Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

Coaches for the Classroom

When you think of coaches, an image of a sports figure may come to mind—Tom Landry, Bobby Knight, or Bear Bryant. But in education, coach may be a part of your everyday vernacular as well.

As schools are looking for ways help teachers implement the Common Core and reach No Child Left Behind (NCLB) goals, traditional professional development (PD) programs, sometimes referred to as “one-day wonders,” have proven ineffective in sustained growth and improvement for teachers. Researchers Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002) found that PD that consisted of demonstration, feedback, and practice did not have a noticeable effect size on classroom transfer (effect size + 0.0). Even research-based models of learning and the most thoughtful day of PD have no impact on student learning if the teacher cannot internalize or sustain their learning over time and with fidelity. In order to make deep, lasting changes in teacher practices, more and more school districts and states are using instructional coaches to support teachers in implementing best practices for increased student achievement.

What is an instructional coach? While there are many variations, in general, an instructional coach teaches educators how to use proven teaching methods and uses a variety of PD practices to encourage the implementation of these methods. Often, instructional coaches meet with teachers individually or in small groups, collaboratively plan with teachers, model instructional practices, or observe teachers using instructional strategies (Knight, 2004). Instructional coaches are meant to help teachers transfer their training to the classroom and implement what they’ve learned with fidelity.

And there’s research to back that up. Two programs, Pathways to Success from the University of Kansas (which includes six middle schools and three high schools), and Passport to Success by the Maryland Department of Education (which includes five middles schools), showed that instructional coaching programs generated implementation rates of at least 85 percent (Knight, 2005), which means teachers were using what they learned in PD. Joyce and Showers (2002) also analyzed implementation rates and found that when coaching is added after PD, “a large and dramatic increase in transfer of training—effect size of 1.42—occurs”.

McREL staff has seen firsthand how instructional coaching helps teachers transfer what they’ve learned in training. In October and November 2012, McREL staff trained a diverse group of English, French and Cree-speaking consultants from Northern Quebec in instructional coaching strategies. These consultants learned best practices in coaching and practiced through role-playing and other interactive scenarios. A month later, when Bj Stone, McREL principal consultant and co-author of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012), presented two days of instructional training to the Cree teachers, the coaches were prepared to support and reinforce the new learning with a “toolbox” of strategies, including setting goals with teachers, modeling classroom lessons, and checking for the fidelity of implementation. Many teachers, in Cree and elsewhere, report that not only does instructional coaching increase their confidence, it also increases their willingness to try new evidence-based best practices. Teachers and coaches begin to share a vision—to increase achievement for students.

How is your district using instructional coaches? How is it benefiting the school? The teachers? Have you experienced any challenges?

Patti Davis is a lead consultant at McREL in the Center for Systems Transformation.



Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Knight, J. (2004, Spring). Instructional coaches make progress through partnership: Intensive support can improve teaching. Journal of Staff Development 25(2), 32–37. Retrieved from

Knight, J. (2005, Winter). Instructional Coaching. StrateNotes 13(3). Retrieved from

International student performance: Are the data what they seem?

GlobeResults from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show what educators have come to expect about U.S. students: Compared to their counterparts in many Asian and some Western European countries, their test scores lag in math and science—the fields of study often equated with innovation, technology, and healthy, competitive economies.

Do these data, as an education task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations warned in a March 2012 report, put the United States’ “future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk”?

Certainly, many would agree, as Eric Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessman say in an article for Education Next, that the U.S. position is “problematic.” In a 2010 analysis, the trio of experts in education reform and economics in education found only 6 percent of U.S. students performing at the advanced level in mathematics, which is a percentage lower than that attained by 30 other countries. In 2011, just 32 percent of 8th graders in the U.S. were proficient in math, placing the United States 32nd in the world. Further, the rate of improvement among U.S. students is underwhelming: In a study of 49 countries, it was right in the middle, with 24 countries improving faster. Eight countries made gains at twice the rate of U.S. students.

Hanushek, a renowned expert in educational policy and education economics at Stanford University, believes that these results have “enormous implications” for the future of the U.S. economy in the future.

