Funding Professional Development for Teachers — by Betsy Hill

September 24, 2014

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the stunning research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the connection between student scores on the PISA tests and economic well-being.  The bottom line was that if the U.S. could raise every child’s PISA score to the minimum level of proficiency on the PISA (the international tests that enable the academic rankings of various nations), it would unleash $73 trillion of GDP.

Of course, that’s a big number, but may not really help us appreciate the impact at the level of an individual student.  A recent court decision related to tenure provisions in the state of California has highlighted another research study from 2012 by Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff, in which the authors connected state test scores to lifetime earnings for students and the difference that a good teacher can make.  They found that replacing a poor teacher with an average teacher for one year resulted in an additional $50,000 in lifetime earnings for each student.  Thus, the impact of lifetime earnings on a class of 20-30 students for just one year of poor teaching amounts to $1 to $1.5 million in lifetime earnings for those students.

In the last few years, we have seen many school districts cutting or even eliminating funding for professional development for teachers. Not only does this impair teachers’ ability to raise their performance, it means that new research on effective teaching fails to reach teachers at all levels, such as applying neuroscience research in the classroom.  As one example of what recent research is showing, we now understand that cognitive skills training, done correctly, has a substantial impact on student performance, including raising performance on state test scores, the same measure correlated to lifetime earnings in the Chetty research.  Giving teachers tools like BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software, can play an important role in raising teacher effectiveness.

Providing BrainWare SAFARI to a classroom of students along with professional development on applying neuroscience in the classroom would cost a tiny fraction of the $1 million in increased lifetime earnings for those students.  In these days of low interest rates, professional development like that, with a 10-100 fold return, could be one of the best investment opportunities around.

Rethinking Remediation in Higher Education – by Betsy Hill

July 23, 2014

The remediation statistics are sobering. Over half of students who enroll in 2-year colleges take remedial courses in English and/or math. Almost 20% of those enrolling in 4-year colleges do so. The rates for low-income students are even higher – 68% and 39% respectively.

Of even greater concern is that higher education’s remediation efforts don’t seem to be working. Of those enrolled in remedial courses in a 2-year college, 62% complete remediation, but less than 10% graduate within 3 years. For students taking remedial courses in 4-year colleges, almost 75% complete remediation, but only 35% graduate within 6 years. It doesn’t seem that remedial courses in college are delivering the skills required for post-secondary academic success.

While remediation at the college level has traditionally focused on bringing student up to speed in reading and math, being ready for post-secondary work is not simply a matter of reading at a sufficient level, or knowing algebra. It is also a matter of “non-academic” skills like communication and collaboration, as well as the level of a student’s cognitive development. In fact, cognitive development is not a requirement for high school graduation nor is it measured as a prerequisite to college admissions, but it is nonetheless critical for success. And the lack of fully developed cognitive skills may, in fact, be the root cause of students’ lack of achievement in reading and math. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in a recent report, “The evidence points to differences in cognitive skills as an explanation of a majority of the differences in economic growth rates across OECD countries.”

In fact cognitive skills are more than just a complement to academic skills. They are foundational, and in many respects they are precursors to educational success and the learning process itself. In the last several years, an awareness of the connection between cognitive skills and educational success has grown and research is showing that cognitive abilities contribute to academic achievement.

Many researchers have illustrated how brain development can impact school readiness and achievement, including cognitive control, visual-spatial skills, planning, attention, simultaneous and successive processing and a variety of other cognitive processes. As a result of these and other research efforts, educational and developmental psychology researchers are starting to see the need to find ways to add training of cognitive skills to the education system.

While the principles of cognitive skill training have been developing over several decades, only recently has there emerged a practical and scalable approach to the development of cognitive skills that can rapidly improve cognitive capacity and a student’s potential for success. The effectiveness of cognitive skills training in a video-game format was shown in research published in 2007. The software program that was the subject of the study was, of course, BrainWare SAFARI. Since then, we have worked with public, private and charter schools across the U.S. to replicate and extend the findings from the original research. While the initial study and much of the subsequent field research has examined the impact on elementary and middle-grade students, what is known about the plasticity of the brain and the essential principles of cognitive development would suggest that positive results could also be achieved in a college-age population.

