Category Archives: Leadership Insights

Saying no to fads—in dieting and education reform

Simply Better: What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success offers not a new “fad diet” for education, but rather the education reform equivalent of a “healthy lifestyle”—those things that decades of research says are most likely to have a big effect on student achievement.

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New review of McREL’s The Future of Schooling

Dave Orphal, over at the Learning 2030 blog, offers this nice review of McREL’s latest book, The Future of Schooling.

In his review, Orphal praises the book for its timeliness. He notes, for example, that one of the critical uncertainties identified in the book—whether the outcomes of education will be standardized or differentiated—is currently playing out in the “movement to national common core standards” being countered by critiques from “Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink who argue that standardization is exactly the wrong direction to go.”

Orphal also praises the book for its balanced view on these issues, noting that the authors take “great pains to not reveal where they stand in some of the hottest educational debates raging the country.” He adds, “Neither pro-Rhee nor pro-union; neither pro-testing nor pro-authentic assessment; neither pro-charter nor anti-charter, there is plenty in this book to anger every side of our overly partisan educational reform circles.”

Our intent is not to anger anyone. Rather, it’s to provoke thinking about what the future may hold, to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can begin to prepare themselves for what may lie ahead. As we write in the book, “Some of these potential futures may capitvate and energize you; others may dishearten and frigthen you. Some may do all of the above. That’s the point.”

Read Orphal’s entire review here.

Teacher evaluation wars: How North Carolina gave peace a chance

As a growing number of cash-strapped districts face staffing cuts, district leaders are pondering the potentially negative impact of “first in, first out” rules for layoffs. The concern, of course, as highlighted in a recent study by Dan Goldhaber at the Center for Education Data and Research is that letting teachers go based solely on seniority will likely result in some good teachers losing their jobs while less effective ones remain in the classroom. And as Marguerite Roza at the Center on Reinventing Public Education has determined, laying off teachers at the bottom of the pay scale requires larger job cuts to balance budgets. The impact on students of letting go the newest teachers instead of lowest-performing ones, according to Goldhaber, could be an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per year.

So why don’t districts take teacher performance into account when making difficult reduction-in-force decisions?

One reason is collective bargaining rules—those hundred page documents that dictate all sorts of rules and procedures about hiring and firing teachers. Another is that many districts, even if they could dismiss ineffective teachers, often don’t know who they are.

For starters, as The New Teacher Project has noted, many teachers are not evaluated every year. On top of that, when teachers are evaluated, a sort of “grade inflation” exists with many current teacher performance evaluations. An examination of teacher evaluations in Colorado, found for example, that nearly 100 percent of teachers receive favorable ratings on their performance reviews.

To cut through the confusion, many reformers (as well as the federal Race to the Top program) have called for teacher evaluations to be based on actual student test results. Using just the right combination of data and statistics, the thinking goes, would allow us to create a “quarterback rating” of teachers, so we would let us know which ones are great, which ones need improvement, and which ones should be shown the door.

However, using this approach is fraught with all sorts of design challenges—for example, how do you measure the performance of an art teacher, a guidance counselor, or an eighth grade social studies teacher, when there are often no standardized exams in those subjects? Moreover, in New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, serious concerns have emerged over the accuracy of the student data and whether teachers are even being tied to their own students.

In addition—and this is no small obstacle—calls for tying teacher evaluation to student achievement quickly become mired in contentious debate, with battle lines being drawn between teacher groups, leaders, and reformers.

It doesn’t have to be so difficult, though.

A few years ago, officials in the state of North Carolina took a different approach. From the start, they brought everyone together—teachers, school leaders, academics and researchers. They started with a premise on which everyone could agree: the challenges of the 21st century require everyone to rethink teaching and learning, and, as a result, teachers must develop new skills to prepare all children for the future. In other words, North Carolina did not base its reform efforts on a punitive notion of ridding the state of bad teachers, but rather, on a positive vision that by working together, teachers, administrators, and policymakers could transform education for the state’s children.

