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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Spotlight on a STEM School

By Meredith Barnett
Principal, November/December 2012

First-graders at the Richfield STEM School are responsible for the same subjects as their peers at other Minnesota schools. But one thing’s different—they’re also in charge of worms and soil.

“For first graders, their year-long project is compost,” says Joey Page, principal of the K-5 program, the only one in the district focused on STEM. For the first six weeks of school, each of Richfield STEM School’s 800-plus students raises Monarch butterflies. Then, each grade launches into other year-long projects, like composting.

“That’s what I tell them: They’re in charge of dirt,” says Page. “At the end of the year, they have to give some dirt to the fifth graders for their terrariums and to the kin­dergarteners for their gardens.”

Amidst a national backdrop of calls for enriching STEM educa­tion and preparing students for high-demand technical careers, Richfield offers students oppor­tunities to get their hands dirty— sometimes literally—with project-based math and science learning. But as an intensive STEM school, Richfield takes this goal a step further, intentionally embedding science, technology, engineering, and math into every subject.

To achieve its mission of engaging students in “authentic, real-world, expeditionary learning,” the school has developed its own inquiry-based, interdisciplinary curriculum that is deeper in science and engineering than district standards. Page, who came on board at the school in 2009 to help it transition to its STEM emphasis in 2010, says school staff spent a lot of time looking at other STEM schools, devising a curriculum that is both organic and place-centric.

“We have a beautiful courtyard garden and a nature preserve nearby. Our STEM curriculum leans more toward environmental engineer­ing,” he says. Fourth graders dip into chemical engineering when they test local water’s pH, for instance; fifth graders explore civil engineering by designing dams with the Science Museum of Minnesota. And other subjects lend themselves perfectly to STEM, Page says. Fourth graders can read about Duke Ellington in language arts, explore how a horn makes sound, and see how math and music intertwine to form quarter-notes and eighth-notes.

“One question we’re always ask­ing is, ‘Where is STEM?’” says Page. “We make sure we’re pulling it in intentionally.”

Preparing teachers to weave STEM into the curriculum has been a big part of Richfield’s success. When the school opened, teachers had to earn elementary STEM certification within two years.

“As a principal, I wanted to have a deep staff development plan. Our teachers had zero experience in engi­neering because it’s not part of any elementary program,” he says.

The school partnered with the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University to usher two cohorts of educators through the year-long certification program, which gave teachers the opportunity to bond and boost their confidence in teaching STEM. After working throughout the year on coursework with videos, blogs, and meetings on staff development days, teachers hosted an engineering fair to present their culminating projects to students, filling the Richfield gym with Rube Goldberg machines.

“One of the most powerful things of the last two years has been show­ing our students that their teachers are learners too,” says Page.

As teachers and students have delved into STEM together, the school has honed its curriculum, teamed with The Works Museum to construct the W.O.W. Room (an interactive, hands-on “gym” for stretching sci­ence “muscles”), and discovered ways to redefine technology.

“The ‘stuff’ doesn’t make the STEM school,” says Page of the SMART Boards, computer labs, and digital tools that are already present in plenty of schools in his district. “It’s not just stuff we plug in. It’s a tool, and we can make technology.”

The W.O.W. Room features sta­tions for computer programming, for instance. First graders make flash­lights, while fifth graders build cata­pults. But what Richfield’s students create isn’t necessarily as important as how they do it. Hands-on projects like these offer play with a purpose, leveraging fun to lay foundational skills—collaboration, logic, innova­tion, and most of all, critical thinking.

“STEM fits very well into the natu­ral curiosity that kids have,” Page says. STEM schools aren’t necessarily on a mission to create a generation of NASA scientists or top engineers, just curious problem-solvers who can make an impact on their world.

“We want kids to understand how the world works,” he says. “We also want kids to understand how to make it better. I think that encom­passes what STEM is.”

Meredith Barnett
Associate Editor, NAESP


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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A Vertical Approach to Math Instruction

Establishing vertical mathematics teams creates professional development opportunities for teachers while also improving student achievement.
By Linda Gojak
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

In the current era of mathematics stan­dards, whether they are Common Core State Standards or other state standards, effective vertical mathematics teams offer an opportunity for teachers to grow professionally through shared experiences, for leadership to grow among the faculty, and for the school to change its perspective on the teaching and learning of mathematics. At their core, vertical mathematics teams regular­ly bring groups of teachers across grade levels together to discuss content, peda­gogy, and practice in a structured and supportive environment.

Traditionally, undergraduate preservice programs pre­pare future elementary teachers to teach multiple subject areas, often focusing on reading. Vertical mathematics teams can deepen teachers’ content knowledge in the subject, enabling them to hone in on effective teaching practices that affect student learning and align content across grade levels so students receive rich and coherent mathematics instruction. In addition, effective vertical teams provide a structured professional development expe­rience that encompasses the intersection of analyzing and understanding curriculum and content with the practice of teaching focused on student thinking.

Key Strategies

The following are strategies that contribute to successful vertical mathematics teams. The primary goal is for teachers’ mathematical understandings to lead to student growth.

Vertical teams should span three to four grade levels. This provides teachers the opportunity to look at the students’ mathematics experiences across grade levels by examining how topics develop from one grade to the next without making the span so large that the focus of the work gets lost. If there are mathemat­ics intervention teachers or other professionals engaged in teaching the subject at your school, include them in the teams as well. Within a vertical team you might also want to organize grade-level groups that can use the knowledge from team meetings to concentrate on the mathematics con­tent at a particular grade.

The development of mathemat­ics across grades needs to involve more than just building skill. As teachers work together in teams, they should expand their knowledge from being solely skill oriented to building a foundation of conceptual understanding of key mathematics topics. This not only leads to a deeper understanding of the mathematics concepts, but also supports the devel­opment of mathematical skills. Teams begin by looking at how conceptual understanding of a mathematical topic builds across grades, and then teams determining the specific skills that develop from that understand­ing. Following this analysis, the verti­cal team considers both rich mathe­matical tasks that help students build deeper understanding, and support­ing strategies for engaging students in focused skill development.

Build support and leadership with­in your teams. Although it is impor­tant that principals be supportive and provide leadership for teams, it is also beneficial for principals to capitalize on and further develop mathemat­ics leadership among teachers. This may involve a mathematics coach or specialist, but it also should include key classroom teachers and interven­tion specialists. Consider having a teacher from each grade level form the mathematics leadership team that takes responsibility for facilitating the vertical team.

Principals should meet with the leadership team early in the year, but the responsibility for convening vertical team meetings belongs to the mathematics leadership team. Princi­pals should make it a point to attend at least part of each meeting.

Provide time to be a team. For teams to function effectively, they need time to meet and to work dur­ing the school day. Given that time is one of the scarcest commodities in a school, this takes a serious com­mitment. In one scenario a vertical mathematics team would meet once a month for 90 minutes and grade-level teams would meet on a weekly basis during common planning time. Vertical team meeting time could be arranged through a combination of early-release days and in-school activi­ties monitored by faculty not involved in mathematics instruction and assist­ed by school staff.

Develop a mathematics focus. Together, the team determines the topics to explore for the school year. The leadership team then plans the agenda for each vertical team meet­ing and finds materials to support the work of the teachers, including journal articles with research on the topic, professional books, manipulatives, rich tasks, games, and other resources.

Work from expectations to oppor­tunities to implementation. Start by examining state standards to deter­mine expectations for a topic across multiple grades levels. This includes looking at grade levels before and after the span of the vertical team to determine where students are coming from and where they are going with that topic. Analyze both the concep­tual understandings and associated skills that are part of those expecta­tions. This is an opportunity for the collective team to better understand the entire progression of the topic, including concepts and skills, connec­tions between grade levels, and each teacher’s role in supporting student growth. Once essential understand­ings have been identified, the group develops strategies to implement and artifacts to collect relative to their work on that topic.

Simply put, successful vertical math­ematics teams:

The following describes how this might play out for a team in an ele­mentary school.

Sample Team Dynamic

The vertical team is comprised of classroom teachers in grades 3-5 and the mathematics intervention teacher. The first meeting will explore how to help students with basic facts, concentrating on strategies that are currently used to teach basic facts and the expectations around achievement at each grade level. A teacher on the leadership team agrees to facilitate the meeting. This meeting will focus on addition and subtraction facts, because the teachers are concerned that many of their students are still counting on their fingers. Since the operations and facts of addition and subtraction have been introduced at earlier grade levels, this work will not require teaching new concepts.

