Category Archives: Research Insights

In support of classroom observations

There’s been chatter in the educational blogosphere lately about the effectiveness of classroom walkthroughs. Some question the impact that instructional leaders have on student achievement. Some have even questioned whether principals should visit classrooms at all.

However, research shows a clear link between the coaching of teachers and student achievement. There is also a clear indication that walkthroughs are valuable if teachers see them as part of professional development. So what’s the best model for walkthroughs?

McREL’s research on school-level leadership found 21 principal responsibilities, activities, and behaviors that are most strongly connected to staff and student success—15 of which can be addressed by conducting classroom walkthroughs. An informal classroom walkthrough of 3‒5 minutes allows school-level leaders to gather information about teaching styles, instructional strategies, technology use, and other valuable information that can help drive professional development. It also allows leaders to increase their visibility among students and staff and to gauge the temperature of the school climate. Walkthroughs conducted with a purpose and linked to instructional practice do create value for teachers, leaders, and students.

Bringing coaches into the picture

We’ve seen an interesting shift in the typical users of McREL’s Power Walkthrough software and training. When it was developed in 2007, our clients were almost solely principals and assistant principals. But lately, we’ve seen the software being used more and more by teacher leaders, mentors, and instructional coaches. Perhaps this is reflective of principals realizing that allowing staff to observe and learn from one another is an effective way of providing ongoing professional development.

In response to this shift, this summer we’ll launch Power Walkthrough Coach, designed  to help principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches give teachers the valuable feedback and input they need to improve their practice.

If done in the context of research-based leadership practices and instructional development, classroom walkthroughs are a valuable way for principals and school leaders to see instruction happening in their schools, provide personalized professional development and feedback to teachers, and to involve staff in their own professional learning.


2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.



2011_Kerr_WEBAndrew Kerr is a consultant for McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, working with schools, districts, and state and national education agencies on curriculum and instruction, technology planning, staff development, and distance learning programs.

From book to classroom: Applying the 12 Touchstones

This is the first in a series of posts by Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, authors of the new book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Their posts will look at individual touchstones, providing insights, making connections, prompting reflection, and sharing ideas for using the touchstones in the classroom. Elizabeth Ross Hubbell starts things off with a look at the first touchstone.

Touchstone #1: I use standards to guide every learning opportunity.

If you have never seen Brian Crosby’s “Back to the Future” TED Talk, stop now and go watch it. It’s one of my favorite videos for showing how a dedicated teacher with few resources and a class of “at risk” students expertly uses technology, real-world experiences, and outside connections to tap into student excitement. I’m always struck by the emotion and dedication that is evident throughout his high-tech classroom.

Another, perhaps more subtle, message that Brian sends is that he addresses curriculum standards through innovative and creative means. This echoes our first touchstone, using standards to guide every learning opportunity. Embedded in this first chapter is the idea that teachers should use standards as a platform for creativity.

This may at first seem dichotomous. We sometimes hear groans among educators (and parents) who say that following a set of standards in the classroom restricts spontaneity and imagination, and reduces motivation for impromptu student learning. Crosby’s TED Talk video, however, demonstrates how we can follow curricular guidelines while still allowing for creativity and love of learning for students and teachers.

As we state in The 12 Touchstones book, “When everyone gets on the same page about what’s important for students to learn (i.e. standards), teachers can devote their time and energies not to figuring out what material to teach but, instead, to determining how to teach that material in a way that engages and enlightens students and—when possible—accelerates their learning” (p. 14).

As you look through your lesson plans over the next week or month, ask yourself, “What’s a more creative way I could engage students in this content? How can I make them want to learn this material?” We’d love to hear your ideas below.

Elizabeth Ross HubbellElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Great Teaching

Unlocking grit

Although we know a great deal about the factors that contribute to student achievement, we also know that student success isn’t purely reductive: students who have every advantage can still fail, and conversely, students with the odds stacked firmly against them are often capable of prodigious success.

