In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“People instinctively resist being forced to do things differently.”
Jonah Berger (see item #4)
“Whether you’re trying to convince a client, change an organization, disrupt a whole industry, or just get someone to adopt a puppy, the same rules apply. It’s not about pushing harder or exerting more energy. It’s about reducing barriers to action. Once you understand that, you can change anything.”
Jonah Berger (ibid.)
“Students’ perceptions of their academic ability are developed based on messages they receive from their social environment, especially those of their teachers and parents.”
Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, Joseph Cimpian, Sarah Theule Lubienski, and Ian Thacker
(see item #3)
“The degree to which kids need more or less phonics instruction depends on their oral language skills (vocabulary, the complexity of syntax they can unravel), their knowledge of letters and print, and their ability to hear individual speech sounds, at the least.”
Daniel Willingham (see item #1)
“Perhaps most important, in most classrooms, teachers accept that there are some things children must learn or experience that aren’t fun, but are too important to skip. You make it as fun as you can, you make a show of enthusiasm, and hope the kids are swept along.”
Daniel Willingham (ibid.)
“As educators, we have to embrace the reality that accommodations like assistive technology aren’t cheating; rather, they help to level the playing field.”
Kara Ball (see item #5)
1. Daniel Willingham on the Phonics/Balanced Literacy Debate
In this article on his Science and Education website, Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) weighs in on the current debate on phonics and early reading, sparked by a recent series of article in Education Week and a front-page New York Times article (see link below). Willingham addresses several questions he’s hearing:
• Why is the teaching of reading still controversial? Well, learning to read is complicated. Teaching phonics is important, although some children are able to figure out decoding without much support. “The degree to which kids need more or less phonics instruction,” says Willingham, “depends on their oral language skills (vocabulary, the complexity of syntax they can unravel), their knowledge of letters and print, and their ability to hear individual speech sounds, at the least.” Also, teachers who are committed to phonics instruction may not implement it well because of low-quality materials or poor training.
• If every teacher taught phonics well, how much would reading improve? Some kids get by with “bits and pieces” of phonics, says Willingham. But “they’d learn to decode faster and more easily with more systematic instruction. It’s the kids with weak oral language skills, and those who have a hard time hearing individual speech sounds, those are the kids that will benefit most. There’s absolutely some percentage of kids floating into mid- and upper-elementary grades with really poor decoding skills who could be doing better.” However, he adds, when it comes to learning to read, decoding is “necessary but not sufficient.” Once a child can decode, vocabulary and background knowledge become hugely important.
• Isn’t phonics instruction boring for the kids who don’t need it? There’s limited research on this question, says Willingham, but a 1995 study showed that students’ attitude toward early reading wasn’t much affected by phonics instruction. “Perhaps most important,” he adds, “in most classrooms, teachers accept that there are some things children must learn or experience that aren’t fun, but are too important to skip. You make it as fun as you can, you make a show of enthusiasm, and hope the kids are swept along.”
• What led to front-page placement in The New York Times on this topic? The article proclaimed that new data from eye tracking and brain imaging “now show” that systematic early phonics instruction is crucial to reading, and that being exposed to appealing books isn’t enough. Actually, says Willingham, “behavioral data were plenty convincing twenty years ago,” and “brain imaging and eye tracking aren’t that new.” The phonics debate has been going on since the 1920s; balanced literacy seemed like a good compromise, but there’s strong sentiment that phonics has been getting short shrift in “balanced” classrooms – hence the recent kerfuffle. The answer isn’t necessarily more phonics, he says, but better-quality phonics instruction and materials.
• Are schools of education to blame? Extensive research by APM reporter Emily Hanford has been a significant factor in the revived debate. Hanford has taken schools of education to task for not preparing teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to teach phonics well. The recent Education Week series reported on a survey of education school professors that indicated there really are problems in the teacher-preparation pipeline.
