Category Archives: Research Insights

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.

Catch a glimpse of real 21st century skills

Last week, I caught a glimpse of the future and realized that, like my own parents, I’ll probably have no idea what my kids actually do at work when they grow up.

This glimpse came courtesy of a Minnesota Public Radio story, which covered McREL’s NSF-supported “nanoteach” initiative to bring instruction in nanotechnology to high school classrooms nationwide.

In case you’re not familiar with nanotechnology (I’ve only recently learned about it myself), it’s the science of creating structures and manipulating matter at the molecular level. It promises breakthrough innovations for “everything from improved cancer treatments to more effective sunscreen,” reports MPR’s Dan Gunderson.

If that sounds farfetched or like something out of Star Trek, consider this other tidbit from Gunderson’s story: “the government predicts nanotech will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the next five years.”

The challenge, then, is getting today’s student students prepared for these jobs of the not-so-distant future. Moreover, nanotechnology will likely change our world. That means that students, even those who have no interest in pursuing nanotech careers, should understand both the promise and peril of this rapidly emerging technology.

Read the MPR story.

Visit the Nanoteach Website.

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

Three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners

At some time or another, we’ve all probably all had the frustrating experience of trying to converse with someone in a foreign language. We may catch snippets and phrases here and there, generally getting the gist of what’s being said to us. But when it comes time to open our mouths and speak, we’re tongue tied. Our vocabulary (“I don’t know how to say sprint; I’ll just say run instead”), conjugation (“Let’s see … what’s the third-person plural of correr?”), and dialect fail us (“Shoot. I still can’t roll my r’s.).

At this point, a fear begins to grip us. We worry that our conversation partners may judge by our underdeveloped language skills that our intellect is similarly on par with a toddler.

That judgment would be wrong, of course. Just because we’re not yet conversant in a second language, doesn’t mean we can’t grasp difficult concepts.

Teachers face a similar challenge when they have English language learners in their classrooms. While those students’ language skills may not yet be fully developed, they are still very much capable of grasping complex content. And all learning can’t stop while students acquire their language skills—if it does, students’ will find themselves well behind their peers once their language acquisition catches up to their intellect.

In a new article for, Jane Hill and Cynthia Bjork, authors of training-of-trainer materials that support the book, Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners, identify three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners students to ensure they continue learning content while learning English:

Step 1: Know the stages of second-language acquisition. All learners progress through five stages of language acquisition, write Hill and Bjork: pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency. Knowing where their students are in this continuum helps teachers to plan their assignments accordingly.

Step. 2: Tier student thinking across the stages of second-language acquisition. Hill and Bjork’s article provides a matrix that overlays the levels of thinking from Bloom’s (new) Taxonomy to the stages of language acquisition. They recommend teachers use this matrix to plan homework and class assignments accordingly.

Step 3. Set expectations. In this stage, teachers combine stage one and two, identifying their students’ level of language acquisition and assignment at-home and in-class practice assignments accordingly.

By knowing where students are on this continuum and scaffolding their learning to the next stage of the continuum, teachers can ensure their students are gaining valuable knowledge while at the same time advancing in their language acquisition.

Read the whole article here.

Follow these links to learn more about McREL’s English language learners instructional leadership academies and books.

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

Choice is a matter of degree

Everyone likes choices, right? For years, Burger King has enticed us with offers to “have it your way.” Our cable and satellite services give us hundreds of channels (most of which we never watch). And online retailers, like Vans, now let us custom-design our own shoes.

If choices make us happier customers, shouldn’t we also give kids lots of choices about what they learn … to make them happier and more motivated learners?

Not necessarily. As I discuss in a column in this month’s issue of Educational Leadership, giving students some choices about what to learn (for example, choosing between books or reading passages) can motivate them, but giving too many choices can backfire.

As researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper discovered in an experiment with college students, too many choices actually creates a sort of deer-in-headlights effect for students. Iyengar and Lepper found that when they gave students only six choices of topics on which to write an extra credit essay, they were far more likely to do the assignment (and do it well) than students given the choice of 30 possible topics. It seems the mental strain of choosing the best topic (and perhaps ensuing self-doubt over whether they had chosen correctly) caused the students with too many choices to invest less energy in the assignment or to simply abandon it altogether.

The bottom line appears to be this: choices for students are good, but as with all things, they should be doled out in moderation.

