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Why the ACT and New SAT Matter

Why the ACT and New SAT Matter

And how to make sure your students maximize their scores.

By Rob Huntington

Students across the country have been taking the ACT and new SAT, as they prepare for college applications. The stakes are high; scores on these tests have an impact on college admission decisions. The new SAT is an improved test: it aims to provide a highly accurate measure of critical reading and math skills, and the newer version is more “real world” than its predecessor. For example, there’s less emphasis on esoteric vocabulary and math gymnastics and more weight on things like understanding an author’s point of view and interpreting data. These skills not only translate to stronger grades in college, they also pave the way for a more satisfying life in a host of ways, from having a more personally and financially rewarding career to being able to read and appreciate the nuances of great literature.

To put some numbers to it, The Economist recently shared data showing that students who go to a U.S. university ranked in the top 90th percentile will likely earn $11,700 more per year than their peers who go to a school ranked in the bottom 10 th percentile. The thing is, these critical reading and math skills are just that, skills. Just as NBA MVP Steph Curry continued to hone his jump shot after getting passed over by top Division I recruiters, we can all get significantly better at critical reading and math over time with targeted, deliberate practice.

So what happens when students in your district take the test and get disappointing results? It’s important to stay away from labeling them or the education they’ve received and concentrate on developing their reading and math muscles. Convincing students, and their parents, to double down on their preparation can be hard if there’s an underlying fear that students won’t get any better and that the test indicates something unchangeable about who they are as people. It doesn’t. It gives an accurate picture of where a student’s math and reading skills are at that point in time.

A big aid in overcoming this fear is adopting what leading educational psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”—a belief that with the right hard work we can get better at skills and, excepting those with significant impairments, achieve mastery. This idea overlaps closely with the “10,000 hours” concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers—the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice to become excellent at anything, from a grandmaster in chess to a computer coding whiz to a top violinist. While the SAT and ACT are hard, they’re not in this stratospheric level. With the right preparation most students can get a top score.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a hack or shortcut for academic skill growth. One study of SAT prep courses found that you can get about 30 points of improvement by taking the average test-prep course (“Effects of Coaching on SAT I: Reasoning Test Scores,” Powers & Rock, 1999). That’s not much. It’s probably not going to get students a scholarship or make the difference between getting into a good school and getting into one of the country’s best. That’s because getting meaningfully better at reading and math takes real learning. Sure, test-taking tricks help a bit—that’s probably the 30 points—but a student can get better at skills such as analyzing rhetorical methods or thinking algebraically only through serious study. This means doing work like reading and thinking about progressively more challenging material for more than an hour a day to strengthen verbal skills, and wrestling with fundamental math concepts and practicing until they’re ingrained, so the basics don’t take up processing speed when we get to more challenging math problems.

But let’s be honest, not everyone thinks the SAT or the ACT is good at judging students’ skill levels. Critics say these tests show a gap in skills between socioeconomic groups, with some arguing that the tests should be de-emphasized. This is like saying that we should eliminate diagnostic evaluations at the hospital because they may show we’re ill—the tests indicate there’s an underlying problem, they’re not the problem itself. Another objection is that the tests put pressure on college applicants to perform in a high-stakes environment; they certainly do. However, so does college, and life in general. Other criticisms include charges that the tests don’t measure skills like leadership, creativity, or grit. They don’t measure these skills, but what they do measure matters. Sure, some colleges don’t use these tests when deciding to admit a student, but the vast majority continue to consider ACT or SAT scores critical for admissions decisions.

Reading and math are the building blocks of a lot of what it takes to do well in our knowledge economy. The good news is that students can get better at these skills with the right hard work. Knowing this can take a lot of the fear out of prepping for these tests. Countless students have gotten better at these skills. Take Thomas Jefferson, for instance. When he was young he invested serious time honing his writing skills after his father told him his writing was inferior (not an advisable parenting technique). Of course Jefferson went on to write some pretty important stuff, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten a great score on the writing section of a test before he put in hours of hard work.

Rob Huntington is a Senior Vice President at Huntington Learning Center. Prior to working at Huntington he taught high school history in Paterson, New Jersey, and also worked as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. 

Photo: MediaBakery

Redefining the Approach to STEM Across Grade Levels

the Approach to STEM Across Grade Levels

How administrators can support teachers who are modernizing their instruction.

By Susan Nichol

Some of the most challenging moments for middle school teachers arise when deciding whether or not to step in and support a student through the troubleshooting process. Middle school students are caught in an in-between age group: They don’t need step-by-step guidance, but they may not have completely developed skills or confidence to lead their own learning.

Because I view myself as a coach in the classroom, I jump into learning opportunities in project-based activities when appropriate. My goal as a Project Lead the Way instructor is to encourage students to approach problems by creating their own paths toward a solution. I consider my students the engineers of their own learning environment, where I take a hands-off approach to teaching.

If someone were to walk into my classroom, they might ask, “Where’s the teacher?” Because I work alongside my students, I can be found working on the floor or outside in the hallway in student breakout sessions.

This classroom design provides students the freedom to approach new problems within a flexible, group-oriented environment. It welcomes the creative problem-solving skills needed to help prepare students for future careers—many of which don’t even exist yet.

