Marshall Memo 902

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Week

“People need small wins now more than ever.”

Jenn David-Lang (see item #2)

“The responsibility to the child belongs to the teacher and not a ‘program.’”

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (see item #3)

“Keeping politics out of the curriculum does little to help young people understand and critically examine the political issues of the day, nor does it help them to imagine what a stronger democracy will look like.”

Paula McAvoy and Gregory McAvoy (see item #6)

“It can be a remarkable experience, too, when young people realize that they have the right and ability to reach out to elected officials, and to know that those public figures or governmental workers may be interested in what they have to say…”

Sarah Andes, Jason Fitzgerald, Alison Cohen, and Scott Warren (see item #7)

“A growth mindset is not an all-compassing panacea for improving academic achievement. Rather, a growth mindset needs to align with contextual supports – such as the provision of necessary skillsets, resources, and opportunities to experience mastery in their learning – before it is effective.”

Xu Qin, Alberto Guzman-Alvarez, Ming-Te Wang, and Stephanie Wormington

(see item #5)

“I can’t read one thing with words and listen to something else with different words and actually process both.”

Jennifer Gonzalez (see item #8)

1. A Tribute to Roland Barth

My friend and mentor Roland Barth died on Sunday at 84. Throughout his storied career as a teacher, principal, writer, and developer of school leaders, Roland was foursquare for quality, equity, shared leadership, humor, and great metaphors. Here are a few quotes (see Memos 127 and 504 for summaries of two of his articles):
“The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else. If the relationships between administrators and teachers are trusting, generous, helpful, and cooperative, then the relationships between teachers and students, between students and students, and between teachers and parents are likely to be trusting, generous, helpful, and cooperative. If, on the other hand, relationships between administrators and teachers are fearful, competitive, suspicious, and corrosive, then these qualities will disseminate throughout the school community.”

“A precondition for doing anything to strengthen our practice and improve a school is the existence of a collegial culture in which professionals talk about practice, share their craft knowledge, and observe and root for the success of one another. Without these in place, no meaningful improvement – no staff or curriculum development, no teacher leadership, no student appraisal, no team teaching, no parent involvement, and no sustained change – is possible.”

“For a long time, people have realized that the principal alone can’t run something as complex and enormous as a school. But now I think principals realize that.”

“In many respects, principals do not possess power until they share it.”

“What the principal needs is helpful, nonjudgmental, nonpunitive assistance in sorting out, reflecting upon, and sharpening professional practice. Unfortunately, what most principals find is at best benign neglect, at worst inservice training.”

“If all teachers are expected to be leaders, no one is breaking the taboo about standing higher than the others because everyone is on the same higher level… The shift comes when you also take a piece of leading the school. There’s tremendous satisfaction that comes from making that jump, to being an owner rather than a renter here.”

“The primary problem with public education is not that teachers and principals aren’t doing their jobs. The problem is that they are frequently under pressure to behave in ways dictated by others…”

“From the teacher’s standpoint, a resentful parent can make a school year a torment. As one teacher put it, ‘It’s a little like driving down the turnpike with a hornet in the car. It’s only one hornet, but it can sure interfere with where you’re trying to go, getting there, and how you feel about the trip!’ If Ms. Smith is trying to educate children while some of their parents are persistently trying to educate her, she has her hands full.”

“Many parents control the hour at which a child goes to bed at night, but much as they might like to, these parents cannot control the hour that a child goes to sleep. Similarly, we in the schools can control to some extent what is taught, but we cannot ensure what is learned.”

“Rather than viewing differences among children and teachers as problems to be solved, I have explored the flip side of the coin. I have tried to find ways in which differences can be turned to educational advantage and enlisted in the service of personal and intellectual growth for those within the school.”

“The teacher who can intelligently appraise what children are doing today can prepare an effective lesson tomorrow.”

“Good education is neither gerbils nor workbooks; it is not externally prescribed behavior for teacher or student. Rather, good education is rooted in a teacher’s personal belief about how children learn best. Good education grows in a situation where the teacher’s behavior is a response to first-hand observations of children’s behavior. Thus, good education necessarily varies from classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, year to year.”

“Leadership is attempting to hold the flood of daily administrivia – forms to fill out, meetings to attend, reports to submit – at arm’s length so that other important issues like staff organization, placement, evaluation of students, and staff development can be closely addressed.”

