before working on School of One, Rose held several positions within the New York City Department of Education, including that Chief of Staff to the Deputy Chancellor. Rose originally got involved in education as a Teach for America Corps member. Rose holds degrees from Tufts and the University of Miami School of Law. Rush started as an outdoor education specialist in Pennsylvania, and he later went on to work at IBM before meeting Rose at the DOE. Rush holds degrees from Penn State and American Intercontinental University.

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Eric Sheninger

Senior Fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, K–12 director of Technology and Innovation at Spotswood, New Jersey school district

What He's Doing

Eric Sheninger is an advocate for transforming school cultures and incorporating technology use in the classroom. He writes, speaks, and consults extensively on the challenges of leading transformative initiatives (generally from his viewpoint as a principal), and he is an expert at mediating sustainable change through the use of Web 2.0 technologies, most notably social media.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Sheninger singles out social networks and mobile technology as potential educational game-changers. As a school principal, he systematized his experiences into a set of seven principles called the Pillars of Digital Leadership in Education, which emphasize engaging and connecting with the community and leveraging technological tools to help students in and out of the classroom.

What His Background Is

Sheninger was principal of New Milford High School when he led an initiative to create a culture that, in his own words, was "transparent, relevant, meaningful, engaging, and inspiring." Before then, he served as a science educator, coach, and administrator at the same school. Scheninger has received multiple awards and honors for his influential presence in the education world, including a Bammy for Secondary School Principal and a spot on TIME Magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds to Follow. Sheninger holds two bachelor's degrees — a B.S. from Salisbury University and a B.S. from University of Maryland Eastern Shore — and a master's in education from the East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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Shelly Sanchez Terrell

Co-founder of #EdChat, Creator of 30 Goals Challenge for Educators, Noodle Expert

What She's Doing

In addition to co-founding the #EdChat Twitter forum with Steven Anderson and Tom Whitby, Shelly Sanchez Terrell created the 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers — a community based on her book of the same name — where teachers set small goals that push them to become better educators. Terrell also launched the Reform Symposium Global e-Conference, a multiday virtual enrichment event for teachers. In addition, she has used her knowledge of the education space to consult for organizations around the world, from the Ministry of Education in Spain to UNESCO Bangkok.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Terrell has a talent for compiling, consolidating, and simplifying large quantities of educational resources. By curating the topics in the Reform Symposium, and by selecting salient goals that teachers can strive to accomplish throughout the years, Terrell gives teachers the tools to apply the sometimes-lofty ideas of education reform and technology.

What Her Background Is

Terrell has been recognized by multiple organizations, including the National Association of Professional Women, which named her Woman of the Year in 2014, and EdTech Magazine, which named her blog one of the 50 Must Read K–12 IT Blogs. She holds an Ed.M. from the University of Phoenix and a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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Sebastian Thrun

Founder of Udacity

What He's Doing

Sebastian Thrun is the founder of Udacity, a site that offers online courses and technical training for those seeking to advance their careers in the tech field. Designed in consultation with industry leaders — Thrun himself is a former Google VP and Fellow — Udacity’s Nanodegree model promises to provide students with an efficient, affordable way to gain the most relevant skills for today’s job market.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Udacity strives to bridge the gap between academia and the workforce by offering a new type of credential, the Nanodegree, which it characterizes as “compact, flexible, and job-focused.” Under Thrun’s leadership, the company is pioneering new models for online education and has the potential to expand beyond the fields of technology and computer science.

What His Background Is

At Google, Thrun was the lead on projects such as Google Glass and the self-driving car. He is also a research professor of computer science and robotics at Stanford University. Thrun completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hildesheim and holds Ph.D. from the University of Bonn in Germany.

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Tom Whitby

Co-founder of #EdChat, Host of EdChat Radio

What He's Doing

Tom Whitby is one of the co-founders of the Twitter forum #EdChat, along with Steven Anderson and Shelly Sanchez Terrell. When he’s not interviewing compelling educators on EdChat Radio, Whitby is giving them a voice through the Educator’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) that he founded; the site enables teachers and administrators to compile and share their collective classroom knowledge. Additionally, Whitby has written extensively about education in various forms, including in his own book, Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning, his personal blog, and his articles for EduTopia.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Whitby is constantly looking for new ways to foster communication and support among an international network of educators. By providing such opportunities in a variety of mediums, he casts a wide net that allows educators from various backgrounds to connect with one another.

What His Background Is

With 34 years of experience teaching in secondary school plus six in higher education, Tom Whitby knows the classroom inside and out. He has contributed to WISE Conference, an international educators event in Doha, Qatar, and won the ISTE Making IT Happen Award in 2014. Whitby earned a B.A. at Salem International University and an M.S. from Long Island Univeristy–Post.

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Education Analysis

Amy Chua

John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School, Author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”

What She's Doing

As a Yale Law professor — and winner of the school's "Best Teaching" award — Amy Chua teaches courses on contracts and international business transactions. As an author, she has written most famously (in the international best-seller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) about raising her children the "Chinese" way — with strict, achievement-oriented values.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

With the publication of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chua started an international dialog about how to raise high-achieving, successful children. Beyond her contributions to academic discourse (via writings on free-market democracy, among other topics), Chua has inflected conversations about education and child-rearing best practices.

What Her Background Is

An alumna of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Chua worked first as a law clerk and then as an associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton before taking a faculty position at Duke Law, later moving to Yale Law. Having grown up with strict Chinese-immigrant parents, Chua has sought to raise her own two daughters with the same values she knew as a child; she has chronicled these struggles and triumphs in her memoir.

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Larry Ferlazzo

Blogger, Teacher at Luther Burbank High School

What He's Doing

Larry Ferlazzo teaches a variety of courses, including English and social studies, to English-language learners and native-English speakers alike at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is also a regular contributor to Edublogs, Education Week, the New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and other publications. His writings primarily address strategies for teaching, motivating, and challenging ESL/ELL students.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Ferlazzo is a prolific and enthusiastic writer, focusing on teaching strategies which cultivate student success. For instance, his monthly column in the New York Times offers efficacious lesson-plans and approaches for the ELL classroom, and his newest book, Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond, centers on the importance of non-academic factors, such as grit and physical health, in a student's ability to do well in school. His extensive exploration of these subjects is leading educators, families, and students to think of academic success in a more holistic way, taking into account a student's motivation and personality.

What His Background Is

Ferlazzo was a community organizer for 19 years before becoming an educator. He’s written seven books about teaching strategies and his experiences in the classroom, and he has won various awards, including the IRA Presidential Award for Reading and Technology. Ferlazzo is an alumnus of the New College of California, California State University-Sacramento, and Goddard College.

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Jackie Gerstein

Writer and college instructor of education, counseling, and education technology

What She's Doing

Jackie Gerstein teaches college-level courses in education, counseling, and educational technology. She is a proponent of the educational philosophy social constructivism — which holds that learning is communal, and, pursuant to the demands of living in the 21st century, must leverage the use of digital technology and constitute a project- and inquiry-driven process.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Gerstein is one of several influential educators who have seriously considered how the demands of globalization and rapid technological change affect the fundamental aims of education. Her style of social constructivism is an information-age adaptation of holistic, experience-driven progressive pedagogies à la Dewey or Montessori. She has written about her work in holistic and experiential learning in Metaphors for Living: Stories and Related Experiential Exercises for Individual, Group, and Family Growth and Sticking Together: Experiential Activities for Family Counseling.

What Her Background Is

Gerstein earned her B.S. at Pennsylvania State University, her M.A. at University of Northern Colorado, and her Ed.D. at Northern Illinois University. She has been on the faculty at a number of colleges and has also worked as an elementary school teacher and counselor for troubled children.

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Elizabeth Green

Co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Chalkbeat

What She's Doing

Elizabeth Green founded GothamSchools, an online publication that covered educational issues in New York. The site was so successful that Green was able to merge with other similar outlets and start Chalkbeat, a nonprofit online publication that covers education news. As co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief, Green oversees the company’s four bureaus in New York City, Colorado, Indiana, and Tennessee.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Chalkbeat prides itself on publishing in-depth but accessible reportage, with the aim of promoting better outcomes for all students. Among its principles, Chalkbeat emphasizes the importance of editorial independence and keeping an agnostic platform, allowing the coverage that the outlet offers to be neutral and reliable. The sense of civic duty in keeping their reporting independent and thorough is a quality that filters through each piece of content that Chalkbeat publishes.

