Fit to Learn: January 2023
For many years, school leaders at all levels have turned to a weekly newsletter that summarizes the latest research and ideas in K–12 education. The Marshall Memo, curated and produced by Kim Marshall, has one single aim: to help educators do their jobs better. Principal Leadership wanted to learn more about the history of The Memo and asked Marshall to share his story.
In my 15 years as a Boston elementary principal, I struggled to keep up with professional reading. When I moved on to coaching school leaders in 2002, I found I had more discretionary time and subscribed to several top-notch publications. As I traveled and visited schools, I had an idea: Why not write short summaries of a few especially helpful articles and share them with frontline educators? With support from two mentors, I launched The Marshall Memo and got into a routine of sending about 10 article summaries to a small number of colleagues each week. To my amazement, The Memo caught on, and 19 years later, there are paying subscribers all around the world.
This happened because The Memo fills a perennial need. Like me when I was a principal, few K–12 educators have time to keep up with the plethora of research and commentary. Even if people manage to carve out time, the best ideas are spread among a wide range of magazines, journals, newspapers, blogs, social media outlets, and websites. Who can wade through scores of articles to find the few that will make a difference?
There’s another reason for the gap between educational research and schools: Many academic studies are as long as 40 pages, are written for an academic audience, focus on topics that aren’t actionable for school leaders, and are published in journals with firewalls and pricey subscription rates.
And then there’s confirmation bias. As educators peruse social media and the internet, they may ignore research findings they don’t agree with and zero in on what rings true. As Nora Gordon, an associate professor at Georgetown University, wrote in 2021, “If you go looking for a study showing your idea is a good one, you will find one. You might find studies showing it’s a bad one too, but your subconscious is on the job, looking for reasons to dismiss those findings.”
Searching for Powerful Ideas
Bridging the idea/practice gap is the mission of The Marshall Memo; I’m educators’ designated reader and curator. Every Sunday (with a couple of weeks off in the summer) I read and skim about 150 articles that have accumulated that week from the 60 publications to which I subscribe, along with an assortment of online material I print out. When I spot a keeper, I fold over a page. What are my selection criteria? I’m looking for ideas that:
- Are actionable and show evidence of improving teaching, leadership, and learning
- Are interesting and promising, even if there isn’t yet evidence of impact
- Showcase intriguing innovations or bring fresh perspective to vintage ideas
- Address key issues like race and equity and proficiency gaps
- Flag ineffective practices (for example, teaching to students’ learning styles)
- Have lively stories and quotes from teachers and kids
- Provide links to interesting videos and animations
There are scores of articles I don’t choose, some excellent but not quite right for The Memo, others that are too theoretical, too technical, turgidly written, or that laboriously make a point that seems obvious. I also skip breaking news, which is covered well in free online publications and Education Week.
Monday is writing day—all day. Some articles take more than an hour to summarize, and with especially lengthy and complex studies, I email a draft to the authors to make sure I’m doing justice to their work. Almost every time, they get right back to me with a thumbs-up or helpful suggestions. It’s gratifying when authors find my summaries accurate and appreciate getting their ideas to a wider audience of K–12 educators.
Accurately summarizing articles and studies is intellectually challenging. By good luck, I had lots of practice before I started The Marshall Memo. I spent my high school years in a venerable British boarding school where teachers frequently had us write précis of longer passages. Then, as a Boston sixth-grade teacher, I produced my own curriculum each day on purple ditto masters, often creating brief, kid-friendly versions of dramatic news stories and movies. All this developed summary-writing muscles that I use every week.
By early evening, I’ve produced 10–12 pages, and after dinner, my wife Rhoda Schneider and I edit the draft on my desktop computer. We fix typos, improve word choice, smooth out logic and tone, rethink article sequence, look for the best quotes, and stay mindful of intellectual property (by keeping my summaries short and giving full credit to authors and publications, I stay within the boundaries of “fair use”).
