Empowering teachers with collective efficacy

IStock_000034688362_SmallIn 1999, I embarked on my first year of teaching, eagerly anticipating leading my own classroom and filled with much hope, promise, and possibility. However, as my initial year unfolded, it turned out to be a no good, terrible, very bad year (so disappointing that I even wrote an editorial about it for the Denver Post). I consider myself a very positive person—a team player—so this experience was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. What changed my hope to despair and, eventually, my profession from teacher to education consultant?

In thinking about all the subsequent years I spent teaching—some great, some tough, and some just-okay—I remember one significant moment. One morning, as we greeted students on the first day of school—the same year that I was elected to serve as the language arts department chair of a low-performing suburban middle school—my principal advised me that if test scores didn’t go up, the blame would fall squarely on my shoulders. In that moment, I realized that there was no “team.” As an individual teacher, I felt inadequate to carry that load alone; worse, I worried that remaining a teacher might cost me more than I was willing or able to give.

While I always had at least one supportive colleague within my grade level or department, a whole school, we-can-do-this-together vibe was missing from the schools where I taught. Typical divisions between primary and intermediate grades were evident and “that’s not my content area” conflicts sprang up regularly. When it came down to school-wide, collective will and effort to effect change, it always fell short because teachers were working in relative isolation, with heavy loads to bear.

Not wanting to coast on fumes and become the teacher counting the years to retirement, I divorced the job I wanted to do my whole life. But, with my hope and determination to make a difference in education still intact, I searched for a way to change the system. I landed at McREL, an organization whose motto is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This ideal resonated with me, feeding my desire to build a better system in which “change” meant better schools, better teaching, and better learning. I finally hit upon what I had been dancing at the edges of for years, collective efficacy.

In early 2012, as part of a federal grant called the North Central Comprehensive Center (NCCC) program, McREL began working with the South Dakota Department of Education (SD DOE) to implement a strategy that supported South Dakota’s Priority and Focus Schools, as part of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act Waiver. We used a customized version of Indistar®, a web-based continuous improvement planning tool, to develop the South Dakota Leading Effectively, Achieving Progress (SD LEAP) tool. Built on the principle that the people closest to students should be the ones determining the path to improvement, SD LEAP was designed to help South Dakota schools establish leadership teams to guide their continuous improvement processes.

Later that year, we hit the rural roads of South Dakota, training educators on the new tool and informing them that SD LEAP and school leadership teams were an effective, support-based way to lead school improvement, not compliance-driven. While many were willing to give it a try, just as many thought this was yet another swing of the pendulum; if they waited long enough, it would quietly die like so many past reforms.

In April 2014, a small team of McREL and SD DOE staff traveled more than 900 miles across the state to capture, in video, the success stories of five schools using the SD LEAP system. As we sat down with teachers and leaders at each of the schools, we heard responses like, “I felt empowered,” and, “It wasn’t just me doing it, it was all of us.” One teacher, who had been mulling retirement, shared her renewed sense of excitement about the work her team was doing, and had chosen not to retire. That really resonated with me. Teachers were now eager to review data and discuss individual kids, especially the ones who were hardest to reach. A palpable sense of collective commitment and relief emanated from each frame of the video, telling me we were on to something. As I watched the interviews, two words—collective efficacy—hit me like a ton of bricks.

What does collective efficacy have to do with my terrible, no good, very bad first year of teaching? Working with educators across the country over the past six years has convinced me that, while there will always be a need for professional development in the areas of leadership, instruction, curriculum, and assessment, what schools really need to effect change is a partner to help them maximize all the great resources, staff, and ideas they already have—a partner to share the load and help build collective efficacy.

As a teacher, I never felt we lacked the “right stuff” in terms of resources or professional development for staff. Deep down, I felt unable—as an individual teacher—to make broad, sweeping, systemic changes. What was really missing was a collective will and belief that we all needed to move in the same direction, systemically changing our instruction and culture to increase student achievement for each and every kid. As I listened to teachers share their experiences in the SD LEAP video, I realized that they felt like they were, indeed, enough. Because, as a group, they were much more than enough.

Don’t take my word for it—spend a few minutes watching our video, “South Dakota LEAP – Leading Effectively, Achieving Progress,” or exploring the NCCC website.