What Her Background Is

Green received her bachelor's degree at Harvard University and studied journalism at Columbia University, where she was a Spencer Fellow. She is the author of Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), from Norton, featured last year in the New York Times.

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James Heckman

Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Winner of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

What He's Doing

James Heckman holds professorships in economics, law, and public policy at the University of Chicago. His professional life has been dedicated to the advancement of empirical methods in the social sciences, with a focus on the economics of education and its implications for inequality and social mobility. His most recent research has investigated how psychometric tests measure (and fail to measure) cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Heckman's most famous and publicly influential work has concerned the efficacy of intensive early childhood education in contrast to adult remediation and rehabilitative programs. His findings — that intelligence in early life is essentially malleable and largely shaped by prenatal and early childhood stimulation — have provided the intellectual basis for universal pre-K initiatives and wraparound social services focused on early child care.

What His Background Is

Heckman was inspired to study racial discrimination and gaps in social status, mobility, and achievement by his experiences as a young man visiting the Jim Crow–era Deep South with a Nigerian college roommate. Although an economist by training, his work has also incorporated insights from genetics, economics, psychology, and neuroscience. He was awarded his B.A. at Colorado College and his Ph.D. at Princeton University

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Tatyana Kleyn

Professor at the City College of New York specializing in bilingual education, Noodle Expert

What She's Doing

Kleyn is an associate professor at CCNY's Teaching, Learning and Culture Bilingual Education and TESOL Department. She has written extensively about the situations of immigrants and English-language learners in a number of settings, and she co-produced and directed Living Undocumented: High School, College, and Beyond, a documentary about the challenges that undocumented students face.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Undocumented immigrants comprise 3.5 percent of the nation's population and 5.1 percent of the nation's workforce. About seven percent of K–12 students are the children of at least one undocumented parent. Kleyn's work illustrates the dangers and lost opportunities of failing to address the challenges that undocumented immigrants face. It also presents a practical way forward for educators whose students cope with the issues associated with being an undocumented immigrant.

What Her Background Is

Kleyn is herself the child of political asylum–seekers from the former Soviet Union. Before her university career, she was an elementary-school classroom teacher, curriculum developer, and bilingual education consultant. Kleyn earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Ohio State University and her Ed.D. from Columbia University's Teacher's College.

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Doug Lemov

Author, Managing director of Teach Like a Champion

What He's Doing

Driven to understand what makes exceptional teachers so effective, Lemov studies their practices and shares their techniques — collected in “The Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices,” or “The Taxonomy” for short — with other educators. His work formed the basis of the organization Teach Like a Champion, which makes great teaching techniques accessible, and inspired his book of the same name. He’s also the co-author of Practice Perfect, which illuminates the qualities that make a champion, and of a forthcoming book about reading and the Common Core standards.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Lemov has started a national conversation about how to evaluate — and how to become — an effective teacher. Teach Like a Champion studies the practices of great teachers and creates replicable models that other educators can adopt. His work also led to the publication of the widely read and discussed New York Times Magazine cover story, Building a Better Teacher.

What His Background Is

After spending several years running New York State Uncommon Schools while concurrently leading educator workshops, Lemov transitioned to focusing entirely on Teach Like a Champion. He holds a B.A. in English from Hamilton College, an M.A. in English from Indiana University–Bloomington, and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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Diane Ravitch

Research Professor at New York University, Blogger

What She's Doing

Ravitch works as an historian of education and a research professor of education at New York University, but she is perhaps best known for her blog, which has received more than 20 million page views since 2012 and is described by its author as “a site to discuss better education for all.” On the site, she rallies for teachers’ rights and unions and argues against standardized testing, charter schools, and the privatization of education. She's written over 500 articles and published 10 books, including The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, which contextualizes the last decade of education reform, and her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which specifies the roots of educational failure and proposes solutions revolving around the importance of public education.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Ravitch has been molding the way the public thinks about education for decades. She has held key roles, including as Assistant Secretary of Education and as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, that have allowed her to shape national policy under the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations. With more than 110,000 Twitter followers, Ravitch is widely regarded as an adamant advocate for the public school system and the leading voice for teachers, who often find their needs and demands unheard in a space dominated by policymakers and politicians.

What Her Background Is

Ravitch earned her B.A. at Wellesley College and her Ph.D. in the history of education at Columbia University, where she studied under Lawrence A. Cremin, the current president of the renowned Teacher’s College. Ravitch also served as the Brown Chair of Education Studies at the Brookings Institute, wrote two major books about education, and has received many of honorary doctorates and awards, including the John Dewey Education Award, the Grawemeyer Award, and the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modern Learner Media

What He's Doing

Will Richardson recognizes that with information more accessible than ever, the education world needs to adapt to stay relevant to students’ lives. Via his company Modern Learner Media, Richardson has created two important sources of information for those interested in staying abreast of education developments: Raising Modern Learners, geared toward parents, and Educating Modern Learners, geared toward administrators and teachers. Through his blog, Richardson also informs families and others about how they can be proactive in supporting schools.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Richardson is a staunch advocate of updating current education systems to incorporate the opportunities that the Internet and social media networks offer. He consistently reflects upon the question, "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Richardson not only challenges parents and policymakers to do the same, but also facilitates their doing so by providing guidance at Modern Learner Media.

What His Background Is

A veteran educator with 22 years of experience, Richardson has spoken to tens of thousands of teachers about digital learning around the world. He’s written four books, the most recent of which is Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. Richardson completed his undergraduate studies at Ohio University and his master's degree at The College of New Jersey.

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Sir Ken Robinson

Public intellectual, Proponent of arts education and creativity in education

What He's Doing

Since the publication of All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture, and Education, Sir Ken Robinson has served in a consultatory and advisory capacity to governments, corporations, and organizations with an interest in education as well as personal and professional growth. For instance, he was one of four advisors tasked with transforming Singapore into the creative capital of Asia, and he took part in conceiving the creative strategy for North Ireland’s Peace Process. His most recent book is called Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Robinson's TED Talk How Schools Kill Creativity is, with more than 33 million views (and counting), the most-watched TED talk of all time. His argument stems from three key principles. First, humans naturally have a diverse range of aptitudes and interests that are often not recognized or validated by formal educational institutions. Therefore: Education must be individually-tailored. Second, curiosity is the default human disposition, but is often eroded by formal schooling. Therefore: Teaching must be a high-status vocation. Finally, creativity, broadly construed, is the default mode of human engagement with the world. Therefore: Schools and institutions must be trusted to behave autonomously and inventively.

What His Background Is

Robinson has backgrounds in theater as well as education. He was a professor of education at the University of Warwick and head of the U.K.'s Select Committee on Education and Skills before becoming an internationally-recognized public intellectual, adviser, and consultant. Robinson is an alumnus of the University of Leeds and the University of London.

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Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj

Assistant Professor at Seton Hall University, Co-Director of the Center for College Readiness, Noodle Expert

What She's Doing

With a background in grassroots organizing, Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj was a natural fit to become a voice for undocumented students in the U.S. Her research focuses on how immigrant-origin children of different backgrounds are affected by education policy. In her much-lauded book, Unaccompanied Minors: Immigrant Youth, School Choice, and the Pursuit of Equity, she investigates what life is like for Latin American–immigrant youth facing the complicated system of school choice in New York City. As co-director of Seton Hall’s Center for College Readiness, Sattin-Bajaj leverages her research and that of her colleagues to develop modes of supporting low-income students.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Sattin-Bajaj begins her book by explaining that by 2018, about 30 percent of school-age children will be living with at least one immigrant parent. The issues she tackles are pressing, and her incisive analysis dives into the topic of school choice unapologetically. Her commitment to raising awareness about immigration issues and how they intersect with education is evident in the numerous and diverse outlets in which she has presented her research: WNYC, the Huffington Post, and the Peabody Journal of Education.

What Her Background Is

Sattin-Bajaj earned her B.A. at Duke University and her Ph.D. in international education from New York University. Before pursuing her doctoral studies, Sattin-Bajaj worked at the New York City Department of Education on secondary-school reform.

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Carolyn Strom

Founder of Reading Root, literacy specialist, Noodle Expert

What She's Doing

A state-certified reading specialist, Carolyn Strom spent ten years in the classroom before founding her own private tutoring and education consulting practice. Her company, Reading Root, helps students overcome their literacy hurdles. Strom believes that reading difficulties are the root of various other learning disabilities and differences. She infuses her scientific findings on learning, literacy, and the cognitive ability with anecdotes borrowed from her day-to-day teaching, as well as the questions that parents frequently ask. She also continues to teach at her doctoral alma mater, New York University.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

As part of her work, which is both comprehensive and accessible, Strom has delivered talks on literacy all over New York City. She also works with individual schools to ensure that teachers have the tools and knowledge they need to provide ongoing, rigorous instruction for students who may be at risk of reading failure.

