Principal Nov/Dec 2012: The STEM Issue


The problem is clear: The U.S. is losing ground in the battle to improve students’ content knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and business leaders lament graduates’ lack of preparation to compete in a global economy. Despite a continued sense of urgency to better prepare students, much of the discourse on improving STEM education has focused on the latter end of a student’s academic career, overlooking the opportunity to set an early foundation. This issue of Principal delves into how school leaders can prioritize STEM at the K-8 level, developing in our nation’s children not only a sense of wonder, but a methodology for creative problem-solving that will benefit them throughout their academic careers.


STEM Gets a Boost from Business
Linda Rosen
Business leaders are partnering with elementary schools to help increase students’ interest and achievement in STEM.
(Article Available to the public)

Spotlight on a STEM School
Meredith Barnett

A Vertical Approach to Math Instruction
Linda Gojak
Establishing vertical math teams creates professional development opportunities for teachers while also improving student achievement.

The Right Equation for Math Teaching
Deborah Schifter and Burt Granofsky
The Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice require a new method of teaching. Know what to look for in your classrooms.

The Impact of Next Generation Science Standards
Becky Stewart, Ted Willard, Ken A. Wesson



Navigating Your Way Through the Research Jungle
Scott Bauer and David Brazer
Turn research into practice by discovering the most relevant sources to help improve your school.

Supporting Rural Teachers
Doris Terry Williams
By addressing the challenges of teachers and bolstering their performance, rural principals elevate their schools’ achievement.
(Article available to the public)



From the Editor
Setting a Foundation for STEM
Kaylen Tucker
(Article available to the public)

(Article available to the public)

Practitioner’s Corner
A WISE Writing Program
Ruby Larson

Principal’s Bookshelf

Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School
by Nancy Riestenberg
—Reviewed by Kaivan Yuen

Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School
by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan
—Reviewed by Jacie Maslyk

The Reflective Principal
Differentiated Learning for Teachers
Jo Beth Jimerson

Ten to Teen
Finding the Right Teachers for Minority Students
Walter Hunt

Speaking Out
Stop the Pendulum
Lee Jenkins
(Article available to the public)

The Promise of Project-based Learning
Obi Okobi

Parents & Schools
Coping With Loss
David J. Schonfeld and Marcia Quackenbush

It's the Law
Teaching Sensitively
Perry A. Zirkel

Art Puts the STEAM in STEM
Gail Connelly
(Article available to the public)



Preparing Teachers to Meet Common Core
Toni Hollingsworth, Heather Donnelly, and Lisa Piazzola
Are teachers getting the kind of professional development they need to implement Common Core Standards?


STEM Gets a Boost From Business

Business leaders are partnering with elementary schools to help increase students’ interest and achievement in STEM.
By Linda Rosen
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math­ematics—has become a fixture of the education debate, and much effort already has been put toward improving student performance. Yet troubling statistics persist: On the lat­est round of testing for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 40 percent of fourth graders nation­wide were found to be proficient in math, and students at all grade levels were especially weak in inquiry-based science.

Business leaders, like education leaders, are acutely aware of what this could mean for the future of our country: Young people might be unprepared for rewarding jobs and the demands of informed citizenship, businesses may not find the talent they need to keep innovating, and the economy may stagnate with too little innovation.

To turn the tide, we must start with math and science in elementary school. Business leaders, understand­ing this, are increasingly partnering with educators and one another to curtail the flow of talent away from STEM-related careers by investing in our nation’s youngest learners. That, in fact, is a major focus of Change the Equation (CTEq), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of pre-K-12 STEM learning in the United States.

Shared Vision

Business leaders are not in a position to make detailed judgments on best teaching practices or to determine what works best for an individual school with its own unique set of circumstances. However, business and education leaders do share a com­mon vision of excellent teaching and learning in math and science. They know that such teaching and learning inspires and engages young learners, giving them exciting, real-world exam­ples of the application of math and sci­ence. It aligns to business world’s need for people who can apply knowledge and work collaboratively, and it whets students’ appetites for the possibilities inherent in a STEM-based career.

