Math Problems?

In a new series aimed at closing the gap between research and practice, Usable Knowledge is partnering with Digital Promise on a project that collects real questions from educators across the country and poses them to faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The series, called Ask a Researcher, offers evidence-based guidance to classroom dilemmas in the areas of literacy, mathematics, and English language learning, giving teachers credible strategies to enhance student learning. (Questions are gathered from educators in Ditigal Promise’s League of Innovative Schools; plans are developing to solicit questions more broadly.)

Here, we share an excerpt of questions and answers in mathematics, with links to the full series.

Q: For struggling math learners, how can teachers fill in the gaps and teach on grade level, all in one year?

Keep these two goals separate, advises Jon Star. Devote instructional time daily to filling gaps by giving students opportunities to revisit past content. Then consider ways to modify the complexity of new content, by using “easier” numbers, fewer fractions, and more straightforward problems. “This way, struggling students can begin to grasp the important ideas of the new

When Reading with Harder

For years, we’ve thought that the answer to boosting adolescent reading comprehension lay in building students’ vocabulary. Teens often struggle with the jargon and advanced terminology they encounter as they move into middle and high school, so educators have designed curricula and interventions that explicitly teach these complex words.

But these strategies aren’t always fully effective, according to literacy researcher Paola Uccelli. As she writes, many of these interventions have yielded “significant growth in vocabulary knowledge yet only modest gains in reading comprehension.” Too many teens still struggle to understand assigned texts.


Uccelli’s research explores a new approach. By focusing on how words connect in academic texts — and by recognizing that this connecting language is a possible source of difficulty for adolescent readers — teachers may be better able to equip middle and high school students with the tools to comprehend the texts they’re reading for higher-order learning.

Her work identifies a set of language features that are common in academic text but rare in informal spoken language. She’s found that many of the most common language features of middle school texts are unknown to large proportions of students, even by eighth grade. This is relevant

How Bullying Looks to Teens

We asked teenagers from around the country to share their thoughts on why bullying happens, what it takes to be an ally, and how schools can promote kindness. Drawing on their daily experiences at middle and high school, teenagers Sophie Bernstein from Missouri, Lily Horton from California, Nadya Khan from New Jersey, Katie Wong from California, and Ricky Yoo from Georgia provided firsthand insight for the adults working to end bullying and create welcoming schools. The teens are part of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at Making Caring Common, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We all know that bullying, teasing, and exclusion are wrong. So why do you think young people still bully, tease, and exclude their peers? And why do you think it’s so hard for students to stand up to cruelty?

Nadya: High school does a very good job of making teens feel as though their school is the entire world. Bullying is so prevalent, in my opinion, because teens want to feel superior in that bubble of their school. So it is common that

Raising Kind Children

Families foster kindness and respect at home by setting expectations for manners, sharing, and helping with chores. And families hope, often with a tinge of worry, that children will continue those behaviors when parents and caregivers aren’t nearby: in the school cafeteria, at a friend’s house, or on Instagram and Snapchat.

But guiding children to be empathetic and ethical in their independent lives — even when no one is looking — can be more intentional than that. Here, a set of parenting strategies for teaching children to think ethically, care about the people around them, and create positive change in the world. These resources were developed by Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To guide ethical thinking:

  • Discuss ethical dilemmas you have encountered at work, with friends, or running errands. Ask your children what they would have done in that situation.
  • Talk about ethical dilemmas your children might face in the classroom, at lunch, or during recess. Brainstorm (and role-play) possible solutions.
  • Encourage your children to see conflicts from another person’s perspective. Discuss ways they can compromise between their needs and those of others.

To foster concern for others:

  • Encourage your children to really listen to

The most important thing

Clint Smith, a writer and teacher, uses poetry to help students understand that digging into uncertainty can be just as important as finding solutions — an unfamiliar concept for many young people.

We asked Smith, a Harvard Graduate School of Education Ph.D. candidate, to read one of his poems with us — a selection from his debut collection Counting Descent. We also asked him to talk about how he approaches poetry in the classroom and as a writer. Watch the video here, and read excerpts from our longer interview below.

“Poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers.”
“I think that so often kids can feel paralyzed by writing because it feels like they have to know something, that there has to be some level of sanctimony, and that they have to have solutions or ideas to offer the world or their teacher or their peers. But poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers. It simply allows you to wrestle with the questions.”

“One of the first things I seek to do . . .”
“There can sometimes be this tacit, even unconscious presumption that spoken word is lower on the literary hierarchy than that

Accentuate the Positive

With an unsettling year drawing to a close, many educators are increasingly aware of race: how it impacts student achievement and how it obstructs connections between people. But as we hope for a new year filled with equity and kindness in schools and beyond, research offers some encouraging insights.