What Her Background Is

Strom earned her Ph.D. in literacy from NYU, where she received a nomination for the Outstanding Dissertation Award. She also holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She began her career in the classroom as a Teach for America corps member.

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Shauna Tominey

Associate Research Scientist at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Noodle Expert

What She's Doing

Tominey is the director of early childhood programming and teacher education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, an organization that conducts groundbreaking research on emotional skills and helps schools incorporate best practices to teach children emotional intelligence. Tominey also directs the Preschool RULER Development Project, a collaborative program between the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Stamford's Childcare Learning Centers that strives to develop evidence-based initiatives that incorporate emotional education in the preschool classroom. To help fuel her evolving understanding of social skills, Tominey conducts research at the Yale Child Study Center, where she works to understand how disadvantaged families teach their children about resilience.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Tominey's research focuses on creating and promoting stimulating learning environments by encouraging empathy and recognizing the importance of emotions for children and the key adults in their lives — parents and educators. With the recent emphasis that has been placed on the importance of early childhood education, Tominey's body of work helps educators understand how they can truly take advantage of this essential period in childhood development to cultivate emotional skills that can help young children turn into successful students.

What Her Background Is

Tominey holds two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington, a master’s degree from Kansas State University, and a doctoral degree from Oregon State University. She has been an instructor at Oregon State University since 2010.

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Paul Tough

Author of “How Children Succeed” and “Whatever It Takes,” Contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine

What He's Doing

In his most recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough hypothesizes that a child’s success depends less on pure cognitive ability and more on the development of a collection of qualities referred to as non-cognitive skills. These characteristics, which include persistence, self-control, grit, and self-confidence, are derived from the experience of overcoming failure. Tough argues that both wealthy and low-income students face obstacles in this regard — the wealthy students because they are too insulated from adversity, and the low-income students because the challenges they face are simply too overwhelming.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Tough’s latest book explores non-cognitive skills and academic success, an intersection of issues that has increasingly gained traction in the world of education policy, particularly via the research of James Heckman. Tough also draws attention to the less tangible effects of income inequality and fills in some of the gaps in our understanding both of failure and of what children need to be successful. In his other writing, too — which includes “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone — Tough offers insight into the current state of education, poverty, politics, and parenting in America.

What His Background Is

Along with his two books and his work as a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, Paul Tough has written for the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, and Esquire. He has also worked as an editor at The New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, and as a reporter and producer for the radio program This American Life.

What May Surprise You

After dropping out of Columbia during his freshman year, Paul Tough bicycled alone from Atlanta to Halifax.

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Audrey Watters

Freelance education technology writer at Hack Education

What She's Doing

After opting not to pursue an academic career and completing a brief stint in education technology nonprofit work, Audrey Watters became a freelance writer and education technology journalist. She was, in her own words, "frustrated by the lack of coverage of education technology — by both technology and education publications." Her writing has appeared in Edutopia, Inside Higher Ed, the Huffington Post, and The Atlantic. Her personal publication is Hack Education.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Watters is a perennial critic of technological evangelism. Her writing deals with issues commonly left out of the discourse on education reform and technological change, such as identity politics, sexism, the commoditization of personal data, corporatism, and others relating to power and social justice. Voices like hers present crucial cautionary notes amid the sometimes-myopic technocratic zeal of the education technology and reform movements.

What Her Background Is

Watters was an academic, educator, and student of comparative literature for more than a decade. She is, as she writes on her personal website, “an education writer, a recovering academic, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.” Watters earned her B.S. at the University of Wyoming and her M.A. at the University of Oregon, where she also began pursuing a Ph.D. before leaving the world of academia.

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Lois Weiner

Professor, Coordinator of M.A. in Teaching/Learning in Urban Schools at New Jersey City University

What She's Doing

When Lois Weiner published The Future of Our Schools, many teachers erupted in uproarious applause. The book calls for a teaching revolution and for an alliance among teachers, parents, and the community. Weiner takes an active part in cultivating this supportive community every day by managing the Urban Teaching program at New Jersey City University. In addition to her book, Weiner has published essays in Jacobin Magazine and is on the editorial board of New Politics.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

Like Diane Ravitch, Weiner rallies for teachers’ rights. She points to the recent trend of criticizing or delegitimizing teacher unions, and pushes her readers to analyze the foundation of anti-union arguments. Weiner believes in the power of public education, and she decries “teaching to the test,” instead calling for more play and openness in classrooms.

What Her Background Is

Weiner holds a B.A. from the University of California–Berkeley, M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College, and Ed.D. from Harvard University.

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Higher Ed

Kaushik Basu

Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, C. Marks Professor of International Studies and Professor of Economics at Cornell University

What He's Doing

As Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank — a role for which he is taking a temporary leave from his faculty position at Cornell — Kaushik Basu oversees a 300-person staff and advises World Bank President Jim Yong Kim on development research and policy, among other things. Having recently served as Chief Economic Adviser in India's Ministry of Finance, Basu has experience with policymaking in the developing world. He is also a leading expert on welfare and child labor.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Basu is a prolific scholar whose research is informed by his policymaking, and vice versa. His service extends into multiple sectors; he is, for instance, the president of the Human Development and Capabilities Association and a fellow of the Econometric Society. He was one of the creative forces behind Arthapedia, an online portal aimed at helping Indian citizens understand their government’s economic policies. His academic contributions are wide-ranging and ongoing; a notable one in game theory is Basu's formulation of the traveler's dilemma.

What His Background Is

Born in Kolkata, Basu did his undergraduate degree at St. Stephen's College in Delhi, and then completed his M.Sc. and Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, where he studied under Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. He has since held appointments at many of the world's leading universities. In 2008, he was honored with the Padma Bhushan award, one of India's highest civilian honors, in recognition of his service to the country.

What May Surprise You

Basu invented Dui-doku, a version of Sudoku for two players.

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Jonah Berger

James G. Campbell Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

What He’s Doing

Through his extensive research on marketing and trends, Jonah Berger has helped the public understand what leads us to be influenced — from demonstrating that polling locations can affect how votes are cast to exploring the correlation between hurricane names and popular baby names. His massive body of work, which explains some of our most intriguing (and sometimes counterintuitive) collective habits, is available both as studies and as articles featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. Currently, Berger teaches at the prestigious Wharton School and is a visiting professor at Cornell Tech.

How He’s Changing the Ed Space

Berger is an expert at making his research understandable and fascinating to his audience, no matter their background. His most recent book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, explores the power of word-of-mouth and social transmission, and, more importantly, teaches readers how to leverage behavioral trends to make their content or message all the more engaging. These lessons aren’t only valuable to those in the world of marketing or business, but also to educators, who can harness practical skills to make their research and lessons accessible to wide audiences.

What His Background Is

Berger earned his B.A. in human judgment and decision-making and Ph.D. in marketing from Stanford University. He has been teaching at Wharton for more than eight years. Berger has also won dozens of awards for his impact on the field of marketing and for his dynamic teaching, including the MBA Teaching Commitment and Curricular Innovation Award and the Iron Prof award, which is given to a Wharton Professor who presents his research to MBA students in the most enthralling way.

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Andy Hargreaves

Thomas More Brennan Chair of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College

What He's Doing

Andy Hargreaves is a writer, speaker, researcher, teacher, and political adviser. He has authored or edited more than 30 books, many of which deal with the challenges posed by rapid social and technological change in the 21st century. He is also a critic and skeptic of many in-vogue educational reform initiatives, and an advocate of autonomy, trust, and novel approaches to the professionalization of teaching.

How He's Changing the Ed Space

Many U.S. education reform initiatives have become fraught political fights between reformers and teacher unions. Hargreaves reminds us that these arguments may lead us to forget that the end-goal of reform is to prepare students to thrive professionally and personally in a world in which knowledge and technological literacy are at a premium. This ultimate objective, he suggests, cannot be accomplished without either the support and commitment of teachers or the placement of trust in teachers to execute their jobs well.

What His Background Is

Hargreaves was the co-founder and co-director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Earlier this year, Education Week ranked him as one of the scholars with the most influence on education policy in the United States. Hargreaves is an alumnus of the University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds, and he holds an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University.