Working together, North Carolina defined new, rigorous standards based on research about good teaching. Then they designed an evaluation system that aligned to those standards. The result is a set of “stretch” goals for teachers with clear a roadmap for how to get there. Leaders of the states’ teachers association and school leaders agree that the system, while ambitious, is also reasonable and fair. Read more about the efforts here and here.

The North Carolina experience demonstrates that states and districts are likely to get farther, faster if they base conversations about teacher evaluation on three basic assumptions on which, I think, we can all agree:

  1. Every child deserves a great teacher.
  2. No one becomes a great teacher overnight; it takes practice, clear guidance, and coaching.
  3. And as with any profession, not everyone has what it takes to be a great teacher.

Bottom line: Teacher evaluations should be as much about developing teachers as they are about grading them. If we start from these premises, the North Carolina experience suggest that as John Lennon once sang, we can give peace a chance, and more important, give our teachers the support they need, and our kids the teachers they deserve.

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

The real lesson from NYC small schools

Smaller isn’t better; personalized is better

An MDRC study that came out in June reporting on the impact of New York City’s small schools of choice initiative has recently appeared in the spotlight again, thanks to a September 27 commentary in Education Week from Michelle Cahill of the Carnegie Corporation and Robert Hughes of New Visions, a public education network affiliate in New York City. It was also picked up in this morning’s Public Education Network newsletter.

The title of the Ed Week commentary, “Small Schools, Big Difference,” may raise some eyebrows, though, especially for those who remember the Gates Foundation’s $1 billion misadventure with small schools.

The disappointing results of this effort eventually prompted then-director of the Foundation’s education programs, Tom Vander Ark, to tell Education Week that, “I visited 100 great schools and made the observation that they were all small, autonomous, and assumed that was a path to school improvement. It turns out that giving a failing school autonomy is a bad idea.”

Yes, the small schools in New York City are showing promise—their students (the vast majority of whom are poor and minority) have a 6.8 percent higher graduation rate than a similar group of students in the city’s mostly large, comprehensive high schools.

All of that is good news and worthy of further examination and, probably, replication.

The headline given to Cahill and Hughes’ Ed Week commentary, however, is only partially correct. The authors of the MDRC report actually caution against concluding simply that small schools are better. They write,

Students enrolled in SSCs [small schools of choice] did not just attend schools that were small. SSC enrollees attended schools that were purposefully organized around smaller, personalized units of adults and students, where students had a better chance of being known and noticed, and teachers had a better chance of knowing enough about their charges to provide appropriate academic and socioemotional supports.

In other words, saying that smaller schools lead to higher achievement is sort of like saying wearing sneakers leads to weight loss. What’s more important is what you do in the schools (or your sneakers). (In fairness to Cahill and Hughes, their commentary is more nuanced than the headline given to it).

The real takeaway of the MDRC report is that creating learning environments where students know their teachers and pursue studies that interest them (most of the small schools are designed around career themes) is what has shown promise, not the size of their student population.

Indeed, the same could be said of the Gates’ small schools initiative; as David Marshak, a professor of education at Western Washington University, observed in a February 19, 2010 commentary in Education Week, many of the small schools funded by the Gates Foundation did show gains in student achievement; the key to their success was “a culture of personalized education.”

Incidentally, this finding mirrors a key conclusion of the McREL report, Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, in which we observe that a key principle for curriculum design is to provide students with multiple, intrinsically motivating, pathways to college and career readiness.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

Can we predict the future of education?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra.

Clearly, change is in the air these days in education, whether we’re Waiting for Superman, racing to the top, dotting our three i’s, or wondering how tea party politics may change the face of Washington.

In light of all these changes and uncertainties, the question on many minds is likely, where is it all leading?

The most truthful answer anyone can give to that question is this one: nobody knows for sure.

It’s simply not possible to predict how all of these various trends will come together to shape a new future. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t prepare ourselves for it. The trick is to consider multiple, alternative futures and begin to envision how we—or our districts, schools, or students—might flourish in each.

In a new book from McREL to be released this month by Solution Tree Press, we analyze current and emerging trends in a wide array of areas, including politics, the economy, technology, and society. After analyzing these trends, we offer, not a prediction of the future, but four, very different scenarios for what the future may hold.

