Archive for October, 2013

Locus of Control


Locus of control is a psychological concept that refers to how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that affect their lives. In education, locus of control typically refers to how students perceive the causes of their academic success or failure in school.

Students with an “internal locus of control” generally believe that their success or failure is a result of the effort and hard work they invest in their education. Students with an “external locus of control” generally believe that their successes or failures result from external factors beyond their control, such as luck, fate, circumstance, injustice, bias, or teachers who are unfair, prejudiced, or unskilled. For example, students with an internal locus of control might blame poor grades on their failure to study, whereas students with an external locus of control may blame an unfair teacher or test for their poor performance.

Whether a student has an internal or external locus of control is thought to have a powerful effect on academic motivation, persistence, and achievement in school. In education, “internals” are considered more likely to work hard in order to learn, progress, and succeed, while “externals” are more likely to believe that working hard is “pointless” because someone or something else is treating them unfairly or holding them back. Students with an external locus of control may also believe that their accomplishments will not be acknowledged or their effort will not result in success.

In special education, the locus-of-control concept is especially salient. Many educators believe that students with learning disabilities are more likely to develop an external locus of control, at least in part due to negative experiences they may have had in school. If their disabilities have made learning exceptionally difficult or challenging, and they have consequently experienced more failure than success in school, blaming other people and external factors can develop into a psychological coping mechanism (i.e., when someone or something else is always the cause, the students don’t need to take more responsibility over their success in school).

For related discussions, see growth mindset and stereotype threat.

Locus of control is related to a variety of psychological concepts, theories, and findings, including learned helplessness, which is when a person has learned to act as if they are helpless even when they actually have control over their situation or the power to change a circumstance or outcome. Some psychologists believe “externals” are more likely to develop learned helplessness than “internals.”


In recent decades, locus of control has become a more widely recognized and discussed concept in education. There are two main approaches that schools use when working with learning-disabled students who have an external locus of control:

  • Altering learning contexts: More structured, orderly, and supportive classrooms and learning environments are believed to benefit students with an external locus of control, while students with an internal locus of control often thrive in more unstructured learning environments.
  • Strengthening internal locus of control: Educators and specialists may also use a variety of strategies to encourage students to believe they have more control over their education and academic achievement, including techniques known as “attribution training.” Essentially, students are taught to internalize positive messages that tend to be intuitive to students with an internal locus of control. For example, the training may encourage students to say to themselves—out loud at first, then in a whispering voice, and then silently to themselves—that they can do the task they were assigned and that their hard work and effort will be rewarded with success.

Several questionnaires have been developed to help identify whether students tend toward an internal or external locus of control. Julian B. Rotter, the psychologist who originally developed the locus-of-control concept, created a widely used question-based assessment and a corresponding scale designed to identify where students are on the internal-external spectrum. The questionnaire offers a series of choices between two statements. For example, the respondent would choose between “I have often found that what is going to happen will happen” or “Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.” Rotter’s assessment is one of a number of diagnostic tools and scales that may be used by psychologists and educators.



In education, the term standards-referenced refers to instructional approaches or assessments that are “referenced” to or derived from established learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. In other words, standards-referenced refers to the use of learning standards to guide what gets taught and tested in schools.

The term standards-referenced is predominately used in two ways by educators:

  • Standards-referenced tests, and other forms of standards-referenced assessment, are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined learning standards. In elementary and secondary education, standards-referenced tests evaluate whether students have learned a specific body of knowledge or acquired a specific skill set described in a given set of standards. The term standards-referenced test and criterion-referenced test are synonymous when the “criteria” being used are learning standards. The terms standard-referenced assessment and criterion-referenced assessment are similarly synonymous. (In education, assessment refers to the wide variety of methods that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, and skill acquisition of students, which includes tests and other methods of evaluation, such as graded assignments, demonstrations of learning, or formative assessments, for example.) For a more detailed discussion of standards-referenced testing, see criterion-referenced test.
  • A standards-referenced curriculum is a course of study that is guided by learning standards. In other words, the academic knowledge and skills taught in a school, or in a specific course or program, are based on learning standards, typically the learning standards developed and adopted by states. The standards determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the expected learning goals described in the standards. Depending on how broadly educators define or use the term, standards-referenced curriculum may refer to the knowledge, skills, topics, and concepts that are taught to students and/or to the lessons, units, assignments, readings, and materials used by teachers. For related discussions, see alignment, curriculum, coherent curriculum, learning objectives, and learning progression.