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Catharine Bond Hill

President of Vassar College, lecturer, economist

What She's Doing

Since Catharine Bond Hill became the president of Vassar College in 2006, the school has been nationally recognized for its staggering efforts to make tuition more affordable. In the last nine years, the percentage of freshmen with Pell grants nearly doubled from 12 to 23 percent, as did the school’s budget for financial aid, which increased from $27 million to $56 million. Hill has made a targeted effort to ensure that this prestigious university is more accessible to students from all backgrounds, extending her recruitment efforts to include veterans (through the Posse Foundation) as well as first-generation college students.

How She's Changing the Ed Space

With college tuition increasing at a faster rate than inflation, paying for higher education has been at the forefront of American public discourse. Under Hill’s leadership, Vassar is raising the bar for elite universities to use their budgets creatively to make college more affordable. Hill has researched and written about the importance of opening up higher education opportunities through financial aid, including making recommendations about how other university presidents can achieve the same results she has. Vassar’s approach to garnering a diverse student body has gained widespread recognition. Recently, for instance, the university won the inaugural $1 million Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence.

What Her Background Is

Hill has been recognized for her research and work by a variety of institutions, including the Brookings Institute and the American Council of Learned Societies. Before starting at Vassar, Hill served as provost at Williams College, her alma mater, for seven years. She also holds a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford College in politics, philosophy, and economics and a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University.

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Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Associate Professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Noodle Expert

What She’s Doing

As an associate professor at the renowned Rossier School of Education

Influence of Student–Teacher and Parent–Teacher Relationships on Lower Achieving Readers’ Engagement and Achievement in the Primary Grades

Jan Hughes and Oi-man Kwok

J Educ Psychol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 Dec 14.

Published in final edited form as:

PMCID: PMC2140005

NIHMSID: NIHMS35313

See other articles in PMC that cite the published article.

Abstract

Participants were 443 (52.6% male, 47.4% female) ethnically diverse, 1st-grade, lower achieving readers attending 1 of 3 school districts in Texas. Using latent variable structural equation modeling, the authors tested a theoretical model positing that (a) the quality of teachers’ relationships with students and their parents mediates the associations between children’s background characteristics and teacher-rated classroom engagement and that (b) child classroom engagement, in turn, mediates the associations between student–teacher and parent–teacher relatedness and child achievement the following year. The hypothesized model provided a good fit to the data. African American children and their parents, relative to Hispanic and Caucasian children and their parents, had less supportive relationships with teachers. These differences in relatedness may be implicated in African American children’s lower achievement trajectories in the early grades. Implications of these findings for teacher preparation are discussed.

Keywords: student, teacher relationship, home/school relationship, engagement, achievement, ethnicity

Students’ sense of social relatedness at school is a key construct in contemporary theories of academic motivation and engagement (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Stipek, 2002). When students experience a sense of belonging at school and supportive relationships with teachers and classmates, they are motivated to participate actively and appropriately in the life of the classroom (Anderman & Anderman, 1999; Birch & Ladd, 1997; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Students’ sense of belonging at school has been linked both to engaged versus disaffected school identities and to learning outcomes (Battistich, Solomon, Watson, & Schaps, 1997; Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998). Although the vast majority of the extant research on social relatedness and engagement has been conducted with students in Grades 3 and higher (for reviews, see Furrer & Skinner, 2003, and Stipek, 2002), recent research suggests that children’s social relatedness in the primary grades may establish patterns of school engagement and motivation that have long-term consequences for their academic motivation and achievement (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Ladd, Birch, & Buhs, 1999).

Positive relations with teachers in the classroom and between home and school appear to be less common for low-income and racial minority children than for higher income, White students (Entwisle & Alexander, 1988; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Hill et al., 2004; Kohl, Weissberg, Reynolds, & Kasprow, 1994; Ladd et al., 1999). Furthermore, several researchers have suggested that these early racial and income differences in relatedness may contribute to disparities in achievement (Pianta, Rimm-Kauffman, & Cox, 1999; Pianta & Walsh, 1996). The need to improve the academic achievement among ethnic minority and poor families is one of the most urgent challenges facing education and U.S. society today (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). For example, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005c), in 2005, 41% of White fourth graders were proficient in reading, compared with 13% of Black and 16% of Hispanic students. Results for math were similar, with 47% of White students proficient compared with 13% of Black and 19% of Hispanic students. Of great concern is the fact that racial and income disparities in achievement increase with children’s time in school (The Future of Children, 2005).

This study tests a model of early school adaptation that integrates research on the centrality of social factors in students’ academic motivation (Connell & Wellborn, 1991; Furrer & Skinner, 2003; Wentzel, 1999) with research on racial and income disparities in achievement. Specifically, our theoretical model, depicted in Figure 1, posits that children’s background characteristics (gender and race–ethnicity) predict the quality of parent–teacher and student–teacher relationships and that the quality of these relationships has consequences for children’s achievement. Furthermore, we expect that children’s classroom engagement in learning activities is one mechanism by which relationship quality in the early grades affects subsequent achievement. In the next sections, we provide the empirical and theoretical support for each link in this complex model. First, we present evidence on gender and racial disparities in student–teacher and parent–teacher relationship quality. Second, we summarize evidence that student–teacher and parent–teacher relationship quality influences children’s academic motivation and engagement. Third, we present evidence to support the premise that student motivation and engagement in classroom learning activities are the proximal processes accounting for the effect of relationship quality on achievement.

Figure 1

Theoretical model. Bolded arrows indicate the hypothesized mediation effects; there are reciprocal relations between parent–teacher relationship and teacher-perceived engagement and between student–teacher relationship and teacher-perceived...

Racial–Ethnic and Gender Differences in Parents’ and Students’ Relationships With Teachers

Multiple factors contribute to the quality of student–teacher and parent–teacher relationships. Not surprising, students who exhibit under-controlled or aggressive behaviors establish relationships with teachers characterized by lower levels of support and acceptance and higher levels of conflict (Birch & Ladd, 1998; Silver, Measelle, Armstrong, & Essex, 2005). Compared with girls, boys’ relationships with teachers are characterized by less closeness and more conflict (Birch & Ladd, 1997, 1998; Saft & Pianta, 2001; Silver et al., 2005), perhaps because boys are less conforming and self-regulated than girls. Of particular interest to this investigation are findings that minority, especially African American, children and children of low socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely than Caucasian or higher SES children to enjoy supportive relationships with teachers (Entwisle & Alexander, 1988; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Ladd et al., 1999; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Although the reasons for these differences are not known, the fact that the teacher workforce in the United States is predominantly Caucasian and middle class may contribute to racial and income differences in teacher–student relationship quality. In 2003–2004, 84% of elementary teachers in the United States were Caucasian (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005a). Conversely, 42% of elementary children in 2003 were part of an ethnic minority (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005b). The ethnic imbalance between teachers and students gains in significance in light of several studies reporting that teacher–child ethnicity match is associated with more positive teacher ratings of closeness (Saft & Pianta, 2001; Zimmerman, Khoury, Vega, Gil, & Warheit, 1995). Perhaps teachers are more attuned to children who share their racial or ethnic background and are, therefore, more accurate in interpreting their behavior and performance and more responsive to their needs (Alexander, Entwisle, & Thompson, 1987; Saft & Pianta, 2001). The finding that African American children experience less supportive relationships with teachers may also be explained by racial differences in behavioral orientation and academic task engagement. Because African American children are less conforming and more active than are Caucasian children at school entrance (Hudley, 1993; Rock & Stenner, 2005), teachers’ interactions with African American students may be characterized by more criticism and less support.

Similarly, minority and low-SES parents experience less positive relationships with teachers and engage in fewer school involvement activities than do Caucasian and higher SES parents (for review, see Boethel, 2003). Teachers perceive ethnic minority parents as engaging in fewer involvement behaviors and as less cooperative than Caucasian parents (Kohl et al., 1994). Teachers and principals tend to attribute lower levels of parent involvement among ethnic minority parents to a lack of motivation to cooperate, a lack of concern for their children’s education, and a lower value placed on education (Clark, 1983; Lopez, 2001). Teachers’ perceptions of and attributions for minority parents’ involvement in their children’s schooling may negatively impact the frequency and quality of their interactions with minority parents.

It is important to note that parents’ perceptions of their own school involvement and educational beliefs and values show low correspondence with teachers’ perceptions of their involvement and beliefs (Epstein, 1984, 1996). Wong and Hughes (in press) found that African American parents report levels of parent involvement that are comparable to or higher than that of Caucasian parents, whereas teachers rate African American parents’ involvement as lower than that of Caucasian parents. Other studies have reported that minority parents endorse attitudes toward education similar to those of Caucasian parents and exhibit levels of involvement in home-based parent involvement activities similar to, if not higher than, those of Caucasian parents (Chavkin & Williams, 1993).

