Current Affairs

In support of classroom observations

There’s been chatter in the educational blogosphere lately about the effectiveness of classroom walkthroughs. Some question the impact that instructional leaders have on student achievement. Some have even questioned whether principals should visit classrooms at all.

However, research shows a clear link between the coaching of teachers and student achievement. There is also a clear indication that walkthroughs are valuable if teachers see them as part of professional development. So what’s the best model for walkthroughs?

McREL’s research on school-level leadership found 21 principal responsibilities, activities, and behaviors that are most strongly connected to staff and student success—15 of which can be addressed by conducting classroom walkthroughs. An informal classroom walkthrough of 3‒5 minutes allows school-level leaders to gather information about teaching styles, instructional strategies, technology use, and other valuable information that can help drive professional development. It also allows leaders to increase their visibility among students and staff and to gauge the temperature of the school climate. Walkthroughs conducted with a purpose and linked to instructional practice do create value for teachers, leaders, and students.

Bringing coaches into the picture

We’ve seen an interesting shift in the typical users of McREL’s Power Walkthrough software and training. When it was developed in 2007, our clients were almost solely principals and assistant principals. But lately, we’ve seen the software being used more and more by teacher leaders, mentors, and instructional coaches. Perhaps this is reflective of principals realizing that allowing staff to observe and learn from one another is an effective way of providing ongoing professional development.

In response to this shift, this summer we’ll launch Power Walkthrough Coach, designed  to help principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches give teachers the valuable feedback and input they need to improve their practice.

If done in the context of research-based leadership practices and instructional development, classroom walkthroughs are a valuable way for principals and school leaders to see instruction happening in their schools, provide personalized professional development and feedback to teachers, and to involve staff in their own professional learning.


2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s 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 Good Teaching.



2011_Kerr_WEBAndrew Kerr is a consultant for McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, working with schools, districts, and state and national education agencies on curriculum and instruction, technology planning, staff development, and distance learning programs.

Filling the STEM teacher pipeline

A significant number of schools and districts each year report serious problems filling their math and science teaching openings. Why is this? What can we do to increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of STEM teacher candidates?

In a 2010 study, researchers Richard M. Ingersoll and David Perda found that, in fact, annual attrition rates are about the same for math and science teachers as they are for teachers in other subject areas. But unlike other content areas, math and science do not have a surplus of new teachers relative to losses. In other words, for math and science teachers, there is a much tighter balance between new supply and total attrition.

Teacher with studentsAt the same time, there is a need to increase the diversity of the teaching force that has the skills to work with the growing minority student population. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, as of 2011, 48 percent of U.S. public school students are from an ethnic minority, while only 18 percent of teachers are.

To improve the quantity, quality, and diversity within the STEM teacher recruitment pool, let’s consider the four primary sources of new hires in math and science teaching:

  • The ‘‘pipeline’’ of university students who have recently completed a teacher certification program in a school of education and obtained an education/specialization degree and teaching certificate
  • “Career changers”—those entering teaching with non-education STEM degrees and those entering through alternative, midcareer, and nontraditional routes
  • The ‘‘reserve pool’’ of those who completed teacher preparation in prior years but delayed teaching, as well as former teachers who left teaching to later return
  • “Transfers” from other schools—teachers who move from one school to another

In general, for all four groups, recruiting teachers has typically been done through the use of signing and performance incentives, stipends to teachers for certification through alternative routes, stipends or bonuses on top of the regular pay schedule, and scholarships for teachers to pursue advanced course work.

While many recruitment strategies work for a broad range of candidates, some strategies should be differentiated according to the source. For example:

Traditional pipeline candidates

  • Begin recruiting before prospective teachers graduate or do their clinical internships
  • Build strong partnerships with college- or university-based teacher preparation programs
  • Provide prospective teachers with adequate information about districts, schools, and communities to ensure they recognize teaching opportunities and gather adequate information to make well-informed and appropriate job decisions
  • Provide high-quality induction and professional development experiences to ensure successful recruitment and retention outcomes
  • Require evidence of rigorous and substantial content and pedagogical preparation
  • Attend graduate career fairs
  • Stress the opportunity to become culturally aware of different societies

