Some schools say no to homework: Is that a good idea?

Homework is, once again, in the hot seat. A recent Education Week blog post described a new homework policy in an elementary school in Quebec that is giving its students a year off from homework. Just last year, reported that French President Francois Hollande proposed eliminating homework in all French elementary and junior high schools. And, according to the NY Daily News, Townsend Harris High School, a high performing school in Queens, has mandated no homework nights. What does the research tell us about homework and what are the implications for schools?

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Student success is influenced by district leadership

In our study we were less interested in what superintendents bring to the job (personal characteristics such as gender, age, or ethnicity) than what they do on the job (leadership behaviors). We wanted to learn if the effect of superintendent leadership is positive, negative, or non-existent. We also wanted to learn which leadership behaviors/practices of superintendents, if any, had the largest effects on achievement. We discovered positive relationships between key, specific practices of superintendents—and, perhaps more importantly, their leadership teams—and higher average measures of district-level achievement.

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Reinforcing effort: A parent’s perspective

I want my child to be a confident learner who understands the importance of effort and wants to do his best. I believe reinforcing effort early is tied directly to development of lifelong motivation and achievement. Throughout his young life, I’ve helped my son connect with the good feeling that arises from belief in himself and hard work directed at a goal. Having read about the detrimental effects of praise about being smart or having natural talent, I try to reinforce practice and effort with him, even in areas where he appears be naturally gifted, such as baseball.

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What does “You 2.0” look like in the classroom?

For too long, though, education has been marked not so much by a pattern of incremental improvement, but rather by a swinging pendulum. We’ve lurched from one untested idea to the next—explicit instruction, inquiry-based instruction, whole language, phonics only—the list goes on and on. The point of research is to sift through various approaches to identify what has worked and what hasn’t, so we can lock in what we know works most of the time. Only then should we explore those edges where further improvements in professional practice are necessary.

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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.


From book to classroom: Applying the 12 Touchstones

This is the first in a series of posts by Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, authors of the new book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Their posts will look at individual touchstones, providing insights, making connections, prompting reflection, and sharing ideas for using the touchstones in the classroom. Elizabeth Ross Hubbell starts things off with a look at the first touchstone.

Touchstone #1: I use standards to guide every learning opportunity.

If you have never seen Brian Crosby’s “Back to the Future” TED Talk, stop now and go watch it. It’s one of my favorite videos for showing how a dedicated teacher with few resources and a class of “at risk” students expertly uses technology, real-world experiences, and outside connections to tap into student excitement. I’m always struck by the emotion and dedication that is evident throughout his high-tech classroom.

Another, perhaps more subtle, message that Brian sends is that he addresses curriculum standards through innovative and creative means. This echoes our first touchstone, using standards to guide every learning opportunity. Embedded in this first chapter is the idea that teachers should use standards as a platform for creativity.

This may at first seem dichotomous. We sometimes hear groans among educators (and parents) who say that following a set of standards in the classroom restricts spontaneity and imagination, and reduces motivation for impromptu student learning. Crosby’s TED Talk video, however, demonstrates how we can follow curricular guidelines while still allowing for creativity and love of learning for students and teachers.

As we state in The 12 Touchstones book, “When everyone gets on the same page about what’s important for students to learn (i.e. standards), teachers can devote their time and energies not to figuring out what material to teach but, instead, to determining how to teach that material in a way that engages and enlightens students and—when possible—accelerates their learning” (p. 14).

As you look through your lesson plans over the next week or month, ask yourself, “What’s a more creative way I could engage students in this content? How can I make them want to learn this material?” We’d love to hear your ideas below.

Elizabeth Ross HubbellElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the 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 Great Teaching

The answers are in the room

12 Touchstones

Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different:  “The answers are in the room.”

Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.

I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.

Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”

Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of

As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).

In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.

What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?

Goodwin_200x200Bryan 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.


Creating personal connections with students

MSmaleAs educators around the Northern Hemisphere are returning to school campuses this month, this is a good time to think about the commitment to creating personal connections with students. We know from research that students having a strong bond with even one teacher can dramatically impact math and reading scores and can impact overall behavior and achievement as students move through their K-12 years.

Yet, in spite of knowing its importance, it’s easy for us as teachers to assume that, even if we don’t have a personal connection with a student, that someone else in the
building does. But how can we be sure? How can we make absolutely certain that
a student doesn’t “fall through the cracks” due to a lack of having access to a
trusted adult?