Others, however, look at the data quite differently. Yong Zhao, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, whose scholarly work focuses on the impact of globalization and technology on education, contends the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

According to the data, Zhao says in a blog on his website, America’s national security, jobs, and economy have been “resting upon a base that has been crumbing and cracking for over half a century,” and the United States should have “fallen through the cracks and hit rock bottom by now.” But other facts suggest otherwise: The United States remains the dominant military power in the world; its economy is still the largest in the world; it is the 6th wealthiest country in the world; and it ranks 5th, 2nd, and 1st, respectively, in Global Competitiveness, Global Creativity, and in the number of international patents filled or granted.

Why? Because, Zhao says, “high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity.” The American system produces more creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial-minded people. In fact, PISA data show that countries with higher scores have fewer people confident in their entrepreneurial abilities.

What do you think the data says about the American education system? You can hear Hanushek, Zhao, and other experts in education and high reliability present their perspectives at McREL’s Summit for Innovative Education February 4–5 in Denver. 

If we don’t do standards right, will we have time to do them over?

In previous blogs, I’ve noted that while standards-based reform efforts appear to have “raised the floor” on student performance, they’ve been less successful in “raising the ceiling” or unleashing the talent of our students at the upper-end of the spectrum. In fact, Harvard education professor Martin West noted that far greater percentages of students in other developed nations perform at the same levels demonstrated by the top six percent of students in the United States.

Students also appear to be detached from the system of standards-based assessments and accountability that we’ve so carefully constructed over the past two decades—as evidenced by the fact that surprising students prior to taking a standardized test with a mere $10 bribe for good performance is enough to make them do significantly better on the tests.

So what’s the answer? More bribes for students so they’ll play along with our accountability systems? While bribes may work to some extent, as I noted in a recent column in Educational Leadership, external rewards tend to have diminished results over time, requiring greater dosages (or payouts) to be effective. Moreover, the presence of external rewards can serve to undermine intrinsic motivation, which researchers have found can have a powerful influence on student success.

In the video below, education author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson notes that raising standards is fine—indeed, there’s no sensible argument to be made for lowering them. However, if we only focus on what we want students to learn and not why we want them to learn it, we may be doing them a great disserve.


Robinson speculates that it may be more than just coincidence that “incidences of ADHD have risen in parallel with the growth of standardized testing” and points out that “our children are living in the  most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.” And yet, we penalize “them for getting distracted and from what? Boring stuff … at school.”

He points to studies that show that the longer students stay in school, the less creative they become. Similarly, other researchers have found that the longer students stay in school, the less intrinsically motivated they become.

However, standards need not come at the expense of student engagement. The Edutopia web site, for example, provides many vivid examples of learning environments, such as The Build San Francisco Institute, where standards-based learning opportunities are incredibly engaging for students, many of whom were previously at-risk for dropping out of school.

In Tulsa, a team of curriculum developers and researchers from McREL designed a pilot summer program, Cosmic Chemistry, in the Union School District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cosmic Chemistry gave teenagers, many of whom had been identified as unlikely to enroll in upper-level high school chemistry courses, an opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and experience the thrill of inquiry and discovery of true applied science. The program resulted in excited students who are now intrigued by science— so much so that 80 percent of students who participated in the course enrolled in Advanced Placement chemistry courses at their high schools.

This suggests that when we consider student motivation and help students understand what’s in standards-based learning for them, we create relevance in their learning, and it becomes possible to not only raise the floor with standards, but also the ceiling on student performance.

Sure, it takes a bit more planning, creativity, and effort. But the results—and the expression on these students’ faces—would suggest that it’s worth it.

As 46 states move to adopt Common Core State Standards, the opportunity may never be better to not only rethink the standards themselves, but how we might go about creating a standards-based system of education that truly engages student interest and motivation.

While some educators might feel weary or overwhelmed with the enormity of transitioning to new standards and say, “I agree with you. But right now we just need to take care of adopting the standards. We can worry about that other stuff later.”

