Whether you agree or disagree with Education Secretary Arne Duncan's speech at the American Educational Research Association conference earlier this month, you have to admit it sparked a pretty lively debate in the education research community and beyond. My colleagues at Education Week Commentary have pulled together the highlights of the ongoing discussion.
May 16, 2013
May 15, 2013
As federal and state focus on early childhood education heats up, researchers like Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development are trying to measure the skills that form the foundation of young students' academic success.
Skills teachers report students need to be successful in the school transition, Carlson said, aren't related to knowing the alphabet or counting to 100, but to executive functions: the ability to concentrate and ignore distractions, remember and follow rules, transition from one activity to another, suppress aggression and get along with other students, and wait for turns or rewards.
"Executive function skills are critical for predicting, even in high-risk kids, which ones are going to go on and do well." Carlson said. "Even within a high-risk group, like homeless kindergarteners, resilient kids have high executive function. This is independent of IQ."
Carlson is directing a project by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to develop a test of executive function for children from the ages of 2 to 5. In older children, executive functions tend to be measured individually—attention, reasoning skills, and self-control, for example—but Carlson said executive function in preschoolers can be more unified.
"There are marked changes in the preschool years," she explained at a research forum on the project earlier this month. "We become more reflective and less reflexive as we get older."
Games of Skill
Carlson and her colleagues are testing these skills in a pool of about 60,000 preschool children, about 10 percent of whom come from families who earn less than $25,000 per year. The researchers are working to adapt several early childhood measures into a cohesive test of executive function.
For example, the foundation of the test is a dimensional card sort, in which children are asked to sort a series of cards by shape or color. The rules of sorting change mid-game, and prior research has found developmentally younger children cannot make that switch, even if the tester reminds them that the rules have changed.
"If you want to look closely at the transition from 3 to 4 years old, there are some very good tests to do that," like the card sort, she said, but added, "It's much harder to measure a broader range. If [a tested child] gets a zero on the card sort, we're not comfortable saying this child has no executive function."
In another game, called "less is more," researchers present children with two small bowls of favorite candy and a stuffed monkey who is intended to share the candy with them. One bowl has two candies and the other five, and the children agree that five is more than two. But then the researchers present a problem: Whichever bowl the child picks will go to the monkey. It's pretty easy to think that to get the most candy for yourself, you must repeatedly choose the smaller candy bowl, but at 3 years, little more than one in four children can choose the opposite of what they want; only a year later, 63 percent can do it.
Moreover, Carlson has found early tests on one measure—delaying gratification, the so-called marshmallow test—can be highly sensitive to children's background and context, as well as their age. While 40 percent of 2 1/2 year olds can wait 10 minutes for a sweet in order to get two, and 80 percent can hold off two years later, less than a third of homeless 4-year-olds will put off eating a treat for 10 minutes, and even fewer children will wait if the researcher has lied to the child in the past.
"It doesn't make sense to delay gratification if you don't know what's coming around the corner, or you don't know if the resources will be there—or if you don't trust the adult who is talking to you," Carlson said.
In the process of finding better ways to test young children, the researchers are also highlighting ways to help students develop executive function skills in the first place. For example, in the "less is more" game, researchers found that if they replaced the actual candies with symbols or numbers representing the candies, 3-year-olds acted developmentally more like 4-year-olds, choosing the smaller portion to get more.
"Imagination is needed to become aware of and reflect on one's choices for responding, planning and problem-solving," she said. "The practice of pretending might promote cognitive flexibility. It puts some cognitive space between the child and the problem at hand."
May 10, 2013
Think education research has a tendency to get politicized now? Congress is debating ways to increase its own control over the National Science Foundation's peer review process, a move that could put a serious chill on the study of controversial education and other public interest topics.
May 09, 2013
Graphics are often intended to engage children in learning otherwise dry material, such as data on a chart. Yet new research from Ohio State University suggests increasing charts' artistic appeal can interfere with students' ability to comprehend the information they represent.
The findings come as educators and publishers grapple with ways to implement new Common Core State Standards on literacy. The common core calls for students to comprehend and connect information from visual elements, including charts, maps, and multimedia, in addition to understanding stories and informational texts. This echoes calls for students to comprehend graphics in the common core math standards and separate next-generation science standards.
In a study published in the May issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, kindergarten and elementary teachers told Ohio State psychology researchers Jennifer A. Kaminski and Vladimir M. Sloutsky that they believed charts that represented information using visually appealing graphics, such as stacks of shoes or flowers, would be more effective for teaching young students how to read charts. All of the 16 teachers interviewed said they would prefer to teach using more visually appealing charts.