Read the full article to learn more about what the research says on student choice and project-based learning.

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

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.

Suprising insights into rural student mobility

Hollywood movies often paint small town and rural America as idyllic, tight-knit communities where few people move in or out, and a new face in town—like Kevin Bacon’s surly mug in the film Footloose—is enough to really get folks talking. If your impressions of rural life are based on 80s movie musicals, though, it’s probably time to update those perceptions.

A new study conducted by Andrea Beesley for the REL Central—the federally funded education laboratory that McREL administers for the federal Institute of Education Sciences—has found that rural areas are actually places of high mobility, often higher than suburban or urban areas.

Research shows that, for a variety of reasons, highly mobile students tend to have lower achievement, higher dropout rates and be the subject of more frequent disciplinary action. To make matters worse, rural schools often have smaller staffs and fewer financial resources, making it difficult for them to meet the needs of highly mobile students.

The study, which calculated student mobility percentages by locale (city, suburb, town, and rural) in five states (Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming) found that:

  • Districts with extremely high student mobility were often rural, had higher than average shares of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and were on or near American Indian reservations.
  • In Wyoming, rural locales had higher mobility than town or city locales.
  • In North Dakota, mobility rates were higher in both towns and rural areas than in cities and suburbs.

Download the (free) report here.
Read Education Week reporter Sarah Sparks’ take on the report here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

Could it really be that simple?

Overwhelming and depressing. That’s sometimes how this business of improving schools can feel.

I spend a fair amount of time at education conferences, where I often hang out at the McREL booth in the exhibit hall. In most big shows, the exhibit hall features rows upon rows of vendors selling new gadgets, programs, books—you name it.

I often see educators roaming the aisles of the hall with furrowed brows, their heads already swimming with new ideas they’ve heard in conference sessions now being confronted with a bazaar of new products and programs. Add to that the countless articles, reports, and blogs, and the whole overload of information can be overwhelming, if not distracting.

In a new McREL report that was released today, I wrote that, “like the crackles and whistles that break up the signal of a faraway AM radio station, the preponderance of reports, information, and ideas in the field of education may have the effect of drowning out the big ideas—the key underlying principles of what’s most important when it comes to improving the life success of all students.”

The depressing part of this business is that much of what educators have been trying to do for the past few decades doesn’t appear to have made much of a dent in closing achievement gaps or reducing dropout rates. That may be because, as several researchers have noted, the problem is not that too few programs work, but that too many things work, but only sort of—demonstrating benefits for students no greater than that of average classroom teachers left to their own devices.

With our new report, we take a different approach. Last year, a team of McREL researchers and I spent several months combing through thousands of articles and research studies on education to find practices that demonstrate the largest effects on student achievement.

The report, titled Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, goes beyond merely identifying what works, and instead identifies what matters most—those influences and approaches that stand clearly above the rest. The report distills these influences into five “high-leverage, high-payoff” areas for improving students’ chances for life success:

  1. Guaranteeing challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction
  2. Ensuring curricular pathways to success
  3. Providing whole-child student supports
  4. Creating high-performance school cultures
  5. Developing data-driven, “high-reliability” systems.

Sure, these five areas are not exactly earth shaking. People have been talking about most of them, in one way or another, for decades.

Therein lies not the rub, but the good news. The “solution” for improving every students’ opportunities for life success has not eluded us. It’s been hidden in plain sight. What’s most needed is not some new approach, program, or innovation; rather, it appears to be simply focusing on these key principles for producing student success.

Of course, the simplest things are often the most difficult to do. Getting from here to there will require a relentless focus on effectively doing what stands out from decades of research about how to improve student outcomes.

The report is available free at I invite you to download it, read it, and let us know what you think.

Written by Bryan Goodwin.

Data Snapshot: National differences in ELL NAEP mathematics scores

Most of the commentary following the release of national NAEP scores last week focused on flat performance among the nation’s 4th grade students. Of course, reading past the byline yields more interesting fodder for discussion.

In the case of English Language Learners, NAEP captures national variation in achievement that’s difficult to ignore – and explain. Using NAEP data and published ETS ELL statistics, I pulled together a couple of graphs comparing 4th grade ELL performance among those states with the nation’s largest ELL populations (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas) and those states with the nation’s fastest growing ELL populations (Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee). Among the latter states, rates of ELL population growth between 1994 and 2005 ranged from just over 300 percent (Nebraska) to just shy of 715 percent (South Carolina).





