48 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

May 17, 2016

Do teacher evaluations really help teachers improve?

IStock_000047244362_Small-feedbackIn recent years, annual performance reviews for teachers have become ubiquitous. Between 2009 and 2012 alone, the number of states requiring them jumped from 14 to 43. But do teacher evaluations make a difference in how teachers teach? Do they really help teachers improve?

Most research to date, write Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein in the May issue of Educational Leadership, has not focused on this question. For example, in 2013, a three-year, $45 million study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that it is possible—by taking into account student achievement data, student surveys, and classroom observations—to accurately evaluate effective teaching. What it didn’t show was whether accurate evaluations lead to better teaching.

However, in Cincinnati, one of the only studies to look at the performance trajectory of teachers found a spike in effectiveness of midcareer teachers who participated in evaluations based on multiple, structured observations conducted by experienced peers from other schools. Gains were largest for teachers with previously low levels of student achievement.

The reason, Goodwin and Hein write, seems to be that teachers had internalized the feedback from their peers, and that this micro-level, high-quality feedback—which they received before they were given summative ratings—was perhaps the most important factor in their improvement.

Indeed, not long after The Gates Foundation released its 2013 study, Microsoft itself announced it was moving away from the rating and ranking of its own employees and toward real-time feedback and coaching focused on professional growth. So, perhaps, the authors conclude, schools, too, would benefit from measuring less and motivating more.

So too, the authors conclude, when it comes to evaluating teachers and principals, school systems would do well to remember that the real benefit of performance appraisal lies not in the rigor of the rating system, but rather, in using goal-setting and feedback to support professional growth.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

December 7, 2015

Does collaborating really help teachers grow?

IStock_000062236334_SMA recent report from TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project) examined the professional growth of 10,000 teachers to try to determine what distinguishes the “improvers” from the “non-improvers” and found—perhaps not surprising to some of you—that most of the professional development (PD) teachers receive does little to improve the quality of instruction.   

So what does?—asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest column for Educational Leadership. We know from research that teacher practice doesn’t change by simply introducing new concepts or even through modeling and practice, he writes. What seems to make the most difference is the addition of peer coaching.

But we also know from research that the effects of both peer coaching and teacher collaboration are inconsistent. That’s because, Goodwin explains, most studies look at the number of hours spent on coaching and collaboration, not how those hours are spent.

Coaching and collaboration that truly help teachers grow, in other words, is a matter of quality, not quantity. Effective PD, Goodwin says, requires follow-up support “focused not on adoption but rather on adaption”—helping teachers go beyond lock-step implementation to applying better practices with their own students. Another key factor, then, is the how school leaders think about and approach professional development and change.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

August 18, 2015

Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work

IStock_000021923625LargeA new report on a two-year study conducted by TNTP on the effectiveness of professional development (PD) for teachers suggests that much of the available PD is ineffective in helping teachers improve, and that vast resources are being spent on programs that don’t stick.

Our experience in working with districts and regional/state agencies has been that some PD works, and some doesn’t.

What doesn’t work, in our experience, are those PD activities that are “siloed.” These are sessions or efforts that have little or no direct connection to a school or district’s improvement goals, and aren’t built on a researched, proven framework. They may have ignited a spark of enthusiasm or interest among participants in the moment, but when learnings and take-aways aren’t embedded into daily practice, they become easily forgotten or ignored. Outcomes are not monitored and analyzed, and the focus might shift or a new spark might ignite after a year or two.

Continue reading "Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work" »

January 29, 2015

Civil discourse on the Common Core

IStock_000017974549_SmallBeing an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant.

But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate. Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about the Common Core, and the discourse is often divisive and far from civil.

Continue reading "Civil discourse on the Common Core" »

October 7, 2014

The “Innovator’s Mindset”

GearsI recently read a blog post on developing innovation by George Couros, a principal with the Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. I'm a regular reader of Mr. Couros' blog, "The Principal of Change," but this one struck a particular chord with me.

In his blog post, Couros refers to Carol Dweck's work on "fixed" versus "growth" mindsets. In an interview with the OneDublin.org education blog's founder, Dr. Dweck differentiates between the two mindsets, explaining:

"In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."

Continue reading "The “Innovator’s Mindset”" »

September 30, 2014

What’s STEM got to do with it?

Engineering boy focus 1Meaningful careers. Financial stability. Happiness. That's what we all want for the future of our students, right? This might feel like an abstract, far-off concept when working with elementary school students. However, the foundation built during these formative years is exactly what supports achieving those goals. How do we cultivate the curiosity, tenacity, and student empowerment to help our students realize that future?

Think: Science… Technology… Engineering… Math.


Everyday STEM Blog_image2What is STEM and why does it matter?

While the STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, the real excitement comes from more than just teaching and learning academic content in those four areas, it comes from vitalizing the connections between these fields. In the best STEM programs, students are engaging in real-world problems—and solutions—creating a context for developing a deeper set of skills and new ways of thinking. STEM learning shows kids how they can make a difference, and also empowers them to make that difference.



Continue reading "What’s STEM got to do with it?" »

September 8, 2014

Student success is influenced by district leadership

District leadership—and particularly whether superintendents impact student success—has been in the news over the last week, thanks to a new report from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, provocatively titled School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

As a former superintendent, and as a co-author of a McREL study and book on district-level leadership, I read the Brookings report with keen interest. Here are a few of their conclusions that surprised me:

  • Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  • Superintendents account for a smaller fraction of student differences in achievement than any other major component of the education system.
  • Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Continue reading "Student success is influenced by district leadership" »

June 26, 2014

The emerging role of creativity in the classroom

If I were to create a word cloud of emerging concepts that I find most exciting in education today, it would include "creativity," "design thinking," and "maker spaces." It seems that a grass-roots movement celebrating art and design, partnered with practical problem-solving, has taken hold in nearly every aspect of our culture. Some examples of this movement are:

  • Conferences, such as ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest, Aspen Ideas Festival, or Wired magazine's inaugural Wired by Design,that encourage participation and problem-solving while learning from today's creative leaders.
  • Maker spaces or innovation labs in museums that change the role of the museum visitor to one of an interactive participant and innovator.
  • Incorporating design thinking into our classrooms by creating an environment in which students work collaboratively to define a problem and develop solutions.

This shift—on however small a scale it may be—in how we run our classrooms heralds a profound and welcome evolution in defining the roles of the student, the teacher, the classroom, and school in general. It signals that we have at last stopped talking about moving classrooms away from Industrial Age models to actually doing so.

Continue reading "The emerging role of creativity in the classroom" »

May 29, 2014

Teach your students how to fail

Child on bikeWe spend a great deal of time in schools nurturing and rewarding academic success—from gold stars on papers to honor roll awards celebrations to the selection of high school valedictorians. Recognition of success is important, but is success really the true measure of learning? What about the learning that occurs when students don’t succeed?  

Failure is not the undesirable end to learning; it is really just the beginning. Acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them is how we improve. Does a toddler who is learning to walk see himself as a failure after that first tumble? When an elementary student falls 20 times while learning to ride a two-wheel bike, has she failed or is she just practicing? Albert Einstein famously didn’t speak until he was nearly four years old and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School after flunking the entrance exam at the age of 15. As we know, he eventually learned to speak and even how to do a little math.

Continue reading "Teach your students how to fail" »

March 19, 2014

Taking the gamble out of CCSS curriculum alignment

Just as Claude Raines’ character in the classic movie Casablanca was “shocked, shocked!” to find that gambling was taking place in everyone’s favorite nightspot, many people may have been just as “surprised” to recently learn that education publishers can’t always be trusted when they declare that their materials serve the Common Core. (For those who haven’t seen the movie, Raines’ character wasn’t really all that shocked.)

If you’ve been an educator for a while, you might remember the days when “customization” meant simply that publishers changed state logos on the same textbooks to “customize” them to meet the state standards. Similarly, Education Week recently reported  on a study by researchers Polikoff and Schmidt, which found that publishers’ claims that traditional instructional materials are aligned to Common Core State Standards are largely a “sham.”

With so many states gearing up to implement and assess the Common Core State Standards—and looking for quality materials that support them—it’s puzzling that economies of scale, growing competition, and increased scrutiny haven’t yet resulted in well-aligned instructional materials.

Prior to the advent of the Common Core, standards varied widely from state to state, and the work of analyzing the quality of instructional materials and their alignment to state standards typically fell to selected teachers and curriculum staff in an individual district or state, sometimes with assistance from organizations like McREL. When this work went well, it resulted in a map of standards to the textbook series, recommendations for supplementary materials to ensure all standards were covered, and cautions where matches needed special attention. When done right, that work is time-intensive and can be expensive.

But now we have a universal set of standards, implemented across more than 40 states. Shouldn’t that make alignment, from a publisher’s perspective, a bit more efficient?  And if, as Polikoff and Schmidt suggest, this is not quite the case, where do we go from here?

Let me offer a modest proposal: if the efficiency offered by a common set of standards hasn’t yet provided the benefit of quality, aligned work from publishers, then maybe consumers (teachers, schools, and districts) should take the lead. 

One example of this type of grass-roots effort is the Anthology Alignment Project which houses free, teacher-developed Common Core aligned lessons for Anthology reading series in grades 6–10. This effort is a follow-on to the Basal Alignment Project, spearheaded by the Council of the Great City Schools, which is a collection of replacement lessons for the most commonly used basal readers. 

With hundreds of schools and districts across the U.S. reviewing the same textbooks—either in consideration for adoption, or mapping for current use in the Common Core—we have the strength in numbers to develop high-quality alignment work that is available and affordable to all, whether it’s a mapping of Common Core to a mathematics textbook at 4th grade, or to a well-designed grammar lesson available as a downloadable file.

Do you know of efforts to develop consortia of schools or districts to realize a similar goal? If so, I invite you to use the comments section below to share information on how they came together and how others might join.

Working together, we ought to be able to reduce the expense of, and the gamble on, curriculum adoption, and maybe, to quote Casablanca again, even begin a few beautiful friendships.

John Kendall conducts research and provides technical assistance on academic standards to schools, districts, states, national, and international organizations. He is the author of
Understanding Common Core State Standards and Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K–12 Education and the author or co-author of numerous reports and guides related to standards-based systems.

March 6, 2014

Creating stronger college-industry connections

Spring is right around the corner, and yet I feel like 2014 hasn’t given me a chance to catch my breath!