Standards-Referenced vs. Standards-Based

The distinction between standard-based and standards-referenced is often a source of confusion among educators and the public—in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but also because the distinction between the two is both subtle and nuanced. In brief, standards-referenced means that what gets taught or tested is “based” on standards (i.e., standards are the source of the content and skills taught to students—the original “reference” for the lesson), while standards-based refers to the practice of making sure students learn what they were taught and actually achieve the expected standards, and that they meet a defined standard for “proficiency.” In a standards-referenced system, teaching and testing are guided by standards; in a standards-based system, teachers work to ensure that students actually learn the expected material as they progress in their education.

Another way of looking at it is that standards-referenced refers to inputs (what is taught) and standards-based is focused on outputs (what is learned).

While a particular course may be standards-referenced, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is standards-based in the sense that the term is predominately used by educators. However, all standards-based curricula, instruction, and tests are—by necessity—standards-referenced. For example, all fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards that schools and teachers are expected to follow when they create academic programs, courses, and other learning experiences (before the 1980s and 1990s, states did not have learning standards). In theory, these educational policies suggest that all American public schools either are or should be teaching a standards-referenced curriculum. Yet comparatively few public schools are authentically standards-based in the sense that students are required to demonstrate achievement of expected standards, and meet defined proficiency expectations, as they progress through their education. For a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following examples will help to illustrate the distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced:

  • Assessment: Say a teacher designs a standards-referenced test for a history course. While the content of the test may be entirely standards-referenced—i.e., it is aligned with the expectations described in learning standards—a score of 75 may be considered a passing score, suggesting that 25 percent of the taught material was not actually learned by the students who scored a 75. In addition, the teacher may not know what specific standards students have or have not met if only the scores tests and assignments are summed and averaged. For example, a student may be able to earn a “passing” grade in a ninth-grade English course, but still be unable to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking” or “demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings”—two ninth-grade standards taken from the Common Core State Standards. If the teacher uses a standards-based approach to assessment, however, students would only “pass” a test or course after demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills described in the expected standards. The students may need to retake a test several times or redo an assignment, or they may need additional help from the teacher or other educational specialist, but the students would need to demonstrate that they learned what they were expected to learn—i.e., the specific knowledge and skills described in standards.
  • Curriculum: In most high schools, students typically earn credit for passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same learning standards being applied to all students equally. And because grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on widely divergent different learning expectations (for example, some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), students may pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring the most essential knowledge and skills described in standards. In these cases, the curricula taught in these schools may be standards-referenced, but not standards-based, because teachers are not evaluating whether students have achieved specific standards. In standards-based schools, courses, and programs, however, educators will use a variety of instructional and assessment methods to determine whether students have met the expected standards, including strategies such as demonstrations of learningpersonal learning plansportfoliosrubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.
  • Grading: In a standards-referenced course, grading may look like it traditionally has in schools: students are given numerical scores on a 1–100 scale and class grades represent an average of all scores earned over the course of a semester or year. In a standards-based course, however, “grades” often look quite different. While standards-based grading and reporting may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together. For example, students may receive a report that shows how they progressing toward meeting a selection of standards. The criteria used to determine what “meeting a standard” means will defined in advance, often in a rubric, and teachers will evaluate learning progress and academic achievement in relation to the criteria. The reports students receive might use a 1–4 scale, for example, with 3s and 4s indicating that students have met the standard. In standards-based schools, grades for behaviors and work habits—e.g., getting to class on time, following rules, treating other students respectfully, turning in work on time, participating in class, putting effort into assignments—are also reported separately from academic grades, so that teachers and parents can make distinctions between learning achievement and behavioral issues.

Criterion-Referenced Test


Criterion-referenced tests and assessments are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. In elementary and secondary education, criterion-referenced tests are used to evaluate whether students have learned a specific body of knowledge or acquired a specific skill set. For example, the curriculum taught in a course, academic program, or content area.