Yet what happens in elementary classrooms often does not match this aspiration. Time for science in the classroom has dwindled, making it difficult for teachers to conduct the project-based learning that can spark interest. Addressing these problems can form the start of a solution. Profes­sional development, hands-on learn­ing, and after-school programming are three tactics that are among the most promising for supporting stu­dents’ performance in STEM.

Professional Development

Business leaders instinctively grasp the need for professional development because they know how important it is to cultivate talent. Professional development is especially critical in elementary school math and science, because elementary teachers tend to lack content knowledge and confi­dence in these subjects. Programs that address this weakness can be effective when they strengthen teachers’ grasp of the content while equipping them to convey it to young students in a way that promotes understanding and prevents misconceptions.

Professional development programs that bolster teachers’ knowledge and confidence can be particularly effec­tive if they strengthen teachers’ grasp of the content while equipping them to convey it to young students in a way that promotes understanding and prevents misconceptions.

Intel Math, which operates in schools across Arizona, California, Illinois, and Connecticut, among other states, is an intensive profes­sional development program for K-8 teachers created by CTEq member Intel. It has increased teachers’ understanding of math and confi­dence in teaching the subject. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Merck Institute for Science Educa­tion partners with school districts to deliver science professional develop­ment to educators who serve some 100,000 students. Merck, another CTEq member, provides major sup­port for the initiative, which encour­ages inquiry-based learning in elementary schools.

As elementary principals prepare for Common Core math standards— and perhaps new common science standards down the road—they should look for sustained professional development programs with a clear vision for what teachers should know and be able to do. The best programs also clarify for teachers how this vision can improve their practice. Principals should ask: Does the pro­gram adhere to commonly accepted standards for effective professional development? Is it job embedded?

Hands-On Learning

Businesses also have rallied around programs to bring more hands-on learning into classrooms. Employers need people with the ability to apply knowledge in practical and innova­tive ways, and many say that ability is hard to come by. The problem starts as early as fourth grade, as revealed by the NAEP results. Initiatives such as Engineering is Elementary integrate project-based learning in engineering—the hands-on appli­cation of content in a concrete, problem-solving manner that excites and engages young learners—into science curricula already in schools. The program serves about 2 million students in every U.S. state.

Principals should look for pro­grams that tie engaging and authentic activities to academic con­tent standards. Just as important, they should insist on programs that train teachers to deliver engaging instruction.

After-School Programming

In many schools, finding the time for more engaging, hands-on math and science learning in a tight daily schedule just isn’t possible. In these instances, school leaders can encour­age after-school programming to fill the void. Strong after-school programs in STEM areas often complement and enhance the work of schools. The best of them get students excited about STEM by helping them tackle real-world challenges.

One program that has helped busi­nesses nationwide reach thousands of students each year is the Junior FIRST Lego League, which is active in thou­sands of cities across the country. Like many strong after-school programs, FIRST uses small groups and an infor­mal setting to engage students. Elemen­tary students get the chance to work with adults, including STEM profes­sionals from local businesses, to design, build, test, and program robots before competing against other schools. Ini­tiatives such as these give them the opportunity to apply STEM concepts in a real, tangible, and exciting way. Many scouting clubs, 4-H Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs and similar programs are increasing their programming in STEM, often with the support of the business community. Principals who are looking for ways to ex tend the cur­rently scarce time for science may want to identify STEM afterschool programs that complement—without mimick­ing—their math and science curricula. Such programs can strengthen stu­dents’ academic foundation while mak­ing STEM fun.

Underserved Populations

No discussion of STEM is complete without touching upon the two popula­tions of historically underrepresented groups. Women and minorities are far less likely than their white, male classmates to major and pursue a career in STEM. Given the demand for STEM skills in the work force, busi­nesses and educators alike realize that they must focus on these two groups specifically—and early—so that they do not squander the needed talent and potential of millions of young people.

Young women and minority stu­dents begin leaking out of the STEM “pipeline” at a young age. Despite little or no difference in performance at the elementary-school level, girls assume that math is for boys as early as second grade. The lack of female STEM role models—only one in four STEM professionals is a woman—only exacerbates this stubborn problem.

The gap between minority students and their white peers presents itself earlier and often is a con­sequence of school and socio-economic context. By fourth grade, black and Hispanic students often are two to three grade levels behind their white peers, and they have less exposure to rigorous content. These opportunity and achievement gaps only widen as students enter middle and high school, so it is imperative that elementary schools provide rigorous classroom instruction and early expo­sure to STEM opportunities that will provide a strong foundation for students as they progress through the education system.