But what is it about some students that leads them to succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges? As we note in our latest Educational Leadership column, it may be as simple as grit. Grit, or resilience, is made up of a combination of factors, including goal-directedness, motivation, self-control, and positive mindset, that come together to create persistence in the face of challenges. Though grit may seem difficult to define (and is less easily influenced than curriculum, instruction, and the school environment), there’s an increasing recognition of its importance. Thankfully, there are things that we can do in the classroom to support the development of grit. Read about them here.

Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, he wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.

6a010536aec25c970b019aff732e08970bKirsten Miller is a lead consultant at McREL and a coauthor of the upcoming Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners, 2nd edition, due out in November.

The answers are in the room

12 Touchstones

Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different:  “The answers are in the room.”

Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.

I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.

Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”

Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of

As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).

In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.

What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?

Goodwin_200x200Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day
, he
wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.


What is the Purpose of Homework?

If you walk into a typical teachers’ workroom and ask the question, “What’s the purpose of homework?” you’ll likely find that most teachers have a definite opinion. But ask them what research says about homework, and you’ll get less definitive answers. What does research really say about homework as a strategy to improve student achievement?

The effects of homework on student achievement are not entirely clear; a number of factors, such as degree of parental involvement and support, homework quality, students’ learning preferences, and structure and monitoring of assignments can affect the influence of homework on achievement (Hong, Milgram, & Rowell, 2004; Minotti, 2005).

One synthesis of research on the relationship between homework time and achievement showed some gains at the middle and high school levels, but less so at the elementary school level (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Others have found that homework can help students strengthen their self-regulation skills such as managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on their performance, and delaying gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman,  2011).

On the flip side, there’s some research highlighting negative aspects of homework, including disruption of family time, stress, conflicts between student and parent, and restricted access to community and leisure time (e.g., Coutts, 2004; Warton, 2001).

So what’s the best approach to take? In Cathy Vatterott’s 2009 book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, she outlines practices she refers to as her “New Paradigm for Homework”:

  • design quality homework tasks;
  • differentiate homework tasks;
  • move from grading to checking;
  • decriminalize the grading of homework;
  • use completion strategies; and
  • establish homework support programs.

If you take Vatterott’s recommended practices along with our research-based recommendations (found in Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed.), you can begin to view homework differently,  as an extension of practice and a chance to deepen understanding of a topic. Consider these tips:

  1. Always ask, “What learning will result from this homework assignment?” The goal of your instruction should be to design homework that results in meaningful learning.
  2. Assign homework to help students deepen their understanding of content, practice skills in order to become faster or more proficient, or learn new content on a surface level.
  3. Check that students are able to perform required skills and tasks independently before asking them to complete homework assignments.
  4. Consider parents and guardians to be your allies when it comes to homework. Understand their constraints, and, when home circumstances present challenges, consider alternative approaches to support students as they complete homework assignments (e.g., before-or after-school programs, additional parent outreach).

Because the research on homework is mixed, teachers should think carefully about what tasks they assign for homework, and what the purpose of that homework truly is. Remember that it’s essential for students to receive feedback on their homework so they know what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do next to improve.
Howard Pitler, Ed.D., is chief program officer at McREL, co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.


Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C, Sc Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 19872003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1-62.

Coutts, P. (2004). Meanings of homework and implications for practice. Theory into Practice 43(3),182–188.

Hong, E., Milgram, R. M., & Rowell, L. L. (2004). Homework motivation and preference: A learner-centered homework approach. Theory into Practice, 43, 197–204.

Minotti, J. L. (2005). Effects of learning-style-based homework prescriptions on the achievement and attitudes of middle school students. NASSP Bulletin, 89, 67–89.

Ramdass, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2011) Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(2), 194-218,354-355.

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Warton, P. M. (2001). The forgotten voices in homework: Views of the students. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 155–165.