In a separate series of four experiments, the researchers taught 122 middle-class 6- to 8-year-old students how to read basic bar charts. Some of the charts used solid bars of one or multiple colors; others depicted the same information using stacks of countable cartoon objects. While the students were first being taught to read the charts, the number of objects stacked in each bar equaled the number of items on the y-axis of the data set. For example, a chart depicting five shoes lost in May and eight lost in April would have five shoe icons in the May stack and eight in the April stack.
After the initial training, students were tested with new charts, in which the number of stacked objects did not always equal the y-axis. It became quickly apparent that students attempted to count stacks rather than properly read the chart data. All of the 1st and 2nd graders and three out of four kindergartners who had learned to read solid-bar charts accurately read the new charts. By contrast, of those who had learned to read charts using countable stacks, 90 percent of kindergartners, more than 70 percent of 1st graders and 30 percent of 2nd graders incorrectly read the new charts by counting stacks.
Moreover, when both groups of students were tested using yet another set of bar charts that used patterns of stripes and dots, students who had initially learned to read charts of stacked items performed significantly worse at reading the charts than those who had learned on more basic bars.
"Those who design material need to consider the possibility that inclusion of extraneous perceptual information may divert attention from the to-be-learned information," the authors concluded. More troubling, the researchers noted that students' misconceptions may not be noticeable at first, because very basic charts that use graphics often do stack pictures in equal number to the x- or y-axis, but could surface later when students are called to interpret more complex charts.
April 30, 2013
Education Secretary Arne Duncan climbed up on the elephant in the room pretty much as soon as he started his invited address at the American Educational Research Association meeting here.
In a packed room with participants holding signs and circulating anti-testing protest fliers, he started off cautiously: "We can all generally agree standardized test don't have a good rep today, and much of that criticism is merited."
For example, he said, standardized tests generally have simplistic questions, aligned to standards to varying degrees, and teachers get results months too late for them to help improve education. He criticized schools that "obsess" about tests, adding, "It's heartbreaking to hear children identify themselves as 'below basic,' or a 'one.'"
However, Duncan also castigated those who said the recent cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington are reasons to chuck high-stakes tests. "That argument confuses correlation with causation, and it ignores history," Duncan said, adding, "I reject the idea that [accountability-based testing] forces people to cheat."
What's the answer to the problems in the testing system? Better tests, and tests used for different tasks apparently. The Secretary pointed to studies that have shown frequent, low-stakes test can help students recall information. Duncan argued that high-achieving countries such as Singapore have more-complex tests than American schools do, and their test preparation is "not so much time out from learning, but part of the learning process itself. High performing countries tend to have assessments that are worth learning to."
Eva Baker, education research professor at the University of California Los Angeles asked Duncan how he would know when the consortia tests were ready for prime time, and whether he would suspend accountability requirements if they were not up to snuff. He declined, noting that states would be the ones to decide when the common core tests are ready and how to gauge school accountability in the meantime.
Arnold Dodge, (shown in the photo) an assistant education professor at C.W. Post campus of Long Island University who was part of the protest groups and invited to ask a question, snapped a follow-up to Baker: He argued that Race to the Top is "NCLB on steroids" and its test-based accountability "is destroying the joy, the spontaneity" of teaching and learning. He asked Duncan if he would commit to putting a moratorium on test-based accountability until new standards and tests were in place.
"We're trying a lot of things, but, a moratorium to what, for what? We're talking to a lot of people ... but that's the best I can tell you right now."
Photos taken by Elizabeth Rich.
April 30, 2013
It's about 10 minutes until Education Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to speak for the first time at the annual American Educational Research Association meeting here, as invited by AERA officials, and the protest signs already seem to be circulating.
The one pictured above, the reverse of which you can see below, comes from an alliance of anti-testing folks, including Reclaim AERA, which bills itself as "in defense of research, education, and action for the public good," as well as EDU4, United Opt Out, and @ the Chalk Face. I'm also seen red signs blaring, "Stop the WAR on Teachers!"
I'm struck by a comment by Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, in the the previous session in the same room, on the future of education schools. Though not refering directly to the Duncan talk, he admonished the AERA participants that instead of protesting, they should work harder to find solutions to pressing education problems.
"I haven't been at one of these [meetings] where we haven't decried high stakes testing," he said. "Why don't we invent something else?"
I'll update when the Secretary takes the stage. UPDATE: Click here to read about the speech.
Photos of protest signs taken by Elizabeth Rich.
April 29, 2013
Part of learning is knowing how and when to ask for help, and studies have long found gaps in students' ability to reach out for support can increase achievement gaps. New research presented Sunday at the American Educational Research Association meeting here suggests students' confidence in their own social skills and the emotional and instructional support in their classroom can change the way they ask for help.
