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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.

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What skills do students really need to compete in a global economy?

The alarm bell has been sounding for a while now about a shortage of skilled STEM workers in the U.S., with business leaders often calling on schools to do a better job of preparing students for a hypercompetitive global economy. As a result, we’ve seen a dramatic, nationwide rise in STEM initiatives—from large federal programs like Educate to Innovate to your local elementary school’s afterschool robotics program.

Others, however, say there is no evidence of such a shortage and that other factors are at play, such as businesses not being willing to pay higher wages that would attract more skilled workers. Some critics have even suggested that focusing too much on math, particularly algebra, is taking away from other, more critical skills students need to be learning.

So what’s an educator to do? In the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein try to get some answers by taking a look at what the research says about the skills gap and how to best fill it.

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Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

Half a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

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From cornfields to classrooms: Why am I doing this?

For five summers as a teenager growing up in Iowa, I worked as a corn detasseler, walking up and down rows and rows of corn, finding each tassel, grabbing it, pulling it off, and throwing it to the ground. When I applied for the job, I didn’t know why the corn needed to be detasseled, I only knew that I would earn $3.35 per hour. After I was hired and given good direction, I learned that it was extremely important for me to do my job correctly or the plants would not cross-pollinate and the crop would fail. While this might seem like a simple objective, it made my job more meaningful and provided me with both the information and motivation I needed to help the crops flourish.

Similarly, our students need to have clear objectives in the classroom so that they understand what they should be learning and why it is important.

It’s crucial that teachers communicate clearly with students about learning objectives. In the Framework for Instructional Planning found in the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) (2012), Setting Objectives is one of the non-negotiables within the first component, Creating the Environment for Learning. CITW offers four recommendations for setting objectives.

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Model lesson plans offer a lifeline to new teachers

The learning curve for first-year teachers is notoriously steep: Not only are they having to keep up with the content they’re teaching, but they’re also figuring out how to deliver it well, assess it right, manage the classroom and their students’ behavior, and design effective lesson plans. Striking just one of these things from their list, research shows, can go a long way toward supporting and retaining novice teachers.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL’s president and CEO Bryan Goodwin shows how providing well-designed lesson plans is a simple yet powerful way to improve teacher performance—among both new and struggling teachers.

A 2016 study of middle school math teachers, for example, found that when one group was given model lesson plans along with webinars and opportunities to network with other teachers and the plans’ developers, their students showed higher achievement—a 0.08 effect size, or the equivalent of moving students from a classroom with an average teacher to one at the 80th percentile of quality. Moreover, these effects were doubly beneficial for weaker teachers.

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Career Readiness: What does it really mean and how do we get there?

School systems across the country are being pushed to re-think their approach to Career Technical Education (CTE) and what it means to be “career-ready.” Job markets are continually changing, and it’s become more critical than ever that secondary students are prepared for college and career upon graduation. While many educators have equated career readiness to college readiness, others have begun to take a more nuanced approach, understanding that not all careers—like students—fit the same mold (Conley & McGaughy, 2012; DeWitt, 2012).

In 2015, ACT refined its definitions of the types of academic skills required for work: Work readiness skills are the academic skills required of all students to be prepared for the workplace; career readiness skills are those particular academic skills needed to work in a given industry; and job readiness skills are the particular academic skills needed for a specific job.

At McREL, our review of CTE-related certifications, standards, curriculum documents, and textbooks in nearly a dozen industries and career pathways has confirmed that the academic content required by various industries and jobs can differ greatly.

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Four tips for using nonlinguistic representations

Today’s learners are continually fed linguistically presented information, such as lectures, videos, directions, math chants, and reading assignments. Most opportunities for students to interact with peers happen primarily with words.

It’s all too easy, while employing various aspects of instructional design and delivery, to overlook ways that students might also engage in learning through nonlinguistics.

When used intentionally and consistently, nonlinguistic representations are powerful instructional tools that can have a positive effect on student achievement. They provide varied ways for students to process new information without solely relying on language.

McREL’s analysis of research for the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) provides these research-based classroom recommendations for use of nonlinguistic representations:

Use graphic organizers.
Use physical models or manipulatives.
Generate mental pictures.
Use pictures, illustrations, and pictographs.
Engage in kinesthetic activities.

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