The Why and Research Behind Assessment and Feedback

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Benjamin Bloom launched a half-century of research that consistently reported the very high effect size of formative assessments when he reported that, following high-quality initial instruction, teachers’ administration of a formative assessment helps identify precisely what students have learned well and where they still need additional work (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971). These assessments provide feedback on where students are in their learning journey, to both students and teachers. Of course, Bloom’s research on assessments that inform future teaching and learning also demonstrated the efficacy of response to intervention, the larger system that he was designing and studying. Consider the term ‘response’ within response to instruction and response to intervention – we gather feedback on how students are responding and we use that feedback to respond to the needs that emerge.

Tom Guskey (2005), assessment expert and preeminent Bloom scholar, further makes this connection when describing the most common sense use of assessment:

“A far better approach, according to Bloom, would be for teachers to use their classroom assessments as learning tools, and then to follow those assessments with a feedback and corrective procedure. In other words, instead of using assessments only as evaluation devices that mark the end of each unit, Bloom recommended using them as part of the instructional process to diagnose individual learning difficulties (feedback) and to prescribe remediation procedures (correctives).”

The notion of assessment that provides feedback is not new and it’s connected to the systems of supports that all students deserve and that some students need to learn at high levels.

Formative assessment means that we gather evidence that informs where we are and what we still need to do; the evidence provides us feedback and allows us to provide feedback. Consider Michael Fullan on this topic:

“Assessment for learning…when done well…is one of the most powerful, high-leverage strategies for improving student learning that we know of. Educators collectively at the district and school levels become more skilled and focused at assessing, disaggregating, and using student achievement as a tool for ongoing improvement.” (Fullan, 2004, p. 71).

For assessment, or evidence-gathering, to be good for more than assigning a grade – for it to be a “tool for ongoing improvement” – we need to accept student performance on assessments as feedback and we need to intentionally use results from assessments to provide feedback to students.


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Lev Vygotsky researched the significance of meeting students where they are, as did David Ausbel 50 years later, defining a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) as:

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

We can only determine these distances and locate a student’s ZPD by gathering feedback regarding where they are right now.

John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) make direct connections between evidence gathering and feedback:

Feedback has no effect in a vacuum; to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed. It is but part of the teaching process and is that which happens second – after a student has responded to initial instruction – when information is provided regarding some aspect(s) of the student’s task performance. It is most powerful when it addresses faulty interpretations, not a total lack of understanding. Under the latter circumstance, it may even be threatening to a student (p. 82).

In common sense terms, our feedback to students should give information about Where they are going?, How they are going?, and Where they need to go next? The work of Hattie and Timperley is considered the definitive study of this critical and common sense idea:

There are major implications from this review of feedback for assessment in the classroom. Assessment can be considered to be activities that provide teachers and/or students with feedback…Such a definition places emphasis on devising assessment tasks that provide information and interpretations about the discrepancy between current status and the learning goals at any of three levels: about tasks, about the processes or strategies to understand the tasks, and about the regulation, engagement, and confidence to become more committed to learn. This contrasts with the more usual definition of assessment, an activity used to assess students’ levels of proficiency. This usual definition places more emphasis on the adequacy of scores (and less on the interpretation of these scores). There are many ways in which teachers can deliver feedback to students and for students to receive feedback from teachers, peers, and other sources. The implication is not that we should automatically use more tests. Rather, for students, it means gaining information about how and what they understand and misunderstand, finding directions and strategies that they must take to improve, and seeking assistance to understand the goals of the learning. For teachers, it means devising activities and questions that provide feedback to them about the effectiveness of their teaching, particularly so they know what to do next. Assessments can perform all these feedback functions, but too often, they are devoid of effective feedback to students or to teachers (p. 101-102).

It’s common sense: Students give us feedback on how we’ve done in teaching; we then give feedback back to students on how they’re going. And then, we’re ready with supports that are based on that feedback to continue the learning.