The scenarios in the book, titled The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, are designed to provoke readers to ponder many “what if,” questions, including:

  • What if the current, multibillion-dollar federal investment in education succeeds in identifying and scaling up numerous innovations that transform schooling as we know it?
  • What if, on the other hand, investing billions of new dollars fails to create dramatic improvements in education? Will the public continue to support public schools as we know them?
  • What if online learning becomes as commonplace in the schools of tomorrow as chalkboards were in the schools of yesterday?
  • What if technology allows students to proceed at their own pace along individualized pathways, measuring their progress in real time at each step of the way?
  • What if the world’s best teachers are able to broadcast their lessons to thousands of students each day?

The reality is that the world of education is changing rapidly. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world standing still and education in 10 years looking exactly the same as it does today.

The good news is that when confronted with this uncertainty, we don’t have to throw up our hands in hopeless desperation (or stick our heads in the sand). Rather, we can begin preparing today for what tomorrow may bring.

Learn more or purchase a copy of the book on the McREL website here.

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

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.

Should educators let boys be boys?

As the father of three daughters, I sometimes forget how little boys play. My girls spend their free time acting out complex dramas, pretending to be strict teachers (with hearts of gold), exasperated mothers, cousins inheriting mansions from long-lost aunts, insolent children being sent to boarding school—their playtime has all of the dizzying social complexities of a 19th century Russian novel.

Every once in a while, though, when exchanges between neighbor boys playing in their backyards drift in through the open windows of my home, my own youth comes rushing back to me.

“Bang! You’re dead! I shot you.”

“No, you didn’t. You missed me.”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Now I shot you.”

“Nuh uh. You’re out of bullets.”

Many educators are unnerved by this sort of play. They fear that boys who play cops and robbers when they’re young will grow up to be violent and aggressive, exhibiting anti-social, if not, criminal, behavior. To curtail boys’ more aggressive and violent play (read: to make them play more like girls), many schools have banished violent play from classrooms and playgrounds.

Yet, as reported in a recent article in, educators may need to learn to “work with, rather than against” boys’ aggressive tendencies.

The article cites the work McREL Principal Researcher Elena Bodrova, whose research on early childhood education calls out the importance of dramatic play on children’s social and intellectual development. Through sophisticated forms of imaginative play (including games like cops and robbers), children learn to delay gratification (by remaining, for example, in the “role” of policeman even when they want to play a robber), consider the perspective of others (e.g., by playing jailer one day and prisoner the next), and control their impulses.

Letting boys work through their natural aggressive urges can help them learn to set limits on their own behavior—learning to draw a line, for example, between pretend and real violence, like biting, hair pulling, or hitting. In addition, boys’ play, which often involves “bad guys,” may also help them to work on their impulse control, according to Mary Ellin Logue, a researcher at the University of Maine quoted in the article. Boys, says Logue, “are trying really hard to be good, but it’s really hard to be good. These bad guys give them a way to externalize that part of them that they are trying to conquer.”

Read the LiveScience article, “Battling the Boys: Educators Grapple with Violent Play,” here.

Learn more about Bodrova’s work and McREL’s approach to early childhood development here.

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

How to make staff development stick

Educators have probably all grown wary of drive-by staff development—the one- or two-day workshop that momentarily energizes staff, getting everyone excited about doing something new, but then, like a photograph left too long in the sun, fades over time.

So who are we to blame when this happens? Teachers? Is it their fault when guidance from a workshop doesn’t take root in classrooms?

Not so fast, according to McREL staff members Jane Hill and Anne Lundquist in an article that’s now online at the site.

School leaders actually hold the keys to making staff development stick.

Hill and Lundquist lay out several strategies that they have used effectively in the English Language Learner Instructional Leadership Academies they have led in Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, Iowa and other states to turn drive-by workshops into something lasting in schools.

These strategies include identifying, up front, a leadership team, consisting of school administrators, district staff, and teachers, who take responsibility for helping teachers to implement what they learn in staff development sessions in their classrooms.