Confronting racial tensions, biases, and microaggressions can have powerful effects. But schools may also benefit from widening the lens. Behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky has found that when white teachers encourage and model overtly welcominginteractions between students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, student achievement increases.

These “microaffirmations,” as Pittinsky calls them, can be transformative — not only for academic work, but for broader school climate and even for life outcomes.


In a recent study, Pittinsky, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tested whether positive attitudes of predominantly white teachers could augment the learning outcomes of mostly minority students. The results suggest that simply being welcoming and inclusive can help students not only feel comfortable in school, but also grow academically.

The study looked at more than 1,200 teachers in predominantly minority schools in 14 states across the country. Of them, 80 percent were

The Bilingual Learner’s Journey

Asil Yassine, who taught English-language learners (ELLs) in Detroit before enrolling in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was herself an ELL student as a child. Drawing on her experiences as learner, teacher, and researcher, she offers guidance about the crucial support that ELL teachers can provide. In a short video (below), she remembers her own school days — and how hard it can be to be “different.”

Lead the charge and encourage your entire school to make this meaningful vocabulary switch: Instead of ELLs, call them “bilingual learners.”

I grew up in a district that had very few ELLs at the time, so I have distinct memories of being incredibly self-conscious of the fact that I was the only one getting pulled out for services or the only one who had a special helper during reading time. That sense of “I’m different” can manifest itself into a variety of esteem issues, so I am grateful my teachers recognized the enormous importance of community. I remember how warm each classroom felt, how loving the teachers were, and how much camaraderie I found amongst my classmates. I don’t, however, remember too many occasions where I was invited

Supporting Undocumented Students

For undocumented students, close relationships with teachers and guidance counselors can make a world of difference, says education and immigration expert Roberto Gonzales. Educators can not only provide much-needed emotional support; they can also be the resource these students and their families need to stay safe and participate fully in their communities.

If a student discloses his or her status and asks for advice, you don’t have to have all the answers right away, says Gonzales, who spent 12 years chronicling the experiences of undocumented young people for his book Lives in Limbo. More important is acknowledging the student’s concerns and telling the student that you’ll figure it out together — and then talk to colleagues, visit local community centers, or find answers online. Tell the student, “I can find ways to better help you.”

Watch the video, and see below for best practices for supporting undocumented learners in a K-12 setting (excerpted from a previously published story).


Help families and children understand their rights. Schools are legally forbidden from asking about immigration status, and some students may not disclose (or may not

School wide SEL to Prevent Bullying

What are the social-emotional skills that can that work against the impulse to harass or exclude? What about the skills that build a predisposition toward empathy and compromise?

Developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones, whose lab explores the impact of high-quality social-emotional interventions, helped us trace the connections between SEL and bullying prevention.

Which social-emotional skills help children accept peers who are different from them?

They need empathy and perspective-taking skills, but those begin with a basic understanding of the emotions of self and others. This basic understanding of their emotions will enable children to think about a situation from multiple sides and imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

Which skills do children need to recognize and stand up to harassment or teasing?

Children need several things: awareness, knowledge, and skills that enable them to recognize hurtful words and actions or to identify unfairness and conflict; and strategies that help them identify what they see and resolve arguments or discriminatory situations. Basic awareness and practice with conflict resolution strategies can help children know what to do when they see these situations.

Schools can help develop both of these skills by creating a schoolwide culture that

Students Surviving and Thriving

For students who identify as LGBTQ or are gender non-conforming, school can be a difficult, even dangerous, place. Especially in the wake of shifts in federal guidance on transgender students, educators can make a difference by openly supporting these students.


LGBTQ students can feel “isolated and alone and rejected” when peers and teachers don’t accept them, says Tracie Jones, who runs student diversity and inclusion programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Children as young as kindergarten can be bullied for not fitting in with typical gender expectations. Transgender students are especially vulnerable, facing more hostility in school than peers who identify as gay or bisexual. According to a 2015 survey [PDF] by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 77 percent of transgender youth were mistreated at school (ranging from verbal harassment to prohibitions on dressing according to gender identity to physical or sexual assault); according to the Human Rights Campaign, transgender youth are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol [PDF] as straight, cisgender peers.