Two days before the meeting, all teachers on the vertical team receive the agenda, which includes a list of materials to bring to the meeting. The meeting begins by setting goals for that day, after which teachers begin by looking at their state stan­dards to identify those standards related to addition and subtraction basic facts at their grade levels, in preceding grades, and subsequent grades. They learn that fluency with addition and subtraction facts is an expectation by the end of grade 3, which helps them to see the urgency to develop this topic in greater depth. The conversation moves to building agreement on what is considered “flu­ent” at each grade level. After some discussion and consulting several resources, they agree that to be con­sidered fluent, a student should be able to recall an answer within three seconds without counting.

In addition to talking about how they can consistently build skill with these facts, they turn the conversa­tion to how to assess student prog­ress. All agree that tests in which students are asked to recall 50 to 100 facts in a given amount of time is not a good assessment of this skill, and decide they will need to spend time developing strategies for assessing student facility. The leadership team agrees to find articles that will help to inform this work and share them with the rest of the team before the next meeting. In the meantime, an online discussion group is estab­lished so that teachers can reflect on their practice, continue conversations between meetings, and share their observations about student thinking around basic facts.

At subsequent meetings, team mem­bers will read articles about helping students develop strategies leading to fluency with addition and subtraction facts, share games and materials, dis­cuss enlisting parent help, and build models for formative assessments. Teachers continue to discuss this at their grade-level meetings using the articles that have been shared. The timing allows teachers to take what they have learned in the vertical team meetings and adapt it to the specific needs of their students.

By the fourth vertical team meet­ing, the teachers are ready to move on to multiplication and division facts. This does not mean that they have waited until November to work on these facts with their students. Rather, it is the time when they are ready to discuss instruction around this topic as a group, sharing success­es and barriers they have faced with their students.

The method continues until the end of the school year, at which time the team meets to talk about success­es with their work and areas that need further attention. They are satisfied with the progress students have made with mathematics facts. They agree that using similar strategies, expecta­tions, and assessments connects and reinforces learning from year to year. Additionally, this work has resulted in a plan for effective instruction—including student-centered lessons built around rich tasks that support conceptual understanding of the operations and build fluency with facts—and has a specific flow or progression from one grade level to the next. In September, they will be ready to implement this beginning and the team will be ready to take on a new topic.

At the end of the year, the third-grade teachers meet with the second-grade teachers from the “feeder school” to share strategies and resources from their work. Similarly, the fifth-grade teachers will meet with the sixth-grade teachers to ensure con­nections between the elementary and middle school instructional practices.

A Cohesive Math Program

While the work of vertical teams can follow different structures, what is important is that it provide teachers with the professional learning oppor­tunity to build a cohesive mathemat­ics program across grade levels that focuses on students’ development of mathematical understanding. They also increase teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge.

This job-embedded work opens the door to more professional opportu­nities and the shared experience of working together to achieve a com­mon goal: cohesive and successful mathematics learning experiences for students.

Linda Gojak is president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.


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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The Right Equation for Math Teaching

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice require a new method of teaching. Know what to look for in your classrooms.
By Deborah Schifter and Burt Granofsky
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

Full implementation of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics is still a few years away for many states. But district and school leaders are faced with many decisions now—from curriculum adoption to teacher professional development—that will influence the long-term effec­tiveness of this bold initiative. What will the Common Core State Standards actually look like when implemented in real classrooms with real students?

School leaders have a significant task in front of them, as they are key agents in ensuring that the Common Core fulfills its promise of transforming mathematics teaching and learning across the coun­try. To lead an effective adoption of the standards, they need to know why a Common Core approach is different from what existed before, what mathemat­ics instruction should look like, and how to support teachers throughout the implementation phase.

Why the Common Core Is Different

A fundamental critique of American education is that it is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The authors of the Common Core responded to this criticism by creating a set of standards that approach mathemat­ics instruction in quite a different way than most of the sets of state standards that it replaces.

First, the authors emphasize that the Common Core is both focused and mathematically coherent. It is focused because there are fewer Common Core State Standards than existing state standards. It is coherent because it supports large conceptual issues at the heart of K-12 mathematics, and considers how those concepts develop from grade to grade.

Precisely because of this coherence, the content standards of the Common Core cannot be read as discrete items. Content addressed in different standards is connected and sometimes overlaps. It would be a mistake to think that even a veteran teacher could fully cover all of the mathematical ideas in any one standard in a single lesson.

Second, the Common Core promotes eight Standards of Mathematical Practice that identify mathematical “habits of mind” educators should seek to develop in their students at all levels. These practices—such as constructing viable arguments, critiquing the reasoning of others,


and communicating with precision— often take years to develop, but are essential for success in mathematics.

Common Core State Standards are different from many state standards in that they require teachers to give each practice explicit, focused attention to inculcate students in these math­ematical ways of thinking. Once a class begins to enact the practices, however, they become a seamless part of math­ematical discussions.

Principals need to know that it is the interplay of the Standards of Mathematical Practice and the con­tent standards that make the Com­mon Core such a robust set of guide­lines. The Common Core embraces the idea that teaching can be nonlin­ear, with various types of classroom experiences all supporting the same instructional standard.

When principals observe a lesson, they should expect to see students working through partially formed (or even incorrect) ideas about mathemat­ics. They also should expect to see teachers who are pushing their stu­dents to think like mathematicians— to justify their ideas, communicate with peers, and construct arguments, even if those arguments lead to some interesting tangents. These are all necessary steps for students to take as they develop enduring understandings about mathematics.

What Common Core Math Instruction Looks Like

Diving directly into mathematics itself can illustrate exactly what instruc­tion that aligns with the Common Core State Standards can look like, and can help principals understand what to look for when conducting walkthroughs. Let’s examine the idea of “properties of operations,” which appears in grade 2. The individual standards detail what students need to know and be able to do. The cluster heading, in bold, puts the group of standards (or cluster) in a larger context. (Three of the five standards within the cluster are excerpted below; emphasis added.)

Use place value understanding and properties of operations to add and subtract.

2.NBT.5. Fluently add and subtract within 100, using strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/ or the relationship between addition and subtraction.

2.NBT.7. Add and subtract within 1,000, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method.

2.NBT.9. Explain why addition and subtraction strategies work, using place value and the properties of operations.

Some educators may interpret the understanding of “properties of operations” to mean that students must memorize definitions for the properties. This interpretation misses the point of the Common Core. Rath­er, teachers need to provide experi­ences that allow students to make sense of how these properties interact with the calculation strategies they use every day.

Consider the expression 46-18=? and what it can show us about how to teach properties of operations. Some students might incorrectly subtract the smaller digit from the larger in each column, regardless of the order of the digits, and say the difference is 32. Students tend to persist with this error even after they have been cor­rected or have had opportunities to see that it is wrong.

An elementary teacher in Massachu­setts, Ms. Stern, was faced with this very error of subtraction, and took an approach that was quintessentially aligned with the Common Core: She addressed the misconceptions behind the error.

First, Ms. Stern asked her students to think about the effect of changing the order of numbers in an addition expression. After some investigation, students were quite sure that chang­ing the order of addends does not affect the sum: 6+3 was the same as 3+6, for example. Then Ms. Stern asked about changing the order of the numbers in a subtraction equa­tion. Since order did not matter in addition, did they think that 17-9 was the same as 9-17? Students responded with a range of ideas, but all con­cluded that order does matter when subtracting.

Ms. Stern’s approach hinged on a number of important elements: her knowledge of the math content and of why students sometimes struggle with subtraction, and a plan for helping stu­dents work through it. She was able to take a commonly held misconception about subtraction and lead her students on a journey where they began to rec­ognize addition and subtraction as dis­tinct operations that behave differently.

So, what came of the lesson?

After two class sessions spent on the order of the numbers in subtraction, Ms. Stern returned to the original equation. When asked to solve 46-18, students were able to successfully work through the problem. Through this activity, Ms. Stern engaged her students in several of the Standards of Mathematical Practices. Her students analyzed mathematical structure concerning addition and subtraction, and after they articulated what they noticed, they created arguments to justify their conclusions and explain their thinking to oth­ers. In the context of teaching a skill (double-digit subtraction), the teacher promot­ed understanding of the properties of operations, and helped her students think like mathematicians.

Ms. Stern’s instruction illustrates how approaching the Common Core as con­stellations of items—specific standards, cluster headings, grade-level critical areas, and mathematical practices— can allow teachers to act on their understanding of how students learn, how they make connections, and how they can develop mathematical power.

The Principal’s Role

School leaders can take two con­crete steps to support teachers and mathematics support specialists as they think about how to implement the Common Core State Standards thoughtfully and faithfully.

