Unrealistic expectations for ELLs reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking”

IStock_000033514262_LargeDespite years of trying various approaches to reduce the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their non-ELL peers, the gap has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s. Why? Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine this question—and what can be done about it—in the February Research Says column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

Though the number of ELLs in mainstream classrooms has increased dramatically across the country, teachers still frequently underestimate the complexity of becoming proficient in academic English—largely because few of them receive the professional development they need, the authors write. Research shows that misconceptions about language acquisition and the role of the primary language can affect teachers’ interactions with their students.

Unrealistic expectations, say Goodwin and Hein, may reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking” about ELLs, or a belief that they are at fault for their low performance. But researchers and practitioners are increasingly calling for educators to flip the paradigm—to use asset-based approaches that see language and diversity not as a problem to solve but as an opportunity to prepare all students for a globally connected world.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.


A step-by-step guide to building your intervention system

IStock_000021258674_LargeThe vast array of intervention programs is staggering, and sifting through the options to determine which will be most successful can be overwhelming. School and district leaders often feel paralyzed by the intricacies of selecting and implementing interventions in their settings as they contemplate myriad options. Considerations include delivery method (online, face-to-face, or hybrid);  group size; content; language of instruction; grade level; best setting (general education classroom or pullout); amount of professional development required to implement effectively; personnel required to teach the intervention; and cost.

In the face of all of this, I often hear, “Just tell me what works. I’ll do it!”

If only it were that easy. Because every district has its own context and needs, a one-size-fits all blueprint isn’t realistic. However, there are some common steps that every district can take to build (or strengthen) their intervention system.

A key component of effective Response to Intervention (RtI)/Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) models is having high-quality evidence-based interventions. From my experience, data is the best starting point when identifying the best intervention. First, gather a leadership team to conduct an audit of intervention needs. This can include reviewing:

Screening and diagnostic assessment data in the area of focus. What are the most common areas of need in literacy and math? Don’t just stop at “below grade level”—dig deeper. Are students not mastering vowel sounds? Are multi-syllabic words problematic? Do students struggle with number sense? Are students grappling with procedural concerns? Are there comprehensive concerns (e.g. all of the above)?

Office discipline referral data. Identify the most common reasons students are sent to the office.

Attendance data. Don’t stop at who is absent, find out why they are missing school. Are they responsible for getting younger siblings onto a bus and consequently missing their own? Are they being bullied? Are there cultural considerations? Do they think no one will notice or care if they miss school?

Teacher feedback. What are teachers struggling to address in their classrooms? Where do they want additional supports?

Problem-solving Team Data. If you have a problem-solving team that focuses on the needs of individual students (e.g. Student Intervention Team, Student Support Team, RtI Team) review the referrals you’ve received. Are there needs that arise year after year or in referral after referral?

Once you’ve determined your intervention needs, consider creating a chart of your data. This can help with the analysis of what the Tier 1 needs are versus Tier 2/3 needs.

Next, conduct an audit of intervention programs that already exist in your building or district. I’ve often found gems hidden behind a school’s closet doors. Create a resource map like this one. Document as much information as you can, including the name of the intervention/resource, the skills or concepts it addresses, the criteria for student access, the recommended group size, and the recommended frequency and duration. Publicize this among your staff and ask for any additions.

Next, conduct a gap analysis to determine your intervention needs:

  • What resources do you have that you don’t use (or have no students demonstrating a need)?
  • What needs do you have that you do not have resources for?

As a team, prioritize the interventions needed. You might find that there aren’t as many as you anticipated and that you have significantly narrowed the focus of your search (e.g. an intervention for vocabulary instruction, not for all areas of reading).

When your team has a clear focus and priority for selecting an intervention, you can use this great Hexagon Tool from the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) to evaluate your interventions. This tool encourages teams to research, consider, and rate programs and practices on how well they address the needs of students; how they fit with other initiatives and priorities already in place; the resources available for training, staffing, and administration; evidence of the research base; the readiness of the school or district to implement the program; and the capacity to implement the programs or practices as intended.

The beauty of the Hexagon Tool and the scoring process is that it will initiate discussion and help teams build consensus regarding your next steps. Although the scores are helpful, there might also be extenuating circumstances or priorities that will influence decision-making.

Finally, when you have identified the interventions you will offer as a school, your last step is to communicate with your staff. Inform your teachers about what intervention tools are available, how to identify the students who will most benefit from each of them, and how to access them. Taking these small steps can help you achieve big gains with the students who need it the most.