“Selective risk taking is somewhat like working on an old car. I once asked a neighbor who was helping me rebuild the engine of a Model A Ford how much I should tighten a head nut. ‘Stop a quarter of a turn before you strip it,’ he said. I think that is an apt way to think about school administration. I stop a quarter of a turn before I strip the organizational nut.”

“My objective is for all of us to come to school each September with at least one significant new element in our professional (and therefore personal) lives – something to dream about, think about, worry about, get excited about, be afraid about, lose sleep about, become and remain alive about.”

2. Five Questions to Help Decide on Priorities for the Year

In this Edutopia article, Jenn David-Lang (The Main Idea) says that after an exceptionally scattered 18 months dealing with the pandemic, educators need to be focused on no more than three key priorities for 2021-22. Why three? According to Chris McChesney, with 4-10 priorities, we’re likely to achieve only one or two with quality, and with ten or more, we won’t accomplish anything of significance. Steve Jobs famously led an annual retreat in which Apple’s top leaders narrowed possible initiatives to ten – and then Jobs theatrically crossed out the bottom seven and declared that resources would be devoted only to the top three.

How to choose a school’s Big Three? Drawing on her extensive reading, David-Lang suggests asking these questions about each competing initiative:

• How much impact will it have on student learning and well-being? Among the practices with the best research track record: professional collaboration, collective teacher efficacy, formative assessments, feedback, a clear curriculum, student collaboration, Response to Intervention (RTI), and high-impact teaching strategies like nonfiction writing.

• Can it have an impact within three months? “People need small wins now more than ever,” says David-Lang. There are strategies to quickly improve staff morale and reduce suspensions, chronic absenteeism, and failure rates.

• Does it address our school’s most pressing needs? To zero in on those, the leadership team should look at test scores, attendance, course passing rates, students’ reading levels and algebra readiness, and insights gathered in surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations, and observations.

• Does it piggyback on existing initiatives, strengths, and school values? “The path to success is often faster and easier when it’s built on what you already do well,” says David-Lang. “Lots of schools found successful new approaches during the pandemic that they want to build on.”

• How much will it affect other aspects of the school? Charles Duhigg (in his book The Power of Habit) describes the way certain “keystone habits” (for example, families eating dinner together) have a positive effect on other behaviors. This suggests being very strategic in choosing initiatives that serve as catalysts for other variables within a school. “For example,” says David-Lang, “if you choose to focus on absenteeism as one of your priorities, that would impact engagement (students can’t be engaged if they’re not attending), learning (they can’t learn if they’re missing classes), and staff morale (teachers question their worth when students don’t show up).”

“The Value of Limiting Your Priorities for the School Year” by Jenn David-Lang in Edutopia, September 10, 2021; David-Lang can be reached at jenn@themainidea.net.

3. Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell Weigh In on the Literacy Debate

In this article in Education Week, literacy gurus Irene Fountas (Lesley University) and Gay Su Pinnell (Ohio State University) say that over the decades, the pendulum has swung back and forth on the “right” way to teach reading. At one pole are rigidly scripted phonics programs that can take the interest and joy out of reading; at the other are romantic approaches that expect children to figure out reading for themselves while absorbed in pleasurable literacy experiences. “Any approach that overemphasizes one aspect of literacy over another,” say Fountas and Pinnell, “will likely neglect other important areas.”

They don’t argue with the data and research put forward in the current “science of reading” debate. Classroom and laboratory research have clearly established the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness. However, Fountas and Pinnell believe the research “has not identified any particular kind of phonics instruction to be better than others, nor has it identified a need to use a particular kind of text.” In the primary grades, they believe, phonics instruction needs to be part of a comprehensive set of related practices. Students should apply what they learn in reading and writing continuous text, with well-trained teachers differentiating to meet individual students’ needs. “The responsibility to the child belongs to the teacher and not a ‘program,’” they say.

On the issue of equity, Fountas and Pinnell say today’s educators serve “a highly diverse student population, including many children who come to school with disadvantages. Individuals have different needs and learn in different ways. There is no quick fix, nor is there one way that all children must learn. We do see patterns in children’s literacy development, but expert teachers tune in to individual needs and strengths and thoughtfully adapt the way they teach. This is responsive teaching. These small but constant instructional decisions make teaching powerful enough to make a difference.”