According to Ogbu (1993), parents’ beliefs about appropriate parenting practices and ways to interact with the school vary according to ethnic identity and social class. According to this view, because teachers in the United States are overwhelmingly Caucasian and middle class, misunderstandings of each other’s intentions would be more likely to occur in the context of teacher–parent interactions with minority parents versus Caucasian parents (Lasky, 2000; Ogbu, 1993). Unfortunately, data on the frequency of teacher–parent misunderstandings for matched and mismatched ethnicity dyads are not available. One possible negative consequence of a mismatch between the culture of the school and the culture of the family is a weaker alliance between home and school and lower parent involvement in school, both of which may negatively impact the child’s school adjustment.

Consequences of Relationship Quality for Academic Motivation and Engagement

Student–Teacher Relationships

It is well established that the quality of children’s relationships with their teachers in the early grades has important implications for children’s concurrent and future academic and behavioral adjustment (Howes, Hamilton, & Matheson, 1994; Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999; Meehan, Hughes, & Cavell, 2003; Pianta, Steinberg, & Rollins, 1995). The association between teacher–student relationship quality and children’s subsequent adjustment holds when previous levels of adjustment are statistically controlled (Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999; Ladd et al., 1999; Meehan et al., 2003). Furthermore, an effect for teacher–student relationship quality assessed in kindergarten on achievement is found up to 8 years later, controlling for relevant baseline child characteristics (Hamre & Pianta, 2001).

Several studies have reported specific links between teacher–student relationship quality and student engagement (for review, see Furrer & Skinner, 2003). Engagement has been defined in different ways by different investigators, but it most often refers to behavioral engagement as indexed by cooperative participation, conformity to classroom rules and routines, self-directedness, persistence, and effort (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Students who enjoy a close and supportive relationship with a teacher are more engaged in that they work harder in the classroom, persevere in the face of difficulties, accept teacher direction and criticism, cope better with stress, and attend more to the teacher (M. Little & Kobak, 2003; Midgley, Feldlauffer, & Eccles, 1989; Ridley, McWilliam, & Oates, 2000; Skinner & Belmont, 1993; Wentzel, 1999). These findings hold when relationship quality is assessed by the teacher (Birch & Ladd, 1997, 1998), the student (Battistich et al., 1997; Marks, 2000; Skinner & Belmont, 1993), or observers (Ladd et al., 1999).

Given teachers’ preference for students who are conscientious, conforming, and self-regulated, it is not surprising that the relationship between engagement and teacher–student relationship quality appears to be reciprocal (Ladd et al., 1999; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Thus, children with lower school readiness competencies are less likely to receive the teacher support that might enhance their adaptive classroom engagement and learning. Furthermore, those children who are most at-risk for school failure on the basis of level of behavioral adjustment, quality of parenting, low SES, or ethnic minority status are most affected by the quality of their relationships with teachers (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Silver et al., 2005). For example, Burchinal, Peisner-Feinberg, Pianta, and Howes (2002) found that supportive student–teacher relationships were more predictive of reading skills for African American than for Caucasian students. In a sample of children of poor single parents, Brody, Dorsey, Forehand, and Armistead (2002) found that the quality of children’s classroom experiences served a stabilizing–protective function for children whose home environments were compromised.

Parent–Teacher Relationships

The parent–teacher relationship is also implicated in children’s early school adjustment. Generally, when parents participate in their children’s education, both at home and at school, and experience relationships with teachers characterized by mutuality, warmth, and respect, students achieve more, demonstrate increased achievement motivation, and exhibit higher levels of emotional, social, and behavioral adjustment (Fan & Chen, 2001; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Marcon, 1999; Reynolds, 1991). Several researchers have distinguished between parent involvement behaviors or activities and the quality of the parent–teacher relationship (Kohl, Lengua, & McMahon, 2000; Rimm-Kaufman, La Paro, Downer, & Pianta, 2005; Vickers & Minke, 1995). Parent involvement behaviors include volunteering at school, communicating with the teacher, attending school functions, and assisting with homework. Parent–teacher relationship quality refers to the affective quality of the home–school connection, as indexed by trust, mutuality, affiliation, support, shared values, and shared expectations and beliefs about each other and the child (Vickers & Minke, 1995). Numerous studies with samples differing in ethnicity and income have demonstrated that both of these dimensions of the home–school mesosystem are associated with student academic engagement and achievement (Boethel, 2003). For example, Rimm-Kaufman et al. (2005) found that kindergarten teachers’ reports of parents’ attitudes toward education predicted child participation and engagement after accounting for SES and maternal sensitivity.

Classroom Engagement and Achievement

Not surprising, children who are actively engaged in classroom learning activities as indexed by effort, persistence, attention, and cooperative participation achieve at a higher level (for review, see Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Fredricks et al. (2004) reviewed empirical evidence demonstrating that each of three types of student engagement (i.e., behavioral, emotional, and cognitive) is associated concurrently and prospectively with students’ achievement in elementary, middle, and high school grades. For example, the Beginning School Study found that teachers’ ratings of behavioral engagement in the first grade predicted achievement test score gains 4 years later as well as decisions to drop out of school (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997). Pianta (2006) has suggested that engagement is the proximal factor that accounts for the longitudinal effect of teacher–student relationship quality. In support of this view, Ladd et al. (1999) reported that negative patterns of classroom participation (e.g., failure to follow classroom rules, not accepting the teacher’s authority) in kindergarten mediated the association between conflict in the student–teacher relationship and achievement.

Teacher support is best considered a component of the classroom context that interacts with other aspects of the context in exerting its influence on student engagement. Among the other contextual features of classrooms known to influence student engagement are classroom goal structure (for review, see Urdan & Midgley, 2003), classroom task structures (Simpson & Rosenholtz, 1986), teacher frame of reference (Marsh & Craven, 2002), and peer acceptance (Ladd et al., 1999). Consistent with a transactional theory (Sameroff, 1975) perspective, these classroom processes are expected to exert their influence via reciprocal causal processes.

Purpose of This Study

The purpose of this study was to examine the associations between student background variables, the quality of early school relationships (i.e., student–teacher and parent–teacher relationships), and changes across academic years in measured academic ability in a diverse sample of first-grade children at risk for school difficulties because of relatively low literacy skills. Specifically, we tested a theoretical model positing that (a) student ethnicity and gender predict measures of parent–teacher and student–teacher relationship quality and that (b) measures of relationship quality indirectly affect cross-year changes in children’s achievement via their direct effect on child classroom engagement (see Figure 1). On the basis of Skinner and Belmont (1993) and Ladd et al. (1999), we expected the association between teacher support and student engagement to be reciprocal.

Method

Participants

Participants were 443 (52.6% male, 47.4% female) first-grade children attending one of three school districts (1 urban, 2 small city) in southeast and central Texas, drawn from a larger (N =742) sample of African American (N =182), Caucasian (N =267), and Hispanic (N =293) children participating in a longitudinal study examining the impact of grade retention on academic achievement. Participants were recruited across two sequential cohorts in first grade during the fall of 2001 and 2002. Children were eligible to participate in the longitudinal study if they (a) scored below the median score on a state-approved, district-administered measure of literacy administered in either May of kindergarten or September of first grade and (b) had not been previously retained in first grade. Of 1,374 children who were eligible to participate in the larger study, 1,316 were classified by the school district as African American, Caucasian, or Hispanic, a criterion for inclusion in this study. Written parental consent for study inclusion was obtained for 742 (56.3%) of these children. Children with and without consent to participate did not differ on age, gender, ethnic status, bilingual class placement, eligibility for free or reduced lunch, or literacy test scores.

