Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

Summit School District finds “secret” to narrowing achievement gaps

In the popular mind, Summit County, Colorado, in the heart of Colorado ski country, might seem worlds apart from the usual challenges many other school districts face—a place where perhaps privileged, ski sweater-clad youngsters gather ’round roaring fireplaces to sing John Denver songs.

The reality, however, is until recently, Summit School District had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state—with the English language learning children of the county’s influx of immigrant workers achieving at much lower rates than its nonminority students.

Over the past two years, McREL has worked extensively with teachers and administrators in the district to help them narrow their achievement gaps while increasing overall student performance.

So what’s the secret to these initial successes? A bold new program? A whiz bang technology? A new silver bullet?


The “secret” has simply been to focus on delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom.

Teachers across the distict have been working hard to adapt the effective instructional practices they already know to the needs of English language learners. In keeping with some of the key ideas of McREL’s Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most report, they’ve been adopting “growth mindsets” for students, delivering challenging instruction, and providing students with the support they need to meet high expectations.

In the words of Superintendent Millie Hamner, the district has been simply “focusing on keeping best instructional practices and student learning first on our minds, in our agendas, and in our hearts.”

Read the entire Summit School District story here.

Download the free Changing the Odds report here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

Catch a glimpse of real 21st century skills

Last week, I caught a glimpse of the future and realized that, like my own parents, I’ll probably have no idea what my kids actually do at work when they grow up.

This glimpse came courtesy of a Minnesota Public Radio story, which covered McREL’s NSF-supported “nanoteach” initiative to bring instruction in nanotechnology to high school classrooms nationwide.

In case you’re not familiar with nanotechnology (I’ve only recently learned about it myself), it’s the science of creating structures and manipulating matter at the molecular level. It promises breakthrough innovations for “everything from improved cancer treatments to more effective sunscreen,” reports MPR’s Dan Gunderson.

If that sounds farfetched or like something out of Star Trek, consider this other tidbit from Gunderson’s story: “the government predicts nanotech will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the next five years.”

The challenge, then, is getting today’s student students prepared for these jobs of the not-so-distant future. Moreover, nanotechnology will likely change our world. That means that students, even those who have no interest in pursuing nanotech careers, should understand both the promise and peril of this rapidly emerging technology.

Read the MPR story.

Visit the Nanoteach Website.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

What’s in a name? Recognizing the distinction between cooperative and collaborative instruction

Walk into a classroom and you are likely to see small groups of students working together. Group learning has become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during most of the last century. This pedagogical shift makes perfect sense. Classrooms are more diverse than ever, and group-oriented instruction provides a means for addressing both learning and cultural differences while maintaining focus on the curriculum. Despite this prevalence, there is confusion around what constitutes effective group instruction.

In general, group-oriented instruction is divided into two categories – cooperative learning and collaborative learning. A cooperative lesson is designed such that group members work toward a shared learning goal (positive interdependence) while being held accountable for their own learning through individual assessments or comprehension checks (individual accountability). Furthermore, cooperative groups receive explicit instruction in how to effectively work together (group processing skills). Collaborative learning, on the other hand, lacks these elements. A collaborative lesson may simply have students work together with thought to neither the goal structure nor mechanisms for individual accountability. Unfortunately, most group-oriented instruction is collaborative, not cooperative.  Without these critical elements, group-oriented instruction is often ineffective, plagued by intra-group competition and unequal distribution of labor (and learning!)

A number of well-developed instructional methods such as Learning Together, Jigsaw, and Student Teams-Achievement Division meet the level of cooperative learning; for an overview of the basic concepts involved, see this site. Whether you use one of these techniques or design your own, learning to recognize the difference between cooperative and collaborative instruction can make all the difference.

Charles Igel is a Researcher within McREL’s Research and Evaluation department.

Celebrating “lightbulb moments”

Excerpted from “A Second Chance at Success” in Northwest Education magazine, by Bracken Reed

On any given day in one of Debbie Watkins’s seventh-grade math classes you might find a student standing under a giant lightbulb, calling a parent, family member, or guardian on an old white telephone attached to the wall. Occasionally, the entire class will turn to watch the student make the call. Other times they barely notice, it’s become so commonplace.

It may sound like a punishment, but it’s actually a unique reward. A student gets to turn the light bulb on when they’ve finally demonstrated mastery of a difficult concept, typically one that has been causing them grief for several weeks. Then they get to call an adult of their choosing to share the good news.

These lightbulb moments and celebratory phone calls are indicative of several things at the grade 6–8 Vallivue Middle School, just outside Caldwell, Idaho.

Community involvement

To build community involvement and root learning in the real world, Golden Independent School in Golden, Colo., works with the local Chamber of Commerce to connect local businesses, organizations, and universities with students. When the school needed binoculars for their students, Pentax donated them in exchange for the positive publicity they received for helping the school. Likewise, the school benefits the community as a whole by offering classes, entertainment, and group activities to more than just their enrolled students. Sounds like everyone wins when everyone shares.

Wanted: Everyday innovations

CS_fall2008In our fall 2008 issue of Changing Schools, we wrote that “Everyday, educators across the country are finding new ways to improve student learning. Too often, though, their innovative ideas and approaches to teaching and learning remain isolated. As a result, as an enterprise, education fails to build on these everyday innovations.”

Knowing that educators across the country are continually finding new ways to improve student learning, we asked educators to share their “everday innovations” with us and others. As a result, we received—and continue to receive—several examples of ways that educators, are everyday, doing what they do a little better.

We’ve decided to post the innovations we collected into this section of our blog and encourage you to use this space to submit your “everyday innovations.”

Vocabulary jewelry

Tired of word walls and vocabulary clusters? The leadership team at Bayless Intermediate School in St. Louis, Mo., has come up with a creative way for teachers and students to put vocabulary front and center—by wearing it around their necks and hanging it from their ears. As part of a six-week initiative on research-based vocabulary instructional strategies, students and staff are sporting vocabulary necklaces and earrings, made from construction paper and displaying a word, the student’s own definition, and a drawing that represents the word. Why not?

Starting where students are and building

Global Educational Consultant Kevin Simpson finds that “Starting Where Students Are And Building” (SWSAAB) never fails to bridge the gap between student needs and educator expectations. With ever-increasing pressure to focus exclusively on end results, it’s up to the educator to step back and figure out what it will take for the students to achieve those results. It might be more than a mouthful, but it’s not so hard to swallow.

Appreciative inquiry

Having trouble resolving “sticky” situations? Bowling Green Junior High School in Bowling Green, Ky., uses Appreciative Inquiry—a process of improving an organization by emphasizing what works, rather than focusing on what doesn’t—to develop their school improvement plan. They’ve been rewarded with increased “buy-in” from stakeholders and have resolved many difficult issues. Wouldn’t we all work harder if we were praised for our qualities rather than criticized for our shortcomings?