2014-HoakHeather_6737_webMcREL consultant Heather Hoak develops and implements technical supports for the North Central Comprehensive Center, the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Education, and other McREL projects and clients. For more information about SD LEAP, contact Heather by e-mail or at 303.632.5512.


Simple interventions can help students overcome “stereotype threat”

IStock_000027658075_SmallIn his latest Research Says column for Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin sheds light on the psychological phenomenon known as “stereotype threat,” its effects on learning, and how schools can help their students overcome it.

Stereotype threat, he explains, refers to situations in which people feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their race, gender, or social group. In the classroom, especially as students get older and begin internalizing negative messages about stereotypes and developing their personal identities, this subtle but powerful phenomenon has a tangible effect on achievement. Researchers at Princeton, for example, found that minority children who were asked to report their ethnicity prior to a test got 21 percent fewer correct answers than those who were asked to report their ethnicity after the test.

However, Goodwin writes, research has also shown that rather simple interventions can reverse these effects. In one study, both black and white 7th grade students were asked to spend 15 minutes writing about the role of personal values in their lives at the beginning of the term in a targeted course. During the term, this simple exercise cut in half the number of students earning a D or lower, reduced achievement gaps by 40 percent, and reversed previous declines in performance.

Goodwin concludes that, while promising, interventions must also be accompanied by high-quality instruction and a challenging curriculum, and they must be carried out in a way that doesn’t further stigmatize students.

Read Bryan's column on ASCD's Educational Leadership site.

Posted by McREL International.


GreenSTEM: Inspiring and empowering learners to change the world

IStock_000017174851_SmallHow do we teach our students to pursue a line of inquiry that connects personal, community, and global decisions to an understanding of relevant science, technology, engineering, and math?  “GreenSTEM” is an engaging and innovative approach for both students and teachers.

In an effort to distinguish traditional science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs from those with a focus on ecology and sustainability, some educators have recently been adding “green” to STEM programs. The concept is so new that a standard definition of GreenSTEM—one that fuses the real-world connections intrinsic to STEM learning with the deeper concept of sustainability—has yet to be penned.

If “… going green means to live life, as an individual as well as a community, in a way that is friendly to the natural environment and is sustainable for the earth,” as the all-recycling-facts.com website states, then GreenSTEM programs would incorporate science content, technology tools, engineering design, and math applications into problem-based projects, which have the goals of conserving natural resources and energy; reducing pollution, consumption, and waste; and protecting the health of our ecosystems.

On a recent tour of a few Colorado Green Ribbon schools, the characteristics of GreenSTEM were evident, supporting what I know from my own GreenSTEM teaching experience. The entire school culture reflected the principles of a GreenSTEM environment, with common themes that were clearly woven throughout presentations by students, teachers, principals, and superintendents. GreenSTEM characteristics extended outward to the physical appearance of schoolrooms and grounds, and even to messages on signage and t-shirts worn by students and staff.

These themes created a mosaic image of the GreenSTEM characteristics:

  • Relevant, engaging project-based learning that blends the latest best-practices in science, technology, engineering, and math;
  • Student-driven sustainable projects that create innovative thinkers;
  • Unique STEM projects that address each school’s unique indoor and outdoor environment, and broader community needs;
  • Green job connections through pathways to business partnerships and higher education;
  • Life-changing and empowering service-learning for students, teachers, parents, and community; and
  • Whole-child and whole-school passion for being lifelong learners and citizen scientists.

At McREL, we are working on creating a clear, standard definition of GreenSTEM and building a GreenSTEM educator support network. One useful resource to begin the conversation is a one-page “STEM and Our Planet Infographic,” created by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). 

The NEEF also provides an online resource center for GreenSTEM ideas, discussion, and support. To explore these resources, visit their “Greening STEM Learning Center.” 

To learn more about GreenSTEM and follow our progress  in developing tools, resources, and professional development opportunities to help educators plan for and implement GreenSTEM, follow @STEM_McREL on Twitter, or visit our STEM resources page on our website.

Ready to start? Join us for a two-day workshop at McREL, “GreenSTEM: Inspiring and Empowering Learners to Change the World,” on June 11–12, 2015, to begin the process of building your own GreenSTEM program.

