Category Archives: Research Insights

Are great school leaders born or made?

When 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.

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Differences, not disabilities

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?

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What does it really take to personalize learning?

Emma 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.

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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.

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Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

Half 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.

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Model lesson plans offer a lifeline to new teachers

The 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.

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

We’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.

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Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

One 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.

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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?

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