Harnessing these skills gives students the opportunity to take the lead in their own learning. When students see their ideas through, from beginning to end, they take ownership of their learning experience. Let’s explore how districts’ technology teams and administrators can support student-directed learning—and how students can reap the benefits.

Molding a Problem-Solving Mindset

To simulate a practical working and learning environment, students are assigned titles and roles within project teams that translate to real job titles. For most projects, all students are given the same project objective. The students then work in small teams to test possible solutions.

The few times I address all students at the front of the classroom are when I introduce a project or lead a demonstration. I tell my students to “watch, listen and do” when leading classroom demonstrations. Students follow along on their own project models while I provide direction. Even when I take the lead in directing learning objectives, students engage in hands-on learning.

The most rewarding experience as an educator is watching how experiential learning can transform a student’s skills and attitudes toward STEM. It’s this observable growth in my students that can lead them to be independent thinkers in their adult careers.

For instance, I’ve witnessed students step into a problem-solving mindset while experimenting with 3D printing. Our classroom has two 3D printers that students can use to tinker with design ideas for both classroom and personal projects. They can analyze differences and similarities between an older 3D printer and the newer Dremel 3D Idea Builder printer to gain an understanding of machine and tool design, and how it, in turn, impacts their model.

It’s this willingness to approach new challenges that fuels a passion for learning. Because of my former experience in the engineering industry, I believe that an open mindset encourages female students, in particular, to pursue STEM in a predominately male industry.

3D printing offers an entry point to design and engineering, especially at the middle school level, because it’s safe and approachable. Encouraging my students to lead the 3D printing design and production process independently motivates them to use the tool to its fullest extent.

How Administration Can Support Integrated Teaching With Technology

The design and structure of a Project Lead the Way classroom differs from the traditional classroom, which means getting started requires a little extra effort by all parties at the school and district level.

In my school district, administrators and instructors at all grade levels have an understanding of curriculum goals across school levels that are relevant to their course instruction. An integrated approach to lessons and curricula from the elementary to the high school level provides a fluid model for mapping student understanding.  

Increased involvement from the district as a whole eases the process of introducing new technology, like 3D printing, to the classroom. District administrators and the school board are often the decision makers in purchasing education technology tools. Because they have a solid understanding of our classroom’s goals, they are supportive in providing my students with the appropriate technologies.

One of the biggest reasons that teachers are reluctant to embrace new technology is a lack of technical support or professional development opportunities. No matter the structure of the district, administrators can support technology integration by allowing and providing professional development partnerships with high schools, local community colleges, and local businesses.

I highly recommend that administrators open up opportunities for their staff to explore and coordinate their own professional development experiences. Empowering staff to share their experiences and contributions with their colleagues and school leadership can strengthen school–community relations.

Building a Strong School and Community Network in STEM

Student-led learning has given my students the chance to take ownership when approaching problems, creating their own solutions. These opportunities are facilitated through a practical, hands-on approach to learning that incorporates flexible technologies like 3D printing.

It’s crucial to gain the backing of a school’s administrative team in order to provide the means to implementing new technologies and models for learning. An integrated, district-wide approach to pedagogy can provide students, teachers, and the community as a whole with new opportunities for growth in STEM.

Susan Nichol is Project Lead the Way and technology skills instructor at Holmes Junior High in Mt. Prospect, Illinois.

Illustration: MediaBakery

Five Proven Pathways to Attaining Whole-School Transformation With Technology


Five Proven Pathways to Attaining Whole-School Transformation With Technology

From credit recovery to PBL, these best practices use 21st-century tech tools to give students 21st-century learning opportunities.

By Don W. Brown

Everyone in schools is talking about technology, 1:1 programs, and student learning. The problem is that often school district planners think adopting technology is just like purchasing a textbook: First review the offerings and rate them, then purchase one and roll it out. But to effect a whole-school transformation, this process is not enough.

By “transformation” I mean bringing in 21st-century technology to give students 21st-century learning opportunities. This would ultimately be in the form of blended learning models, but adopting a blended learning model is a huge shift in both equipment and methodology.

To truly and permanently transform schools through technology, the technology purchase has to be rooted in the genuine needs of students. In addition, teachers must have time for both professional development and collaboration to make the innovation work. Below are five entry points I have seen successful schools use to begin a whole-school transformation.

  1. Credit recovery. Credit recovery is one of the things online learning addresses best. First of all, nearly every alternative program allows students to work at their own pace, a key element for successful online and blended learning models. Further, a good credit recovery software will have a pre- and post-test model, giving students credit for what they remember from the course, but then assigning work for topics they did not remember or for topics whose instruction they missed.

Credit-recovery programs also tend to draw teachers who naturally embrace blended or enhanced virtual models. They are focused on the students’ success, know the struggles students face outside of school, and are willing to go the extra mile to support them. A word of caution here: This does not mean that the best outcomes come from lowering expectations for students. Students know when they are given “dumbed down” work, and this reinforces a negative self-concept, which leads to failure.