Stay tuned: We'll update this post with a link to a useful guide that is currently in development.

Miller_Adena_2015_2070Drawing on her experience as an MTSS/RtI manager at both the state and district level, Dr. Adena Miller helps McREL’s client schools and districts develop their vision and strategies for implementing, monitoring, and improving systems for student supports and interventions. You can reach Dr. Miller at amiller@mcrel.org or 800.858.6830.


Student-identity in the classroom: Building purpose, potential, and persistence

IStock_000016165715MediumWe often think that identity—both our present- and future-oriented conceptions of the self—motivates and predicts behavior. In education, when we think of student identity, most of us would agree that we want all students to believe a positive future self is both possible and relevant, and that student belief in this possible future self motivates their current behavior.

But, when we really investigate that belief, is it actually true? When I see data that shows 95 percent of students say they want to go to college, but only 80 percent actually graduate from high school, I see a disparity between what students want for their futures and the behaviors in which they engage.

Identity-based motivation

An important key to understanding this disparity is explained using Daphna Oyserman’s identity-based motivation (IBM) theory, which suggests that individuals are more likely to act in ways that are congruent with a goal when they see a connection between their present and future identities; see the strategies to get there as things that someone “like me” would do; and perceive difficulties along the way as a sign that what they’re doing is important, not a sign of failure. Self-identity is particularly malleable in adolescence; a good reason why interventions that focus on changing beliefs regarding possibilities for the future self are often targeted to adolescents.

In talking to friends and colleagues, I often get questions like, Isn’t that like mindset? or How is that different from self-efficacy? Building confidence using strategies that are self-relevant, and helping students make connections between who they are now and who they want to be are the easiest aspects of IBM to understand. However, it was a new concept for me to understand how difficulty could signify importance. This IBM concept goes beyond the simple belief that difficulty does not necessarily indicate the impossibility of a task; it suggests that difficulty can actually serve as an effective motivator.

Tying this to my own life, I reflected on a time when I was working with a professor in graduate school who was really challenging me, and working with him was difficult. Instead of saying, “This isn’t for me,” and moving on, which I could have done without any big setback, my current identity as a successful student and desired future identity as a successful researcher helped me perceive the difficulty as a sign of importance and motivated me to continue working harder. Operationalized, the self-talk would be, “This is really difficult, but because of my identity connection to it, I’m going to keep pushing.” It was the importance of my identity that drove the positive interpretation of difficulty and motivated me to prevail. How do we get students to go beyond seeing difficulty as something that can be overcome to seeing it as a motivator?

Currently, there is one known intervention that specifically targets student IBM: Oyserman’s School-to-Jobs intervention, which has been shown to be effective for eighth-grade students for outcomes related to school absences, grade retention, and achievement. In this intervention, students complete seemingly impossible tasks to demonstrate to themselves that difficulty can be overcome and is worth it if it has been established that the identity in question is important. However, McREL and Oyserman were recently awarded a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to develop IBM Journey, a digital game based on the School-to-Jobs intervention, which simulates a journey to academic success to further investigate student IBM. In IBM Journey, we will develop ways to simulate seemingly impossible tasks to convey the message that difficulty signifies identity importance, not impossibility.

AndersenKatie_6804_webResearch Director Dr. Katie Stringer Andersen leads a variety of research and program evaluation projects for McREL, drawing on her expertise in effective research design, instrument development, implementation, and dissemination. You can reach her at kandersen@mcrel.org.


Does teacher self-identity influence classroom practices and PD effectiveness?

IStock_000024566416_LargeWhy does some professional development (PD) resonate with teachers more than others? I believe it has something to do with how teachers view their role in the classroom—the concept of “teacher self-identity”—and how it aligns and interacts with the practices being taught.

For example, in one of my recent teacher PD evaluation projects, we were unveiling a new learning strategy for students. One teacher in the group clearly wanted to cut to the chase—to know ahead of time what our observers were looking for in their planned classroom observations. This teacher’s request suggested that he was more focused on the outcome of classroom observations than on promoting student learning. Further illustrating this disconnect, I once worked with a chemistry professor, who, as he tried to overhaul  his department’s lab curriculum, noted that many professors were reluctant to give students experiments that did not have predictable, known results. These two examples reflect what some teachers believe it means to be an effective teacher—that it requires knowing outcomes ahead of time and achieving predictable results in the classroom. In both cases, teacher identity was predicated on both the present and future conceptions of the self as a teacher—an amalgamation of how they viewed teachers when they were students, their own training and experience, and the demands, feedback, and expectations from others.