If students perform at or above the established expectations—for example, by answering a certain percentage of questions correctly—they will pass the test, meet the expected standards, or be deemed “proficient.” On a criterion-referenced test, every student taking the exam could theoretically fail if they don’t meet the expected standard; alternatively, every student could earn the highest possible score. On criterion-referenced tests, it is not only possible, but desirable, for every student to pass the test or earn a perfect score. Criterion-referenced tests have been compared to driver’s-license exams, which require would-be drivers to achieve a minimum passing score to earn a license.

Criterion-Referenced vs. Norm-Referenced Tests
Norm-referenced tests are designed to rank test takers on a “bell curve,” or a distribution of scores that resembles, when graphed, the outline of a bell—i.e., a small percentage of students performing poorly, most performing average, and a small percentage performing well. To produce a bell curve each time, test questions are carefully designed to accentuate performance differences among test takers—not to determine if students have achieved specified learning standards, learned required material, or acquired specific skills. Unlike norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests measure performance against a fixed set of criteria.

Criterion-referenced tests may include multiple-choice questions, true-false questions, “open-ended” questions (e.g., questions that ask students to write a short response or an essay), or a combination of question types. Individual teachers may design the tests for use in a specific course, or they may be created by teams of experts for large companies that have contracts with state departments of education. Criterion-referenced tests may be high-stakes tests—i.e., tests that are used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts—or they may be “low-stakes tests” used to measure the academic achievement of individual students, identify learning problems, or inform instructional adjustments.

Well-known examples of criterion-referenced tests include Advanced Placement exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which are both standardized tests administered to students throughout the United States. When testing companies develop criterion-referenced standardized tests for large-scale use, they usually have committees of experts determine the testing criteria and passing scores, or the number of questions students will need to answer correctly to pass the test. Scores on these tests are typically expressed as a percentage.

It should be noted that passing scores—or “cut-off scores“—on criterion-referenced tests are judgment calls made by either individuals or groups. It’s theoretically possible, for example, that a given test-development committee, if it had been made up of different individuals with different backgrounds and viewpoints, would have determined different passing scores for a certain test. For example, one group might determine that a minimum passing score is 70 percent correct answers, while another group might establish the cut-off score at 75 percent correct. For a related discussion, see proficiency.

Criterion-referenced tests created by individual teachers are also very common in American public schools. For example, a history teacher may devise a test to evaluate understanding and retention of a unit on World War II. The criteria in this case might include the causes and timeline of the war, the nations that were involved, the dates and circumstances of major battles, and the names and roles of certain leaders. The teacher may design a test to evaluate student understanding of the criteria and determine a minimum passing score.

While criterion-referenced test scores are often expressed as percentages, and many have minimum passing scores, the test results may also be scored or reported in alternative ways. For example, results may be grouped into broad achievement categories—such as “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced”—or reported on a 1–5 numerical scale, with the numbers representing different levels of achievement. As with minimum passing scores, proficiency levels are judgment calls made by individuals or groups that may choose to modify proficiency levels by raising or lowering them.

The following are a few representative examples of how criterion-referenced tests and scores may be used:

  • To determine whether students have learned expected knowledge and skills. If the criterion-referenced tests are used to make decisions about grade promotion or diploma eligibility, they would be considered “high-stakes tests.”
  • To determine if students have learning gaps or academic deficits that need to be addressed. For a related discussion, see formative assessment.
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of a course, academic program, or learning experience by using “pre-tests” and “post-tests” to measure learning progress over the duration of the instructional period.
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of teachers by factoring test results into job-performance evaluations. For a related discussion, see value-added measures.
  • To measure progress toward the goals and objectives described in an “individualized education plan” for students with disabilities.
  • To determine if a student or teacher is qualified to receive a license or certificate.
  • To measure the academic achievement of students in a given state, usually for the purposes of comparing academic performance among schools and districts.
  • To measure the academic achievement of students in a given country, usually for the purposes of comparing academic performance among nations. A few widely used examples of international-comparison tests include the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).


Criterion-referenced tests are the most widely used type of test in American public education. All the large-scale standardized tests used to measure public-school performance, hold schools accountable for improving student learning results, and comply with state or federal policies—such as the No Child Left Behind Act—are criterion-referenced tests, including the assessments being developed to measure student achievement of the Common Core State Standards. Criterion-referenced tests are used for these purposes because the goal is to determine whether educators and schools are successfully teaching students what they are expected to learn.