A total of 443 (59.7%) participants (ethnic composition was 104 African American, 176 Hispanic, and 163 Caucasian) had complete data on teacher questionnaires, peer sociometric ratings, and an individually administered test of academic achievement given in Year 1 and 1 year later. Children with and without complete data did not differ on any demographic variables or study variables at baseline, with one exception. Children with complete data had higher scores on a standardized measure of reading achievement (η2 =.009, p =.01). At entrance to first grade, children’s mean age was 6.05 (SD =0.63) years. Children’s mean score for intelligence as measured with the Universal Nonverbal Intelligence Test (Bracken & McCallum, 1998) was 93.18 (SD =14.01). Participants’ age-standard scores on the Woodcock–Johnson III Broad Reading and Broad Mathematics tests (Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001) at Time 1 were 97.41 (SD =17.97) and 101.19 (SD =13.48), respectively. On the basis of family income, 62.1% of participants were eligible for free or reduced lunch. For 34.6%, the highest educational level in the household was a high school certificate or less. The ethnic composition for the 133 teachers (92.6% female, 7.4% male) completing the teacher questionnaires was 85.7% Caucasian, 10.3% Hispanic, 1.6% African-American, and 1.6% other. The mean years of teaching experience was 4.33 (SD =1.78), and 97.0% of teachers held teacher certification (3.0% held provisional or alternative certification). All teachers had at least a bachelor’s degree; 27.0% had taken some graduate work but did not obtain a master’s degree; and 18.0% held a master’s degree or higher.

Design Overview

During the months of November through March of Year 1, when study participants were in first grade, research staff individually administered tests of reading and math achievement. These tests were readministered the next school year.1 In March of Year 1, teachers were mailed a questionnaire packet for each study participant. This packet included the measures of the teacher’s perception of student–teacher support, parent–teacher alliance, parent involvement in school, and the child’s academic ability. Teachers received $25.00 for completing and returning the questionnaires. Classmates’ perceptions of the level of student–teacher support were obtained via individual interviews conducted between February and May of Year 1.

Measures

Academic achievement

The Woodcock–Johnson III (WJ-III) Tests of Achievement (Woodcock et al., 2001) is an individually administered measure of academic achievement for individuals ages 2 to adulthood. For our purposes, we used the WJ-III Broad Reading W scores (Letter–Word Identification, Reading Fluency, Passage Comprehension subtests) and the WJ-III Broad Mathematics W scores (Calculations, Math Fluency, and Math Calculation Skills subtests). Broad Reading and Broad Mathematics W scores are based on the Rasch measurement model, yielding an equal interval scale, which facilitates modeling growth in the underlying latent achievement. Extensive research documents the reliability and construct validity of the WJ-III and its predecessor (Woodcock, & Johnson, 1989; Woodcock et al., 2001). The 1-year stability for this age group ranges from .92 to .94 (Woodcock et al., 2001).

The Batería Woodcock–Muñoz: Pruebas de Aprovechamiento—Revisada (BateríaR; Woodcock & Muñoz-Sandoval, 1996) is the comparable Spanish version of the Woodcock–Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery—Revised (WJ–R; Woodcock & Johnson, 1989), the precursor of the WJ-III. If children or their parents spoke any Spanish, children were administered the Woodcock–Muñoz Language Survey (Woodcock & Muñoz-Sandoval, 1993) to determine the child’s language proficiency in English and Spanish and selection of either the WJ-III or the Batería–R. The Woodcock Compuscore program (Woodcock & Muñoz-Sandoval, 2001) yields W scores for the Batería–R that are comparable to W scores on the WJ–R. The Broad Reading and Broad Mathematics W scores were used in this study.

Child engagement

Child engagement was measured by a teacher-report, 10-item scale comprising 8 items from the Conscientious scale of the Big Five Inventory (BFI; John & Srivastava, 1999) and 2 items taken from the Social Competence Scale (Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2004) that were consistent with our definition of classroom engagement (effort, attention, persistence, and cooperative participation in learning). Although the Big Five Inventory is conceptualized as a measure of personality traits, the selected items from the Conscientious scale are similar to items used by other researchers to assess classroom engagement (Ladd et al., 1999; Ridley et al., 2000). Example items are “Is a reliable worker,” “Perseveres until the task is finished,” “Tends to be lazy” (reverse scored), and “Is easily distracted.” The two items from the Social Competence Scale were “Sets and works toward goals” and “Turns in homework.” Items are rated on a 1–5 Likert-type scale. The internal consistency of these 10 items for our sample was .95.

Teacher perception of student–teacher support

The 22-item Teacher Relationship Inventory (TRI; Hughes, Cavell, & Willson, 2001) is based on the Network of Relationships Inventory (Buhrmester & Furman, 1987). Teachers indicate on a 5-point Likert-type scale their level of support (16 items) or conflict (6 items) in their relationships with individual students. An exploratory factor analysis on 335 first-grade participants from the first cohort of the larger study suggested three factors: Support (13 items), Intimacy (3 items), and Conflict (6 items). Results of confirmatory factor analysis on 449 participants from the second cohort of the larger study found that the three-factor model provided an adequate fit for the data, χ2(204) =697.803, p <.001, comparative fit index (CFI) =.92, root-mean-square error of approximation (RMSEA) =.074. Furthermore, the null hypothesis of factor invariance across cohorts and times could be retained at the .01 level. Because the Intimacy and Support scales were moderately correlated (.43) and both assess positive relatedness, a total Support score was computed as the mean item score on these 16 items. The internal consistency was .92 for the Support score and .94 for the Conflict score. Example Support scale items include “I enjoy being with this child,” “This child gives me many opportunities to praise him or her,” “I find I am able to nurture this child,” and “This child talks to me about things he/she doesn’t want others to know.” In a previous study with second- and third-grade children, TRI Support scores correlated moderately with teachers’ reports of student–teacher relational conflict (r =− .56) and with peer nominations of student–teacher relationship support (r =.53; Hughes, Yoon, & Cavell, 1999). In a longitudinal study of behaviorally at-risk elementary students, the TRI Support score predicted changes in behavioral adjustment and peer relationships (Meehan et al., 2003).

We used only the Support scale, based on Hughes’s (Hughes, Cavell, & Jackson, 1999; Hughes et al., 2001) and others’ (Birch & Ladd, 1998; Silver et al., 2005) findings that teachers’ reports of relational conflict are difficult to discriminate from their reports of child conduct problems. Silver et al. (2005) suggested that teacher reports of conflict in the teacher–child relationship may reflect child-driven effects on teachers’ interpretations of relationships, whereas teacher reports of closeness may be “more representative of a teacher’s ability to foster trust and warmth with a child” (p. 54).

Teacher perception of parent–teacher relationship

We developed the teacher-report home–school relationship questionnaire to assess parent involvement in education. The measure was initially derived from a pool of 28 items rated on a 1–5 scale. Twenty-one items were adapted from the Parent–Teacher Involvement Questionnaire—Teacher-Report (Kohl et al., 2000), and 7 items were adapted from the teacher version of the Joining scale of the Parent–Teacher Relationship Scale (Vickers & Minke, 1995). An exploratory factor analysis based on the teachers of 311 first-grade children in the first cohort participating in the larger study yielded a three-factor solution that accounted for 57.3% of the variance. The three factors were Alliance (8 items, α=.93; sample item: “I can talk and be heard by this parent”), General Parent Involvement (8 items, α=.75; sample item: “How often does this parent ask questions or make suggestions about his/her child?”), and Teacher Initiation (4 items, α=.66; sample item: “How often do you tell this parent when you are concerned?”). A confirmatory factor analysis on a second sample of 296 first-grade children in the second cohort found that the three-factor model provided an adequate fit for the data, χ2(167) =394.38, p<.001, CFI =.94, RMSEA =.07. Furthermore, the factor structure was invariant across Year 1 and Year 2, Δχ 2(20) =27, p =.135. Because the Teacher Initiative scale assesses a teacher’s involvement behaviors toward parents in general rather than a teacher’s relationships with individual parents, only the Alliance and General Parent Involvement scales were used in this study.

Peer nominations of teacher–student support

A modified version of the Class Play (Masten, Morison, & Pellegrini, 1985) and a roster rating of liking for classmates were used to obtain children’s evaluations of the provision of teacher support to children. Research assistants individually interviewed children at school. Children were asked to nominate as few or as many classmates as they wished who could best play each of several parts in a class play. Of interest to this study is the item “These children get along well with their teachers. They like to talk to their teachers, and their teachers enjoy spending time with them. What kids in your class are like this?” Each classmate receives a student–teacher support score based on the number of nominations that child receives. Sociometric scores were standardized within classrooms. Elementary children’s peer nomination scores derived from procedures similar to those used in this study have been found to be stable over periods from 6 weeks to 4 years and to be associated with concurrent and future behavior and adjustment (for review, see Hughes, 1990). Because reliable and valid sociometric data can be collected through the use of the unlimited nomination approach when as few as 40% of children in a classroom participate (Terry, 1999), sociometric scores were computed only for children located in classrooms in which more than 40% of classmates participated in the sociometric assessment. A total of 182 of 784 children were eliminated from the study because of missing sociometric data. The mean rate of classmate participation in sociometric administrations was .65 (range =.40–.95).