• What is the best way to teach beginning readers? There’s a tendency, says Willingham, to think about reading from the perspective of an already-proficient reader. They (we) tend to use meaning-based cues to figure out a word. For a person who understands the rest of a text and is a fluent decoder, that often works. A more difficult strategy is puzzling out an unfamiliar word; that’s “frustrating and effortful,” says Willingham. “So the idea that we should teach beginning readers to use meaning-based cues has a certain logic to it – it’s what really good readers do – but it’s not a good strategy for beginners.”
We know a great deal about phonics and decoding, and we need to take advantage of that knowledge, he concludes. But we need to learn more about what happens after that – fluency, motivation, vocabulary, knowledge, and more.
“The Current Controversy About Teaching Reading: Comments for Those Left with Questions After Reading the New York Times Article” by Daniel Willingham on his Science and Education website, February 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/3c7WjlY; Willingham can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org; Dana Goldstein’s New York Times article on the phonics debate is at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/15/us/reading-phonics.html.
2. Teacher Reactions to a New Teacher-Evaluation Process
In this American Educational Research Journal article, John Lane (Michigan State University) reports on teachers’ responses to Race to the Top performance evaluation policies in three Michigan middle schools. Lane did a full year of field research during which he sat in on classes, training sessions, grade-level team meetings, and staff meetings; interviewed principals, teachers, and students; and analyzed artifacts and policy documents. The teachers who were the focus of this study had volunteered to take part in a new teacher-evaluation initiative, so they were more likely to be open and positive about the policies than some of their colleagues. The schools varied by how vulnerable teachers felt about the possibility of being fired or laid off, how instructionally involved school leaders were, and the degree to which teachers trusted their principal.
Lane found that across all three schools, teachers quickly adopted a common perspective about the new evaluation policies: it’s all about accountability. Teachers believed that their goal was to have a record of excellent performance – especially compared to their teacher colleagues – so they could be sure of keeping their jobs. “This perspective,” says Lane, “persisted across differences in principal leadership, local labor market conditions, and teachers’ own beliefs, values, experiences (i.e., perceptions), and relative standing among colleagues… The perspective became manifest in hundreds of statements in which teachers voiced anxiety about not being recognized as relatively high-scoring and the implications that poor performance might have.”
Lane also found deep cynicism about the evaluation process. “All teachers doubted the connection between the observation protocol and earning a high relative evaluation score,” he says. “When asked about how to perform well on evaluation, teachers never mentioned needing to master the teaching as described in their district’s evaluation protocol. However, they routinely mentioned that principals had specific, idiosyncratic preferences, that, if not satisfied, would hurt their evaluation.” Principals’ preferences, teachers believed, were “only loosely connected to the observation protocol, if connected at all, and may actually conflict with a teacher’s own sense of best practices.”
Keenly attuned to their status compared with their colleagues, teachers paid attention to what principals revealed about instructional preferences, and tried to control the information that principals received about classroom performance. Teachers did this in three ways:
– Restricting information – One teacher said she would talk to her principal about student behavior but not about curriculum or instruction. “I don’t want to incriminate myself by asking questions,” she said.
– Tuning teaching to principals’ preferences – Teachers got clues on what principals wanted by observing their offices (a neat desk suggested personal organization as a look-for) and the “noticings” and “wonderings” they shared after classroom visits, often including lesson objectives on the board.
– Gaming self-evaluations and summative meetings – For example, giving oneself lower scores at the beginning of the year and showing progress at the end, and pushing back on low rubric scores by providing copious evidence of good performance on the targeted criteria. In end-of-year evaluation meetings, some teachers made a strong case for better ratings and principals tended to acquiesce, even if they hadn’t seen those behaviors demonstrated in the classroom.