Career/major changers

  • Advertise to government employment assistance agencies
  • Target information to areas with local STEM business closings
  • Advertise to job placement companies and university job placement services
  • Use social networking
  • Disseminate information to the Department of Conservation, Forestry, etc.
  • Collaborate with Troops to Teachers
  • Attend professional, graduate, and military career fairs
  • Reach out to department heads and student groups in STEM majors
  • Develop multiple entry points into teaching for nontraditional math and science teacher candidates

Reserve candidates

  • Provide a convincing and altruistic case for joining the educator workforce
  • Require evidence of strong content background knowledge and expertise
  • Disseminate information to College of Education alumni lists
  • Provide enhanced teacher induction for returning educators to catch them up on the latest priorities and trends


  • Describe positive school culture factors that attract math and science teachers such as student discipline policies, student motivation, and shared teacher leadership
  • Use signing and performance incentives
  • Offer scholarships for teachers to pursue advanced course work
  • Streamline the application process for highly qualified transfer candidates

For all four groups, it’s important to proactively engage recruits by visiting them where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to you. This can be done face-to-face at career fairs and conferences, or virtually through social networking and website/webinar outreach. Proactive recruitment strategies are especially important for recruiting minority candidates. Employers must seek out quality higher education institutions with high proportions of minority candidates and rigorously recruit from them.

Retention and recruitment of math and science teachers go hand-in-hand. If you establish working conditions that math and science teachers desire, and publicize those conditions, your recruitment improves. Furthermore, improving job conditions such as increasing support and resources from the school administration, increasing salaries, reducing student discipline problems, and enhancing faculty input into school decision making, would all contribute to lower rates of turnover and, in turn, reduce recruitment needs.

Do you have other STEM recruiting strategies that have been especially effective?


2012_Kuhn_WEBDr. Matt Kuhn works with districts and schools to improve STEM instruction. He conducts professional development in instructional technology integration, technology leadership, and curricular design and pedagogy in mathematics and science. He is a Google Certified Teacher and a co-author of the first and second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. Prior to joining McREL, Matt was a secondary science/math teacher and principal.

Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest

“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.

But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.

As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.

Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?

Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.

Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.

Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.

Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.

As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?

Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.

A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.

My trip through Universal Design

At first, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may sound like just another tall order for today’s educators to fill. Instead, it’s more “everyday” than one might think.

Originally coined by designers and architects, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). In education, UDL is the design of “instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST).

How does Universal Design play out in our daily lives? While I was traveling to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, for a meeting with some teachers in our Adapted Curriculum Enhancement (ACE) program, I experienced several examples of Universal Design that we take for granted (almost) every day.

For example, after maneuvering through airport security, I stood at my gate and watched, with others, the latest news on TV. The volume was muted, and we were all reading the closed-captioning—an example of technology designed for the deaf and hard of hearing but which benefits everyone without adaption.

After arriving in Pittsburgh, I found my rental car and plugged in the GPS.  Even though I didn’t know the zip code for my destination, the system was still able to find the location. Before I got on my way, though, the GPS asked whether I wanted the shortest route, the fastest route, or to avoid highways. It also told me which gas stations and restaurants were along the way. With all of these options, I thought, this GPS could meet everyone’s needs, from the business traveler to the hungry sightseer.

Can we apply this concept to the classroom just as easily as we do in real life? The DO-IT Center at the University of Washington has developed a checklist for incorporating Universal Design into instructional practices, including multiple items under each of these main categories:

  • Class Climate: Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Interaction: Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
  • Physical Environments: Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  • Delivery Methods: Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  • Information Resources and Technology: Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
  • Feedback: Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  • Assessment: Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly.
  • Accommodation: Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

McREL’s ACE program also uses principles of UDL to help teachers assist students in visualizing complex science concepts through tactile graphics with written descriptions and 3-D models. The overarching principle is to develop course material, curriculum, and instruction with UDL in mind from the beginning, so that educators don’t have to “retro-fit” their teaching when they have diverse learners in their classrooms.

How have you included the principles of Universal Design in your classroom (maybe without even knowing it)?

John Ristvey is a director for McREL. 

Unlocking grit

Although we know a great deal about the factors that contribute to student achievement, we also know that student success isn’t purely reductive: students who have every advantage can still fail, and conversely, students with the odds stacked firmly against them are often capable of prodigious success.

