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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.

A Denver school’s “Rap to Roots” program … the rest of the story

By Blog, Research Insights 2 Comments

Last week, the top, front-page headline of the Denver Post read “Rhythm Scholars: Rap helps kids boost their academics—from multiplication to Shakespeare.” The story described an afterschool “Rap to Roots” program at the Wyatt-Edison Charter School in Denver’s inner-city Five Points neighborhood. The Post reported that the program “debuted this month in Colorado after success in cities such as Cleveland and Chicago.”

In a nutshell, the program aims to boost kids’ academic achievement by using rap music to motivate students to stay in school and to teach them about literary conventions, technology, and African-American history. The article reported that the program “did significantly better in standardized testing, attention spans in the classroom, and some [students] improved their writing skills.”

The story got noticed both in and outside Denver. Colleen O’Connell, the Post reporter who wrote the article, said that a national TV news network contacted her, expressing interest in covering the story. The next day, ASCD Smart Brief picked up the story and blasted it out to 175,000 readers. And within hours of the article being posted on the Post Web site, more than 80 comments had been posted, ranging from favorable support to equating the use of rap in schools with the demise of Western civilization.

My first reaction to the story was mixed. On the one hand, I could appreciate what the program was trying to do: offer urban kids an opportunity to express themselves creatively, motivate them, and provide them with a positive way to spend after-school hours (“Rap to Roots” is part of the school’s “Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives” program).

On the other hand, the rap lyrics written by one of the program’s 13-year-old scholars didn’t seem to be on par with the expectations of Colorado’s new language arts standards, which require seventh graders to “write fully-developed literary … text” and to “edit writing for correct grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, [and] sentence structure … .”

I worried that this nifty idea might be just another example of well-meaning people setting low expectations for urban kids. So I contacted Michael Schenkelberg, the program’s director, to get, as the late Paul Harvey used to say … the rest of the story.

First off, I learned that the program is more of an adaptation than an adoption of what Schenkelberg had been doing in Cleveland under the auspices of The Initiative for Cultural Arts in Education (ICARE), supported by the Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit arts-in-education organization. ICARE is essentially an artist-in-residence program. It places artists in classrooms for weeks at a time, during which they collaborate with teachers to enhance classroom learning through arts education that can include dance, music, drama, and visual arts.

An evaluation study of the ICARE program found that the longer students were exposed to the program, the higher they scored on standardized reading, math, and science tests. In addition, 87 percent of teachers said that their students worked more creatively because of the ICARE program. While the study produced correlational, not causal data, the findings suggest the program may have some positive effect on student learning.

However, in contrast to ICARE, the Rap to Roots program is—at least in its initial iteration—strictly an afterschool program that is, for the moment at least, focused on one type of artistic expression. Instead of placing artists in residence in a single classroom, guest artists work with students from multiple grades (fourth through eighth). Those differences, Schenkelberg explained, make it difficult to involve classroom teachers in offering feedback on student work, which might help them take their writing to the next level.

Indeed, at this point, the student work produced through the program is really just a means to a larger end: providing kids with a creative outlet that sparks their interest to learn and stay in school. Someday Schenkelberg hopes to expand the program to look more like the ICARE program—perhaps by bringing in local artists, musicians, and writers to work side-by-side in classrooms with teachers whose students have often seen their arts programs cut or scaled back.

Bottom line: while the Post should be commended for its efforts to provide a “good news” story on education (and place it on the front page), its headline writers probably connected a few too many dots in proclaiming “Rap helps kids boost their academics.”

Nonetheless, “Rap to Roots” shows promise, especially if the program is able to successfully replicate the components that made ICARE successful in Cleveland. Moreover, Schenkelberg should get credit for recognizing that all students deserve an opportunity to explore and develop their creative sides.

Summer professional development that makes a difference

By Blog, McREL Happenings No Comments

Come to McREL this summer for your professional development. We offer sessions for both teachers and leaders, held in our Denver facilities. Our various workshops give you the opportunity to learn how to:

  • integrate vocabulary into your lesson plans;
  • use technology to improve student achievement;
  • take your science lessons to the next level;
  • explore practical strategies for afterschool programs;
  • build capacity to improve ELL performance;
  • promote enthusiasm for learning mathematics; and
  • translate research into results in your schools to improve student achievement.

Learn more about all of our summer workshops, Summer 2009 Professional Development at McREL.

Using Web 2.0 to counter the “pedagogy of poverty”

By Blog, Technology in Schools 4 Comments

One of my favorite blogs to read is Brian Crosby’s Learning is Messy. Brian teaches in a school with a 90% free/reduced lunch rate. Over half of his students have parents who did not graduate from elementary school. Many of his students are English Language Learners. And yet, this class of 6th graders is well-versed in Skyping with learners around the world, blogging about their learning, and creating videos about their classroom. The rich learning experiences and critical thinking in which these students are engaged rival classrooms with exponentially more resources and funds.

