Category Archives: Research Insights

How do you teach science to students with visual impairments?

Imagine a big ball of rock and ice hurtling through space that grows a tail as it approaches the sun. Can you picture that?

Well, maybe not. You might wonder, what kind of tail? Is it long like a monkey’s, curled like a pig’s, or bobbed like a poodle’s?

Well, none of those, I might tell you. It’s more like a jet condensation trail, only a little wider and not as long—relatively speaking, that is.

But what if you’d never actually seen a con trail—or a monkey or poodle tail for that matter. We could go on like this forever, playing a sort of 20 questions game, each of us becoming more exasperated.

Obviously, if I could just show you the image of a comet, you would quickly understand what I’m describing. That’s the challenge science teachers face, though, when trying to help students with visual impairments grasp difficult science concepts: They can’t rely on simple images from textbooks. They must help students use manipulative and tactile tools to “see” what they’re learning.

For the past three years, McREL has been working with Edinboro University, Tactile Learning Adventures, and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind to develop an intervention to help teachers create tactile graphics and written descriptions for visually impaired students.

The project, titled ACE (for Adapted Curriculum Enhancements) and funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, has created and studied the effectiveness of materials and lessons designed to help grades 6–12 mainstream teachers adapt lessons for students with visual impairments.

So how do you help a student with visual impairments visualize a comet? Here’s a hint: it involves a Styrofoam ball, some ribbons, and a hair dryer.

View this lesson and download other free lessons and materials from the ACE website at

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

Can we predict the future of education?

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra.

Clearly, change is in the air these days in education, whether we’re Waiting for Superman, racing to the top, dotting our three i’s, or wondering how tea party politics may change the face of Washington.

In light of all these changes and uncertainties, the question on many minds is likely, where is it all leading?

The most truthful answer anyone can give to that question is this one: nobody knows for sure.

It’s simply not possible to predict how all of these various trends will come together to shape a new future. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t prepare ourselves for it. The trick is to consider multiple, alternative futures and begin to envision how we—or our districts, schools, or students—might flourish in each.

In a new book from McREL to be released this month by Solution Tree Press, we analyze current and emerging trends in a wide array of areas, including politics, the economy, technology, and society. After analyzing these trends, we offer, not a prediction of the future, but four, very different scenarios for what the future may hold.

The scenarios in the book, titled The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020, are designed to provoke readers to ponder many “what if,” questions, including:

  • What if the current, multibillion-dollar federal investment in education succeeds in identifying and scaling up numerous innovations that transform schooling as we know it?
  • What if, on the other hand, investing billions of new dollars fails to create dramatic improvements in education? Will the public continue to support public schools as we know them?
  • What if online learning becomes as commonplace in the schools of tomorrow as chalkboards were in the schools of yesterday?
  • What if technology allows students to proceed at their own pace along individualized pathways, measuring their progress in real time at each step of the way?
  • What if the world’s best teachers are able to broadcast their lessons to thousands of students each day?

The reality is that the world of education is changing rapidly. While we don’t know exactly what lies ahead, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world standing still and education in 10 years looking exactly the same as it does today.

The good news is that when confronted with this uncertainty, we don’t have to throw up our hands in hopeless desperation (or stick our heads in the sand). Rather, we can begin preparing today for what tomorrow may bring.

Learn more or purchase a copy of the book on the McREL website here.

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

Summit School District finds “secret” to narrowing achievement gaps

In the popular mind, Summit County, Colorado, in the heart of Colorado ski country, might seem worlds apart from the usual challenges many other school districts face—a place where perhaps privileged, ski sweater-clad youngsters gather ’round roaring fireplaces to sing John Denver songs.

The reality, however, is until recently, Summit School District had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state—with the English language learning children of the county’s influx of immigrant workers achieving at much lower rates than its nonminority students.

Over the past two years, McREL has worked extensively with teachers and administrators in the district to help them narrow their achievement gaps while increasing overall student performance.

So what’s the secret to these initial successes? A bold new program? A whiz bang technology? A new silver bullet?


The “secret” has simply been to focus on delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom.

Teachers across the distict have been working hard to adapt the effective instructional practices they already know to the needs of English language learners. In keeping with some of the key ideas of McREL’s Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most report, they’ve been adopting “growth mindsets” for students, delivering challenging instruction, and providing students with the support they need to meet high expectations.

In the words of Superintendent Millie Hamner, the district has been simply “focusing on keeping best instructional practices and student learning first on our minds, in our agendas, and in our hearts.”

Read the entire Summit School District story here.

Download the free Changing the Odds report here.

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

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.