Results

The hypothesized model is shown in Figure 1. The bolded arrows indicate the hypothesized mediation effects, which involve the parent–teacher relationship and the student–teacher relationship constructs and teacher-rated child engagement as mediators. Table 1 presents the correlations between all continuous variables in the theoretical model.

Table 1

Zero-Order Correlations for All Continuous Variables in the Theoretical Model

The theoretical structural model was examined by using maximum likelihood estimation with robust standard errors and a mean-adjusted chi-square statistic test (MLR; Muthén & Muthén, 2004). To account for the dependency among the observations (students) within clusters (classrooms), we conducted analyses using the complex analysis feature in Mplus (Version 3.13, Muthén & Muthén, 2004), which accounts for the nested structure of the data by adjusting the standard errors of the estimated coefficients. The use of multiple reporters and methods to measure relationship constructs reduces potential bias due to a shared method of measurement or reporter between the predictor (i.e., relationship constructs) and predicted (i.e., engagement) variables (Bank, Dishion, Skinner, & Patterson, 1990).

The hypothesized model included only indirect effects of gender and ethnicity on Time 1 engagement and on reading and math at Time 1 and Time 2. The original theoretical model was analyzed and the mediation-related path coefficients were all significant, but the overall model fit was not fully satisfactory. To improve the overall model fit, we modified the model by adding the direct paths from the ethnic contrasts to engagement and to Time 1 reading and Time 1 math and the direct paths from gender to engagement and both Time 1 and Time 2 math. These modifications are consistent with a model positing both indirect and direct effects of background variables on academic engagement and achievement. Because the modifications were theoretically tenable and improved fit, they were incorporated into the revised model. The residual variances between the teacher-reported home–school relationship variables and teacher-rated support were allowed to correlate because these measures are completed by the same source, and allowing the errors to correlate significantly improved model fit (Bentler, 2000).

The revised model provided an adequate fit to the data, χ2(29) =73.20, p<.001, CFI =.96, RMSEA =.059, standardized root-mean-square residual =.062. All bolded paths related to the hypothesized mediation effects were significant (at p <.05), except the effect of the ethnicity contrast between Caucasian and African American students on student–teacher relationship (γ =.13, p =.08). To address the missingness, we also analyzed the modified model with the full data (i.e., N =742) using the full information maximum likelihood (FIML) method under Mplus, which applies the expectation maximization algorithm described in R. J. A. Little and Rubin (1987). We found a very similar pattern of results (i.e., coefficients presented in parentheses in Figure 2). With the full data, all hypothesized mediation-related path coefficients were significant, including the effect of the ethnicity contrast between Caucasian and African American students on student–teacher relationship (γ=.18, p<.05, R2 =.03). The significant result of this effect based on the full data implies that the nonsignificant effect of the Caucasian contrast on student–teacher relationship from the analysis using the sample with complete data (N =443) may be due to insufficient statistical power.

Figure 2

Modified theoretical model with the relationship constructs and teacher-perceived engagement as mediators (adjusted for dependency).χ2(29) =73.20, p<.001; comparative fit index =.96; root-mean-square error of approximation =.059; standardized...

Because ethnicity was dummy coded, with African American students as the reference group, the positive effects of the ethnicity variables on both relationship constructs indicated that both Caucasian and Hispanic students had higher scores on both relationship constructs than did African American students (although the effect for the ethnicity contrast between Caucasian and African American students was significant only with the full data). Moreover, the positive effects of both relationship constructs on teacher-rated child engagement indicated that both relationship constructs are associated with higher child engagement. In turn, child engagement had a substantial and positive longitudinal impact on students’ academic performances measured the following year after controlling for the previous academic performances. This analysis was also repeated on a smaller subsample with family SES data (N =227), and a similar pattern of results was found (i.e., significant effects of the ethnicity contrasts on the relationship constructs after controlling for family SES).

According to Baron and Kenny’s (1986) procedure (see also Kenny, Kashy, & Bolger, 1998, for more updated information), the first step in testing the mediation effect is to establish a significant relation between the predictor and outcome variables, although this is not a rigidly required step (MacKinnon, Krull, & Lockwood, 2000; MacKinnon, Lockwood, Hoffman, West, & Sheets, 2002; Shrout & Bolger, 2002).2 The second and third steps, respectively, are to establish a significant relation between the predictor and mediator variables and a significant relation between the mediator and outcome variables. The final step involves testing the significance of the mediated effect. The mediated effect is tested by multiplying the path coefficients from Steps 2 and 3. A significant mediated effect suggests that the mediator partially or fully explains the relation between the predictor and outcome. According to Kenny et al.’s (1998) procedure, the mediation effects can be tested by multiplying the nonstandardized path coefficients corresponding to the mediation effects. Sobel’s (1982) test of mediation effects (i.e., ) along with the delta method standard error (i.e., ) was used (Krull & MacKinnon, 1999, 2001).

Following Baron and Kenny’s (1986) steps, a structural model with proximal direct relations (or cross-sectional relations) between the ethnicity contrasts and engagement was examined. All the ethnicity contrasts had significant direct effects on teacher-perceived engagement (Caucasian contrast on teacher-perceived engagement: γ=.14, p<.05; Hispanic contrast on teacher-perceived engagement: γ=.19, p<.05). On the other hand, the distal direct effects (or longitudinal direct effects) of both relationship constructs on the WJ-III Reading and Math scores measured in the following year after controlling for the previous year WJ-III Reading and Math scores were not significant. Shrout and Bolger (2002) suggested skipping Baron and Kenny’s (1986) first step especially when examining mediation of distal effects, which can reduce the risk of increasing the Type II error on testing the whole mediation system. Hence, we proceeded to the second and third steps and examined the hypothesized longitudinal mediation effects.

For Steps 2 and 3, all path coefficients related to the hypothesized mediation effects as shown in Figure 2 were significant (at p<.05). The tests of all hypothesized mediation effects are summarized in Table 2. The results presented in Table 2 indicate that both relationship constructs significantly mediated the relations between the ethnicity contrasts and engagement. Similarly, engagement significantly mediated the longitudinal relations between both relationship constructs and the WJ-III Reading and Math scores in the following year after controlling for the previous WJ-III Reading and Math scores. For the parent–teacher relationship, 4.1% of the variance was explained by the ethnicity contrasts. Similarly, 5.9% of the total variance of the student–teacher relationship was accounted for by the ethnicity contrasts. For teacher-rated child engagement, 35.0% of the total variance was explained by both relationship constructs. Nevertheless, 2.0% of the total variance of the WJ-III Reading score and 1.0% of the total variance of the WJ-III Math score were solely explained by teacher-rated child engagement in the following year after controlling for the corresponding scores measured in the previous year.

Table 2

Tests of Hypothesized Mediation Effects (N =443)

Moreover, we examined the possible gender and ethnic differences on the mediation effects of engagement on the relations between the relationship constructs and the second year WJ-III Reading and Math scores based on the modified model. Because of the use of a robust estimator, the Satorra–Bentler adjusted chi-square difference test (Satorra, 2000) was adopted to examine the possible group difference on the mediation effects. None of the adjusted chi-square difference tests was significant, indicating that all the mediation effects were invariant across different gender and ethnic groups.

Discussion

Support for Effect of Relationship Quality on Achievement

Consistent with the central role of social relatedness in students’ academic motivation and performance, early elementary students gain more in achievement when they and their parents experience supportive relationships with teachers. Furthermore, the effect of student–teacher and parent–teacher relationship quality in first grade on achievement the following year is indirect, via child classroom engagement. Achievement was measured with an individually administered and psychometrically sound measure of reading and math achievement in Year 1 and 1 year later. Thus, results cannot be explained by shared method in measuring relationship variables and achievement. The finding that relationship and engagement variables predict measured academic achievement the following year, when controlling for Year 1 achievement, although expected, is noteworthy given the stability of achievement from Year 1 to Year 2.

This study makes an important contribution to the literature by demonstrating that student–teacher and parent–teacher relationship quality make unique contributions to children’s engagement and achievement in the early grades. The study is the first to use a prospective design to test the effects of relationship quality on achievement in the early grades, controlling for baseline achievement, and to test the processes that account for the effect of relationship quality on achievement. Thus, these findings add to the rapidly accumulating evidence that social relatedness is critical to children’s engagement and academic success or, conversely, to disaffection and failure.