Pick a good curriculum. Choosing a mathematics curriculum that sup­ports Common Core ways of teaching and learning about mathematics is an essential first step. There are many strong, Common Core-aligned curri­cula available for elementary, middle, and high school adoptions. However, there also are some curricula that pay lip service to the Common Core without actually embracing its cen­tral tenets. Where curriculum deci­sions are made by committee, school leaders should make every effort to inform the decision-makers about what the Common Core is, what it is not, and what curricula best support this new way of thinking about math­ematics education.

Teachers need time and space to teach. If the authors of a curriculum have made sure their lessons cover the standards, then teachers will be able to put their energy into other important issues—such as prepar­ing lessons, analyzing their students’ work, and collaborating with col­leagues. It is the job of the curricu­lum, not the teacher, to ensure that every content standard has been met within a certain grade.

Invest in teacher pro­fessional development. If Common Core instruction is to transform classrooms, then school leaders must prioritize teacher pro­fessional development in two main areas. First, teachers will need to understand both the mathematical content and the conceptual chal­lenges students deal with when they encounter that content. Using the example from earlier, teachers not only need to know that 46-18=32 is incorrect, but also be able to delve into the reasons why a student would make this mistake.

Second, teachers will require sup­port with the Standards for Math­ematical Practices—both in thinking about how to teach with them, and in learning how to identify evidence of these practices in student work.

Teachers must know that imple­menting the Common Core requires their effort. They cannot deliver the standards directly into students’ minds; there is extensive mathemati­cal thought, practice, and peer col­laboration that needs to happen.

As for principals, they too should study the ideas and approach of the Common Core. The Common Core State Standards are intended to be a new direction for mathematics educa­tion in the United States. Principals have the power to support the new standards’ implementation, helping the standards live up to their promise of improving student learning.

In particular, principals should become familiar with the Standards of Mathematical Practices and learn what it means to enact these practices in K-12 classrooms. They also must remember that learning is messy, and that there are few paved roads from learning to understanding.

Deborah Schifter is a principal research scientist at Education Development Center (EDC) in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Burt Granofsky is a senior writer at EDC.


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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The Impact of Next Generation Science Standards

By Becky Stewart, Ted Willard, & Ken A. Wesson

The United States is facing a crisis in science and math achievement. In 1994, 31 percent of all science and engi­neering master’s degrees and 41 percent of all science and engineering doctoral degrees were conferred to foreign stu­dents, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That percentage has since declined slightly: According to the National Science Foundation, 25 percent of graduate students in science and engineering were in the United States on temporary visas in 2006. Further, results from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assess­ment reveal that the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math out of 34 countries.

In response, President Barack Obama announced the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to encour­age teachers in science, technol­ogy, engineering, and math—the STEM fields—to use more interac­tive teaching methods to increase student engagement and eventu­ally produce more homegrown graduates in these fields.

The Next Generation Sci­ence Standards (NGSS), which have just undergone their first public review, are slated for final release in late 2012 or early 2013. The standards are based on A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, the first idea of which is to provide “a vision for education in the sciences and engineering in which students, over multiple years of school, actively engage in scientific and engineering practices and apply crosscutting concepts to deepen their understanding of the core ideas in these fields.”

Twenty-six states are involved in the development of the NGSS and will consider adopting them once they are completed. Many other states have also expressed an inter­est in the standards, so it seems quite likely that the NGSS will form the basis for what a majority of students in the United States study in science.

In addition to life science, earth and space science, and physical sci­ence, the NGSS include technology, engineering, and the application of science as a fourth content area. Specifically, the NGSS have a strong focus on scientific and engineer­ing practices, which are combined with core disciplinary ideas to form performance expectations. These performance expectations describe the outcomes that would be assessed after instruction.

Also outlined in the NGSS is that students will be expected to under­stand important ideas about engi­neering design such as knowing that “a solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.” They also will be expected to under­stand links among engineering, technology, science, and society.

Although the standards do not prescribe how students should learn these ideas, educators will need to think carefully about how to address them in the K-12 curriculum.

In the inaugural issue of The STEM Classroom, published by the National Science Teachers Associa­tion, STEM education was defined as “a way to combine many related disciplines—currently viewed by students and society as indepen­dent subjects with little overlap—into a single, integrated program that emphasizes the interdepen­dences among the four disciplines and their applications to everyday life.” This definition, and its imple­mentation in schools, is the linch­pin of an effective response to the NGSS.

To learn more about the NGSS, administrators could begin by downloading and reading A Frame­work for K-12 Science Education, which is available online as a free PDF from the National Academies Press. Elementary school adminis­trators may want to encourage their staffs to join professional organiza­tions devoted to science education as a means to increase their expo­sure to professional development opportunities.

If the NGSS are adopted by all 50 states, the science required in elementary schools will undoubt­edly increase. The second draft of the NGSS will be available for public comment in late fall 2012, and all administrators should read the draft carefully and consider comment­ing. The public review process is an important part of the creation of the NGSS.

Teaching specific skills and con­cepts in science, technology, engi­neering and mathematics indepen­dent of the opportunities to learn how they are connected to one another and to other disciplines does a disservice both to the learn­er and to the knowledge at stake.

The National Science Teachers Association and many other profes­sional organizations are marshal­ling their resources around this integrated whole to help teachers and administrators. The end result will be a more robust educational environment for all students.

Becky Stewart
Editor, The STEM Classroom,
National Science Teachers Association
Arlington, Virginia

Ted Willard
Program Director
National Science Teachers Association
Arlington, Virginia

Ken A. Wesson
Educational Consultant,
San Jose, California


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.

Navigating Your Way Through the Research Jungle

Turn research into practice by discovering the most relevant sources to help improve your school.
By Scott Bauer and David Brazer
Principal, November/December 2012
Web Resources

These days, information overload seems to be our normal state of existence. School leaders are inundated with descriptions of best practices and programs that work. They are exhorted to use evidence in all facets of decision-making and to employ research-based strategies to improve schools. Of course, research findings are seldom definitive, and sometimes contradictory. Thus, putting research into practice in school improvement efforts isn’t easy, especially for those new to the principalship. The following ideas, designed to help principals learn how to understand and apply research to the instructional challenges schools face, are based on our book, Using Research to Lead School Improvement: Turning Evidence into Action.

Types of Sources

Research is typically written by scholars for schol­ars, which does not always yield easy reading. But knowing how different types of sources serve different purposes can help make your reading more efficient. Primary sources that report data collection and analysis are generally available through scholarly journals or via websites of research sponsors or think tanks.

Primary sources often are quite technical in nature, so your initial investigation of research may be more fruitful if you explore secondary sources. They synthesize published research to organize and simplify a field or specialty. Trade magazines and associations typically publish synthesis articles, which are especially helpful in connecting research to practice, and thus may be worthwhile places to start a collection of materials relevant to your interests. Tertiary sources, such as encyclopedias or textbooks, are even more refined and reduced for quick refer­ence. Using secondary and tertiary sources will help you to understand more clearly where you want to probe deeper.

To build a thorough understanding of a topic, it is worth your time to track down primary sourc­es for several reasons. First, no synthesis can pro­vide all the details you might need to understand a given topic. Original sources will describe the research setting, participants, and limitations of the work presented, and help you decide how relevant the findings are to your situation. Pri­mary sources also will include detailed reference lists, a source for you to identify other, potentially more relevant, work.


The Library Is on Your Desktop

Today’s information technologies place an unbelievable wealth of knowl­edge at your fingertips. This luxury comes with some peril, of course—access to Internet resources brings new meaning to the term caveat emptor. In addition to using guiding questions and keywords to find information on a particular topic, there are other guide­lines that will help you make produc­tive use of the Web.

Access electronic databases relevant to your purpose. If you are beginning to learn about a problem or topic, you likely will want to start with a free search engine such as Google Scholar ( or the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC, If you are seeking research knowledge on solutions, you might want to look into the What Works Clearinghouse (, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

Identify a small set of initial sources that appear on target for your pur­poses, and skim them. Refine your keyword list for subsequent searches. Mine the bibliography for additional sources, and to familiarize yourself with prominent scholars in the field.

Draw a diagram showing how the major ideas or themes fit together. A graphic representation will help you refine your understanding of how the research relates to your situation.

Being a Critical Consumer

Finding sources is the first part of the research challenge. Evaluating the worth of the sources you find is a criti­cal next step. Above all, you should triangulate for trustworthiness, which means seeking multiple sources to confirm an idea or assertion. You want to find a variety of quality stud­ies that come to similar conclusions to ensure trustworthiness through replication or reinforcement.

While there is no sure-fire process guaranteeing that you always know the good from the not-so-good, there are some approaches you can take that will help you. The following questions—outlined in Critically Analyzing Informa­tion Sources—will help you to assess the usefulness and quality of your sources.

