THE BEST OF THE MARSHALL MEMO
Carefully chosen summaries to energize leadership, teaching, and learning
Frequently Asked Questions
A. The Memo is a weekly roundup of important ideas and research in K-12 education, designed to help principals and other educators stay current with the best and most promising practices. The Memo is written and published by Kim Marshall, who serves as “designated reader” for busy practitioners. Kim launched the Memo because in his 32 years as a Boston teacher, central office administrator, and principal, he had difficulty keeping up with professional reading. When he left the principalship in 2003 and began coaching principals, he realized he had time to read and share the most helpful ideas.
Kim casts a wide net, subscribing to more than 60 publications and scouring the Web for additional material. Each week, he reviews more than 150 articles, chooses 8-10 that are the most likely to improve teaching, leadership, and learning. He then writes short, comprehensive summaries (often with links to the original articles) and e-mails the Memo to subscribers around the world. Readers also have access to the Memo archive, a database of more than 8,500 summaries searchable by topic, author, level, and publication.
A. Since 2003, the Memo archive has accumulated thousands of article summaries – a treasure-trove of ideas and resources, but a lot to sift through. To help narrow searches, Kim highlights the “classics” – about five percent of summaries that he considers the best of the best. But even with this guidance, searching the Memo archive is a challenge for busy educators. That’s why Kim teamed up with Jenn David-Lang to do a super-curation of the archive, looking for the very best summaries in 22 important areas. Kim and Jenn organized and sequenced the summaries in each topic, picked good lead-off quotes, and added questions for reflection. Finally, Jenn crafted detailed professional development suggestions for putting the ideas into action. Two Best of Marshall Memo books were published in 2019 and 2020 and have been widely acclaimed. They're available on Amazon here and here.
A. The two Best of Marshall Memo books have been well received (see Reviews), but within a year of publication, it became clear that the ideas were not reaching enough K-12 educators. Coincidentally, a team at a national foundation was working on improving communication between researchers and practitioners, and they reached out to see if we could work together. Here's how we analyzed the reasons for the knowing/doing gap:
- The best articles and studies are scattered among scores of journals, magazines, and websites.
- Many journal subscriptions are expensive.
- Some of the best articles are behind paywalls.
- The 20-40-page length of serious studies and articles can be daunting.
- Researchers write primarily for other researchers, and the prose can be dense and technical.
- Some studies have a narrow focus and aren’t applicable in schools.
- Some issues of immediate importance to front-line educators have not yet been studied (for example, how long does a principal need to be in a classroom to have a meaningful follow-up discussion with the teacher?).
- Educators don't always know what they don’t know, hampering their search for the right research.
- Confirmation bias may be at work, preventing educators from finding novel solutions.
During a series of conversations with foundation staffers, an idea was born: why not create a website that would make all 22 chapters of the Best of Marshall Memo books freely available to educators? And why not include audio recordings of the chapters, “create your own adventure” searches in the Memo archive, and online discussion forums to facilitate peer-to-peer collaboration? During the winter of 2020-21, the website took shape, and with the support of the foundation, it was launched in mid-May 2021. The mission:
• Putting at educators’ fingertips, in a compact and readable format, the best ideas for improving leadership, teaching, and learning;
• Using the online platform to spark ongoing peer-to-peer conversations on key issues and support continuous improvement in classrooms.
Note that the Best of Memo books' chapter sequence has been slightly changed on this website. Why? We wanted to separate the three groupings focused on leadership actions from the three addressing classroom practice.
A. One of the most important challenges facing schools is inequitable learning – by race, gender, disability, family income, ELL status, and more. The root causes go back many years – unequal treatment in housing, employment, health care, social services, infrastructure, voting, policing, criminal justice, societal attitudes, and certain school policies. Progress in these areas has been slow and uneven, but schools don't need to wait for society's problems to be solved; the work of front-line educators can have a positive impact on children’s lives every day.
There are two approaches to day-to-day equity work in schools. The first is dealing with discriminatory and racist actions – and with unintentional harm done by well-meaning but unschooled adults. This website’s section on Race and Equity contains some of the best thinking on how educators can identify, confront, and change these attitudes and behaviors.
The second approach is based on what Michael Fullan calls the equity hypothesis, which says that effective teaching has a disproportionate impact on the academic achievement and life chances of children who come to school with any kind of disadvantage. Conversely, mediocre and ineffective teaching is more harmful to those children than to their more-fortunate peers. Tragically, vulnerable students often have less-experienced and less-effective teachers and administrators.