Over several decades, Fountas and Pinnell have developed – and passionately advocate for – a comprehensive approach that orchestrates all the key components of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, accuracy, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, and student engagement. While this approach has been labeled “balanced literacy,” Fountas and Pinnell don’t believe the term is descriptive and urge educators to steer clear of labels. “We aim to provide instruction that is deeply connected,” they say, “so that school makes sense to children, and they learn how written language is connected to spoken language.”

Fountas and Pinnell believe there’s plenty of common ground even among those who disagree on instructional methods. They suggest these precepts:

– Too many children aren’t reading proficiently in the early grades, with serious implications for their futures.

– Strong teaching of reading and writing is essential to equitable outcomes.

– Very few children can learn to read and write by themselves. “The great majority of students need good instruction,” say Fountas and Pinnell, “and all students can benefit from it.”

– A strong primary-grade literacy program must include daily, explicit phonics and word study, and teachers need solid mastery of how our language works – and how to teach it.

– The ultimate goal is students who are “competent, voluminous, voluntary readers who continue to learn from and use literacy all their lives.”

“Our message today,” conclude Fountas and Pinnell, “is that – especially at the start of another challenging school year – if we work together and not against each other, we stand a better chance of ensuring that all children have the chance to live a literate life.”

“Teachers, More Than Programs, Make for Great Reading Instruction” by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in Education Week, September 8, 2021

4. Does a One-Year Delay in Kindergarten Entry Improve Achievement?

In this Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness article, Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld (NWEA) report on their study of the impact of delaying kindergarten entry on students’ progress in the first three years of school. “The prevailing assumption behind raising the age of school entry,” say Johnson and Kuhfeld, “is that being older and more mature helps children derive more benefit from schooling… Assuming years of schooling are the same, if older entrants learn at a higher rate than younger entrants while in school, then entering school older would result in greater human capital accumulation in the long run. In addition to this absolute advantage, parents may perceive a relative advantage of being older than one’s classmates: that school staff may allocate academic opportunities in ways that favor higher-achieving, better-behaved children.”

What did the researchers find? Based on NWEA reading and mathematics MAP assessment results from hundreds of schools in three states, these were the conclusions:

– Students who are a year older in kindergarten do significantly better on initial math and reading assessments, and their monthly growth rates during the kindergarten year are also higher than younger students.

– The effects of being a year older fade in first and second grade, with older students growing at slower rates than younger students.

– Students’ rates of growth do not differ significantly by gender or ethnicity, especially after the kindergarten year (where there are some differences).

– Math achievement and growth varied significantly across different schools, but with reading there was little variation across schools.

The initial advantage of being a year older in kindergarten is easy to explain, say Johnson and Kuhfeld: children have an additional year to develop executive functioning skills and some benefit from high-quality preschool experiences. The fade-out in subsequent years is more difficult to explain. “It may be that teachers in these grades focus more attention on helping the younger students catch up,” say the researchers. It may be the fact that the developmental differences between 5- and 6-year-olds are larger than those between 7- and 8-year-olds. Or it could be that younger students benefit from interacting with older, higher-achieving, and better-behaved classmates.

“Our findings,” conclude Johnson and Kuhfeld, “beg future research to explore the mechanisms behind the causal link between age and growth trajectories.”

“Impacts of School Entry Age on Academic Growth Through 2nd Grade: A Multi-State Regression Discontinuity Analysis” by Angela Johnson and Megan Kuhfeld in Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, July-September 2021 (Vol. 14, #3, pp. 543-569); Johnson can be reached at angela.johnson@nwea.org.

5. With Growth Mindset Interventions, Context Matters

“A growth mindset is not an all-compassing panacea for improving academic achievement,” say Xu Qin, Alberto Guzman-Alvarez, and Ming-Te Wang (University of Pittsburgh) and Stephanie Wormington (Center for Creative Leadership) in this Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness article. “Rather, a growth mindset needs to align with contextual supports – such as the provision of necessary skillsets, resources, and opportunities to experience mastery in their learning – before it is effective.”

These insights came from the researchers’ analysis of growth mindset interventions with students making the transition from middle to high school. A key insight: talking to students about the malleability of intelligence – You can get smarter through effective effort – is not enough. Growth mindset interventions have a positive impact with struggling students when the message is backed with resources, opportunities, and supports.