What are the author’s credentials, background, and expertise? Is the author an employee of a think tank or advocacy group, on the staff of a research lab, or a faculty member at a top-flight university?

What’s the publication date? Recent­ness is important, especially if you are considering the efficacy of a program or strategy you might adopt. Even if the approach has been around, more recent work may better inform you about its worth.

Who’s the publisher? Prominent journals, universities, and indepen­dent publishers are generally trust­worthy sources. Conversely, advocacy groups and obscure journals might present biased or poorly researched information.

What’s the tone of the piece? Is it relatively objective in the presenta­tion of a problem and findings, or does it appear to be advocacy or sales oriented?

Reading Research

Now that you have collected research papers that appear to be on target, how do you make sense of them? To get started, become familiar with the typical format of empirical research.

To determine if a study is relevant to your needs, skim the introductory material: the statement of the problem, purpose, and significance. Therein, you should learn what the paper is about and why the author believes the work is important. When the study includes research questions, these will foreshad­ow the author’s findings. The conceptu­al framework or review of literature will place the study in the larger scope of related research, which also may suggest additional sources for later inquiry.

The section readers love to skip—methods—details how the study was conducted, including a description of the research design, participants, types of data collected, analytic proce­dure, and, the limitations of the study. This section contains information that is important for you to consider.

There are three broad categories of design: quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods. In Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualita­tive Research, John W. Creswell defines quantitative research as “a type of educational research in which the researcher decides what to study; asks specific, narrow questions; collects quantifiable data from participants; analyzes these numbers using statis­tics; and conducts the inquiry in an unbiased, objective manner.” And Creswell defines qualitative research as “a type of educational research in which the researcher relies on the views of participants; asks broad, gen­eral questions; collects data consisting largely of words (or text) from partici­pants; [and] describes and analyzes these words for themes.” Mixed meth­ods combine approaches.

There are many specific research designs, each with strengths and weaknesses. To gain a deep under­standing of a topic, you may wish to read studies that employ a variety of research designs.

A second important part of meth­ods has to do with participants. Does a study involve schools like yours? Stu­dents like yours? Settings like yours? What are the differences that might affect the applicability of the findings to your school?

Quantitative studies often employ statistical tools for hypothesis testing that are referred to as inferential sta­tistics. Statistical significance describes the probability that observed differenc­es or relationships are due to chance. Researchers test to see if a statistic achieves or exceeds a critical value that corresponds to a “significance level” or probability that the observed outcome was random. Commonly used signifi­cance levels are 0.05 or 0.01, meaning that we would be either 95 percent or 99 percent confident in the assertion that the resulting statistic describes a true relationship.

An alternative metric referred to as practical significance or “effect size” also may be used to gauge results. Effect size tells you the strength of an outcome, as a small, medium, or large effect. This informa­tion is critical to your assessing the import of a finding. Results that are not statistically signifi­cant or have very small effect sizes may not be meaningful.

The evidence pre­sented in qualitative designs (such as case studies) is words rather than num­bers, generally in the form of a presentation of themes supported by verbatim quotes from research subjects. Qualitative work and mixed methods studies offer research­ers an opportunity to answer “why” and “how” questions by seeking to understand what subjects think, feel, or believe. Confidence in results is achieved through exhaustive analysis of interviews, observations, and docu­ments, and the elimination of plau­sible alternative explanations.

The final sections in published jour­nal articles present the findings and discussion. In this section, the author will present evidence and draw conclu­sions based on the research questions posed. It is also common for authors to discuss the implications of the work—for both research and practice—as well as limitations of the work.

Applying Research Knowledge

As we write in our book, “when con­fronted with a substantial, persistent student achievement problem, the search for understanding and meaning­ful responses to that problem should motivate us to want to understand the specifics of relevant research.”

Although we have offered some guidance through the jungle of research literature, and tips for under­standing published work once you identify it, we recognize that finding trustworthy research is not your goal—using the knowledge you have gained to help improve your school is what’s truly important.

It is impossible to pinpoint how best to apply research knowledge without consideration of a variety of factors such as your school’s context and culture, but we advocate thinking for­ward by anticipating what will happen as you move toward implementation of your plans. Here are a few ques­tions you might ask to help move from evidence to action:

Whose participation do you most need to make the change you’re con­templating? Ideally, you involved at least a representative sample of school staff in your planning already, but it is worthwhile to consider the ques­tion in terms of implementation. Who is most likely to be affected by the change? What are the consequences they might experience, and how can you help your staff deal with them?

What’s potentially unchangeable in your school that might serve as a barri­er to success? Think about both struc­tures and school culture. Are there rules, procedures, or beliefs that are likely to stand in the way of progress?

Who is most likely to embrace “the way we do things around here,” and thus resist change? What will their complaints be?

What skills and abilities will stake­holders need to make the change work? Anticipating staff development needs is critical to success of most changes.

Successful implemen­tation is predicated on having a clear purpose, providing resources nec­essary for the change to succeed, and anticipat­ing, as best you can, the consequences of change. From our understanding of theory and research on organizational change, what is perhaps most critical is that those who are key to implementation agree that change is necessary, and that the path you have cho­sen is sensible. Presenting what you’ve learned through examination of the research, in a brief and easily digestible fashion, can help you build your case in this regard.

We know that your time is a scarce resource, and hope that our sugges­tions will help you and your leader­ship team discover efficient and effec­tive ways to use research, contributing to significant improvements in teach­ing and learning in your school.

Scott Bauer and David Brazer are associate professors in the Education Leadership Program at George Mason University.


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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From the Editor: Setting a Foundation for STEM

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. “To turn the tide, we must start with math and science in elementary school,” argues Linda Rosen, chief executive officer of Change the Equation, in “STEM Gets a Boost from Business.” She writes, “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.” In addition to business partnerships, this issue’s STEM-themed articles highlight innovative methods of developing math instruction and Next Generation Science Standards, as well a STEM-focused elementary school in Minnesota. Wherever your school lies on the STEM continuum, you can use these articles as conversation starters with staff or as resources for professional development.

As the Association continues to develop resources that benefit early career princi­pals, the editors are proud to present “Navigating Your Way Through the Research Jungle,” which is the second installment in the Charting Your Path series. In the article, authors Scott Bauer and David Brazer provide practical tips for finding, understanding, and most important, using research to improve schools.

In addition to the focus on STEM and the research needs of early career princi­pals, this issue shines an important light on the special challenges of rural schools. In “Supporting Rural Teachers,” Doris Terry Williams argues that “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.” Williams discusses the external factors that impact teacher effectiveness and provides rural-specific strategies to support them.

Finally, as this issue goes to press, the Association is in the midst of celebrating the 2012 class of National Distinguished Principals in a program that honors out­standing elementary and middle-level administrators from both public and private schools. This year’s honorees, 60 principals from across the nation and from the United States Departments of Defense Office of Educational Activity and the United States Department of State Office of Overseas Schools, were recognized in Washington, D.C., October 18 to 19 for their exemplary achievements. The eight-page salute to these principals is between pages 20 and 21. Please take the time to reach out to congratulate your state’s honoree.

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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Practitioner's Corner: A WISE Writing Program

By Ruby Larson
Principal, November/December 2012

“When students receive feedback that is accurate, specific, and timely, the impact on achievement is so great that it is more significant than the socioeconomic status of children,” writes Douglas Reeves in an article in the July 2010 American School Board Journal. As the principal of a Title I school, I find that statement to be powerful.

In discussing Reeves’ article with colleagues, I wondered how I could provide more valuable feedback, par­ticularly to my school’s special educa­tion students. These students were often reluctant writers, and I hoped that giving them more feedback would moti­vate them to write.

Acting on the glimmer of an idea, I approached our district’s writing coordinator, who is also a high school English teacher. Since our district has implemented a one-to-one laptop initiative, in which each high school student has his or her own computer and email account, I wanted to explore the possibility of matching elementary grade special education students with high school writing mentors. Seren­dipitously, the writing coordinator also sponsored the National Honor Society at the high school, and her senior mem­bers needed to participate in a service learning project during the upcoming year. So began the Westside Insider Story Exchange (WISE) project.

Project Development

Our simple idea paired elementary stu­dents with high school writing mentors. The third- through sixth-grade students receiving special education support in my building would send creative writing pieces by email to the high schoolers on a bi-weekly basis. Using readily avail­able technology, their mentors would email back, offering suggestions and providing positive, prompt feedback (our expectation was that mentors would respond within two days). These electronic friendships bestowed our special education students with a special status among their peers, and I saw the potential for the high school students to be powerful role models.