McREL’s Charleston office, where I work, started off the year with a full plate of program evaluation work to conduct. On top of that, we had our coldest January since 1978 (with about twice as many days out of school than in school for my kindergartener) and a massive chemical spill that made the water essentially unusable for a few weeks—with some areas still seeing the effects more than a month later.

Through all of that, I’ve barely had time to process national and world events like the Olympics. I have, however, made some time to watch and reflect on the President’s State of the Union address, delivered at the end of January.

I enjoy listening to the State of the Union each year to hear what changes might be coming to the national education landscape. What big and exciting new initiatives or competitions might be coming down the pike? What opportunities might they present for evaluation and research to improve education for Americans of all ages?

This year, the main education-related themes I heard in the speech were focused on early childhood education, transparency and affordability in higher education, and improving career training and education though our nation’s community colleges.

As a parent, the first two themes were interesting, as I’m pretty invested in ensuring that my own children have terrific and affordable educational experiences from daycare through college. Professionally, I was most interested in the president’s call for continued innovation and partnership-building in the area of career training:

“So tonight, I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.”

This was particularly exciting for me to hear because I see some of that work being started already. In our program evaluation work, my McREL colleagues and I have worked with community colleges to monitor the progress and assess the outcomes of programs funded through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. This program is a partnership between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education—funded to the tune of $2 billion over four years—designed to help community colleges improve and expand their two-year career training programs for high-skill, high-wage jobs in a variety of industries. The ultimate goals of the TAACCCT program are to ensure that workers are prepared for good jobs and that employers have access to skilled workers.

Through our work with the colleges implementing TAACCCT-funded programs, we’ve seen earnest attempts by the colleges to involve industry representatives in revising curricula and practices to make sure the training programs are relevant and responsive to current industry needs.

Many community college programs have involved industry partners in various ways throughout the years. However, we’re now seeing a higher level of focus by the colleges to ensure that new courses, programs, equipment purchases, and so on will meet current and future needs of employers, workers, and industries. Colleges are routinely engaging industry partners in advisory boards and curriculum committees, to ensure that their perspectives are considered in decisions about the training programs. This should pay nice dividends for both the students and their future employers.

We look forward to continuing our work with community colleges across the country, and my colleagues and I are nearly as anxious as they are to see the outcomes of the TAACCCT programs.

For analysis of the education content of the 2014 State of the Union address, I recommend Education Week’s summary and the Politics K-12 blog.


Georgia Hughes-Webb, a research and evaluation specialist with McREL’s Charleston office, conducts a variety of program evaluations for community colleges and other institutions of higher education. She can be reached at ghughes-webb@mcrel.org or 800.624.9120.

February 27, 2014

Reflections on Top Dog: Does more school pressure lead to better student performance?

In my recent column in Educational Leadership, I drew upon some studies synthesized in a new book from Newsweek and New York Times journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, which provides a slew of fascinating insights, including the importance of framing problems as challenges versus threats.

In sports, for example, professional soccer players are more apt to kick a tie-breaking goal when they are kicking to win—that is, to give their team the lead in a shootout rather than when kicking from behind in a shootout to avoid a loss. In addition, Bronson and Merryman point to a study conducted at Princeton University, which invited two groups of students from high schools under-represented on the prestigious campus to answer questions about their backgrounds (to remind them of their outsider status) and then take a short math test. Top Dog_Bronson and Merryman

The tests the two groups took were nearly identical, with just one subtle, yet important difference. For one group, the exam was a framed as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire;” for the other, it was called an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire.” The differences in performance were striking; the students taking the “challenge” test answered, on average, 90 percent of questions correctly; the students taking the very same test labelled as an “ability” exam answered, on average, just 72 percent of the questions correctly. In effect, framing the test as a threat rather than a challenge resulted in a two-letter-grade drop in performance.

Consider yet another study included in Top Dog. It found that the size of the venue in which students take the SAT test has a tremendous effect on performance—the smaller the venue, the higher the score. Certainly, many explanations might be offered for this finding. One likely culprit, though, is that being surrounded by a large group of fellow exam takers can be threatening. As Bronson and Merryman observe, “These kids know darn well that the entire country is taking the test that day; however, having so many at the same place, often in the same room, is intimidating. It’s a stark reminder of just how many other students are competing with you for college spots.”

Bronson and Merryman connect these findings with yet another dot: business research that shows that companies whose CEOs create a “promotion focus” (i.e., set ambitious goals and encourage innovation) are more likely to outperform competitors than those led by CEOs who create a “prevention focus” (i.e., cautiously fixate on preventing errors).

In my column, I related these insights from Top Dog to the current environment in many schools, which for nearly half of all educators, according to a recent MetLife survey of educators, is characterized by high levels of stress, due in no small part to ongoing pressure to raise student performance while enduring budget cuts. In short, what many educators appear to be facing are tantamount to threat conditions that are likely not conducive to kind of the creative and collaborative thinking that is required to develop better learning environments for students. 

That’s not to say pressure and competition are always bad. On the contrary, Top Dog identifies conditions under which competition spurs higher performance and even, surprisingly, creativity (for example the rivalry between Renaissance painters Michelangelo and Rafael). Along these lines, the pressure created by the last two decades of reforms hasn’t been all bad; it has focused attention to helping all students succeed, relying upon data to make decisions, and looking for bright spots and best practices.

That said, we need extrapolate only a little to question the current direction, and underlying theory of action, beneath the continued press to tighten the screws on the package of high-stakes testing, school accountability, and educator performance evaluations tied to student achievement scores (which, as I noted in a previous Educational Leadership column, researchers caution is fraught with concerns of its own).

For starters, if simple tweaks to tests, such as reframing them as challenges, reducing the number of fellow test takers in the room, or, as I noted in an earlier blog, offering students small rewards, can dramatically alter how students perform on them, one wonders if we’re really assessing what we think we are. Moreover, one might wonder whether the threat conditions we’ve created for many schools with high-stakes accountability are serving us well, or if it may be time to begin to reframe accountability in terms of a challenge condition that encourages educators to harness their collective ingenuity to create better learning environments for all students.

I’ll write more about what these efforts might resemble in future blogs and columns. For now, though, I’d encourage readers to absorb the many surprising insights from Top Dog (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface) and consider how this science of competition, adeptly captured in the book, might point us toward a more enlightened approach to school improvement.

Bryan Goodwin_web
Bryan Goodwin is McREL's chief operating officer. A former teacher and journalist, he is the co-author of
The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day and the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.


February 21, 2014

In support of classroom observations

There’s been chatter in the educational blogosphere lately about the effectiveness of classroom walkthroughs. Some question the impact that instructional leaders have on student achievement. Some have even questioned whether principals should visit classrooms at all.

However, research shows a clear link between the coaching of teachers and student achievement. There is also a clear indication that walkthroughs are valuable if teachers see them as part of professional development. So what’s the best model for walkthroughs?

McREL’s research on school-level leadership found 21 principal responsibilities, activities, and behaviors that are most strongly connected to staff and student success—15 of which can be addressed by conducting classroom walkthroughs. An informal classroom walkthrough of 3‒5 minutes allows school-level leaders to gather information about teaching styles, instructional strategies, technology use, and other valuable information that can help drive professional development. It also allows leaders to increase their visibility among students and staff and to gauge the temperature of the school climate. Walkthroughs conducted with a purpose and linked to instructional practice do create value for teachers, leaders, and students.

Bringing coaches into the picture

We’ve seen an interesting shift in the typical users of McREL’s Power Walkthrough software and training. When it was developed in 2007, our clients were almost solely principals and assistant principals. But lately, we’ve seen the software being used more and more by teacher leaders, mentors, and instructional coaches. Perhaps this is reflective of principals realizing that allowing staff to observe and learn from one another is an effective way of providing ongoing professional development.

In response to this shift, this summer we’ll launch Power Walkthrough Coach, designed  to help principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches give teachers the valuable feedback and input they need to improve their practice.

If done in the context of research-based leadership practices and instructional development, classroom walkthroughs are a valuable way for principals and school leaders to see instruction happening in their schools, provide personalized professional development and feedback to teachers, and to involve staff in their own professional learning.


2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.



2011_Kerr_WEBAndrew Kerr is a consultant for McREL's Center for Educator Effectiveness, working with schools, districts, and state and national education agencies on curriculum and instruction, technology planning, staff development, and distance learning programs.

February 18, 2014

Filling the STEM teacher pipeline

A significant number of schools and districts each year report serious problems filling their math and science teaching openings. Why is this? What can we do to increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of STEM teacher candidates?

In a 2010 study, researchers Richard M. Ingersoll and David Perda found that, in fact, annual attrition rates are about the same for math and science teachers as they are for teachers in other subject areas. But unlike other content areas, math and science do not have a surplus of new teachers relative to losses. In other words, for math and science teachers, there is a much tighter balance between new supply and total attrition.

Teacher with studentsAt the same time, there is a need to increase the diversity of the teaching force that has the skills to work with the growing minority student population. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, as of 2011, 48 percent of U.S. public school students are from an ethnic minority, while only 18 percent of teachers are.

To improve the quantity, quality, and diversity within the STEM teacher recruitment pool, let’s consider the four primary sources of new hires in math and science teaching:

  • The ‘‘pipeline’’ of university students who have recently completed a teacher certification program in a school of education and obtained an education/specialization degree and teaching certificate
  • “Career changers”—those entering teaching with non-education STEM degrees and those entering through alternative, midcareer, and nontraditional routes
  • The ‘‘reserve pool’’ of those who completed teacher preparation in prior years but delayed teaching, as well as former teachers who left teaching to later return
  • “Transfers” from other schools—teachers who move from one school to another

In general, for all four groups, recruiting teachers has typically been done through the use of signing and performance incentives, stipends to teachers for certification through alternative routes, stipends or bonuses on top of the regular pay schedule, and scholarships for teachers to pursue advanced course work.

