How Classroom-Invented Innovations Can Have Broad Impacts

blog_3-8-18_blackboard_500x381When I was in high school, I had an after-school job at a small electronics company that made and sold equipment, mostly to the U.S. Navy. My job was to work with another high school student and our foreman to pack and unpack boxes, do inventories, basically whatever needed doing.

One of our regular tasks was very time-consuming. We had to test solder extractors to be sure they were working. We’d have to heat up each one for several minutes, touch a bit of solder to it, and wipe off any residue.

One day, my fellow high school student and I came up with an idea. We took 20 solder extractors and lined them up on a work table with 20 electrical outlets. We then plugged them in. By the time we’d plugged in #20, #1 was hot, so we could go back and test it, then #2, and so on. An hour-long job was reduced to 10 minutes. We were being paid the princely sum of $1.40 an hour, so we were saving the company big bucks. Our foreman immediately saw the advantages, and he told the main office about our idea.

Up in the main office, far from the warehouse, was a mean, mean man. He wore a permanent scowl. He had a car with mean, mean bumper stickers. I’ll call him Mr. Meanie.

Mr. Meanie hated everyone, but he especially hated the goofy, college-bound high school students in the warehouse. So he had to come see what we were doing, probably to prove that it was dumb idea.

Mr. Meanie came and asked me to show him the solder extractors. I laid them out, same as always, and everything worked, same as always, but due to my anxiety under Mr. Meanie’s scowl, I let one of the cords touch its neighboring solder extractor. It was ruined.

Mr. Meanie looked satisfied (probably thinking, “I knew it was a dumb idea”), and left without a word. But as long as I worked at the company, we never again tested solder extractors one at a time (and never scorched another cord). My guess is that long after we were gone, our method remained in use despite Mr. Meanie. We’d overcome him with evidence that no one could dispute.

In education, we employ some of the smartest and most capable people anywhere as teachers. Teachers innovate, and many of their innovations undoubtedly improve their own students’ outcomes. Yet because most teachers work alone, their innovations rarely spread or stick even within their own schools. When I was a special education teacher long ago, I made up and tested out many innovations for my very diverse, very disabled students. Before heading off for graduate school, I wrote them out in detail for whoever was going to receive my students the following year. Perhaps their next teachers received and paid attention to my notes, but probably not, and they could not have had much impact for very long. More broadly, there is just no mechanism for identifying and testing out teachers’ innovations and then disseminating them to others, so they have little impact beyond the teacher and perhaps his or her colleagues and student teachers, at best.

One place in the education firmament where teacher-level innovation is encouraged, noted, and routinely disseminated is in comprehensive schoolwide approaches, such as our own Success for All (SFA). Because SFA has its own definite structure and materials, promising innovations in any school or classroom may immediately apply to the roughly 1000 schools we work with across the U.S. Because SFA schools have facilitators within each school and coaches from the Success for All Foundation who regularly visit in teachers’ classes, there are many opportunities for teachers to propose innovations and show them off. Those that seem most promising may be incorporated in the national SFA program, or at least mentioned as alternatives in ongoing coaching.

As one small example, SFA constantly has students take turns reading to each other. There used to be arguments and confusion about who goes first. A teacher in Washington, DC noticed this and invented a solution. She appointed one student in each dyad to be a “peanut butter” and the other to be a “jelly.” Then she’d say, “Today, let’s start with the jellies,” and the students started right away without confusion or argument. Now, 1000 schools use this method.

A University of Michigan professor, Don Peurach, studied this very aspect of Success for All and wrote a book about it, called Seeing Complexity in Public Education (Oxford University Press, 2011). He visited dozens of SFA schools, SFA conferences, and professional development sessions, and interviewed hundreds of participants. What he described is an enterprise engaged in sharing evidence-proven practices with schools and at the same time learning from innovations and problem solutions devised in schools and communicating best practices back out to the whole network.

I’m sure that other school improvement networks do the same, because it just makes sense. If you have a school network with common values, goals, approaches, and techniques, how does it keep getting better over time if it does not learn from those who are on the front lines? I’d expect that such very diverse networks as Montessori and Waldorf schools, KIPP and Success Academy, and School Development Program and Expeditionary Learning schools, must do the same. Each of the improvements and innovations contributed by teachers or principals may not be big enough to move the needle on achievement outcomes by themselves, but collectively they keep programs moving forward as learning organizations, solving problems and improving outcomes.