To address these areas of need, many businesses have specially sup­ported programs that focus on young girls and minority students. Such programs as Techbridge Girls and GirlStart, which are in communities across the country, serve elementary girls by exposing them to hands-on STEM-based inquiry in an empower­ing, girl-centric setting. Similarly, a recent initiative by CTEq member companies has brought such pro­grams as FIRST, Intel Math, and Engineering is Elementary to more than 100 new sites that specifically serve low-income, minority students. By increasing these partnerships and opportunities, schools have a greater chance of reaching all students who may become passionate about STEM.

Partnering for Success

Amid all the worry about our elemen­tary students’ math and science performance, it’s easy to forget that elementary students have made big gains in the past two decades. Fourth graders have made the equivalent of several grade levels of progress, and minority students have made the biggest gains of all. This success is a testament to the dedication of educators working with business and other commu­nity leaders to improve the lot of children.

We know from experi­ence that improvement is possible, but we also know just how far we still have to go. Working together, we can brighten the future of millions of American children.

Linda Rosen is chief executive officer of Change the Equation.

Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.

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Supporting Rural Teachers

By addressing the challenges of teachers and bolstering their performance, rural principals elevate their schools’ achievement.
By Doris Terry Williams
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

Nearly a century ago, in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of the Islands, Stella Maynard detailed the frustrations of teaching in a “back country school.” She rather dramatically concluded, “Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make country schoolmarms!” Maynard’s lament reflects many of the current realities of rural school teaching—low pay, multiple preparations, insufficient time for professional growth and planning, and a lack of public will to provide adequate funding. While city educators and “country” educators might argue whose hardships are greater, rural school leaders unquestionably recognize that their greatest challenge today is building, sustaining, and supporting a teacher corps so that schools can operate at high levels. This is especially the case in isolated rural locations and places with high concentrations of children in poverty and children of black, Native American, or non-white Hispanic descent.

Inattention to rural teachers’ concerns in edu­cation reform arenas exacerbates the problem. In order for children to succeed in rural schools, school leaders must build strong supports around a bold new agenda to ensure that teachers succeed as well. Some of those supports relate directly to the profession; others are more broadly contex­tual. Leadership that supports successful practice pays attention to both directly related and contex­tual supports.

Building an effective teacher corps begins with stellar leadership. Linda Darling-Hammond’s research indicates that successful school leader­ship attracts effective teachers seeking conditions that allow them to perform at their highest level. The Center for Teaching Quality validates this notion, citing school leadership as a significant factor in teachers’ retention.

Creating the conditions under which teachers can be effective requires strategies and partner­ships that address both in-school and out-of-school concerns. Many school leaders view the latter as outside of their area of responsibility, but external factors impact teacher effectiveness in much the same way they impact student learning.

Developing Place-Based Competency

Effective leaders recognize that successful practice is not necessarily transportable. What works for one teacher might not work for another, and what works for a teacher in one environment ­might not work for that same teacher in another environment. The urgency to fill positions from small pools of “highly qualified” applicants often trumps the quest for teachers whose dispositions and competencies match the needs, interests, and gifts of the students and communities they serve. Effective teacher support requires that leaders know what teachers need to succeed with the students they have.

Content knowledge can be gained to a large extent in the preservice classroom. But place-based cultural competency—the ability to func­tion well and respectfully amidst those things that define a people and place and make them unique—is more difficult to teach in a preservice course. Teachers must experience the context they will teach in. To that end, school leaders should connect with higher education programs to immerse prospective teachers in the rural experi­ence and help them build a body of place-specific knowledge and competencies—understanding the ties between an area’s economic history and culture, for instance—that will enable them to succeed in the rural context.

For example, the Ozarks Teacher Corps, a proj­ect of the Rural Trust’s Center for Midwestern Ini­tiatives, provides a promising place-based teacher development model. Talented students commit to teaching in their hometowns for at least three years. Although the teachers are from rural Ozarks communities, their preservice programs immerse them in education issues and intern­ships in small rural schools. They are immersed into rural school culture and participate in a place-based education institute where they learn to collabo­rate with community partners around standards-based curricula.