While many recruitment strategies work for a broad range of candidates, some strategies should be differentiated according to the source. For example:

Traditional pipeline candidates

  • Begin recruiting before prospective teachers graduate or do their clinical internships
  • Build strong partnerships with college- or university-based teacher preparation programs
  • Provide prospective teachers with adequate information about districts, schools, and communities to ensure they recognize teaching opportunities and gather adequate information to make well-informed and appropriate job decisions
  • Provide high-quality induction and professional development experiences to ensure successful recruitment and retention outcomes
  • Require evidence of rigorous and substantial content and pedagogical preparation
  • Attend graduate career fairs
  • Stress the opportunity to become culturally aware of different societies

Career/major changers

  • Advertise to government employment assistance agencies
  • Target information to areas with local STEM business closings
  • Advertise to job placement companies and university job placement services
  • Use social networking
  • Disseminate information to the Department of Conservation, Forestry, etc.
  • Collaborate with Troops to Teachers
  • Attend professional, graduate, and military career fairs
  • Reach out to department heads and student groups in STEM majors
  • Develop multiple entry points into teaching for nontraditional math and science teacher candidates

Reserve candidates

  • Provide a convincing and altruistic case for joining the educator workforce
  • Require evidence of strong content background knowledge and expertise
  • Disseminate information to College of Education alumni lists
  • Provide enhanced teacher induction for returning educators to catch them up on the latest priorities and trends


  • Describe positive school culture factors that attract math and science teachers such as student discipline policies, student motivation, and shared teacher leadership
  • Use signing and performance incentives
  • Offer scholarships for teachers to pursue advanced course work
  • Streamline the application process for highly qualified transfer candidates

For all four groups, it’s important to proactively engage recruits by visiting them where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to you. This can be done face-to-face at career fairs and conferences, or virtually through social networking and website/webinar outreach. Proactive recruitment strategies are especially important for recruiting minority candidates. Employers must seek out quality higher education institutions with high proportions of minority candidates and rigorously recruit from them.

Retention and recruitment of math and science teachers go hand-in-hand. If you establish working conditions that math and science teachers desire, and publicize those conditions, your recruitment improves. Furthermore, improving job conditions such as increasing support and resources from the school administration, increasing salaries, reducing student discipline problems, and enhancing faculty input into school decision making, would all contribute to lower rates of turnover and, in turn, reduce recruitment needs.

Do you have other STEM recruiting strategies that have been especially effective?


Dr. Matt Kuhn works with districts and schools to improve STEM instruction. He conducts professional development in instructional technology integration, technology leadership, and curricular design and pedagogy in mathematics and science. He is a Google Certified Teacher and a co-author of the first and second editions of
Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. Prior to joining McREL, Matt was a secondary science/math teacher and principal.

January 31, 2014

Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest

“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.

But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.

As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.

Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?

Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.

Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.

Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.

Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.

As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?

Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.

A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.

September 27, 2013

My trip through Universal Design

At first, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may sound like just another tall order for today’s educators to fill. Instead, it’s more “everyday” than one might think.

Originally coined by designers and architects, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). In education, UDL is the design of “instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST).

How does Universal Design play out in our daily lives? While I was traveling to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, for a meeting with some teachers in our Adapted Curriculum Enhancement (ACE) program, I experienced several examples of Universal Design that we take for granted (almost) every day. 

For example, after maneuvering through airport security, I stood at my gate and watched, with others, the latest news on TV. The volume was muted, and we were all reading the closed-captioning—an example of technology designed for the deaf and hard of hearing but which benefits everyone without adaption.

After arriving in Pittsburgh, I found my rental car and plugged in the GPS.  Even though I didn’t know the zip code for my destination, the system was still able to find the location. Before I got on my way, though, the GPS asked whether I wanted the shortest route, the fastest route, or to avoid highways. It also told me which gas stations and restaurants were along the way. With all of these options, I thought, this GPS could meet everyone’s needs, from the business traveler to the hungry sightseer.

Can we apply this concept to the classroom just as easily as we do in real life? The DO-IT Center at the University of Washington has developed a checklist for incorporating Universal Design into instructional practices, including multiple items under each of these main categories:

  • Class Climate: Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Interaction: Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
  • Physical Environments: Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  • Delivery Methods: Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  • Information Resources and Technology: Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
  • Feedback: Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  • Assessment: Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly.
  • Accommodation: Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

McREL’s ACE program also uses principles of UDL to help teachers assist students in visualizing complex science concepts through tactile graphics with written descriptions and 3-D models. The overarching principle is to develop course material, curriculum, and instruction with UDL in mind from the beginning, so that educators don’t have to “retro-fit” their teaching when they have diverse learners in their classrooms.

How have you included the principles of Universal Design in your classroom (maybe without even knowing it)? 

John Ristvey is a director for McREL. You can reach him at
jristvey@mcrel.org or at 303.632.5620.

September 17, 2013

Unlocking grit

Although we know a great deal about the factors that contribute to student achievement, we also know that student success isn't purely reductive: students who have every advantage can still fail, and conversely, students with the odds stacked firmly against them are often capable of prodigious success.

But what is it about some students that leads them to succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges? As we note in our latest Educational Leadership column, it may be as simple as grit. Grit, or resilience, is made up of a combination of factors, including goal-directedness, motivation, self-control, and positive mindset, that come together to create persistence in the face of challenges. Though grit may seem difficult to define (and is less easily influenced than curriculum, instruction, and the school environment), there’s an increasing recognition of its importance. Thankfully, there are things that we can do in the classroom to support the development of grit. Read about them here.

Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, he wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

Kirsten Miller is a lead consultant at McREL and a coauthor of the upcoming Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners, 2nd edition, due out in November.

April 23, 2013

Ensuring teacher quality: A global view

E000061rThere are few things more talked about in U.S. education circles right now than how to improve evaluation for teachers. While states and districts are focused on what’s wrong with our current systems and how we can make them better—by changing what we evaluate, how often we evaluate, and even who evaluates—perhaps we should look to how other countries with the top student achievement rates in the world, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, are already getting it right.

Only the best get in. Only 15 percent of Finnish prospective teachers are admitted into teacher programs. Once in, their preparation includes extensive coursework on teaching principles and at least one full year of in-school experience (Darling-Hammond, 2010). By the time Singaporean candidates pass a demanding test and panel interview, only one out of eight applicants successfully becomes a teacher (Tucker, 2011).

Teachers in high-performing countries also receive high-quality professional development in research methods and pedagogical practice, and they participate in it quite often. Common in Western European countries is “job-embedded professional development,” which supports teacher research on a specific learning practice. Because teachers are provided time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies, their learning is ongoing and sustained (Wei, Andree, & Darling-Hammond, 2009).

Teacher collaboration in high-performing countries ensures high teacher quality. In South Korea, only about 35 percent of teachers’ working time is spent teaching pupils. The rest is spent working in a shared office space exchanging instructional resources and ideas. Likewise, teachers in Finnish schools meet at least one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and they are encouraged to share materials and work with teachers at other schools (Wei et al., 2009).

These methods appear to be working. Results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released in December 2012 reflect that in 4th-grade mathematics, Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong were the top performers, followed by Chinese Taipei and Japan (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Arora, 2012). According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the top-performing countries in 4th-grade reading were Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2012).

In addition, high-performing countries have high levels of graduation and post-graduate education. More than 99 percent of Finnish students, for example, complete upper secondary school and two-thirds of those graduates go on to universities or professional schools (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

While these practices may seem utopian to U.S. educators, they provide insight into how teacher quality in other countries contributes to the student achievement results that we strive for. To achieve best-in-the-world results, the United States needs to determine what best-in-the-world evaluation practices we can apply or modify to create the highest quality teachers.

How can these practices be implemented in your school? Do you have the time and resources to do so? Do you think they would improve teacher quality in your school or district?

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, Writer/Editor II


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/40991.htm

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Arora, A. (2012). Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from  http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_Mathematics_FullBook.pdf 

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Drucker, K. T. (2012). PIRLS 2001 international results in reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from

Tucker, M. (2011). Standing on the shoulders of giants: An American agenda for education   reform. National Center on Education and the Economy. Retrieved from http://www.ncee.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Standing-on-the-Shoulders-of-Giants-An-American-Agenda-for-Education-Reform.pdf

Wei, R. C., Andree, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). How nations invest in teachers. Educational
Leadership, 66
(5), 28–33.


December 18, 2012

The Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy: Resources for educators

Here at McREL, we are heartbroken by the tragedy that occurred last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. To the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and across the country who are grieving the loss of loved ones, please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. 

For educators and families anywhere who are in need of some assistance helping children through the continuing effects of this tragedy, please consider the following resources: 

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Children and Grief  This article describes the normal reactions to expect from young children when they lose a loved one as well as behaviors that indicate professional help is needed. 

American Academy of Pediatrics: Resources to Help Parents, Children and Others Cope in the Aftermath of School Shootings  AAP provides a list of resources for parents/teachers, students, and schools to help cope specifically with the effects of school shootings.  

National Association of School Psychologists: Helping Children Cope - Tips for Parents and Teachers  This handout offers advice for adults, parents, and schools to help children cope with any kind of national tragedy. 

PBS: Talking with Kids About News  PBS offers general strategies for talking and listening to children about news events.  

U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services: Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events - A Guide for Parents and Educators  This brief explains common reactions to traumatic events by preschoolers, young children, and adolescents, and provides tips for helping children and for getting professional help when needed.

October 18, 2012

Do our students care about higher standards?

Student motivation blog
A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, co-authored by Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics) reports on a series of studies involving some 7,000 students in the Chicago area to see whether incentives—such as cold, hard cash—could entice students to perform better on tests.

Researchers told students immediately prior to taking a standardized test (such as those used to evaluate school  performance) that if they did well on these tests, they would receive an award. Over the course of the experiments, the researchers tweaked the conditions, for example, changing the dollar amounts (from $10 to $20), changing the rewards (from trophies to cash), and altering the payout schedule from immediately after the test to 30 days later. In some cases, they provided students with the cash or trophy prior to the test and told them they would keep it if they did well or return it if they did poorly.

In general, the bribes worked: students who received awards performed at significantly higher levels (about 5–6 months more of learning) on the tests than those who did not (see p. 14 of the report).

Other intriguing nuances emerged as well. For example, non-monetary rewards, such as trophies, worked for younger students, but not older ones. Delaying payments consistently diminished the benefits of the rewards. And students were far more motivated by the threat of loss—getting a reward in advance which could be taken away for poor performance—than anticipation of a future reward.  

Perhaps the most interesting finding of these studies, however, comes as a single sentence tucked into page four of the report: 

Our results suggest that in the absence of immediate incentives, many students put forth low effort on the standardized tests that we study.