Criterion-referenced tests are also used by educators and schools practicing proficiency-based learning, a term that refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.  In most cases, proficiency-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, content area, or grade level. Criterion-referenced tests are one method used to measure academic progress and achievement in relation to standards.

Following a wide variety of state and federal policies aimed at improving school and teacher performance, criterion-referenced standardized tests have become an increasingly prominent part of public schooling in the United States. When focused on reforming schools and improving student achievement, these tests are used in a few primary ways:

  • To hold schools and educators accountable for educational results and student performance. In this case, test scores are used as a measure of effectiveness, and low scores may trigger a variety of consequences for schools and teachers.
  • To evaluate whether students have learned what they are expected to learn. In this case, test scores are seen as a representative indicator of student achievement.
  • To identify gaps in student learning and academic progress. Test scores may be used, along with other information about students, to diagnose learning needs so that educators can provide appropriate services, instruction, or academic support.
  • To identify achievement gaps among different student groups. Students of color, students who are not proficient in English, students from low-income households, and students with physical or learning disabilities tend to score, on average, well below white students from more educated, higher income households on standardized tests. In this case, exposing and highlighting achievement gaps may be seen as an essential first step in the effort to educate all students well, which can lead to greater public awareness and resulting changes in educational policies and programs.
  • To determine whether educational policies are working as intended. Elected officials and education policy makers may rely on standardized-test results to determine whether their laws and policies are working as intended, or to compare educational performance from school to school or state to state. They may also use the results to persuade the public and other elected officials that their policies are in the best interest of children and society.


The widespread use of high-stakes standardized tests in the United States has made criterion-referenced tests an object of criticism and debate. While many educators believe that criterion-referenced tests are a fair and useful way to evaluate student, teacher, and school performance, others argue that the overuse, and potential misuse, of the tests could have negative consequences that outweigh their benefits.

The following are a few representative arguments typically made by proponents of criterion-referenced testing:

  • The tests are better suited to measuring learning progress than norm-referenced exams, and they give educators information they can use to improve teaching and school performance.
  • The tests are fairer to students than norm-referenced tests because they don’t compare the relative performance of students; they evaluate achievement against a common and consistently applied set of criteria.
  • The tests apply the same learning standards to all students, which can hold underprivileged or disadvantaged students to the same high expectations as other students. Historically, students of color, students who are not proficient in English, students from low-income households, and students with physical or learning disabilities have suffered from lower academic achievement, and many educators contend that this pattern of underperformance results, at least in part, from lower academic expectations. Raising academic expectations for these student groups, and making sure they reach those expectations, is believed to promote greater equity in education.
  • The tests can be constructed with open-ended questions and tasks that require students to use higher-level cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, or interpretation. Multiple-choice and true-false questions promote memorization and factual recall, but they do not ask students to apply what they have learned to solve a challenging problem or write insightfully about a complex issue, for example. For a related discussion, see 21st century skills and Bloom’s taxonomy.

The following are representative arguments typically made by critics of criterion-referenced testing:

  • The tests are only as accurate or fair as the learning standards upon which they are based. If the standards are vaguely worded, or if they are either too difficult or too easy for the students being evaluated, the associated test results will reflect the flawed standards. A test administered in eleventh grade that reflects a level of knowledge and skill students should have acquired in eighth grade would be one general example. Alternatively, tests may not be appropriately “aligned” with learning standards, so that even if the standards are clearly written, age appropriate, and focused on the right knowledge and skills, the test might not designed well enough to achievement of the standards.
  • The process of determining proficiency levels and passing scores on criterion-referenced tests can be highly subjective or misleading—and the potential consequences can be significant, particularly if the tests are used to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, and schools. Because reported “proficiency” rises and falls in direct relation to the standards or cut-off scores used to make a proficiency determination, it’s possible to manipulate the perception and interpretation of test results by elevating or lowering either standards and passing scores. And when educators are evaluated based on test scores, their job security may rest on potentially misleading or flawed results. Even the reputations of national education systems can be negatively affected when a large percentage of students fail to achieve “proficiency” on international assessments.
  • The subjective nature of proficiency levels allows the tests to be exploited for political purposes to make it appear that schools are either doing better or worse than they actually are. For example, some states have been accused of lowering proficiency standards of standardized tests to increase the number of students achieving “proficiency,” and thereby avoid the consequences—negative press, public criticism, large numbers of students being held back or denied diplomas (in states that base graduation eligibility on test scores)—that may result from large numbers of students failing to achieve expected or required proficiency levels.
  • If the tests primarily utilize multiple-choice questions—which, in the case of standardized testing, makes scoring faster and less expensive because it can be done by computers rather than human scorers—they will promote rote memorization and factual recall in schools, rather than the higher-order thinking skills students will need in college, careers, and adult life. For example, the overuse or misuse of standardized testing can encourage a phenomenon known as “teaching to the test,” which means that teachers focus too much on test preparation and the academic content that will be evaluated by standardized tests, typically at the expense of other important topics and skills.