Leaders also need to recognize that any change worth making is difficult and takes people out of their comfort zones. To loosen folded arms or “this too shall pass attitudes,” leaders must work on getting everyone on the same page (something at McREL we call creating a “purposeful community”) so they see the need for change and believe doing something different will make a difference. They also need to take steps to overcome the anxiety and pushback that comes with any difficult, meaningful change (which we call “second order” change).

Hill and Lundquist’s article offers practical steps for how leadership teams can accomplish both of these objectives. While their article focuses on staff development related to improving the achievement of English language learners, their practical tips and advice for making professional development stick translates well to all kinds of teacher learning.

Read the entire article online.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

A more measured approach to measuring school performance

In an op-ed piece appearing in the August 25 issue of Education Week, Douglas Reeves, chairman of The Leadership and Learning Center, and McREL President and CEO Tim Waters liken current education accountability efforts to judging a person’s health based solely on weight.

“For almost a decade, the complex enterprise of education has been reduced to box scores,” they write. “Good schools have high scores, bad schools have low scores.”

Had Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight obesity taken a similarly superficial approach, she might have just called for an annual weigh-in of every child, shaming and blaming those who tipped the scales to unacceptable levels. That would certainly cause kids to shed a few pounds—but also create a new generation of eating disorders and diet pill abusers. Fortunately, the first lady called for a more thoughtful path, calling for Americans to help their children to eat healthier food, exercise more regularly, and monitor their health more frequently.

Yet in education, we continue to operate under a “testing=learning” formula, which Reeves and Waters note, “is as superficial as the formula that ‘health=weight.’”

“If we want to avoid the educational equivalent of anorexia and pill-popping—teaching focused only on test content and test-taking strategy—then the accountability equation must include causes, not merely effects,” they write. “The accountability equation should be ‘learning=teaching+leadership.’ And an effective accountability system would measure all three elements of that equation.”

With Congress set to take up the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the key piece of federal education funding legislation) this year or next, education accountability appears to be at a crossroads, write Reeves and Waters. We have the opportunity to either move forward with more thoughtful and sophisticated systems of monitoring progress or cling to outdated, simplistic, and harmful approaches.

Read the entire article— which offers several considerations for policymakers—here (Ed Week subscription required).

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s vice president of communications and marketing.

Lest we forget the administrators!

It was recently reported in a November 3rd, 2009 ASCD Blog that presenter Ann Nkiruka Ifekwunigwe  posed the question at her ASCD Fall Conference session, “Preparing Successful Teacher Leaders: What Have We Learned?” Following that question she shared her research about why leadership is such an important concern.

Ifekwunigwe pointed out:

  • Many teachers who continue teaching beyond their fifth year fall into traditional routines and experience a reduced interest in teaching (Huberman, 1989).
  • Successful teachers may leave teaching because they become dissatisfied with the established career path, one that provides little opportunity for advancement unless one moves into school administration (Towery, Salim, & Hom, 2009).
  • When teachers pursue leadership roles that provide greater influence in curriculum and instruction, they may not feel the need to become an administrator to grow professionally (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2007).

Throughout this ASCD session, educators were provided the opportunity to share their perspectives on teacher and administrative leadership. The overwhelming majority voiced their opinion that it is essential that we provide teachers with far more opportunities than those which presently exist. This statement was fueled by the participants’ perception that today’s administrators are “overwhelmed and can’t do it all.”

Coupled with those premises, we are faced with the sobering fact there is an even greater urgency which exists within this realm. We have reached a crucial “tipping point” in education, where there is a need for not only additional administrators….but for quality administrators who are prepared to meet the increased challenges of shrinking budgets, coupled with the intense pressure to increase student achievement.

Our preparatory programs need to do a far better job in designing and implementing curriculums that meet the ‘real” needs of these future leaders. Our professional development programs must continue to reach out and provide the necessary tools to give those committed individuals a fighting chance to achieve success.

There is just no more time to waste in this regard. The clock is ticking and it’s nearly midnight.