The equity hypothesis points to a simple and powerful theory of action: to close opportunity gaps, we need more good teaching in more classrooms more of the time – especially where that hasn’t been the case. How? This website has ideas and action steps in 22 key areas, organized thus:
- Effective Leadership – Planning; time management; leaders’ emotional intelligence
- Strengthening Teaching – Interviewing and hiring; coaching teachers; difficult conversations; performance evaluation
- Teacher Growth – Results-focused team meetings; professional learning; teacher leadership
- Pedagogy that Works – Lesson execution; making learning stick; differentiation; literacy
- Mindsets for Learning – Beliefs about intelligence; social-emotional development; race and equity; partnering with families
- Classroom Nuts and Bolts – Planning units and lessons; positive discipline; assessment for learning; grading practices
Underlying all 22 sections of this website – the direct and the indirect approaches to equity – is the belief that all children have the capacity to excel. Our moral imperative is creating classroom and school conditions where that occurs and inequities steeped in history steadily disappear.
A. School leaders, teachers, department heads, instructional coaches, superintendents, and other educators can use this website in at least four ways:
First, they can advance their own professional learning, filling in gaps in their knowledge and gaining insights for addressing front-burner issues.
Second, they can use website material as a force multiplier with colleagues, sparking discussion and action steps among teacher teams, action research groups, and task forces.
Third, leaders can encourage colleagues to search the Memo archive for additional material on key topics. Each area on the website provides a password and 8-10 topic suggestions for a broader search.
Finally, leaders can use topic summaries for all-faculty discussions, providing copies (hard or soft), having people read article summaries “live” in a meeting (each can be read in 5-10 minutes), then having groups of 3-4 use a protocol to discuss reactions, and finally reconvening the faculty and deciding on action implications. (See the All-Faculty tab for articles that lend themselves to this approach.)
A. Here are some possibilities:
- A school working on improving student culture and discipline;
- A math department preparing to adopt standards-based grading;
- A grade-level team designing curriculum units and lesson plans;
- A department head preparing for a difficult conversation with a colleague;
- An instructional coach strategizing how best to support rookie teachers;
- A school leader struggling with HSPS (hyperactive superficial principal syndrome);
- A hiring committee preparing to interview candidates for a teaching vacancy;
- A school board rethinking policies on teacher supervision and evaluation;
- A school grappling with the issue of cultural proficiency;
- A teacher team looking for ways to make its PLC meetings more effective;
- A study group looking for ideas on memory and retention of information;
- A school leader who wants to improve the quality of professional learning time;
- A professional development retreat focused on improving teaching and learning.
A. All written and recorded material on the Best of Marshall Memo website is copyrighted. Permission is granted for educators to share content with colleagues, provided they include the original author/publication citation and mention that it’s a Marshall Memo summary.
Kim spends every Sunday working his way through the publications and online material that have landed in his mailbox that week. Out of 150 or so articles reviewed, he chooses 8-10 that are right for the Memo. Here are his questions as he reads:
- Does this article have ideas that might improve teaching, leadership, and learning?
- Is it interesting and convincing?
- Is it actionable for front-line educators?
- Are there detailed stories from schools and good quotes from students and educators?
- Does it contain promising new ideas, or a helpful reprise of ideas previously covered?
- Does it have helpful cautionary notes about ineffective practices?
A. Here is a rank-ordered list of the journals and publications with the most Memo summaries through December 2020:
Phi Delta Kappan
The New York Times
Harvard Business Review
The Reading Teacher
The Learning Professional (former Journal of Staff Development)
Literacy Today (formerly Reading Today)
The Language Educator
Teachers College Record
American School Board Journal
Middle School Journal
A. The summaries in the two books (all of which are available on this website) were chosen from all Marshall Memo issues back to 2003, the year the Memo was launched. From almost 8,500 summaries published so far, about 300 were chosen for the books – roughly one in 28. This graphic by Lillie Marshall shows the funnel from all the articles written about K-12 schools, those that are published in journals or magazines, those selected for the Marshall Memo, and those chosen for one Best of Marshall Memo book.
A. The graphs below show the number of articles selected from each year of Memo publication. Some observations:
- It’s striking that summaries were chosen from every year going back to 2003.
- There’s a clear pattern of increasing numbers of summaries in more-recent years.
- This may reflect the steady increase in the number of publications read – and perhaps an improvement in the quality of K-12 research and writing.
- The bulge in certain years reflects increases in writing on certain “hot topics” – for example, teacher evaluation, professional learning communities, and research on memory.