Whether teachers are new to the pro­fession or just new to a school or com­munity, they will feel more supported if there is an identifiable set of people and resources with which they can connect for professional and personal needs. This is crucial to addressing rural teachers’ out-of-school concerns such as housing, transportation, and leisure time activities. These resources help reduce the sense of isolation that rural teachers often experience.

Another strategy for supporting rural teachers is addressing more effectively the special needs of chil­dren and families. Even in the most distressed communities, school lead­ers can build partnerships that make wrap-around services accessible with little interruption to the school day. Empty classrooms can be converted into family resource centers, operated largely with Title I funding and parent volunteers. Other spaces and partner­ships can be morphed into full-service community school operations. Con­necting schools and communities in these ways will reduce the pull on teachers’ time to address non-academ­ic issues, allow more time for teaching and learning, and result in a more sat­isfying work environment.

Supporting Professional Growth

Teachers also need to be supported in ways that spawn continuous growth and commitment to the profession. High-quality, job-embedded, and real-time professional development, as well as collaboration, leadership opportuni­ties, and voice in decision-making will help reduce teacher turnover. These elements also lessen the negative effects teacher turnover have on student achievement and school budgets.

In a 2007 report to the U.S. Depart­ment of Education, the Center for Teaching Quality noted that few teach­ers receive the “intensive, sustained, and content-focused professional development” that leads to increased student achievement. Over the course of a year, only 9 percent of elementary mathematics teachers had more than 24 hours of professional development in mathematics. Only 20 percent of elementary teachers had more than 24 hours of professional development on instructional strategies in read­ing. The study further noted that U.S. teachers spend on average 30 to 35 hours a week teaching.

By contrast, teachers in high-performing countries such as Finland and Singapore spend 15 to 24 hours a week teaching. The balance of their time is spent in professional develop­ment, planning, and collaboration with colleagues. Bryk, Sebring, Allen­sworth, Luppescu, and Easton (Orga­nizing School for Improvement, 2010) and a host of other researchers and practitioners substantiate the fact that student learning increases in schools where there are reflective, collabora­tive educator communities focused on teaching and learning.

In spite of deep budget cuts, leaders must find ways to support professional development and collaboration among rural teachers. This will become even more important as schools move to implement Common Core State Stan­dards. Here are examples of some effec­tive and fairly low-cost strategies:

These strategies all focus on improving teaching outcomes. They provide protocols for collaboration, problem-solving in nearly real time, and the elevation of teacher voice. Teachers at very small schools can use technology so that they can employ these collaborative strategies.

Teacher leadership is essential to the effective exercise of these strate­gies. School leaders must develop clear pathways and create venues for diverse leadership styles to emerge and flour­ish. Where teacher leadership is nour­ished, teacher-leaders extend the arms of the school leader. They will mentor and coach new and struggling teachers as well as innovate, advocate, and solve problems. In a school of any size, teach­er-leaders are an invaluable asset.

Finding Financing Support

Children should never have to rely upon philanthropy and competitive grants for access to a high-quality public education. In reality, however, competi­tion is playing a growing role in public school funding. Rural districts are at a distinct disadvantage in this climate as many funders seek to reach large num­bers of students by concentrating their resources in urban settings. Small, rural districts are at an even greater disad­vantage with fewer resources to develop competitive grant applications.

Becoming more entrepreneurial is essential, especially where adequate and equitable public funding is not forthcoming. This means that school leaders must increase local capacity to develop competitive state, federal, and private donor grant applications. Very small schools and districts should form consortia with other schools and dis­tricts for this purpose, and leverage the resources among participants.

The Community Foundation of the Ozarks has a successful entrepreneurial model that builds upon relationships with individuals and families of means to establish substantial local school funds. These funds support teacher professional development and other education-related ventures.

Rural-Specific Strategies

Many of the factors that increase teacher effectiveness and job satisfac­tion are within the principal’s ability to influence:

1. Know your students, families, and communities well enough to under­stand what teachers need to know and be able to do to help them succeed.

2. Seek out teachers whose place-based competencies facilitate their effective­ness with students or provide oppor­tunities for them to develop these competencies.