Qin, Wormington, Guzman-Alvarez, and Wang focused on how struggling students dealt with moments of frustration and failure and their willingness to take on difficult tasks. “Historically, academic challenges have jeopardized these students’ ability to form positive beliefs about school,” say the researchers. “By providing a supportive narrative in which maladaptive beliefs about the school context are addressed or minimized, the growth mindset intervention provides an opportunity to bolster and support low-performing students’ self-beliefs and academic behaviors…

“Challenge-seeking is a malleable target behavior,” continue the authors, “that educators can promote through authentic classroom and school activities, and the growth mindset intervention works directly on students’ mindset about efforts in school by reappraising academic challenges and struggles. As such, the growth mindset intervention provides reassurance that challenges occur for every new high-school student, and suggests that the challenges can be resolved with adequate effort, strategies, and time. When students understand that academic ability can be improved and these seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome, they are better positioned to read negative and ambiguous cues as external and changeable and respond adaptively to stressors and failures. This growth mindset framing encourages students to seek out more challenges rather than avoid them, a behavior that is expected to eventually enhance their academic achievement.”

“Why Does a Growth Mindset Intervention Impact Achievement Differently Across Secondary Schools? Unpacking the Causal Mediation Mechanism from a National Multisite Randomized Experiment” by Xu Qin, Stephanie Wormington, Alberto Guzman-Alvarez, and Ming-Te Wang in Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, July-September 2021 (Vol. 14, #3, pp. 617-644); Qin can be reached at xuqin@pitt.edu.

6. Discussing Hot Political Issues with High-School Students

In this Peabody Journal of Education article, Paula McAvoy (North Carolina State University) and Gregory McAvoy (University of North Carolina/Greensboro) report on their study of high-school students discussing controversial political topics. The research was conducted at a time of deep polarization in the U.S. (2019-20), with strong opinions on key issues, deep animosities toward those with opposing views, the diminishing ideological center, and a high level of citizen distrust toward elected officials. “These problems arise at a time of historic income inequality and worsening race relations,” say McAvoy and McAvoy, “developments that map onto partisan divides and further exacerbate our contentious political climate.”

All this puts social studies educators in a “precarious position” as they work to develop their students’ civic skills and dispositions. Some teachers avoid discussions of hot topics for fear that things will get out of hand. “But keeping politics out of the curriculum does little to help young people understand and critically examine the political issues of the day,” say the authors, “nor does it help them to imagine what a stronger democracy will look like.”

Handled well, classroom discussions can teach students to give reasons for their opinions, listen to opposing views, see disagreements as normal, become better informed, and clarify their own opinions – all with the aim of coming to agreement for the common good.

The McAvoys conducted their study at the Close Up program, which brings high-school students from all 50 states and territories to Washington, D.C. for a week of activities, working in geographically mixed groups of 20-24. Two evenings are devoted to 90-minute discussions of controversial issues, using these structures on each successive gathering:

– Deliberative discussions – Groups of 30 students are given a topic, randomly assigned to groups of six, read about the issue, consider various policy proposals, come to consensus about a policy they can all endorse, and present their ideas to others.

– Team debates – Groups of 20-24 students read about an issue, choose a side, form two opposing teams, prepare arguments, and then each student is required to stand and give a one-minute persuasive statement, followed by a back-and-forth exchange. A panel of three peers decides on the winning team.

Among the issues discussed and debated: criminal justice reform, climate change, gun regulation, abortion, health care, homelessness, the minimum wage, English as the official U.S. language, and immigration.

McAvoy and McAvoy conducted pre- and post-activity surveys and interviewed students (165 participated, a 76 percent response rate). While students overwhelmingly said they enjoyed both formats and became more interested in the issues they discussed, there were important differences:

• With the deliberative format, 90 percent of students felt respected and 91 percent felt good about their comments. This format resulted in more students changing their views and moving toward consensus.

• With the debate format, 76 percent felt respected and 70 percent felt good about their comments. More students reported feeling more anxious and hesitant to speak, as compared to the deliberative format. And more students hardened their previous positions, moving away from consensus.

• In both formats, female students were significantly more likely to report hearing something offensive, and said they were hesitant to speak. “They were also significantly less likely to say that they felt good about the comments they made,” say the McAvoys. Analyzing the data by race, ethnicity, and social class, the researchers found no significant differences between the two formats.

“Can Debate and Deliberation Reduce Partisan Divisions? Evidence from a Study of High-School Students” by Paula McAvoy and Gregory McAvoy in Peabody Journal of Education, Fall 2021 (Vol. 96, #3, pp. 275-284); the first author can be reached at pmcavoy@ncsu.edu.