According to researchers, not all ways to look for help are equally productive when it comes to long-term academic success. Some students are just looking for something expedient—these are the kids asking "What did you get for number 4?" By contrast, students who want "instrumental help" are trying to understand a concept or otherwise master the material.
The tenor of a classroom can make a big difference in whether students are willing to ask for help, and from whom, according to a study from the University of California-Irvine.
Based on data from the larger, ongoing California Motivation Project in Math, U.C.-Irvine education researchers Anne Marie M. Conley and Arena Chang tracked nearly 6,000 6th-11th grade students in three highly diverse school districts.
They surveyed the students once in the fall and again in spring on how they viewed the math classroom climate, and compared the responses to how students sought help over the course of the year. Conley and Chang found students were more likely to seek "instrumental help" to master what they were learning in classrooms they considered emotionally supportive and those in which the teacher pressed students to understand the material. Students in these classes were also more likely to ask both their teacher and their peers for help.
By contrast, students were less likely to seek help from the teacher in classes in which they felt less emotionally supported, and those in classes focused on test performance and academic achievement rather than understanding. Moreover, when they sought help from friends, students in these classes were more likely to seek superficial, expedient help to solve an immediate problem.
Getting Help Without Losing Face
Students' own self-confidence in academic and social skills also weighed on their willingness to ask for help. As part of a larger longitudinal study, Sarah M. Kiefer, an education psychologist at the University of South Florida, looked at how 365 6th graders from three urban Florida schools sought help during their first year of middle school.
Kiefer analyzed how capable the students felt about their own academic and social prowess, and then asked them to nominate classmates as "peer helpers," those they would turn to for help on an academic problem.
Overall, Kiefer found that students knew the top students academically in the class, but they were much more likely to pick a close friend or someone lower on the social ladder for help for help than to choose based on academics. About a third of students said they would be most likely to turn to their their closest friends for help.
"Students often turn to peers when they have an academic problem, either for a solution or for emotional support," Kiefer said. "If students don't feel competent socially and academically, they may not ask for help when they need it."
When it came to other peers, the students on average chose to ask for help from students who were lower in social and academic skills than they were, and those who were considered "less cool." The students who were higher in social skills but felt less secure in their academic ability were more likely to look for superficial help to find "the answer" from other students who were cool but rated low in academic skills.
By contrast, Kiefer said, from a student's perspective, "If I was academically confident, I was more likely to have adaptive help-seeking (such as looking for instrumental help) less likely to have expedient help-seeking" or to avoid asking for help at all.
I find it fascinating that a student's decision to ask for help is so fraught with social implications, particularly in middle school. At least in these studies, students seem to view asking for help as a weakness, and look for ways to save face when they do it. It would be interesting to see more research into ways to create a classroom climate in which students are less afraid to ask questions and more focused on learning than on finding the right answer.
April 28, 2013
Principals set the tone for academic excellence in their schools, but researchers and policymakers are only just beginning to understand how their leadership affects student achievement. And for harried, time-crunched leaders nationwide, the results might be heartening: It's not quantity, but the quality of time spent on instructional leadership that makes the difference.
Here amid the more than 14,500 researchers and educators at the American Educational Research Association conference, a more quantitative view of school leadership is coming into focus. In a meta-analysis of 79 unpublished studies and data sets, University of Alabama researcher Jingping Sun found three areas in which principals could spur student learning by improving teacher practices: through individualized support for teachers, modeling desirable instruction, and providing intellectual stimulation for teachers.
This sort of behavior is a lot harder to suss out than a principal's credentials or experience, but, "when we look at lots of easily observed characteristics, those don't seem to be very predictive of principal effectiveness," said Jason A. Grissom, education researcher from Vanderbilt Peabody College.
In a separate study, an ongoing, three-year longitudinal study of principals by Grissom and other researchers, observers shadowed leaders at every high school and a random sample of elementary and middle schools in Miami for several days each spring in 2008, 2011 and 2012. During the observations, researchers recoded detailed information about what the principal was doing every five minutes, out of a list of 50 potential activities.
Then the researchers connected those data to structured interviews with the principals at the end of each visit; end-of-school-year surveys with principals, assistant principals, and teachers; and district administrative data going back to 2002.
In spite of the high-profile push for principals to become "instructional leaders," Grissom and his colleges found on average, principals spent only 50 minutes each day, or 13 percent of their time, on instruction-related tasks, including (in the order of most- to least-common):
• Class walkthroughs,
• Developing educational programs,
• Coaching teachers, and
• Running required or voluntary professional development for teachers or other staff.
At first, it seemed principals who spent more time on instructional activities were no more likely to have high-achieving schools than those who spent less time—but that's because all instructional leadership is not equal.