3. Provide job-embedded and real-time opportunities for teachers to improve their practice and con­nect professionally, observing and co-teaching with others, sharing successful strategies and lessons learned, and visiting other schools.

4. Provide opportunities for teachers to build strong, authentic ties with the community through curricula, including place-based learning.

5. Provide leadership opportunities and honor teacher voice in deci­sion-making.

6. Advocate for teachers, the teaching profession, and public education.

Some factors are outside the leader’s immediate ability to influence and require carefully planned and well-coordinated partnerships. The school leader must be able to:

1. Build partnerships that speak to the quality of life concerns of professional educators, including affordable, qual­ity housing, technology access, trans­portation, and leisure-time activities.

2. Develop partnerships that provide students and families the services they need to mitigate the negative out-of-school factors that impact teaching and learning.

3. Encourage businesses to give VIP status to teachers, providing discounts on meals, educational materials, and other essentials.

While the challenges addressed in this article are not necessarily unique to rural schools, leaders need to find effec­tive, rural-specific responses to address them. Stella Maynard left her “back country” school even though she con­fessed that she enjoyed the job. Perhaps a supportive leader could have created the conditions under which she might have decided to stay.

Doris Terry Williams is executive director for The Rural School and Community Trust.


Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.


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My Two Cents

Does your school have a motto, creed, or pledge? How do you reinforce it in your building?

Our school motto is tied into our Olweus bullying prevention program and our Positive Behavior Support Program. It’s “Step up so that others don’t get stepped on.” Each month, we focus on a positive attribute with our students, always encouraging them to stand up for what is right. Our students have really made an effort to be respectful and responsible throughout the school and their community.

—Jacie Maslyk, principal, Crafton Elementary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“Londonderry Elementary: Educating, supporting and celebrating students” is our mission statement. We also have the ABCs of Lon­donderry: Attitude, Best Effort, and Choices Matter. The primary and intermediate grades took it a step further by working with the kids to make the school guideline: “All Behaviors Count.” It has mobilized the school community behind common guidelines and beliefs.

—J. Michael Lausch, via LinkedIn

Read more responsesand submit your ownby visiting the Principal's Office at Click on My Two Cents.


Health News Roundup

Screening Helps Catch Vision Issues Early

One in 10 preschoolers has a vision problem, according to the Septem­ber issue of News in Health from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Some children with vision issues might appear to have atten­tion difficulties, since eyestrain and headaches can make it hard to focus. Early detection of vision problems through screenings administered by school nurses or eye-care profession­als is best, though the NIH points out that screenings only identify some conditions. Families should be encouraged to schedule regular eye exams for children. Boost aware­ness about eye health at your school with resources from The National Eye Institute at

More Kindergarteners Skip Immunizations

More students are entering kindergarten without the vaccina­tions normally required to start school, according to the Journal of Infectious Diseases. In a report pub­lished August 30, Emory University researchers discov­ered that from 2004 to 2011, a growing number of students were given “medical exemp­tions” to vaccination against diseases such as whooping cough, measles, mumps, and diphtheria. These exemp­tions are typically reserved for students with compro­mised immune systems. In some states with lax criteria for obtaining these waivers, more than 1 percent of kin­dergarteners receive medical exemptions. “Medical provid­ers, parents, school officials, and state health officials are responsible for ensuring that medical exemptions are actu­ally medically indicated,” write the study’s authors. Find out more at

Revamped Veggies Please Kids’ Palates

What’s in a name? When it comes to putting veggies on the menu, a lot! A forthcom­ing study in Preventative Medicine reveals that kids are more likely to munch on vegetables labeled with hip names. Cornell University researchers offered 8- to 11-year-olds a tasting session with veggies called either “X-Ray Vision Car­rots” or just “Food of the Day.” Sixty-five percent of the X-Ray Vision Carrots were eaten; only 35 percent of the “Food of the Day” carrots were. In a second study, all the vegetables in a New York school were renamed, and vegetable sales went up 99 percent. See the Cornell Uni­versity Food and Brand Lab for a video on the research:

Kids Eat As Much Salt as Adults

If you’ve been keeping an eye on your students’ lunch trays, these findings from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study might not surprise you: Kids are eating a lot of salt. The research, published this fall in Pediatrics, found that children ages 8 to 18 are taking in about as much salt as adults—and that’s already 1,000 milligrams too much. Plus, among overweight and obese participants, for every 1,000 milligrams of sodium consumed, blood pressure was seven times greater, compared to children with healthy weights. The culprit? Diets packed with processed foods. Read the CDC’s guide for cutting sodium at school here:


Promising Practices

These innovative ideas were submitted by the 2012 class of National Distinguished Principals, recognized by NAESP for their outstanding school leadership.