7. Teaching Civics Through Local Action

In this Peabody Journal of Education article, Sarah Andes (Tufts University), Jason Fitzgerald (Monmouth University), Alison Cohen (Tufts University and University of California/San Francisco), and Scott Warren (Johns Hopkins University) describe how the decade-old Generation Citizen program teaches citizenship by getting a student class engaged in a local issue, following these steps:

– Studying their community;

– Choosing an issue that will engage students with people and perspectives different from their own, but with connections to their own lived experience;

– Researching the issue;

– Planning for action;

– Taking action;

– Reflecting on the initiative.

Working in cities across the U.S., Generation Citizen has steered students toward nonpartisan, non-controversial issues where students can have a direct impact on their community without getting caught up in partisan fights. Four examples:

• High-school students in New York City discovered that female, African-American abolitionists were not represented among the city’s public statues. Students succeeded in getting a seat on a board committed to public artwork honoring women’s history.

• Eighth graders in California brought the issue of unsafe city buses to the attention of the local transportation department and the problem was fixed.

• Students in Lowell, Massachusetts launched a gun buy-back initiative, raised funds from 35 houses of worship and 21 nonprofit organizations and business, publicized the effort through an op-ed and bilingual advertisements, and used gift cards to get 38 guns off the streets.

• Students in Berkeley, California were successful in getting a youth homeless shelter that had been open only during the school year to open year-round.

“Many times,” say the authors, “when local politics is concerned, people take precedence over partisanship. It can be a remarkable experience, too, when young people realize that they have the right and ability to reach out to elected officials, and to know that those public figures or governmental workers may be interested in what they have to say…”

“Teaching Students to Be Political in a Nonpartisan Way: Reflections from Action Civics Education Across Red and Blue States” by Sarah Andes, Jason Fitzgerald, Alison Cohen, and Scott Warren in Peabody Journal of Education, Fall 2021 (Vol. 96, #3, pp. 285-293); Andes can be reached at sarah.andes@tufts.edu.

8. Jennifer Gonzalez on the Dual Attention Problem

In this Cult of Pedagogy “EduTip,” Jennifer Gonzalez says that a very common teaching mistake is presenting students with something to read – perhaps a handout or a PowerPoint slide – and then talking while they’re trying to read it. “I don’t know about you,” says Gonzalez, “but my brain doesn’t work like that. I can’t read one thing with words and listen to something else with different words and actually process both.” Quite often teachers get upset when students don’t grasp what they were supposed to read or don’t seem to have been listening to what was said. “The truth is,” she says, “we caused the problem.”

This suggests that when we want students to read something and also have information that needs to be conveyed orally, we provide separate times for each – specifically:

– Do the explaining before handing out or projecting the written material.

– If the text is already in front of students, tell them to stop reading and look up at you (or turn off the projector) and wait until you have their full attention.

– While students are reading, insist on quiet.

– If students have questions during the silent reading time, tell them to jot them down and hold them for an upcoming Q&A time.

“EduTip 1: Don’t Make Them Read and Listen at the Same Time” by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy, September 12, 2021

9. Recommended Graphic Novels About History and Science

In this School Library Journal article, Brigid Alverson highlights graphic novels about overlooked historical figures and scientific phenomena (click the link below for cover images and short summaries):

– We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration by Frank Abe, Tamiko Nimura, Ross Ishikawa, and Matt Sasaki, grade 8 and up

– History Comics: The Wild Mustang by Chris Duffy and Falynn Koch, grade 4-6

– Yummy by Victoria Grace Elliott, grade 3-7

– The Bug Club by Elise Gravel, grade 1-2

– “Strange Fruit” by Joel Christian Gill, grade 7 and up

– Robert Smalls: Tales of the Talented Tenth by Joel Christian Gill, grade 7 and up

– Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Cold War Correspondent by Nathan Hale, grade 3-7

– History Comics: The National Parks by Falynn Koch, grade 4-8

– Expedition Backyard by Rosemary Mosco and Binglin Hu, grade 2 and up

– Science Comics: Dinosaurs by MK Reed and Joe Flood, grade 4-6

– Andy Warner’s Oddball Histories: Pests and Pets by Andy Warner, grade 3-7

– Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner, grade 7 and up

“(Previously) Untold Stories” by Brigid Alverson in School Library Journal, September 2021 (Vol. 67, #9, pp. 38-41)

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