I wrote and submitted a Serve Nebraska mini-grant application, which provided $500 to throw kick-off and end-of-the year celebrations so that our mentors and mentees could have some face-to-face time, with refreshments. It also permitted us to purchase some small incentives (such as paperback books, writing journals, and “Good News” postcards) to encourage the elementary students to stick with their writing throughout the year.

Before we started, my high school col­league and I held a training session for the high school mentors. They practiced giving appropriate feedback, using writ­ing samples from elementary students. We encouraged them to look beyond obvious and sometimes troubling errors to the ideas embedded in the writing. We asked them to be genuine, friendly, and motivational in their responses.

An ice cream social kicked off the project and introduced mentors and mentees. Since the project was known by the WISE acronym, the Westside High School students start­ed calling themselves “WISE guys.” The excited students traded photos and school addresses.

By October, the electronic exchang­es began. The mentors made com­ments in the margins, using simple, encouraging language to ensure that their mentees understood. In addi­tion to making technical suggestions, mentors built relationships with the elementary students by sharing com­mon experiences that came out in the writing pieces. As a result, our reluc­tant writers were excited to complete writing assignments and email them to their mentors, and the responses were eagerly awaited. The writers saw revis­ing and editing, steps that had been dreaded in the past, as time well spent because their mentors said they were eager to see the next drafts.

Enhanced Writing Skills

Throughout the year, the writing exchange continued. Mentors and men­tees shared interests in sports, pets, and family life. The high school students got the knack of choosing one type of error (such as verb agreement) rather than marking every single mistake. They showed our students how to use onomatopoeia to involve the reader’s senses; how to add details that con­tribute to the beginning, middle, and end of stories; and how to pay careful attention to general mechanics, such as capitalization and punctuation, so the reader is not distracted by them. The elementary students were anxious to do their best work because they cared about the opinions of their new audi­ence in a way they had never experi­enced before. They had new friends who cared about them as individuals, as well as their writing.

At the closing celebration in May, participants exchanged heartfelt fare­wells. Both sets of students felt that they had benefited from the project, and teachers indicated that the feedback had indeed enhanced the writing skills of our elementary special education students. As a result, this school year we have a new set of WISE guys submit­ting and critiquing writing samples as the elementary students continue to sharpen their writing skills.

Ruby Larson is principal of Hillside Elementary School in Omaha, 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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Principal's Bookshelf

Principal, November/December 2012

Professional Capital: Transform­ing Teaching in Every School.
By Andy Hargreaves & Michael Fullan
Teachers College Press, 2012, 219 pages.

By bringing quality teaching to the forefront, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan clearly illustrate what is worth fighting for in public educa­tion. Their latest collaboration, Profes­sional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, debunks some of the myths about teaching, and provides solutions to educational dilemmas, with recommendations for classroom teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and policymakers.

The authors introduce readers to the concept of professional capital, the combination of individual human capital, collaborative social capital, and decisional capital. Performing in professional sports, they remind us, requires training, feedback, and practice, just as it should in educa­tion. Teaching “like a pro,” they write, involves “improving as an individual, raising the performance of the team, and increasing quality across the whole profession.”

The authors explore the “Five C’s” that teachers need to become highly effective within a school sys­tem: capability, commitment, career, culture, and conditions of teaching. They share examples of how to stay energized in education and maintain focus on best practices, which they define as “a continuous amalgama­tion of precision and innovation as well as inquiry, improvisation, and experimentation.”

For school leaders, Hargreaves and Fullan emphasize the need for profes­sional capacity building, collective responsibility, moral commitment, and coherent and cohesive policies. And even though they speak realisti­cally about accountability pressures, unions, and other barriers to success, their call to improve the educational system is ultimately inspiring and thought-provoking. The authors con­clude with ten recommended action steps for teaching “like a pro,” each discussed in detail.

This book gives educators viable solutions and varied examples from around the world. Hargreaves and Fullan suggest that professional capi­tal can be the key to positive change in education, and that a cumulative effect is needed in order to transform the profession.

Reviewed by Jacie Maslyk, principal, Crafton Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School.
By Nancy Riestenberg
Living Justice Press, 2012, 256 pages.

Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School provides an alternate approach to detentions, suspensions, and expulsions.

“An administrator can either invest time with students up front by using a restorative process that involves all people affected by harm,” writes author Nancy Riestenberg, “or she can dole out her time over the course of the year dealing with increasingly harmful rule violations.” One way to build communi­ty and repair harm in schools is through restorative measures.

“Restorative measures represent a phi­losophy and a process that acknowledge that when a person does harm, it affects the person(s) they hurt, the commu­nity, and themselves. … [A]n attempt is made to repair the harm caused by one person to another and to the commu­nity, so that order is restored for everyone,” writes Riestenberg.

Restorative mea­sures in schools build community, civic engagement, and relationships. One way a school can repair harm is through a “Talk­ing Circle,” which is, according to the author, “an intentional communication process guided by a community’s values. The Circle can be used to help people get to know one another, direct a meet­ing, teach, support someone in need, or hold someone accountable for harm or rule violations.”

Because of the shape of the Circle, everyone can see and hear each other, and the process is transparent for all participants. During Circle, students agree to maintain confidentiality, develop common agreements, and make decisions by consensus. Circles provide structures and build relation­ships so that all participants feel safe to express themselves and develop solu­tions to problems.

Circles are a great way to facilitate communication between people. How­ever, it may be difficult to use Circles to address school conflicts, since school leaders may feel pressure from victims’ parents, school staff, board members, and the community to punish those who cause harm. Schools should first educate their communities to reframe problem-solving and make a paradigm shift from a punitive approach to a restorative approach. Circle in the Square reminds educators about the need to offer students hope and to use every experience as a teachable moment.

Reviewed by Kaivan Yuen, principal, Jefferson Middle School, San Gabriel, California.


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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The Reflective Principal: Differentiated Learning for Teachers

By Jo Beth Jimerson
Principal, November/December 2012

When I reflect on my early years as a principal, I’m convinced that teachers learned in spite of—rather than because of—my efforts at supporting professional learning. As a teacher, I embraced Carol Tomlinson’s work on dif­ferentiation. I recognized that good teaching involves challenging students in diverse ways and in supporting them to meet those challenges.

When I transitioned to the principal­ship, I carried these lessons with me. I supported teachers’ efforts at differen­tiating for their students. Staff develop­ment days delved into topics related to differentiation and how students could navigate various paths to mastery, and our faculty frequently discussed on ways to differentiate for students.

But I neglected to realize that dif­ferentiation benefits learners—adults and kids alike. When I planned a pro­fessional learning session, I wrongly assumed that teachers were less diverse as learners than students. Even though I recognized that teachers had differ­ent strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, I failed to consider how pro­fessional learning could be structured to meet the diverse needs of adults.

Today I study professional learning and work with aspiring principals and district leaders. Looking at current research through the lens of a decade of administrative experience, I’ve learned a few things I’d take with me if I were to return to the principalship.

Lessons Learned

Intensity. Educators now know that concentrated time on task is as impor­tant for supporting teacher learn­ing as it is for supporting student learning. Some who study teacher professional development call this a measure of “intensity” while others talk about a “threshold” of 15 or more hours before new learning triggers lasting changes in practice. Teachers need time to get used to new ways of thinking, to try out new knowledge and skills, and to get feedback on early efforts.

With this in mind, I’d rethink the “smorgasbord” approach to profession­al development that offers a lengthy menu of learning options (rarely sup­ported by follow-up) on two to three designated professional development days per year. While the format may have provided multiple learning opportunities, it likely did little to sup­port the sustained rigor needed to catalyze changes in classroom practice.

Relevancy. Just as learning needs to be relevant for students, new learning for teachers needs to be highly relevant to the jobs they do every day. Teach­ers don’t just want to know how a new skill or insight fits with teaching in general—they want to know how it fits with teaching first graders to read or with constructing an art program for middle school students. They need— and want—explicit connections so they can understand how new learning will work in their respective classrooms.

Armed with the realization that relevance is essential to changes in practice, I’d look for ways to embed learning into the everyday work of teacher collectives (such as grade-level, departmental, or interdisciplinary teams), rather than expecting teach­ers to generalize to their content area from a broad-scale event.

Relationships. Relationships are essential learning supports for adults and students alike. Michael Fullan’s numerous books speak to the impor­tance of healthy, collaborative groups of educators working toward improved practice. Experientially I know this to be true: I learned more from my faculty at Bill Brown Elementary School—informally—than the teach­ers ever learned directly from me! Our relationships allowed for the frequent and honest sharing of knowledge.

