Current Affairs

Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work

A 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.

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Civil discourse on the Common Core

Being 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.

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The “Innovator’s Mindset”

I 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. Building on Dr. Dweck’s work, and encouraged by the knowledge that mindsets are impermanent—one can move from one to the other—Mr. Couros proposes that it is also possible to move past the growth mindset to what he calls the “innovator’s mindset.”

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What’s STEM got to do with it?

Meaningful 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.

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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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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.

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Teach your students how to fail

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?

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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 (CCSS) 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.

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. 

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.