But what is it about some students that leads them to succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges? As we note in our latest Educational Leadership column, it may be as simple as grit. Grit, or resilience, is made up of a combination of factors, including goal-directedness, motivation, self-control, and positive mindset, that come together to create persistence in the face of challenges. Though grit may seem difficult to define (and is less easily influenced than curriculum, instruction, and the school environment), there’s an increasing recognition of its importance. Thankfully, there are things that we can do in the classroom to support the development of grit. Read about them here.

Bryan 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.

6a010536aec25c970b019aff732e08970bKirsten Miller is a lead consultant at McREL and a coauthor of the upcoming Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners, 2nd edition, due out in November.

Ensuring teacher quality: A global view

E000061rThere are few things more talked about in U.S. education circles right now than how to improve evaluation for teachers. While states and districts are focused on what’s wrong with our current systems and how we can make them better—by changing what we evaluate, how often we evaluate, and even who evaluates—perhaps we should look to how other countries with the top student achievement rates in the world, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, are already getting it right.

Only the best get in. Only 15 percent of Finnish prospective teachers are admitted into teacher programs. Once in, their preparation includes extensive coursework on teaching principles and at least one full year of in-school experience (Darling-Hammond, 2010). By the time Singaporean candidates pass a demanding test and panel interview, only one out of eight applicants successfully becomes a teacher (Tucker, 2011).

Teachers in high-performing countries also receive high-quality professional development in research methods and pedagogical practice, and they participate in it quite often. Common in Western European countries is “job-embedded professional development,” which supports teacher research on a specific learning practice. Because teachers are provided time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies, their learning is ongoing and sustained (Wei, Andree, & Darling-Hammond, 2009).

Teacher collaboration in high-performing countries ensures high teacher quality. In South Korea, only about 35 percent of teachers’ working time is spent teaching pupils. The rest is spent working in a shared office space exchanging instructional resources and ideas. Likewise, teachers in Finnish schools meet at least one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and they are encouraged to share materials and work with teachers at other schools (Wei et al., 2009).

These methods appear to be working. Results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) released in December 2012 reflect that in 4th-grade mathematics, Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong were the top performers, followed by Chinese Taipei and Japan (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Arora, 2012). According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the top-performing countries in 4th-grade reading were Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2012).

In addition, high-performing countries have high levels of graduation and post-graduate education. More than 99 percent of Finnish students, for example, complete upper secondary school and two-thirds of those graduates go on to universities or professional schools (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

While these practices may seem utopian to U.S. educators, they provide insight into how teacher quality in other countries contributes to the student achievement results that we strive for. To achieve best-in-the-world results, the United States needs to determine what best-in-the-world evaluation practices we can apply or modify to create the highest quality teachers.

How can these practices be implemented in your school? Do you have the time and resources to do so? Do you think they would improve teacher quality in your school or district?

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, Writer/Editor II


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform. Retrieved from

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Arora, A. (2012). Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., & Drucker, K. T. (2012). PIRLS 2001 international results in reading. Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College. Retrieved from

Tucker, M. (2011). Standing on the shoulders of giants: An American agenda for education   reform. National Center on Education and the Economy. Retrieved from

Wei, R. C., Andree, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). How nations invest in teachers. Educational
Leadership, 66
(5), 28–33.


The Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy: Resources for educators

Here at McREL, we are heartbroken by the tragedy that occurred last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. To the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and across the country who are grieving the loss of loved ones, please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.

For educators and families anywhere who are in need of some assistance helping children through the continuing effects of this tragedy, please consider the following resources: 

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Children and Grief  This article describes the normal reactions to expect from young children when they lose a loved one as well as behaviors that indicate professional help is needed. 

American Academy of Pediatrics: Resources to Help Parents, Children and Others Cope in the Aftermath of School Shootings  AAP provides a list of resources for parents/teachers, students, and schools to help cope specifically with the effects of school shootings.  

National Association of School Psychologists: Helping Children Cope – Tips for Parents and Teachers  This handout offers advice for adults, parents, and schools to help children cope with any kind of national tragedy.

PBS: Talking with Kids About News  PBS offers general strategies for talking and listening to children about news events.

U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services: Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events – A Guide for Parents and Educators  This brief explains common reactions to traumatic events by preschoolers, young children, and adolescents, and provides tips for helping children and for getting professional help when needed.

Do our students care about higher standards?