The evidence suggests that it is time to rethink remediation in higher education and make sure that college students have access to cognitive skills training to address their lack of preparedness, academically and cognitively. Doing so may provide an opportunity for many students to achieve their dreams of a college education and the advantages that entails by giving them the foundation and the capacity for academic success at the post-secondary level.

If you’d like a copy of a more expansive and referenced white paper on this topic, please click here.

Deal with the Big Rocks First … Prioritizing — by Betsy Hill

May 27, 2014

This activity is one of several End Summer Brain Drain activities available at

Have you ever noticed that some people just drift through life dealing with each problem as it comes along and then wonder where all the time has gone, and why they haven’t accomplished more?

Other people seem to live lives that are very well organized and are able to accomplish a great deal.

You can do this activity just by imagining it, but it will be even more memorable if you actually try this with your child.  Assemble a large jar, a pile of big rocks (ones that will fit through the mouth of the jar), a pile of medium-size rocks, a bunch of pebbles, some sand and some water.  Your job with your child is to get all of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water into the jar.

It is good to let your child experiment with different ways to do this, even if they decide they need to start over several times.  What your child will discover is that If they start with the sand and then add the pebbles and then the medium-size rocks, the jar will fill up before they can get to the big rocks.  But if they start with the big rocks, they can get them all in and the smaller items will fill in the spaces in between.

You can point out to your child that it’s the same with things in your life.  You can begin to take charge of your life a lot more if you take the time to decide what is most important to you.

It’s not that you have to decide once for all time.  What’s important can change from minute to minute, or at least from day to day.  But at a particular time, it’s good to know what is important and what isn’t.  That way, you can take care of the important things first and let the less important ones fill in the cracks.

One way to get started on prioritizing with your child is for you each to make a list of things in some category that you both enjoy or know about.  For example, you could make a list of your friends, books that you like, things around the house that you want to change, events that have happened in the past few weeks or that are expected to happen in the next few.

Try to get at least ten items on your list, but you can still do this if you have only three or four.

Once you each have your list, number the items in order of importance.

Then take turns telling each other why you have put them in that order.  What makes one thing more important than another?

If you and your child continue to practice prioritizing from time to time, referring back to your experiment with the jar and the rocks, you will probably find that it becomes a way to focus everyone’s attention on the important things.  Maybe next time, your child is worried about something trivial, all you will have to say is, “Is that one of the big rocks?”

Emphasize the “Learning” in “Extended Learning Time” – by Betsy Hill

May 6, 2014

There seem to be a lot of people talking about extending the school day lately.

On the pro side of the argument are those who believe that our students’ ability to compete in a global economy requires more time devoted to academics.  In some cases, the champions of the longer day identify the need as remedial; some students need more time and more instruction, they say.  In other cases, the need identified is enrichment – and extending the day is about restoring time that has been removed from the school day for arts or foreign language or other enrichment activities focused on 21t century skills.

Opponents of an extended school day tend to focus on the increased costs and on the lack of clear direction for what exactly is supposed to be achieved in that extra time.  Some critics of the concept assert that the time in the current school day could be better used.  And often teachers are not supportive of extending the school day, for all the reasons that one might imagine.

There can be a variety of reasons for extending the school day, but the critical thing according to most of the schools that have taken the step is to not just to offer more of the same in the extra time. If you combine all those different inputs, what schools need to fill the time of the extended day is something that:

  • Is different that what typically goes on in the school day
  • Serves as enrichment
  • Serves as an intervention, for students whose progress is lagging
  • Will enhance all students’ academic performance
  • Gets students motivated and engaged in learning
  • Does not require a significant amount of additional teacher preparation or lesson planning

It may seem strange, but there actually are such things – perhaps not a lot, but cognitive skills development is one of them.  Programs like BrainWare SAFARI, SkateKids and Ramps To Reading are ideally suited to make “learning” the focus of “Extended Learning Time.”  They will challenge students who need more challenge.  They will help students who are behind to catch up.  They are fundamentally and demonstrably about helping students learn to learn.