One teacher said, “I don’t feel like the evaluation process necessarily makes me a better teacher. I feel like I have to do certain things that are expected of me at that time. It is almost like a dog-and-pony show that I feel like I have to put on. And then I go back to what I think really is important on a daily basis. All in all, I want to do well on the evaluation so I can keep my job. [Improving instruction and doing well on evaluations] are almost two separate things.” A principal said, “I’ve seen too many teachers spend too much time and energy on the evaluation and none on their teaching.”
There was also a certain solidarity among teachers in the face of what they regarded as a silly, unfair, and yet threatening process. They shared information on how they would handle self-evaluations, and sometimes alerted each other about upcoming evaluation visits. “Teachers often joked about evaluation with their colleagues by holding the process in derision,” says Lane, “particularly after the negotiations over evaluation ratings were finalized.” In one of the schools, teachers wrote their final ratings on a sheet of paper and went to the end-of-year staff party with these papers taped to their chests, causing great levity.
Lane summarizes the prevailing beliefs among teachers in these schools, resulting in four attitudes and practices:
– Doing well on the evaluation process does not require instructional excellence.
– It’s okay to spend energy on securing high evaluation scores even if that means neglecting the actual work of improving instruction.
– Giving short shrift to one’s teaching will not negatively affect one’s evaluation score.
– Teachers can easily make in-the-moment adjustments that will satisfy their principal.
The result was superficial communication between teachers and principals and little if any impact on the quality of teaching and learning.
What’s more, says Lane, because teachers’ main concern was their own score relative to colleagues, there was no incentive to help one another in substantive ways, resulting in less teamwork. The competitive pressures of the system, he says, “strained collegial relationships… Teachers reported a much more restricted flow of ideas about good instruction as a consequence of evaluation.”
Lane did observe three exceptions: Some high-performing teachers shared effective practices with one another; teachers sometimes threw a lifeline to a struggling, low-rated colleague; and a few teachers found the rubric an interesting source of insight about teaching and used it to reflect on and improve their practice. But this was “a private matter of reflection and enactment, rather than an integral part of formal evaluation activities or evaluation-centered interactions with the principal,” says Lane. And teachers were ambivalent about the rubric itself. Asked whether he used the observation rubric often, one teacher replied, “No, you would drive yourself crazy if you did.”
“Maintaining the Frame: Using Frame Analysis to Explain Teacher Evaluation Policy Implementation” by John Lane in American Educational Research Journal, February 2020 (Vol. 57, #1, pp. 5-42), available for purchase at https://bit.ly/38QE0jk; Lane can be reached at email@example.com.
3. A Study of Unconscious Bias
In this article in Educational Researcher, Yasemin Copur-Gencturk and Ian Thacker (University of Southern California/Los Angeles), Joseph Cimpian (New York University), and Sarah Theule Lubienski (Indiana University/Bloomington) describe an experiment they conducted on implicit bias. Teachers recruited for the study were told that the researchers were in the final stage of selecting items for an assessment that would capture the features of middle-school students’ knowledge and skills and accurately predict their mathematical growth. Teachers were asked to look at students’ handwritten solutions to the same math problems and were told that their anonymous feedback would help finalize the best items for the assessment.
To generate the students’ work, the researchers looked at a number of released NAEP extended-response math test items and chose a set that seemed likely to prompt a range of student responses. They had a group of middle-school students answer the questions and chose three test items that elicited a range of student responses. The researchers then chose two correct, two partially correct, and two incorrect student responses to each question, creating a set of 18 solutions. Here’s one example (with the student’s actual handwritten response in red):
The growing number pattern below follows a rule.
3, 4, 6, 9, 13, …
(a) Explain the rule.
-9 your adding 1 every time. 1 + 3 = 4 + 2 = 6 + 3 = 9 + 4 = 12
When selecting the final items, the researchers made sure that the handwriting and language used did not align with potential gender- or ethnicity-related stereotypes.
