Category Archives: School Improvement

UDL: Common access to personalized learning

After reading my previous blogpost on Universal Design for Learning, a reader, Jackie, posted a comment asking if implementing Universal Design in instruction might potentially lead to “advanced learners not being able to excel in the classroom because everyone is working on the same thing at the same time.”

Jackie’s concern is understandable, and I thought it was worth further exploration here as a follow-up post.

Universal Design for Learning ensures that all students have meaningful access to course curricula, instructional activities, and assessments. But this doesn’t mean that advanced learners won’t be able to excel or that everyone in the class is working on the same thing at the same time. The important point is access.

To expand on the example from my original post, think about an advanced user of a GPS device who would be able to excel in locating multiple restaurants, gas stations, and interesting locations on a trip, using the device in a way that maximizes the benefit for his or her needs. Another person may use the same device for a single, straightforward purpose: to get from point A to point B.

The universal design of the GPS device allowed both persons to access the information needed for their specific, personal needs.

Universal Design in Learning allows students with diverse abilities and backgrounds to learn and demonstrate knowledge through multiple means. It doesn’t require instructors to abandon their teaching/learning philosophies, theories, or models, but it does require that they rethink their use of a diverse set of instructional strategies in order for learning to be accessible to everyone.

If you’re interested in further exploring UDL concepts, here are a couple of resources I’ve found to be helpful. For an overview of Universal Design and how it can be applied in education, take a look at this online Prezi presentation on Universal Design for Learning by Stephanie Richardson. And a good book on the subject is Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice by Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory.

Jackie, thanks for the question. For everyone, are there other questions about, or aspects of, Universal Design for Learning that we should explore further together?

John Ristvey is a director for McREL. 

Transforming systems of education with “bow and arrow” learning

One of my many important lessons in parenting came from a family visit to a Renaissance fair when my son was four years old. As we walked through this new, exciting environment of medieval costumes and fantasy characters, my husband and I were enjoying watching my son soak up all the sights and sounds—big eyes, lots of questions, wanting to touch everything. A vendor approached us, looking very much like Robin Hood, pulled out a toy bow and arrow, and asked our son if he would like to try shooting with it. My first reaction was that I didn’t want my son to get hurt. My second reaction was to take the bow and arrow and show him how to use it. Robin Hood quickly stopped me, saying, “Children learn by doing. Let him try on his own.” Although I didn’t particularly like someone I didn’t know telling me how to parent, I realized, eventually, that he was right.

Think about the most enduring lessons you’ve learned. They likely came from experiences you had, not from books you read. Education literature strongly supports the importance to learning of satisfaction, interest, creativity, and experience. Yet, in this era of standardized education and accountability, our education system continues to emphasize teaching kids what they need to know to pass tests, says Harvard University’s Tony Wagner, with whom I had the opportunity to talk recently.

Another innovative thinker, Steven Wyckoff of the nonprofit educational service center ESSDACK, defines systems transformation as “taking the learning process outside the school building and learning how to do things rather than learning to take a test.” Similarly, Bela Banathy, a leader in the educational transformation (or Design) movement, says that to truly transform learning, we must leave the old behind and create new “learning systems, learning territories, learning experience trails” (in Groff, p. 7).

What does this mean for school districts? They are at a major crossroads: Organizational structures, learning designs, location (physical and online), technology, leadership, policies, standards, and accountability systems are still needed—but they must be transformed to meet the demands of new ways of learning. Within these structures, how do districts transform the role of the teacher, inspire student self-directed learning, nurture experiential learning, and at the same time, confirm learning has taken place?

Let us know what you think a transformed system of learning looks like. Are there experiences you are fostering in your system or school that provide lifelong knowledge and understanding for students?

Pamela J. Jones, Ph.D., is director of McREL International’s Center for Systems Transformation.

My trip through Universal Design

At first, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may sound like just another tall order for today’s educators to fill. Instead, it’s more “everyday” than one might think.