After we’ve polished the text, I go through a checklist, so I don’t forget the 21 steps involved in uploading the content to The Memo website and launching the sending process, which continues overnight. On Tuesday mornings I’m usually on the road visiting schools, giving presentations, and coaching school leaders. That’s what keeps me connected with the real world of schools, which is absolutely essential to having a good eye for selecting the most practical and helpful articles each week. I put off all Memo reading until I settle into a comfortable chair on Sunday. Compressing this work into two days has been the key to not burning out on this regimen over the last two decades. That’s the efficiency of The Memo: What takes me 20 hours to produce each week, subscribers can read in 20 minutes.
In addition to my wife’s wise and eagle-eyed assistance, I get help from Joanne Bragalone, my part-time assistant; Mike Doughty, a New York educator who records a podcast of each issue; and my children Lillie Marshall and Dave Marshall, secondary-school teachers in Boston and Philadelphia, respectively, who provide ideas, online material, and invaluable feedback.
Over the years, I’ve summarized articles and studies from hundreds of publications; these are the 10 I’ve found most valuable: Education Week, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, The New York Times, Principal Leadership, Harvard Business Review, AMLE Magazine (formerly Middle Ground), The Reading Teacher, American Educator, Education Gadfly, and Edutopia. I encourage you to explore these and other worthwhile sources.
How Readers Benefit
Checking in with Marshall Memo readers, I’ve found that they use it in five ways:
- For their own professional learning. Skimming the table of contents each week, educators zip to the articles that support their professional goals or special areas of interest—for example, formative assessment, PLCs, implicit bias, reading instruction. Sometimes a summary happens to arrive at just the right moment for a school initiative.
- As a force multiplier. Many principals and superintendents clip and share a summary with colleagues—for example, a list of award-winning children’s books for the librarian, an article on classroom management for a rookie teacher, a study on curriculum unit planning for the math team, an especially good quote for the school’s staff memo, an article on social media for parents. A video link in The Memo might be just right for a faculty meeting (my favorite is the Rotary Phone Challenge: two teenagers figuring out how to dial a number using technology that’s totally foreign to them). In some districts, the superintendent asks principals to bring a Memo summary to discuss at their monthly meeting.
- Exploring the archive. Subscribers have log-in access and can search for summaries by keyword, topic, author, publication, and level—essentially creating a theme issue of The Memo by pulling articles from multiple issues. In the archive of more than 9,000 summaries, I’ve highlighted in red those I consider the best of the best. I decide on the “classics” a few days after I write each Memo, when I have a little perspective on the week’s ideas.
- The Best of Memo books and website. Two years ago, I teamed up with Jenn David-Lang (who publishes monthly summaries of education books in The Main Idea), identified 22 key topics (including time management, literacy, differentiation, race and equity, and grading practices), and searched The Memo archive for the very best articles in each area. We published two books: The Best of the Marshall Memo Book One and Book Two and then, helped by a grant from a national foundation, we put the full content of both books on a new website (bestofmarshallmemo.org), providing free access to anyone. Each group of 10–14 summaries can be read in under an hour—or listened to via a professional recording.
- All-faculty discussion. Some principals choose a summary that has schoolwide implications, pass out hard copies at a faculty meeting, have teachers spend 5–10 minutes reading the summary silently, use a protocol to discuss it in small groups (sitting with colleagues they don’t generally meet with), then bring the staff back together to discuss the implications for the school. I’ve selected 24 articles that lend themselves to this kind of discussion and made them available in a pull-down menu on The Best of Memo website.
I hope to keep publishing The Memo for years to come (if all goes well, I’ll send the 1,000th issue next Labor Day—quite a milestone). What gives me joy and tremendous satisfaction is hearing from principals, instructional coaches, teachers, and superintendents who describe how an idea from The Memo sparked discussions with colleagues and actually improved teaching and learning. There’s so much good thinking out there, so many researchers and practitioners who are doing great work. We must keep making connections and bring the very best ideas into classrooms where they can improve students’ school experiences and life chances.
Kim Marshall coaches principals, consults, speaks on school leadership and evaluation, and publishes The Marshall Memo (marshallmemo.com) each week. Previously, he was a teacher and administrator in Boston.