Many researchers and educators, including Haberman, Waxman, Songer and others, have written about the “pedagogy of poverty;” that is, the tendency of classrooms in high-poverty areas to focus on teacher-directed instruction with drill-and-practice being the primary activity of the learners. This learner-passive environment all too often leads to student disinterest, high drop-out rates, and teacher burn-out.

According to Waxman et al. (1995), three instructional approaches have been found to be successful with students at risk of failure: 1) cognitively-guided instruction, 2) critical or responsive teaching, and 3) technology-enriched instruction. However, studies show that, even when technology is integrated into traditional, teacher-led classrooms, it is most often used for practice and review activities rather than with opportunities that require higher-order thinking and problem solving (Songer et al, 2002).

For schools and districts struggling with these issues, Web 2.0 tools offer the means for dynamic, collaborative learning experiences, provided that the teacher has been given sufficient professional development in using these tools. Unlike skills-based software and games that simply provide opportunities for students to practice getting the “right answer,” tools such as wikis, blogs, video conferencing, and social networking sites can be used to foster deep conversations, cooperative learning projects, and a higher understanding of concepts beyond the memorization level. McREL’s workshop on Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works can be one option to get teachers started in using the read/write Web to create higher-order learning experiences with their students.

For those of you who use technology in your classrooms or schools, how do you see it being used beyond “skill and practice” mode? How is it used to foster creative conversations and deep understanding?

The tie between mixed-age ability grouping and standards-based grading

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works 4 Comments

When McREL delivers professional development on cooperative learning, we often talk about the tangent topic of ability grouping. The discussion is often fraught with misconceptions and strong opinions. Needless to say, it’s a controversial subject.

Lately an old form of mixed-age ability grouping has been given a closer look by schools and districts that are moving toward standards-based grading. This old form of ability grouping began in four elementary schools in Joplin, Missouri in 1954 and is known as the “Joplin Plan” (Cushenbery, 1967). Essentially, forms of the Joplin Plan include careful diagnosis of each student’s proficiency level in a given subject (reading level, math level, etc.), placement in a mixed age group at similar proficiency levels, and structural changes to the school’s schedule to accommodate teaching multiple levels/groups of different aged students. The big difference between this type of grouping and what most educators think of as ability grouping is that Joplin Plans are not based on homogeneous aptitudes in a given subject at a uniform age or grade. In other words, it does not group all of the 4th grade students “good at math” in one group. It groups students ages 9-11 that are performing at the 4th grade level together.

Now consider the mixing in of standards-based grading. It uses a form of assessment that mixes summative and formative data based on proficiency criterion for standards of what every student is expected to know, and a score is set compared to these benchmarks rather than a ranking compared to a norm. It is fully expected that every child will become proficient in all areas by the end of a period. If they are not, the data will show more precisely which areas are in need of improvement and which areas are at acceptable levels of proficiency. For instance, instead of a “C+” in writing, a student would have a report card with 8 difference areas of writing assessed by rubric score. Combined this with other indicators of proficiency, students can be grouped more effectively into Joplin Plan structures. For instance, learning structures like these have been recently incorporated by Adams County School District 50 in Colorado. (see and “Adams 50 skips grades, lets students be pacesetters” at

I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking that in your experience, ability grouping has not worked and that it hurts those students at the bottom the most. If you are thinking this, you might be right, but dig deeper. Do some searching at and find out more. Think of the psychological dynamics of traditional ability grouping compared to Joplin Plan grouping. The type of ability grouping that many researchers have discounted tends to group same-age students together by aptitude in a given topic. Thus, all of the 4th grade students that are good at math are in a group and all of the 4th grade students struggling with math are in another group. Most of us intuitively know what is going to happen. The teacher will unconsciously have lower expectations for the students in the low group. In general, the students in the low group have poor vocabularies, work habits, and attitudes toward the subject. Thus, intellectual discourse is weak. As students are influenced by their peers, an environment is created in which it becomes “cool” to not work hard, not know what you are doing, and dislike the subject. While the upper level group doesn’t experience the same ill effects, they may become elitist, perfectionist, and intolerant as they compete against the “best and the brightest.”

In a Joplin Plan group, a 9 year old with a keen verbal ability and strong work habits could be in the same class with an 11 year old who struggles. The 11 year old may take example from the 9 year old and improve his/her performance. With varied levels of aptitude, but standardized proficiency levels, intellectual discourse tends to be of a level that promotes critical thinking and improves understanding. Maturity and proficiency level determine your group, not age or aptitude. An 11 year old could be in a 9-11, 10-12, or 11-13 year old’s grouping. All of which are at the same proficiency level. Hence, if a particular 11 year old like’s to tease 9 year olds, he/she can be put in the 11-13 grouping. Assessment is ongoing, so students can be regrouped on a quarterly basis if needed. This allows us to make up lost time for students who are behind in their proficiency.