“Our Principal’s Shadowing Pro­gram gives parents an opportunity to spend two hours of a typical day with the principal learning about their child’s grade level expectations and walking through classrooms to see the teachers and students in action. Invitations to participate are sent to parents of specific grade levels. Parents meet with the prin­cipal for an introduction, and then the group shadows the principal through all of the classes at their child’s grade level. During the walk­through, the components of the aca­demic day are explained and class­room strategies are pointed out by the principal. Ninety-nine percent of parents who took part strongly agree that this program has given them a better understanding of their child’s academic and social expectations.”

Bonnie J. Cangelosi, principal of Shore Acres Elementary, St. Petersburg, Florida

“When a student reaches a goal, performs an act of kindness, or per­forms well in the classroom, he or she receives a ‘Star Performance.Every morning during announcements, the day’s Star Performers are announced to the entire school. Then, the names of all Star Performances are placed in an empty popcorn bucket from the local, non-profit, volunteer-run movie theater. Once a month, we gather in the hallway to draw two names from the popcorn bucket. The winners of the drawing are declared the month’s Star Performers and their photo­graphs are posted on the school website. This recognition reinforces our efforts at school for high student achievement and good behavior.”

Sarah Williams, principal of McAndrew Elementary School, Ainsworth, Nebraska


Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.


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Speaking Out: Stop the Pendulum

By Lee Jenkins
Principal, November/December 2012

In a survey, 2,000 K-12 teachers were asked, “How many years between pendulum swings?” 22 percent responded every 1-3 years, while 29 percent said 4-6 years. Fifteen percent said 7-9 years, and 33 percent said 10 or more years. None of the teachers said, “What pendulum?” Why is American education plagued by “been there, done that” syndrome? The root causes of the pendulum swing problem are just below the surface and are within the power of educators to resolve.

More than 100 years ago, G. Stanley Hall (author of How to Teach Reading and What to Read in School) described the three approaches to reading avail­able in the 1800s. In the past 115 years, America has not developed a fourth approach. The same three are still available: sounds, words, and sentenc­es. In spite of billions of dollars spent on reading research and materials, in 2012 we still start initial instruction in reading with only sounds, words, or sentences. Yes, the approaches are now in color, on television, on laptops, and in interactive games, but the same three approaches remain. The problem is that every 20 years or so, America becomes dissatisfied with the “approach du jour” and swings to one of the other two methods.

The sound approach has the most commercial programs, and is often called direct instruction or phonics. The most famous of the word approaches is “Dick and Jane.” The history of the sentence approach stems from using the King James Version of the Bible to “McGuffey Readers,” or literature-based reading. So, why does America change direction all of the time?


Each switch is made to solve a prob­lem. With phonics, too many kids learn to dislike reading. With the sentence approach, too many stu­dents do not catch onto the underly­ing phonetic structure, and with the word approach, the advanced readers are greatly constrained by the slow progression of new words. In the 21st century, the pendulum is fueled by confusing research. Is the reported increase in reading proficiency in certain locales because of a change in strategy or because the time allocated for reading tripled?

The problem is that we haven’t reached the goal of 100 percent of students achieving reading profi­ciency. The pendulum cycle clearly is not the answer to the problem. Maybe we are asking the wrong research question. It is not a question of which program or which of the three approaches has the highest rate of success but of how we can come closer to 100 percent reading attainment. My premise is that all three approach­es meet the needs of some students. For the vast majority of students, the approach does not matter; they will read fine. However, for some students it matters a lot.

Our primary teachers, especially our special education and remedial teach­ers, must know all three approaches well. If the classroom teachers do not know all three approaches, then the intervention teams must be the ones to use the two other approaches. We do not need special education and remedial educators to think they are attempting a new strategy when, in fact, it is the same approach from a different publisher.