However, we might do well to recall the words of the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who famously remarked, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

What are your thoughts? Is it possible to make standards-based learning engaging for students?

Written by Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development.

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?

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Trend Spotting: The Evolving Role of Museums in Education

On the Horizon, an international journal that explores emerging issues as technology changes the nature of education and learning, has released a concept paper titled, Museums and the Future of Education. Co-authored by Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, the paper explores the vibrant role that museums could play should education experience a profound shift from traditional teacher- and school-centered models to more informal, personalized, “passion-based” models.

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Quiet in the classroom

Vicki quiet in classroom blogImagine being 13 years old and having a social studies class in which you and your classmates learn cooperatively 100 percent of the time, and no one ever works alone… ever. Depending on your personality, this could be your favorite class or your worst nightmare.

This was the learning environment one teacher created for his students after attending a professional development seminar on the benefits of cooperative learning. Upon returning to the school, he physically made over his classroom, creating stations for small groups of students to work together every single day.

Perhaps he was so inspired by a dynamic instructor that he couldn’t resist converting to a new teaching approach; perhaps he viewed it as a way not to have to deal with the time-consuming planning that good teaching often requires; or he may have viewed it simply as a fail-proof way for students to learn. Whatever his instructional motivations, it most likely was the way he himself preferred to learn. However, it was not the preference of at least one of his students, who began to dread attending his class and, as a result, learned very little social studies that year.

An insight as to why and how some students choose to opt out of cooperative learning is revealed in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which posits that our culture, in general, and our schools, in particular, undervalue certain types of individuals, specifically, introverts. She contends that the focus on group learning in schools ignores the needs of students who not only dislike working in group settings but actually don’t learn in them. Instead, they learn best when they work individually, usually through reading, writing, and reflecting.

In McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works, Second Edition, the authors write that learning to collaborate and cooperate is a good foundation for future success in a world that demands high levels of social interaction. When used consistently (but not daily) and systematically (but not rigidly), cooperative learning structures provide opportunities for students to interact, take on specific roles, and listen actively to others’ ideas. But cooperative learning is not necessarily the basis for thinking or problem solving; that level of understanding often occurs when students are allowed to think and wonder on their own.

Cain writes that introverts represent one-third to one-half of all Americans; naturally, the same percentage exists in classrooms. For students possessing this personality trait, a steady stream of external stimuli is exactly the opposite of their ideal learning environment. And taken to the extreme—where students even take tests with a partner, possibly because teachers think it will reduce student anxiety (and new brain research suggests it sometimes does)—the practice gets in the way of learning.

More than two years ago, McREL Senior Researcher Charles Igel wrote on this blog that, while group learning had become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during the last century,  many teachers were still confused about how to use it effectively. In a recent article, he explains that the early researchers of cooperative learning realized that just putting people into groups and having them learn together was not enough to improve learning. Cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning, and is different because it is highly structured and contains certain identifiable elements to foster the upside of social learning (i.e., engagement and high achievement) while avoiding the downside (i.e., uneven effort and outcomes). The research supports that when teachers use cooperative learning properly, they are more likely to reengage students who have become marginalized while preparing all students to be successful in their future endeavors.

Which brings us back to the over-zealous middle-school teacher, who, had he not taken his efforts to the extreme, might have created an environment where students learn to think on their own. We must acknowledge the possibility that when students seek solitude to “do their own thing,” they aren’t necessarily refusing to play well with others; rather, they may be following their natural tendencies to seek out an environment that frees them to learn their way.

Listen to Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.

Learning uninterrupted

A growing trend in education over the last two decades has been exploring ways to use educational technology to maximize classroom time and extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. The idea of a “ubiquitous learning environment,” where students can learn at any time and in any place, has long been a dream of many educators and goes back over one hundred years—correspondence courses, phonographs, radio, filmstrips, and television have all been re-purposed for learning.

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Unearthing secrets to student success

In Expeditionary Learning schools (students engage in team-based, interdisciplinary “learning expeditions,” including fieldwork, case studies, projects, and service learning—all with an underlying focus on culture and character.