Student Outcomes


The term student outcomes typically refers to either (1) the desired learning objectives or standards that schools and teachers want students to achieve, or (2) the educational, societal, and life effects that result from students being educated. In the first case, student outcomes are the intended goals of a course, program, or learning experience; in the second case, student outcomes are the actual results that students either achieve or fail to achieve during their education or later on in life. The terms learning outcomes and educational outcomes are common synonyms.

While the term student outcomes is widely and frequently used by educators, it may be difficult to determine precisely what is being referred to when the term is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation. When investigating or reporting on student outcomes, it is important to determine precisely how the term is being defined in a specific educational context. In some cases, for example, the term may be used in a general or undefined sense (“Our school is working to improve student outcomes”), while in others it may have a specific pedagogical or technical meaning (“The student outcomes for this course are X, Y, and Z”).

The following representative examples illustrate the different ways in which the term student outcomes may be used:

  • Positive and negative outcomes: Generally speaking, student outcomes are considered—either explicitly or implicitly—to be positive or negative by educators. If students are learning what they are expected to learn, or graduation rates in a school are rising, these results would generally be viewed as “positive student outcomes.” Conversely, low or declining test scores and high dropout rates would be “negative student outcomes.”
  • Instructional outcomes: Schools and teachers may define student outcomes as the knowledge, skills, and habits of work that students are expected to acquire by the end of an instructional period, such as a course, program, or school year. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with learning objectives or learning standards, which are brief written statements that describe what students should know and be able to do. Teachers often establish instructional goals for a course, project, or other learning experience, and those goals may then be used to guide what and how they teach (a process that is sometimes called “backwards planning” or “backward design”). While the term student outcomes may be used in this sense, terms such as learning objective and learning target are more common.
  • Educational outcomes: The results achieved by schools may also be considered “student outcomes” by educators and others, including results such as standardized-test scores, graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with student achievement, since achievement typically implies education-specific results such as improvements in test scores.
  • Societal and life outcomes: In some cases, the term student outcomes, and synonyms such as educational outcomes, may imply broader, more encompassing, and more far-reaching educational results, including the impact that education has on individuals and society. For example, higher employment rates, lower incarceration rates, better health, reduce dependency on social services, and increased civic participation—e.g., higher voting rates, volunteerism rates, or charitable giving—have all been correlated with better education.

Long-Term English Learner


Long-term English learner (or LTEL) is a formal educational classification given to students who have been enrolled in American schools for more than six years, who are not progressing toward English proficiency, and who are struggling academically due to their limited English skills. States, districts, and schools determine the criteria and student characteristics used to identify long-term English learners, but definitions and classification criteria may vary widely from place to place. Given that these students are typically identified after six or more years of enrollment in formal education, long-term English learners are most commonly enrolled in middle schools and high schools. While some long-term English learners come from immigrant families, the majority are American citizens who have lived most or all of their lives in the United States.

Generally speaking, long-term English learners struggle with reading, writing, and academic language—the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency and understanding required to learn effectively in academic programs—and consequently they have fallen behind their English-speaking peers academically and have accumulated significant learning gaps over the course of their education. While many long-term English learners are bilingual and articulate in English, and many sound like native English speakers, they typically have limited writing and reading skills in both their native language and in English, and their academic-literacy skills in English are not as well developed as their social-language abilities.

The defining characteristic of long-term English learners is that their English-language deficits have grown more severe and consequential over time, which has negatively affected their ability to achieve their full academic potential. Many long-term English learners have also developed habits of social detachment, academic disengagement, or learned passivity, and while many aspire to attend college or pursue professional careers, the students may be unaware that their academic experiences are not adequately preparing them for these aspirations. Long-term English learners are also more likely to be held back or drop out of school.