Background Knowledge and Performance

The same pendulum that swings in reading fluctuates in other subjects. It vacillates between background knowl­edge and performance (what students know and what they can do). This seems rather absurd since educators are responsible for students learning both. So, why does a pendulum swing between the two major educational responsibilities? The answer given most often is a lack of time, most likely due to review time in the fall and holding students accountable for trivia.

If instruction in the first week of school does not start with grade-level content, teachers will run out of time. Melody Russell, author of Continuous Improvement in the Mathematics Class­room, accepted the challenge to forego her fall review process. On the first day of school, she handed her eighth graders separate lists of seventh-grade and eighth-grade math concepts. She told the students they were going to begin on eighth-grade concepts that day. However, if there was something on the seventh-grade list they did not remember, they should come to her and she would explain it. What hap­pened? Students did ask for explana­tions from seventh grade, and she fin­ished all of the eighth-grade content, even with slower students.

Start the current year with grade level-appropriate content on day one, but inform students that every quiz will include one to three questions from prior grade levels. This is especially important for geometry teachers. If students answer one to three Algebra I questions on each quiz, they will be ready to start Algebra II on day one.

Any teacher using exams prepared by publishers is probably holding students accountable for trivia. Not all questions on these exams are trivial, for sure. However, too many trivia questions subtract from time for deeper understanding and perfor­mance objectives.

The distinction between trivial and essential knowledge is a value judg­ment that the Common Core State Standards will help to flesh out. My favorite example of trivia is having students memorize states and their capitals. My opinion is that students should be able to write the names of states on a blank map of the United States, but can easily look up the capitals. Students all over the country know that the capital of Nebraska is Lincoln, but would be hard-pressed to point out where Nebraska is on the map. I think that students should not only be able to fill in all the states on a blank map, but also know the loca­tion of major cities, rivers, bodies of water, and mountains. You may not agree with my distinction between trivial and essential, but if educators do not distinguish between trivia and essential knowledge and remove trivia from exams, there will most likely not be enough time for performance expectations. And the pendulum con­tinues to swing.

I am not suggesting that trivia be removed from instruction as it is often the minor stories that make the lessons engaging and interesting. However, students should only be accountable for what they have been told is essential from day one of school.

Incremental Change

If America ever gets accountability right, schools will be accountable to document that each year more stu­dents graduate from high school either prepared for college or a career with a living wage. Younger students will have to prove they are on a trajectory for this final graduation requirement. Big pendulum swings will never assist educators in meeting this accountabil­ity requirement. Many little improve­ments, year after year, will give America the desired improvements.

Lee Jenkins, a former superintendent, is an author and consultant based in Scottsdale, Arizona.


Here's Your Chance to Speak Out

The author makes the case for incremental change instead of pendulum swings in education reform. Do you agree? Share your thoughts on the Principals’ Office blog at Click on Speaking Out.


Your comments are always welcome, so send us an email at to let us know what you think about this issue.

Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.


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Preparing Teachers to Meet Common Core

Are teachers getting the kind of professional development they need to implement Common Core Standards?
by Toni Hollingsworth, Heather Donnelly, and Lisa Piazzola
Principal, November/December 2012 Web Exclusive
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Principals face an important challenge in preparing teachers to implement instructional shifts that move students toward rigorous independent thinking and learning under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The standards support decades of research on how learning occurs within the human brain, prompting some critical questions:

In the recent book, Pathways to the Common Core, Accelerating Achievement, authors Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman state that, “In the end, the most important aspect of the Common Core State Standards is the part that has yet to be figured out: the implementation. As challenging as it must have been to write and to finesse the adoption of this document, that work is nothing compared with the work of teaching in ways that bring all students to these ambitious expectations. The Common Core State Standards have been written, but the plan for implementing them has not. The goal is clear. The pathway is not.” 

Highly effective professional development is more critical than ever in the months ahead as we move toward the changes in instructional practice that need to occur within classrooms as schools implement CCSS. As the first step in the “pathway” to achieving the goal set by Common Core, educators must design professional development that is meaningful and reflective of the significant research on how the human brain processes, retains, and applies new learning. Effective professional development recognizes teachers as the learners, just as students are the learners within the classroom. We know through years of research on best practice that gradually releasing student learning is a highly effective instructional approach, so shouldn’t our professional development around the new standards also gradually release teacher learning?

