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Our expert researchers, evaluators, and veteran educators synthesize information gleaned from our research and blend it with best practices gathered from schools and districts around the world to bring you insightful and practical ideas that support changing the odds of success for you and your students. By aligning practice with research, we mix professional wisdom with real world experience to bring you unexpectedly insightful and uncommonly practical ideas that offer ways to build student resiliency, close achievement gaps, implement retention strategies, prioritize improvement initiatives, build staff motivation, and interpret data and understand its impact.

Addressing High School Dropout: Taking a look inward

By Blog, Current Affairs, Future of Schooling 19 Comments

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 dropout. 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.

Opening the silos of classrooms with common assessments

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 2 Comments

I had the good fortune this past school year of working with Bea Underwood Elementary teachers (Garfield County #16, Colorado) in helping them to create common assessments for their Power Indicators. Throughout the year, a core group of teachers diligently worked through identifying key standards that they wanted to commonly assess, collaborated with their grade-level teams to create activities and rubrics for assessing the students, and began the (sometimes) agonizing process of evaluating student work together so that they were all in agreement on the type of work that would earn a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the rubric.

At our year-end meeting, the most poignant statements that the teachers made about the experience were those that talked about the critical conversations this project had spawned. One teacher remarked that one of her team’s biggest “ah-ha” moments was when they realized that they did not yet have a common language to use with students when administering the assessments. Another remarked on the many conversations she had had that year with her team regarding which skills were MOST important to assess in that particular grade. Most agreed that the experience had forced teachers to come out of their classrooms and have more collaborative conversations on student learning with their colleagues.

I believe that this one school is an example of a shift we are seeing in education: no longer are teachers expected or encouraged to do their own thing within the four walls of the classroom. A combination of technology, looking at best practices in other fields, and using data to inform instruction is positively impacting education in that teachers are exploring critical questions such as: “What’s really important?” “What really works?” and “What additional professional development do we need?”

Are there other schools or districts that are embarking on similar journeys? What have been your experiences? How has it impacted the culture of your schools? We would love to hear your thoughts.

Generating and testing hypotheses is not just for science

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 10 Comments

I’m right in the middle of facilitating a three-day workshop in Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. We are just about to get to the Strategy of Generating and Testing Hypotheses. Out of the 30 participants, less than a handful have taught science. I can tell that I will need to do my best to show the power of this strategy for all content areas.

Often when we mention the words “hypotheses” and “testing” together, people automatically think we are talking about science. To be fair, we sometimes are talking about science, but not nearly as much as people think. Generating and testing hypotheses is just another way saying “predict and determine how good your prediction turned out.” It can be used in all sorts of teaching situations. For instance, a language arts teacher might be leading students through reading a novel and ask them to predict what actions the character will take next based on what they have read so far. Then as the read more, they discuss the accuracy of their predictions. Another example is a music teacher that teaches a unit on Blues music and then has students create their own simple blues song. Creating music includes making many lyrical and melodic predictions and testing them out. A final example is the social studies teacher that asks students a big question like “What would the World be like today if the Nazis had won World War II?” Students are then asked to predict and investigate the feasibility of their predictions in a persuasive essay. Notice how the strategy tends to involve higher level thinking skills near the upper reaches of Bloom’s Taxonomy? This is why we have to use it beyond just science class.

We could go on and on about more non-science examples, but we would like to hear from you. What non-science examples can you come up with for Generating and Testing Hypotheses?

Summer brain drain revisited

By Blog, Research Insights 2 Comments

As part of Atlantic Monthly’s annual ‘ideas’ issue, out this month, Derek Thompson offers up a provocative list of not-so-quick fixes for the nation’s educational system (“10 Crazy Ideas for Fixing Our Education System“). While Thompson’s list mixes solutions old and new, readers might be surprised by the suggestion topping the list: the elimination of summer vacation.

Perhaps his suggestion is a bit extreme, but Thompson’s reasoning has a basis in sound research. Several high-profile studies from the past few years have noted that achievement gap margins tend to widen over the summer break. For a good summary of the reasons why, see this article in yesterday’s Washington Post. Middle class children are more likely to have books in the home and to attend high-quality summer programs in the summer, offsetting the loss in reading skills that occurs while students are on vacation. The 2007 study cited in the article found that differences in summer experiences explained two-thirds of the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged 9th graders.

Even high-quality programs are more likely to focus on reading than math, which explains why the reading achievement gap is more prevalent at summer’s end. Children (and adults) have more difficulty retaining specific processes than basic concepts over long periods of time – e.g., solving a quadratic equation versus reading a passage for comprehension. As a result, the greatest summer losses across the board are typically in math computation and spelling.

For more information on the effort to promote summer learning, check out the National Center for Summer Learning ( ahead of the July 9th National Summer Learning Day. In addition to research and policy briefs, the site offers suggestions for effective programming, leveraging community partnerships, and professional development options.