  1. Skill-based instruction, remediation, or acceleration. Focusing on skills with technology can yield big results in many ways. Based on research supporting Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, teaching students individually, “where they are,” is extremely effective. Students who are able learners will not stay motivated when faced with content they find easy or redundant. Students who are significantly behind need skill remediation in order to feel successful and retain the content they study.
  2. Direct instruction/digital textbooks. There are many sources of digital content, and odds are good that any teacher has found his or her personal “treasure trove” of online lessons to draw from. In this case, the teacher is using an online resource as the primary source for lesson material, whether for whole-group, small-group, or intervention-based instruction. Digital content ranges from entire textbooks online to collections of lessons that are searchable or developed in a specific content area.
  3. Content and assessment customization. To achieve mass customization for students, you must know three things:
  • What prior knowledge does the student have? How will this be measured and applied?
  • How much time is appropriate for this student to gain the knowledge and skills you select?
  • Will you measure progress using curriculum-based assessments, benchmark tests, interim assessments, or statewide/CCSS assessment test results? Each measure has different uses and value.

The most important decision here is pacing. Will your teachers allow students to move at their own pace, or will they try to keep everyone “on the same page”? Keeping students in lockstep is counterintuitive for online learning, and freeing students to work at a variety of paces can yield high motivation for traditionally underachieving gifted and talented students.

  1. Project-based learning. This strategy moves learning from the academic realm to its real-world application, making lessons more “hands-on” and purposeful. Seeing direct applications of knowledge can give a huge boost to students’ motivation and self-esteem. Online learning can support understanding by making customization of content easy, by providing an online collection of evidence, or even by connecting the student to people in the working world to gather information and advice or organize field experiences.

As you go forward, remember to base your schools’ transformation on real student needs. If teachers witness student success and see a way to support the full range of the students they teach, they will embrace the change. Allow the change to take place over time, and be strategic about which teachers are early adopters, which are joiners, and which are going to need individual help. Finally, be sure to support the change with professional development for teachers and administrators. If they share feedback along the way that can lead to full adoption of technology for learning, you will be on the best path to success and to getting the full value of your investment.

Don W. Brown, Ed.D, is the West Region Client Services Manager at online curriculum provider Oddysseyware. In his long career working with educational technology, he has been the Director of Gladstone Center for Children and Families in Oregon, a music specialist in Oregon City Public Schools, and an instructional technologist for Lane Education Service District in Oregon.

Photo: MediaBakery

A $67.5 Million Victory for Community Engagement


A $67.5 Million Victory for Community Engagement

After voters rejected two bond proposals, a superintendent opened new lines of communication and turned ‘no’ into ‘yes.’

By Scot Graden

In 2010 Saline Area Schools introduced a bond measure to fund our first infrastructure updates in 10 years. Our district is in a relatively affluent, relatively conservative area of the state, 40 miles west of Detroit. Of our 32,000 residents, more than 50 percent don’t have kids in the school system, so a lot of the conversation in the community was about the budget. We encountered a disconnect with some residents, who asked, “Why a bond?” Our community is pretty small and has only one local news site, so we had no mass media through which we could communicate the importance of the bond to parents and non-parents. The measure failed.

We presented the measure again in 2011, and again it failed. This time, we understood that the voters’ concern wasn’t with the projects we were proposing, but with our district getting its financial house in order. To put it simply, we were operating at a loss.

Over the next couple of years, we closed one building and sold another. We stopped using one-time money to replenish savings accounts and backfilled our rainy-day fund.

Our central office partnered with Virginia-based K12 Insight to bring the community into the conversation. We used the company’s Engage survey solution to conduct research-backed climate and culture surveys that informed our decision making and provided feedback about peoples’ perceptions of our district. We also worked with K12 Insight to launch Let’s Talk!, a virtual listening station that enables community members to provide feedback on specific topics right from our website. Once a question or comment came in, it was immediately routed to the right person in the district for a speedy response.

In 2015, we were ready to present a new bond proposal to the community. We are a BYOD district, so this bond was not asking taxpayers to fund expensive devices for students. The theme we chose was “Safe, Warm, Dry, and Future-Ready.” We wanted to make sure our school entry points were safe, that the heating and cooling systems worked, and that schools in need got new roofs. These were “non-sexy” items, but we felt they were important to the success of our schools. On top of that, our goal was to provide next-generation classrooms that went beyond students’ basic needs. We focused on furniture, space, and technology. We doubled the “ask” from 2011, requesting $67.5 million over three bond sales.

We still had no mass media to connect with the community, so we had to use our “ground game.” We held a series of community meetings, in which the conversation was informed by our survey data. Public perception was that our buildings were in pretty good shape—which was true. So we didn’t try to oversell facilities needs. Instead we framed our bond campaign around “protecting our future.” We made sure to tell people that they could ask questions or submit comments through Let’s Talk!—and many of them did.

The feedback we got was specific: One resident submitted detailed questions about our bus purchases. I, in turn, offered detailed responses, and he ended up conducting an analysis of bus providers for us. I just had lunch with him the other day—someone I met because he clicked a button on our website.

Hours before Election Day, a vote “no” campaign began circulating among certain members of the community. Again, we mobilized our ground game and used this threat to motivate our base. Our biggest concern was ambivalence, so we asked our allies to redouble their efforts.

On November 3, 2015, the bond measure passed with 60 percent of the vote, the widest pass rate of any tax increase in the state. That success can be credited, in large part, to our commitment to open and transparent communication. By the time voters arrived at the polls, they understood our position, had an opportunity to voice their concerns, and trusted us to spend their money wisely.

Since the bond passed in November we have started making arrangements for construction. We’re also expanding our use of Let’s Talk! While some educators fear that inviting community feedback will lead to a deluge of complaints, it simply has not been the case for us. When people understood we were listening, we created an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, and out of that environment came the funding that will help us build the next generation of Saline Area Schools. 