In education, we have to overcome our share of Mr. Meanies trying to keep us from innovating or evaluating promising approaches. Yet we can overcome blockers and doubters if we work together to progressively improve proven programs. We can overwhelm the Mr. Meanies with evidence that no one can dispute.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.


How Is Standards-Based Instruction Standard in Classroom Practice?

Education policy, goes an old saying, is like a storm at sea. Crashing waves, thunder, lightning, and cross-currents at the surface, but 10 fathoms down, nothing ever changes.

In our time, one of the epic storms in education relates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards that resemble CCSS. Common Core was intended to move instructional practices and student outcomes toward problem-solving, higher-order thinking, and contextualized knowledge, and away from rote learning, memorization, and formulas. We are now five years into this reform. How is it changing what teachers actually do in the classroom?

Fortunately, there is a research center working to understand this question: the Center for Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) at the University of Pennsylvania. C-SAIL, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, is carrying out several studies to examine how state policies more or less aligned with Common Core or college- and career-ready standards are changing teachers’ instruction.

Recently, C-SAIL researchers Adam Edgerton, Morgan Polikoff, and Laura Desimone, published an article on representative state-wide surveys of teachers in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas. Kentucky and Ohio were early, enthusiastic adopters of Common Core, while Texas was one of just two states (with Virginia) that have always refused to adopt Common Core standards, giving up a shot at substantial Race to the Top grants for their obstinance. However, Texas has its own standards intended to be college-and career-ready.

In all three states, teachers reported teaching many objectives emphasized by their states’ standards, but a roughly equal number of objectives de-emphasized by the standards. This was true in reading and math and in elementary and secondary schools.

C-SAIL is doing studies in which they will obtain logs and other more detailed information on daily lessons. Perhaps they will find that teachers are increasingly teaching content aligned with their state standards. But from the C-SAIL survey, it seems unlikely that these differences will be profound enough to greatly affect students’ achievement, which is, after all, the ultimate goal.

There is a lot to admire in the Common Core and other college-and career-ready standards, and perhaps the best parts are in fact changing practices. However, turning around a country the size of the U.S., with 50 states, 14,000 school districts, 120,000 public schools, and a tradition of local autonomy is no easy feat. One big problem is that issues that rise to the stormy surface are buffeted by political currents, so they often don’t last long enough to make widespread change.

C-SAIL provides a useful service in monitoring how policy changes practice, so we can at least learn from the college-and career-ready standards movement (within which Common Core plays an important part). Journalists love to write about the crashing waves at the surface of education reform, but we need independent, scientific organizations like C-SAIL to tell us what’s really happening 10 fathoms down, where the kids are.

Teachers’ Roles in Evidence-Based Reform

Long ago, I was a special education teacher in Oregon. Someone at that time came up with the idea that since learning was harder in the earlier stages of a skill than it was later on, progress on advanced levels of a skill should be more rapid. They gave us teachers “six-cycle graph paper” to graph individual children’s progress on each skill we taught them. The graph paper was marked to show logarithmic growth, where the units were large at the low levels of a skill and small at the high levels, so a progress chart would show as a straight line.

Does this make any sense to you? Well, it did not make any sense to me and my fellow-teachers, either. Yet it was presented to us as mandatory, a state or district requirement.

We tried, but we just couldn’t make the six-cycle graph paper work. It required a massive amount of paperwork and calculation, taking us away from teaching. We staged a small revolt, and within less than a month, as I recall, six-cycle graph paper was only used for kids to color on.

Six-cycle graph paper was a foolish idea from the beginning. Every teacher in my school, and (I’d guess) in every school could see that it was unworkable and hopeless. But nobody asked us. No research supporting its use was even presented to us, if it existed (which I very much doubt). Further, and perhaps most damaging, the six-cycle graph paper experience eroded our faith in our own school administration and in innovation itself, and it made us less likely to implement other innovations that might be more promising.

After my time as a teacher, I went to graduate school, and then I began working on development, evaluation, and dissemination of cooperative learning strategies in elementary and middle schools. My colleagues and I began our dissemination efforts by doing large, voluntary workshops for teachers. Any teacher of any subject or grade level could attend, so we were usually working with just a few teachers from any one school. We rapidly learned that this kind of scattershot professional development was extremely popular, but it did not stick very well in the schools. The problem was that isolated teachers had difficulty maintaining an innovation without the support of their administration and peers.

Nell Duke, today a well-known researcher, tells a story that perfectly illustrates the problem. As a young elementary teacher, she read about cooperative learning and implemented it in her class with great eagerness and success. However, her principal was not amused. “Miss Duke,” he said, “what in blazes are you doing in there?” She enthusiastically explained cooperative learning, told him about the research on it, and explained how excited and productive the students were.

“I suppose that’s all right,” he said. “But can’t you get them to do it quietly?”

Having individual teachers be the unit of innovation or dissemination made it difficult to ensure that teachers had understanding and supportive administrators, coaching, or other ongoing support, and many of them either failed due to implementation problems that could have easily been remedied, or they succumbed to pressure from the administration or peers over time to conform with what the rest of the school was doing.

From my experience, widespread and impactful use of proven programs is not likely to succeed if it is imposed upon teachers or if it is sprinkled across the landscape as Johnny Appleseed did. How could the whole school become the unit of dissemination with the active participation of the teachers?

When we began Success for All in 1987, my colleagues and I hit upon a formula that we still use today with great success. Success for All (SFA) is a whole-school approach, intended to work in schools that serve mostly disadvantaged elementary and middle schools. Such schools can be assumed to have already tried and failed with many innovations, and they may be suspicious that this is just one more.

Our solution, starting with our very first SFA school in Baltimore, was to introduce the program to the administration and teaching staff and then let them vote by secret ballot as to whether or not they wished to participate. A positive vote of 80% was required for us to enter the school.

The voting does many things. First, it convinces the whole staff that they truly have a choice, and that for once they are not being pushed into something they did not select. Second, the process leading up to the vote already helps to get teachers thinking about how they can work with peers to improve the whole school, not just their personal classroom.

Votes are usually positive, but the voting process may reveal issues teachers want resolved before they take on an innovation. For example, teachers may say, “We’ll support this program, but we’ll need additional planning time. Can you promise that?” If the principal agrees, the vote is likely to be positive. When a school cannot arrive at a positive vote it is usually the case that there are serious problems in the school, such as a lack of trust between teachers and administrators. It is probably a good idea to delay starting a major innovation until such problems are worked out.

When starting a schoolwide innovation in a given district or region, it makes a lot of sense to start with schools that eagerly adopt the model. The vote helps identify such schools. Other schools that are less eager can then see how things go with the early adopters and come into the project later on. Within schools, the few reluctant teachers (less than 20%), seeing their peers voting in favor of SFA, are usually willing to give it a try, and may gain enthusiasm over time.

Beyond the voting itself, treating schools as the unit of implementation provides schools with new strategies for improving their whole teaching staff. It gives all teachers a common language, common tools, access to joint training and in-class coaching, and peer assistance. Principals may use distributed leadership, involving teachers and other staff in committees to plan school strategies to solve common problems (such as behavior/attendance, parent/community involvement, onboarding of new teachers, and teaching strategies for particular topics and grade levels). Instead of just one or two leaders in a school, every teacher becomes a leader in some area of expertise or interest.

A school that has chosen a proven program and is implementing it with understanding, enthusiasm, and the participation of all school staff is a fun, satisfying place to work. It can retain its teachers, instead of seeing them “promoted” to less challenging parts of town, because teachers prefer to work in supportive, successful environments in which their ideas and leadership are sought after and appreciated.

In addition to voting, teachers can play a key role in adapting the program to meet local circumstances, needs, and resources. They may introduce innovations after they have mastered the basics, and these innovations may catch on in the school, district, or the entire network of SFA schools nationally. Further, schools often pilot new strategies or materials and provide feedback to program developers.

I believe that whatever innovations developers are trying to disseminate, teachers should have the opportunity to choose (or not choose) them as a total school or distinct section of a school, such as the math department or the primary team. This mode of dissemination preserves teachers’ rights to participate in essential decisions about their own school without requiring that each school or teacher reinvent the wheel.

Or the six-cycle graph paper.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation


Making Teaching and Teacher Education Respected Professions

I had an interesting conversation at the recent AERA meetings with the editor of my Pearson educational psychology text, Kevin Davis. He posed a question to me: “How can we convince school leaders, politicians, and the public that schools of education provide something of value to future teachers?”