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Involving Parents in the Learning Journey

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Schools can and must empower parents to serve as partners in the community, school, and the children’s learning journeys. Here are a few examples:

  • Surveying, and responding to, parent needs in Garden Grove Unified School District – Garden Grove Unified School District’s parent partnership has long been a key to the success of this award-winning district; they were early implementers of the 10 Educational Commandments described below. (I served as the Director of K-6 Instruction in Garden Grove Unified.) Now, as part of the district’s comprehensive and cutting-edge commitment to college and career readiness for all, parents are extensively surveyed for their opinions and experiences. These evidence points are as important to all educators in the district as grades and test scores and they directly shape continuous improvement efforts. Michelle Pinchot is an exceptional principal and the co-author, with Michael Fullan and others of articles on the topic of school leadership (Fullan & Pinchot, 2018; Pinchot & Weber, 2016). Among her many other gifts, Michelle is a master of authentically involving parents and has done so at multiple schools. At a prior school, they, “developed grade level parent meetings held each trimester. Topics were created by both the teachers and the parents. We imitated classroom instruction and had parents experience learning first hand with their child so that they could better support at home. This was highly successful because it was a shared vision by school and parents.” At her current school, “Our parents have requested help with immigration, learning English and understanding how to navigate the US school system. We’ve also started training parents in computer science to support the new schoolwide focus. I also meet with parents monthly to collect ideas and to share upcoming academic requirements and events. Last month, we had our largest group of 52 parents; our first meeting had 8. Parents are starting to hear that their voice matters in decision making and are excited to attend Parent Partnerships with Principal Pinchot.” Productive parent partnerships are possible; we must recommit to the common sense idea. And let’s proceed with respect. Michelle Pinchot: “We can’t assume that what we know what parents need to be ‘educated’ on or what they need or want for their own self growth or for their child. We need to ask them for their input; we need to listen. I have found that empowering parents to early ‘wins’ encourages initial participation. Then later, we expand involvement into other initiatives.” There are examples of school in which parent partnerships are robust and impactful on community, school, and student success.
  • Parents as interventionists – Talman Elementary School, a K-8 school in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, is one of Chicago Public Schools’ most creative and successful buildings. Principal Jackie Medina invited me to hear from staff about their systems of supports that have led to record-setting achievement. It took me 20 minutes of talking with and learning from a group of adults early in my visit to learn that the group was composed entirely of parents. Parent tutors are ever-present in the hallways and classrooms of the school. They significantly lower adult-student ratios and provide interventions to students for which there is undeniable evidence of success. And, this parent network is self-sustaining; after years of practice and success, parents teach and empower the next generation of parents every year.
  • Orange County Business Council’s 10 Educational Commandments for Parents – In partnership with the Latino Educational Attainment Initiative, the 10 Educational Commandments for Parents…
    1. Commit as a family to be involved in school
    2. Do my part in helping my child study
    3. Understand how grades work
    4. Learn how schools are structured
    5. Learn what my child needs to graduate successfully from high school
    6. Support the learning of mathematics, science, and English
    7. Encourage my child to take honors and advanced courses
    8. Help my child prepare to be college and/or career ready
    9. College options are affordable
    10. Teach my child to be creative, to communicate, and to view challenges as opportunities

…may be the most remarkable parent empowerment initiative I’ve ever encountered. Guided by parents for parents, this program doesn’t simply expect parents to embrace and practice the commandments; parents learn the why, what, and how represented by each commandment. In combination with educators within schools and districts that embrace and support the Commandments, parents are empowered to significantly and actively contribute to their children’s educational lives.

  • Making the Common Sense More Common – We are recommitting to common sense, and research-based ways, of collaborating with families. There are many strategies teachers can use to engage families. First, we are more proactively getting to know parents and learning more about their children through meet and greets – we share how we will communicate and hear their expectations; this information is then intentionally embedded into learning environments and student goals. Drop-off and pick-up times are prime times for interacting with families; we are taking advantage of these informal opportunities to exchange information and build relationships. Electronic grade books have greatly improved immediate access for parents to their children’s progress; we are ensuring that families know what to do with the information and that we are ready to respond when needs arise. We are leveraging conferences more than ever to make connections with families and learn about stu­dent’s strengths, interests, as well as identities outside of school. Like so many school districts, well over half of our families are non-white. We are trying to create more welcoming spaces of respect and openness in the front office that present a respectful, empathetic school culture: Including literature that reflects and includes the diverse backgrounds represented in our communities; high­lighting historical contributions made by individuals from these backgrounds beyond those already well known; sharing the stories of role models within fields of study that reflect students’ race and ethnicity; and displaying photographs of students from our schools. Lastly, we are continuously using school climate surveys to gather information about which aspects of school climate to prioritize.