All of this affects learning. LGBTQ students who are harassed or excluded have lower GPAs than straight peers and are half as likely to pursue post-secondary education. “If you’re constantly in

Citizenship and Schools

In divisive times, the work of teachers and school leaders grows ever more challenging. What happens at home, in the media, and in the political sphere makes its way into schools, affecting policies, classroom conversations, and relationships among students and staff. This spring, faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been working on projects to support educators and students — strategies to build empathy, encourage conversation across difficult topics, and protect vulnerable students. They’re sharing examples of this work — extending a community conversation about equity in education — on One and All, a website that responds to the current climate of uncertainty in the country. We asked Dean James Ryan to talk about the project and about the role of schools today.

Despite (or maybe because of) the polarization of our politics, we’re seeing a growing recognition of the value of connecting with people whose experiences and views are different from our own. What is the role of educators in this conversation about diversity and inclusiveness, in your view?

I think educators have long recognized that embracing and cultivating diversity across a range of identities, experiences, and beliefs is a necessary starting point. As

Opportunity to achieve

On average, Asian American students obtain higher grades, perform better on standardized tests, and are more likely to finish high school and attend elite collegesthan their peers of all other racial backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s a success rate stemming from powerful family commitment to education, behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky says in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, reflecting the view of many scholars who have looked at this trend. Individual students and families vary, of course, but what can we learn from success — while taking care to avoid generalizations?


As educators have become increasingly aware of the stagnating black/white and Latino/white achievement gaps, schools and districts have committed to addressing those gaps by supporting initiatives that can create equity, such as preschool interventions, extended school days, and summer programs.

But the white/Asian American achievement gap is either ignored or misconstrued. “When Asian American students outperform other groups, researchers often begin to pathologize it,” notes Pittinsky, a professor Stony Brook University and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “‘These poor Asian kids, look at the damage being caused by their parents and their achievement,’ they think.”

While Asian Americans do score lower than white students

Smarter Tech to Smooth the Path to College

After college acceptance letters arrive, the complexity and sheer number of tasks required to actually enroll — complete FAFSA, submit a final transcript, pay a housing deposit, obtain immunizations, among many other things — thwart the plans of many high school grads to matriculate. Between 10 and 40 percent of intended students fall into this “summer melt” pattern, and aspiring first-generation students, who are more likely to lack the prior knowledge and support to complete these steps, are particularly susceptible. Guidance counselors and admissions officers can provide valuable assistance, but it can be nearly impossible for them to be with every student, every step of the way.

Research has shown that sending students text messages with tips and reminders throughout the admissions process is a successful intervention. Now, a new studyshows how that approach can go one step further, by using an artificial intelligence system — a virtual admissions counselor — to send personalized texts that reflect an awareness of which tasks students have finished and which they still need to complete.

The study found that with this data-informed, personalized guidance, students are more likely to enroll in college, while real counselors have more time to help students with complex

Bias in School problems

With incidents of anti-Semitism spiking this year (including, troublingly, in K-12 schools, according to the Anti-Defamation League), and with other forms of intolerance in the news, what happens if or when there’s an incident of bias or hateful speech in your school or district? Do you have a plan? The Making Caring Commoninitiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has a sampling of vetted resources [PDF] that provide a starting point for educators, either proactively or in the moment. The resources (excerpted below) are not meant to be comprehensive, but they offer a foothold and a place to begin.

This collection is one of several resource lists from MCC; the others focus on social media, sexual orientation and gender identity, and social emotional learning and the Common Core.


Creating an Anti-Bias Classroom
A set of practices from the Anti-Defamation League that K–12 educators can incorporate into their daily routines to foster a respectful and inclusive classroom. Also helpful: these additional anti-bias resources — with classroom tips and teaching strategies — from the ADL.

Speak Up at School
This guide [PDF] from Teaching Tolerance provides strategies for responding to remarks made by students and by other adults and gives guidance for helping students learn to speak up. The

Talking About Race in Some White Schools

When racially charged controversies dominate the news cycle, some young people may feel disconnected — or even uninterested.

The reality is that many neighborhoods and schools in suburban and rural America are not diverse and are largely white. Students may not see many people who look different from them. Conversations about race can feel personally irrelevant, and therefore obligatory and rote. And teachers may feel stymied, worried about finding the right words.


So why have the conversation at all? As the 2016 election emphasized, there are deep racial and geographical divides in our country, leading to “a profound lack of creative empathy,” says Kathryn Short, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) who is interested in ways to talk to young people about racial injustice. Many white Americans were unable to envision the struggles and desires of marginalized people or of people whose lives were vastly different from theirs.