In other words, what the study may really have found is that most students were capable of doing much better on tests if they only applied themselves a bit more during the exam. Recall that the rewards were only announced immediately prior to the tests, so students in the experiment weren’t preparing any more for the tests than students in the control groups; they were simply buckling down a bit more to receive a small $10 prize or $3 trophy. These are also the same tests that have high stakes for teachers and administrators, but as the researchers put it, “low stakes for the students choosing to exert effort on the test.”

With this in mind, have we spent the past 20 years fretting over raising standards, creating related assessments, and designing accountability systems to improve student performance, but neglecting to help students understand why any of this should be meaningful to them? Moreover, are we about to make this same mistake all over again with Common Core State Standards?

In my next blog, I’ll explore what it might look like if we were to put student motivation (and an answer to the question, what’s in it for them?) at the center of our reform efforts.

Have standards-based reforms neglected student motivation…or maybe even undermined it?


Written Byran Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing and New Business Development

September 25, 2012

Developing effective digital learning policy

Digital tech blog
In the ‘80s, teachers were excited to incorporate overhead projectors into their classrooms. In the ‘90s, cutting edge classrooms were those equipped with a computer—one that would allow students to take turns accessing CD-ROMs and saving to floppy disks. Today, digital technologies have exploded, and schools might issue tablets to all students, rely exclusively on virtual courses, or even encourage the use of cell phones in class. But does technology in the classroom really improve student achievement?

Research tells us that although technology can have a positive impact on student achievement it is no guarantee of success (Pedro, 2012). Some students in online classes might outperform their peers,  while those enrolled in a particular virtual school lag significantly behind. One educational software program may lead directly to higher test scores while another produces no measurable effect. And a one-to-one laptop initiative may be a wild success in one school district while it is a complete flop in the district next door. 

Given the variable success of digital learning initiatives, decision makers have much to consider when determining whether and how to invest in digital learning. McREL’s newest policy brief, “Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World,” offers recommendations to policymakers as they consider ways to formulate digital learning policy:

1.       Consider digital learning options that will address the unique needs of a specific region

Effective digital learning policy accounts for the strengths and needs that are unique to a region.  While investment in a learning management system may be appropriate for a highly developed region, other areas may be better served by improved access to the Internet.  Likewise, disparities within  regions may mean that students and teachers in rural and remote areas lack access to the educational and technological resources that more populous areas take for granted.  

2.       Develop a rationale for digital learning  

Advocates for digital learning may cite different reasons for their support. Some emphasize the role that education plays in preparing students for the workforce, arguing that students must be highly digitally literate to succeed in today’s technology-driven workplace. Others focus on technology’s ability to improve student achievement and enhance educator effectiveness, while still others argue that digital learning promotes more equitable access to education.  Consideration of these rationales is likely to increase stakeholder buy-in and produce clearer policy.

3.       Support successful digital learning implementation strategies

Successful digital learning programs provide for ongoing and substantive support to teachers and principals who must be trained to effectively incorporate any new technologies into their practice and maximize on the potential of those technologies. Further, effective digital learning policy provides for the ongoing evaluation of any digital learning initiative, which in turn allows for ongoing program improvement.

How effective have digital learning initiatives in your region been? What is your current digital learning policy? What obstacles does your district or school face in creating one?

For further details on effective digital learning policy, read this free McREL resource: Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World.

Written by Allison Dunlap, policy research assistant at McREL.


Pedró, F. (2012). Trusting the unknown: The effects of technology use in education. In Soumitra Dutta & Beñat Bilbao-Osorio (Eds.) 135–146, The Global Information Technology Report 2012: Living in a Hyperconnected World. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/Global_IT_Report_2012.pdf

August 15, 2012

Early childhood obesity: What can educators do?

Obesity is the health epidemic of our time, and it seems that everyone—from the mayor of New York to the Walt Disney Company—is trying to do something about it. While trying to change the unhealthy habits of adults is often viewed as an infringement on personal freedom, there isn’t much argument against doing so for young children. When Disney decided it would no longer allow junk food advertising during its programming aimed at preschoolers, it was lauded by none other than First Lady Michelle Obama.

But it takes more than advertising to prevent obesity—and healthy habits include not only eating and drinking but also physical activity. Children ages 2‒5, according to guidelines put forth by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in 2002, should be getting a minimum of two hours of exercise a day, including 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. But the reality is that most of children’s time at preschool is not active, due to the school’s lack of space, equipment, time, or staff members with the right training.     

Let Me Play is a comprehensive program implemented in Head Start classrooms across the country that offers training to teachers and provides them with developmentally appropriate activities that can be easily incorporated into existing curriculum. An evaluation of the program conducted by McREL found that it improved teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward physical education and health content and increased the levels of activity, skill, and motivation in children.

Preschools that want to incorporate developmentally appropriate physical activity in their curriculum should find ways for teachers to collaborate on ideas for activities and make sure they’re comfortable with implementation. Also, programs can monitor implementation using tools like the Physical Education Rating Scale (available for download from Amazon). 

Do you think physical activity should be required in preschool? What else can schools do to encourage healthy habits?


Written by Heather Hein, writer and editor, and Sheila Arens, senior director, at McREL.

June 5, 2012

NCLB Waivers: Can they fix a “Broken” Law?

Run down school pic.jpg
In May 2012, President Obama granted waivers for some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to an additional eight states, for a total of19 states receiving waivers so far: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky,  Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. An additional 18 states and the District of Columbia have applied for “wiggle room.” But what do waivers really mean for states, and do they really provide the flexibility they seem to promise?

According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), waivers allow states to focus on students’ readiness for college and career, rather than arbitrary proficiency targets; design their own interventions for struggling students; use multiple measures for student proficiency, and not just high-stakes testing; and allow for more flexibility in the use of federal funds.

Based on the number of waiver applications submitted, it appears most states long for some breathing room from NCLB’s requirements. But the waivers aren’t without their critics. Some argue that they’re being forced to allocate resources to develop waiver applications that simply provide relief from already unattainable mandates, suggesting that a blanket waiver from some of NCLB’s more onerous requirements, such as bringing all students to proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014, is more appropriate.

And though the waivers do liberate states from the 2014 proficiency requirements, compliance with NCLB still rides on standardized test scores, resulting in continued concerns around the narrowing of curriculum and teaching to the test.  Other critics worry that the waivers will lessen the focus on achievement gaps among socioeconomic and demographic subgroups, creating potential civil rights issues.

What do you think? Has your state applied for (or received) a waiver? Are waivers changing what happens in the classroom?

Read a rundown of the feedback from DOE to the 26 second-round states.

Written by Kirsten Miller, McREL lead consultant

May 4, 2012

What the American Dream could cost you

College costs blog photo
Ask anyone who graduated college in the last 20 years why they went to college, and they’ll repeat the message they were always given: College = job = American Dream.

But recent college graduates are quickly experiencing one of two things:

  1. There seems to be more college graduates than there are college-level jobs available. According to one analysis of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 35 percent of the 49 million college graduates in the workforce have jobs that require less than a college degree. For example, 33 percent of flight attendants, 16 percent of bartenders, and 13 percent of waiters or waitresses are college graduates.
  2. Those lucky enough to have a college-level job have debilitating student loans. According to The Huffington Post, 2010 graduates left college with, on average, about $25,000 in student loans. But, in the same article, they interviewed a recent Ithaca College graduate, who earned a communications degree and also acquired $120,000 in school debt. She’s now an intern making $12.50 an hour.

So, while 40 years ago, the American dream was to graduate from high school, get a good job, and retire comfortably, and 20 years ago, the American Dream was to go to college, earn a degree (or two), get a good job (or two or three), and retire comfortably, the new American Dream could be somewhere in the middle.

Middle-skill jobs, that is. Two-year degrees, occupational licenses, and certifications are becoming more appealing to recent high school graduates. Two-year degree holders, especially in high-demand occupations, can earn salaries that surpass those of college graduates. For example, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce, the lifetime earnings of computer software engineers ($3million), aircraft mechanics ($2.3 million), and electricians ($2.1 million) all exceed the lifetime earnings of writers and editors ($2.0 million) and teachers ($1.8 million).

Two-year degree holders also graduate with a lot less student debt. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the average tuition of a four-year degree in 2009–2010 was $20, 986 compared to $8,451 for two-year degree tuition.  

With high unemployment rates and tuition costs for four-year degree holders and the opposite for two-year degree holders, what do we tell our current high school graduates about college?

For more information, read Bryan Goodwin’s article in Educational Leadership, “Don’t Overlook Middle-Skill Jobs.”

January 31, 2012

Teachers still want “apples”

An apple for a teacher is the education cliché, but do you know why? As far back as the 16th century, parents of students in Scandinavia, and eventually in the United States, gave fruit to their child’s teacher to show their appreciation. But it was also, in part, a form of payment to help low-salaried teachers feed their families. Today, the salary scale remains, but the appreciation seems lost, resulting in U.S. schools having a harder time than ever keeping good teachers. In fact, according to a McKinsey & Company study, 14 percent leave teaching after only one year, and 46 percent leave before their fifth.


Why teachers leave


When teachers enter the field, they have high expectations of making a difference. Too often, however, they quickly realize that they don’t have the professional support, feedback, resources, or modeling of what it takes to help their students succeed. Instead, teachers must teach to the tests, fight bureaucracies, and monitor cafeterias and hallways in addition to their daily lesson planning, classroom management, and administrative tasks.


But it’s not just the heavy workload. In a July 2011 speech, as reported in The Huffington Post, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that teachers should earn between $60,000 and $150,000 a year. In reality, however, teachers earn an average $39,000 a year. But because salary is often indicative of the value society places on the profession, the emphasis on compensation may point to another issue. According to the McKinsey & Company study, the top-ranked education countries in the world—Singapore, Finland, and South Korea—“bestow enormous social prestige on the profession” (p. 6). Based on the current state of the profession, can we say the United States does the same?


How to get them to stay


Give teachers time. Many schools are adjusting their school schedules to create more instructional and non-instructional time for teachers, such as extended school days or half days for students. Hiring paraprofessionals can also assist teachers with administrative tasks or small group activities. The U.S. Department of Education is offering states the ability to waive some NCLB requirements, which eases the stress of testing requirements.


Address the compensation gap. To raise the quality of the entire teaching workforce, the level of teacher compensation is critical. However, changing the composition of the salary scale (e.g., merit pay, pay-for-performance) isn’t a cure-all; all levels of compensation need to be initially raised to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, according to an Economic Policy Institute issue brief.


