Category Archives: School Improvement

Common Core math doesn’t mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater

Math. Love it or hate it, it’s essential for success in schooling and in life. As states, districts, and schools continue to implement the Common Core State Standards, helping students “think like mathematicians”—to explain and justify their thinking and apply their learning to new situations—can be a challenge for teachers. But as I wrote in a recent ASCD Express column, implementing the Common Core State Standards in math doesn’t require a complete rework of your instructional strategies. Rather, using time-tested instructional strategies in conjunction with a focused approach to the Common Core can smooth the path to implementation.

Common Core Standards for High School Mathematics: A Quick-Start Guide (Schwols & Dempsey, 2012) provides three recommendations for beginning implementation of the Common Core math standards: focus on the standards for mathematical practice, focus on critical areas, and focus on connections. For more on how to integrate research-based instructional practices with these Common-Core-specific strategies, check out the full ASCD Express column here.

Written by McREL Lead Consultant Kirsten Miller.


Teacher prep programs: Helping new teachers swim—or sink?

Worried teacher blogWould you participate in a swim meet if you just learned to dog paddle? Probably not. Yet, many of our new teachers are entering the classroom straight from their college or preparatory program without the training, practice, or knowledge they need to succeed. With the increasing demands on teacher performance, and many teachers leaving the profession after their first year, the “sink or swim” mentality isn’t useful for teachers, their schools, or, most important, their students. Instead, we should be asking: What do preservice teachers need, why aren’t they getting it, and what can we do to ensure they get it?

School administrators Gary M. Chesley and Janice Jordan assembled a focus group of 30 new teachers from 17 universities and asked them how prepared they believe they were for their first days of school. Here are a few of the issues, also echoed in other studies, that these new teachers expressed about their preservice training.

Classroom management

New teachers are continually overwhelmed by unruly students and are unsure how to respond to classroom management issues. One study from researchers at the University of Florida, Stephanie D. Van Hover and Elizabeth Anne Yeager, shows that lack of classroom management skills often causes new teachers to be less creative and rely more heavily on lecturing and textbook-style lessons. Teacher preparation programs should teach research-based strategies for classroom management and expose preservice teachers to multiple ways of managing student behavior and building positive relationships in the classroom. 

Planning curriculum

Novice teachers struggle with lesson planning and coming up with enough curricula. The focus group  teachers reported that lesson planning practice in their preparatory classes seemed artificial, contrived, and useless in the real classroom. That may explain why, according to research from Sarah Walstead Fry from Bucknell University, many spend 10–12 hours a day planning and grading. High-quality preservice programs must give novice teachers opportunities to work side by side with master teachers to observe effective, long-term curriculum planning and deeply understand and organize subject matter. 

Demanding environments

Many of the new teachers surveyed in the focus group felt unprepared for the mental and physical stress they experienced—including the classroom workload and the expectation that they manage multiple demands and responsibilities. They felt that their preservice programs did not give them the “professional habits of mind” to build a teaching career or the skills needed to be “highly collaborative and active contributors in professional learning communities.” Teacher preparatory programs should expose preservice teachers to the intense work of the typical classroom for longer periods of time and focus on specific professional habits, such as accurately assessing the effectiveness of an instructional strategy.

How can K–12 school and universities collaborate to more effectively prepare teachers? What challenges did you face as a new teacher? What could have prepared you more fully for your first day?

For more information, read the May 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, Supporting Beginning Teachers, which includes Bryan Goodwin’s article, “New Teachers Face Three Common Challenges.”

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, writer and editor at McREL

Yes Johnny, We Expect You to Read in School Today

TRICA 3There was a time when children went off to school expecting to read in every class, whether it was mathematics, science, or history. It simply was a given that reading in all the content areas had an impact on learning. This truth has resurfaced in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and teachers are realizing these new standards set much higher expectations for student learning than we have held in the recent past.

The CCSS aim to move students toward reading more nonfiction by engaging them in increasingly complex texts as they move through school, while at the same time, helping them develop discipline-specific literacy skills. In Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition, there are five  recommendations from research that, if implemented thoughtfully and systematically, will help improve students’ reading comprehension. With each recommendation that follows, I’ve made a suggestion for getting started.

1. Explicit instruction in effective comprehension strategies

Even though science, mathematics, and social studies all demand distinctive reading and writing skills, one instructional practice that is important for all readers, and particularly adolescents,  is teacher modeling. When
teachers model strategies, they give students a kind of “sensory template.” The “Think-Aloud,” for example, is a strategy where teachers model the type of thinking a specific task requires. As students watch and listen to their teacher’s actions and words, they are able to visualize using the strategy.

2. Increase open, sustained discussion of reading content 

When teachers encourage students to brainstorm ideas together and ask each other questions, students grow more aware of their cognitive processes, which strengthens their ability to select and use appropriate comprehension strategies. As important, when they engage in large-group discussion, they mine the shared knowledge of the class.  The Socratic Seminar is a strategy that promotes debate, uses evidence from the text, and builds on another’s thinking. In a Socratic Seminar, each student has an active role: half the class sits in an inner circle and engages in a discussion while the other half sits in an outer circle and assesses their peers’ discussion skills.

3. Set and maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary.

Traditional vocabulary activities asked students to look up definitions of words in the dictionary and use the words in sentences; while this approach may be better than skipping vocabulary altogether, it is not an evidenced-based approach. This six-step approach for direct instruction of vocabulary is better:

  • Provide a brief explanation, description, or example of the new term.
  • Ask students to restate, in their own words, the explanation, description, or example.
  • Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term.
  • Engage students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the new term(s).
  • Occasionally ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  • Periodically allow students to play games that use the new terms.

4. Increase students’ motivation and engagement with reading.

Although research does not identify specific motivational techniques for particular types of students, it does support choice, social interactions, and important and interesting learning goals. Teachers in any content area can give students choices of research topics and then assign debates. Because most students enjoy argument, they become motivated and engaged readers, but they need coaching from teachers on how to have meaningful debates. Teaching students to use frameworks, such as Proposition Support Outlines, helps them organize their research and arguments. While outlining, they analyze the different types of evidence an author presents and learn to be critical readers who can recognize different viewpoints, theories, hypotheses, facts, opinions, and debatable assertions.

5. Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts.

As students improve their knowledge in a specific area, their ability to understand the associated
reading material also improves. As a content-area teacher, you are much more likely to improve students’ ability to independently comprehend the reading material when you use instructional routines that support students’ understanding of content-area vocabulary, concepts, and facts. After students read about a topic, ask them to perform or construct something by following a multistep
process or procedure.

Teachers can prepare students to succeed in college or build solid careers by sharing a variety of strategies, explaining their value, and repeatedly modeling and having students practice  them. By learning to read effectively, students not only learn the content they need to master, they also come to value reading and learning.

Order Teaching Reading in The Content Areas: If Not Me Then Who, 3rd edition from ASCD.

Written by Vicki Urquhart, co–author of Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition.

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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Learning uninterrupted

A growing trend in education over the last two decades has been exploring ways to use educational technology to maximize classroom time and extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. The idea of a “ubiquitous learning environment,” where students can learn at any time and in any place, has long been a dream of many educators and goes back over one hundred years—correspondence courses, phonographs, radio, filmstrips, and television have all been re-purposed for learning.

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Unearthing secrets to student success

In Expeditionary Learning schools (students engage in team-based, interdisciplinary “learning expeditions,” including fieldwork, case studies, projects, and service learning—all with an underlying focus on culture and character.

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