The researchers then randomly assigned a student name to each of the solutions, inserting the name in handwritten form by each item, choosing names associated with black, white, and Hispanic girls and boys:
Lakisha, Shanice, Tanisha Emily, Katie, Molly Bianca, Esmeralda, Rosalie
Tyrone, DeShawn, Trevon Connor, Ethan, Todd Alejandro, Diego, José
Students’ names were evenly distributed among correct, partially correct, and incorrect responses.
Participating teachers were asked to rate each student’s answer based on correctness (on a 10-point scale from “absolutely nothing correct” to “fully mathematically sound”). Teachers were then asked to assess each student’s mathematical ability.
The researchers looked at teachers’ responses with two questions in mind: did teachers’ evaluations of the correctness of students’ solutions and students’ mathematical ability vary by gender and race? and did teachers’ background characteristics predict biases? Here are the findings:
– Teachers’ ratings of the correctness of responses did not vary by students’ gender or race. This held for correct, partially correct, and incorrect responses.
– Teachers’ gender, certification status, educational level, and teaching experience did not significantly predict their assessment of students’ mathematical ability.
Teachers’ ratings of students’ mathematical ability were most revealing on partially correct answers, showing varying degrees of implicit bias:
– Overall, students with white-sounding names (both male and female) were rated significantly higher than those with black- and Hispanic-sounding names.
– In pairwise comparisons, the lowest-rated group was always non-white females.
– Non-white teachers assigned higher ability ratings to white-sounding students, especially compared to ratings they gave to girls with black and Hispanic-sounding names.
– White teachers assigned higher ability ratings to students with male-sounding names than to those with female-sounding names.
What explains some quite counterintuitive findings on the biases of white and non-white teachers? Perhaps, the researchers speculate, white teachers “may be more averse to appearing racist and may devote more attention to hiding their biases. White teachers may be especially cautious about hiding their biases in experimental settings. Similarly, white teachers may be more concerned about maintaining their self-image as a nonracist person and may thus give higher ratings to students of color to protect their own image of themselves. In contrast, teachers from stigmatized groups may assume that they do not have biases; thus, they may be less cautious, which could have led us to capture only their biases in this study.”
And the surprising finding that the non-white teachers appeared to have biases toward black and Hispanic students could stem from those teachers internalizing the biases they have encountered throughout their lives.
These findings of implicit bias are important, say the researchers, because “students’ perceptions of their academic ability are developed based on messages they receive from their social environment, especially those of their teachers and parents. These messages potentially contribute to their self-efficacy, self-competence, and decision to select a STEM career.”
“Teachers’ Bias Against the Mathematical Ability of Female, Black, and Hispanic Students” by Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, Joseph Cimpian, Sarah Theule Lubienski, and Ian Thacker in Educational Researcher, January/February 2020 (Vol. 49, #1, pp. 30-43), https://bit.ly/2T9Tfx7; the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
4. Persuasion 101
“People instinctively resist being forced to do things differently,” says Jonah Berger (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) in this Wall Street Journal article. “We pressure and coax and cajole, and often nothing moves. Could there be a better way?” Here are his suggested strategies for changing someone’s mind:
• Allow for agency. People like to believe they’re in the driver’s seat, and they feel disempowered when they’re pressured to act differently – someone else is making the choice rather than them. Studies show that people have an “innate anti-persuasion radar,” says Berger. “They’re constantly scanning the environment for attempts to influence them and when they detect one, they deploy a set of countermeasures.” So one trick is to make people feel they’re still in control. Rather than giving one solution, suggest several and invite the person to choose.
• Describe a better alternative. People tend to be over-attached to the status quo; they want to stick with what they know and have used over time. And that may not be too bad – otherwise they would have made a change long ago. “Change agents combat this phenomenon by bringing the costs of inaction to the surface,” says Berger, “helping people to realize that sticking with the status quo isn’t as cost-free as it seems.” One financial advisor persuaded a reluctant investor by giving him a monthly comparison between his current investments and what he would be making using the alternative.
