Category Archives: Research Insights

Are great school leaders born or made?

leadershipWhen we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

Goodwin and Hein note that the results of the second study were correlational and not causal, and that perhaps low performance prompted the principals in those schools to focus on instructional leadership, rather than the other way around. How effective a leader is, it seems, depends largely on the situation. For example, Fiedler (1997) found that, in high-stress situations, experienced leaders were more effective, but in low-stress situations, those same leaders tended to rely on their experience and how they’ve always done things, which led to performance plateaus.

One final piece to consider, say the authors, is the role of coaching. Studies clearly show that principals who are coached by more experienced administrators become more reflective and proactive and perform better. In the end, Goodwin and Hein conclude, effective leadership—regardless of context—appears to require a balance of nature, nurture, and guidance.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Differences, not disabilities

learning differences

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

Perhaps it’s that the research has yet to catch up with an idea that, at its core, makes common sense. Learning styles have been hard for researchers to pin down: More than 70 different frameworks exist, much of the data relies on unreliable self-reporting, and the styles themselves appear to be changeable (i.e., people can have multiple styles and switch among them). However, say Goodwin and Hein, a new generation of neuroscience studies are using brain scans and eye tracking to support different learning preferences.

The key takeaway for educators, the authors conclude, is to reflect on their approach to instruction planning. Do you plan based on how you prefer to learn, or on how your students prefer to learn? Do you consider the preferences of some of your students or all of them? Getting inside your students’ heads is, ultimately, what learning styles—and effective teaching—is all about.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

What does it really take to personalize learning?

personalized learningEmma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

But, Goodwin says, there’s a flip side: Rigorous research is limited and, in some cases, studies showed no effects or even negative effects of personalized learning on achievement—possibly the result of uneven implementation. For personalized learning to succeed, Goodwin cautions, a number of shifts must occur:

  • Teachers need to re-imagine themselves less as information providers and more as learning coaches
  • Curriculum must be rewritten as competencies or pathways that students can master at their own pace
  • Schools must embrace a “fail forward” mentality, allowing students to try and fail and try again

Only then can personalized learning help all students learn not only what they need to learn but also what they most want to learn—like whether horses can read (which, it turns out, they can).

Read the entire column.

Teaching our students to think critically in the era of fake news

Critical thinking has always been key to academic and career success. But in the information age, it’s more important than ever, as students struggle to keep up with and process the copious amounts of information coming at them constantly.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin looks at what critical thinking really is and how it can best be taught. Its complexity—a mixture of dispositions and skills including valuing inquisitiveness and other points of view, using logical reasoning to support arguments, and examining our own beliefs and changing them based on new data—may explain why schools, and even colleges, often do little to develop it.

However, Goodwin says, research shows it can be learned, using two key approaches. First, critical thinking skills should be taught directly. Marin and Halpern (2011) showed that students in low-performing high schools who received explicit instruction in such skills (how to develop arguments, parse correlation from causation, identify stereotypes and mental models, and predict long-term consequences of decisions) demonstrated significant gains in critical thinking, while students who took a course in which critical thinking skills were embedded but not taught directly showed no gains. Second, critical thinking should be explicit but not taught in a vacuum. Abrami et al. (2015) found three elements needed to be in place: classroom dialogue and discussion; complex problem solving; and mentoring.

Goodwin concludes that perhaps the best approach, then, is to help students develop critical thinking skills through explicit instruction that is interwoven into course content, not as a standalone endeavor. This approach, combined with simple strategies such as asking students to support every answer they give with the word because, may be the best deterrent to fake news we can offer.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

iStock_000012787465_SmallHalf a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

The good news for educators, Goodwin says, is that they can help externals develop new beliefs about themselves by providing small opportunities to set and achieve goals, which allow them to see the connection between effort and results—and doing so in a safe, secure, predictable learning environment.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Model lesson plans offer a lifeline to new teachers

Portrait of a happy young teacher with her students in the backgroundThe learning curve for first-year teachers is notoriously steep: Not only are they having to keep up with the content they’re teaching, but they’re also figuring out how to deliver it well, assess it right, manage the classroom and their students’ behavior, and design effective lesson plans. Striking just one of these things from their list, research shows, can go a long way toward supporting and retaining novice teachers.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL’s president and CEO Bryan Goodwin shows how providing well-designed lesson plans is a simple yet powerful way to improve teacher performance—among both new and struggling teachers.

A 2016 study of middle school math teachers, for example, found that when one group was given model lesson plans along with webinars and opportunities to network with other teachers and the plans’ developers, their students showed higher achievement—a 0.08 effect size, or the equivalent of moving students from a classroom with an average teacher to one at the 80th percentile of quality. Moreover, these effects were doubly beneficial for weaker teachers.