We know the need. We know (or could know) what to do. The question is whether we have the will to support our parents so that they are even better able to support their children. How do we get parents more involved in their child’s education? We are the answer we’ve been waiting for.

Getting Tier 1 Right

As long as schools continue with the traditional emphasis on breadth over depth, coverage over mastery, and teaching over learning, we will continue to have students requiring intervention, students receiving failing grades and being retained, and students being identified with a disability who have, in fact, simply been denied a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We can and must think differently and do better. The foundation of any school must be a belief in all students, a belief that working together is the only way to get it done, and a belief that in highly effective schools teaching and learning are inextricably linked. It starts with carefully and completely defining this guaranteed and viable curriculum (the “need to know” essentials for all students) and core instruction accessible by all students. Why must we define this key content?  Here are some thoughts from key researchers in our domain:

 

 Learning, and the curriculum we determine is most essential for students to learn, will only be guaranteed and viable if teams of educators define it clearly (Marzano, 2001).
 There are too many standards, even in light of new or proposed initiatives (DuFour & Marzano, 2011; Schmoker, 2011).
 Standards must be unpacked so that educators and students know what mastery looks like, so instruction can match these expectations, and so teams of educators can backwards plan (McTighe & Wiggins, 2005).

 

The deeper our understanding of content and the more collaboratively we unpack and unwrap standards, the better our instruction and assessment of student learning. This should lead to more accurate identifications of the needs of students, more specificity in diagnosing these areas of need, and more targeted interventions to close the gaps.

Given the needs of students and realities of schools, it is highly unlikely that that we can cover all of the content on hand in any curriculum guide or standards document. Moreover, we cannot intervene and provide more time and differentiated supports on all standards with students at risk. We must identify essential learning (prioritized standards and outcomes) for both behaviors and academics; how do we systematically, carefully, and completely define key core content? We must harness the power of collaboration. By collaboratively prioritizing the behavioral and academic learning most critical for all students, unpacking these standards so all teachers and students understand the level of rigor and format associated with mastery, as well as the types of learning that logically precede and follow mastery of the essentials, and unwrapping standards to ensure that we are assessing student mastery as accurately and authentically as possible, the curriculum and related instruction – unit by unit, grade by grade, and ultimately to the next phase of their lives post secondary school.

 

When core instruction focuses on depth over breadth, all students benefit. Students with lower levels of prerequisite skills will have time to receive pre-teaching and re-teaching within the unit of instruction. Students currently performing on or above grade level have more opportunities to engage with complex tasks of greater complexity. More students will be responding to a greater degree to initial instruction.

Collaborative systems of support more generally, and core supports more specifically, will only result in high levels of learning for all when staff frequently and cooperatively collaborate. Common units of study and common assessments (assessments from which we backwards plan and assessment results that we analyze to continuously refine our craft) are simply not an option. They are a research-based moral imperative.

 

Fundamentally, core supports, and the teams that the take the lead on the teaching and learning of academic and behavioral priorities for all students, focus on the following elements. School teams will go a long way toward ensuring that all students are on track to graduate future ready by addressing these key elements to craft a highly differentiated set of supports all learners:

 

 Identify the behavioral and academic priorities that all students will master.
 Clearly define what mastery of these behavioral and academics skills and concepts “looks” and “sounds” like.
 Architect learning experiences that nurture these skills and concepts and identify proficiency scales, pedagogies, practices, and strategies that will promote deep learning.
 Explicitly teach and model – and strategically facilitate learning experiences – that guide students to develop the thinking habits and skills that we want to see and hear displayed and employed.
 Prepare and plan for differentiated supports, because we know that some students will need additional time and alternative supports to master priorities; others will have mastered priorities before instruction begins and deserve enrichment.
 Assess student mastery of prioritized behavioral and academic concepts and skills so that we can determine the efficacy of our instruction and identify the areas of need for intervention.
 Frequently check for student understanding to provide immediate and specific corrective feedback regarding students’ successes and temporary shortfalls as they relate to achieving mastery.
 Involve students in self-assessment, so that they take more and more ownership for their learning journey, and so that we all move from assessment of learning (through assessment for learning) to assessment as learning.

