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June 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 9

Best of Educational Leadership 2012–13

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Summer is a time to reflect and explore. To help you delve deeper into the issues that are important to you as an educator, the EL editors provide highlights from eight articles that represent some of the best of EL during the last publishing year. Whether you're hearing about these articles for the first time or reviewing them with fresh eyes, each one offers essential insights and recommendations you can use to become a more informed, effective educator.

Seven Keys to Effective Feedback

by Grant Wiggins
  • Good work!
  • This is a weak paper.
  • You got a C on your presentation.
  • I'm so pleased by your poster!
Are these four statements feedback? No, writes Grant Wiggins. They rate, evaluate, praise, or criticize what the student did—but they provide no actionable information. The learner only knows that someone else places a high or low value on his or her performance.
How might we recast these comments to be useful feedback? Tip: Always add a mental colon after each statement of value. (You'll soon find that you can drop the evaluative language; it serves no useful function).
For example,
  • "Good work: Your use of words was more precise in this paper than in the last one, and I saw the scenes clearly in my mind's eye."
  • "This is a weak paper: Almost from the first sentence, I was confused as to your initial thesis and the evidence you provide for it. In the second paragraph you propose a different thesis, and in the third paragraph you don't offer evidence, just beliefs."
In this article, Wiggins explains that advice, praise, criticism, and evaluation aren't really feedback. He defines feedback as "information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal." To be helpful, feedback must be goal-referenced: The performer must have a clear goal, and the feedback must tell the performer whether he or she is on track to reach that goal or needs to make adjustments. Helpful feedback is also
  • Tangible, explaining clearly and specifically how the results achieved so far relate to the goal.
  • Actionable, telling the learner exactly what he or she needs to do to improve.
  • User-friendly, avoiding overloading the learner with too much information or too technical information (thus, expert coaches often tell the performer one important thing they noticed that, if changed, would yield immediate improvement).
  • Timely, providing guidance as soon as possible, so that the learner can use it while the attempt and its effects are still fresh in his or her mind.
  • Ongoing, affording frequent, repeated opportunities for the performer to learn from and apply the feedback.
  • Consistent, giving information that the learner considers stable and trustworthy. Thus, it is essential for teachers to be on the same page about what high-quality work is.
Teachers may understandably feel that providing such specific feedback throughout the school day would take too much additional time. But Wiggins contends that saying, "There's no time to give and use feedback" is tantamount to saying, "There's no time to cause learning." Fortunately, the teacher is not the only possible source of effective feedback—peers, other teachers, technology, and instruction that builds in intrinsic feedback are equally powerful. But one way or another, it's essential to provide as much descriptive feedback as possible, says Wiggins, because research clearly tells us that the key to higher student achievement is this: "Less teaching plus more feedback."
Read the complete article from the September 2012 issue, "Feedback for Learning."

Cracking the Behavior Code

by Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan
If you're like most teachers, you've had the experience of being repeatedly defeated by a disruptive student. What can you do? Instead of continuing to fight losing battles, try being FAIR, write Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan, a child psychiatrist and a behavior analyst and special educator.
Begin by understanding the Function of the behavior—for example, whether the student's goal is to escape work or to gain attention. Next, develop Accommodations to reduce the aspects of the environment that trigger the behavior. Then, develop Interaction strategies that are easy to implement and geared to building a nurturing relationship with the student. Finally, decide how to Respond when the student needs support in overcoming his or her negative behavior.
In this article, Rappaport and Minahan give specific examples of how teachers can apply the FAIR plan to students with three common behavior challenges: the oppositional child (who has frequent angry outbursts, excessively argues or questions rules, and often blames others for his or her mistakes); the withdrawn child (who has low energy or motivation to do work and may exhibit symptoms of depression); and the anxious child (who may be easily frustrated, startled, or upset and may have difficulty completing work).
The authors use a hypothetical oppositional child, Ken, to illustrate how a teacher might develop a FAIR plan for a student. First, the teacher uses daily observations and keeps a detailed log to determine what Ken is trying to gain from his inappropriate behavior—for example, to escape tasks that he finds disagreeable. Then, she decides on accommodations—such as offering more open-ended, flexible assignments—to avoid triggering Ken's negative behavior. Next, she implements interaction strategies, such as embedding choices in instruction and building on her relationship with Ken by having lunch together once a month. Finally, the teacher develops strategies to respond to Ken's problem behaviors when they occur. For example, because Ken often seeks to gain attention through argumentative outbursts, the teacher avoids responding to his arguments verbally; instead, she might write him a note that says, "Please start reading quietly" and then quickly walk away, thus deescalating the situation.
The article includes similarly detailed suggestions for working with withdrawn students and anxious students. The common theme is that although teachers cannot control the behavior of all students, they can control certain variables. The authors conclude, "By understanding what the student is communicating, figuring out replacement behaviors, and building a strong relationship, teachers discover that seemingly intractable behavior can diminish and students can thrive."
Read the complete article from the October 2012 issue, "Students Who Challenge Us."