If you have questions or thoughts about how cognitive skills development fills the bill for an extended learning time environment, I invite you to comment on this blog or email me directly at

Cognitive Skills Development in an Accelerated Curriculum – by Betsy Hill

April 10, 2014

Much of our work has dealt with helping struggling students — those who are behind or have identified cognitive deficits — but it is important to remember that very bright students can also benefit from developing their cognitive skills and executive functions.  Here’s a story that explains what this can look like:

Dr. Sara Fraser, a clinical psychologist and Director of Students Services at Curtis School in Los Angeles, California, had been following the literature on executive functions for some time before she encountered BrainWare SAFARI at a Leaning and the Brain Conference in 2012. What she had seen up until that point was not all that encouraging – training on working memory that didn’t seem to transfer beyond short-term memory. It was also labor-intensive and would require a pull-out approach in their school setting.

What appealed to Dr. Fraser about BrainWare SAFARI was that its video-game format would appeal to their students, that it was supported by research showing that the breadth of cognitive skills developed meant that they could expect to see transfer to academic tasks, and that it could be implemented by teachers within the classroom.

The next step was to bring some teachers into the process – enter Joan Cashel and Susie Sobul, two of Curtis School’s third-grade teachers. Following a webinar demonstration, both teachers used BrainWare SAFARI themselves over the summer, with Joan finishing all but a few levels (we’re impressed!). An implementation webinar in the fall prepared them to kick things off with their students, which they did by reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and talking about brains as a learning muscle. The students heard that getting better at something means going for the sense of frustration that is inevitable when you’re moving up a learning curve.

Later, students would get the opportunity to learn that lesson at a deeper level. After building confidence as they passed the early, easiest levels of BrainWare, they would each find an area that was truly difficult for them. Joan found it fascinating to see some of her students easily complete levels she had struggled with and struggling with others.

Knowing that it was important that their students move around through the different games and taking to heart the admonition in their implementation webinar not to let students avoid the hardest games*, Susie and Joan had a timer running on their SmarBoard to help students switch games every ten minutes and came up with a chart that let the students plan and keep track of their own progress and. During each of their thrice-weekly sessions, students would pick one of the Key 5, and then ensure that they rotated through all the other games before repeating. The students used the program over 14 weeks, completing 30 or more sessions, the kind of usage that has been shown to drive substantial growth in cognitive skills.

A second cohort of students is using BrainWare SAFARI during the second half of the year. While the school won’t see the data on impact on student’s cognitive and academic skills until the end of the school year, a couple of things already apparent. First, the students started talking with each other outside of class … “How far did you get?” “Isn’t it fun?” The program became a real conversation piece. The other observation relates to the fact that the Curtis School offers an accelerated curriculum and serves high-level learners. As Dr. Fraser explains, many of those students haven’t experienced much in the way of frustration by the time they get to third grade. Giving students the experience of something where everyone gets challenged and learns to understand and tolerate frustration as a part of learning, has been, in her words, “incredibly helpful.”

Congratulations to all the third grade students at Curtis School for working hard at BrainWare SAFARI (and it’s ok if you think its fun!), and for learning that vital lesson – that challenge and frustration are essential in learning, and that persistence is key to accomplishing their goals.

Closing the Achievement Gaps: The Need for a Cognitive Intervention

March 29, 2014

Despite great effort, the achievement gaps in education persist. While some progress has been made increasing the percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math, the national average is only about 35% for 3rd graders. That’s one big gap. And the gaps are even bigger for historically low-performing students – students who are economically disadvantaged, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners.

Here is what some recent research suggests about these populations and the potential to make dramatic, rather than incremental, strides in raising performance levels.

Economically Disadvantaged Students

The gap for economically disadvantaged students is not just an achievement gap; it is a cognitive gap. Low-SES (socioeconomic status) students have less well developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. This impacts their ability to visualize and see patterns, to manage spatial relationships and sequence, to control the focus of their attention, to learn and understand words, to hold and manipulate information in the mind. These cognitive skills are essential in reading and math, in particular, and in being a successful and organized student, in general.