Minding the executive: Executive functioning and self-directed learning

6a010536aec25c970b017d3c998f4f970cStop and think about the education you amassed to get to the point you are now—the late nights studying for finals; countless hours preparing for entrance exams; the papers written, edited, and revised to convey just the right message? If you’re a Talking Heads fan you probably hear David Burns asking, “How did I get here?”

Our paths may be unique, but we all share an important ability that got us to this point, an ability perhaps more important to our academic success but equally challenging to teach than the knowledge we have gained along the way—a well-developed set of executive skills.

In the 1960s, Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria began studying the behavior of individuals with frontal lobe injuries, who while functioning normally in many ways, also demonstrated profound social, emotional, or cognitive dysfunctions. For example, a patient asked to raise his arm off a table might be able to do so but become confused if his arm was covered with a sheet because he was not specifically told to remove the sheet before raising his arm. Similarly, a patient’s attention to a task might be easily interrupted by the sound of an object dropped on the floor. Through this work, Luria and his contemporaries uncovered a set of mental skills that serve as a chief executive for other cognitive processes. These meta-cognitive processes, which have come to be known as executive functions or skills, include affective skills, such as empathy, social understanding, and emotional self-regulation, and task-oriented skills, such as planning, memory retrieval, focused or flexible attention, and problem solving.

From Luria’s research, we can draw a clear line between executive skills and learning. So often in education we focus our energies on content and pedagogy, assuming that students naturally develop the skills to become active and self-directed learners. But anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows this assumption rarely holds. There is growing evidence about the importance of executive skills for self-regulated learning, impulsivity control, and resiliency in the face of challenges. Of course, this is science confirming what we already know. Consider how often you may have showed impulsivity control by giving up time with your friends to study for an exam or complete the final draft of a paper. Without well-developed executive skills to monitor and adjust your thoughts and behavior, this would not be possible.

What, if any, activities do you use with students to improve their executive skills? Are there particular executive skills that would benefit your students? Do you think this might vary by age/grade level?

The next entry in this series will dive deeper into one particular executive skill—attention.

For a great primer on executive function in education see the eponymously named Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice by Lynn Meltzer. The link provided can get you through the first chapter but you will have to purchase it for the rest.

Written by Charles Igel, senior researcher at McREL.

Can standards raise the ceiling of student performance?

In my last blog, I noted that a recent Harvard study found mixed results for raising state standards on student performance with one notable exception: low-income and minority eighth-graders in low- performing states appeared to benefit from their states adopting better academic standards.

This would suggest that standards may have raised the floor on student performance, but what about the ceiling? Have more rigorous standards helped to raise the performance of students at the upper end of the spectrum?

At a McREL Network for Innovative Education event, Harvard professor Martin West reported that after he dug deeply into data from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compared student performance in 30 developed nations, he noticed an alarming “other achievement gap” between the top performing American students and top performers in other developed nations.

West analyzed results from the 2005 NAEP exam and the 2006 PISA exam, specifically looking at comparable levels of “advanced” student performance. His work showed that top six percent of U.S. students performed at the same levels as 28 percent of students in Taiwan, 21 percent of students in Finland, 15 percent of students in Canada, and 13 percent of students from Australia.

So why do other nations have larger percentages of students performing at the same level as top students from the United States? Have we set our standards too low? One of the premises behind the Common Core State Standards, in fact, is that we need “fewer, clearer, higher” standards to move us away from the “mile wide inch deep” curriculum that has long plagued American education. In so doing, we can allow our students to develop the deeper levels of understanding and application that are tested on the PISA exam (Read a comparison of PISA vs. NAEP tests).

Therefore, better standards alone may not be sufficient to raise the achievement of all students—at either end of the spectrum. As I’ll explore in my next blog, if all we focus on is better standards, we may overlook a critical missing component in the formula for school—and student—success.

How well are districts, schools, and teachers challenging students at the top of the spectrum to raise the ceiling on performance?