Originally coined by designers and architects, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). In education, UDL is the design of “instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST).

How does Universal Design play out in our daily lives? While I was traveling to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, for a meeting with some teachers in our Adapted Curriculum Enhancement (ACE) program, I experienced several examples of Universal Design that we take for granted (almost) every day.

For example, after maneuvering through airport security, I stood at my gate and watched, with others, the latest news on TV. The volume was muted, and we were all reading the closed-captioning—an example of technology designed for the deaf and hard of hearing but which benefits everyone without adaption.

After arriving in Pittsburgh, I found my rental car and plugged in the GPS.  Even though I didn’t know the zip code for my destination, the system was still able to find the location. Before I got on my way, though, the GPS asked whether I wanted the shortest route, the fastest route, or to avoid highways. It also told me which gas stations and restaurants were along the way. With all of these options, I thought, this GPS could meet everyone’s needs, from the business traveler to the hungry sightseer.

Can we apply this concept to the classroom just as easily as we do in real life? The DO-IT Center at the University of Washington has developed a checklist for incorporating Universal Design into instructional practices, including multiple items under each of these main categories:

  • Class Climate: Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Interaction: Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
  • Physical Environments: Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  • Delivery Methods: Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  • Information Resources and Technology: Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
  • Feedback: Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  • Assessment: Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly.
  • Accommodation: Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

McREL’s ACE program also uses principles of UDL to help teachers assist students in visualizing complex science concepts through tactile graphics with written descriptions and 3-D models. The overarching principle is to develop course material, curriculum, and instruction with UDL in mind from the beginning, so that educators don’t have to “retro-fit” their teaching when they have diverse learners in their classrooms.

How have you included the principles of Universal Design in your classroom (maybe without even knowing it)?

John Ristvey is a director for McREL. 

The answers are in the room

12 Touchstones

Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different:  “The answers are in the room.”

Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.

I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.

Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”

Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of

As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).

In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.

What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?

Goodwin_200x200Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day
, he
wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.


What do you do with classroom observation data?

At their core, classroom observations should be about coaching, building up professional practice, and supporting better outcomes for students. Principals should use classroom observation data to enrich conversations during professional learning community meetings, individual teacher coaching conferences, and staff meetings. When large samples of student data are available, school leaders can disaggregate the data by age, content area, or other categories to enable powerful analysis of the data’s meaning and uses. This, combined with other evidence, can be used to support school improvement goals, collaborative planning, professional development planning, and a common understanding of what quality pedagogy looks like. Principals who do this well can help their teachers
make great gains in teaching and learning.

We’re sometimes asked by principals and district leaders who are interested in Power Walkthrough® for more information about how the system ties in with research-informed instructional practices and good classroom observation protocols and purposes.

The Power Walkthrough system supports best practice by using a carefully designed template of observable elements based on the best understanding of modern pedagogy, with indicators of research-informed classroom environmental factors, instructional strategies, learning taxonomies, technology applications, evidence of learning, and student interview responses. The template is customizable, so that if a school wants to focus on formative assessment or collaborative learning, they can do so by adding or substituting observation elements. We recommend not adding too much to the observation template, so that it doesn’t turn into a teacher evaluation tool and take too long to conduct. If individual observations take more than 3-5 minutes to conduct, principals won’t
be able to visit enough classrooms for the data to be valid and reliable.

Validity and reliability of data relies not only on a sufficient sample size, but also on the skill of the observer. Becoming an efficient, skilled, and astute observer of teaching and learning takes quality training, practice, and collaborative reflection between observers. School leaders don’t have to be experts in all content areas to conduct good observations, but they do have to be highly knowledgeable in pedagogy and be a keen observer of student learning evidence. The Power Walkthrough templates help principals by providing cues, “look-fors,” and a common nomenclature.

