Get Smart Fast, vol. 18

Educators can be trained, certified and spend years on the job without ever encountering what science says about how young people learn.

Scientists are trying. The 2014 bestseller “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel, made an urgent case for these ideas. Psychology professor Daniel Willingham and middle school teacher Paul Bruno, working with the organization Deans for Impact, summarized these concepts in a concise 2015 report, “The Science of Learning.” Willingham’s books are also tremendous primers for educators who want to know more about cognitive science.

Yet the simple fact remains that these concepts remain tangential to most of us when they should be central.

Why it matters: Few of the widespread norms or assumptions that shape schools (like the idea that certain types of learning are “developmentally appropriate” for children of certain ages) have anything to do with what neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and related fields have to say about how young people acquire knowledge and skills.

Numbers to Know

29%: Share of Washington State middle and high school students with A’s in math in 2019.

41%: Share in 2022.

10: Point drop in average Washington State 8th grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2019 to 2022.

$37,596: Average starting Arkansas teacher salary in 2022.

$50,042: Average starting Arkansas teacher salary in 2023.

60%: Share of U.S. schools that report partnering with community organizations to offer non-academic services, like mental health counseling or social workers, to students in 2023.

Key Findings

Academic behaviors (such as whether students show up for class) are far more effective at predicting long-term success than self-reported SEL skills.

Closing schools hurts student learning but reduces teens’ risk of suicide. Bullying is one major reason.

Students in the process of choosing a new school may be more likely to heed advice about school quality if it’s printed on physical paper and given to them by a human counselor.

Assigning struggling students to sit next to high-performing students in class can accelerate their improvement.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)