Me as we

By Blog, Future of Schooling One Comment

In 2004, McREL embarked on a new project by creating its first scenarios; that is, possible futures in which we consider what our organization’s role would play given certain political, economic, technological, and social parameters. Those scenarios became The Future of Schooling: Educating American in 2014. Since then, McREL has worked with other districts and organizations as a thinking partner as they explore their own possible scenarios. McREL’s work with the Ohio 8 Coalition, an alliance of superintendents and teacher union presidents from Ohio’s eight largest metropolitan school districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown) resulted in the creation of a thirty-three minute video describing four possible futures for Ohio’s urban areas.

In the scenario planning process, members of an organization identify two critical uncertainties that they feel will most impact their work. One of the Ohio 8’s critical uncertainties centered on whether urban areas would thrive and populate in 2020 or whether they would be areas in decline as more people moved to the suburbs. The other critical uncertainty focused on whether the policy environment was prescriptive to students or whether it allowed flexibility in education. When two critical uncertainties are crossed, a Cartesian plane is created with four possible scenarios.


All four of these scenarios are fascinating, but I was most energized by the “Me as We” Scenario, in which urban centers are thriving, 21st century communities that have self-organized in order to help students discover and focus their education on their primary strengths and interests. In this scenario, federally-funded universal wifi access and the replacement of NCLB by individual, digital, community-involved learning plans have completely revamped education. Teachers are now seen as learning agents and innovators. High school diplomas have been replaced by a skills-based credentialing system, assessed in part by active and interested community members.

Take a look at the either the whole video or just the 5-minute “Me as We” scenario. Could your organization survive in this scenario? How would we need to rethink education? Professional development? Pre-service teacher education?

Google Teacher Academy

By Blog, McREL Happenings One Comment

McREL uses Google applications in some professional development such as Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. For instance, students can collaboratively identify and explain the metaphors in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech using Google Docs. In order to include the latest tools, I will be attending the Google Teacher Academy in Boulder, Colorado this August 5th. You can too. But you have to apply. The Google Teacher Academy is a professional development experience designed to help K-12 educators get the most from innovative technologies. The Academy is an intensive, one-day event where participants get hands-on experience with Google’s free products and other technologies, learn about innovative instructional strategies, and receive resources to share with colleagues. Upon completion, Academy participants become Google Certified Teachers who share what they learn with other K-12 educators in their local region. To apply, go to and follow the directions. Don’t delay, the deadline to apply is July 3rd. I hope to see you there. If you attend, find me and say hello.

What went wrong in Miami?

By Blog, Research Insights 4 Comments

The Miami Herald reported recently that former superintendent Rudy Crew’s “$100 million investment in Miami-Dade County’s lowest performing public schools failed to boost student achievement, according to the school district’s final report on the program.”

“The School Improvement Zone” focused on eight low-performing high schools and their feeder schools for a total of 39 schools. The effort extended the school day by one hour and the school year by 10 days and required 150 minutes of reading instruction each day. On paper, the Zone effort appears to have focused on the right things, such as improving reading instruction and giving kids and teachers extra time for learning (a la promising schools such as KIPP).

Yet, three years and $100 million later, the district had little to show for its effort. According to a 166-page internal report from the district’s program evaluation office, annual academic growth rates for 8th graders attending Zone schools was actually lower than students in comparison “control” group schools.

So, what exactly happened?

To be fair, some of the Zone schools, especially elementary schools, did improve student achievement, just not markedly over comparison schools. And it’s important to note that schools in the comparison or “control” group weren’t sitting idly by; many were focused on improving reading instruction through the federal Reading First program. In effect, the most significant (and costly) difference between the Zone schools and others in the district was the additional time added to the school day and calendar.

Why didn’t the extra time help?

For starters, some students played hooky. The evaluation report notes “excessive absences” (even more than might be expected for the end of school) among students in Zone schools during the added days. It also notes that some students—especially those who were high achieving, felt like their required 10 extra days of school was punishment for a crime they did not commit.

One might also ask whether 60 minutes a day is really enough extra time to offer struggling students the support they need when other schools, such as K.I.P.P., provide as much as 60 percent more instructional time over traditional public schools (staying open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, every other Saturday morning, and for three additional weeks in the summer).

The anemic results of the Miami Zone schools may offer a cautionary tale for those, like President Obama and Arne Duncan, who have advocated for longer school days and calendars. While more instruction may sound like a good idea, U.S. schools already appear to offer students more instructional time than many other higher-performing nations. Moreover, lengthening the school calendar by half measures—tacking on an extra hour a day and some poorly attended days in the summer—is probably insufficient to provide struggling students the extra support they need to succeed.

To top it off, such changes—or any large-scale change, for that matter—are likely doomed to failure if they do not address school culture. Consider these data from Miami:

  • 34 percent of teachers in Zone schools said “staff morale is high” versus 55 percent in control schools
  • 43 percent of parents of children in Zone schools think their “school maintains high academic standards” versus 62 percent in control schools
  • 56 percent of students in Zone schools said “this school is safe” versus 70 percent in control schools

In the conclusion of their report, evaluators noted that low morale among staff in Zone schools likely contributed to the effort’s “lack of efficacy.” Attempting to reform struggling schools without changing their culture is like trying to lose weight simply by buying a new track suit and joining a new gym; it may be an important first step, but only as effective as the changes in values, beliefs, and behaviors that must accompany it.