Consider the situation of two classes of 4th and 5th grade boys, low-SES, and with a history of behavior problems. The students were tested and shown to be performing, cognitively, 3 years behind their chronological age. Understanding that these students’ minds were functioning like those of 1st and 2nd graders, what would you predict for their academic performance (and their behavior) when challenged with 4th or 5th grade work? Twelve weeks later, following a cognitive intervention, these students were performing on average 3 years ahead of their chronological age. What would you predict now for their potential for academic performance?

Students with Learning Disabilities

The gap for a large portion of students in Special Education – those with learning disabilities – is also not just an achievement gap, but a cognitive gap. Working memory, short-term memory, attention, processing speed and similar cognitive functions are what stand in the way of making adequate academic progress for these students.

A group of students in 2nd through 4th grades, identified as having specific learning disabilities, were tested and shown to be performing cognitively at just above 60% proficiency, where 90% proficiency is the level expected of a normally developing student. These students were reading at about 28% proficiency and performed in math at about 45% proficiency. Twelve weeks later, the students who received a cognitive intervention were performing at 89% proficiency cognitively, 68% proficiency in reading, and 77% proficiency in math.

ELL Students

Cognitive processes play a role in language acquisition and the ability to function in a second language. Working memory, visualization, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility are especially important.

ELL students who received a cognitive intervention in various studies accelerated gains in reading comprehension, performed better than students in a control group on state tests in reading and math, and performed better on measures of academic performance in reading, writing and math.

The cognitive intervention: BrainWare SAFARI

Learn more at


Executive Functions and Reading Comprehension – by Betsy Hill

November 4, 2013

There are varied opinions among education and neuroscience researchers regarding how many executive functions are involved in human cognitive processing, but the role that executive functions play in reading comprehension has become much clearer in recent years.  This is important to recognize for a number of reasons.  First, students with less developed executive functions struggle with comprehension, even when they are able to decode and read with fluency.  Second, practicing decoding and fluency does not automatically develop comprehension.  And third, executive functions can be developed with the right kind of mental exercise in a way that translates to rapid gains in reading comprehension.

Here are some examples of executive functions that are required for reading comprehension:

  1. Planning.  This is what we do when we read a text and are looking for specific information.
  2. Working Memory.  Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds while we manipulate it.  In many ways, this is the essence of comprehension – the ability to think about what we are reading, while we are reading it.  The role of working memory can also be as simple as remembering the beginning of the sentence until we get to the end.
  3. Sustained and Selective Attention.  While we are reading, we need to sustain attention for an extended period of time and filter out distractions.  The ability to select the information that we are looking for (using our Planning skills) is also an aspect of Selective Attention.
  4. Response Inhibition.  This is the self-regulatory part of our cognitive processing that we put to use when we correct something we’ve misread or when we continue to bear in mind multiple possibilities until we reach the conclusion and can be sure there is no additional information that might change our understanding of the text.
  5. Sequential Processing.  Keeping the order of events in mind as we read and grasping which happened before and after are essential to reading comprehension.

Another obvious but important aspect of executive functions is that they apply to everything we do, not just reading, of course.  We have to sustain attention when listening to a weather alert on the radio.  We have to plan when we are preparing a recipe for a family dinner.  We use working memory to follow a set of verbal instructions, such as how to get to a friend’s house.  We inhibit responses when we are angry but don’t lash out.  We use sequencing skills when we organize our work.  It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that students with reading problems also commonly exhibit problems with organizing their work, following set of instructions, and staying on task.

Just how integrally executive functions are involved in reading comprehension can be appreciated by looking at some of the recent research on programs that develop executive functions.  For example, students who used BrainWare SAFARI, a comprehensive and integrated cognitive skills development program ( for 12 weeks improved their performance on the Woodcock Johnson III Passage Comprehension subtest by 1 year 11 months, compared to no change for a control group.  Ramps to Reading and SkateKids ( are reading programs that explicitly develop key cognitive skills, along with phonics and comprehension application.  They have shown a dramatic impact on the development of reading comprehension.

Our education system has gotten really good at teaching phonics and phonemic awareness and at giving students plenty of practice to develop fluency.  Now it’s time to get just as good at developing the executive functions required for the ultimate goal of reading – Comprehension.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers