Marshall Memo 907

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“When I was a kid, nobody spoke about college. There was nothing to talk about… My daughter thinks about it all the time. She knows she has money in there.”

Vaniqua Hudson-Figueroa, a Queens mother, on the $100 college savings account that

was set up four years ago when her daughter was in kindergarten (it will be worth

$3,000 at high-school graduation) in “Seeding Accounts for Kindergartners and Hoping to Grow College Graduates” by Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times, October

13, 2021

“People are amazingly quick to drop stereotypes when they meet an actual individual. You may distrust lawyers but Mary, who is a lawyer, seems quite nice. In general, I’d say people are much more granular, sophisticated, and complex about seeing persons than they are when seeing groups, and the more personalistic the perspective people adopt the wiser and kinder they will be.”

David Brooks in “Here’s the Mindset That’s Tearing Us Apart” in The New York

Times, October 8, 2021

“Feedback is information about how we are doing that guides our efforts to reach a goal.”

Grant Wiggins (quoted in item #1)

“Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.”

Dylan Wiliam (quoted in item #1)

“High-school-age students have a sixth sense for when things feel dopey, dumb, sus, cheesy, corny, basic, cringe, or ‘cheugy.’”

Stephen Sawchuk (see item #4)

“For girls in America, taking in content that seems intended to make you hate your body is an adolescent rite of passage. The medium changes but the ritual stays the same.”

Lindsay Crouse (see item #7)

1. Giving Feedback That Isn’t Consigned to the Bottom of the Backpack

In this Tang Institute article, Bowman Dickson and Andy Housiaux describe every teacher’s least-favorite scenario: after spending hours reading students’ papers, correcting errors, and writing comments, students glance briefly at the grade, compare what they got with a few classmates, and continue to make the same mistakes on the next assignment. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” say Dickson and Housiaux, and provide a synthesis of the academic research on feedback that actually works.

They start with Grant Wiggins’s definition: Feedback is information about how we are doing that guides our efforts to reach a goal. “It can come from others, oneself, or even the task itself,” say Dickson and Housiaux. “It aims to improve subsequent efforts and not just correct work that has already been done.” They give several examples of feedback containing evaluation, advice, and praise, each followed by teacher feedback that’s far more likely to improve students’ work:

– Ineffective: B+ You still need to master exponent rules.

– Better: You are confusing the two main exponent rules – when multiplying two bases you need to add the exponent, not multiply. Practice a few of these types of problems for the next homework assignment.

– Ineffective: Make sure your main idea paragraph relates to your topic.

– Better: Your first sentence is about therapy dogs, but the rest of your paragraph talks about what dogs eat and where dogs sleep. Look at the examples of effective writing on your handout and then rewrite the paragraph.

– Ineffective: Wow! Your lab report is really nicely done.

– Better: You explained your results with good scientific nuance, your methods section is appropriately detailed, and your data presentation is just as polished as the sample lab reports.

“Feedback that is delivered effectively,” say Dickson and Housiaux, “will advance student learning in ways that even the most well-intentioned evaluation, advice, and praise simply cannot.” They boil down the research on effective feedback to four big ideas:

• Big idea #1: Students must engage with feedback in order to learn from it. “Feedback should cause thinking,” says British assessment guru Dylan Wiliam. “Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.” This means reserving classroom time for students to process the teacher’s comments (often posed as questions or hints) and engage with a brief follow-up task – which might be correcting an error or writing about what they learned from the comments, what they did well, and what they will do differently next time. Students need to learn how to be “feedback seekers,” looking for it, taking it in, and following up.

• Big idea #2: Relationships matter. Establishing trust is an essential precursor; then the teacher can be a “warm demander,” setting high expectations and conveying feedback with growth-mindset language that speaks to students’ work, not their identity. Without a trusting relationship, teachers’ power position, along with their gender, race, or other characteristics, can trigger stereotype threat in students. “Don’t withhold criticism or overpraise mediocre work,” say Dickson and Housiaux. And create a classroom culture in which mistakes are seen as an important part of learning.

• Big idea #3: Focus on specific instructional goals. “If students do not understand where they are aiming, they will not be able to make sense of the feedback they receive on their performance,” say Dickson and Housiaux. That’s why it’s vital to be transparent about learning outcomes and assessment criteria, and provide exemplars of student work at different levels of proficiency. The teacher’s goal is to build skills and habits of mind that will help students think differently and get better. “Feedback should change the way students think and engage with future material,” say the authors, “instead of just fixing mistakes on past work.” To that end, less is more; feedback should target only a few key areas.

• Big idea #4: Separate feedback from grading. Giving grades is a requirement in almost all schools, but teachers should be under no illusions that grades improve performance. The challenge is getting students less focused on grades and more on continuous improvement. “Teachers can encourage students to focus more on the feedback they receive by spending time explaining the difference between feedback and grades,” say Dickson and Housiaux, “and then showing the ways in which students can improve by attending carefully to the teacher’s feedback.” Teachers also need to nudge students toward autonomy and independence, providing opportunities for and instruction in self-assessment and peer feedback versus constant dependence on teachers.

At the end of their paper, Dickson and Housiaux include six case studies showing how these big ideas play out in classrooms – a student demanding to know why a classmate got a better grade; students not improving despite copious written feedback on their work; a teacher’s comment taken the wrong way by a student; a student not doing homework and failing to ask for help. Each case is followed by focusing questions on what might change a frustrating situation.

“Feedback in Practice: Research for Teachers” by Bowman Dickson and Andy Housiaux, Tang Institute at Andover, August 2021; Housiaux can be reached at

2. What Rigor Looks Like in an Equitable Classroom

In this Chronicle of Higher Education article with implications for K-12, Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathy (University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill) say they’re troubled by the way “rigor” is interpreted by some instructors:

– It’s students’ responsibility to show grit and do the deep analysis and thinking.

– Otherwise, how will students succeed in the real world?

– Providing too much structure and hand-holding sells students short.

– It amounts to lowering standards and watering down the curriculum.

– If too many students are getting high grades, the class isn’t rigorous.

– Weed out students who aren’t up to par.

“We’re not in that camp,” say Jack and Sathy. These beliefs, they assert, “privilege students who already have high academic literacy or who are already adept at managing higher education’s unofficial rules, routines, and structures – also known as the hidden curriculum.” The result is that struggling students feel blamed, that they don’t belong.

So how can teachers maintain high standards and prepare students for future success? Jack and Sathy have three suggestions:

• Build plenty of structure into assignments. That means making sure students are clear about what’s expected – with an English assignment, for example, specifying the assignment’s genre, audience, purpose, and success criteria. “Showing students the process – the nuts and bolts of how to do the assignment – is not doing the work for them,” say Jack and Sathy. “In fact, you may well be asking students to do more, not less.”

• Develop a fair grading structure. Grading on a curve (for example, only the top five percent of students get an A) creates competition for high grades and communicates exclusion. Who is most likely to succeed? ask Jack and Sathy. “Students who already do well on high-stakes tests, who have tutors, who’ve had test-preparation training, who have time to form a study group or who are able to complete all the practice problems because they don’t have work or caregiving responsibilities.” Competitive grading can be profoundly discouraging for some students and even derail their desire to pursue a major or a career.

• Commit to inclusive teaching. For starters, Jack and Sathy suggest that we stop using the word rigor, which too often conveys the idea that some students don’t belong. Instructors’ mission should be to work with all students and “invite them in.” Some specific actions:

– Clearly communicate high standards and learning expectations.

– Convey the belief that all students will be successful.

– Design lessons that get all students actively engaged, including collaborative work.

– Frequently assign low-stakes tasks that allow students to put concepts and skills to work.

– Promptly give formative feedback.

– Grade students’ work on mastery of learning objectives, not on a curve.

“It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor’” by Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathy in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 2021 (Vol. 68, #4, pp. 46-47); the authors can be reached at and

3. A High-School Class Debates Whether Othello Should Be Taught

“How well does our literary canon serve our society, and how does it need to be changed?” asks North Carolina teacher Anne Beatty in this English Journal article. Specifically, what about Shakespeare’s Othello? Beatty was moved to reconsider teaching the play when an African-American student said, “All I see is another angry black man.” Three years ago, Beatty decided to study the play with an honors ninth-grade class with a dual focus: the quality of the play as literature, and the issue of race. Here’s how her three-week unit proceeded.

The first half of each class was devoted to studying the play – characters, language, motifs; the second half focused on race. “Each day,” says Beatty, “when we transition from Shakespeare (back then) to racism (right now), the room’s energy shifts into a cocktail of giddiness, relief, and apprehension.” Students are eager to talk about the issue, but hesitant to share; when they do, their personal anecdotes create a tricky dynamic. Seeing the need for ground rules, Beatty adopted Glenn Singleton’s Four Agreements: Stay engaged. Speak your truth. Experience discomfort. Expect and accept non-closure.

After asking students to share family dynamics on race (some said it was never talked about, others that it was talked about all the time), the class discussed definitions of racism and how it was evident in the play: blatantly racist descriptions of Othello; assumptions about his magical ability to trick Desdemona into marrying him; and whether students of color can learn about racism in a play written from the oppressor’s point of view.

Beatty then had students complete brief writing prompts on their experiences and views on race and the literary canon: first encounters with racism (there were lots of stories about hair and food); reactions to books they’d been assigned in English classes, including books about people different from them; feelings about Shakespeare; and their opinions on books in the canon and who gets to decide what belongs and what doesn’t. One student wrote, “While reading books about different stories is good, when ‘valuable’ stories (usually confusing) are pushed onto you and you are told they have a ‘greater meaning’ it lessens the experience of reading the book.” This led straight back to the question of whether Othello belongs in the canon.

Next, students read a selection of articles, including one by an African-American actor on his changing view of playing the part of Othello, another about white actors playing Othello in blackface; and watched a video about a Shakespeare production. What did you notice? asked Beatty. What surprised you? Did you disagree with anything? “As students analyze the implications of dehumanization, evil, and criminality in Shakespeare’s language describing Othello,” says Beatty, “the jump from Shakespeare in the first half of class to contemporary racism in the second begins to feel not like a jump at all.” Students do more writing in response to articles and artifacts, making observations and forming judgments.

Finally the class returns to the essential question of the unit. “Armed with an understanding of the play and (for some more than others) an appreciation of its literary merit,” says Beatty, “students understand why people choose to teach it. If I did my job well, they glimpsed the beauty and richness of Shakespeare…Across four hundred years, Shakespeare calls out the dangers inherent in spinning a reality out of lies, grudges, and envy; he reminds us of the real, violent consequences that a false reality can bring to people’s lives. Iago has something to teach us.”

The class’s rich discussion of race in America focuses students on the troubling narrative in the denouement of the play: an angry, violent black man killing an innocent white woman. Students read arguments for and against teaching the play and make their closing arguments in a Socratic seminar, with classmates taking notes. Finally, they write an essay in which they are asked to respond to the essential question, include some analysis of the play, and provide a synthesis of at least three other sources.

What did students say? They came down on both sides, with some arguing for teaching the play, others saying the dangers of perpetuating racist views outweigh the literary merits and historical importance. All agreed that if the play is taught, it must be accompanied by an open discussion of race. “Most satisfying,” says Beatty, “is that students see this question as central to their lives, and their voice as worthy of weighing in. Revamping this unit reminded me of a piece of wisdom from an Advanced Placement trainer: the best questions to ask are the ones you do not know the answer to. Let’s invite our students into the asking, and let’s wrestle with these difficult questions alongside them.”

Beatty has continued to teach this unit, incorporating one student’s suggestion to teach a contemporary book alongside Othello (she’s used The Hate U Give, The Bluest Eye, and Homegoing, as well as James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew.” She believes a similar approach would work with other canonical works that have been challenged for their depiction of marginalized people, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Heart of Darkness.

“Challenging the Canon: Teaching Othello as a Questionable Text” by Anne Beatty in English Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 111, #1, pp. 32-39); Beatty can be reached at

4. Why Is Social-Emotional Learning More Challenging with Adolescents?

“High-school-age students have a sixth sense for when things feel dopey, dumb, sus, cheesy, corny, basic, cringe, or ‘cheugy,’” says Stephen Sawchuk in this Education Week article. “Nowhere are the pitfalls greater than in well-intentioned social-emotional learning programs for secondary students.” When handled poorly, they’re seen as patronizing and not speaking to students’ real priorities: identity, competence, agency, status with peers, and committing to goals. To be successful, says Sawchuk, an SEL program for older students has to be less theatrical than at the elementary level and give adolescents the opportunity “to exercise their relationship and self-regulation muscles.”

Sawchuk says there’s little good research on social-emotional learning for secondary students. From anecdotal evidence, it seems wise to take an indirect approach, integrating SEL into the school’s overall program – “a little like sneaking kale into a fruit smoothie.” He summarizes several insights from his reading and reporting:

• Integrate SEL into academic learning. There are opportunities in English, social studies, science, art, and other classes to address empathy, growth mindset, persistence, self-management, ethical decision-making, disagreeing constructively, and persuading others.

• Aim for coherence across classrooms. Students can get very different SEL messages as they move from class to class: the ELA teacher may allow multiple re-takes and revision opportunities while the history teacher doesn’t; the health teacher may have advice on how to succeed while the math teacher espouses a very different approach. It’s helpful if teachers agree on some of the key SEL skills and implement model lessons across grades, as the Washington, D.C. schools have done with their ELA/social studies Cornerstone lessons.

• Foster a positive school climate. “Schools’ dress codes and conduct manuals,” says Sawchuk, “…can convey a quiet authoritarianism that undercuts some of the values schools purport to care about, like fostering citizenship and independence.”

• Enhance extracurricular and out-of-class opportunities. Activities like debate, theater, chorus, athletics, cheerleading, clubs, service learning, and studio arts are rich with opportunities to develop social-emotional skills, says Sawchuk.

• Consider peer mentoring and restorative justice programs. A peer leader in a KIPP New York City high school’s freshman transition program said, “We talked a lot about organization, about making friends and reaching out to teachers – just learning how to manage yourself and be independent, because you’re in transition from a place in middle school where your hand is being held. In high school, you either do the work or you don’t.”

“Why High-School SEL Programs Feel ‘Lame’ – and How to Fix Them” by Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week, October 13, 2021 (Vol. 41, #9, pp. 13-16)

5. PLCs’ Focus on Standards; Necessary But Not Sufficient

In this article in All Things PLC Magazine, teacher/writer William Ferriter, who works in a school that has enthusiastically embraced professional learning community work, describes his shock when he heard two respected educators say that the PLC movement “harms children.” How so? By turning classrooms into test-prep factories, they said, and not preparing students for tomorrow’s world. Thinking this over, Ferriter has three reactions.

First he acknowledges that the PLC model has been misunderstood in some schools, putting too much emphasis on raising scores on high-stakes assessments. This narrows the curriculum, distorts pedagogy, and crowds out vitally important life skills – selling students short.

Second, Ferriter says that “ensuring every student masters the essentials in the required curriculum is a foundational part of the work of collaborative teams.” Schools must teach the curriculum their communities have defined as important. That means clarifying standards, teaching to them, developing common assessments, and intervening when students aren’t successful. “There is nothing inherently evil about this work,” he says, “and teams who engage in it are certainly not harming children.”

Third, says Ferriter, PLC teams need to go beyond a knowledge- and-skill-based curriculum and teach higher-level skills and dispositions, even if they’re not assessed on state tests. For students to be successful after graduation, they must be able to think critically, work with others, solve complex problems, and be comfortable with uncertainty. Focusing on this broader array of learning goals will increase the chance that PLC work will be effective. For example, Ferriter’s eighth-grade science team, working toward a state test almost entirely focused on factual knowledge, spent last year doing an extensive study of how critical thinking could be integrated into their curriculum.

“First Thing: Do PLCs Harm Children?” by William Ferriter in All Things PLC Magazine, Fall 2021 (pp. 4-5)

6. Clarifying the Definition of SMART Goals

This All Things PLC Magazine feature quotes from Anne Conzemius and Jan O’Neill’s book on SMART school teams. Their definition is helpful because the meaning of the R in SMART is often taken to be “Relevant” or “Realistic,” which is duplicative of other letters and misses the all-important feature of focusing teacher teams on actual student learning. Here’s how Conzemius and O’Neill define SMART goals:

• Strategic and Specific – Linked to district priorities and part of a larger vision of success focused on students’ needs.

• Measurable – The goal specifies how teachers will know that the desired learning was accomplished. “Measurement can and should occur in a number of different ways using a variety of different tools and strategies,” say Conzemius and O’Neill.

• Attainable – The learning outcome is within the realm of teachers’ influence and control, and doable given current resources.

• Results-oriented – Aimed at specific student learning outcomes that schools can measure or observe; this could be a percentage of students who improve in a certain area, or a demonstration of learning defined by the teacher.

• Time-bound – Having a specific date by which the learning will be completed helps make the goal a priority and determine if it’s attainable.

“Words Matter: What Are SMART Goals?” by Anne Conzemius and Jan O’Neill in in All Things PLC Magazine, Fall 2021 (p. 41); this comes from their book The Handbook for SMART School Teams: Revitalizing Best Practices for Collaboration (Solution Tree, 2nd edition, 2014)

7. Instagram and Teen Girls

In this New York Times article, Lindsay Crouse (Opinion) reports on recent Wall Street Journal revelations of Facebook’s internal research on the impact of their Instagram app. According to the Facebook survey, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Here’s an example of how this plays out with a 13-year-old girl. She’s beginning to feel anxious about her appearance; she follows some diet influencers on Instagram and the algorithm suggests more-extreme dieting accounts; she follows more eating-disorder content, gets caught up in a feedback cycle of hating her body, and becomes increasingly depressed.

“Anybody who has ever spent time as a teenage girl is unlikely to find any of these revelations particularly surprising,” says Crouse. “For girls in America, taking in content that seems intended to make you hate your body is an adolescent rite of passage.” For previous generations, it was magazines with images of impossibly thin models. “If magazines left girls with the distinct impression that our bodies and faces were being constantly appraised, assessed, and compared, that impression was confirmed by our experiences in the world,” says Crouse. “The body positivity movement may have helped, but girls still internalize the message that part of their success in life will rest upon their ability to be admired for their appearance.”

Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms turbocharge what magazines did in a new medium. (The idea for Facebook was cooked up in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where he had friends rate female classmates on how “hot” they were.) Instagram’s message to young women, says Crouse, goes something like this: “You are riddled with flaws and imperfections. We will tell you what to buy, and what to do, to fix yourself.” Images of celebrities, peers, and girls themselves get rated with “likes” and comments in a gamified environment not unlike a high-school cafeteria. And hundreds of billions of advertising dollars flow to the beauty and weight-management industry.

“Girls themselves often know Instagram is not good for them,” says Crouse, “but they keep coming back. That’s because social media is addictive.” According to Derek Thompson, it’s “attention alcohol. Like booze, social media seems to offer an intoxicating cocktail of dopamine, disorientation, and, for some, dependency.”

Facebook has pledged to do better, and Mark Zuckerberg is now the father of girls. But, says Crouse, what’s “more telling than what Silicon Valley parents say is what they do. Many of them have long known that technology can be harmful. That’s why they’ve often banned their own children from using it.”

“For Teenage Girls, Instagram Is a Cesspool” by Lindsay Crouse in The New York Times, October 9, 2021

8. Recommendations for Young Adult Nonfiction

“We are truly in a golden age of YA nonfiction,” says Sarah Hannah Gómez in this School Library Journalarticle. “Today’s offerings prove that works about real people and events are as immersive and gripping as the best novels.” Her recommendations:

Single-subject memoirs and biographies

– Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, grade 8 and up

– Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth, grade 7 and up

– Passport by Sophia Glock, grade 9 and up

– Hurricane: My Story of Resistance by Salvador Gómez-Colón, grade 6 and up

– A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley, grade 8 and up

– All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George Johnson, grade 8 and up

– High School by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin, grade 9 and up

– From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian-American Movement by Paula Yoo, grade 8 and up

Collective Biographies

– Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices by Masuma Ahuja, grade 7 and up

– African Icons: Ten People Who Built a Continent by Tracey Baptiste, grade 4-8

– Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present by Adrienne Keene, illustrated by Ciara Sana, grade 8 and up

Extrapolated Histories

– Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall, illustrated by Hugo Martínez, grade 8 and up

– And We Rise: The Civil Rights Movement in Poems by Erica Martin, grade 7 and up

“Changing the Narrative” by Sarah Hannah Gómez in School Library Journal, October 2021 (Vol. 67, #10, pp. 48-50)

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Marshall Memo 906

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“There is sort of this superhero mentality that you’re supposed to do it all. And you can’t. You won’t be able to sustain yourself at all. You need to have some coping strategies, some ways of managing your emotions, particularly stress, in order to do the important interpersonal work you need to do as a school leader.”

Rick Rogers, quoted in “SEL for Principals: How a PD Program Addresses Their High-Stress Needs” by Denisa Superville in Education Week, September 29, 2021 (Vol. 41,

#7, pp. 8-9)

“Tell me about a time this person did something really well. Tell me about a time this person really screwed up something… In the time they did something poorly, what did they learn? Did they improve after that? Did they handle the same situation and similar ones better?… And what’s the general reputation that this person has created in their position?”

Daniel Goleman on suggested questions to ask when calling a reference for a job

candidate, “The Emotions of Leadership”, an interview with Julie Vitale in School

Administrator, October 2021 (Vol. 78, #9, pp. 18-23)

“Moving past reading words on the page or screen to being able to comprehend at appropriate levels of sophistication – the whole point of reading – requires the foundational skills and much more. Successful reading programs must also include language development (vocabulary, syntax, discourse), strategies that help students comprehend what they read, making sure students acquire specific and general knowledge, and providing students with motivating reading material and instruction that is engaging, organized, purposeful, and effective.”

Claude Goldenberg in “Science of Reading Advocates Have a Messaging Problem” in

Education Week, May 3, 2021; Goldenberg can be reached at

1. Lorrie Shepard on Integrating Assessments with High-Quality Teaching

In this article in American Educator, Lorrie Shepard (University of Colorado/Boulder) traces the arc of assessment in U.S schools over the last 50 years:

– Minimum competency tests in the 1970s;

– Basic skills tests in the 1980s;

– Tests geared to world-class standards (“worth teaching to”) in the 1990s;

– Frequent high-stakes accountability tests in the 2000s;

– The addition of commercial interim tests in the 2010s;

– Most recently, assessments of social-emotional development.

What we have now, says Shepard, is a “multi-layered testing system that is limited in its ability to document progress toward deep learning goals, much less cultivate deeper learning. State tests must be curriculum-neutral to allow for local control, interim tests purchased by districts have to be generic enough to sell to national markets, and costs preclude portfolios or performance tasks.”

All this has resulted in minimal gains in student achievement, says Shepard – roughly 3-4 percentile points – along with huge expenditures, a loss of instructional time, test score inflation, low-level test prep, and bending the curriculum away from social studies, science, art, music, and physical education.

“Inequities are systemic in American society,” she continues. Advocates believed high-stakes accountability testing would further the cause of equity, but that hasn’t worked out. We can’t “incentivize our way to equity and excellence.”

Shepard believes two recent developments open the door to better policies: Covid-19 highlighted socioeconomic and racial inequalities, and significant ESSER funding is available to schools. “As we emerge from the pandemic and take stock of our values,” she says, “I hope we will fundamentally rethink how we approach teaching, assessment, learning, and youth development.”

To make progress on deep learning for all students, says Shepard, we need “rigorous, authentic learning goals and instructional supports that ensure a sense of safety and belonging.” Integral to those aspirational goals are ambitious teaching practices geared to who students are – academically, emotionally, socially, and culturally – and equitable assessment practices implemented “for the sole purpose of supporting learning – not ranking students, teachers, or schools… Some teachers already exemplify ambitious teaching and equitable assessment.” Shepard hopes to build on their work.

Assessments that make a positive difference are entirely formative, she says; they are grounded in the classroom curriculum and fully integrated with instructional practice. “Often, students do not know they are being assessed – they are simply sharing their thoughts and participating in activities as a normal part of the learning process,” says Shepard. “In addition, because the teacher is engaging with the student, the results are more meaningful; problems like bad days, issues at home, or simply misunderstanding a question do not skew the teacher’s understanding of the student’s progress.” To reach that goal, these are the steps Shepard believes schools need to take:

• Develop a shared understanding of ambitious learning goals and the features of quality student work. “Learning goals direct effort and shape thinking,” she says. “Goals help to explain context and purpose and create a vision for what mature or expert practice looks like. To serve equity, goals must be challenging for all students…” It’s essential that students are involved in shaping goals and monitoring their own progress.

• Provide rich and authentic instructional and assessment tasks. This means plenty of “open-ended, high-cognitive-demand tasks,” says Shepard. In social studies, for example, “If a goal is for students to be able to develop and evaluate historical claims and arguments, then instructional activities must involve this kind of experience, including reading across texts, examining primary documents, presenting and critiquing arguments, and the like.” The teacher should do whole-class checks for understanding during each lesson and hold students individually accountable, perhaps with an exit ticket.

• Make connections to students’ interests and funds of knowledge. Kids’ experiences from home and the community are highly relevant to school learning, says Shepard – “cooking, budgets, first aid, and automobile repair and …core cultural values regarding morals and ethics… Drawing connections and providing scaffolds from everyday knowledge to academic knowledge also support intellectual development while contributing emotionally to a student’s feeling of belonging.”

• Develop disciplinary discourse practices. This means getting students to explain their reasoning and nurture language and inquiry skills in lively verbal interactions, such as posing challenging questions, analyzing and interpreting data, argumentation, poster presentations, and more.

• Elicit students’ thinking and help them learn to build on each other’s ideas. “Engaging in challenging intellectual work requires emotional support,” says Shepard, “respecting who students are…” Prompts and tasks must be challenging and interesting, students’ thinking needs to be made visible, and the classroom culture must make students feel safe about offering inaccurate or incomplete thoughts.

• Engage students in self- and peer assessment. This helps students better understand learning goals, understand the features of quality work, retrieve knowledge and skills on a regular basis, and take advantage of opportunities to re-do and improve their work.

• Ensure equitable participation. This includes sentence starters and other pedagogical “talk moves” that get all students actively engaged – for example, “Can you give an example?” and “What evidence supports that idea?”

• Present tasks in multiple modes and use artifacts to help students demonstrate their learning. This deepens students’ conceptual understanding by making connections and helping them see more than one way to think about a new idea.

• Foster student agency and self-regulation. These are “closely overlapping constructs,” says Shepard, “having to do with both cognitive and affective aspects of learning.” They are all about self-awareness, self-confidence, motivation, persistence, and taking responsibility for one’s own learning. None of this should involve external rewards like stickers, prizes, or pizza parties.

• Provide improvement-focused feedback. Saying that a student’s work is “below basic” or “55th percentile,” or comparing them to other students, undermines learning, says Shepard, citing research findings that students who get this kind of feedback do worse than students who receive none. The best feedback is timely, focused on the learning task, and delivered in a way that supports the learner.

• Develop classroom norms of respect, responsibility, and improvement. Students should feel safe to make mistakes and offer critiques of one another’s reasoning “without meanness or injured feelings,” says Shepard. “Explicit work to jointly establish such norms is imperative…”

• Establish a healthy relationship between formative and summative assessment. Making posters, using Google Docs to report learning, and peer assessment help a class learn together, says Shepard. But there must be “clear conceptual linkages to culminating summative assessments.” Low-stakes checks for understanding must be seen as supporting improvement toward, and clearly aligned with, higher-stakes assessments of learning. Shepard is not a fan of frequent tests with grades recorded in grade-book management systems, which externalize students’ progress, signal that learning is “done,” and don’t enlist students in self-improvement.

• Avoid grading practices that undermine interest, demean students, and distort learning goals. Grades should be based on mastery of specific learning goals, says Shepard, not on other factors like effort, ability, improvement, work habits, attention, or participation. Shepard confesses that she’s found it very difficult to convince educators to give up on the idea that grades are motivators. People mistakenly believe that extrinsic rewards work – that “students are more likely to turn in assignments and turn off their phones if you make things ‘count’ toward their grades.” Research is convincing on the negative impact of extrinsic rewards.

Unfortunately, concludes Shepard, school districts frequently are part of the problem. This happens when they apply intense pressure to raise scores on high-stakes tests, invest in multiple-choice interim assessments, and use data management systems that emphasize “data” rather than substantively describing students’ progress. But Shepard believes that, “even under the current, highly counterproductive federal and state testing regimes,” districts can take constructive action:

– Understand and communicate how better assessment practices are essential to equitable outcomes.

– Implement coherent policies that integrate curriculum, instruction, and assessment – and eliminate initiatives that aren’t part of that effort.

– Get curriculum and assessment departments collaborating to inform the design and implementation of those coherent policies.

– Provide professional development and coaching to support the new things teachers will be asked to do (and affirm what some are already doing).

– Develop or adopt district-level assessments that embody the full range of desired learning goals.

– Establish grading practices with clear success criteria and steer teachers away from using grades as motivators.

“Ambitious Teaching and Equitable Assessment: A Vision for Prioritizing Learning, Not Testing” by Lorrie Shepard in American Educator, Fall 2021 (Vol. 45, #3, pp. 28-37); Shepard can be reached at

2. Preventing the College Gender Disparity in the Early Grades

In this Education Gadfly article, Michael Petrilli reports that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, women made up 59.5 percent of college students, men 40.5 percent. Looking at all Americans age 25-29, 44 percent of women and 35 percent of men have earned at least a four-year degree. Doing the math, 56 percent of college completers are female.

Why the male-female gap? Petrilli doesn’t buy the argument that young men are giving up on college. “Virtually all American students who are academically well-prepared for college continue to matriculate into college and then go on to graduate,” he says. The problem is that fewer young men come out of high school prepared for college: “In other words,” says Petrilli, “the college readiness gap is perfectly predictive of the college completion gap.” (Interestingly, the percentages of students ready for college and completing college are very similar among white, black, and Latino students.)

So what are the origins of the college gender gap? Petrilli traces the class of 2013 back through the grades and finds a remarkably similar male-female disparity at each level:

– 56 percent of college-ready high-school students (as defined by NAEP reading levels) were female.

– 57 percent of NAEP-proficient eighth graders were female.

– 54 percent of NAEP-proficient fourth graders were female.

Petrilli’s time machine couldn’t go earlier than fourth grade, but looking at data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), it appears that boys and girls enter kindergarten with almost identical achievement – girls were only one percentage point ahead of boys.

The gender gap begins to open up right away: girls make significantly more progress in kindergarten and first grade, and somewhat more in second and third; entering fourth grade, girls are four percentage points ahead. Boys close the gap a little in the upper elementary grades, but then fall behind again in early adolescence, always playing catch-up on their deficit from the primary grades.

Why are boys falling behind girls in the early grades? One theory is that primary-grade boys’ slower-developing brains put them at a disadvantage with the more-rigorous elementary literacy curriculum implemented in recent years. Maybe that’s the case, says Petrilli, but he is more convinced by a study by Joseph Paul Robinson and Sarah Theule Lubienski, which found that teachers systematically underestimate boys’ reading abilities as they enter kindergarten and navigate the early grades. Teachers’ perceptions may be influenced by the fact that girls are generally better behaved. The fact that elementary teachers are 89 percent female may also play a part. In addition, it appears that single-parent households have a greater negative impact on boys. Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that boys are more often assigned to lower reading groups and handed less-challenging books to read.

What steps can educators take to get boys off to a better start, especially in reading? Elementary schools definitely need to focus on the foundational skills with high-quality curriculum materials, says Petrilli. He also believes teachers must address any “anti-little-boy biases they might harbor.” Effective use of formative assessments, he says, can provide data on students’ actual reading achievement that “might contradict teachers’ own perceptions, perhaps in a good way,” leading to higher expectations and getting boys reading higher-level books.

“There’s good reason to believe,” Petrilli concludes, “that if we keep the reading gender gap from opening up in grades K-3, we could eventually close the college gender gap, as well.”

“The College Gender Gap Begins in Kindergarten” by Michael Petrilli in Education Gadfly, October 7, 2021; Petrilli can be reached at

3. Does Flipped Teaching Work?

In this Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard article, Patricia Roehling and Carrie Bredow report on their meta-analysis of 317 published studies of flipped learning, a classroom strategy whose popularity surged during the pandemic, especially in colleges and secondary schools. Here’s what is involved in a flipped class:

– Students view an online lecture or presentation to prepare for class.

– In-person time is devoted to discussions, peer teaching, presentations, projects, problem solving, computations, and group activities.

– Thus the traditional sequence is flipped, with passive learning experiences happening at home, conducted at students’ convenience and repeated as often as necessary, and class time devoted to active learning experiences.

– Flipped learning is based on constructivist theory, with classroom time helping students build on pre-existing cognitive frameworks and construct their own knowledge.

– Flipping aims to lighten students’ cognitive load during class, helping them to shift knowledge and skills to long-term memory and develop their interpersonal skills.

The meta-analysis focused on college classes, comparing flipped learning with traditional lecture-based instruction on several dimensions. The major findings:

• Students in flipped classrooms performed better in most subject areas. Outcomes were best with foundational knowledge, professional and academic skills, and (to a lesser degree) higher-order thinking.

• Students in flipped classes did better in all non-cognitive areas, including interpersonal skills, engaging with the content, and developing metacognitive abilities such as time management and learning strategies.

• Flipped learning was most effective in skill-based courses, including technology, health-science, and languages. This seemed to be because class time could be spent practicing and mastering skills with peers and the instructor. Mathematics and engineering classes showed the smallest gains with flipped learning.

• Flipped learning had the widest advantage over traditional teaching in countries in the Middle East and Asia where teachers implementing the new practices were making the most radical departure from the way most teaching was being conducted.

• Instructors who gave pre-class quizzes to make sure students were doing their homework registered lower academic gains than those who didn’t. Roehling and Bredow speculate that this was because students focused on doing well on the quizzes rather than understanding the material. This points to the wisdom of giving in-class rather than before-class quizzes, say the researchers.

• Instructors who combined flipped and traditional classes tended to get better results than those who were fully flipped. This was probably because a mixed approach lightened the workload (designing a flipped class takes extra time) and reserved traditional lecture classes for where they were most appropriate: introducing new, complex, and foundational knowledge and skills.

• Student satisfaction with flipped courses was slightly higher than for traditional teaching.

“Flipped Learning: What Is It, and When Is It Effective?” by Patricia Roehling and Carrie Bredow in Brookings Brown Center Chalkboard, September 28, 2021

4. 4. Research on Restorative Justice

In this Educational Leadership article, Bryan Goodwin (McREL) reports on the status of restorative justice, which has origins in Indigenous cultures and is being adopted in some schools to reduce punitive discipline and address racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. The key elements:

– Shared values are established, along with character building and a sense of community.

– When an infraction occurs, punishment is not the immediate reaction.

– Rather, wrongdoers meet with a trained mediator and those they harmed.

– They are shown the results of their actions and taught how to ask for forgiveness.

– If there is resolution, wrongdoers are invited to return to the community.

There is anecdotal evidence of positive results in some schools, including declines in exclusionary discipline and improvements in academic achievement.

However, says Goodwin, studies using scientific methodology have not documented that restorative programs work. Implementation is the biggest challenge, he reports; it’s not “a simple plug-and-play program that leaders can set and forget after a few workshops.” Successful implementation requires intensive PD, consistent leadership, modeling, ongoing coaching, and regular meetings to win educator understanding and buy-in.

Goodwin describes what happened at Algonquin High School in Virginia. They started with just a few volunteers, developed teachers’ expertise, saw results, and gradually expanded the program, with increasingly positive outcomes. “That’s as it should be,” Goodwin concludes. “After all, the only research that really matters is whether something works in your school and for your students.”

“Does Restorative Justice Work?” by Bryan Goodwin in Educational Leadership, October 2021 (Vol. 79, #2, pp. 82-83, 85); Goodwin can be reached at

5. A Trauma-Informed Response to an Out-of-Control Student

In this Educational Leadership article, Andrea Gutmann and Christie Badry (educators in Camrose, Canada) say that when a young student is screaming, threatening, or hiding, asking them to choose a calm-down strategy or presenting consequences won’t work. They suggest these steps:

– Size up the situation. Is the student unsafe? Overwhelmed? Can the student’s dignity be preserved?

– Stay calm. “If your words say you’re safe but your tone and breathing project stress, your message will be lost,” say Gutmann and Badry. The student is “hurt, not bad.”

– Talk very little. “The desire to communicate is often to ease our anxiety,” they say, “not the students’.”

– Offer food. A juice box, a lollipop, an apple or carrot can help; acceptance signals de-escalation.

– Give the kid something to tinker with. Legos, playdough, markers, a sand table; it’s not a reward but a tool to help self-regulation.

– Don’t rush. It might be minutes or hours.

“6 Steps to Help a Distressed Student Get to the ‘Upstairs’ Brain” by Andrea Gutmann and Christie Badry in Educational Leadership, October 2021 (Vol. 79, #2, pp. 10-11)

6. Can a Simple Intervention Narrow the Black-White Suspension Gap?

In this Education Gadfly article, Jeff Murray reports on an experiment conducted with more than 2,000 seventh graders in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District (classes were 53% white, 19% African American, 17% Latino, 11% Asian):

– Students were asked to complete a writing exercise during class at three points during the school year, about an hour each time.

– Teachers and students were not told the purpose of the exercise.

– Students in a randomly selected control group were given a list of values, items, and attributes (for example, being a family member, enjoying sports, being creative, having a sense of humor) and asked to choose three that were most important to them.

– Treatment students were then asked to write about why those items were important; there was no time or word limit, and students were assured that they wouldn’t be graded on content, length, spelling, or grammar.

– The purpose, say the researchers, was to “help students access positive aspects of their identities less associated with troublemaking in school.”

– Control group students were given the same list and asked to choose three items that were not important to them personally, and then wrote about how those items might be important to others.

– Students who were not part of the study were given an unrelated but similarly structured writing task.

– Researchers got data on students’ suspensions in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

– Students with a very high number of suspensions were excluded from the study.

What were the results?

– Black students in the treatment group had a 50 percent reduction in suspensions.

– Other racial/ethnic groups in the treatment and control populations showed no change in suspension rates.

– Thus the black-white suspension gap was reduced by about two-thirds.

– There was also a gap-closing effect on being sent to the principal’s office for moderately serious discipline infractions.

– Positive effects were even stronger among black seventh graders who had a higher than average suspension rate as sixth graders.

– The year after the intervention, results were similar.

– The study did not find any changes in students’ academic achievement.

Murray notes three caveats with the study: (a) the researchers didn’t pinpoint the mechanism of the positive changes in behavior; (b) we don’t know if teachers had access to what students wrote, which might have helped build relationships, reduce race-based stereotyping, and contributed to the positive impact; and (c) students with the most serious discipline problems were not part of the study, leaving unanswered the question of whether it would have worked for them. Clearly there’s more research to be done.

But meanwhile, asks Murray, “Why wouldn’t schools want to jump on this, even while the mechanisms at work here are being evaluated?” It takes very little time, virtually no resources (paper and writing implements), and might produce positive results.

“Researchers Test a Simple Method to Reduce Suspensions for Black Students” by Jeff Murray in Education Gadfly, October 4, 2021; the original study is “A Replicable Identity-Based Intervention Reduces Black-White Suspension Gap at Scale” by Geoffrey Borman, James Pyne, Christopher Rozek, and Alex Schmidt in American Educational Research Journal, September 2021.

7. Reflective Questions for Antiracist Leaders

In this article in Independent School, NAIS president Donna Orem suggests generative questions that school leaders might ask as they address issues of race and equity (these come from the work of Mica Pollock, University of California/San Diego):

– Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing the ways the world treats me and my students as members of racial groups?

– Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing communities and individuals in their full complexity?

– Am I seeing, understanding, and addressing the ways that opportunities to learn or thrive are unequally distributed to racial groups?

– What actions offer necessary opportunities to students in such a world?

– With a specific action or initiative, is it moving students closer to educational opportunity or farther away from it? Why? What is our evidence?

“The Work to Be Done” by Donna Orem in Independent School, Winter 2021 (Vol. 80, #2, pp. 8-11)

8. Problems with Impromptu Discussions of Hot-Button Topics

In this Educational Leadership article, Philadelphia teacher Matthew Kay says he can relate to the desire to take advantage of a teachable moment – perhaps a dramatic development in the news – to jump into a classroom discussion. He says this often “reflects our commitment to equity, our care for our students, and especially nowadays, our respect for the truth. If we move forward with our carefully planned lessons, we are, in many people’s estimation, a fraud.” But here’s what can happen:

– Without careful preparation, things can very quickly get out of hand. “Kids who are unprepared for difficult discussions often embarrass themselves and say things they regret or don’t mean,” says Kay. “They are more likely to weaponize stereotypes.”

– In the heat of the moment, the teacher might step out of bounds, revealing biases and damaging their role as a trusted pedagogue and authority figure.

– Such discussions can open teachers to attack from irate parents or community members who learn about the discussion through a misleading social media post. “We make it really hard for good administrators to have our back,” says Kay, “when we fly blind.”

Better to take the time to plan a discussion carefully, anticipate the reactions different students might have, consult with colleagues, find links to the curriculum, even design a free-standing unit. “If we want to teach about an issue,” Kay concludes, “we should actually teach about it – giving ourselves the time to be our best selves and apply our best training. And we might even do this with a little bit of swagger, knowing that while it takes nothing for folks who don’t know our students to rush us to discuss some issue, it takes wisdom for us to discern the best moment to get after it.”

“The Problem with ‘Pop-up’ Discussions” by Matthew Kay in Educational Leadership, October 2021 (Vol. 79, #2, pp. 80-81); Kay can be reached at

9. Getting the Most Out of Primary Sources

In this article in History Tech, Glenn Wiebe celebrates the increasing availability of online historical documents and the fact that more and more social studies teachers are using them. He summarizes five suggestions from Joe Sangillo of Discovery Ed:

– Consider multiple formats of primary sources, including speeches, photos, maps, graphs, charts, political cartoons, and video clips.

– Use primary sources to inquire more deeply into a secondary source like a textbook chapter, documentary film, or newspaper article.

– Create a dialogue with historical figures based on reading primary sources – for example, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson arguing about economic theories.

– Have students go beyond summarizing the main idea of a historical document; a close reading for evidence will take them deeper.

– Find sources that allow students to hear from a range of historical figures, not just politicians and famous people.

Click the link below for Wiebe’s curation of online sources.

“5 Powerful Things to Think About When Using Primary Sources” by Glenn Wiebe in History Tech, October 7, 2021; Wiebe can be reached at

10. Coming-of-Age Movies for Students in Middle School

In this Edutopia article, Jennifer Fisher recommends four films that teachers can use to help young adolescents understand themselves and deal with relationships and the tumultuous world around them:

– Wonder (2017, PG) is the story of a boy with facial differences as he enters fifth grade. Resources for using this film in the classroom are available here.

– Akeelah and the Bee (2006, PG) tells about an 11-year-old girl who falls in love with words and, amidst family challenges, enters a local spelling bee.

– Whale Rider (2002, PG-13) is about a 12-year-old Maori girl learning the ways of her ancestors, including gender roles, with her grandmother’s help.