Scot Graden is the Superintendent of Saline Area Schools in Michigan. 

Photo: Mediabakery

Making Social and Emotional Learning a Priority

Making Social and Emotional Learning a Priority

The Bellevue School District successfully launched a district-wide SEL initiative. Here’s how we did it.

By Randi Peterson

The idea of teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) is gaining traction in school districts across the country, and more and more are adopting SEL policies.

This should come as no surprise, considering the growing body of research showing that when schools focus on students’ social and emotional wellbeing, it has a positive impact on academics. But some districts may have difficulty figuring out how to craft effective SEL policies. And while attending to students with SEL needs may seem solely a concern of large urban districts, all school districts can help students by focusing on social and emotional learning. In our district in Washington we started by making SEL a priority and building on that priority. I’d like to talk about some of the ways the Bellevue School District (BSD) is addressing this issue.

Prioritizing SEL

One of the first things BSD did was choose to make SEL a priority. We consider SEL an instructional content area just like reading or math. For the first time, this year we’re including it on elementary students’ progress reports.

Bellevue prioritized SEL because we believe it is our responsibility to address the “whole child,” and not focus solely on test scores. We want educators to care about the emotional health of our students just as much as they care about their academics. We also want adults to care about their own emotional health, so we have made SEL a priority for us all in the district.

Some may consider this a “warm and fuzzy” dimension of teaching, rather than a critical task of schools. But think about it from a student’s perspective. In today’s world of cyberbullying, a rising teen suicide rate, and increased instances of poverty and neglect at home, students are under more stress than ever before. It’s our job to teach them how to handle that stress, how to make good choices, and how to get along with others. These skills will not only translate into academic gains and a decrease in disciplinary issues, they will also set these students up for lifelong success after graduation by equipping them with the skills to lead a positive and productive life.

Sometimes SEL is as simple as knowing how to resolve conflicts with a friend or coworker. If a student is a math whiz, but doesn’t know how to get along with his roommates or his boss, it will be difficult for him to live up to his potential.

Rolling Out Our SEL Initiative

In the fall of 2013 BSD launched three instructional initiatives: academic success, college and career readiness and positive and productive life. BSD has focused on academic success and college and career readiness for many years. But, in 2013 we added a Positive and Productive Life initiative to the district’s five-year plan. Our goal is to make sure students leave 12th grade with interpersonal skills and a commitment to their community. We took the following steps:

  • Set goals
  • Developed standards
  • Adopted curriculum
  • Measured progress

We settled on three goal areas aligned with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies: self-awareness and self-management, interpersonal skills, and decision making.

Then we set up an action team to determine how best to accomplish our goals. We knew we needed to create SEL standards, so we looked at other districts that were already employing them, such as Anchorage, Austin, and throughout the state of Illinois, and borrowed their best ideas. We adopted SEL curriculum, including Second Step and RULER at the elementary level. We are currently piloting RULER and MindUP at the middle school level.

In order for any good SEL program to work, educators also need data. In October we screened more than 8,000 students using Evo Social & Emotional, an assessment tool from Apperson. It uses the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) to determine which students are at risk for social and emotional skill gaps. This was extremely valuable. For the first time, teachers now have data to show which students are in need of intervention.

It’s important to get parents and the community involved too. To do this, we launched a public Facebook page about SEL that anyone can access, and some of our teachers are conducting the SEL assessment during parent-teacher conferences.

Looking Ahead

We are now in the third year of our five-year plan, and we’re excited to see how it will impact the district as we continue to move forward. Adopting a full-scale SEL initiative takes time, and we’ve learned some lessons along the way: First and foremost, it’s best to take it slow. Make sure all the adults are on board, especially the leadership at each building. Consider rolling out the curriculum at the staff level so that the adults really get to know it before they start teaching it to students. Once you have some school successes, showcase them to other schools in your district so others can learn from them. With this work it is important to go slow to have a lasting impact and transformational change.

We as an education community need to support the emotional health and wellness of our children and staff. As the trend toward SEL instruction continues, it will be more and more important for school districts to have solid SEL programs in place to ensure their students don’t fall through the cracks.

Randi Peterson, Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) Curriculum Developer, Bellevue School District, Bellevue, Washington.


Teaching Students to Teach Themselves


Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

A connected educator integrates a variety of tech tools to help her fifth graders develop the skills they need for college.

By Susan Convirs

When today’s 21st-century learners enter college and the workplace, they will be expected to read complex informational texts independently. In many high schools, teachers continue to provide various forms of scaffolding, such as teacher assistance, classroom discussions, summaries, or simplified texts to promote reading comprehension; such supports, however, usually aren’t provided in a university setting. Beginning at the elementary level, teachers can provide opportunities for students to develop these important life skills: comprehension of complex text and independent learning.

Learning on their own, without an instructor, is an acquired skill for most elementary school students. Almost limitless resources exist online for today’s learners. Outside a structured learning environment, though, many students struggle to locate informational resources that are appropriate for their age and reading level. Additionally, since children are often completing a worksheet of pre-assigned questions, they frequently fail to develop the skill and the curiosity to ask relevant or open-ended questions. A first step toward fostering both academic stamina and independent learning can happen at the elementary level by providing digital access to both content and assignments.