The Potential of Peer Review

by Susan Moore Johnson and Sarah E. Fiarman
If those pushing for more rigorous teacher evaluation really want to improve teaching quality, they need to take another look at Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), write Susan Moore Johnson and Sarah E. Fiarman. Peer evaluators can reduce the demand on administrators' scarce time, provide subject-matter expertise that a principal may lack, introduce the teacher's perspective into the evaluation process, and empower teachers.
To make their case, the authors describe seven school districts that have succeeded with PAR. In these programs, peer reviewers (often called consulting teachers) leave the classroom for 3–5 years to provide intensive, individualized help to a caseload of 15–20 teachers—usually novices, but also experienced teachers who are in need of improvement. Consulting teachers provide months of help to each teacher and then evaluate whether the teacher meets the district's performance standards. Their report is considered by the PAR panel, a joint committee of labor and management overseeing the program. Thus, PAR provides teachers with expert advice for improvement and, if that fails, provides principals with a clear path for dismissing subpar teachers.
The authors' research shows that districts with fully implemented PAR programs retained more novice teachers and dismissed more underperforming teachers than did comparable districts. But to achieve these aims, PAR must be done right. Johnson and Fiarman identify the following components as essential to success:
  • Open and rigorous selection of peer reviewers.
  • Clear guidelines for the reviewers' role.
  • Explicit instructional standards that serve as the basis for evaluations.
  • Deep, ongoing training for peer reviewers.
  • Effective supervision by an empowered PAR panel.
In addition, effective PAR programs must emphasize the assistance component as well as the review component, the authors warn. The focus on helping teachers reach excellence "is crucial to the program's value in raising all teachers' sense of professional responsibility as they receive expert coaching, strive to meet high standards, and discuss their practice with others."
Is it worth all the effort? What could be more important than a system that not only ensures that the best teachers are retained, but also raises the quality of all teachers?
Read the complete article from the November 2012 issue, "Teacher Evaluation: What's Fair? What's Effective?"

The Common Core Ate My Baby and Other Urban Legends

by Timothy Shanahan
The Common Core State Standards will require major changes in instruction. But those changes should be based on reality, not misconceptions.
Unfortunately, a number of urban legends about the Common Core standards have proliferated in the education community, writes Timothy Shanahan. In this article, he critiques the following legends and explains why they are wrong:
Legend 1: The new standards prohibit teachers from setting purposes for reading or discussing prior knowledge. The recommendations against these prereading practices occurred not in the standards themselves, but in the preliminary publishers' criteria that David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (lead authors of the English language arts and literacy standards) issued in June 2011. These criteria did recommend against discussing student background knowledge, having students make predictions about what they would read, or providing purposes to prepare students to read a given text. But Coleman and Pimentel revised the criteria in April 2012 in response to the angry reactions of educators and researchers. Unfortunately, by then many states, schools, and educators had already bought into the claims of the first version.
Legend 2: Teachers are no longer required to teach phonological awareness, phonics, or fluency. On the contrary, the standards document contains a section called "Reading: Foundational Skills," which provides clear, substantial descriptions of phonological awareness (K–1); phonics (K–3); and fluency (K–5) goals. Some of the confusion may arise from the way the standards document is organized: It starts with reading comprehension and ends with the foundations.
Legend 3: English teachers can no longer teach literature in language arts classes. The new standards suggest that 70 percent of older students' reading should focus on nonliterary texts. But that 70 percent refers to all school reading (including science, social studies, mathematics, and other content areas), not just reading in English language arts. Most texts students will study in English classes will still be novels, short stories, poems, and plays.
Legend 4: Teachers must teach students at frustration levels. The Common Core State Standards indicate specific levels of text difficulty that students must be able to handle by the end of each grade. These new levels are considerably higher than current levels. However, this does not mean that teachers should provide only texts that students find frustratingly difficult. Rather, the best way to achieve the higher standards is to give students an array of reading experiences in which they encounter both texts they can read independently and those they need support to comprehend.
Legend 5: Most schools are already teaching to the new standards. In fact, almost all schools will need to make large changes in their practices. Just a few examples: Reading lessons will need to shift away from an emphasis on prereading to greater emphasis on rereading and follow-up, teachers will need to become more adept at teaching students to handle demanding text, and writing instruction will need to focus more on writing about the ideas in texts and less on just putting personal thoughts into words.
Educators who shrug off these changes will face a harsh reality with implementation of the new assessments now under development, writes Shanahan: "We can either shift our practices now in response to these new, demanding standards—or we can wait until our communities find out how well we're really doing."
Read the complete article from the December 2012/January 2013 issue, "Common Core: Now What?"