In a new ASCD publication, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, Bryan Goodwin and I created a research-based list of the 12 essential daily items for effective instruction.
One of the 12 is  “I interact meaningfully with every student.” We illustrate this in the book with the story of how one school addressed the issue of personal connections:

One group of teachers decided, before school started, to see how much their staff interacted on a personal level with students. They placed pictures of each student along a hallway and signed their names if they had a personal connection to the student. When the activity was over, they took a step back and noted those students whose pages were blank or only had one or two signatures. The teachers committed to making special efforts throughout the coming school year to connect with these students on an ongoing basis.

As your staff returns to school, consider a similar exercise to ensure that students have access to trusted adults to help them deal with personal and academic issues (and feel free to share ideas and examples here, in the comments section). You never know when such a connection will have a life-changing impact on a student.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness. 

Tech CITW captures the “big picture”

On occasion, we come across mentions of our work that let us know how our work impacts educational leaders, teachers, and students. We were especially thrilled when The 21st Century Principal blogged about the 2nd
edition of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. We thank blogger J. Robinson, former
teacher and administrator, for recommending our work to his readers:

Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works is not a “how-to” book when
it comes to employing technology in the engagement of instruction. Rather, it is
a ‘big-picture’ book that surveys the field of technological tools and helps
the teacher connect with the kinds of technology she might wish to use in the

Check out Robinson’s blog or follow him @21stprincipal on Twitter to read more of his ideas and musings as he grapples with an ever-shifting learning environment.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is co-author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition.


Yes Johnny, We Expect You to Read in School Today

TRICA 3There was a time when children went off to school expecting to read in every class, whether it was mathematics, science, or history. It simply was a given that reading in all the content areas had an impact on learning. This truth has resurfaced in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and teachers are realizing these new standards set much higher expectations for student learning than we have held in the recent past.

The CCSS aim to move students toward reading more nonfiction by engaging them in increasingly complex texts as they move through school, while at the same time, helping them develop discipline-specific literacy skills. In Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition, there are five  recommendations from research that, if implemented thoughtfully and systematically, will help improve students’ reading comprehension. With each recommendation that follows, I’ve made a suggestion for getting started.

1. Explicit instruction in effective comprehension strategies

Even though science, mathematics, and social studies all demand distinctive reading and writing skills, one instructional practice that is important for all readers, and particularly adolescents,  is teacher modeling. When
teachers model strategies, they give students a kind of “sensory template.” The “Think-Aloud,” for example, is a strategy where teachers model the type of thinking a specific task requires. As students watch and listen to their teacher’s actions and words, they are able to visualize using the strategy.

2. Increase open, sustained discussion of reading content 

When teachers encourage students to brainstorm ideas together and ask each other questions, students grow more aware of their cognitive processes, which strengthens their ability to select and use appropriate comprehension strategies. As important, when they engage in large-group discussion, they mine the shared knowledge of the class.  The Socratic Seminar is a strategy that promotes debate, uses evidence from the text, and builds on another’s thinking. In a Socratic Seminar, each student has an active role: half the class sits in an inner circle and engages in a discussion while the other half sits in an outer circle and assesses their peers’ discussion skills.

3. Set and maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary.

Traditional vocabulary activities asked students to look up definitions of words in the dictionary and use the words in sentences; while this approach may be better than skipping vocabulary altogether, it is not an evidenced-based approach. This six-step approach for direct instruction of vocabulary is better:

  • Provide a brief explanation, description, or example of the new term.
  • Ask students to restate, in their own words, the explanation, description, or example.
  • Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term.
  • Engage students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the new term(s).
  • Occasionally ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  • Periodically allow students to play games that use the new terms.

4. Increase students’ motivation and engagement with reading.

Although research does not identify specific motivational techniques for particular types of students, it does support choice, social interactions, and important and interesting learning goals. Teachers in any content area can give students choices of research topics and then assign debates. Because most students enjoy argument, they become motivated and engaged readers, but they need coaching from teachers on how to have meaningful debates. Teaching students to use frameworks, such as Proposition Support Outlines, helps them organize their research and arguments. While outlining, they analyze the different types of evidence an author presents and learn to be critical readers who can recognize different viewpoints, theories, hypotheses, facts, opinions, and debatable assertions.

5. Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts.

As students improve their knowledge in a specific area, their ability to understand the associated
reading material also improves. As a content-area teacher, you are much more likely to improve students’ ability to independently comprehend the reading material when you use instructional routines that support students’ understanding of content-area vocabulary, concepts, and facts. After students read about a topic, ask them to perform or construct something by following a multistep
process or procedure.

Teachers can prepare students to succeed in college or build solid careers by sharing a variety of strategies, explaining their value, and repeatedly modeling and having students practice  them. By learning to read effectively, students not only learn the content they need to master, they also come to value reading and learning.

Order Teaching Reading in The Content Areas: If Not Me Then Who, 3rd edition from ASCD.

Written by Vicki Urquhart, co–author of Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition.