The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Using “Vital Behaviors” to Close Performance Gaps

“In recent years, considerable research has been done to determine what vital behaviors that are instructional in nature result in the greatest outcomes for students who struggle in learning.”

Donald Deshler | February 17, 2015
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A teacher works with at-risk students to help them improve their skills and knowledge base in order to close performance gaps.



The problems that at-risk students face when trying to succeed within the rigorous general education curriculum are great. Unless they have acquired the necessary skills and strategies for responding to the heavy curriculum demands of the Common Core State Standards, they will encounter failure and significant frustration. If unaddressed, the infamous “performance gap” emerges, in which there is a sizable gap between the learning skills and strategies that students possess and the demands of the curriculum that they must meet. Figuring out ways to close this gap for students is one of the most vexing and enduring problems that educators face.

Often, as students move from elementary grades into secondary school, the performance gap grows larger. As a result of this gap, many students are unable to meet the demands of required courses and their resulting failure leads to great discouragement and disengagement from school.

A shortage of time is one of the greatest challenges that teachers face 

A shortage of time is one of the greatest challenges that teachers face in working with students who need to close the performance gap. There are not only the skills and content from the required grade-level curriculum that must be taught; in addition teachers must try to teach all of the things that students should have learned previously but didn’t.

Clearly, there is much for teachers to accomplish. On the surface, most of what teachers spend their time doing during the school day appears to be “good.” However, the important question isn’t whether what teachers are doing is “good” or not, but rather whether it is vital. In their book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, Patterson et al. posit that central to bringing about change within individuals or organizations is to identify a set of vital behaviors and make addressing them a very high priority in the work that is done and how time is spent. They define vital behaviors as high-leverage actions that if done consistently produce valued outcomes

In recent years, considerable research has been done to determine what vital behaviors that are instructional in nature result in the greatest outcomes for students who struggle in learning. These factors, or vital behaviors, have been referred to by different names (e.g., the instructional core, visible learning factors, high effect-size variables), but they all point to a common core of instructional factors that if used with frequency and implemented with fidelity will lead to dramatic improvement in student outcomes. Among the behaviors are:

• Plan for learner variability

• Focus instruction on critical content

• Sequence skills logically

• Break down complex skills and strategies into smaller instructional units

• Design organized and focused lessons

• Begin lessons with a clear statement of the lesson’s goals and your expectations

• Review prior skills and knowledge before beginning instruction

• Provide step-by-step demonstrations

• Use clear and concise language

• Provide a range a examples and non-examples

• Provide guided and supported practice

• Require frequent student responses

• Monitor student performance daily

• Provide immediate affirmative and corrective feedback

• Deliver lesson at an appropriate pace to optimize instructional time

• Help students organize knowledge

• Provide distributed and cumulative practice

The most difficult work to do in education is that which is done closest to the students 

In our current era of school reform, most of our attention is directed at factors that are often easier to control and change—things such as making major purchases of new technologies or changing the school schedule, the length of the school day or changing from a junior high school structure to a middle school structure. Such factors are generally somewhat removed from what happens directly in the classroom on a daily basis that involves what content is taught, how it is taught, how it is assessed, and how teachers relate to and connect with students.

The most difficult work to do in education is that which is done closest to the students on an ongoing basis; it is not the work that is done by boards of education or even the central office. Rather, the most important work rests on the shoulders of the ones who quietly close the classroom door every day and enact what the science of education tells them to be the vital behaviors to use and what the art of teaching tells them how to connect with, engage, and relate to students. Thus, it is excellence in teaching that is the single most powerful influence on student achievement.