While you might expect both groups to demonstrate relatively similar patterns of achievement over time, NAEP outcomes suggest otherwise. Clearly, this is more than a demographic story: several states with fast-growing ELL populations seem to be doing fairly well (North and South Carolina, Kentucky) in comparison to more heavily populated states that are lagging behind the national leaders (Arizona, California, Illinois, New York). And internal variation within each group? All over the board. Critics have pointed out that NAEP is sensitive to differences in curricula and standards in addition to more controversial policies (namely, distribution of instructional resources and social promotion).  Obviously, graphs are just a starting point, but it’s worth pointing out that an honest NAEP discussion should serve as a starting point for uncomfortable questions about educational equity.

Jane Barker is a Research Associate within McREL’s Research & Evaluation department.

NCLB and Science/Social Studies instruction in high-risk schools

Unsurprisingly, NCLB reauthorization hasn’t garnered much press recently. As this recent Education Week column points out, the stimulus package took the heat off of Congress, leading to speculation that any proposed reauthorization bill won’t gain much traction this year. Legislation aside, the NCLB debate is ongoing. Case in point: the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, recently organized a conference inviting researchers to consider differences in educational outcomes and delivery since the passage of NCLB. Presentations from the conference, co-hosted by the National Center on Performance Incentives, were recently posted here.

Findings presented at the conference touch upon a range of subjects, worthy of at least a few minutes’ perusal (if not a few hours’). Dale Ballou and Jeffrey Springer, both of Vanderbilt, contributed a representative presentation on science and social studies instruction in high-risk schools. Conventional wisdom suggests that schools struggling to meet AYP goals would be tempted to neglect instruction in subjects which do not impact accountability outcomes – social studies, and until recently, science. Using data from South Carolina, which adopted a no-stakes science and social studies test in 2003, and Virginia, which incorporated science and social studies test results in accreditation requirements beginning in 1998, the authors present conclusive evidence to the contrary.

Essentially, post-NCLB science and social studies scores improved at pace with math and reading scores in each state. In Virginia, the scores for these subjects improved at a faster rate in high-risk than in low-risk schools, except among scores designated as ‘advanced’, where the gap widened slightly. While scores improved in South Carolina, the gap remained relatively constant between low- and high-risk schools. The only evidence of trade-off: high-risk South Carolina elementary schools, where the authors found that reading instruction displaced non-core subjects. On average, South Carolina schools studied managed to close this gap by high school, which may suggest that the extra reading instruction paid off. While the authors caution that their results can’t be generalized to all states, their study lends weight to the argument that accountability requirements which reward improvement in math and reading don’t always come at the expense of science and social studies.

Charter school market at a crossroads?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of charter schools in the U.S. is likely to mushroom in the next few years as a result of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warning states that if they’re unfriendly to charter schools, they shouldn’t expect to see much of the $5 billion in federal stimulus for schools. Not surprising, many states are now scrambling to create charter-friendly environments.

Last month, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, released a nationwide study analyzing charter school performance. The report was notable for a number of reasons—starting with its methodology. To control for any possible “cherry picking” (i.e., enrolling easier-to-teach students), the study compared the mathematics performance of students in charter schools with their “virtual twins”—students with similar demographic, socioeconomic, and special needs status—in traditional public schools.

Using this analysis, the study painted a mixed picture.

It found that only about one in six (17%) of the 2,400 charter schools studied were actually successful in helping their students perform better than their “virtual twins” in traditional public schools. About half (46%) offered little or no bump for their students compared with their “twins.” And nearly two-fifths (37%) appeared to have a negative impact on achievement; their students learned at lower rates than their comparable peers in traditional schools.

Whither market forces?

So what happened to the market forces of choice and competition that were supposed to make charter schools better than public schools? It appears that these market mechanisms have blunted in at least two significant ways.

First, according to the Stanford researchers, too few charter school authorizers are shutting down low-performing charter schools. Consider, for example, that in states where multiple agencies are licensed to grant charters, charters turned in their lowest performance—presumably because weaker schools have been able to shop around for more permissive entities under which to operate.

Second, it seems that parents, who were supposed to pull their kids from ineffective schools and create market-based incentives to provide better outcomes, have yet to become informed consumers of schools. Conversely, parents choose charters schools on the basis of more than just the academic performance of their students. Indeed, the Stanford study notes that it is often parents and communities who most strongly resist closing low-performing schools, arguing that shutting down their school “does not serve the best interests of currently enrolled students.”

