Category Archives: Research Insights

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).

Do standards actually work?

Do standards work blog
Raise the bar and raise performance. For 20 years, that principle has guided school reform efforts in the United States and abroad. Since the early 90s, every U.S. state has developed systems standards, student testing on those standards, and accountability for results on those tests. More recently, 46 states have signed on to Common Core standards, which promise to raise the bar even higher.

A new report from Harvard University, however, may cast some doubt on whether tougher state standards actually raise student performance.

The study analyzed third-party ratings for state standards—and in particular, changes in those ratings—with changes in statewide student achievement data from 1994–2011.

One problem with this kind of analysis is that the two organizations that rate standards (Fordham Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers) don’t agree on much, including how they rate state standards. For example, AFT’s ratings appear to suggest that nationwide, mathematics standards rose in quality in the 90s, peaked around 2001, and then declined. Fordham’s ratings, on the other hand, suggest that mathematics standards nationwide flat-lined until about 2006, when they sharply improved.

Nonetheless, Harvard researchers found that irrespective of the ratings systems they used, no correlation existed between changes in ratings and student performance—even when allowing a three-year lag for better standards to translate into better learning.

The researchers offered two conclusions for the generally weak link between standards and achievement. First, it’s possible the ratings themselves are not terribly accurate measures of the quality or rigor of standards (after all, the two organizations can’t seem to agree on what good standards look like).

A second explanation, though, is that more rigorous standards don’t necessarily “translate into the pedagogical changes necessary to influence student achievement” (p. 7). In other words, simply because states adopt new standards, curriculum and textbooks don’t necessarily change, nor do teaching techniques.

One important bright spot did emerge in the analysis, though. When low-scoring states improved their standards, low-income, minority eighth graders in those states demonstrated higher levels of performance. So perhaps the better standards served as something of a “shock treatment,” raising if not the ceiling, at least the floor on student performance. That is, of course, a laudable outcome.

Yet it remains an open question whether standards have raised the performance of all students across the board, including top performers. As I’ll explore in my next blog, when we dig deeper into international comparisons of student performance data, an alarming picture emerges of how well America’s top-performing students stack up to their counterparts abroad.

How effective have standards been at raising expectations and student outcomes in your district, school, or classroom?

Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing and New Business Development

Early childhood obesity: What can educators do?

Obesity is the health epidemic of our time, and it seems that everyone—from the mayor of New York to the Walt Disney Company—is trying to do something about it. While trying to change the unhealthy habits of adults is often viewed as an infringement on personal freedom, there isn’t much argument against doing so for young children. When Disney decided it would no longer allow junk food advertising during its programming aimed at preschoolers, it was lauded by none other than First Lady Michelle Obama.

But it takes more than advertising to prevent obesity—and healthy habits include not only eating and drinking but also physical activity. Children ages 2‒5, according to guidelines put forth by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in 2002, should be getting a minimum of two hours of exercise a day, including 60 minutes of structured physical activity and 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. But the reality is that most of children’s time at preschool is not active, due to the school’s lack of space, equipment, time, or staff members with the right training.

Let Me Play is a comprehensive program implemented in Head Start classrooms across the country that offers training to teachers and provides them with developmentally appropriate activities that can be easily incorporated into existing curriculum. An evaluation of the program conducted by McREL found that it improved teachers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward physical education and health content and increased the levels of activity, skill, and motivation in children.

Preschools that want to incorporate developmentally appropriate physical activity in their curriculum should find ways for teachers to collaborate on ideas for activities and make sure they’re comfortable with implementation. Also, programs can monitor implementation using tools like the Physical Education Rating Scale (available for download from Amazon).

Do you think physical activity should be required in preschool? What else can schools do to encourage healthy habits?

Written by Heather Hein, writer and editor, and Sheila Arens, senior director, at McREL.

What I wish I had known about student motivation

Years later, while digging into research on student motivation, I realized what I had gotten wrong. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that telling students they are smart actually lowers their motivation and achievement. In an experiment, Dweck and her colleagues treated two groups of students quite differently.