With this in mind, have we spent the past 20 years fretting over raising standards, creating related assessments, and designing accountability systems to improve student performance, but neglecting to help students understand why any of this should be meaningful to them?

Read More

Developing effective digital learning policy

Digital tech blogIn the ‘80s, teachers were excited to incorporate overhead projectors into their classrooms. In the ‘90s, cutting edge classrooms were those equipped with a computer—one that would allow students to take turns accessing CD-ROMs and saving to floppy disks. Today, digital technologies have exploded, and schools might issue tablets to all students, rely exclusively on virtual courses, or even encourage the use of cell phones in class. But does technology in the classroom really improve student achievement?

Research tells us that although technology can have a positive impact on student achievement it is no guarantee of success (Pedro, 2012). Some students in online classes might outperform their peers,  while those enrolled in a particular virtual school lag significantly behind. One educational software program may lead directly to higher test scores while another produces no measurable effect. And a one-to-one laptop initiative may be a wild success in one school district while it is a complete flop in the district next door.

Given the variable success of digital learning initiatives, decision makers have much to consider when determining whether and how to invest in digital learning. McREL’s newest policy brief, “Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World,” offers recommendations to policymakers as they consider ways to formulate digital learning policy:

1.       Consider digital learning options that will address the unique needs of a specific region

Effective digital learning policy accounts for the strengths and needs that are unique to a region.  While investment in a learning management system may be appropriate for a highly developed region, other areas may be better served by improved access to the Internet.  Likewise, disparities within  regions may mean that students and teachers in rural and remote areas lack access to the educational and technological resources that more populous areas take for granted.

2.       Develop a rationale for digital learning

Advocates for digital learning may cite different reasons for their support. Some emphasize the role that education plays in preparing students for the workforce, arguing that students must be highly digitally literate to succeed in today’s technology-driven workplace. Others focus on technology’s ability to improve student achievement and enhance educator effectiveness, while still others argue that digital learning promotes more equitable access to education.  Consideration of these rationales is likely to increase stakeholder buy-in and produce clearer policy.

3.       Support successful digital learning implementation strategies

Successful digital learning programs provide for ongoing and substantive support to teachers and principals who must be trained to effectively incorporate any new technologies into their practice and maximize on the potential of those technologies. Further, effective digital learning policy provides for the ongoing evaluation of any digital learning initiative, which in turn allows for ongoing program improvement.

How effective have digital learning initiatives in your region been? What is your current digital learning policy? What obstacles does your district or school face in creating one?

For further details on effective digital learning policy, read this free McREL resource: Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World.

Written by Allison Dunlap, policy research assistant at McREL.


Pedró, F. (2012). Trusting the unknown: The effects of technology use in education. In Soumitra Dutta & Beñat Bilbao-Osorio (Eds.) 135–146, The Global Information Technology Report 2012: Living in a Hyperconnected World. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Early childhood obesity: What can educators do?

Obesity is the health epidemic of our time, and it seems that everyone—from the mayor of New York to the Walt Disney Company—is trying to do something about it. While trying to change the unhealthy habits of adults is often viewed as an infringement on personal freedom, there isn’t much argument against doing so for young children. When Disney decided it would no longer allow junk food advertising during its programming aimed at preschoolers, it was lauded by none other than First Lady Michelle Obama.

But it takes more than advertising to prevent obesity—and healthy habits include not only eating and drinking but also physical activity. Children ages 2‒5, according to guidelines put forth by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in 2002, should be getting a minimum of two hours of exercise a day, including 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. But the reality is that most of children’s time at preschool is not active, due to the school’s lack of space, equipment, time, or staff members with the right training.

Let Me Play is a comprehensive program implemented in Head Start classrooms across the country that offers training to teachers and provides them with developmentally appropriate activities that can be easily incorporated into existing curriculum. An evaluation of the program conducted by McREL found that it improved teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward physical education and health content and increased the levels of activity, skill, and motivation in children.

Preschools that want to incorporate developmentally appropriate physical activity in their curriculum should find ways for teachers to collaborate on ideas for activities and make sure they’re comfortable with implementation. Also, programs can monitor implementation using tools like the Physical Education Rating Scale (available for download from Amazon).

Do you think physical activity should be required in preschool? What else can schools do to encourage healthy habits?

Written by Heather Hein, writer and editor, and Sheila Arens, senior director, at McREL.