Templates and lists provide structure and allow for statistical analysis, but they don’t preclude the principal from observing other factors in the classroom, interviewing students, or recording descriptive notes. In fact, Power
observations are designed to end with student interviews to gather student perspectives on what they’re trying to learn and why they’re learning it, to see if they fully comprehend the objectives of the lesson. Answers such as “we’re learning math because we have a test on Friday” aren’t good enough. A great
answer would be something like, “we’re learning how to graph polynomials because they can be used to model how some things work in nature like the shape a stream of water takes when it’s shot out of a fountain or the path of a
basketball when you shoot a free throw.”

In the end it’s not about the instrument itself, but how it’s applied. Depending on the goals of school leadership, Power Walkthrough can be used either for typical data collection purposes or innovative change. We encourage instructional leaders to collaborate with each other and their teachers to learn from the data together. Teachers will take ownership of the data’s meaning if they are allowed to find it themselves rather than using a top-down approach of dictating to them what the data means. If used regularly and collaboratively, Power Walkthrough data can provide a wealth of professional development experiences for all educators, both on a daily basis and as part of a whole school improvement effort.

We hope this explains a little more about how Power Walkthrough supports good classroom observation practices and instructional improvement.

Matt Kuhn is a principal consultant at McREL, where he designs and delivers professional development and provides technical assistance to school and districts in instructional technology, STEM, and leadership. 




Strengthening the link between evaluation and professional development

With a greater focus than ever before on educator effectiveness, more and more states are linking improved performance of teachers and principals not only to their new educator evaluation systems but also to their professional development systems. In fact, state legislatures and boards of education in 15 states have recently passed laws that require districts to use results from educator evaluations when planning professional development (PD).

From both research and our practical experience working with educators across the country, we know that to improve educator performance, PD needs to be 1) systematically planned, 2) implemented with fidelity, and 3) evaluated for effectiveness.

Here’s an example of how one Race to the Top state is addressing these three components. After implementing a new educator evaluation system, this state decided to focus on building the capacity of its local school districts and education agencies to plan, implement, and evaluate PD. The state collaborated with McREL to develop a series of professional learning sessions called Preparing Districts to Evaluate Professional Development. Local PD administrators from across the state are participating in the eight sessions, receiving support and technical assistance as they implement the strategies they learn.

As part of the project, we’re using an online survey to assess the impact of the sessions using Guskey’s (2002) five levels of evaluating PD: participant reaction, participant learning, participant use of the new knowledge and skills, organizational support and change, and student learning outcomes.

In regards to implementing the new knowledge and skills they’ve learned in the first three modules, respondents reported challenges and successes. One participant, for example, stated that it was challenging to translate the results of educators’ evaluations into PD offerings that address individual educator’s needs. One reported success was the effectiveness of the data analysis tool provided in Preparing Districts to Evaluate Professional Development in helping determine what PD to offer.

We’d like to know how your district or service agency is integrating educator evaluation system results and PD:

  • How do your school and/or district staff use educator evaluation system results to inform PD at the individual, school, and district levels?
  • How do you know that the PD provided is supporting educators’ professional
    development plans?
  • How do you know PD is working?

2011_MaierShelby Maier is a senior researcher at McREL, where she designs studies, develops instruments, collects and analyzes data,and evaluates programs, including a state-level evaluation of an RTTT initiative. You can reach her at or 303.632.5611.   

A formula for planning effective school improvement

It’s nearing the end of the school year across America, which means thousands of principals are preparing school improvement plans for the 2013-14 school year. There are two common scenarios that take place, illustrated here by Principal A and Principal B:

Principal A sits down and, with little input or involvement from others, dutifully writes an ambitious school improvement plan for the next school year. The plan is submitted to the central office and receives a stamp of approval. At the beginning of the new school year, the plan is shared for the first time with the school staff. Momentum and focus are quickly lost, and the plan sits on a shelf, practically untouched, until the end of the school year.

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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