Establish supportive work environments. In a report from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform (2007), teachers commented that they derive greater satisfaction from their work when they are empowered by school leaders to make decisions about scheduling, selection of materials, and professional development. In addition, regularly scheduled observations that coach teachers to higher levels of performance promote better teaching and higher student achievement.


Teachers, have you stayed or left and why? If you decided to leave, what would have changed your mind?


Do you agree or disagree that these are appropriate “apples” to keep high-quality teachers? If not, what are?


Read our hot topic on teacher retention for more information and other resources.

December 5, 2011

The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries

According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society. 

So why don’t we pay teachers more? 

One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent. 

Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power. 

It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student enrollment growth (21 percent). As a result, teacher-student ratios fell from 18.7 to 15.7. However, had they remained constant and funding increases had been funneled into teacher salaries, the average teacher would now make $78,574, instead of $52,578. 

Class-size reduction initiatives have been one of the driving forces in creating our uniquely American teaching corps of low-salaried classroom teachers teaching smaller classes amid a supporting cast of higher-paid specialists. Yet as John Hattie notes in Visible Learning, reducing class sizes—from say, 25 to 15 students—still has only a small effect on student achievement. And even that small benefit assumes that teacher quality remains constant as districts scramble to fill vacancies for teachers. 

Certainly, smaller classes make managing behavior and grading papers less burdensome for teachers. But when given the choice between having a few more students and making a few thousand dollars more per year, most rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the larger classes and paychecks. As Marquerite Roza, a researcher at the University of Washington, reports in her book Educational Economics, a study in Washington State asked teachers if they preferred a $5,000 raise, class size reduction, a teacher’s aide, or increased preparation time (four investments of roughly equal value). Fully 83 percent of teachers said they preferred a raise over class-size reduction, 88 percent preferred a raise to a teacher’s aide, and 69 percent preferred the raise to increased preparation time. 

While no one goes into teaching to get rich, it’s clear that great teachers are worth a great deal more than most are currently paid. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our approach to smaller classes (and smaller teacher salaries) so that we can find and reward great teachers with salaries that reflect their real benefit to students and society.

November 1, 2011

Killing with kindness?

For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them.

That so many people could worry about the same phenomenon for so long begs the question of whether such concerns are merely successive generations of curmudgeons grumbling about the declining standards of youth or grounded in reality.

As I write in my latest column in Educational Leadership, recent data suggests that such concerns today may be indeed have some basis in fact. Here are but two data points:

  • Nearly twice as many high school students reported earning an A or A-minus average in 2006 than in 1992 (32.8 percent versus 18.3 percent).
  • In 2007, two federal reports found that the performance of U.S. high school students on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had declined between 1992 and 2005, even as average student GPA rose from 2.68 to 2.98.

Some critics dismiss these data because they rely on student self-reports of their grades, which, itself could suggest an equally troubling conclusion: that today’s students are more “truth challenged” than in the past. Test companies which collect these data, however, say their analyses suggest that self-reports are sufficiently reliable to use for research purposes.

The real question, though, may well be whether today’s grades accurately assess student learning. Here, too, the data are troubling.

In Oregon, reviewers analyzed the in-class work of 2,200 high school students against university professors’ standards for college-entry work and found that most B students and some A students were not doing work on par with entry-level college standards.

If we accept, as many researchers do, that grade inflation is a real phenomenon, we might ask why it occurs. Here are two possible explanations:

  1. Many teachers (as many as half by one estimate) base class grades on factors such as effort, behavior, and attitude that are only indirectly related to learning. In low-performing schools, in particular, grades seem to have as much to do with managing behavior as assessing learning.
  2. Educators may inflate grades out of sympathy for students who are underprepared for success: feeling caught between a rock and a hard place of either inflating grades or flunk large numbers of students, they opt for inflating grades.  

But do inflated grades help anyone? Nationwide, 30 percent of students at four-year colleges drop out after just one year of school, incurring enormous personal costs and racking up more than $1 billion per year in wasted state appropriations and student grants. How many of these students received unrealistically high marks in high school, only to discover in college that their high schools might have actually been killing them with kindness? 

Bryan Goodwin is vice president of communications at McREL. He is the author of Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success (ASCD, 2011).

October 14, 2011

Changing our perception of—and response to—bullying

Nelson Munz. His image may come to mind for many of us when we think about bullies. Nelson_Munz (For those of you who don’t watch, or are too high-brow to admit to watching, The Simpsons, Nelson is the quintessential bully on the show, known for his mocking, doorbell-chime hah-hah laugh.)   

That’s how many of us may think of bullies—as a social outcast waiting in the back hallway to extort lunch money from wimps. Sure, we’ve probably all known (and perhaps even handed over milk money to) a Nelson Munz or two, but the reality is that most bullies aren’t like him at all. 

As I report
in the September 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, most bullying is psychological, not physical. And it’s often popular kids who do the bullying—including girls.

Not only is the popular perception of bullying off the mark, so too, researchers note, are our common responses to it. Often, we tend to focus on the victims, encouraging them to stick up for themselves or find adults to help.

But that appears to be the exact wrong approach—and a key reason that so many anti-bullying programs are ineffective. Rather than seeing bullying as a psychological aberrance, we must see and treat it as a natural social phenomenon. To combat bullying, adults enlist the support of the entire school community, including teachers, parents, and student bystanders, who witness an estimated 85 percent of bullying cases, to create a school culture in which bullying is no longer socially beneficial, but rather socially unacceptable.

To learn more about current research on bullying, read the entire article here.

October 13, 2011

The next frontier of education: Implementation

In my latest “research says” column in Educational Leadership, I report that a new slew of “gold-standard” studies has unearthed (somewhat inadvertently) that in a lot of cases, educators really aren’t very good at the whole implementation thing. The studies, commissioned by the Institute for Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, were carefully constructed with impressive sample sizes and rigorous statistical analyses. They found little or no effects for several popular education programs, such as Odyseey Math and Rick Stiggins’ Classroom Assessment for Student Learning. 

Yet, almost without exception, the programs in question were so poorly implemented that it’s difficult to determine if they—or the poor implementation—were the reason for the weak results. In other words, the programs might have actually worked had they only been implemented with fidelity.'

This may be true of many education approaches and reforms, which ultimately get thrown on the trash heap because we believe they don’t work, when in reality, they may work just fine when they’re implemented well.

On the upside, we have seen a lot of improvements in education (for example, great teaching and curricula that challenge and engage students, to name just two) that can have a tremendous impact on student success … when done well. In fact, most of the big impact approaches aren’t new at all. For decades, we’ve known that teachers setting high expectations, being a “warm demander,” and intentionally matching instructional strategies to learning goals really do work. We just need to do these things correctly and stick to them.

Educators might take some solace in knowing that they’re not alone in struggling to do what everyone knows must be done. Businesses have the same trouble. Everyone in the airline industry knows Southwest Airline’s open secrets of success, such as their “all aboard” seating; yet few, if any, competitors have been able to effectively follow Southwest’s formula. Doing things right, of course, is a thorny challenge. Yet, as I write about here, it’s not impossible—in fact, we know quite a lot about the keys to good implementation.       

So the good news is this: we don’t need to wait for silver bullets, or Superman, or some yet-to-be invented innovation to improve our schools. As we show in the video below, we simply need to do better what decades of research says matters most to change the odds for student success.


Bryan Goodwin is the author of a new book from ASCD, Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

August 8, 2011

Saying no to fads—in dieting and education reform

In a new documentary film, Joe Cross, an affable Aussie, who after tipping the scales at 310 pounds and contracting a rare auto-immune disorder, decides to spend 60 days drinking only fruit and vegetable juices. The film follows Cross as he traverses America, Johnny Appleseed style, to inform patrons of truck stops and small town diners about the wonders of an all-juice diet.

At first, Cross seems to be hocking yet another fad diet (unsuccessfully, judging by the puckered faces of juice drinkers) that’s based, like many fad diets, on a reductio ad absurdum: fruits and vegetables are good, so cut everything else from your diet. Other diets, of course, proclaim that protein is good, so eat as much meat as you want, just cut out carbs. Some food producers would have us believe that fat is the enemy, so eat what you want, as long as it’s fat-free (Voila! Guiltless cookies!).

The truth, we know, lies somewhere between: with a balanced diet and exercise. 

Like the diet industry, education has had its fair share of fads, past and present, which similarly, have taken good ideas to their illogical extremes. Here are but a few:

  • Too much lecturing is bad; therefore, no lecturing is good.
  • Self-guided learning is good; therefore, classrooms should be completely open—free of uniform curricula, grade-level expectations, doors, and even walls.  
  • Good teachers help most kids learn more, so better teachers alone will ensure all kids succeed. 

SimplyBetterCover Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success offers not a new “fad diet” for education, but rather the education reform equivalent of a “healthy lifestyle”—those things that decades of research says are most likely to have a big effect on student achievement. At the core of the book is the What Matters Most framework (a sort of “food pyramid” for education), which comprises five components that research shows matter most for improving student outcomes.

Guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction. The first key to student success is a teacher who challenges students, develops a positive relationship with them, and is intentional in his or her use of a broad repertoire of teaching strategies.

Ensure curricular pathways to success. Students benefit most from a curriculum that provides both challenging and personalized learning experiences to prepare them for life success.

Provide whole-child student supports. Good teaching and curriculum alone won’t help all students succeed; many need cognitive, emotional, and learning supports to address factors such as home environment, background knowledge, and motivation that are vital to learning.

Create high-performance school cultures. Great schools can help to overcome the effects of poverty by ensuring high-quality learning experiences in every classroom and providing a school-wide culture of high expectations for learning and behavior.

Develop data-driven, high-reliability district systems. To ensure consistency in student learning experiences, districts need to put data systems and standard operating procedures in place to provide real-time responses to student struggles.

One might look at these five components and see nothing remarkable or new about them. After all, haven’t we known the importance of something like good instruction for decades? What is remarkable, though, is the powerful effect that getting these five areas right could have for students. 

Cross’ documentary ultimately clarifies that juice alone is not the key to good health: a balanced diet with plenty of exercise is. His interviewees all seem to understand this. What’s missing for them, though, is a belief that they can change their behaviors, stick to a better diet, and be happy. The most redeeming feature of Cross’ film lies in showing ordinary people who have changed their lifestyles and are happier now without all the funnel cakes, hot dogs, and stuffed-crust pizzas.