– Children of Heaven (1997, PG) is an Iranian story of siblings forced to share one pair of shoes, and how the boy enters a running competition to win a coveted pair of new shoes for his sister.

“These films,” says Fisher, “can support students and offer them insight into and understanding

of their own ability to cope with change and to navigate the external challenges they face. Through the stories of others, we come to understand ourselves more fully.”

“4 Coming-of-Age Films That Help Students Cope with Change” by Jennifer Fischer in Edutopia, October 4, 2021

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In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“Requiring lesson plans burdens all teachers with a mandate many of them don’t need, and burdens administrators with oversight work that has little value.”
Justin Baeder (see item #1)

“Never say ‘but’ after saying something good.”
Dan Rockwell (see item #7)

“There is more to reading than recognizing words.”
Claude Goldenberg (see item #2)

“Higher education is at its best when it creates tomorrow’s opportunities. It is at its worst when it reinforces today’s inequalities.”
James Fallows (see item #3)

“People are suckers for lists.”
James Fallows (ibid.)

“The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”
The opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, quoted in “What Should I
Do with My Portrait of a Slaveholding Ancestor?” in The Ethicist by Kwame Anthony
Appiah, The New York Times, October 3, 2021

“We have preferred to diminish slavery because of the uneasiness with which it sits beside our founding propositions about equality and liberty, and for the price we fear we might have to pay for exhuming it for full pedagogical display.”
Allen Guelzo in “Teaching About Slavery” in Education Next, Fall 2021

“We cannot take the politics out of public schools, because decisions about what to teach and what to leave out are inherently political. Social studies curricula seem the most political of all, since they lack the precision of math and combine history with heritage.”
Robert Maranto (ibid.)

“Educators today are trying to figure out how to portray slavery in America as an example of state-sanctioned oppression and one that is central to our history. Their challenge is to do that effectively while also celebrating how our nation’s enduring principles have provided the world an indispensable model of how formerly enslaved people came to regularly produce some of the country’s most influential leaders in virtually every facet of American life.”
Ian Rowe (ibid.)

1. Should Teachers Be Required to Hand in Lesson Plans?

In this article in The Principal Center, Justin Baeder notes an interesting difference in lesson plan policies. In schools with low staff turnover, teachers are less often asked to turn in their plans – perhaps, says Baeder, “because they’ve demonstrated other ways to satisfy administrators that they are teaching appropriate content and sufficiently planning ahead.” In schools with high staff turnover (which often serve less-advantaged students), it’s usually required that teachers turn in lesson plans.
Baeder believes this is part of a self-perpetuating feedback loop. In high-turnover, underresourced schools, teachers are often in the first or last decade of their careers. Administrators tend to have less confidence in these teachers and ask for lesson plans to keep tabs and manage them. That is a factor in some teachers deciding to leave. In low-turnover, better-resourced schools, most teachers are in the middle of their careers – ten or more years of experience and some time until retirement. Administrators have more confidence that these teachers will be prepared, and give them more autonomy. That’s a factor in teachers staying and those schools having lower turnover.
So teachers across the U.S. work in two different worlds: one where teachers are generally trusted to be prepared, the other where they’re burdened with turning in lesson plans. For the latter, the question is whether collecting lesson plans makes a positive difference to teaching and learning. Baeder has found no evidence that it does.
So what is administrators’ motivation for making teachers turn in lesson plans? Accountability, pure and simple: making sure that teachers are prepared each day. Teachers hear the implicit message loud and clear: without a lesson plan requirement, they wouldn’t be prepared. To most teachers, that is insulting.
Okay, a few teachers are winging it. What do administrators want from them (and actually, from all teachers)?
– Being fully prepared to teach each lesson;
– Teaching lessons that are part of units embedded in a well-articulated, ambitious scope and sequence aligned with standards;
– Each lesson containing learning targets, success criteria, and how learning will be assessed;
– Ultimately, students learning what they’re supposed to learn.
The problem is that requiring this information from all teachers creates an extraordinary workload. For teachers, even the best prepared, there’s an extra step. “Organizing oneself for the work ahead is one thing,” says Baeder. “Making those plans comprehensible to someone else, who doesn’t share the same knowledge of the curriculum, students, and the classroom, is something else entirely.”
For administrators, things are even worse. Let’s start with basic accountability – making sure all teachers are planning. A schoolwide lesson plan requirement involves:
– Establishing the expectation, “which may be costly in terms of leadership capital and goodwill,” says Baeder.
– Creating a system for submitting lesson plans, which involves e-mails and notifications;
– Checking that each teacher has submitted plans;
– Following up with teachers who haven’t;
– Implementing further measures for chronic noncompliance.
“This level of accountability is not necessary for many teachers,” says Baeder, “yet it’s insufficient for others, who may need closer oversight of their plans’ quality.”
For administrators to monitor the quality of lesson plans, there’s additional work: getting right to work on hundreds of plans so feedback can be timely; consulting standards and pacing guides; giving e-mail or in-person feedback where needed and following up. Doing this for all teachers is an impossible task; besides, administrators know that only a few teachers need such concentrated attention. But is it fair to require that only poor planners and laggards turn in lesson plans? This is the dilemma that drives a schoolwide requirement. Here’s how that plays out:
– Conscientious teachers take the time to turn in their plans, but they’re already well prepared and don’t need micromanagement.
– Administrators often fall behind on holding teachers accountable because of the sheer quantity of plans; in a school with 30 teachers, there are about 750 lesson plans a week.
– As a result, feedback to teachers is minimal or non-existent.
– Teachers who struggle with planning probably need other forms of support, but because of administrators’ paperwork burden, these teachers may slip through the cracks.
The problem is clear, says Baeder: “Requiring lesson plans burdens all teachers with a mandate many of them don’t need, and burdens administrators with oversight work that has little value.” Teachers may not complain, but lesson plan requirements are a factor in attrition – which results in more novice teachers who may need supervision and support on lesson planning. It’s a doom loop.
Yes, being prepared is essential to successful teaching, and “planning one’s lessons should be an expectation in all schools,” says Baeder. He suggests six alternatives that address the basic goal of teachers being well prepared – without the needless paperwork:
• Adopt solid curriculum materials. If there isn’t a well-developed curriculum (or a good textbook), it’s asking a lot of teachers to create one on the fly. Most teachers, especially rookies, don’t have the time or skills, and the result may be random activities and mediocre online materials. If there is a comprehensive curriculum, asking teachers to cut and paste lessons each week is not a good use of their time. The key: a well-developed curriculum that contains lesson plans and obviates the need for teachers to turn in their own.
• Visit classrooms regularly. “Instead of asking teachers to send you their plans, go and see what they’re doing,” says Baeder. “Classroom visits that are frequent (3 a day) and brief (5-15 minutes) can give excellent insight into what teachers are doing, while actually taking less time than reviewing lesson plans.”
• Check out classroom work, portfolios, projects, and hallway displays. “If students seem to be producing little work,” says Baeder, “or if assignments seem random and disconnected from standards and learning targets, that may indicate a planning problem.”
• Tap into same-grade/same-subject teams. Colleagues who are teaching the same content and skills (within a school or across a district) are the best resource for teachers who are struggling with lesson planning.
• Lean on PLCs. Same-grade/same-subject teacher teams “should be the primary setting where teachers discuss what they’re teaching and how they’re teaching it,” says Baeder. Dropping in on PLC meetings is an excellent way for administrators to monitor content and pedagogy – and also collegiality.
• Make lesson planning part of an individual improvement plan. The teacher’s plan might focus on a particular area where mapping out lessons will help a teacher improve – content-area knowledge, curriculum resources, training on adopted materials. The supervisor might also mitigate factors that are causing the teacher to struggle – perhaps too many preps or excessive extracurricular duties.

“Alternatives to Collecting Lesson Plans: A Guide for School Administrators” by Justin Baeder in The Principal Center, September 21, 2021; Baeder can be reached at

2. Some “Known Unknowns” About Early Reading Instruction

In this article in Education Week, Claude Goldenberg (Stanford University) says the pandemic has reminded us of something important: scientific findings are never definitive, and there’s always some uncertainty – viz the evolving advice from experts on sanitizing, social distancing, masks, boosters, and virus variants. There are ways to reduce the risk of infection, but there are things we don’t understand and no guarantees. Actually, says Goldenberg, “This is what gives science its credibility: the systematic search for answers coupled with a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty.”
In the current debate about early reading instruction, several things can be said with reasonable certainty:
– Children who are poor readers at the end of first grade rarely become at least average-level readers by the end of elementary school.
– Early reading failure can be reduced if primary-grade teachers focus on foundational skills, without which students are at risk of developing reading difficulties.
– Foundational skills include the alphabetic principle, knowing letters and sounds, phonemic awareness, and knowing how to use letters and sounds to read words.
– All children benefit from some instruction in foundational skills.
“But just how much foundational skills instruction is needed, how intensely and explicitly, varies,” says Goldenberg. “Some will require very little; some will require a great deal.” This is one of a number of uncertainties; he identifies five more:
– One study found that solid instruction in foundational skills brings the lowest readers at least to the 30th percentile of word-reading skills – not exactly mastery.
– It’s not clear how effective early intervention is in the absence of solid Tier 1 classroom instruction.
– Researchers have not adequately explored the role of language, comprehension, knowledge, and experience in preventing reading failure. “There is more to reading than recognizing words,” says Goldenberg.
– Researchers haven’t defined the conditions needed for virtually all students to acquire adequate word-level reading skills in the early elementary grades.
– We don’t know how effective early interventions are in preventing reading failure from third grade on.
Returning to parallels with the pandemic, Goldenberg says, “The science of reading is not as clear on fundamental facts as is the science of Covid-19 immunology. Phonics, decoding, and associated skills provide no immunizations against poor reading outcomes. But they do provide a foundation upon which we must build… Most important, there’s still a great deal we don’t know about how to assure virtually all children become successful readers.”