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Teachers still want “apples”

When teachers enter the field, they have high expectations of making a difference. Too often, however, they quickly realize that they don’t have the professional support, feedback, resources, or modeling of what it takes to help their students succeed.

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The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries

According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society.

So why don’t we pay teachers more?

One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent.

Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power.

It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student enrollment growth (21 percent). As a result, teacher-student ratios fell from 18.7 to 15.7. However, had they remained constant and funding increases had been funneled into teacher salaries, the average teacher would now make $78,574, instead of $52,578.

Class-size reduction initiatives have been one of the driving forces in creating our uniquely American teaching corps of low-salaried classroom teachers teaching smaller classes amid a supporting cast of higher-paid specialists. Yet as John Hattie notes in Visible Learning, reducing class sizes—from say, 25 to 15 students—still has only a small effect on student achievement. And even that small benefit assumes that teacher quality remains constant as districts scramble to fill vacancies for teachers.

Certainly, smaller classes make managing behavior and grading papers less burdensome for teachers. But when given the choice between having a few more students and making a few thousand dollars more per year, most rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the larger classes and paychecks. As Marquerite Roza, a researcher at the University of Washington, reports in her book Educational Economics, a study in Washington State asked teachers if they preferred a $5,000 raise, class size reduction, a teacher’s aide, or increased preparation time (four investments of roughly equal value). Fully 83 percent of teachers said they preferred a raise over class-size reduction, 88 percent preferred a raise to a teacher’s aide, and 69 percent preferred the raise to increased preparation time.

While no one goes into teaching to get rich, it’s clear that great teachers are worth a great deal more than most are currently paid. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our approach to smaller classes (and smaller teacher salaries) so that we can find and reward great teachers with salaries that reflect their real benefit to students and society.

Easy antidote to grade inflation?

As I wrote recently in Educational Leadership, grade inflation appears to be a real phenomenon with costly consequences for students. From 1992–2006, the percentage of American high school students who reported earning an A or A-minus average nearly doubled (from 18.3%–32.8%). An analysis of student work in Oregon concluded that most high school students receiving Bs (and many receiving As) are not doing work on par with college expectations for entry-level students. Perhaps as a result, more than 30 percent of freshmen drop out of college each year, costing taxpayers in excess of $1 billion per year in wasted grants and state appropriations to colleges.

Is there any way to stop grade inflation? One solution, some offer, is to open up the “black box” of teacher grades, which can be as carefully guarded as secret recipes, making it difficult to determine what actually goes into a student grade. As a result, one teachers’ A can be another’s C grade.

More than 20 years ago, in Spain’s Basque Country, a small high school stumbled onto what appears to be a simple antidote to grade inflation. In 1990, a small school in the Gipuzkoa province purchased new software that began automatically placing on report cards, with little apparent forethought from school officials, information about where students stood relative to the average grade in their class. Immediately, student grades shot up 5 percent (an increase, according to researchers who later analyzed the school’s data, on par with lowering class sizes from 22 to 15). Presumably, as students and their parents began to understand that a grade of say, an 85, wasn’t all that special compared to other students in the class, they began to work harder. And as a whole, the entire school began to perform better on Spain’s national exam.

Incidentally, this sort of value-neutral information about students’ relative performance is exactly the kind of feedback that motivation researcher Edward Deci has noted strikes the perfect balance between providing information to guide performance while not diminishing motivation by coming across as coercing, such as saying to a student, “You should work harder in my class.” Reporting how students are doing relative to their peers seems to be a simple way to open up the black box of grades while inspiring students to work harder. It encourages a student to think, “If the average grade in my class is 85, surely I can do at least that well … if not better.”

For the school in Spain, though, there was one problem.

After just one year, parents and teachers complained that the information was creating too much competition among students. Average class grades were removed from report cards and student performance swiftly sank back to prior levels.

What do you think? Should revealing where students stand relative to their peers be encouraged … or shunned?


Killing with kindness?

For as long as letter grades have been around, so too, have fears of grade inflation. As far back as the 1890s, Harvard University professors were wringing their hands about students earning “sham” grades that would “seriously cheapen” the university’s reputation if the outside world were to learn of them.

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