I’ve thought a lot about this question, and about an even broader question: How can we increase respect for the teaching profession itself? These two questions are closely linked, of course, because if teachers were respected, the schools that produce them would be respected, and vice versa.

My answer, you may not be surprised to hear, drew from the history of medicine. Long ago, doctors were little respected because few of their treatments actually worked. My own grandfather, an immigrant from Argentina, believed that doctors had nothing to offer, and he refused to go to a doctor or hospital unless absolutely necessary. “Hospitals are where you go to die,” he always said (Note: he was healthy into his nineties and died at 96. In a hospital.).

However, physicians gained in status as their profession gained in proven treatments. In the 19th century, doctors could set bones, help in childbirth, administer smallpox vaccines, and prescribe various treatments that were mostly useless. However, in the 20th century, there was progress in what doctors could do. In mid-century, discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin, a polio vaccine, and many other advances truly made medicine, physicians, and schools of medicine respected. Since 1962, when federal laws began to require randomized experiments for medications, the pace of discovery and application of effective treatments has exploded, and as physicians can reliably treat more and more diseases, respect for them and the schools that produce them has grown apace.

In education, this is how our profession and our schools of education will grow in status. As in medicine, this change will not happen all at once or overall, but it will happen as schools and teachers increasingly embrace and apply proven approaches.

Imagine, for example, that primary teachers were universally trained to use programs capable of ensuring reading success for their children. That secondary math teachers could ensure an understanding of algebra for every student. That science teachers could make American schools competitive with those in East Asia. Each of these accomplishments would be hugely beneficial for students, of course. But think what it would do for our profession. Picture this. A first grade teacher walks into a party. The room falls quiet. Parents meekly approach her to ask how they can help, or supplement her efforts with their children. Others are impressed by the school of education she attended. She gets this respect because everyone knows that she can teach every child who enters her class to read, no matter what. She has proven skills and knowledge that the world at large does not possess.

That’s how our profession must earn its respect. When every teacher has knowledge and skills that are proven effective and learned in schools of education, we’ll be respected. And we’ll deserve it.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation


Remembering Al Shanker: Teachers and Professionalism

Back in the day, I knew Al Shanker, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers. No one has ever been more of an advocate for teachers’ rights – or for their professionalism. At the same time, no one was more of an advocate for evidence as a basis for teaching. He saw no conflict between evidence-based teaching and professionalism. In fact, he saw them as complementary. He argued that in fields in which professionals possess unique knowledge and skills, backed up by research, those professionals are well respected, well compensated, and play a leading role in the institutions in which they work.

If teachers want to be taken seriously, they must be seen to be using methods, technologies, and materials that not just anyone knows how to use, and that are known to be effective. Think physicians, engineers, and lawyers. Their positions in society depend on their possession of specialized and proven knowledge and skills.

Yet when I speak about evidence-based reform, I often get questions from teachers about whether using evidence-proven programs will take away their professionalism, creativity, or independence. I am sympathetic to this question, because I am aware that teachers have had to put up with quite a lot in recent years. Teaching is increasingly being seen by government and the public as something anyone can do.

But how can the teaching profession turn this around? I think Al Shanker had the right answer. If teachers (and teacher educators) can honestly present themselves to the public as people who can select and use proven programs and practices, ones that not just anyone could use effectively, that would go a long way, I think, to enhancing the public’s perception of the professionalism of the field. It would also be awfully good for students, parents, and the economy, of course.

Al Shanker knew that teachers were going to have to publicly and fervently embrace evidence, both to do their jobs better and to make it clear that being a teacher requires knowledge and skills than the general public can respect. I’m certain that he would be a big fan of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) evidence standards, which will help educators, policy makers, and researchers identify and put to use proven programs and practices.

Evidence-based reform is essential for kids, but also for teachers. Al Shanker knew that 30 years ago, and his AFT has been a champion for evidence ever since.


Farewell to the Walking Encyclopedia

Like just about everyone these days, I carry a digital device in my pocket at all times. At the office, I have a powerful desktop, and in the evening, I curl up with my iPad. Each of these contains the knowledge and wisdom of the ages. Kids and parents have as much access as I do.

The ubiquity of knowledge due to digital devices has led many educational theorists and practitioners to wonder whether teachers are even necessary anymore. Can’t everyone just look things up, do calculations, and generally provide themselves with just-in-time wisdom-on-the-spot?