“Science of Reading Advocates Need to Acknowledge Uncertainties” by Claude Goldenberg in Education Week, September 29, 2021 (Vol. 41, #7, p. 17); Goldenberg can be reached at

3. Better Information on the “Best” Colleges

In this Breaking the News article, reporter James Fallows traces the history of how college admissions became a marker of privilege and status, setting off a frenzy among families around the world to achieve “positional good.” He says this is a relatively recent phenomenon; before the 1950s, admissions to selective colleges was regional, family-based, and mostly from prep schools. Until around 1940, less than 10 percent of the U.S. population had attended college, and less than five percent had a four-year degree (now it’s 38 percent and rising).
Even when college admission expanded after World War II, driven by the GI Bill and other social changes, getting into college wasn’t that big of a deal and remained quite regional. Things changed in the 1960s as elite colleges diversified and the competition for the limited number of seats in the most selective colleges intensified. The overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in the country accept most students who apply, but the desire to get a seat in name-brand universities went off the charts. “The resulting situation,” says Fallows, “is distorting for those schools; it’s insanely pressurized for students; and it serves no clear educational or public goal.”
Around 1964, U.S. News launched its college rankings with the well-intentioned (and shrewd) goal of providing guidance around higher education. The rank-ordered college lists became immensely popular with college-aspiring families around the world. But a ranked list has huge problems, says Fallows: “Is Cal/Tech ‘better’ than Amherst? And which of them is ‘better’ than the University of Chicago? Or West Point? In the real world, the answer is: it depends on what you’re looking for. But in the ranking world, one or the other would be ‘better’ than the others, and every year they could move up or down the charts.”
This basic flaw notwithstanding, colleges began to take the rankings seriously, driving all kinds of distortions as they tried to game the system. The fact remains, says Fallows, that rankings are based “largely on the advantages their students already have, when coming into the school. What their test scores were, how tough a selective-admissions process they survived, the range of experiences their family background has exposed them to. Plus the advantage a college itself has, starting with its endowment.” The U.S. News and World Reports rankings are based on measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige that are easily manipulated.
“People are suckers for lists,” says Fallows, and rankings are here to stay, but he points to one idea for making the competition for seats in elite colleges somewhat less frenzied: measuring results rather than input. Starting in 2005, The Washington Monthly has published rankings based largely on how students do after they graduate. These rankings, which are published every year, aim to push colleges and universities to be engines of upward mobility, scientific progress, and democratic participation.
Fallows says that in his travels around the U.S., he’s “repeatedly found that the crucial American education institutions of the moment are not the ones that dominate the ‘best colleges’ list. They’re community colleges; ‘career-technical’ academies; land-grant universities; and others in addition to the crown-jewel research institutions and liberal arts colleges that still distinguish American education. Higher education is at its best when it creates tomorrow’s opportunities. It is at its worst when it reinforces today’s inequalities. More tools are now at hand to measure, publicize, and thus encourage more of the opportunity-expansion education can provide. Check them out.”

“The College Rankings Racket” by James Fallows in Breaking the News, September 6, 2021

4. Making Research Findings Clear and Informative for Teachers

In this article in Educational Researcher, Hugues Lortie-Forgues and Matthew Inglis (Loughborough University, UK) and Ut Na Sio (University of Sheffield, UK) report on their study of 250 teachers’ preferences on how they are given data on the impact of educational interventions. (Teachers were asked for the clearest and most informative method of reporting results.) Here’s how teachers rank-ordered several ways of presenting data; note in all five, the effect size was 0.15, which some consider “promising” for classroom interventions:
– Threshold – In the group that did not receive the intervention, 79% of students received a passing grade on the test, while in the group receiving the intervention, 83.2% of students received a passing grade on the test.
– Months of progress – The intervention had an average impact of 2 additional months’ progress. In other words, the pupils receiving the intervention made, on average, 2 months’ more progress than the pupils not receiving the intervention.
– Test scores – In the group that did not receive the intervention, the average standard score on the KS2 math test was 105.0 out of 120, while in the group receiving the intervention, the average standard score was 106.1 out of 120.
– Percentile gain – The intervention had an average impact of 6 percentile points. In other words, an average student (percentile 50) in the group not receiving the intervention would have scored 6 percentile points higher on the test (percentile 56) had the student received the intervention.
– Cohen’s U3 – 56% of the students in the group that received the intervention scored above the mean score of the group that did not receive the intervention.
Lortie-Forgues, Sio and Inglis add three cautionary notes.
First, teachers can misinterpret data presentations, believing that an intervention is more (or less) effective based on which method is used. “Reporting effects in terms of Months of Progress,” say the authors, “is likely to lead to higher perceptions of effectiveness, whereas using the other metrics examined, particularly Test Score units, are likely to result in lower perceptions of efficacy.”
Second, say Lortie-Forgues, Sio and Inglis, researchers can manipulate teachers’ perceptions of an intervention’s impact by the way they report the data. An intervention can be spun with teachers by choosing a metric that makes the results seem better than they really are.
And third, the Months of Progress approach, although it’s one of the most popular with teachers, can be unreliable and misleading. A potential solution, suggest the researchers, is to use multiple metrics when reporting results to teachers – for example, months of progress and test scores.

“How Should Educational Effects Be Communicated to Teachers?” by Hugues Lortie-Forgues, Ut Na Sio, and Matthew Inglis in Educational Researcher, August/September 2021 (Vol. 50, #6, pp. 345-354); the authors can be reached at,, and

5. An Analysis of DonorsChoose Crowdfunding

“America’s education system is rife with resource inequality,” say Sarah Wolff and Deven Carlson (University of Oklahoma) in this article in Educational Researcher. Expenditures per pupil range from under $9,000 to more than $20,000, and there is variation within states, with some schools spending two or three times more than others. “Such realities,” say Wolff and Carlson, “regularly lead to scenarios where students in well-off districts have access to state-of-the-art technology, while their peers in less-affluent districts work with tattered textbooks and struggle to gain access to basic supplies.”
As a direct response to these inequities, crowdfunding platforms have sprung up, serving as a “shadow financing” mechanism. Many teachers in underresourced schools are writing proposals to procure essential classroom supplies and technology. Wolff and Carlson gathered data on DonorsChoose – the largest education-focused crowdfunding organization in the U.S. – to learn more about supplementary funding. Here’s what they found:
– Over the last two decades, more than 80 percent of U.S. public schools have posted a project with DonorsChoose (it was founded in 2000 by a New York City teacher).
– More than 4.3 million individual donors have contributed almost $1 billion to schools.
– Each year, about one-third of schools post a project on DonorsChoose.
– The teachers most likely to post projects are working in schools that serve less-advantaged students, in states with the lowest spending for public schools.
– Most projects focus on reading and math, but those proposals are slightly less likely to reach full funding than those in other subjects.
– Schools enrolling economically disadvantaged students are less likely have expensive projects funded.
Wolff and Carlson have several thoughts about these findings:
• Teachers who apply for crowdfunding are making a laudable effort to level the playing field for their students, but the hours they spend writing proposals are hours not spent on their students. “Teachers in more-advantaged environs,” say Wolff and Carlson, “have the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on instruction, rather than procuring materials.”
• “DonorsChoose is serving a purpose that should arguably be the responsibility of states’ school finance systems,” say the researchers. “There are both legal and moral cases to be made that teachers should have ready access to such materials to educate our nation’s youth.”
• The generous contributions made by crowdfunding donors unwittingly mask the continuing problem of inadequate funding by school districts and states. “Teachers’ crowdfunding efforts,” say Wolff and Carlson, “may mitigate discontent among parents and the public that would have otherwise been directed at public officials.”

“Who Chooses DonorsChoose? Submission and Funding Patterns on the Nation’s Largest Education Crowdfunding Platform” by Sarah Wolff and Deven Carlson in Educational Researcher, August/September 2021 (Vol. 50, #6, pp. 355-367); Carlson can be reached at

6. How School Librarians Can Maximize Their Impact in Unsettled Times

In this article in Knowledge Quest, Kristin Fontichiaro (University of Michigan) and Wendy Steadman Stephens (Jacksonville State University) suggest 40 ways that school librarians can maximize learning in a time of uncertainty. A selection:
– Realize your leadership potential – what Ewan McIntosh describes as “agile, whole-school interdisciplinary work that is needed to create the exceptional learning experience our young people deserve.”
– Define success by the impact you make, not by how busy you are, leaning into the influential, urgent, critical tasks in your building role.
– Replenish your “surge capacity” by carving out time to connect with others, exercising, practicing hobbies, and living your faith.
– Retool your website so it works for students who are learning remotely.
– “Go spelunking” into a database to find advanced features, tuning into webinars, and updating assignments with new tools.
– Reconsider punitive overdue policies – for example, letting items auto-renew, permitting students to renew on their own, and ending fines.
– Adapt online lessons for offline students, partnering with special educators to keep lessons accessible for students with learning differences.
– Do a diversity audit of your collection and adapt selection criteria to reflect the richness of a global society and a multicultural community.
– Remember that parents are watching, with some ready to pounce on cultural differences between home and school; anticipate these conflicts and mediate a new level of family involvement in the curriculum.
– Consider taking on the role of supporting families as they master virtual connections with the school.
– Tune in to school board and public library meetings.
– Teach students how to explore multiple perspectives on the news, including Freedom Forum’s collection of front pages.
– Curate e-books available to students at home, creating “bookshelves” of hand-picked titles.
– Explore how you will address widespread misinformation and disinformation – for example, by using Rand Corporation’s Media Literacy Standards to Counter Truth Decay.
– Explore and share Google Scholar, a powerful search tool to find scholarly papers.
– Evaluate your media diet and that of your school with tools like Ad Fontes Media and AllSides.
– Build in some time for students to wonder, using digital resources like livecams or remote locales, Google Arts and Culture, and digitized museum collections.
– Do one thing you’ve put off. “You’ll feel relief and accomplishment,” say Fontichiaro an Steadman.

“Pushing Forward While Treading Water” by Kristin Fontichiaro and Wendy Steadman Stephens in Knowledge Quest, September/October 2021 (Vol. 50, #1, pp. 42-48); the authors can be reached at and

7. Some Words for Leaders to Avoid

In this Leadership Freak article, Dan Rockwell suggests turns of phrase that colleagues find annoying or worse:
– I should have… This is “backwards facing,” says Rockwell. Better to say, “Next time…”
– You should have… Again, better to start with, “Next time…”
– What can we do about that? “It’s insincere to say ‘we’ when you mean ‘you,’” says Rockwell. Better to ask, “What could you do next?”
– It’s simple. It’s easy. What’s simple to you may be difficult for others. “Judge people through the lens of their experience and strength, not yours,” says Rockwell.
– I don’t care. Whatever. People who say this often do care but are afraid to admit it.
– Don’t you agree? This question pressures people to agree or insults their intelligence.
– Failure is not an option. “People set low goals when failure is not an option,” says Rockwell. Better to foster a culture where people feel safe to learn from mistakes.
– But… “‘But’ is an eraser,” he says. “Never say ‘but’ after saying something good. Try using ‘and’ when you’re tempted to use ‘but.’”
– I didn’t mean to… This is a way of not taking responsibility. “Say what you intended, not what you didn’t intend,” says Rockwell. “Own it and move on.”
– Nice job. Be specific when giving compliments; what was “nice” about it?

“12 Things Smart Leaders Don’t Say” by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak, September 30, 2021; Rockwell can be reached at

8. Short Items:

a. Smithsonian Resources for Teaching and Learning – The Smithsonian Institution and PBS have teamed up to make extensive materials available online. Check out this link for free PK-12 resources on coral reefs, ocean ecosystems, air and space exploration, African-American history and culture, and more.

Spotted in “Smithsonian at Home” in Independent School, Spring 2021 (Vol. 80, #3, p. 17)
b. A Website for English Teachers – On her Drawings of… site, Boston teacher Lillie Marshall (yes, I’m her proud father) tackles homophones, figurative language, commonly confused words, and literary devices, accompanied by cartoons and explanations. Check it out!