Like losing weight, when it comes to raising student achievement, the answer is not a magic pill or quick fix. Rather, it’s staying focused on simply doing better what we know must be done. The hopeful news, as illustrated in Simply Better, is that ordinary schools nationwide have stayed focused on what matters most, doing it well, and creating extra-ordinary results for students.

How well is your school addressing the components of the What Matters Most framework? Take McREL's free, online survey to find your bright spots and biggest opportunities for improvement.

July 5, 2011

Merit bonuses: Try, try again?

On July, 27, 2010, Secretary of Education and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan made this statement to the National Press Club about Chicago’s pay-for-performance program: “…every adult in the building—teachers, clerks, janitors and cafeteria workers—all were rewarded when [a] school improved. It builds a sense of teamwork and gives the whole school a common mission. It can transform a school culture.” However, we know, from studies of similar programs in New York and elsewhere that results of such programs have been inconclusive.

In New York City Public Schools, from 2007−2010, teachers chose to receive bonuses based on the test performance of the entire school. Schools were randomly selected for the study from the city’s highest needs schools, and participation was mandatory. After analyzing data from over 200 participating public schools, researchers found no evidence that the bonuses influenced student performance. In fact, in some schools, student performance actually decreased during the trial.

In 2006–2009, Vanderbilt University conducted a merit pay study that offered randomly selected middle-school math teachers up to $15,000 to increase student test scores. The result: Their students progressed no faster than the students of teachers not selected. And last year, Learning Point Associates conducted a review of Iowa’s merit pay program and found insufficient student test data to determine the real impact of the program on student achievement.

Education Week blogger Justin Baeder points out what most teachers are probably thinking: “Teaching is highly complex…and teachers are already motivated.” So if it isn’t money, what motivates us? Daniel Pink wrote Drive to answer to that question. As it turns out, employees are increasingly more intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated, especially in a heuristic task—one that requires experimenting with possibilities to devise a novel solution—such as teaching. Pink cites the principle of Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile’s, which holds, in part: “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.”

Is teaching a creative task? Can we be extrinsically motivated to be more creative? If not, do performance pay incentives help us or hold us back?

June 29, 2011

Supporting the Whole Child, but Not with Arts Education

There is a lot of talk these days about meeting the needs of the “whole child.” Once past the bizarre visual image of a less-than-whole child that the phrase tends to conjure up, we understand its intent, and, in near unanimity, we agree there should be more student supports that actually prevent problems from arising in the first place.

[To read what research says about whole-child student supports, download the summer issue of McREL’s magazine for education leaders, Changing Schools, here: http://www.mcrel.org/topics/products/437/ ]

In April, the National Education Association convened a panel of 100 of the country’s top educators. Many asserted that students need more than a curriculum focused in reading and mathematics, saying America’s students also need opportunities to learn more about career technical education, social sciences, and the arts. Yes, that’s right—the arts, as in music and art classes. It seems reasonable that to fully address the issue of whole-child supports, we need to nurture children’s minds in every way, including the unique ways that music and art offer.

Last month, the president’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities released the report, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future through Creative Schools, the result of an 18-month in-depth review of the current condition of arts education, research about its benefits, and opportunities for advancing it. The report acknowledges one effect of high-stakes testing has been a trend away from arts education, but it also identifies the increased interest of civic and business leaders in arts education as a positive and promising development that somewhat counters that effect. Then it dives into some lesser known research. How many educators know the work of anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath or education researcher Milbrey McLaughlin? Do parents and teachers know these researchers found links among arts education, school attendance, and high academic achievement? The report’s authors also describe impressive longitudinal studies and findings from neuroscience that suggest “early arts education is a building block of developing brain function” (p. 22). Lastly, they make several recommendations, including developing the field of arts integration and reinforcing the role of arts education through federal and state policies. Yet, the larger question is whether there is enough public will to act on any of the committee’s recommendations, despite a few influential voices.

It may be that neuroscience will be the driver that restores art and music to America’s classrooms.

Knowing this, one can only ask, if we really care about supporting the “whole child,” and we know that our brains work better when we are being creative, why in the world are we eliminating arts education from our schools?

[Go here to watch a TED Talk on artistic creativity as a neurologic product: Charles Limb: Your brain on improv | Video on TED.com]

See how two teachers are integrating art and politics: Schools That Work: Integrating Art and Politics to Improve High School Student Engagement | Edutopia

June 23, 2011

Teach for America: Effective Solution or Resume Builder?

Just a few months ago, Teach for America (TFA) was one of many programs facing severe cuts in the federal budget. It was spared and then some—it also has received a $50 million “scale-up” grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition and, in early June, announced that this year’s teacher corps is the largest in the organization’s history.

TFA places outstanding recent graduates as teachers in struggling urban and rural public schools in order to fight educational inequality. Acceptance to become a corps member is fiercely competitive—of the nearly 48,000 applicants this year, only 11 percent were selected. And Glassdoor.com recently ranked TFA in the top 10 for toughest interviews.

The program has been praised as a win-win solution for low-performing schools and students who need bright, hard-working teachers and for TFA teachers who want to make a difference. But TFA also has detractors who question the effects that inexperienced, possibly culturally naïve, and transient teachers may have on student learning. In the article, “Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose,” Stanford University researcher David Labaree argues, “TFA’s approach to teaching reinforces an old and dangerous vision of teaching as a form of slumming, a missionary effort by the White middle class” (p. 52).

Studies from Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee have shown that corps members have a positive impact on student achievement, but a 2010 review of evidence by University of Texas researcher and professor Julian Vasquez Heilig found that “students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers” (Executive Summary). He also points out the high cost to schools of replacing TFA teachers, who tend to move on once they’ve fulfilled their two-year commitment, and suggests policymakers support TFA staffing only when certified teachers are not available.

What is your experience with Teach for America? Do you believe that TFA helps at-risk students receive a better education? Or is it more of a “stepping stone” for ambitious young people who know it will impress potential employers in other professions?

Maura McGrath is McREL’s knowledge management specialist.

June 15, 2011

What’s good for the body is good for the mind

First Lady Michelle Obama tours the country speaking of healthy eating habits, Dr. Oz answers your health questions on daytime TV, and the USDA recently updated the food pyramid. As obesity rates rise, healthy living is front page news. Then why are schools cutting physical education (PE) programs? That answer has also been front page news: budget cuts and falling academic scores. Schools need to do more with less, and cutting PE leaves more time and money for academics. In California alone, according to a policy brief released in May by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 1.3 million teens in California do not participate in any school-based PE classes.

However, research shows that PE may be just what students need to perform better at school. Researchers Kathryn L. King, MD, and Carly J. Scahill, DO, from the Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital implemented a program among 1st through 6th graders at low-performing schools in South Carolina that incorporated academic skills into physical activity. For instance, younger children used scooters to trace shapes on the ground, and older children climbed a rock wall outfitted with changing numbers to help them solve math problems. Students were engaged in this program for 40 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the year, test scores improved from 55 percent to 68.5 percent proficient.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules (2008), cites a similar study that examined the brain power of children before they began an exercise program. The children began jogging 30 minutes two or three times a week and, after 12 weeks, their cognitive performance had improved significantly. Perhaps just as important, when the exercise program was taken away, children’s scores plummeted back to pre-activity levels.

Because students are expected to learn more and more information at an increased rate, they need all the brain power they can create. Scores keep falling regardless of the programs and strategies schools implement—not unlike a “check engine” light that keeps appearing because, no matter how many times you take it to the shop, the mechanic isn’t fixing the actual problem. Maybe the mechanic is even making the problem worse.   

Have you noticed the academic effects of cutting physical education in your school? Is more academic time a viable reason to cut ancillary programs?

April 22, 2011

Georgia’s Vision Moving Closer to Reality

An earlier blog, The Power behind Envisioning, describes the Georgia Vision Project, one state’s effort to rally residents in support of a singular high-stakes cause—providing all children in the state with an excellent education so they can be successful in college, career, and life.

A risky endeavor, you say? You bet it is, but so far, the response to the 45 recommendations has been great, say the planners. That response could be sheer luck, but it’s doubtful.

Take, for instance, the fact that the George Lucas Foundation has tapped Whitfield County Schools in rural northwestern Georgia (where 66% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) to be part of its new “Schools that Work” series. At first glance, Whitfield County, which includes five public middle schools embracing project-based learning, seems the polar opposite of the first school profiled in the series—San Diego’s High Tech High, a network of nine K–12 charter schools founded by a coalition of business leaders and educators and with an annual operating budget of about $27 million. Despite marked differences in school culture and resources, the schools share important principles: a common intellectual mission, personalization, and adult-world connections. 

And herein is a lesson for us all.

Perhaps more school districts should be like Whitfield County, where educators are respected enough by the community to make decisions about what is and isn’t good for their kids; where supporting one another is a practice, not just an idea (e.g., administrators fulfill morning duties so teachers can meet and plan together); and where there is freedom to try and even fail at new ways to engage students in learning for today and tomorrow.

Recommendation 8.4 of A Vision for Public Education in Georgia is this: Develop a culture and climate that foster innovation and responsible risk-taking.  Whitfield County can check this one off the list.

Read why the George Lucas Foundation chose Whitfield County Schools as a “Schools that Work” school here: http://www.edutopia.org/stw-replicating-pbl-why-we-chose-strengths


April 11, 2011

Turning classroom instruction on its head

The classroom lecture. It’s been criticized, despised, even lampooned. An entire generation  can probably recite the lines to Ben Stein’s dead-pan, droning lecture in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Anyone?... Anyone?”)


But lectures aren’t necessarily bad. In fact , they can be an efficient way to help students acquire new knowledge. The problem with lectures, though, is often a matter of pacing. For some students, the information may come too slowly or repeat information they already know. Result: boredom. 

For others, a lecture may provide too much information too rapidly or presume prior knowledge students don’t have. If students zone out for a moment, they may miss important content and be lost for the rest of the lecture. Result: confusion. 

After a hit-or-miss lecture, teachers often give homework assignments, which students perform in what may be a private hell of frustration and confusion. What did my teacher said about cross-multiplying? Comma use in compound sentences? The Laffer Curve?