New Priorities for Professional Learning

As a teacher of aspiring educational leaders, I hope that my students will be able to lead for professional learning in ways I never imagined. Among the current priorities we emphasize:

Working collaboratively to identify teachers’ learning needs. Rather than assuming teachers have sig­nificant areas of overlap in learning needs, we talk about crafting annual (or more frequent) processes that inquire about teachers’ needs, so that learning opportunities can be thoughtful and responsive.

For example, in working out ways to better support teachers’ use of data, I’ve heard educators say, “I’d like to know more about the data system.” When I press for specificity, I find that one teacher needs to be walked through querying reports, but others are far beyond that—they want to know how to link interpretations of data to available programs and services. Profes­sional learning structures must account for and meet these diverse needs.

Creating structures that allow teachers to build on strengths and support colleagues. We talk about honoring and encouraging innova­tion in professional learning. If a teacher wants to create an app or series of video tutorials on an instruc­tional strategy, why not make use of that interest to enrich others’ learn­ing experience? Some teachers—like some students—want to read about the strategy or skill first, and want access to written materials (e.g., “cheat sheets” or checklists). Like students, teachers need to be involved in directing their own learning, and they need the freedom to build on prior knowledge in a way that makes sense to them as learners.

Making better use of professional learning communities. Because only a small fraction of authentic learning happens in workshops or meetings, we discuss ways to support inquiry-driven learning communities. This means creating structured space for PLCs, and protecting them from the administrivia that can cause PLCs to devolve into team or department meetings. In Lead­ers of Learning, Richard DuFour and Robert Marzano describe how PLCs can support teacher-led inquiry in ways that promote change for entire schools.

Respecting Teachers as Diverse Learners

Differentiation for teachers doesn’t mean “multiple offerings to meet myriad interests.” Rather, it means identifying instructional priorities and discovering what prior knowledge teachers bring to the table. It means supporting the collaborative efforts of those teachers to construct and share new knowledge in a variety of formats. It means modeling in professional development what we expect teachers to do in their classrooms.

Differentiation isn’t just “kid stuff.” It matters for all learners— grownups included.

Jo Beth Jimerson is assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas Christian University.


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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Ten to Teen: Finding the Right Teachers for Minority Students

By Walter Hunt
Principal, November/December 2012

Today’s school leaders are charged with the task of preparing all children, regard­less of their individual learning needs, with a solid educational foundation. It’s essential for future generations, and our country, to flourish. But the achieve­ment gap, the disparity in the performance of groups of students, continues to challenge educators.

The number of minority students continues to rise. But teacher demo­graphics often do not match student demographics, and this inequity is frequently an area of concern for public school leaders, especially at the middle level. School districts often form committees to actively recruit minority teachers on the basis that this will increase minority students’ achievement. Hours of recruitment and monetary resources are often designated for finding ways to balance the racial playing field among poten­tial teachers in four-year college and alternative certification programs.

But the question remains: Does the recruitment and hiring of more minority teachers have a significant positive impact on the academic achievement of minority youth?

Race, Identity, and Achievement

Research suggests that students listen more to teachers who look like them. Sharing a cultural connection can foster an unspoken sense of familiarity and an instant level of respect. For stu­dents, having a personal connection with a teacher creates an increased level of trust, breeds a sense of motiva­tion, and produces higher academic achievement in many cases, according to Sara Rimm-Kaufman’s 2011 study, “Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning.”

This connection may be particularly important for middle-level students’ identity development. Racial identity plays a huge part in a child’s self-esteem, confidence, and resilience, all of which ultimately affect their academic progress in school. The rapid physical, psychological, and social changes happening in adoles­cence, along with the transition from a comfortable elementary school to a faster-paced middle school, have rami­fications for students’ evolving sense of identity. This period can be espe­cially daunting for minority students, as they face the task of developing a positive sense of self while becoming increasingly aware that society is strati­fied by ethnicity and race.

So, should schools hire more minor­ity teachers to support minority stu­dents? My own research on the subject has yielded interesting results. Accord­ing to my study of eighth grade students in 198 Title I Texas schools, academic achievement among black students was lower at campuses with a larger percent­age of black teachers. These campuses also showed a larger achievement gap between black and white students in reading and math. Why? Several factors may be at work, including, for instance, quality of instruction. Teachers’ skill and average years of experience can impact the quality of the instruction with a school’s curriculum. In addition, some campuses may have unique fac­tors that make it difficult to secure qual­ity teachers. Therefore, it is challenging to isolate the cause.

Having the Right Teachers in Place

If some data indicate that minority teachers can forge strong connec­tions with minority students, but other studies show the opposite, what should school leaders do? Are there other sig­nificant factors that contribute to the overall development of the middle-level child? Principals must consider how external factors (socioeconomic status, family dynamics) and internal school factors (experience level of teachers, a sound curriculum, and school culture) impact the academic success of adolescents.

Ultimately, having teachers who exemplify the demographics of the campus is essential for creating an environment where students can find racially similar role models. However, it is equally important for school lead­ers to incorporate dedicated, talented professionals, regardless of race, into a school. There is no “magic profile” of a teacher who can increase minority stu­dent achievement.

Regardless of the makeup of a school’s teaching force, there are a number of structures that should be in place to help middle-level students succeed. These include:

Middle-level leaders who under­stand the sensitive nature of working with minority students can make a positive impact on student achieve­ment. In the end, race should be con­sidered as part of the hiring process when staffing campuses with minority populations. However, race and eth­nicity cannot be the only consider­ations.

Race may contribute to a strong teacher-student connection at the beginning of the year, but making sure staff members have the necessary skills to carry out good teaching tech­niques matters just as much, if not more, for ensuring long-term effects on student achievement. After all, the goal for a teacher is to make a lasting impression on a student that deepens academic knowledge and understanding. Education is more than skin-deep.

Walter Hunt is associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas.


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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Innovation: The Promise of Project-based Learning

By Obi Okobi
Principal, November/December 2012

Conversations about the state of U.S. education frequently focus on high-stakes testing, accountability, and measuring results to bridge the achievement gap. One thread that seems to be missing from the dialogue, however, is what actually motivates children to learn. I do not mean how we can coerce students into com­pliance. Rather, I mean what can be done to inspire students to learn about the world around them, capitalizing on their innate curiosity.

Twentieth century educational philosopher John Dewey reasons that “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Dewey is not alone in his belief that the most effec­tive learning evolves from real-life challenges. The philosophy can be seen in action in Reggio Emilia, a small northern Italian city where municipal preschools are organized around the notion that a child’s natural curiosity should be the keystone of education.

Project-based learning, which Eduto­ defines as a “dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small collaborative groups,” provides a mechanism to prepare students to confront future challenges that educa­tors cannot possibly conceive or hope to fully comprehend. The method can help educators focus instruction on critical thinking and problem-solving.

Learning in Action

The school I lead in Baltimore, City Neighbors Hamilton Charter School #346, uses project-based learning as a foundation for intellectual growth and enduring knowledge. The approach requires a real-life topic, problem, or issue that is compelling to students—something that will spark imagination, critical thinking and problem-solving. When implemented effectively, project-based learning inspires in students a deeper knowledge of the subject matter, a greater ability to retain and transfer acquired knowledge, as well as increased confidence and self-direction as students navigate both team-based and independent aspects of their learning.

In action, project-based learning can look different from classroom to classroom. For example, second grad­ers in one class might study birds by observing eggs incubating in the class­room, reading nonfiction text about birds in different habitats, and inter­viewing invited experts on the subject. Another class lesson might stem from a question about why swimming in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is ill advised. The subsequent projects might involve taking water samples, interviewing health officials, and launching a cam­paign to clean up the environmental hazards that have impacted the water. In a third class, students learning about the rainforest might create a scaled model that includes flora and fauna, exhibit mastery of their learn­ing through publishing brochures about the rainforest, and take school­mates on tours of the terrain.

At the middle school level, projects still begin from a real-life question, however the investigation and resulting projects should be developmentally appropriate. For example, seventh graders learning about environmental science might explore the different kinds of plastics recycled in their city, and then use these plastics in con­structing objects such as toys or sneak­ers. The key is capturing and harness­ing students’ interests so that skills and concepts are acquired and internalized through the learning that happens while completing the projects, instead of being taught in isolation.

 Getting Started

When implementing project-based learning in your school, keep in mind that the approach has its challenges. Successful projects take time, are semi-structured, and require signifi­cant student input. These elements require a level of planning and man­agement that might be unfamiliar to your teachers. Project-based learning also requires that teachers relinquish some of the locus of control in the classroom and move into what project-based learning enthusiast and author Suzie Boss calls “the role of a facilita­tor rather than classroom expert.” Here are a few tips to get started at your school.