I’m a fifth-grade teacher at Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and my students and I were fortunate to be part of the 1:1 iPad program for the 2015–2016 school year. In the fall, I began searching through a variety of apps and online platforms to use with my students. I wanted to replicate aspects of the physical classroom that would be enhanced by technology, such as content-based lessons, in-class and homework assignments, and the ability to build a classroom community through social interactions. I settled on Google Classroom because the students each had an e-mail address that would be compatible with this platform.

I wanted the children to be able to access assignments digitally, so we downloaded several apps that allowed the students to write on PDFs and submit their work digitally to me. Depending on the device, the children have used Type on PDF and DocHub most frequently.

Additionally, I hoped to find web-based content-based resources to use with the iPads. As a long-time user of Kids Discover’s print-based social studies and science materials, I started using their Kids Discover Online portal as soon as it became available. The students also access “Scholastic News” through the Scholastic app. They watch YouTube videos and TED Talks on curriculum-based content, they read primary sources through the Colonial Williamsburg site, America Online, and the Library of Congress, and they create digital projects to demonstrate understanding with many of the Google tools, such as Docs, Slides, Forms, and Sites.

A feature of the Google Classroom LMS that I particularly appreciate is the ability to group a variety of resources together to create a digital “lesson.” For example, when teaching a lesson on the Puritans, I posted the link to related articles on Kids Discover Online, as well as images from Google, a video from YouTube, a piece of music believed to have been sung at the first Thanksgiving, a primary source document of John Winthrop’s sermon, and a PDF containing a reflection question that I had created to assess for understanding following the lesson. Integrating a variety of resources helps me guide students to content across various disciplines. By listening to and studying music, for example, the children were able to extend their understanding of the Puritans and their values.

Having the assignments presented and submitted digitally helps me and the students keep track of their work. Each child can easily go online to complete missing or late assignments, and I can easily see who has submitted his or her work. Now, the students and I spend considerably less time locating “lost” papers and identifying the owners of the “no-name” papers. Additionally, because the Kids Discover Online resources are associated with each assignment, the students don’t need to hunt for reading materials to complete their work. Once they have their devices, they can access the resource material to look for answers. Then—in the same place—they can access the assignment itself. The students can then submit their work whether they’re in the physical classroom or somewhere remote.

I have also introduced the students to the procedure of a “flipped classroom” to support independent learning. Students can access both content and resources from outside the physical classroom to begin practicing how to learn on their own, without an instructor or the scaffolds he or she provides. Through numerous experiences with independent learning, the children have increased their academic stamina when it comes to reading and comprehending complex informational text. The ability to access everything they need in one online location is also beneficial for students who are absent from school; these children will not fall as far behind in content material, since they can see what the rest of the class has covered in their absence.

Finally, the students enjoy the social aspects of Google Classroom. Through this platform, we have worked to strengthen our classroom community and to develop digital citizenship. Initially, I saw that my students needed direct instruction on different forms of digital communication. We discussed and practiced sending and receiving classroom-appropriate communications. The children benefitted from instruction that demonstrated how texting a friend is not the same as sending an e-mail to a teacher or making a public classroom comment. My goal is to give all of the students the opportunity to develop positive digital citizenship and to create a digital footprint each of them can be proud of.

For all of us who teach and learn in the 21s century, change is inevitable. Wherever we find ourselves on the educational continuum, we are all moving away from the whiteboard, paper-based classroom. Using a combination of tech tools allows me to provide access to a rich variety of content presented at a complex, yet accessible, reading level. This, in turn, encourages the young scholars in my classroom to develop the academic stamina they will need for success in middle school and beyond.

Susan Convirs is a fifth-grade teacher at Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School in Northridge, CA.

Photo: MediaBakery


The School Leaders’ Guide to Visible Learning for Literacy


The School Leaders’ Guide to Visible Learning for Literacy

Literacy experts on the three different ways your students should learn.

By Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey 

There is no single right way to develop students’ literacy skills. But there are certainly some wrong ways. We can no longer simply provide teachers with a laundry list of literacy strategies to try out. Instead, we have to organize strategies according to students’ needs, whether those needs are for surface, deep, or transfer learning. In doing so, we can more reliably decide what works best for which students at which time. The result will be much better learning, long-term retention, and better scores on assessments.

We recently collaborated with education researcher John Hattie to figure out how teachers could maximize their impact on students’ literacy learning. Increasing impact means leaders and teachers have to ensure every teaching minute counts. That said, it’s important to note that we are less concerned about teaching and more interested in how to implement teaching methods that have a demonstrated impact on student learning. This requires that administrators provide teachers with the resources to develop an understanding of the difference between surface, deep, and transfer learning. One of the major messages from our work is that all three of these types of learning are important.

Let’s begin with surface learning. Yes, surface learning is important! Unfortunately, it gets disparaged on a regular basis, but students have to understand the basics before they can go beyond them. Take text-dependent questions as an example. We have argued that these should start with literal questions before progressing to structural and then inferential questions. Some well-intentioned administrators complained about this, but we know that readers cannot make inferences about texts they don’t understand at the literal, surface level. Readers will have a very hard time comparing texts and drawing evidence across texts if they don’t have a general understanding of the basic content.

