Category Archives: School Improvement

Differences, not disabilities

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

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What does it really take to personalize learning?

Emma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

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Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?

Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.

How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.

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Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

Half a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

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Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

One of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

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Do teacher evaluations really help teachers improve?

In recent years, annual performance reviews for teachers have become ubiquitous. Between 2009 and 2012 alone, the number of states requiring them jumped from 14 to 43. But do teacher evaluations make a difference in how teachers teach? Do they really help teachers improve?

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Unrealistic expectations for ELLs reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking”

Despite years of trying various approaches to reduce the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their non-ELL peers, the gap has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s. Why? Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine this question—and what can be done about it—in the February Research Says column for Educational Leadership magazine.

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