Project-based learning not only sparks imagination and creativity in students, it also captures the minds of the teachers who support student learning. In providing students with a method to investigate the topics that affect their lives today, we position them to take on tomorrow’s increas­ingly complex problems from a place of empowerment. And, along the way, those same students become better able to perform on the standardized tests that stand between them and the real world ahead of them.

Obi Okobi is principal of City Neighbors Hamilton Charter School #346 in Baltimore.


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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Parents & Schools: Coping With Loss

By David Schonfeld and Marcia Quackenbush
Principal, November/December 2012

On any given day at least several grieving children are likely to attend your school. Approximately 5 percent of children experience the death of a parent and 90 percent experience the death of a family member or close friend by the time they finish high school.

Children who are actively grieving generally find it hard to concentrate or retain new information when they are distracted by thoughts or worries relat­ed to their loss. They often have difficul­ty sleeping or eating and might come to class feeling exhausted. Thus, address­ing bereavement in schools is essential to promoting academic success.

Behavior change can also be seen. Children might become withdrawn or fearful of separating from family members, resulting in school avoid­ance. They might show social regres­sion—becoming irritable, demanding, and more self-centered. Older chil­dren and adolescents might act out or engage in risk-taking behavior, includ­ing tobacco, alcohol, and drug use.

Schools are an excellent site for the delivery of supportive services to griev­ing children and families. School per­sonnel might be the only professionals in a position to offer timely advice on funeral attendance, or recommenda­tions on how to help children under­stand death and cope with difficult feelings such as guilt. School staff can help parents find supports within the community.

Children who sense that their par­ents are having trouble coping often keep their questions and concerns to themselves. These children might feel safer speaking with school staff who typically have some emotional distance and who might therefore be in a better position to answer questions, identify resources for support, and suggest cop­ing strategies.

Role of Schools

Families might benefit from assistance in dealing with secondary losses that accompany death. The death of a par­ent might result in financial stresses and require the family to move in with relatives or to a less expensive home or neighborhood. Such moves often require a change in school and remove children from peer networks and trusted adults in the school who could provide support. Some schools pro­vide transportation so that a child can remain in his or her school even after such relocation. Students might drop out of extracurricular activities or sports because the surviving parent is unable to provide transportation; alternatives can often be identified if extracurricu­lar group advisors work with the PTA and others.

In addition to adjusting to the loss of a family member or friend, chil­dren also must cope with the loss of everything associated with the indi­vidual who died and what that person meant in their lives. Even children who appear to be coping well with a loss might experience grief triggers that result in a temporary resurgence of strong feelings of sadness. These grief triggers might come up unexpect­edly on special occasions or during everyday events that remind them of the person who died. Some examples include anniversaries of the death and holidays; special events that highlight the absence of a loved one, such as a father-daughter dance; a teacher inqui­ry about “what your parents do for a living;” hearing a song in music class that the deceased enjoyed; or reading aloud in class about a character who dies in a similar manner. Principals should advise teachers to talk with students about strategies for dealing with grief triggers, such as establishing a plan for a safe place they can go to during class if they feel overwhelmed or wish to talk to someone.

The loss of a close family member or friend is a life-changing event. Even though children are generally able to return to active learning within a cou­ple of weeks or months after a personal loss, they are not “over it.” The death of someone we care deeply about stays with us for the rest of our lives. Princi­pals should encourage staff to monitor children’s adjustment over time and share insights about helpful ways to provide support.

Professional Development

School staff, including principals and mental health professionals, often have little or no bereavement-related train­ing. In worrying that they might do or say something wrong and upset a griev­ing child, they sometimes choose to say nothing. But avoidance is the wrong approach to take. It communicates to children that what has happened is too awful to speak about or that adults either don’t care or are not competent to provide support. Principals should ensure that professional development on bereavement is part of the continu­ing education provided to their school staff. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB) offers a PowerPoint presentation that can be used for such training (www. The presentation offers practical advice on how to initiate a conversa­tion with children after a personal loss and to help them discover effec­tive coping strategies.

Additional training is necessary to plan for losses that directly impact the school community. The NCSCB has prepared downloadable guides with practical steps that schools can follow after the death of a student or staff member. Principals should establish a school crisis team and procedures for responding to the death of a student or staff member. The NCSCB website includes downloadable template noti­fication letters and scripts for notify­ing staff, students, and parents. The guidelines also address establishing grief counseling support rooms and protocols related to service delivery, parent notification, and consent, as well as indications for referral to community mental health services. Principals should establish thoughtful policies related to student attendance at funerals and memorial services and how to handle school memorial and commemoration activities.

Helping at a Time of Great Need

Supporting grieving children can be emotionally exhausting and stressful for staff. Principals play a critical role in establishing a school climate where professionals are free to express when they are emotionally affected by difficult events. Principals can model and pro­mote self-care and stress management.

True leaders often emerge in a cri­sis setting, but dealing with a school crisis can be particularly challenging for those in leadership positions. The NCSCB provides free consultation and technical support to principals.

Schools are not expected to provide bereavement counseling to students. But with a little education and support, staff can provide assistance to children and their families at a time of great need. They can help children learn to accept one of life’s hardest lessons. Many educators enter the field to form a genuine connection with students and have a lasting impact on their learning and their lives. There is probably no greater opportunity to realize that aspi­ration than when educators reach out to grieving students.

David J. Schonfeld is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Marcia Quackenbush is a marriage and family therapist and a health education specialist at ETR Associates in Scotts Valley, California.


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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It's the Law: Teaching Sensitively

By Perry Zirkel
Principal, November/December 2012

In emphasizing high scores on reading and math achievement tests, teachers may lose sight of the emotional side of impressionable youngsters. Principals need to help maintain the balance, especially because young children are sensitive to what teachers say and how they say it. With the winter religious holidays approaching, such sensitivities become acute.

The following case and the accompanying question-and-answer discussion illus­trate the potential for litigation in not only the official but also the hidden curricu­lum. Failure to find the appropriate balance may leave the issues for judicial deter­mination, which can be ponderous and inconclusive.

The Case1

In 2003-2004, Nancy Doe, whose family is Muslim, was a fourth grader in the public schools of Cape Henlopen, Dela­ware. In September, in memoriam of 9/11, her teacher, Ms. C used a district-approved textbook that provided a brief background of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The book distinguished between mainstream Muslims, who are peaceful, and Islamic extremists who led the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The book described Al Qaeda members as people who bomb buildings or hijack planes and who “believe [the holy book of Islam] tells them to fight a war against counties like the United States.”

Starting in late November, Ms. C read Christmas books, which were not part of the approved curriculum, to her class every day. For example, “The Legend of the Candy Cane” centered on candy canes in which the red stripes repre­sented the blood of Christ—the thick one for the blood he shed for the sins of the world and the thin one where the Roman soldiers whipped him—and the green one as a reminder that Jesus was a gift from God. The story also explained the mint flavor “as a reminder that Jesus was the pure Lamb of God to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world.” The story ended by prompting the students to remember “Jesus is the Christ!” every time they see a candy cane.

When Nancy told her parents about her discomfort with these two experi­ences, they met with the district’s cur­riculum supervisor, suggesting that the teacher apologize to Nancy with a posi­tive statement to the class in terms of making her feel more welcome. Finding nothing wrong with Ms. C’s actions and considering Nancy’s parents to be nega­tively “stuck in the past,” he rejected their suggestions.

In January 2004, the parents and an attorney from the ACLU met with the principal and the teacher to discuss these issues. As a result, the superinten­dent agreed to suspend Ms. C for two days with full pay to conduct an inves­tigation. Ms. C also acquiesced to their request for Nancy to do a presentation to the class about Muslim culture, although she refused the alternative of a presentation on Ramadan. After the parents contacted the curriculum supervisor again, he notified Ms. C about the concerns in a memo advising her “to self-evaluate your conduct over the past few months.” About a week later, Ms. C loudly asked Nancy, in the presence of her classmates, whether she wanted to change classrooms. Nancy responded that she wanted “to say here with my friends.” Ms. C repeat­ed the question, and the principal made the same inquiry later that day. Nancy told her parents that she felt unwelcome and that they were forc­ing her to transfer. The next day, her mother brought Nancy to school and asked the principal to accompany her to Ms. C’s classroom, but he refused, offering her to transfer instead. The school counselor, who noted that Nancy was visibly upset, suggested alternatives to transfer.

Nevertheless, in February the prin­cipal transferred Nancy into another class. As a result, her friends shunned and taunted her. Nancy began treat­ment with a private therapist. Subse­quently, based on Nancy’s continuing panic attacks, anxiety, and depres­sion, the parents requested—and the school district granted—homebound instruction.