At the surface level, some teaching approaches work better than others. John Hattie used a value called effect size to measure which strategies have the greatest influence on student learning. The strategies that build a student’s surface learning most effectively include:

  • Leveraging prior knowledge
  • Vocabulary techniques (sorts, word cards, mnemonics, etc.)
  • Reading comprehension in context
  • Summarizing

While the surface level matters, it’s important not to leave students there. Beyond surface learning, deep learning is crucial, although the activities that develop surface learning aren’t particularly effective at developing deeper, more substantive understanding. Students’ ability to acquire and consolidate information is more effectively developed when teachers use some of these approaches:

  • Concept mapping
  • Discussion and questioning
  • Reciprocal teaching

And just as surface learning strategies aren’t effective for deep understanding, these deeper strategies aren’t much use for surface learning.

Last, we come to transfer of learning. Without transfer, students often have to be taught the same content over several years because they forget it once the unit of study has ended. As McTighe and Wiggins (2011) noted, “The ability to transfer is arguably the long-term aim of all education. You truly understand and excel when you can take what you have learned in one way or context and use it in another, on your own.” Ensuring students transfer their understanding is hard work, and most of what we do as teachers fails to promote this skill. Thankfully, there are methods that work. More effective approaches, which rely on a foundation of surface and deep learning, include:

  • Reading across documents to conceptually organize
  • Formal discussion, including debates and Socratic seminars
  • Problem-solving teaching

These strategies are the basis of a new book we co-authored with John Hattie, Visible Learning for Literacy. In the final chapter, we show teachers how to use the effect-size statistic to determine the impact they’ve had on students. It’s important for school leaders to help teachers pre-assess and post-assess students so they can measure their impact. Doing so can reinforce teachers’ instructional approaches and lead to increased collaboration, differentiation, and needs-based instruction, all of which have strong effects on students’ learning.

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, http://fisherandfrey.com/, are literacy experts and authors. Their most recent book is Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K–12: Implementing the Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning.


Make the Most of Team Time: Focus on Results, Not Opinions


Make the Most of Team Time: Focus on Results, Not Opinions

Set guidelines for how your PLCs use data to sharpen their focus.

Nancy W. Sindelar

Many schools across the country have implemented teacher team meetings and professional learning communities (PLCs) with the hope of boosting student achievement and raising test scores. School boards have made commitments to provide teachers with meeting time, and contracts and class schedules have been altered so that teacher teams can evaluate curriculum, share instructional strategies, and discuss interventions to help students achieve at higher levels.

Despite these commitments, many teams lose their effectiveness because they aren’t using analyzed test data to make decisions about curriculum, instruction, and meaningful student interventions. In my experience as an assessment consultant I often see teams and PLCs fall into the trap of using valuable team time to talk about school in general terms. They often base changes in curriculum and instruction on opinions voiced by the loudest or most opinionated member of the team, rather than basing them on data. Without data, team meetings lose focus and degenerate into an exchange of opinions and intentions. But with data, they turn into an exchange focused on results and the use of specific information to promote continuous improvement in learning.

Once time has been allocated for regular team meetings and teachers have been organized into grade-level or subject teams, the following suggestions will generate a more effective use of team time.

  1. Begin by focusing on data.

Teams can use the analyzed results of a standards-based formative or summative assessment at any grade level for any subject to generate data-based recommendations for curriculum revision, changes in instruction, changes in teaching materials, revisions to the assessment, staff development needs, student interventions, and more. When teams and PLCs begin with data, they can effectively evaluate changes in textbooks, materials, pacing, and methodology. High-functioning teams then commit to using the successful materials and strategies and shape them into new, data-driven classroom practices that enhance student learning.

Teachers report that when they use team meetings to review the item analysis of a recent common assessment and discuss areas of strength and weakness in students’ progress toward specific learning targets or standards, their instruction becomes more goal-oriented toward helping all students meet or exceed specific learning targets and standards. That said, teachers need to have the analyzed results from their formative and summative assessments in a useable, understandable report format. The data reports also need to be timely so that teachers have immediate feedback regarding their students’ progress. This allows teachers to provide meaningful and timely feedback to their students and reteach as necessary.

In working with teams across the country, it’s exciting to see how quickly teachers develop a hunger for assessment data. As soon as their students have finished an assessment, they want to know where their students have excelled, and where they need to take steps to remediate weaknesses.

Teachers also quickly see the benefits of using item analysis to improve their own teacher-made tests. Sitting in on a team meeting, I observed a team looking at analyzed data and then realizing that 32 percent of their students selected the wrong answer on an item in a multiple-choice assessment. One teacher said, “That’s a poorly worded question.” Another said, “Yes,” then jumped up and revised the question on her classroom computer. After a team review of the revised question, the result was a more clearly worded question and better item choices for assessing student learning. Once this team saw the data, they made improvements to their assessment quickly, easily, and confidently. Using data to drive team decisions helped this school to become the “most improved” school in the state.

  1. Have a simple agenda and expectations for team members.

Because meeting time is precious, it’s important to have an agenda to focus the discussion and to let teachers know what materials to bring to the meeting. Agendas greatly increase productivity for vertical team meetings, where fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade teams meet to discuss the sequence of standards in science, or in cross-departmental team meetings, such as when U.S. History teams meet with American Literature teams to discuss how and when the standards regarding post–World War I American culture are being addressed by each subject. Having a simple agenda helps to identify tasks and goals and enables teams to be more productive and effective.