Unfortunately, the truth is that digital devices are not yet transforming education. But what they are doing is putting the last nail in the coffin of the teacher as walking encyclopedia.

In the old days, a teacher could contribute a lot just by knowing more than the students. Teaching was composed of content knowledge (what the teacher knows and can transmit) and pedagogy (how the teacher manages classrooms, motivates students, makes complex ideas clear, and teaches learning-to-learn skills). Content knowledge is still crucial, but a “walking encyclopedia” is of declining value when everyone can find out everything all the time.

Does the decline of the walking encyclopedia diminish the role of the teacher? Just the opposite. When kids are immersed in too much information, what they need is a guide to help them learn how to comprehend complex texts and understand and organize information. They need to know how to write, how to solve complex problems, how to set up and carry out experiments, how to work well with others, how to contextualize their own thoughts to reason productively, how to manage their own behavior, how to maintain positive motivation, and how to be productive even in the face of difficulties. Each of these objectives, and many more, are at the heart of effective pedagogy. All are aided by content knowledge, of course, but a teacher who knows a lot about his or her discipline but not much about managing and motivating students is not going to succeed in today’s world.

It is my experience that the teaching innovations most likely to enhance student learning are hardly ever those that provide new, improved textbooks or digital content. Instead, they almost invariably provide extensive professional development to teachers, followed up by in-school coaching. In each case, the professional development and coaching focuses on pedagogy, not content. We’ve found the same pattern in all subjects and grade levels.

The task ahead of us in evidence-based education, I believe, is to use evidence of what works in pedagogy to help teachers grow as motivating, engaging, self-aware learning guides, capable of using general and subject-specific pedagogies effectively to help students become eager and capable learners. My encyclopedia walks with me in my pocket wherever I go. That’s true of students, too. They don’t need another at the front of their class. What they do need is someone who can make them care about, comprehend, organize, synthesize, and communicate the megabytes of information they carry.


Accountability and Evidence

Illustration by James Bravo


At some level, just about everyone involved in education is in favor of “using what works.” There are plenty of healthy arguments about how we find out what works and how evidence gets translated into practice, but it’s hard to support a position that we shouldn’t use what works under at least some definition of evidence.

However, the dominant idea among policy makers about how we find out what works seems to be “Set up accountability systems and then learn from successful teachers, schools, systems, or states.” This sounds sensible, but in fact it is extremely difficult to do.

This point is made in a recent blog post by Tom Kane. Here’s a key section of his argument:

[In education] we tend to roll out reforms broadly, with no comparison group in mind, and hope for the best. Just imagine if we did that in health care. Suppose drug companies had not been required to systematically test drugs, such as statins, before they were marketed. Suppose drugs were freely marketed and the medical community simply stood back and monitored rates of heart disease in the population to judge their efficacy. Some doctors would begin prescribing them. Most would not. Even if the drugs were working, heart disease could have gone up or down, depending on other trends such as smoking and obesity. Two decades later, cardiologists would still be debating their efficacy. And age-adjusted death rates for heart disease would not have fallen by 60 percent [as they have] since 1980.

Kane was writing about big federal policies, such as Reading First and Race to the Top, which cannot be evaluated because they are national before their impact is known. But the same is true of smaller programs and practices. It is very difficult to look at, for example, more and less successful schools (on accountability measures) and figure out what they did that made the difference. Was it a particular program or practice that other schools could also adopt? Or was it that better-scoring schools were lucky in having better principals and teachers, or that the school’s intake or neighborhood is changing, or any number of other factors that may not even be stable for more than a year or two?

Accountability is necessary for communities to find out how students are doing. All countries have some test-based accountability (though none test every year, as we do from grades 3 through 8), but anyone who imagines that we can just look at test scores to find what works and what doesn’t is not being realistic.

The way we can find out what works is to compare schools or classrooms assigned to use any given program with those that continue current practices. Ideally, schools and classrooms are assigned at random to experimental or control groups. That’s how we find out what works in medicine, agriculture, technology, and other areas.

I know I’ve pointed this out in previous blog posts, and I’ll point it out in many to come. Sooner or later, it has to occur to our leaders that in education, too, we can use experiments to test good ideas before we subject millions of kids to something that will probably fail to improve their achievement. Again.