Fundamentals of Creativity

by Ronald A. Beghetto and James C. Kaufman
People commonly think of creativity as the ability to think outside the box, to be imaginative, or to come up with original ideas. These are aspects of creativity—but they only tell half the story, write noted creativity scholars Ronald A. Beghetto and James C. Kaufman. In this article, they discuss five fundamental insights about the nature of creativity:
  • Creativity takes more than originality. To be considered creative, an idea or product must be both original and task-appropriate, meeting the requirements of the task at hand. For example, consider a teacher who wants students to express creativity in their science fair projects. The teacher explains the requirements of the project (each project must pose a hypothesis, gather evidence to test the hypothesis, and explain whether the hypothesis has been supported). One student's final project simply reproduces a class lab experiment; although this project is task-appropriate, it does not express creativity because it is not original. At the other extreme, one student performs an interpretive dance illustrating mitosis. This project is highly original, but it is not creative because it does not fulfill the requirements of the task.
  • There are different levels of creativity. The authors describe their Four C Model of Creativity, which describes four levels: mini-c (such as a 2nd grader's insight into how to solve a math problem); little-c (such as a 10th grade social studies class developing an original project that combines learning about a key historical event with gathering local histories from community elders); Pro-C (for example, the idea of the flipped classroom pioneered by teachers Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann); and Big-C (for example, Maria Montessori's new approach to early childhood education). Teachers should affirm students' creativity at each level and help them envision the next level.
  • Context matters, and educators can create classroom conditions that encourage creativity. Although a narrow focus on skills that can be tested, all too prevalent in today's schools, can suppress creative thinking, research has demonstrated that creativity is a robust human trait. Teachers can minimize features of the environment that impede creativity (such as social comparisons and contingent rewards) and help students focus on the more personally meaningful aspects of their work.
  • Creativity comes at a cost. Although creativity is often associated with fun, fluff, and frills, part of encouraging creativity is helping students understand that creativity requires work, effort, and risk.
  • There's a time and place for creativity. Accomplished creators know when to be creative. Teachers should help their students develop creative metacognition—a combination of (1) knowing one's own creative strengths and limitations and (2) knowing when, where, how, and why to be creative.
Creativity has become a hot topic in education. But if educators don't have a clear understanding of the nature of creativity itself, calls for teaching creativity may seem like just another guilt-inducing addition to an already-overwhelming set of curricular demands. The five insights that Beghetto and Kaufman offer in this article can help educators integrate student creativity into the everyday curriculum.
Read the complete article from the February 2013 issue, "Creativity Now!"

The Basics of Blended Instruction

by Catlin R. Tucker
"My school is transitioning to the Common Core State Standards, and teachers are being asked to integrate technology. I'm overwhelmed by the prospect!"
This is typical of the cry for help that teachers—many of them veteran teachers with years of classroom experience—are increasingly voicing. But in this article, high school language arts teacher Catlin R. Tucker asserts that blending technology with traditional face-to-face instruction—an approach known as blended learning—may not be as daunting as it seems. Tucker shares five tips that will help teachers navigate the process:
  • Think big, but start small. Aspiring to big goals is laudable, but when you first attempt to weave tradition and technology into a practical, durable education fabric, take small steps. You might begin by integrating one piece of technology that you feel will complement your classroom. Tucker, for example, began by using <LINK URL="http://www.collaborizeclassroom.com">Collaborize Classroom</LINK>, a free discussion platform that she used to replace many of her paper-and-pencil homework assignments with vibrant online debates, discussions, writing assignments, and collaborative group work.
  • Understand you'll make mistakes—and learn from them along the way. Tucker is honest with her students when she tries something new. She asks for help if she has students who are savvy with the particular type of technology she's trying to figure out. She also asks for feedback about their experience with the technology.
  • Use technology to replace and improve what you already do. Technology should not be something new you have to add to your already full plate. For example, a teacher who traditionally has created a handout with a series of comprehension questions could, instead, post a discussion question online using a discussion board.
  • Weave together the classroom and virtual educational media. It's crucial for students to see that the work they do online drives the work they do in the classroom. One way to seamlessly weave together online and classroom work is to ask students to respond to a discussion topic online and then continue the conversation in the classroom.
  • Make students aware of where they can get online. Many teachers are concerned that using technology will handicap students who don't have easy Internet access, but there are ways to equalize access. For example, Tucker has embedded a Google map in her website that has pins in all locations on her campus and in the community where there are computers with public access to the Internet.
Tucker writes, "I realize how daunting the idea of weaving technology into a traditional classroom can be. I've been there; I've felt that apprehension and anxiety. I know it's a big step—but the rewards are even bigger."
Read the complete article from the March 2013 issue, "Technology-Rich Learning."