It’s also important to set expectations for team members. The challenge of teamwork lies in the interplay of people, tasks, and processes. High-performing teams tap into the unique talents of individual members. Yet team members need to work together, share a common purpose, and commit to data-driven goals. High-performing teams have an agreed upon set of behaviors for their actions, such as coming to meetings on time, listening and considering another’s perspective, and basing recommendations on data. Having an agreed upon set of team behaviors or norms helps teams to focus on their purpose and how they will work together.

  1. End every team meeting with a defined action plan that will stimulate an improvement in student achievement.

Effective teams do much more than merely look at the data. They improve learning by identifying actions they can take collectively and individually to improve teaching and learning. An important feature of every team meeting is an action plan that documents students’ learning needs and stimulates improvement in student achievement. An action plan may address a needed change or action under the headings of curriculum or assessment revision, changes in pacing, the need to reteach specific learning targets or changes in methodology. The format of the action plan is not critical, but defining and reassessing the action to be taken and using data to foster continuous improvement in teaching and learning are.

Nancy W. Sindelar, Ph.D., http://NancySindelar.com,works with schools to increase student achievement through the alignment of local curriculum and assessments to state and Common Core State Standards and the use of test results to inform instruction. She is an executive consultant on assessment for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and has spoken at numerous national conferences. Her publications include Using Test Data for Student Achievement: Answers to No Child Left Behind, Assessment-Powered Teaching, and Developing an Effective Teacher Mentor Program.

Five Key PD Concepts to Aid Your Digital Transition


Five Key PD Concepts to Aid Your Digital Transition

Immerse your leaders in learning, and don’t forget to include your students.

By Karen Beerer

In my previous position as assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment in Pennsylvania’s Boyertown Area School District, I had the unique opportunity to witness the important role professional development plays in supporting systemic change. From balanced literacy instruction to standards-based reforms, I saw how sustained, job-embedded professional development for educators at all levels could drive systemic transformation and ultimately improve student achievement.

As school districts nationwide transition from using static textbooks as a core instructional resource to using dynamic digital content to create authentic, student-centered learning environments, the importance of strong, research-based professional development systems continues to grow. In fact, as I travel the country in my current role as vice president of learning and development for Discovery Education, I am often asked by school administrators some version of the following question:

“How do we design professional development systems that support the transition to dynamic digital content as a core instructional resource while simultaneously ensuring digital instruction is relevant, engaging, collaborative, and resulting in deep student learning?”

While the details of specific professional development initiatives supporting digital transitions will vary with the local context, here are five key concepts to guide administrators as they begin creating their own plans.

Lead with the pedagogy, not the technology. Technology offers an opportunity to teach in ways that we haven’t experienced in the past; therefore, it’s easy to get lost in the novelty of the tools or the devices. When planning for the successful integration of technology into instruction, ask these three questions, in order:

  • What do we want students to learn?
  • What is the best practice instruction that will ensure all students learn?
  • How can we use dynamic digital content and other technologies to redefine instruction so all students learn more deeply?

Remember, begin with the pedagogy and then consider the technology needed for supporting that pedagogy.

Follow the research. The body of research on successful professional development is clear on the factors needed for success:

  • Ongoing and sustained opportunities for learning and reflecting
  • Actionable and practical strategies that directly align to what teachers do in the classroom
  • Job-embedded support with modeling and feedback

In addition, we know that true instructional transformation only occurs when teachers receive between 30 and 100 hours of professional development over the course of a year. Said another way, the average number of separate instances of practice that it takes teachers to master a new skill is 20, and this increases with skill complexity. Given that the effective integration of technology and digital content into teaching and learning is relatively new and continually evolving, you can count on complexity as a factor.

With that in mind, follow the core concepts of the research and look to build professional development systems that are ongoing, sustained, and offering participants actionable and practical strategies for improving instruction. In addition, offer copious opportunities for participants to model their learning and give and receive feedback.

Grow capacity for transformation with the “right” teacher leaders. Engaging Teacher Leaders in the digital transition accelerates systemic transformation and sustains instructional shifts. Therefore, the selection of the teacher leaders is paramount to the mission of growing capacity for transformation.

Think carefully about who is recruited for this effort. In my experience, the most effective teacher leaders are not early adopters. They are not naysayers. They are those who live in the middle. They are looking for new opportunities. They are respected by their colleagues. They are open to trial and error as well as open to sharing their classroom with others to create a “learning lab” environment. To quote Michael Fullan, “Increase the capacity of the middle as it becomes a better partner upward and downward.”

Once suitable candidates are identified, offer those individuals pedagogically rich professional learning as well. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, provide these individuals opportunities to develop the leadership skills needed to ignite a culture of transformation within their schools and districts.

Immerse building administrators. Remember that building administrators are the lead learners and they, too, need immersive professional development. While their experiences will differ somewhat from teachers, they also need professional development experiences to fully learn what I feel are the Golden Rules of effective digital leadership:

  • The culture of continuous improvement begins with the building administrator.
  • A focus on pedagogy drives transformation.
  • Know where teachers are currently and where they need to go next to guide your professional development planning.

Include and involve students. We design professional development to impact student learning. We champion increases in student engagement and student achievement. We measure student achievement to evaluate our professional development success. However, do we include and involve students in our professional development initiatives? We know the importance of not doing the professional development to the teachers. Shouldn’t this also be true for students?