Apart from instilling a concept of teacher identity in pre-service teachers, how can we foster success of teachers who are in the day-to-day of the typical teaching environment of student management, the call for personalized learning, and testing? As we encourage students to be life-long learners, shouldn’t we also encourage teachers to be open to learning throughout their teaching careers? Life-long learning facilitates openness to new ideas and new ways of conveying concepts to their students.

Sass Chem
In this photo, Emily’s Pre-AP Biology students were learning about the molecular structures of macromolecules in a biochemistry unit. Each student reviewed, sketched,
and labeled a particular macromolecule structure
using sidewalk chalk.

My former high school AP biology teacher, Emily Sassano, experienced a major teacher identity shift in her fifth year of teaching. “In my first couple years,” she says, “I focused my energy and attention on making sure that I, the teacher, was knowledgeable about my content and knew how to present it to students. However, I learned rather quickly that the ‘old school’ methodology of me simply giving students the information they needed to know about my content wasn’t interesting or relevant.  It was outright boring.”

Avoiding an identity crisis

How do we help more teachers make an identity shift like Emily if they’re not already aware of the need? For those who are, how do we make PD more relevant?  Teachers are more likely to be successful in changing their practices when PD is delivered in such a way that they can see a connection between the strategy being taught and what is important to them as teachers. They become confident in their ability to accomplish the steps and be successful with the strategies, even in potentially difficult situations. PD typically tries to give teachers the confidence for using the strategies, but it does not always tackle the relevance to teachers—who they are now and what they want to be—or provide strategies for persisting through difficulties because the goal is important. PD delivery could benefit from adding these two components to truly transform teaching and help teachers avoid a later identity crisis.

For Emily, self-reflection led to an awakening of her new teacher identity. “That’s when I started stepping out on a limb and releasing some of my direction and control to the students,” she says. She began offering students multiple options for their lab work. “Instead of just doling out ‘cookie cutter’ style recipes for labs, I let students decide what variables they wanted to test and then come up with actions for testing them. They seemed to become more active in this endeavor and [it] gave them more ownership for their learning.”

As Emily describes it, her teacher identity shifted from “director” to “facilitator of learning.” Now 20 years into her teaching career, both Emily and her students have reaped the benefits. “I wake up each day excited about coming to school and thrilled for them to find out what new and fun things we’re going to do together each day to learn biology,” she says. Clearly, positive student- and teacher-identities both contribute to academic success in Emily’s classroom.

But, what about students? Does a student’s self-identity also play a part in classroom motivation? I’ll explore that a bit more in a follow-up post next week.


AndersenKatie_6804_webResearch Director Dr. Katie Stringer Andersen has been an identity researcher for 12 years and leads research and evaluation projects for McREL, including research and evaluation design, instrument development, implementation, and dissemination.

Emily SassanoEmily Sassano is a 20-year veteran teacher at Benjamin Russell High School in Alabama, teaching Advanced Placement Biology and Human Anatomy and Physiology.  She holds National Board Certification in Adolescence and Young Adulthood Science.






Does collaborating really help teachers grow?

IStock_000062236334_SMA recent report from TNTP (formerly the New Teacher Project) examined the professional growth of 10,000 teachers to try to determine what distinguishes the “improvers” from the “non-improvers” and found—perhaps not surprising to some of you—that most of the professional development (PD) teachers receive does little to improve the quality of instruction.   

So what does?—asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest column for Educational Leadership. We know from research that teacher practice doesn’t change by simply introducing new concepts or even through modeling and practice, he writes. What seems to make the most difference is the addition of peer coaching.

But we also know from research that the effects of both peer coaching and teacher collaboration are inconsistent. That’s because, Goodwin explains, most studies look at the number of hours spent on coaching and collaboration, not how those hours are spent.

Coaching and collaboration that truly help teachers grow, in other words, is a matter of quality, not quantity. Effective PD, Goodwin says, requires follow-up support “focused not on adoption but rather on adaption”—helping teachers go beyond lock-step implementation to applying better practices with their own students. Another key factor, then, is the how school leaders think about and approach professional development and change.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.