A fragmented market

At the moment, the charter school market resembles what Harvard professor Michael Porter describes in Competitive Strategy (a common business school primer) as a “fragmented market.” No single provider—or even handful of providers—has achieved significant market share. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Web site, 77.5 percent of charter schools are “free-standing,” not associated with an education or charter management organization, such as Edison or KIPP.

My own quick scan of charter school Web sites (see below) suggests that combined, the top four largest charter and education management organizations operate 320 schools—or just 6.9 percent of the 4,618 charter schools nationwide. Throw in the next six on the list and you find that the top 10 companies still only control 11.4 percent of the market.

Top 10 charter or education management companies*

  1. Edison Schools (97 schools)
  2. KIPP (82 schools)
  3. Imagine Schools (73 schools)
  4. Big Picture Learning (68 schools)
  5. National Heritage Academies (57 schools)
  6. White Hat Management (51 schools)
  7. EdVisions (40 schools)
  8. Aspire (21 schools)
  9. (tie) Green Dot (19 schools), Charter Schools USA (19 schools)

Shakeout coming?

Fragmented markets, like this one, can be ripe for “shakeouts”—with increased competition forcing smaller, less effective companies out of business. After the dust settles, usually just a handful of big players are left (consider, for example, video rental stores, roadside motels, and airlines).

So can federal stimulus dollars infused into the charter school market create more competition and ultimately a “survival-of-the-fittest” shakeout?

Probably not.

Simply incentivizing states to allow more charters is not likely to change the underlying conditions that Porter says creates fragmented markets:

  • Low barriers to entry—The abundance of charter school authorizers, especially those with lax oversight, makes it easy for a variety of providers, regardless of their demonstrated competence, to enter the market.
  • Few economies of scale—For the moment, given that most costs of running a school are tied to salaries and personnel, operating in multiple locations doesn’t offer much advantage in terms of marketing, curriculum development, or teacher training; this could change, however, if parents or authorizers were to demand better demonstrated results (which are typically expensive to document) of charter school operators.
  • Diverse market needs—Because parents often enroll their children in charter schools to serve the unique needs of their child, it could be difficult for any single type of charter school to serve a large population of students.
  • Local regulation—Charter schools are typically authorized by local districts or state granting agencies, each with their own criteria or rules, which may favor local, “mom and pop” providers.

Killing charters with kindness?

A fragmented market is not always a bad thing—it can provide fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. However, as Duncan told a gathering at the annual conference of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools that “The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate schools to exist.”

Ironically, a little more regulation and oversight (anathema in the eyes of some charter proponents) might help to create a more mature market, allowing the effective 17 percent of charter models become the norm, not the exception. By more regulation, I don’t mean red tape restricting hiring policies or the number of hours the schools can operate, but rather, as suggested by the Stanford report, encouraging charter authorizers to raise the bar by more consistently closing ineffective schools (which is, after all, the second half of the charter school “bargain”—less red tape for better results).

States might take that a little further, entering into multi-state compacts that could both raise the barriers to entry by demanding higher results from charter schools, while at the same time, creating a consistent set of criteria for charter applications across multiple that could make it easier for effective charter providers to enter new markets.

To help authorizers make better decisions and parents make more informed choices, better information is needed across the system. The Stanford report recommends, for example, that national metrics be created that would allow for better comparisons of schools and identification of high and low performers. Such metrics could allow parents to more accurately gauge a school’s contribution to their children’s academic success and weigh that value against other less tangible benefits they may perceive their school provides.

While some charter authorizers may have adopted a laissez-faire approach to regulation early on to encourage the growth of the market, the movement may now be at a cross roads. Those who support it may need to decide whether a proliferation of new charter schools is in their best interest, as quantity comes at the expense of quality. More to the point, they should decide whether a continued hands-off approach to regulation is in the best benefit of the charter market or conversely, killing it with kindness.

* I didn’t include Expeditionary Learning or Core Knowledge on this list, both of those organizations offer curriculum to charter schools (35 and 23 schools, respectively by my count), but don’t function as management organizations, actually running the schools. If I’ve missed any CMOs or EMOs, please let me know. I’d be happy to update this chart.

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