Today’s students live and breathe in a digital world, and often they are more proficient with digital tools and resources than we adults are. So let’s not do these instructional changes to the students; let’s involve them.

At the most basic level, you can include the examination of student work artifacts as a regular component of professional development. Use protocols, learning walks, and videos to see students in action. When teachers try a new digital strategy they learn during a professional development session, ask students for feedback. Bring the feedback to the next professional development session. Analyze it. But, most importantly, celebrate it.

One of the key lessons I’ve learned in my 30 years in education is that change is messy. However, if you build a professional development initiative that contains these key concepts, you will empower educators to create the productive messiness that creates true systemic transformation.

Karen Beerer, Ed.D, is Discovery Education’s vice president of learning and development. She began her career as a second-grade teacher, but also taught fifth grade, seventh grade, and graduate-level courses. Dr. Beerer served as a reading specialist and an elementary principal as well as a supervisor of curriculum and professional development. Prior to joining Discovery Education, she served as the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment in the Boyertown Area School District in Pennsylvania for eight years.

Photo: MediaBakery

The Educational Evolution: From Paper to Digital Assessment


The Educational Evolution: From Paper to Digital Assessment

Three tips to help your school successfully move tests online.

By Leslie Tyler

We’ve obviously seen major changes in state standardized testing over the past couple of years—new standards, new online methods, and new question formats. These changes have pushed many districts to put more devices in the classroom and move their interim formative assessments online. So, how’s it going?

For some states, the launch has been bumpy. Computer systems failed. Parents opted out. Politicians moved to overhaul the system yet again. But quietly, the transition to online assessment is starting to pay off in schools and districts. Districts that have invested in online formative assessment tools are using them to identify issues and differentiate instruction. Educators are saving time (less grading, no scanning bubble sheets or collating reports). School and district leaders, as well as teachers, can instantly access shared data on student progress and act on it.

For example, Barnegat Township School District in New Jersey uses Edulastic, an online assessment tool, to place their middle school math students into the appropriately leveled classes. Previously, they gave these diagnostic tests on paper, requiring teachers to spend hours grading the exams, aggregating the data and grouping students. By giving the tests online, the math department can spend more time adapting their instruction instead of simply gathering data.

“It was so easy to see which questions students uniformly got wrong since the color coding is very clear,” one middle school math teacher said. “I could quickly tell if there was something wrong with the question, or if I needed to go back and reteach those concepts and skills.”

In working with dozens of schools and districts to move assessments online, at Edulastic, we’ve found a few things that make the transition easier and more successful.

  1. Decide what tests to give online.

While this seems incredibly basic, many schools and districts currently have a mishmash of different assessments. For your first online assessment, the more standard you can make the content, the cleaner your data will be. Publishers like Key Data Systems and Certica make their items available in several online platforms, so this is an easy way to get started with a district-wide benchmark.

Many schools and districts, like Barnegat, have solid paper assessments that they can move to an online platform. If these tests are mostly multiple choice, you can adapt them to the new technology-enhanced items by changing some math questions to calculated answers and changing “What is the sequence?”-type questions to drag and drop.

If you’re going to create your own assessment, start with the most well-developed paper one you have, and involve your most innovative teachers. There’s a learning curve involved in creating questions for an online platform or transforming existing questions. A teacher or coaching group that wants to dive in and do something in a new way will help the project get off the ground.

  1. Get your IT ready.

You can effectively assess online with a variety of technology setups—you do not need to be 1:1. We’ve had success with everything from desktops in computer labs to classroom carts to BYOD buildings. Of course, you want to choose an assessment platform that works on the devices you already have.

Avoid the most common issues by making sure you have working devices and enough internet bandwidth to handle the number of students who will be testing at once. In addition, ensure network access to any content students must access during the assessment, such as streaming YouTube videos or news articles. An easy way to test content of this sort is to have a group of teachers simulate the assessment. They will both verify the technology and get a feel for the student experience so they can give better directions and troubleshoot.

You can make moving online easier by using tools that integrate with your current technology. For example, if your school uses Google Apps for Education and/or Chromebooks, you can use an assessment tool that offers Google single sign-on. This relieves teachers and students of the need to remember additional passwords, and in most cases automatically logs them in. Similarly, you can use tools that integrate with your LMS, SIS and/or gradebook to make moving assessments online much easier.

  1. Start with a small pilot.

Choose just one grade, subject, or group of teachers to start with. You’ll learn a lot in creating and administering your first online assessment that will help make your full rollout smoother. Success in the pilot group will also help bring more change-resistant teachers on board.

Most importantly, however, a small pilot will show you what type of data you need to get and how you need it formatted. It’s difficult to imagine what reports you need without seeing real student data. You can get so much more than test scores from an online assessment. Do you want to compare student or class scores to a district average? Group students into performance bands? Track student or subgroup performance over time? Measure mastery of standards? By doing one assessment and analyzing the data you’ll zero in on the most important reports to you.

Change is difficult, but these steps will help you move all of your assessments online. Having the right data at your fingertips will reveal insights you previously couldn’t see. Then you and your team can spend time moving the numbers instead of crunching them.

Leslie Tyler is a vice president of Marketing and School Partnerships at Edulastic, a platform for personalized formative assessment for K–12 students and school districts.

Photo: MediaBakery

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.