“We have to start asking kids, ‘How do you hold true to what you have experienced while holding what other people have experienced as truth as well?’” says Short. Teaching children from a young age how to understand disparate perspectives

Experience for Innovation

The American Educational Research Association’s (AERA’s) annual conference offers a close-up on the research that drives teaching and learning innovations and shapes the curricula, policies, and practices of schools everywhere.

The conference — the largest gathering of education researchers anywhere, with nearly 11,000 presenters and around 15,200 attendees — offers a platform for researchers and education leaders to present new findings and perspectives on topics ranging from innovations in mathematics education to bias in classrooms to teacher training to computer languages.

This year’s conference, in San Antonio, Texas, centered on the theme “Knowledge to Action: Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity.” We traveled to Texas to learn about what’s new in education research — and to help make those findings accessible and meaningful to practitioners and policymakers at all levels. Here’s a sampling of what we heard and saw.

Special education: Several of the sessions we attended focused on issues in special education, and how to support students with disabilities.

Supporting students: We also heard research about how to protect other students with specific needs, such as English language learners and transgender students.

World-changing curriculum

In Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course, Fernando Reimers and four co-authors offer an interdisciplinary K-12 curriculum that aims for nothing less. It seeks to develop the specific cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal competencies crucial to thriving in the 21st century. Among those skills: the social and emotional ability to understand and work with people from diverse cultures; the creativity to develop sustainable solutions to complex problems; and a sense of confidence that individuals can (and are obligated to) make a difference.


A curriculum, ideally, should give young people the knowledge they need to approach the future with a dynamic, accountable, forward-thinking mindset, says Reimers, the faculty director of international education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The World Course is a curriculum specifically designed with the future in view — with the idea that our future will be an interconnected one, with complex challenges that demand a sense of citizenship and collaboration that expands beyond national borders.

To be globally competent, students will need traits like critical thinking, intercultural literacy, digital literacy, and cooperation, Reimers and his colleagues say. They’ll need to know how to work together on shared projects; how to use technology as a tool for learning; and how

Learning a word

Discussion protocols can be an important tool for prompting and structuring class conversation. These protocols create an outline of procedures for students to follow, often including assigned roles, specific directions, and details on timing.

Instructors use protocols for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To enhance the structure and clarity of an open-ended task, such as brainstorming or generating ideas;
  • To distribute participation by encouraging students to take turns and to alternate between speaking and listening;
  • To assign clear roles and tasks so that students can maximize opportunities for collaborative work.

Some educators may worry that protocols can lead to an overly structured discussion that is less free flowing and organic. But structure can be useful when the discussion topic is controversial or when students feel reluctant to participate. Protocols can help educators highlight multiple perspectives about an issue or prevent one voice from dominating the conversation. Protocols can also encourage students to ask questions or give honest feedback.

Sarah Leibel, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, finds protocols to be an invaluable teaching tool that can promote equity, create structure, and infuse energy into the classroom. They can “really democratize a space, ensuring that everyone has

Teaching Tolerance Today

When the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) launched its Teaching Toleranceinitiative in 1991, the goal was to intervene early to prevent the formation of prejudice — the kind of hate that could fuel the Klan-related crimes the SPLC was fighting.

At the time, the school integration movement seemed in full force, and the project’s work drew on the notion that bringing people together — not expressly to get along, but to engage in meaningful work alongside one another — would allow them to see the world from each other’s perspectives and would break barriers between groups, promoting harmony.

The ideas were grounded in research around contact theory, says Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, in an interview recorded for the Harvard EdCast. “We had a lot of suburban schools that had once been 100 percent white, that were being newly integrated, and the idea was that this was really important in those kinds of places. What we did not know at the time was that 1989 was the peak of school integration in this country, and it has in fact decreased ever since” she says.

The ensuing 25 years — with a movement away

Study at home

New research suggests it’s family involvement, Not just camps or trips, That keeps kids primed for learning all summer

Where’s the best place for summer learning? (Hint: Don’t look far.)

As the achievement gap has widened over the past quarter century, educators have increasingly focused on summer pastimes as both a key factor and a solution. Higher-income children are more likely to fill their days with outdoorsy camps, music and coding classes, and travel. Making those experiences more accessible to and commonplace for all children, the theory goes, can help ensure that low-income kids keep learning at the same rate.

But time spent at home, reading independently or talking about books and stories with parents, seems to have a greater influence on children’s academic growth than summer camps or vacations, new research suggests. It’s a reminder that despite the social-emotional benefits (and the fun) of camp, quiet days with family can offer valuable learning moments too.


The study, conducted by education policy researcher Kathleen Lynch, parses out how various summer activities, such as attending camp, reading and talking about math at home, vacations and daytrips, and summer school, have distinct academic effects. It suggests