• Engineer gradual shifts. Too big an ask often takes people into their “zone of rejection.” The trick is to suggest something that’s in the “zone of acceptance” – close enough to their current situation that they’re willing to consider it. Berger describes a doctor treating an obese truck driver who was drinking three liters of Mountain Dew a day. Going cold turkey wasn’t remotely possible, so the doctor started by persuading him to cut down to two liters a day, then after a while one liter. Finally the man was open to doing without (with an occasional can), and he’s lost 25 pounds.
• Alleviate uncertainty. Making a change may feel risky, and many people are risk-averse. Berger describes how a pet shop persuaded him and a girlfriend to adopt an adorable rescue puppy as they fretted about whether they would be able to take good care of her. The shop owner added that he had a two-week trial period, no obligation. “Today that girlfriend is my wife,” says Berger, “and our dog Zoë is an integral part of our family. The trial didn’t reduce the upfront costs of taking Zoë home – food, shots, a crate, etc. – but it did remove the uncertainty.”
• Find corroborating evidence. Hearing from a number of credible people about a proposed change can make all the difference. They might be loved ones chiming in or Facebook “likes,” all creating affirmation and momentum.
“Whether you’re trying to convince a client, change an organization, disrupt a whole industry, or just get someone to adopt a puppy, the same rules apply,” Berger concludes. “It’s not about pushing harder or exerting more energy. It’s about reducing barriers to action. Once you understand that, you can change anything.”
“How to Change Anyone’s Mind” by Jonah Berger in The Wall Street Journal, February 22-23, 2020 (pp. C1-2), available to subscribers at https://on.wsj.com/2Tbc0jZ; Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. 5. Reaching Students with Disabilities
In this Phi Delta Kappan article, Kara Ball recalls when she was a 10th-grader standing at the board trying unsuccessfully to solve a math problem. Finally the teacher said, loudly enough for the whole class to hear, “You’re stupid and are never going to amount to anything.” This was not the first time Ball had been publicly humiliated, and it almost pushed her over the edge. “I could have accepted every negative assumption ever made about me because of my dyslexia and dyscalculia,” she says. “But rather than dropping out or giving in, I decided at that moment that I wanted to be a teacher – and not just any teacher but a special education teacher.”
Ball didn’t outgrow her disabilities, but she got better at dealing with them, graduating from high school and college. She’s now a Baltimore science/STEM education specialist; in 2018 she was named a State Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. Based on her unique perspective, Ball has ideas for parents and fellow educators on how to bring out the potential of every student:
• Be empathetic. “I wish my 10th-grade math teacher had understood just how badly I wanted to be the student he wanted me to be,” says Ball. “As educators, it’s essential for us to understand that our students with disabilities can’t control how and in what way their disability affects them.” Students with the same diagnosis may stumble in different ways. A different teacher in her high school advocated for Ball to enroll in an honors science class despite her C average. This started Ball on the path to becoming a science teacher like him.
• Don’t rely on rote learning. Ball’s limited short-term memory means that she’s not good at mental math or storing and recalling information, especially new concepts – unless they’re connected to a visual or hands-on activity. “None of this means that I’m confused about the given mathematical concepts,” she says. But it’s essential to find another way to build understanding.
• Make it visual. Ball gives her own students blueprint paper to work through engineering design problems and encourages them to make “doodle notes” to visually represent new equations and vocabulary. “A student like me might not be able to solve an abstract problem written on a blackboard,” she says, “but the same problem, presented in a different visual format, can be less of a struggle.”
• Make connections to the real world. Ball’s father worked with her to build a treehouse in their backyard, teaching her about saws, levels, plumb lines, and the importance of precise measurements. “I have found that students with disabilities who struggle in other academic areas tend to excel in STEM because of the connections they make to the real world,” she says. “Plus, STEM encourages students to take risks, make mistakes, and work through problems – something students with disabilities are familiar with.”