How Do Principals Really Improve Schools?

by Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos
The carrot-and-stick approach is ineffectual when it comes to improving teacher performance, say Rick DuFour and Mike Mattos in this article. Research has shown that teacher evaluations have not improved teaching or learning. Why not?
The authors' long experience as school administrators has led them to challenge the current culture of blaming teachers and questioning their dedication:
We can find no research to support the assumption that educators choose to use mediocre instructional strategies and withhold effective practices until they receive increased financial incentives. As former principals with almost six decades of experience working with teachers, we found that the members of our faculty, almost without exception, started each day with honorable intentions, worked tirelessly on behalf of their students, and used the best strategies they possessed to promote student success. Further, there's little evidence to support the idea that offering stronger rewards when educators move in the right direction and applying more dire consequences when they don't—dangling crunchier carrots and wielding sharper sticks—spurs teachers to better performance.
The effort to improve schools through tougher supervision and evaluation is doomed to fail because it asks the wrong question: How can I do a better job of monitoring teaching? The right question is, How can we collectively do a better job of monitoring student learning?
And the most powerful strategy for focusing on learning, write DuFour and Mattos, is creating the collaborative culture and collective responsibility of a professional learning community (PLC). Research shows that educators in schools that have embraced PLCs are more likely to
  • Take collective responsibility for student learning, help students achieve at higher levels, and express higher levels of professional satisfaction.
  • Share teaching practices, make results transparent, engage in critical conversations about improving instruction, and institutionalize continual improvement.
  • Improve student achievement and promote shared leadership.
  • Experience the most powerful and beneficial professional development.
  • Remain in the profession.
The authors outline five steps to successfully incorporating PLCs into the school culture, thus producing "learning leaders who create a schoolwide focus on learning both for students and the adults who serve them."
Read the complete article from the April 2013 issue, "The Principalship."

How Preschool Fights Poverty

by Cynthia E. Lamy
In his January 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama called for the federal government to "work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child." This proposal has brought new public and policy attention to the idea of universal preschool. But many policymakers question whether universal preschool programs are worth the large financial investment. Are such programs effective in closing achievement gaps between low-income children and their higher-income peers? In this article, Cynthia Lamy reviews decades of research to address that question.
The research has clearly documented that children from low-income families often arrive at kindergarten lagging substantially behind their wealthier peers in foundational vocabulary, literacy, math, and social skills. These children are less likely to have the early educational supports their wealthier peers enjoy. They are less likely to spend their days in playful conversational banter with an adult who has the time to answer their incessant questions, helping them build their vocabularies and their general stores of knowledge.
A solid body of research now shows that preschool can provide an enormous early boost that can change the academic trajectory of a child forever. But there's an important caveat, says Lamy—to have this impact and fight poverty, preschool programs must be of high quality. She draws this conclusion by reviewing the research that documents the strong, long-term effects of three high-quality programs: the Perry Preschool program, the Abecedarian study, and the Chicago Child-Parent Centers study. These programs have produced such results as higher test scores, reduced special education placements, improved high school graduation rates, lower crime rates, and higher lifetime earnings.
Lamy also reviews the research on several state-level preschool programs—which strive for high quality but often hit the mid-quality range—and Head Start programs, which struggle with funding and are known to be of inconsistent quality. Predictably, research on such programs shows that initial positive results often fade as students progress through school. An exception is New Jersey's statewide Abbott Preschool program, which has produced strong results in terms of higher test scores and decreased grade retention rates.
The comparison of results clearly shows that program quality matters. But, asserts Lamy, the research also supports the idea that striving to provide a high-quality preschool experience for low-income children is a worthwhile goal.
Read the complete article from the May 2013 issue, "The Faces of Poverty."

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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