Take classroom walkthroughs, a staple of instructional leadership. In high school in particular, walkthroughs were on average linked to worse student achievement over time. But when Grissom and his colleagues teased out the data, it turned out that walkthroughs that were directly connected to teacher professional development and feedback improved student achievement over time, but "When walkthroughs are just done for the sake of doing it, that's where you get these more negative outcomes," Grissom said.
"Principals are a lot more likely to conceptualize walkthroughs as a way to keep tabs than a tool for professional development," he said, adding that school leaders used walkthroughs for monitoring twice as often as they used it for teacher coaching and professional development.
Moreover, that tendency toward monitoring rather than partnership and professional development permeates school leaders' conversations with staff, an unrelated University of Auckland study finds.
Auckland researcher Deidre LeFevre found that rather than engaging in genuine inquiry and being willing to question their own assumptions, principal conversations with teachers sometimes come from a position of mistrust or outright manipulation.
LeFevre asked 14 veteran principals to engage in 8-minute conversations with an actor trained to perform as a teacher who has been late to meetings and in providing student data. During the conversations, the leaders wrote down what they were thinking about as they spoke with the teacher, and both the conversation transcripts and the notes were coded and analyzed.
LeFevre found none of the leaders held a sustained, genuine inquiry. One avoided discussing the data issue at all, and the others posed leading questions that lectured the teacher on what she was doing wrong and did not respond to her questions about why the data was being collected and what relevance it would have to instruction. In some cases the principals' notes made it obvious they simply thought the (imaginary) teacher was lazy, or that they privately agreed with her concerns but would not discuss the issue or try to come up with solutions beyond basic compliance.
"To have a genuine conversation, the leader needs to think about his own assumptions and be open to understanding and taking a new perspective," LeFevre said.
Just as class walkthroughs weren't much use if they were only a "gotcha," teacher-leader conversations don't change classroom practice if they aren't real, she said. Again, leadership is about quality, not quantity.
If you're at a great session at AERA this week, let me know via Twitter @sarahdsparks or firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 19, 2013
Students in high-performing schools have more and deeper opportunities to learn science than those in struggling schools, according to a recent Massachusetts course audit released by the Rennie Center.
Last month I reported on a math curriculum audit by the federal National Center of Education Sciences that found most Algebra 1 and geometry courses were middling on rigor, and that minority students were more likely to take less-rigorous courses with the same title. The Rennie Center's spring policy-research report, "Opportunity to Learn Science?" takes a similar look at science classes and activities in low- and high-performing schools.
No big surprise, the audit found high-performing schools were more likely to have teachers certified to teach science, and to have positions for instructors who only teach science (even in elementary grades.) Students in high-performing schools had on average 60 minutes more science instruction each week than students in low-performing schools, and they were also more likely to have access to Advanced Placement and other honors courses in science. High-performing schools were also more likely to offer science-based extracurricular activities, such as science fairs and clubs.
These gaps are especially concerning coming from Massachusetts, which routinely leads the nation in science achievement. It will be interesting to see whether states that adopt new next-generation science standards are able to close gaps in rigor among different schools.
April 19, 2013
Guest post by Caralee Adams of College Bound
High school teachers think their students are ready for college, but college professors beg to differ.
A survey by ACT finds that 89 percent of high school teachers think report their students are "well" or "very well" prepared for college-level work in the subject they teach, while just 26 percent of college instructors say incoming students are "well" or "very well" prepared for entry-level courses.
These percentages from the 2012 ACT National Curriculum Survey results, released Wednesday, are basically unchanged from when the question was asked in 2009.
Considering that the Common Core State Standards represent a significant change in expectations for what students need to know and be able to do before high school graduation, it is notable that two-thirds of educators who said they were aware of the standards surveyed anticipate that they will need to change their current curriculum no more than slightly in response to the standards, according to the ACT report.
The research suggests that state and local efforts to bring high schools up to new college- and career-readiness standards have a ways to go, and familiarity with the changes ahead varies widely among educators. Still, the optimism teachers expressed in the survey is an encouraging indication that they will be open to efforts to make them more successful in the classroom, the report says.
To bridge the divide, ACT recommends greater collaboration between K-12 and postsecondary educators on curriculum and academic expectations.
The survey also pointed to the need for better computer technology in classrooms to for digital assessments aligned with higher standards.
"Wherever possible, states and schools may need to consider channeling limited resources toward ensuring students efficient access to computer technology to prepare for the types of innovative assessments that are likely to accompany implementation of college-and career-ready standards," the report said.
The current study results are based on a national sample of 9,937 participants, including elementary school teachers, middle school/junior high school teachers, high school teachers, and college instructors in English, writing, math, reading, and science.