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Easy antidote to grade inflation?

As I wrote recently in Educational Leadership, grade inflation appears to be a real phenomenon with costly consequences for students. From 1992–2006, the percentage of American high school students who reported earning an A or A-minus average nearly doubled (from 18.3%–32.8%). An analysis of student work in Oregon concluded that most high school students receiving Bs (and many receiving As) are not doing work on par with college expectations for entry-level students. Perhaps as a result, more than 30 percent of freshmen drop out of college each year, costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion per year in wasted grants and state appropriations to colleges.

Is there any way to stop grade inflation? One solution, some offer, is to open up the “black box” of teacher grades, which can be as carefully guarded as secret recipes, making it difficult to determine what actually goes into a student grade. As a result, one teachers’ A can be another’s C grade.

More than 20 years ago, in Spain’s Basque Country, a small high school stumbled onto what appears to be a simple antidote to grade inflation. In 1990, a small school in the Gipuzkoa province purchased new software that began automatically placing on report cards, with little apparent forethought from school officials, information about where students stood relative to the average grade in their class. Immediately, student grades shot up 5 percent (an increase, according to researchers who later analyzed the school’s data, on par with lowering class sizes from 22 to 15). Presumably, as students and their parents began to understand that a grade of say, an 85, wasn’t all that special compared to other students in the class, they began to work harder. And as a whole, the entire school began to perform better on Spain’s national exam.

Incidentally, this sort of value-neutral information about students’ relative performance is exactly the kind of feedback that motivation researcher Edward Deci has noted strikes the perfect balance between providing information to guide performance while not diminishing motivation by coming across as coercing, such as saying to a student, “You should work harder in my class.” Reporting how students are doing relative to their peers seems to be a simple way to open up the black box of grades while inspiring students to work harder. It encourages a student to think, “If the average grade in my class is 85, surely I can do at least that well … if not better.”

For the school in Spain, though, there was one problem.

After just one year, parents and teachers complained that the information was creating too much competition among students. Average class grades were removed from report cards and student performance swiftly sank back to prior levels.

What do you think? Should revealing where students stand relative to their peers be encouraged … or shunned?


The next frontier of education: Implementation

In my latest “research says” column in Educational Leadership, I report that a new slew of “gold-standard” studies has unearthed (somewhat inadvertently) that in a lot of cases, educators really aren’t very good at the whole implementation thing. The studies, commissioned by the Institute for Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, were carefully constructed with impressive sample sizes and rigorous statistical analyses. They found little or no effects for several popular education programs, such as Odyseey Math and Rick Stiggins’ Classroom Assessment for Student Learning.

Yet, almost without exception, the programs in question were so poorly implemented that it’s difficult to determine if they—or the poor implementation—were the reason for the weak results. In other words, the programs might have actually worked had they only been implemented with fidelity.’

This may be true of many education approaches and reforms, which ultimately get thrown on the trash heap because we believe they don’t work, when in reality, they may work just fine when they’re implemented well.

On the upside, we have seen a lot of improvements in education (for example, great teaching and curricula that challenge and engage students, to name just two) that can have a tremendous impact on student success … when done well. In fact, most of the big impact approaches aren’t new at all. For decades, we’ve known that teachers setting high expectations, being a “warm demander,” and intentionally matching instructional strategies to learning goals really do work. We just need to do these things correctly and stick to them.

Educators might take some solace in knowing that they’re not alone in struggling to do what everyone knows must be done. Businesses have the same trouble. Everyone in the airline industry knows Southwest Airline’s open secrets of success, such as their “all aboard” seating; yet few, if any, competitors have been able to effectively follow Southwest’s formula. Doing things right, of course, is a thorny challenge. Yet, it’s not impossible—in fact, we know quite a lot about the keys to good implementation.

So the good news is this: we don’t need to wait for silver bullets, or Superman, or some yet-to-be invented innovation to improve our schools. As we show in the video below, we simply need to do better what decades of research says matters most to change the odds for student success.

Bryan Goodwin is the author of a new book from ASCD, Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.