Written by McREL’s Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development

Thank teachers for education research

Research teacher blog

Researchers and educators hear a lot about the importance of experimental research, but experimental studies can seem like expensive efforts just to answer “Did it work?” especially if it the answer is “no.” Fortunately, because of the teachers who participated in one experimental study, we didn’t have to stop at no. We were able to go on and ask “why didn’t it work?” and “what can we study now?”

In 2006–2011, we evaluated a textbook-based professional development program in classroom assessment. The study featured an instrument designed to measure teachers’ classroom assessment practices by systematically collecting and rating samples of student work. Teachers sent in four examples of anonymous, assessed student work that included their feedback and a cover sheet that asked them to describe the assignment and how it was assessed. While teachers in the treatment group increased their assessment knowledge and their use of student-involved assessment, student mathematics scores did not increase relative to the control group. Therefore, the answer to “Did it work?” was “mostly no.”

However, during the study, we heard spontaneous feedback from participating teachers that they wanted to see others’ work samples. Some teachers mentioned that the assessment textbook presented few examples from mathematics, so although they felt they could apply the formative assessment techniques to language arts and social studies, it was more difficult with mathematics. They commented that peer review of mathematics assessments could be more effective and could sustain greater interest over time than studying a textbook. This feedback got us thinking about the next step—developing a new professional development program in formative assessment for middle school mathematics called AWSM (Assessment Work Sample Method). It is job-embedded, mathematics-specific, and features supportive peer review of authentic work samples. We’re just getting started with a pilot school now and are excited to see how the program develops.

We are always grateful to teachers who participate in our studies. Taking extra time to participate in data collection for research is only one of many ways that teachers demonstrate their commitment to the education profession. Researchers would know very little about education without the teachers everywhere who graciously allow us into their classrooms or fill out surveys and participate in  interviews. They also help us figure out what’s next when we’re searching for answers after an study.

If you’re a teacher or school administrator, have you participated in a research study? What was your experience with it? What makes you decide to participate?

Written by Andrea Beesley, McREL senior director in research & evaluation.  

What about science?

Science blogSo often we hear parents talk about their children digging in the dirt, chasing butterflies during baseball games, and climbing trees. Or that their children are experimenting in the kitchen by mixing salt, water, and corn syrup…just to see what happens. Children are natural scientists, enthusiastic and motivated to discover more about the world around them.

Research suggests that the majority of adult scientists developed their interest in the field prior to middle school (Maltese & Tai, 2010) suggesting that early exposure to science at the middle and younger grades is important to attract students into science and engineering (Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2007). Yet many children do not receive adequate science instruction in the early grades. At a time when educators could turn children’s curiosity into a lifelong passion for science, instruction is often narrowly focused on mathematics and reading.

In 2009, only one-third of U.S. fourth graders scored proficient or above in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Inadequate exposure to science content among students, low levels of student motivation toward science, and poor teacher preparation and self-efficacy in science may lead to this marginal science achievement. Students who do not learn science during the elementary years are likely to have poor science understanding through adulthood.

While we recognize the need for scientifically literate citizens, the time and demand for good elementary science teaching often does not get the same attention as mathematics and literacy. We might not realize that both mathematics and literacy are integral to learning science and can therefore be naturally woven into a science lesson. For example, a student who digs in the dirt might be asked to examine how many different species of life can be found in a 2 meter square area. With that science content, the student can create a graph, write about the results, or read about the insects found.

Why don’t we capitalize on this opportunity to provide exciting and meaningful science experiences for our young children?  What challenges or barriers do you face in teaching science?

Written by McREL lead consultant, Cynthia Long, and senior director, Sheila Arens.



Maltese, A. V. Tai, R. H. (2010). Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5) 669-685.

Tai, R. T., Liu, C. Q., Maltese, A. V., Fan, X. T. (2006, May 26). Planning early for careers in science. Science, 312 (5777), 1143-1144. (NOTE: I think Cyndi inadvertently indicated this was 2007 in the blog; it should be 2006).