That summer, the family moved to another school district. On August 27, 2004, after intervention by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice, the superintendent reprimanded Ms. C. Nevertheless, the parents filed suit in federal court against the district and various officials, including the principal. The parents’ claims included violations of the 14th Amendment equal protection clause and the preference clause of the Dela­ware Constitution, which is analogous to the federal Constitution’s establish­ment clause. The district defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, meaning that the court should decide in their favor without a trial because a reasonable jury would not find any of the claimed violations. The defen­dant school officials claimed that they were covered by qualified immunity, which applies when their liability is not clearly settled.

What do you think was the federal trial court’s decision for their religious preference claim with regard to (a) the textbook reading as background for 9/11, and (b) the teacher’s Christmas stories?

In Doe v. Cape Henlopen School District (2011), the federal district court in Del­aware granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment with regard to the textbook but denied the motion on the Christmas stories. The court concluded that “the 9/11 textbook por­trays historic events in an even-handed manner, serving a secular educational purpose that neither enhances nor inhibits religion.” However, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could find that the various phrases and symbolism in the candy cane story lacked a secular purpose and endorsed Christianity.

What do you think was the court’s ruling with regard to the parents’ First Amendment expression claim that the defendants engaged in retaliation by taking adverse action against Nancy?

The court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment for this claim and ruled that a reasonable jury could find that Nancy’s transfer to another classroom constituted an adverse action motivated by her parents’ complaints on her behalf. Specifically, the court concluded that the teacher’s confrontation with Nancy and the school officials’ repeated refusal to resolve the matter via other alternatives raised a First Amendment retaliation issue that reasonably could be tried in court.

What do you think was the court’s ruling with regard to the parents’ 14th Amendment claims that the school officials (a) engaged in religious discrimination, and (b) responded with deliberate indifference to peer harassment based on religion?

The court agreed with the parents that they had stated a claim for religious discrimination under the 14th Amend­ment’s equal protection clause, con­cluding that a reasonable jury could find that the Christmas readings sub­jected Nancy to differential treatment based on her religious beliefs. How­ever, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment with regard to deliberate indifference, con­cluding that a reasonable jury could not find that the district’s responses ending in transfer met the applicable “clearly unreasonable” test. Moreover, the teasing and name-calling following the transfer did not reach the requisite level of being “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.”

Did the court accept the individual defendants’ claim of qualified immunity?

No. The court left this issue for trial, concluding that the parents “have alleged sufficient facts for a reason­able jury to conclude that defendants violated Nancy’s well-established [i.e., clearly settled] constitutional rights.”

Have other recent court decisions reached similar conclusions concerning students’ religious or ethnic discrimination challenges to school curricula?

Other recent decisions have ruled on more institutionally focused challenges with mixed outcomes. For example, in California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials v. Noonan (2009), a federal district court partially denied and partially granted the defendants’ summary judgment motions against a claim on behalf of Hindu students opposed to adoption of a sixth-grade social studies text. In Griswold v. Driscoll (2010), the First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Turkish-Americans’ challenge to Mas­sachusetts’ advisory curriculum guide that included Armenian genocide but deleted contra-genocide references. In ACLU v. Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy (2011), a federal district court in Min­nesota preserved for trial whether the practices of a public charter school established a pervasively Islamic atmo­sphere in violation of the First Amend­ment’s establishment clause.

If parents sued claiming that the teacher discriminated against their child in the absence of a protected category, such as religion or race, would they face more difficult odds in court?

Yes, although the outcome would depend on the severity of the dis­crimination and the jurisdiction of the court. In general, the majority of courts do not recognize class-of-one claims under the equal protection clause, and civil rights laws are typically limited to specified protected groups. In such cases, the better alternative often is for parents to seek relief at the administra­tive level in terms of remedial and, if necessary, disciplinary action against the offending teacher.


In our culturally diverse society, recent developments, such as increased nationalism and the focus on stan­dardized test performance, may aggravate the tender sensitivities of children, especially if they are mem­bers of a vulnerable minority. As these court decisions show, litigation is a gross and time-consuming mechanism to remedy such perceived affronts. For example, Nancy’s parents challenged events that transpired during the 2003-2004 school year, and the court’s decision in 2011 inconclusively resolved some of their claims.

These cases remind principals of the value and need to promote a school atmosphere of respect and sensitivity for students’ feelings, espe­cially although not at all exclusively, for those who represent vulnerable minorities. A swifter and more positive investigation and remediation of Ms. C’s well-meaning but narrow-minded Christian teachings and a more proac­tive, sensitive school culture would have saved Nancy’s family and the dis­trict defendants escalating emotional and fiscal costs.

Perry A. Zirkel is university professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

1. Due to the pretrial posture of the case, the parents’ allegations are conditionally accepted as true, although the actual facts may well be different upon a trial.


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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Postscript: Art puts the STEAM in STEM

By Gail Connelly
Principal, November/December 2012

Principals know that transforming education means we first need to expand what is now a limited dialogue about accountability, measured by gaining proficiency on math and reading test scores. We know that educating children means more than that. Put simply, the funda­mental purpose of education is to prepare children for the future, and their success depends not solely on whether they have mastered the basics. They are going to need to be experts in creativity—in how they approach the increasing complexity of a global society, how they solve problems, and how they design their lives. And there’s no better time to unleash those powerful forces than in the elementary grades, when children are natural explorers, open to diverse sights, sounds, and experiences and eager to express their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.

Fortunately, it turns out that strengthening creativity and integrating arts instruction can also reap rewards in the tested subjects. The benefits of arts-infused education are undeniable: It increases student achievement; engages chil­dren more profoundly in learning; fosters the all-important 4 C’s of 21st century learning—creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; provides teachers with innovative, effective classroom strategies; promotes a cre­ative school culture that supports learning communities; and helps close the achievement gap. And according to “What School Leaders Can Do to Increase Arts Education,” developed by the Arts Education Partnership, “School prin­cipals play a key role in ensuring every student receives a high-quality arts education as part of a complete education.” In short, arts-infused education helps you reach and inspire students—and achieve meaningful results.

Because we believe in the power of arts-infused education, NAESP has teamed up with Crayola to help support it. Our Champion Creatively Alive Children grant program empow­ers principals, teachers, school leaders, and entire communi­ties—providing inspiration, knowledge, and tools that can unlock imagination and originality in every child. (Visit to read about the program and how principals have successfully integrated the arts.)

The Many Benefits

Arts education is important in and of itself—as a means of extending human understanding and building an appreciation of aesthetics. Beyond that, integrating the arts into other subjects is proving to be an extremely effective strategy that not only makes students well-rounded people, but also helps to equip them to succeed in the future. Researchers have linked arts education with improvements in reading and mathematics skills, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving. In fact, to the question of data and achievement, studies have shown that children actively engaged in the arts are likely to have higher test scores than those with little to no involvement.

Students need strong cognitive capacities as well as a grasp of the fundamentals. It is undeniable that they need to develop STEM skills—facility in science and mathematics, and technical and digital skills. But they also need to be able to design, to bring new ideas that create solutions to complex problems. Perhaps more than anything, experience in the arts teaches one “to see,” which is fundamental to innovation and creativity.

Arts integration models, the practice of teaching across classroom subjects in tandem with the arts, have been yielding some particularly promising results in school reform and closing the achievement gap. Most recently, cutting-edge studies in neuroscience have further devel­oped our understanding of how arts strategies support crucial brain development in learning.

The Whole Child

We all feel the urgency to transform the educational experience for students, personalizing learning opportuni­ties in ways that work best for individual learners. Beyond specific measurable outcomes, integrating arts into the curriculum enhances a series of personal characteristics that we attribute to productive people and citizens. For example, arts integration has been shown to enhance stu­dents’ motivation to learn, bolster self-confidence, encour­age creative expression, and advance social skills such as collaboration, tolerance, and conflict resolution. All of these are cited as indicators of the impact of arts education on student learning and development.

Delivery of our highest values of education depends on more students in American schools—especially those in underserved schools—having the benefits of a comprehen­sive education that includes the arts. We agree with the findings of the compelling President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities report, Reinvesting in Arts Education, which documents that the process of making art—whether it is written, performed, sculpted, photographed, filmed, danced, or painted—prepares children for success not sim­ply as artists, but in all walks of life.

There are countless thrilling moments between a child and an educator, but perhaps none more so than when a child’s creative spark ignites, lighting a creative path forward that can last a lifetime.

Gail Connelly is executive director of NAESP.

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
Web Resources

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.


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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