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Could it really be that simple?

By July 1, 2010June 14th, 201613 Comments

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.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Kimberly Majors says:

    I really liked what you had to say in your report. I agree with your framework and what makes a teacher effective. I believe we all want classrooms that are positive and to make a difference in every child’s life. I have read a lot about similar ideas this summer and think that I do follow a lot of what I have read. What I would really like is more opportunities to see classrooms in action that follow these standards. It is easy to read ideas, make lists of what we want to change in our own classrooms, and try and implement them. For me, however, it makes a huge difference if I can “see” these classrooms in action. I wish there were more videos out there showing these ideas.

  • Thanks, Kimberly, for your comments. I agree with them—that it’s important to see these principles in action. You’ll be happy to know that subsequent editions of McREL’s magazine, Changing Schools, will go through each component of the framework, providing more concrete, specific examples. In addition, I’m expanding the report into a book for ASCD, which will include many more real-life examples. The book should be out in 2011, so stay tuned!
    In the meantime, if you’re looking for videos of effective teaching, you might check out this site:

  • mindy says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article and study. It gave me new hope as a teacher. For years at my school we have struggled with choosing the “right” program to meet the needs of all our students. I have always felt that it was not the program that mattered by the teacher and how he or she approached the teaching and learning process. This article puts it all in prospective for me and validates what I have always believed in that it is not the program it is how we teach our students and view learning and student achievement. Thanks for your insight. My school has come a long way in the past few years to discover that it is indeed the processes for which we engage our students and ourselves in, not a simple program that increases our student achievement.

  • courtney says:

    Thank you so very much for sharing this exciting news! The district I work in has been working with McREL for a bit of time now, so I’m hopeful they will be seeing this report as well.
    I am thrilled with the idea of reducing the amount of hoopla and focusing, instead, on the influences that will make the most impact on our students and their levels of success. To have a more narrow and intentional focus is surely going to benefit all of us. And the whole child? As an early childhood educator, I am beyond thrilled to see this as an aspect of “what matters most.” I look forward to following along….

  • Thanks, Courtney and Mindy, for your comments. It makes my day to know that people are both reading the report and finding it useful in doing and thinking about the important work of putting students on the path to success!

  • Kristie Wilson says:

    I am super excited to share this report with my school leader. I feel too often as a teacher in an urban district that the attitude is push them through. While my district strives to get our kids into college, we do not have enough resources or information to ensure this happens. Your report is practical and provides insights that will help to educate my colleagues in what needs to happen in our school. I feel that engaging instruction is a crucial point in educating today’s youth. Thank you so much for this INVALUABLE information.

  • Kristie Wilson says:

    Oops…..I meant VALUABLE

  • Brittany Anderson says:

    It’s funny, because this article brings out information that I believe deep down we all know. I teach autistic support and love that these points apply to me as well. In contrast- if this article was about specific programs that work best for students, this article more than likely would not apply to my autistic support students. I wish that all of our schools made these the guide lines for our instructional practices, instead of asking us to adhere to certain educational programs.

  • Shannon says:

    I want what, hopefully, all teachers want: to have a successful classroom where I, as a teacher, feel like I have made a difference. Focusing on what actually will guarantee student success, rather than on what programs will “guarantee” student success really hit home with me. I was recently told that when our superintendent was hired in our district, he had made the promise to not change anything that was working. Well, since then, we have adopted a TON of new programs to help improve student learning. I’m not against trying new approaches, but when something is working, why change it? For example, my school scored 85% or better on three out of four content areas on our state standardized tests with several of these scores being perfect 100% or in the upper 90%. To me, that shows that what we are doing as teachers is already working. However, we are adopting a new “system” within our schools for the next few years that is supposed to guarantee success. How much more successful can we get without putting a tremendous strain on our students? I loved your blog because you were able to say what I’ve been trying to say all along. Thank you!

  • angela says:

    I look forward to sharing this article with some of the other facutly at my school. I think that these guidelines are not only ones that can be put into place at a school or district level, but in individual classrooms as well. I plan to use these guidelines in my own classroom to help plan my instruction. They will help me to keep my focus on studetn success! Thanks so much for the great arcticle, I look forward to sharing it with others.

  • M'Keyla Reid says:

    I really found this resourceful and enlightening. I am supper excited to take these resources and share them with my colleagues and friends. I think we all as professional teachers want to achieve the same thing. We want to be a vital part of our students life and make some kind of difference in our students life. We want to see them succeed and become productive members in society. So with these standards read about in this report today I am going to try incorporating them in my classroom and hopefully I began to see a change because as you stated this what is suppose to be better is not working.

  • Gloria Mines says:

    I agree with many of the statements made in this article. We know what needs to be done. The challenge is getting teachers to buy into the process. They need to be assured that anything that comes out in these sessions will not be used by administrators to evaluate them. A tone of equality and respect also needs to be set by experienced teachers sharing some of their challenges and seeking input from others, including less experienced teachers. These teachers may have new and creative ideas, but they will be afraid to share them if they fear being harshly criticized. They will also hesitate to share their challenges if the experienced teachers seem to have it all together. Everyone must feel that there is much to gain and nothing to lose through collaboration.

  • What a great Report. One of our curriculum directors shared several sections of this report with the Building Leadership Team several weeks ago. I think this is very important work. What I have distilled out of the 2 sections I read is that 80% of student achievement is based on what students bring with them(out of our control) and 20% is based on what is in the control of schools and teachers. Furthermore teachers have the greatest effect on student achievement. I wrote a short piece in my blog,
    As an Instructional Leader I think one of the most important aspects of my job is to nurture teachers to become highly effective.

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