My own son is in such a grouping. I volunteered in his group just the other day and was impressed with how skillfully the teacher managed to deal with students of different age, but similar proficiency. Still I wonder. This is a complicated topic. Does your school use some form of a Joplin Plan and/or standards-based grading? If so, how does it work in your school? Do you think it improves student achievement for all types of students?

Written by Matt Kuhn.

Educational technology myth

By Blog, Classroom Instruction that Works, Technology in Schools, Web/Tech 4 Comments

Recently I participated in a Webinar titled “Opportunities and Challenges for Web 2.0 in Schools” given by Tech & Learning Magazine. One of the hosts was Alan November. He brought up a very intriguing myth about educational technology that really made me think. The myth is that educational technology broadens the perspectives of students by giving them greater access to a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and opinions online. Until recently, I believed in this myth. But after hearing Alan’s explanation, I realized I could be wrong. Essentially, he said that the myriad of choices on the internet make it possible for people to pigeonhole themselves into narrower and narrower points of view. While choices abound, students are selecting sources (blogs, social networks, list services, & news sites) that match their current outlook on the world. Rarely are they experiencing different points of view and incongruent perspectives. In the old days of three major news networks and town news papers, people were forced to see and hear about information that was foreign to their way of thinking and world view. Now, if you are so inclined, you can easily ignore most information other than the views you want to hear. As Alan November put it, some people are fans of the Huffington Post and some are fans of Fox News, rarely do they experience each others ideas.

Coincidentally, the next day I read about a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center called “Sharp Growth in Suburban Minority Enrollment Yields Modest Gains in School Diversity” ( It said while African Americans and Asians are becoming slightly less segregated, Latino students were becoming more segregated in U.S. suburban schools. One of the possible causes cited was the proliferation of schools of choice that offer customized programs, themes, and curricula around Latino culture and language. Many Latino families are self-selecting these unique schools for their children. Of course, this tends to concentrate and segregate them. Now I have always been a proponent of school choice. I believe that it results in more innovation, customer satisfaction, and accountability. However, choice, in educational technology or school enrollment, seems to have the unintended consequence of segregating some groups of students.

Diversity in our schools seems to be suffering from both self-selected incidents of segregation, and segregation of thought as students constrict their online experiences to just those ideas and opinions that affirm their current beliefs. So what can we do about it? One answer is simply good teaching. One of the best classroom strategies for opening student minds to the world is Identifying Similarities and Differences. Using this strategy, teachers can help students understand other points of view and encourage classroom dialogue and debate about ideas, cultures, and perspectives that cause students to think and revise their developing views.

History tells us that segregating ourselves is not good for society. Yet school and online choice have strong merits. How can we enjoy the benefits of choice without the pitfalls of segregation?

Written by Matt Kuhn.

Will the newest generation be like the Millennials?

By Blog, Future of Schooling 6 Comments

Most of the students we teach today are in the Millennial Generation (born from 1982-2001). According to demographers, these students (who are between the ages of about 7 and 26), are comparatively optimistic, confident, achieving, pressured, and cooperative team players. Millennials have become a generation of positive trends in educational achievement. Millennial’s aptitude scores have risen within every racial and ethnic group.

One Millennial in five has at least one immigrant parent. Thanks to immigration surges, Millennials have become, by far, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. Yet, they tend to ostracize outsiders and compel conformity. Millennials feel more of an urge to homogenize, to celebrate ties that bind rather than differences that splinter. Millennials are less inclined than GenXers were at a similar age to take big career risks. They have a fear of failure, aversion to risk, and desire to fit in to the mainstream.

For Millennials, “collaborative learning” has become as popular as independent study was for Boomers or open classrooms for Gen Xers. Surveys confirm that Millennials don’t mind a more structured curriculum, more order, more stress on basics. They grew up in the standards era. It’s how the standards are taught, not so much what they are, that seems to matter most to Millennials.

Recently, the news reported that 2007 broke a record for the number of births in the United States and that 40% of them were by out-of-wedlock parents. This new “baby boom,” combined with uncertainty the nation faced after 9-11 and the current economic recession will shape the newest generation born 2002-present. These students are our 6 and 7 year olds in school now. So what types of instructional strategies will resonate most with this new generation? Will they still love collaborative learning as much as Millennials or will they go a different way? What will distinguish them from students in previous generations? For those of you teaching this new generation in kindergarten, first and second-grade classrooms, have you noticed any differences among them and their older peers?

Written by Matt Kuhn.