Too often the breakdown of successful professional development and teacher learning occurs in the transition from the training room to the classroom. Creating the all-inclusive PowerPoint presentation that addresses Common Core from A to Z and then having teachers sit through hours of professional development that tells them everything they’ve ever wanted to know about the rigors of Common Core will not create the instructional shifts that need to occur. Teachers are expected to move student thinking and learning to higher levels, so this type of informational training is not sufficient. Professional development must address application of learning to change instructional practice.

Analysis and Application

So what should professional development that supports teachers in effective application of the standards look like? A varied approach that balances gradual release with inquiry, followed by opportunities for supported application within the classroom, best supports teachers in analyzing and applying instructional shifts to teaching and student learning required in the Common Core. One of those approaches is the use of teacher collaboration within professional development sessions and within embedded classroom shared visits. Through well-planned and focused professional development that provides teachers with opportunities to collaborate on their understanding and the ability to apply the instructional shifts necessary within Common Core, teachers learn from and with each other. Implementing a collaborative professional development model that gradually releases teachers to take ownership of their own learning makes a significant difference in the successful implementation of the Common Core. This shift in how professional development is delivered requires additional time and effort in planning, but the results are worth it.

Revamping Professional Development

How do you facilitate collaborative professional development to promote a successful implementation of Common Core? Imagine immersing teachers in collaborative sessions that engage them in discussions around rigorous high-level questions. Such questions, which emerge from an understanding of Common Core, include:

As teachers engage in collaboration during professional development around these questions, many opportunities will emerge for administrators to formatively assess teacher understanding of how to promote the rigorous thinking and learning outlined within the CCSS. This initial and ongoing assessment of teacher understanding will provide administrators with essential information needed to support their staff.

Meaningful professional development begins with purposeful planning for teacher learning. As national and international instructional coaches working in K-12 classrooms throughout the U.S., we have identified three critical areas that guide successful implementation—focus, thinking, and learning. When planning professional development, the following questions based on these three critical areas will guide principals through the process to ensure meaningful discussion, active engagement, reflection, and understanding for teachers to apply learning that changes teacher practice.

Support for Teachers

To be highly effective, professional development must also have a support component for teachers as they return to their classrooms to apply their learning. Through a collaborative professional development model, teachers are supported in planning and delivering effective instruction that promotes thinking and learning. This model engages teachers of varying experiences, grade levels, and content areas in meaningful discussions that promote increased teacher reflection and refinement in practice. Teachers are grouped in collaborative instructional teams that participate in several instructional rounds of observing, sharing, and reflecting on their practice. This collaboration focuses on the process of thinking and learning among teachers, creates a common thread that brings staff together, and values the teacher as the instructional decision-maker within the classroom, resulting in significant improvement in teacher practice and an increased desire to continue to grow professionally. These changes impact the school culture in moving toward an environment that continually promotes thinking and learning, especially when the principal is also involved in the collaboration as a learner.

The same three critical areas used to guide effective professional development that supports teachers in applying their learning can also be used to help administrators identify good instruction in order to gain a deeper understanding of the instructional effectiveness within their buildings. Administrative walkthroughs provide a way to formatively assess teacher application of effective practice that promotes rigorous thinking and learning, as well as identify areas of schoolwide growth. Identifying specific and critical instructional practices during short walkthroughs can be challenging for any administrator. Seeking answers to questions around the critical areas of focus, thinking, and learning allows administrators to organize what they see in such a way to have a greater impact.

Once an administrator identifies the area (focus, thinking, learning) requiring change, he or she can then develop a collaborative plan with the teacher to address specific best practices that increase effectiveness.

Rethinking needs to occur in the way we deliver professional development to create meaningful change in teacher practice. Among the factors that need to be addressed in order to meet the rigor outlined in the CCSS are:

Emphasizing teacher learning and application brings meaning and rigor to professional development and facilitates sustainable change in instructional practice that benefits student learning.

Toni Hollingsworth is president and CEO of Lead To Learn LLC, based in Chapin, South Carolina. Heather Donnelly and Lisa Piazzola are both national instructional coaches at Lead To Learn.


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