English-language learners—students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses—may become long-term English learners for a number of reasons, including the following representative examples:

  • The students may have gone without adequate English-language instruction for an extended period of time due to a family relocation or disruption in their formal schooling. For example, their family may have moved to another country or to a school system that was not equipped to adequately teach and support English-language learners, or the students may have come from a country experiencing political, social, or economic upheavals, which prevented them from attending school for long periods of time.
  • The students may have been enrolled in weak, poorly designed, or ineffective language-development programs that did not improve or accelerate their English proficiency. For example, many schools with small populations of English-language learners do not have the experience, expertise, or resources need to create effective English-language instructional programs.
  • The elementary schools the students attended were not equipped to teach and support English-language learners, which delayed their acquisition of English proficiency, academic language, and the foundational knowledge and skills acquired by their English-speaking peers. For example, many teachers have not received training in the specialized instructional strategies required to teach English-language learners effectively, and some districts and schools do not have the resources needed to hire teachers with expertise in teaching English-language learners.
  • The students may have been misidentified by poorly designed diagnostic assessments or biased tests that led to their enrollment in inappropriate courses and programs. For example, the students may have been enrolled in special-education programs for native English speakers that did not help them develop their English proficiency, or they may have been identified as “struggling readers” rather than English-language learners who require specialized English-language instruction. For a related discussion, see test accommodations.
  • The families of long-term English learners may have been unable to advocate for their children due to cultural or linguistic barriers. For example, some immigrant parents may be unaccustomed to American schools and cultural expectations, and consequently they may not have the confidence or language ability needed to navigate school policies and request specialized services for their children.
  • The students may have experienced social, cultural, and linguistic isolation in school, or some may have experienced overt neglect, bias, or racism. For example, the “outsider status,” cultural exclusion, or sense of alienation that some long-term English learners feel could lead to a disinterest in school or in improving their English-language skills, while school programs and policies may intentionally or unintentionally limit or deny students access to specialized English-language instruction.

For more detailed discussions, including relevant reforms and debates, see academic languagedual-language education, English-language learner, and multicultural education.

Common Planning Time


In schools, common planning time refers to any period of time that is scheduled during the school day for multiple teachers, or teams of teachers, to work together.

In most cases, common planning time is considered to be a form of professional development, since its primary purpose is to bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects that will lead to improvements in lesson quality, instructional effectiveness, and student achievement. Generally speaking, these improvements result from (1) the improved coordination and communication that occurs among teachers who meet and talk regularly, (2) the learning, insights, and constructive feedback that occur during professional discussions among teachers, and (3) the lessons, units, materials, and resources that are created or improved when teachers work on them collaboratively. While common planning time may be used for other purposes in some schools and situations—for example, staff members may use the time to coordinate an academic program or school-improvement initiative—the term is predominately associated with teaching-related planning and work.

While the term suggests that the primary activity of common planning time is “planning,” the time may be devoted to a wide variety of activities. The following are a few representative examples of general activities that often take place during common planning time:

  • Discussing teacher work: Teachers may collectively review lesson plans or assessments that have been used in a class, and then offer critical feedback and recommendations for improvement.
  • Discussing student work: Teachers may look at examples of student work turned in for a class, and then offer recommendations on how lessons or teaching approaches may be modified to improve learning and the quality of student work.
  • Discussing student data: Teachers may analyze student-performance data from a class to identify trends—such as which students are consistently failing or underperforming—and collaboratively develop proactive teaching and support strategies to help students who may be struggling academically. By discussing the students they have in common, teachers can develop a stronger understanding of the specific learning needs and abilities of certain students, which can then help them coordinate and improve how those students are taught.
  • Discussing professional literature: Teachers may select a text to read, such as a research study or an article about a specialized instructional technique, and then engage in a focused conversation about the text and how it can help inform or improve their teaching techniques.
  • Creating courses and curriculum: Teachers may collaboratively work on lesson plans, assignments, projects, and new courses, such as an interdisciplinary course taught by two teachers from different subject areas (for example, an art-history course taught by an art teacher and a history teacher). Teachers may also plan or develop other types of learning experiences, such as capstone projects, demonstrations of learning, learning pathways, personal learning plans, or portfolios, for example.