• Allow voice and choice. Ball believes that if her 10th-grade math teacher had allowed her to solve that problem on paper first, perhaps using her notes, she would have had the confidence to go to the board and succeed in front of the class. With her own students, Ball has students keep notebooks tuned to their specific needs, and frequently gives them choices in how to solve problems and show what they’ve learned.
• Embrace assistive technology. When Ball was in sixth grade, she repeatedly failed a crucial math test and was in danger of being kept back. Fortunately her parents insisted on having her assessed, and once dysgraphia was diagnosed, she was able to take the test with assistive technology and passed the first time. The key was being able to read the directions aloud, enlarge the print, and get calculator support when computation wasn’t being assessed. “As educators,” she says, “we have to embrace the reality that accommodations like assistive technology aren’t cheating; rather, they help to level the playing field.”
“Why My Learning Disabilities Make Me a Better Teacher” by Kara Ball in Phi Delta Kappan, February 2020 (Vol. 101, #5, pp. 58-59), available for purchase at
https://bit.ly/2v2SQ7V; Ball can be reached at email@example.com.
6. Executive Functioning As a Key Skill in the Early Years
In this Review of Educational Research article, Michelle Cumming, Andy Pham, and Jeeyun Park (Florida International University) and Elizabeth Bettini (Boston University) say that executive functioning skills are “crucial for performance in school and life.” They describe three core components:
– Inhibitory control: being able to suppress a dominant response in order to respond in a more-desirable way – for example, a student waiting to be called on in class. This facet of executive functioning develops first, accelerating during the preschool years.
– Working memory: being able to store, maintain, and manipulate information over brief periods of time – for example, remembering events in a story when answering reading comprehension questions. This ability shows gradual, linear improvement from preschool through adolescence.
– Cognitive flexibility: being able to adapt dynamically to changing task demands or contexts – for example, switching from reviewing multiplication facts to getting started on a math test. This capacity develops gradually between ages 3 and 5 and continues to mature into adolescence.
Students often need to call on different executive-functioning skills in real time – for example, using inhibitory control to tune out distractions from classmates while recalling from working memory the teacher’s directions to complete a writing assignment.
Cumming, Bettini, Pham, and Park found that executive functioning skills are partly inherited, but they are also “malleable and sensitive to both negative and positive experiences, including experiences in school.” Specifically:
• Positive experiences – Skillful parenting, a warm emotional climate, scaffolding of play and learning, and a caring and emotionally supportive school environment all foster the development of executive functioning. This includes parents and educators modeling self-regulation.
• Stress – Moderate stress is important to development, say the authors, but “uncontrollable, persistent, or extreme” stress undermines the development of executive functioning – for example, harsh parenting, violence in the home, and abuse, and at school, unsafe, punitive, and conflict-ridden experiences.
The authors say their research provides one more reason for continuously working on safe, positive, emotionally supportive classrooms and other school experiences. They also suggest universal screening of students for executive functioning deficits, because children who enter school with weak skills will be especially sensitive to stressors in school. Early identification, they say, “may enable educational professionals to intervene early and provide targeted prevention and intervention programming for those at risk of poor executive development.”
“School-, Classroom-, and Dyadic-Level Experiences: A Literature Review of Their Relationship with Students’ Executive Functioning Development” by Michelle Cumming, Elizabeth Bettini, Andy Pham, and Jeeyun Park in Review of Educational Research, February 2020 (Vol. 90, #1, pp. 47-94), available for purchase at https://bit.ly/2wDd4W0; the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
7. Short Items:
a. An infographic of the 100 most-spoken languages in the world – This display and analysis https://word.tips/100-most-spoken-languages/ shows the top 100 languages on earth.
“The 100 Most Spoken Languages in the World”
b. The Student Perception Survey Toolkit – The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP) has copious information on administering and studying student surveys at
Spotted in “What Students Can Tell Us” by Nasue Nishida and Holli Hanson in The Learning Professional, February 2020 (Vol. 41, #1, pp. 24-27), the authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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