Contact Laura Arndt or Anne Tweed for more information about McREL’s GreenSTEM initiative.


Larndt_LThumbMcREL consultant Laura Arndt taught science and GreenSTEM education at the elementary and high school level for 16 years. Now at McREL, Laura develops science curriculum and professional development models, and offers expertise on STEM program development in both formal and informal education settings.


Directive vs. collaborative leadership: Which is more effective for improving schools?

IStock_000056241760_SmallWhen a school needs to improve, school leaders can approach it one of two ways—tell your staff what to do and how to do it, or work together to figure out what to do and how to do it. Because the direction you take will shape the success of your improvement efforts, it’s crucial to choose the approach that’s best for your school’s needs and will help reach your long-term achievement goals.

Bryan Goodwin, McREL President and CEO, takes a look at the case for direction and the case for empowerment in his latest Research Says column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, “To Go Fast, Direct. To Go Far, Empower.” The choice, he finds, depends on whether your school needs quick results or to “break through performance ceilings.”

Studies on successful turnaround efforts, Goodwin writes, show that their leaders tend to have a “take-charge attitude” and have very clear expectations of staff, often establishing new instructional routines with off-the-shelf programs like America’s Choice, Success for All, etc. This directive approach works well when a school needs to execute teaching routines more effectively and implement curriculum more consistently.

However, research also shows that the resulting quick gains also tend to plateau, Goodwin notes, and many turnaround schools eventually begin to adapt their curriculum, working together to better align it with the needs of their students.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International


Civil discourse on the Common Core

IStock_000017974549_SmallBeing an academic standards consultant was once a fairly anonymous, low-profile job. Relatively few people seemed to know or care about the importance of educational standards, and news stories about standards were rare. Just a year or two ago, when I talked with other parents at the neighborhood park about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they politely smiled and nodded, not really understanding what I meant.

But, as the CCSS slowly began to be implemented over the last couple of years, people who had never given a second thought to educational standards began to take notice and discuss what exactly it is that they thought our students should understand and be able to demonstrate. Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about the Common Core, and the discourse is often divisive and far from civil.

Recently, at an education policy meeting I attended at a university, a panel of education leaders was asked to provide their thoughts on the opposition to the CCSS and the related PARCC testing. On the panel were a representative from the state department of education, a CEO of several charter schools, a school district math coordinator, and a district chief academic officer. A member of the state board of education acted as moderator.

As a lead-in to the discussion, the audience and panel members were told that, invariably, in every meeting of the state board of education, people spoke passionately about their opposition to CCSS and PARCC. The question to the panel was: What causes that opposition? Is it true opposition to the CCSS and/or PARCC assessments, or is it merely a convenient speaking point for politicians and pundits?

The panelists and audience members brought up many points of conflict on the pros and cons of the standards and testing. Audience members were clearly frustrated with the feeling that parents have been left out of the conversation, because, in their view, policy makers and educators don’t believe parents are knowledgeable enough to participate in deep dialogue and debate about the issues. The conversation grew heated on all sides.

What is causing this divide? One of the panelists correctly pointed out that, when it comes to the standards and testing, many related-but-distinct issues have become conflated with one another, such as identifying the appropriate number of assessments; setting the right bar; teaching the right content; and who should control the setting of the bar and the measuring of results.

When we’re talking with one another about the CCSS or assessments, we need to be careful that we’re really talking about the same issues and not talking past each other in the heat of the moment. Without common definitions and understandings of what “it” is we’re debating, frustration levels on all sides will remain high.

Forging these common definitions will require every education advocate—federal, state, district, school, parent, community member—to take the time to listen to opponents’ perspectives, find points of agreement, and mutually identify the specific issues that are causing conflict and disagreement. That’s easier said than done, but if we can’t commit to civil discourse then neither side is going to get anything other than increasingly frustrated and disillusioned. And, without a joint effort to identify the issues causing opposition, we risk perpetuating the same negative cycle that will continue to shift as frequently as the political winds that drive it.


2008_SchwolsMcREL consultant Amitra Schwols is an expert in STEM curriculum who analyzes, evaluates, revises, and drafts new standards and benchmark documents related to K–12 classroom activities and resources. She is a co-author on McREL’s Common Core Standards Quick-Start Guides for grades K–5.