Common planning time can be contrasted with “teacher preparation time” or “prep periods,” which are periods of time during the school day when individual teachers, typically working on their own, can plan and prepare for their classes, meet with students, or grade assignments. Common planning time could be considered an evolution of the traditional preparation period, and in recent decades there has been a growing movement in education to encourage more frequent and purposeful collaboration among educators.

While common planning time may be used differently from school to school, and it may be more or less effective in achieving its intended goals, the concept is often associated with two general school-improvement strategies:

  • Professional learning communities: A widely used professional-development strategy in schools, professional learning communities are groups of educators who meet regularly, share expertise, and work collaboratively to improve their teaching skills and the academic performance of their students. In some schools, the terms common planning time and professional learning community (or any of its many synonyms) may be used interchangeably, particularly when the time is largely or entirely devoted to activities commonly associated with professional learning communities. For a more detailed discussion, see professional learning community.
  • Teaming: Another widely used school-improvement strategy, teaming pairs a group of teachers (typically between four and six) with sixty to eighty students. The general goal of teaming is to ensure that students are well known by core group of adults in the school, that their learning needs are understood and addressed, and that they receive the social, emotional, and academic support from teachers and staff that they need to succeed in school. Common planning time is often provided to teachers on a particular team to help them plan and coordinate the team-related projects and work. For a more detailed discussion, see teaming.


While the common planning time concept is not typically an object of debate, skeptics may question whether the time will actually have a positive impact on student learning, whether teachers will use the time purposefully and productively, or whether students would be better served if teachers spent more of their time teaching. Since it often extremely difficult, from a research perspective, to attribute gains in student performance to any one influence in a school (because so many potential factors can affect performance, including familial or socioeconomic dynamics outside of a school’s control), the benefits of common planning time may be difficult to measure objectively and reliably.

It is more likely, however, that common planning time will be criticized or debated when the time is poorly used or facilitated, when meetings become disorganized and unfocused, when teachers have negative experiences during meetings, and when the practice is perceived as a burdensome administrative requirement— rather than, say, an opportunity to improve one’s teaching skills. Like any school-improvement strategy or program, the quality of the design and execution will typically determine the results achieved. If meetings are poorly facilitated and conversations lapse into complaints about policies or personalities, or if educators fail to turn group learning into actual changes in instructional techniques, common planning time is less likely to be successful.

Advocates of common planning time may argue that the practice can foster and promote a wide variety of positive professional interactions and practices among teachers in a school. For example:

  • Teachers may assume more leadership responsibility or feel a greater investment in a school-improvement process.
  • Teachers may feel more professionally confident and better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, and they may become more willing to engage in the kind of self-reflection that leads to professional growth and improvement.
  • The faculty culture may improve, and professional relationships can become stronger and more trusting if the faculty is interacting and communicating more productively.
  • Teachers may participate in professional collaborations more frequently, such as co-developing and co-teaching interdisciplinary courses.
  • More instructional innovation may take hold in classrooms and academic programs, and teachers may begin incorporating effective instructional techniques that are being used by colleagues.
  • Teachers may begin using more evidence-based approaches to designing lessons and delivering instruction.

When implementing common planning time, administrators and teachers may encounter a number of challenges that could give rise to criticism or debate. For example:

  • Competing responsibilities and logistical issues can make the scheduling of regular common planning time difficult. Insufficient meeting time or irregularly scheduled time may then undermine the strategy and its intended benefits.
  • A lack of support from the superintendent, principal, or other school leaders could lead to an inadequate investment of time, attention, and resources.
  • Inadequate training for group facilitators could produce ineffective facilitation, disorganized meetings, and an erosion of confidence in the strategy.
  • A lack of clear, explicit goals for common planning time can lead to unfocused conversations, misspent time, and general confusion about the purpose of the meetings.
  • A negative school or faculty culture could contribute to tensions, conflicts, factions, and other issues that undermine the potential benefits of common planning time.
  • A lack of observable, measurable progress or student-achievement gains can erode support, motivation, and enthusiasm for the strategy.
  • Highly divergent educational philosophies, belief systems, or learning styles can lead to disagreements that undermine the collegiality and sense of shared purpose typically required to make common planning time successful.