A new generation of enterprising teachers is beginning to turn this classroom model on its head, creating what are called “flipped” or “inverted" classrooms. Using simple web software, they record and post their lectures online, creating mini-lectures similar to what Salman Khan has created with his Khan Academy collection of more than 2,000 online lessons. (Click here to view Khan’s recent TED talk). 

In these inverted classrooms, students watch the lectures at home, where they’re able to speed up content they already understand or stop and review content they don’t get the first time around (and might be too embarrassed to ask their teachers to repeat in class). The online lecture also incorporates visual representation, such as animated graphs or photos of important historical events. 

Now, when students come to class, they can ask their teachers clarifying questions about the previous night’s lesson and engage in guided practice on problems they might otherwise have struggled with at home in tormented isolation. During class time, teachers can provide students with real-time feedback and correct misperceptions before they become deeply ingrained.

Jamie Yoos, last year’s teacher of the year in Washington state has created his own “inverted classroom” (see below). 


Click here to view some of Yoos' lectures on TeacherTube

Similarly, two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, have also “flipped” their classrooms with vodcasting (i.e., online broadcasting of videos).

Students of these innovative teachers say they love the new format and are more engaged in class. Sure, there may be a few students out there who still delight in a 50-minute lecture, but for the rest, inverted classrooms just seem to make … anyone? … anyone? … perfect sense.

April 5, 2011

New review of McREL's The Future of Schooling

Dave Orphal, over at the Learning 2030 blog, offers this nice review of McREL's latest book, The Future of Schooling, available from Solution Tree Press.

In his review, Orphal praises the book for its timeliness. He notes, for example, that one of the critical uncertainties identified in the book---whether the outcomes of education will be standardized or differentiated---is currently playing out in the "movement to national common core standards" being countered by critiques from "Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go."

Orphal also praises the book for its balanced view on these issues, noting that the authors take "great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country." He adds, "Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles."

Our intent is not to anger anyone. Rather, it's to provoke thinking about what the future may hold, to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can begin to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead. As we write in the book, "Some of these potential futures may capitvate and energize you; others may dishearten and frigthen you. Some may do all of the above. That's the point." 

Read Orphal's entire review here.

March 30, 2011

Teachers' unions: Good for teachers, good for learning?

“Did you know that teachers in Wisconsin make $100,000 a year?”

“Maybe that’s why their students rank second in achievement.”   

This is how rumors get started—and how public opinion is shaped. In the wake of the heated, national debate over the elimination of teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining rights, including bargaining for salary rates, many such “facts” have surfaced. However, a quick check on FactCheck.org shows that $100,000 is not the average salary, but rather the total average compensation package, salary and benefits, for teachers in Milwaukee. The claim that Wisconsin ranks second in combined SAT and ACT scores is based on questionable data from more than a decade ago.  

Much of the back-and-forth discourse in the media about teachers’ unions can distract us from what matters most: Do they help make teaching better for teachers? If so, does it translate into better learning for students? In a chapter from School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Molnar [Ed.], 2002), Robert Carini of Indiana University Bloomington examined the effect of teachers’ unions on student achievement in 17 studies. He found that unions “modestly” raise achievement for most students in public schools, especially on math and verbal sections of standardized tests. However, Carini also found that unions were “harmful” for the lowest- and highest-achieving students.

Others, like Andrew J. Coulson in the CATO Journal article, “The Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education,” argue that achievement has stagnated while unions and the cost of schooling have grown dramatically. The value of unions for its members, he asserts, is protection from having to compete in the educational marketplace—essentially a “government school monopoly.”

Have unions affected your job, your teaching, and your students, for better or worse? Do you think they help or hold back education?

Maura McGrath is Knowledge Management Specialist at McREL.

March 8, 2011

Move over Technology, Make Room for Liberal Arts

Americans always have been obsessed with time. In his book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything, James Gleick wrote over a decade ago that American society was moving ever-faster forward toward a pace that is so accelerated, we can’t slow down enough to realize it isn’t working. We are not saving time, using time more wisely, or creating more leisure time (although we like to think we are); we are just doing everything faster. And as author Nicolas Carr asserts in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, technology and other advancements are now crowding out time we might otherwise spend in prolonged, focused concentration. Carr writes that our increased dexterity with technology comes at the loss of our ability to spend time in reflective thinking, thus producing a country of shallow thinkers, which is a very scary thought, when you really think about it.

And that is why this recent headline in The Denver Post was so striking: “It’s old school—and it’s the future.” The article profiles Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs, where single-sex classes, Latin classes, and reading the classics are the norm. All of the school’s 110 students follow the same liberal arts curriculum, including learning how to play a stringed instrument. This is not an elite school, curriculum, or group of students. One-third of students are on free or reduced lunch, and one-third belongs to a minority group. School leaders say they simply aim to attract and keep students for whom the curriculum and approach is a good fit.

Similarly, educator Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, calls for a return to the essentials of providing students opportunities to engage in authentic literacy practices. This, too, sounds “old school,” but it’s hard to believe that today’s generation will be ready to lead globally until it has mastered the skills we most often need and use—not the ability to multi-task, but the ability to read widely, think deeply, and question courageously.

Read about China’s entry into the liberal arts arena here: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/02/10/liberal-applications.html

February 2, 2011

Making the case for bottom-up change in school reform

In President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, he called out the Bruce Randolph School, a turnaround school here in Denver. Once one of the worst-performing schools in Colorado, Bruce Randolph graduated 90 percent of its seniors last year—and 87 percent of them headed to college a few months ago. Obama attributed the school’s success to reform that is not just “a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.”

So how did they do it? According to a Denver Post article, then-Principal Kristin Waters first asked all teachers to reapply for their positions (only 6 out of 40 remained). Then, the school became the first in Colorado to be granted “innovation” status, a move that allowed it to operate more like a charter school, granting it autonomy from district and union rules and giving it more flexibility in terms of budget, hiring decisions, schedule, calendar, and incentives.

Waters said the school succeeded, ultimately, because it created “the supports for students, teaching them to ask for help and giving them that help…It was all about best practices, holding teachers and students accountable and creating high expectations.”

These factors are also at the heart of ongoing school improvement efforts in McLeansville, North Carolina, at Northeast High School (NEHS), which has moved from the academic “watch list” to the county’s “most improved school,” having increased test scores sharply for two years in a row. Since 2007, the school has seen double-digit gains in the percentages of proficient students in seven subjects, including increases of 34.5 percent in physical science and 25 percent in geometry.

The school did it by getting all teachers and administrators on the same page in terms of its main goal: to improve student engagement. Now, teachers hold themselves accountable by creating criteria for engagement and collaborating frequently, and “focus walks” by teacher leaders and administrators ensure that students are not only engaged but also learning in all classrooms via the same research-based instructional strategies.

In both cases, improvement efforts started at the student level. The schools didn’t bring in new programs or overhaul their systems; they simply figured out what their students needed most and found the best way to systemically meet those needs.

How does your school ensure students are engaged and supported? Do you have other examples of bottom-up change that have worked?

January 7, 2011

A Sign of the Times: Yale Pulls Investment in Urban Education

Yale University is shutting down its teacher preparation graduate program in urban education—a small, focused, and intense program—as well as its undergraduate early childhood education and secondary certification programs by the end of 2012. The university plans to reinvest these funds in a Promise scholarship program offering full state college tuition for New Haven public school students.

Tara Stevens, a graduate of the soon-to-be-obsolete master’s program, considers the program a long-term solution to educational obstacles in New Haven, particularly the wealth-opportunity gap. She claims Yale is only throwing money at the problem by creating a new program. Others from the school have concerns that while the Promise scholarship program will help some, ultimately, because of its hard-to-attain standards, the “promise” for many area students will remain out of reach.

The university is not the first to go down this path. West Virginia instituted a similar Promise scholarship program in 2001. However, the “whys” behind their decision raise larger questions about the future of our education system. Can a scholarship program benefit the education system as much as a rigorous, high-quality teacher preparation program? The reality is attendance is down in teacher education programs everywhere. The Panetta Institute for Public Policy released survey findings stating that interest in becoming a public school teacher has fallen from 45 percent in 2006 to just 28 percent in 2010.

What do you think about replacing a rigorous teacher preparation program with a scholarship program? Why are college students less and less interested in becoming teachers? Will we be seeing many more cuts to quality teacher education programs?

See the full story on Yale’s decision here.

See full survey results here.

Details about the West Virginia program can be found here.

December 30, 2010

Worth is in the eye of the beholder

The simplicity of the idea behind the SAME (So All May Eat) Café in Denver, Colorado, is stunning—patrons pay whatever they want for a made-from-scratch, often organic meal. No one expected the restaurant to last six months, but it is now in its 5th year of operation and serving thousands every year.

The café owners, longtime volunteers in soup kitchens and driven by a passion to solve a problem that big government and big money hadn’t, unabashedly took huge risks with their life’s saving to do something they thought they should: feed hungry people in a dignified and respectful environment and get paid what it is worth. Although running a non-profit restaurant is not exactly like funding education, there is a similarity worth noting.

The “worth” of a good teacher is a much discussed topic in education. In Uri Friedman’s December 21 blog, he asks “Is a good teacher worth $400,000?” and sites the recent findings of researcher Eric Hanushek of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, whose new book Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools cuts to the chase about the lack of significant improvements in student achievement, simply stating that the incentives today do not focus on improved student outcomes. Hanushek suggests a performance-based system directly linking funding to success in raising student achievement will work better. Ahhh, the beauty of that conclusion reminds me of Keats, but with a twist: Simplicity is truth, truth simplicity.

Is a good teacher worth $400,000? If students are learning what they need to be learning, then yes, paying the going market rate for high performance is logical. Too simple, you say? A couple of café owners might disagree.

See what $125,000 a year is getting students in New York City here.

Read an interview with University of Missouri-Columbia Professor of Economics Michael Podgursky about merit pay and teachers here.
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December 17, 2010

Your Common Core problems—solved

With the arrival of the Common Core, states, districts, and schools are asking themselves: Do our state standards measure up to the new expectations? How can we identify and fill gaps in expected knowledge and skills?

McREL’s standards experts asked those same questions and have created ways to answer them. To help educators understand and identify differences, we’ve aligned our Compendium of state standards to the Common Core standards—and included instructional resources and a video tutorial that shows how to navigate to the information you need. We’ve also linked lesson and unit plans to Common Core expectations, via the Compendium benchmarks, providing supplemental material for teachers during this transition.