Whereas we found a concurrent effect of engagement on reading achievement, we did not find an effect on math achievement. The difference may be due to the fact that reading and literacy instruction consumes approximately twice the amount of classroom time in these first-grade classrooms as math instruction does. Thus, there may be more opportunities for student effort and attention to influence reading outcomes than math outcomes.

It was important to determine whether the ethnicity contrasts would predict relationship variables if SES were included in the model. Unfortunately, SES was available for only 227 of the 443 participants. According to the results from the subsample with SES data (N =227), the effects of the ethnicity contrasts on the relationship constructs were still significant ( p<.05) after controlling for SES. In addition, SES had a significant effect on the parent–teacher relationship (b =.35, p<.05) but not on the student–teacher relationship.

Racial Differences in Relational Supports

Of importance, our results suggest that African American children and their parents are less likely to experience home–school relationships and student–teacher relationships that support children’s achievement. Positive connections between parents and teachers constitute social capital, defined as “a task specific construct that relates to the shared expectations and mutual engagement by adults in the active support and social control of children” (Sampson, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999, p. 635). Future research should address factors that contribute to these differences.

Several possibilities may explain the lower teacher relationship quality of African American students and their parents. First, African American children in the early grades exhibit more under-controlled behavior and have more active and assertive interactional styles, a finding that has been replicated across different assessment sources and methods (Hudley, 1993). Both African American teachers and Caucasian teachers rate African American students as having more behavioral difficulties (Alexander, Entwisle, & Thompson, 1987; Pigott & Cowen, 2000). In our sample, African American children had significantly higher standardized peer nomination scores for aggressive behaviors (N =127, M =0.36, SD =1.19) than did either Caucasian (N =215, M =−0.03, SD =0.87) or Hispanic (N =230, M =−0.10, SD =0.93) children. Through a transactional process, initial differences in African American children’s behavioral styles may contribute to less satisfactory connections across home and school and within the classroom, which lead to diminished academic motivation and engagement.

Differences in the parenting practices, communication styles, and educational beliefs between teachers and African American parents are a second possibility for lower teacher relatedness for African American students and parents. When parties do not share a common culture, it is more difficult to establish shared understanding and to build trust. Supporting this interpretation is the finding that ethnic congruence between teachers and students is associated with higher teacher ratings of closeness and lower ratings of student conflict and dependency (Saft & Pianta, 2001).

Third, some researchers report that African American parents communicate more frequently with teachers and are more likely to criticize teachers and the school than are Hispanic parents, who are more deferential (Ritter, Mont-Reynaud, & Dornbusch, 1993). Teachers may be less comfortable with and accepting of the more assertive approach of African American parents relative to the more deferential style of Hispanic parents.

Fourth, teachers may endorse ethnic or racial stereotypes about children, which may influence their feelings toward students and their parents and lead to behavioral self-fulfilling prophecies (Babad, 1992; Jussim, 1986). Previous studies have found that teachers are less accurate in rating minority children’s academic ability than the ability of Caucasian children and react differently to the same behaviors exhibited by African American and Caucasian children (Alexander et al., 1987; Murray, 1996; Partenio & Taylor, 1985). Teachers in our sample may have expected less collaborative or more strained relationships with African American parents and students. These expectations may have resulted in fewer or less warm interactions with students and parents, which, in turn, led to lower levels of parent involvement and student classroom engagement.

Regardless of the reasons for the relationship gap, these findings are of great concern. A recent research synthesis on school readiness (The Future of Children, 2005) reported that about one half of the test score gap between African American and Caucasian high school students is evident when children start school. Our results suggest that, rather than leveling the playing field, early social experiences in school may contribute to widening racial disparities in educational attainment.

Study Limitations and Future Directions

These findings need to be interpreted in the context of study limitations. Because participants were selected on the basis of scoring below average on a test of early literacy, our findings may not generalize to higher achieving students. Because three of the four measures of relationship constructs were completed by the teacher, who also completed ratings of child engagement, shared source may account for some of the association found between the relationship constructs and child engagement. Because measures of relationship quality and measures of engagement were taken at one point in time, alternative explanations for the associations cannot be ruled out. Three waves of data are necessary to provide strong support for mediational models (Cole & Maxwell, 2003). Additional waves of data would also address whether an effect for relationship constructs in first grade continues beyond the following year.

It is likely that reciprocal causal processes among engagement, achievement, and relationship variables are at play in children’s early school achievement. On the basis of previous research (Ladd et al., 1999; Skinner & Belmont, 1993), the hypothesized model included the reciprocal effect of teacher-rated engagement on the parent–teacher and student–teacher relationship. Additional reciprocal effects may also be at play. For example, it is likely that children’s academic competencies at school entrance affect and are affected by their patterns of classroom engagement (Miles & Stipek, 2006; Skinner et al., 1998; Trzesniewski, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor, & Maughan, 2006). Similarly, children who enter school with greater academic competencies may elicit more positive responses from teachers, which, in turn, impacts their achievement. Studies that include measures of achievement, engagement, and relationship quality at a minimum of two time points are necessary to provide a stronger basis for testing reciprocal causal processes.

Finally, observational measures of student–teacher and parent–teacher interactions as well as child engagement are needed to locate more precisely the processes that account for the observed effects. The teacher rating of engagement covers several specific processes that may account for why engagement mediated the association between relationship constructs and achievement. Perhaps students who experience supportive relationships with teachers try harder (follow the rules, do their homework, listen to the teacher), or perhaps they are better able to cope with classroom stressors and, therefore, better able to concentrate on assignments and to attend to instruction.

An additional limitation of the study is the lack of sufficient racial and ethnic diversity among the teachers to investigate whether these findings might be moderated by student–teacher ethnic or racial match. Saft and Pianta (2001) found that teachers rated relationships with children whose ethnicity matched theirs as closer and less conflicted than relationships with children whose ethnicity was different from theirs. With only 6 African American children taught by African American teachers, we were unable to investigate the role of ethnic congruence on teacher perceptions of relationship constructs and child ability.

Implications for School Practices

Schools’ efforts to enhance home–school relationships focus almost exclusively on increasing parents’ involvement (Brooks-Gunn & Markman, 2005), to the neglect of enhancing the affective quality of home–school relationships. Researchers who have included measures of relationship quality as well as involvement behaviors have reported stronger effects for measures of relationship quality than for measures of parent school involvement behaviors (Hughes, Gleason, & Zhang, 2005; Kohl et al., 1994; Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, Cox, & Bradley, 2003). Our findings emphasize the importance of improving the quality of the home–school relationship, especially for African American and low-income families.

If results of this study are replicated in new samples, they would have implications for teacher preparation and teacher professional development. Teachers receive very little or no preparation in building successful alliances with parents or supportive and warm relationships with students. In a national study of 3,595 kindergarten teachers, Early, Pianta, Taylor, and Cox (2001) found that although teachers were unlikely to receive training in building home–school connections, those who did were much more likely to use all types of strategies to promote a successful transition to school, including making personal contacts with parents. In a synthesis of the literature on early home–school connection, Boethel (2003) reported that the most individualized, relationship-building activities tend to be the least used and that urban schools and schools serving more minority children were least likely to use higher intensity contacts. Our findings suggest that an increased focus on helping teachers connect with students and their parents is one means of helping children at risk for academic failure get off to a good start in school.

Footnotes

1The varying test times were primarily a result of insufficient manpower to assess all participants within a shorter window of time each year. Thus, children in some classrooms and schools were tested earlier than children in other classrooms and schools. The average interval between the two testing occasions was 341 (SD =74) days. Compared with ordinary least squares regression, which assumes independent observations, the robust estimation method (multiple linear regression) under Mplus can take into account the nesting structure in our data (i.e., the potential dependent responses between students from the same classroom) by adjusting the standard errors of the unbiased estimates. To investigate whether the interval between the two testing occasions might have affected the results, we split the sample into two groups based on the interval between Time 1 and Time 2 administrations of the achievement tests. Using the mixed-analysis procedure under SPSS (with Bonferroni correction for p values), we found no statistically significant correlation between test interval and the 13 variables in the tested model. Thus, we concluded that test interval did not have a significant effect on the obtained results.

2Several studies (MacKinnon et al., 2000; MacKinnon et al., 2002; Shrout & Bolger, 2002) have indicated that the first step of Baron and Kenny’s (1986) procedure (i.e., testing the direct effect) is not necessary because this test may not be significant under certain circumstances, such as the examination of distal mediation effects or the presence of suppression effects. Keeping this restricted step may eventually result in risking a Type II error of testing the full mediation system (Shrout & Bolger, 2002).

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