“Drawings of…” by Lillie Marshall

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In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

I would rather them yell at me than yell at my administrative team, yell at the teachers, yell at the nurse, yell at the main office people.”

Aaron Eyler, New Jersey principal, in “Principals Bear the Brunt of Parental Anger, Staff Fatigue as Covid Drags On” by Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week, September

22, 2021 (Vol. 41, #6, pp. 6-7)

“As schools courageously embrace a new conception of rigor that rises above merely a crushing workload, we expect to see both increased student wellness and higher levels of more-meaningful academic achievement.”

Percy Abram and Olaf Jorgenson (see item #1)

“For the rest of your life, you won’t be judged by test scores. You’ll be judged by the kind of human being you are, and the kind of work that you do.”

Ron Berger in “Ron Berger on the Power of ‘Beautiful Work’” by Sarah Gonser in

Edutopia, September 20, 2021

“Learners vary in how well they see, hear, and move. They vary in how well they can remember mathematical facts and their ways of paying attention. Learners vary in their emotional response to mathematics.”

Rachel Lambert (see item # 6)

“If we as teachers can learn more about the experience of students who are at the margins, we can leverage that knowledge to design across differences.”

Rachel Lambert (ibid.)

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Ida B. Wells, 1892

1. Rethinking “Rigor” in Secondary Schools

In this article in Independent School, Percy Abram (The Bush School) and Olaf Jorgenson (Almaden Country Day School) say that academic rigor has been “catnip” for many parents, “associated with favorable outcomes ranging from high standardized test scores and weighted grades to the grand prize, admission to elite colleges and universities.” But what does rigor mean in the classroom?

The usual association is with difficulty – rigorous classes are hard – and not necessarily that they are intellectually challenging and conceptually deep. Rigor is more often associated with piled-on reading, homework, and assignments that produce anxiety, sleep deprivation, isolation, and emotional fatigue. Rigor-as-suffering harkens back to the Latin derivation – stiffness, rigidity, harshness – and echoes contemporary dictionary definitions – inflexibility, strict precision, exactness, making life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable.

“This is not to suggest that academic achievement, ambition, or aspiration aren’t worthy and noble drivers,” say Abram and Jorgenson, “but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress – about the peril and the ethics of putting student achievement ahead of student wellness, and the fallacy that the two are competing aims.” The additional layers of stress placed on young people during the pandemic have added urgency to the need to rethink rigor in middle and high schools.

The irony is that parents who push schools to implement the hard-nosed conception of rigor are not helping their children prepare for the “best” careers. Many elite companies are looking for a different set of skills: emotional intelligence, listening and empathy, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, generosity, and fairness. “Certainly,” say Abram and Jorgenson, “students need exposure to direct instruction, core knowledge, memorization and recall, and automaticity – and some students truly blossom when fed and watered by facts.” But this is only part of what young people require to lead fulfilling lives.

The authors propose a new definition of rigor: The degree to which a student is in equal parts intellectually challenged, engaged, enriched, and empowered. The big idea is challenge, not in the sense of an onerous workload but the “provocative, stimulating, sometimes vexing challenge of grasping complex ideas that make learning meaningful and rewarding (as well as empowering) to master.” And this has to be tuned to students’ incoming knowledge, skills and attitudes, so that work is at the Goldilocks level – not too difficult and not too easy.

“As schools courageously embrace a new conception of rigor that rises above merely a crushing workload,” conclude Abram and Jorgenson, “we expect to see both increased student wellness and higher levels of more-meaningful academic achievement.” They believe that even the most driven parents should be persuadable around the goal of producing graduates who are also healthy, well-adjusted, confident, and happy.

In a series of sidebars, Abram and Jorgenson share steps that several secondary schools have taken to tone down rigor-as-suffering and improve their students’ experience:

– Later start times;

– Block scheduling with fewer, longer classes that don’t meet every day;

– Individualized work-study options;

– Integrating co-curricular programs (versus piling them on top of academic courses);

– Tweaking schedules to allow more unstructured downtime;

– Expanding advisory programs;

– Increasing teacher conferencing time;

– Adding mental health counselors;

– Providing forums for students to discuss their school experience;

– Rethinking homework policies.

– Allowing re-dos of tests;

– Eliminating AP courses and replacing them with honors courses designed by teachers;

– More emphasis on experiential learning;

– End-of-term interdisciplinary, immersive experiences on real-life challenges;

– Replacing final exams with expositions in which students demonstrate their learning.

“Out of the Shadows” by Percy Abram and Olaf Jorgenson in Independent School, Summer 2021 (Vol. 80, #4, pp. 70-77)

2. What Is the Best Way for Teachers to Present New Concepts?

In this Review of Educational Research article, Tanmay Sinha and Manu Kapur (ETH Zurich) report on their meta-analysis of an age-old instructional dilemma: when learning a new concept, should students begin by wrestling with a problem and then hear the teacher’s explanation, or should they hear instruction first and then practice solving problems? Sinha and Kapur summarize arguments for each approach:

• Instruction first – Teachers need to focus students on the critical aspects of the material, provide background knowledge and skills, and decrease the chance of kids making errors and floundering around using trial and error.

• Problem-solving first – Students need opportunities to notice and learn critical information on their own, develop agency in dealing with challenging learning experiences, and engage in “productive failure” in which they use what they know to develop approximate solutions to novel problems, followed by instruction and practice.

What did the researchers find? After reading accounts of 166 comparisons of problems-first and instruction-first pedagogy, Sinha and Kapur report a “significant, moderate effect” in favor of starting with problem-solving, especially for students in grades 6-12. The key factors in successful problem-first instruction at all grade levels were:

– Providing a safe space to generate and explore ideas without fear of failure, and providing support for persistence;

– Presenting rich problems that focus on conceptual features of the learning goal with “intuitive hooks” that engage students;

– Drawing on students’ relevant prior knowledge;

– Incorporating interesting “opportunities for failure;”

– Having students work in mixed-achievement groups that allow for explanation and elaboration;

– Having students explain their ideas, paraphrasing their explanations, comparing and contrasting them, distilling critical features, directing students’ attention to those features, and assembling the core ideas into critical understandings.

“When Problem Solving Followed by Instruction Works: Evidence for Productive Failure” by Tanmay Sinha and Manu Kapur in Review of Educational Research, October 2021 (Vol. 91, #5, pp. 761-798); the authors can be reached at and

3. Teaching Controversial Issues: Lessons from Three Countries

In this article in Social Education, Judith Pace (University of San Francisco) describes a teacher education class in Northern Ireland in which aspiring teachers were asked to write a controversial issue on a sticky note and place it on a continuum on the floor from “happy to teach” to “wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.” This sparked a lively discussion about whether and how these hot topics should be taught once they were in classrooms.

Pace shares a definition of controversial topics: Those problems and disputes that divide society and for which significant groups within society offer conflicting explanations and solutions based on alternative values. These might include contemporary political issues (climate change, immigration, gun safety) or contested histories (the Dust Bowl, the Rwandan genocide), some of which are settled and some are still open. “Determining the reasonableness of competing perspectives on a particular issue,” says Pace, “is critical to deciding which viewpoints should be ‘given a fair hearing’ in the classroom.”

Why take on hot topics, especially in today’s divided political climate? “Researchers have found that open classroom discussion of issues is correlated with increased political efficacy, interest, tolerance, and knowledge,” says Pace. “Exploration of issues from multiple perspectives is integral to promoting media literacy, civic reasoning and discourse, informed independent thought, and other capabilities of democratic citizens. But teaching controversial issues is highly complex and demanding work.”

Pace believes there is another dimension when it comes to teaching difficult topics: a “civic opportunity gap,” with students in wealthier communities and upper-track classes having more opportunities to engage in important discussions than less-advantaged students and lower-track classes. This may be based on the assumption that the latter groups “cannot handle the intellectual and behavioral requirement of studying controversy,” she says. But research has shown that discussing controversial issues yields great benefits for all students, including opportunities for dialogue among groups, helping students understand structural inequalities, building empathy, and bridging social, economic, and racial differences.

Pace conducted research on teaching hot topics in Northern Ireland, England, and the United States and found that teachers fell into three categories: Avoiders (didn’t take on hot topics), Containers (taught those topics but stuck to straightforward facts), and Risk-takers (dove into controversies with role-playing and provocative resources). Pace believes the best posture for teachers is between the second and third position, which she calls contained risk-taking – tackling hard questions with democratic pedagogies and thought-provoking materials – and skillfully handling interactions with students, parents, and school leaders. She has formulated eight strategies for successfully navigating these tricky waters:

• Cultivating a warm, supportive classroom environment – Teachers affirm students’ ideas, build group cohesion, teach respectful listening, use humor for bonding and trust-building, and engage students in collaborative learning.

• Thorough preparation and planning – This means continuously building content knowledge, being clear on the purpose, rationale, and goal of units and lessons, and crafting learning experiences that build students’ conceptual understanding.

• Thinking through one’s own identity and roles – Teachers need to clarify their own positions on the issues they teach, whether or not to disclose them, and how to be an effective facilitator of inquiry (sometimes a devil’s advocate) so students reach their own conclusions.

• Up-front communication with parents, colleagues, and students – Everyone has to know in advance what will be taught and why it’s important.

• Thoughtful selection, sequencing, and framing of issues – It’s wise to start with less-contentious issues and present all controversies in non-personal terms, promoting understanding of different perspectives rather than debating personal opinions.

• Using creative resources and group activities – Small-group discussions and effective use of curriculum materials stimulate thinking and provide entry points for opening students’ minds – as well as avoiding possible pitfalls of all-class discussions.

• Skillfully steering classroom dynamics – “Questioning, discussion formats, and protocols provide structure to discussion,” says Pace, “which typically starts in small groups and moves to whole-class plenaries,” perhaps including Socratic Seminars or Town Hall discussions.

• Dealing with emotional conflicts – This includes not arousing strong emotions, balancing affective with intellectual engagement, getting students to think metacognitively, and using de-escalation techniques if tempers flare.

“How Can Educators Prepare for Teaching Controversial Issues? Cross-National Lessons” by Judith Pace in Social Education, September 2021 (Vol. 85, #4, pp. 228-233); Pace can be reached at

4. Does Selling Curriculum Materials Online Improve Teachers’ Work?

In this Elementary School Journal article, Catharyn Shelton (Northern Arizona University) and Tray Geiger and Leanna Archambault (Arizona State University) report on their study of 226 “teacherpreneurs” who had been selling curriculum materials they developed on the TeachersPayTeachers website. Only a small percentage of teachers are involved in marketing their materials online, but websites like this one are popular, especially among young teachers; in 2019, TeachersPayTeachers hosted more than 200,000 sellers.

The pandemic boosted traffic on the site, with per-buyer weekly spending increasing 20 percent from the spring of 2019 to the spring of 2020. Other similar platforms – Share My Lesson, Pinterest, Amazon Ignite, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Patreon – also saw more activity.

Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault were interested in whether putting curriculum materials on an internet marketplace affected teachers’ perceptions of their classroom performance and interactions with colleagues. Here’s what they found:

• Teachers in the study believed that selling their curriculum creations online improved the quality of their day-to-day teaching, irrespective of how much money they earned.

• Teachers reported that selling materials was a valuable way to connect with colleagues, which they believed led to improved performance and self-efficacy. “Because teaching can be an isolating profession,” say the authors, “…Teacherpreneurship may present a novel way for teachers to connect with others that can lead to positive impacts on one’s own practice… When teacherpreneurs collaborate with other teachers and in their work as informal teacher leaders, they may engage more deeply and critically with their own classroom practices. They may then be better positioned to refine and hone their pedagogical skills and materials, which may lead to improved confidence in the classroom.”

• Selling curriculum materials online was an avenue for women to assert leadership in a profession historically dominated by men. It was also a pathway for female educators to enter an entrepreneurial space often seen as male territory.

• Teacherpreneurs challenged the influence of textbook companies on classrooms, say the authors, “potentially allowing for female teacher voices to be heard rather than devalued.”

• Teachers in the study who didn’t have graduate degrees reported the greatest improvements in their classroom practices. “Teacherpreneurship,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “may be a valuable approach to improving classroom practice that, unlike formal teacher education, pays the teacher rather than the teacher having to pay an institution of higher education.” Since there’s little evidence that graduate education and traditional PD improves classroom practice, say the authors, developing and selling curriculum ideas online can be seen as a viable alternative to improving teaching practices.

The article concludes with several cautionary notes: “Although teacherpreneurial approaches may represent grassroots and teacher-led efforts,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “they still occur within the context of an imperfect capitalist system.” Their concerns:

– While some teachers profit from online sales, buyers are out of pocket for materials that should be paid for by their schools.

– Some of the best-selling online materials are of “moderate or subpar quality,” say the researchers, and the worst may be doing more harm than good.

– Accordingly, teachers need more guidance on how to tell the wheat from the chaff in the burgeoning online marketplace.

– Teacherpreneurs are overwhelmingly white, with teachers of color taking part in much smaller numbers. “Racially diverse curriculum authors are needed,” say Shelton, Geiger, and Archambault, “because these individuals bring valuable lived experiences and perspectives to the design of lessons and materials, which in turn can support students who are traditionally disempowered in schools.”

– Online marketplaces foster some teachers’ desire to be “Pinterest-worthy” – possessing the aesthetic qualities to be popular on social media. This may not produce the best instruction for students.

“Becoming a Better Teacher Through Online Teacherpreneurship?” by Catharyn Shelton, Tray Geiger, and Leanna Archambault in Elementary School Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 122, #1, pp. 8-25); the authors can be reached at,, and

5. Nevada Second Graders Write Up a Storm on Twitter

In this Elementary School Journal article, Holly Marich, Christine Greenhow, Douglas Hartman (Michigan State University) and Diana Brandon (Florida State University) report on their study of Nevada second graders doing short-form writing on their class Twitter account. Up to six students a day could tweet on class iPads (tweeting was encouraged but not required), and family members were admitted as followers, along with other educators and students in the school. Students understood that their tweets could be read by anyone.

The teacher started the year with Twitter basics – followers, hashtags, emojis, likes, retweeting, the 280-character limit, and online safety skills – and went over the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, spelling, punctuation, capitals, and publishing). The point of the Twitter writing, she said, was to improve communication and writing skills and connect with the world beyond their classroom.

The teacher modeled writing tweets, projected short compositions on the interactive whiteboard, and had students read them chorally. Students then used a class “Twitter sheet” to compose their own writing on the day they had access to the iPads:

– Write 2 sentences: What are you learning about? Why are you learning about it? How will you use this information?

– or Ask a question about what you are learning about. Why did you ask this question?

– A reprise of the steps of writing: Plan, Draft, Revise, Edit, Publish.

– Read your sentences out loud and check for the following: my sentences have subjects (who, what); my sentences have predicates (action, what); my sentences make sense; my sentences have capitalization; my sentences have punctuation (.?!).

As the year progressed, the teacher gradually released responsibility and students became increasingly independent tweeters.

How did this experiment work out? Students weren’t especially into the act of writing, say Marich, Greenhow, Hartman, and Brandon, but “were rapturously willing to use the medium through which writing was enacted.” They loved the technology, the playful nature of a lot of the tweets, and the quick responses they received from followers. Students were motivated to present themselves well and connect with their wide audience, and that built their confidence and skill as writers.

The researchers were particularly impressed by how goal-setting – a standard part of the writing process – was enhanced by the Twitter format, with both in-advance and in-the-moment planning (more typically associated with older students). “In summary,” say the authors, “children set goals for managing the medium as they form text online, and the medium itself permits the goal posts for writing to be set beyond the text at hand, toward future aspirations and identities that the writers hold.”

Marich, Greenhow, Hartman, and Brandon also noticed a “network effect” as students wrote their tweets, boosting the academic impact. “The children in our study,” they say, “noted that they were also part of the audience for their own tweets, just as others were. Because of the medium, they could track followers’ responses to their tweets as if they too were a follower, responding to their own tweets and others’ responses to their tweets. As such, the writer simultaneously has followers who follow their tweets (and like them) and is also a follower of their own tweets. Thus, the ‘new’ realization for thinking about the audience for a tweet is a broader conception of the audience, one that includes the author as one of their own followers.”

“Eight Tweeters Tweeting” by Holly Marich, Christine Greenhow, Douglas Hartman, and Diana Brandon in Elementary School Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 122, #1, pp. 26-56); Greenhow can be reached at, Hartman at

6. Universal Design for Learning in Math Classes

In this article in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, Richard Lambert (University of California/Santa Barbara) describes three math lessons in which teachers used UDL with inclusive groups of students:

• A kindergarten class gathers on the rug as students prepare to measure a sensory path they are designing in the hallway outside their classroom. After discussing measuring tools and how to be a supportive partner, students team up, gather sets of connecting cubes, and get to work. As they count and measure, the teacher circulates, reteaching and clarifying. Before long a student notices that his group’s measurement isn’t the same as another group’s, and the teacher leads a mini-lesson on accuracy in measurement.

• A fifth-grade class is asked to figure out how a family of eight can share six large burritos in a fair and equitable manner. The teacher gives students a moment to think and then lets them choose whether to work in a small group, with a partner, or independently. Students work with manipulatives and supplies, and when they’re finished, they gather and share their strategies with the whole class. The teacher names each strategy and helps students troubleshoot their solutions.

• A ninth-grade class continues its multi-day exploration of functions as two quantities with a relationship. Some students graph data from a video of their classmates throwing balled-up paper into a trashcan. Others graph problems on the online program Desmos. The teacher works with a smaller group doing a paper-and-pencil graph of a function. Near the end of the lesson, the teacher calls the class together, reminds them of the big idea of the day (Functions have multiple representations), and asks, “How did that idea emerge in your work today?” Several students respond, and the class wraps up with students doing a self-evaluation of their work.

The key element in each class was that the teacher’s lesson plan made learning accessible to a wide range of students, including those with disabilities. “Learners vary in how well they see, hear, and move,” says Lambert. “They vary in how well they can remember mathematical facts and their ways of paying attention. Learners vary in their emotional response to mathematics.” The key insight of UDL, he says, is that by planning skillfully around the needs of students with learning differences, teachers can meet the needs of the whole class.

UDL lessons are built on empathy for students’ experiences, says Lambert, with the aim of all students succeeding and becoming expert, strategic, and lifelong learners. He recommends conducting “empathy interviews” to better understand what makes students tick and identify barriers to their accessing learning. Lesson design especially benefits from an understanding of marginalized students – understanding issues around disability, race, gender, language, and other social positionings. “If we as teachers can learn more about the experience of students who are at the margins,” he says, “we can leverage that knowledge to design across differences.”

The researchers who developed the UDL framework proposed that lessons should be designed to target three domains:

• The why of learning – Presenting lessons so learners get engaged and stay challenged, excited, interested, and motivated; key elements:

– A supportive classroom environment: Do students feel safe enough to take risks? (This means deemphasizing speed and accuracy.) Are students building relationships in and through math?

– Meaningful mathematics: Is the math relevant, engaging, and culturally responsive? Do students regularly work in groups and engage in sense-making?

• The what of learning – Presenting information and content in different ways because students differ in how they gather facts and categorize what they see, hear, and read; key elements:

– Focusing on core ideas: Do unit and lesson plans guide students to understand and remember fundamental math ideas?

– Multimodal: Is math content accessible? Can students choose how they solve problems?

• The how of learning – Differentiating the way students show what they have learned; key elements:

– Equitable feedback: Does feedback help students grow as mathematicians? Is assessment appropriate for all learners?

– Understanding oneself as a mathematics learner: What do students learn about themselves as math learners? How do lessons support that development?

“The Magic Is in the Margins: UDL Math” by Rachel Lambert in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, September 2021 (Vol. 114, #9, pp. 660-669); Lambert can be reached at

7. Questions and Answers on ESSER Funds

This Education Week article by Mark Lieberman and Andrew Ujifusa provides comprehensive information on ESSER I, II, and III funding:

– Why did schools get so much federal money during the pandemic?

– How much money did my school district get?

– Why did some school districts get so much more or less than others?

– What’s the difference between the three federal relief aid packages? What does that mean for my school district?

– What should I call the three sets of federal relief?

– How long does my district have to spend the federal money?

– Can my governor or state lawmakers influence how my school district spends federal Covid relief?

– I know the federal government passed Covid-19 relief for schools months ago. Does my school district currently have access to those dollars?

– When does my district have to decide how to spend the funds? Can it change course after making plans?

– I’ve heard that districts have to spend 20 percent of stimulus funds on helping students recover from learning loss. What does that mean?

– Is there anything my district isn’t allowed to spend its federal money on?

– What happens when the money runs out?

– How will the government hold schools accountable for how they spend their money?

– What are the odds that the federal government approves another Covid relief package for schools?

“Everything You Need to Know About Schools and Covid Relief Funds” by Mark Lieberman and Andrew Ujifusa in Education Week, September 22, 2021 (Vol. 41, #6, pp. 12-13)

8. Online Practices from the Pandemic That May Continue

This “Up Front” feature in Independent School reports on the percentage of private school leaders who say they will continue certain Covid-era online practices going forward:

– Parent-teacher conferences – 77%

– Virtual learning for students who are ill – 77%

– Professional development events – 72%

– Board meetings – 71%

– Parent town halls – 70%

– School tours and admission events – 66%

– Alumni events – 50%

– Faculty/staff meetings – 49%

– Hybrid learning options – 37%

– Fundraising events – 37%

“What Stays?” in Independent School, Summer 2021 (Vol. 80, #4, p. 3)

9. Short Item:

A New Website with K-12 Resources on Climate Change – The Subject to Climate website has a wide variety of free, carefully curated lesson plans, videos, and other materials on climate change, geared to Next Generation Science and Common Core standards. For more information, contact Margaret Wang at

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