So how can states fill their gaps? McREL’s John Kendall, in the November issue of Phi Delta Kappan, explains how establishing a set of “transition standards” can help prepare their students for the new expectations. For example, a 5th grader who is expected to know a, b, and c this year, according to the state standards, will be expected to know a, b, c, and d when he enters 6th grade next year, according to Common Core. Transition standards represent “d,” the missing content, which needs to be taught to the 5th grader now, while he’s still in 5th grade. Having a transition standards document would help teachers focus on what students really need now to be prepared.

Is your school, district, or state ready for the Common Core? Share your story.

October 15, 2010

The real lesson from NYC small schools

Smaller isn’t better; personalized is better

An MDRC study that came out in June reporting on the impact of New York City’s small schools of choice initiative has recently appeared in the spotlight again, thanks to a September 27 commentary in Education Week from Michelle Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation and Robert Hughes of New Visions, a public education network affiliate in New York City. It was also picked up in this morning’s Public Education Network newsletter.

The title of the Ed Week commentary, “Small Schools, Big Difference,” may raise some eyebrows, though, especially for those who remember the Gates Foundation’s $1 billion misadventure with small schools.

The disappointing results of this effort eventually prompted then-director of the Foundation’s education programs, Tom Vander Ark, to tell Education Week that, “I visited 100 great schools and made the observation that they were all small, autonomous, and assumed that was a path to school improvement. It turns out that giving a failing school autonomy is a bad idea.”

Yes, the small schools in New York City are showing promise—their students (the vast majority of whom are poor and minority) have a 6.8 percent higher graduation rate than a similar group of students in the city’s mostly large, comprehensive high schools.

All of that is good news and worthy of further examination and, probably, replication.

The headline given to Cahill and Hughes’ Ed Week commentary, however, is only partially correct. The authors of the MDRC report actually caution against concluding simply that small schools are better. They write,

Students enrolled in SSCs [small schools of choice] did not just attend schools that were small. SSC enrollees attended schools that were purposefully organized around smaller, personalized units of adults and students, where students had a better chance of being known and noticed, and teachers had a better chance of knowing enough about their charges to provide appropriate academic and socioemotional supports.

In other words, saying that smaller schools lead to higher achievement is sort of like saying wearing sneakers leads to weight loss. What’s more important is what you do in the schools (or your sneakers). (In fairness to Cahill and Hughes, their commentary is more nuanced than the headline given to it).

The real takeaway of the MDRC report is that creating learning environments where students know their teachers and pursue studies that interest them (most of the small schools are designed around career themes) is what has shown promise, not the size of their student population.

Indeed, the same could be said of the Gates’ small schools initiative; as David Marshak, a professor of education at Western Washington University, observed in a February 19, 2010 commentary in Education Week, many of the small schools funded by the Gates Foundation did show gains in student achievement; the key to their success was “a culture of personalized education.”

Incidentally, this finding mirrors a key conclusion of the McREL report, Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, in which we observe that a key principle for curriculum design is to provide students with multiple, intrinsically motivating, pathways to college and career readiness.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

October 7, 2010

Can we predict the future of education?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra.

Clearly, change is in the air these days in education, whether we’re Waiting for Superman, racing to the top, dotting our three i’s, or wondering how tea party politics may change the face of Washington.

In light of all these changes and uncertainties, the question on many minds is likely, where is it all leading?

The most truthful answer anyone can give to that question is this one: nobody knows for sure.

It’s simply not possible to predict how all of these various trends will come together to shape a new future. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t prepare ourselves for it. The trick is to consider multiple, alternative futures and begin to envision how we—or our districts, schools, or students—might flourish in each.

In a new book from McREL to be released this month by Solution Tree Press, we analyze current and emerging trends in a wide array of areas, including politics, the economy, technology, and society. After analyzing these trends, we offer, not a prediction of the future, but four, very different scenarios for what the future may hold.

The scenarios in the book, titled The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, are designed to provoke readers to ponder many “what if,” questions, including:

  • What if the current, multibillion-dollar federal investment in education succeeds in identifying and scaling up numerous innovations that transform schooling as we know it?
  • What if, on the other hand, investing billions of new dollars fails to create dramatic improvements in education? Will the public continue to support public schools as we know them?
  • What if online learning becomes as commonplace in the schools of tomorrow as chalkboards were in the schools of yesterday?
  • What if technology allows students to proceed at their own pace along individualized pathways, measuring their progress in real time at each step of the way?
  • What if the world’s best teachers are able to broadcast their lessons to thousands of students each day?

The reality is that the world of education is changing rapidly. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world standing still and education in 10 years looking exactly the same as it does today.

The good news is that when confronted with this uncertainty, we don’t have to throw up our hands in hopeless desperation (or stick our heads in the sand). Rather, we can begin preparing today for what tomorrow may bring.

Learn more or purchase a copy of the book on the Solution Tree website here: http://www.solution-tree.com/Public/Media.aspx?ShowDetail=true&ProductID=BKF433

Bryan Goodwin is McREL's Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

September 27, 2010

Summit School District finds "secret" to narrowing achievement gaps

In the popular mind, Summit County, Colorado, in the heart of Colorado ski country, might seem worlds apart from the usual challenges many other school districts face—a place where perhaps privileged, ski sweater-clad youngsters gather ’round roaring fireplaces to sing John Denver songs.

The reality, however, is until recently, Summit School District had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state—with the English language learning children of the county’s influx of immigrant workers achieving at much lower rates than its nonminority students.

Over the past two years, McREL has worked extensively with teachers and administrators in the district to help them narrow their achievement gaps while increasing overall student performance.

So what’s the secret to these initial successes? A bold new program? A whiz bang technology? A new silver bullet?


The “secret” has simply been to focus on delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom.

Teachers across the distict have been working hard to adapt the effective instructional practices they already know to the needs of English language learners. In keeping with some of the key ideas of McREL’s Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most report, they've been adopting “growth mindsets” for students, delivering challenging instruction, and providing students with the support they need to meet high expectations.

In the words of Superintendent Millie Hamner, the district has been simply “focusing on keeping best instructional practices and student learning first on our minds, in our agendas, and in our hearts.”

Read the entire Summit School District story here.

Download the free Changing the Odds report here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL's Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

September 21, 2010

Should educators let boys be boys?

As the father of three daughters, I sometimes forget how little boys play. My girls spend their free time acting out complex dramas, pretending to be strict teachers (with hearts of gold), exasperated mothers, cousins inheriting mansions from long-lost aunts, insolent children being sent to boarding school—their playtime has all of the dizzying social complexities of a 19th century Russian novel.

Every once in a while, though, when exchanges between neighbor boys playing in their backyards drift in through the open windows of my home, my own youth comes rushing back to me.

“Bang! You’re dead! I shot you.”

“No, you didn’t. You missed me.”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Now I shot you.”

“Nuh uh. You’re out of bullets.”

Many educators are unnerved by this sort of play. They fear that boys who play cops and robbers when they’re young will grow up to be violent and aggressive, exhibiting anti-social, if not, criminal, behavior. To curtail boys’ more aggressive and violent play (read: to make them play more like girls), many schools have banished violent play from classrooms and playgrounds. 

Yet, as reported in a recent article in LiveScience.com, educators may need to learn to “work with, rather than against” boys’ aggressive tendencies.

The article cites the work McREL Principal Researcher Elena Bodrova, whose research on early childhood education calls out the importance of dramatic play on children’s social and intellectual development. Through sophisticated forms of imaginative play (including games like cops and robbers), children learn to delay gratification (by remaining, for example, in the “role” of policeman even when they want to play a robber), consider the perspective of others (e.g., by playing jailer one day and prisoner the next), and control their impulses.  

Letting boys work through their natural aggressive urges can help them learn to set limits on their own behavior—learning to draw a line, for example, between pretend and real violence, like biting, hair pulling, or hitting. In addition, boys’ play, which often involves "bad guys," may also help them to work on their impulse control, according to Mary Ellin Logue, a researcher at the University of Maine quoted in the article. Boys, says Logue, “are trying really hard to be good, but it’s really hard to be good. These bad guys give them a way to externalize that part of them that they are trying to conquer.”

Read the LiveScience article, "Battling the Boys: Educators Grapple with Violent Play," here.

Learn more about Bodrova’s work and McREL’s approach to early childhood development here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL's Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

June 30, 2009

Addressing High School Dropout: Taking a Look Inward

The AT&T Foundation’s  new report, “On the Front Lines of Schools,” sheds light on what educators, students, and parents believe has the greatest impact on high school drop out. The report shows a lot of finger pointing—and only one group actually accepting responsibility for the crisis.  

When asked about reasons why students are disengaged in school and drop out, district-level personnel point out the failures of principals, principals cite the failures of teachers, and teachers rattle off a laundry list of what parents do wrong.

When questioned about the reasons why students chose to discontinue their educations before receiving a diploma, it is rare that the teacher responds “my lessons were boring and disengaging.”  Instead, teachers are much more likely to blame parents and the home environment. Specifically, the report mentions that 74 percent of teachers and 69 percent of principals felt parents bore all or most of the responsibility for their children dropping out. 

Raise your hand if you’ve heard an assistant principal, head principal, dean, or headmaster say “students at my school dropped out because I was not involved in monitoring my staff as it implemented the curriculum.” Frequently, our school-level leaders point their fingers toward low teacher efficacy and poor classroom management.

Show me the parent who states that his daughter did not receive her diploma because “I did not create space, time, and the expectation she complete her homework.” All too often, parents claim that they did not even know that their children were not on track to graduate. 

And please, show me the superintendent or district-level leader who cites her failure to adequately coach, monitor, and evaluate principals as the reason why students do not graduate from high school.  I recently heard district level personnel list 10 things principals don’t do often enough as the reasons why students do not graduate ready for work and college. 

Here’s what’s interesting, though—according to the “Silent Epidemic” report, most students (70%) do actually blame themselves, saying they could graduate if they had tried harder.  Further, the report informs us that “while most dropouts blame themselves for failing to graduate, there are things they say schools can do to help them finish.”

Thus, it appears that everyone else seems to be blaming someone else, except the kids who drop out. What should that tell us?

Our dropout crisis will persist until each of us takes a look at those fingers pointing back at us, and identify our own culpability in our nation’s dropout crisis.

Change will require us to be introspective and acknowledge our own shortcomings. Once we do that, then we might be able to collaborate to present viable solutions to address high school dropout.