Goodwin notes that, while teachers shouldn’t be spoon-fed lesson plans, providing them during crucial times in teachers’ development can allow them to get their footing and feel more successful, and perhaps keep more of them in the classroom instead of fleeing the profession.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Today’s “high tech” students need “high touch” learning environments

texting during classWe’ve all seen it: A group of teenagers sitting together, perhaps at a restaurant or the mall, but all of them glued to their phones, barely interacting with the friends right next to them. As common as this sight has become, it still gives us pause. What, you may wonder, is this doing to our kids?

In September’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin takes a look at the effects of our “plugged in” culture on students and their teachers. One clear effect, he finds, is how students relate to others: One analysis of more than 70 student surveys, for example, found that empathy among college students is at its lowest level since 1979—a whopping 40 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, researchers and educators alike have noted a loss in the ability of students to have deep, empathic conversations. In an article for The Atlantic, one such teacher in Kentucky described how, in a classroom interview activity, most of his high school students were unable to move beyond the scripted questions and engage in more spontaneous, authentic dialogue. His solution? He asked his students to record their conversations on their smartphones, watch them later, and self-assess their conversation skills.

Teachers need to keep in mind, too, the importance of modeling empathy. Goodwin notes a recent Stanford study, in which middle school math teachers who engaged in an exercise on the importance of empathy cut in half the percentage of student suspensions over the school year (from 9.6% to 4.8%).

Today more than ever, teachers need to show and model empathy and provide opportunities for students to make real human connections, Goodwin concludes. While we can’t expect kids to give up their phones altogether, we can help them balance their “high tech” lives with “high touch” learning environments.

You can read Bryan’s entire Research Matters column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

School leadership in a meetingOne of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

Fallacy #1: Believing that when people know what to do they will do it. There’s difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how to do it. Without a step-by-step plan, modeling, guidance, and good descriptive feedback, very few people will take what they have learned and be able to apply it with accuracy, intentionality, and precision in a sustained manner.

Fallacy #2: Believing that fear, facts, and force will overcome people’s resistance to carry an initiative to full implementation. People around the world have known for decades that smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and a sedentary life greatly reduces one’s longevity. Yet only one person in 10 makes the lifestyle changes necessary for living longer and maintaining a high level of health. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink offers a more promising approach: Elaborate on the purpose of implementing the initiative, provide defined autonomy during the process, and assist those implementing until they reach mastery.

Fallacy #3: Believing that doing more will make us better and better. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven to be true. When schools and districts add more work within the school day, the result is that levels of productivity, trust, enthusiasm, and engagement decline. A school-based improvement plan that is built on an overwhelming list of initiatives and their associated activities—and allows little time to implement any one item—is ripe for failure. Taking time to create and maintain a single focus unburdens staff and opens doors for making the initiative “stick” for longer than one academic year.

Fallacy #4: Believing that paying attention to the “what” will bring rapid results without harming the culture. When attention strays from nurturing the culture, everyone suffers. Culture can be described as the personality of an organization, providing the “secret sauce” that keeps an organization healthy and robust. The research base from McREL’s Balanced Leadership® program emphasizes four important leadership responsibilities that require attention when a change, such as implementing an initiative, occurs: communication, input, order, and culture.

Once we accept that these beliefs are false, what else can we do differently to make sure our initiatives are implemented well, and for a sustained period? Here are four important tips:

4 TIPS FOR IMPROVEMENT INITIATIVES-01Over-communicate. During the implementation process, stakeholders need to receive ongoing messages in person, through e-mails, at meetings, and by other formal and informal means.

Ask for input. Allow staff at the school or district level to share their good thinking. Take time to establish a clear message that delineates input from decision-making. Be clear about which person or persons will make the final decision.

Establish order. Providing and maintaining a predictable environment adds stability to the organization, allowing for risk-taking within a safe zone.

Create and preserve a positive culture. Pay close attention to the people and needs within the organization.

Implementation is not an event, but instead is a systems improvement process requiring a well-developed plan that offers assistance along the way, not just a set of marching orders.

Any initiative worth the investment of time and money deserves to cross the finish line.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former teacher and central office administrator, Dr. Stone works with K–12 teachers and administrators on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

Do teacher evaluations really help teachers improve?

In recent years, annual performance reviews for teachers have become ubiquitous. Between 2009 and 2012 alone, the number of states requiring them jumped from 14 to 43. But do teacher evaluations make a difference in how teachers teach? Do they really help teachers improve?

Read More