 

In our experiences, systematically applying (and revisiting) these steps to design learning experiences for both behavioral and academic concepts and skills will lead to better teaching and better learning.

 

One District’s PLC Journey – Part II

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I am certain that there are innumerable examples of successful PLC practices across the country. Here are a few examples of PLCs at Work in our district:

  • PLC Facilitator Coaches: How much of a Board and district priority is PLCs? Teachers at each school receive either a stipend or have a free section within their teaching day to serve as a coach for all PLC teams in their building. In addition, these teacher-coaches participate in monthly after-school professional learning sessions during which their capacity to lead and support at their sites is nurtured. Importantly, site administrators join teachers at their monthly meetings.
  • Time to collaborate: Our elementary and secondary schools have weekly opportunities to collaborate within the contractual day, a commitment that has necessitated altering schedules over the past decade.
  • Question 1: Question one of a PLC at Work (What do we want students to know and be able to do?) has received consistent attention within our district and at our schools. The motto, Teach Less, Learn More, represents the commitment to a guaranteed, viable curriculum for each grade level and course, and a GVC is a fundamental element of a PLC at Work. The identification of essential or key learning outcomes, outcomes that all students need to master to be successful in the next year or course, serve an important function in our PLC efforts:
    • The Focus of PLCs: We don’t have time to “PLC” on all the learning outcomes that we will teach in our classrooms. Identifying essentials provides guidance on which outcomes we should prioritize when addressing the four questions.
    • The focus of CFAs: The assessments that we design and administer, and whose results we collectively analyze to inform our future teaching and future student learning must be equally focused. We do not have time commonly assess all standards and collectively analyze results from all assessments that we administer. Identifying essentials focuses on common assessment practices.
    • The Focus of Tier 2: We do not have time to reteach all outcomes for which students have not yet demonstrated mastery; we do not have time to enrich the learning and go deeper on all standards that we initially teach. Identifying essentials, along with evidence of student learning, helps determine the focus of teacher teams’ Tier 2 efforts.
  • Question 2: Question two (How will students demonstrate that they have mastered essential learning and developed essential capacities?) has been addressed by the majority of teams across the district. While there at not common unit assessments across the 27 elementary schools, 9 middle schools, and 6 high schools within the district, common end of year assessments are being created for secondary school courses and the expectations is that grade level and course teams design, administer, and analyze the results of common assessments to inform future teaching and learning. We have been clear to clarify that teams need not (and probably should not) commonly assess student mastery of all learning outcomes; should we commonly asses if we do not have time to commonly analyze and time to collectively respond to the student needs that emerge from the analyses? Instead, we aim to commonly assess and analyze student mastery of essential, prioritized learning targets, targets that are so important that will provide reteaching support when they are not yet learned.
  • Access: A fundamental belief of a PLC at Work is that all students will learn at high levels. There are many factors to achieving this goal; ensuring that students have the opportunity to learn at high levels is a critical prerequisite. Our schools and our teachers have made firm commitments and made significant shifts to ensure equities in access. We are providing multiple entry points to honors courses; we are eliminating remedial courses, replacing them with collaboratively co-taught classes; and we are re-committing to differentiating supports for all learners (PLC at Work questions three and four) so that students don’t simply have access to rigorous courses but that they experience success.
  • Grading: Cassandra Erkens has inspired us to commit to building student hope, efficacy, and achievement through PLCs at Work, assessment practices, and grading. The three big ideas of PLCs at Work, mentioned earlier in this conclusion, require that our gathering of evidence be based on learning, and we are re-examining whether the date at which a student learns is important. This is leading us to explore how we will provide multiple opportunities for students to show us what they know. In addition, acknowledging that grades should represent our feedback to students regarding what they have learned at a given point in time, we are asking whether our grades reflect mastery of learning targets or whether they more generally reflect the percentage of points earned on activities, such as homework, labs, or tests.
  • Our district teams, from the superintendent’s cabinet to curriculum and instruction departments, are guided by the principles and practices of PLCs at Work. For example, the professional learning that we design and facilitate is guided by learning targets; evidence of our colleagues’ learning within and by the end of the professional learning is gathered; differentiation and opportunities for exercising instructional agility are planned for; and data and feedback from our colleagues is analyzed to plan the latter portions of the professional learning sessions and for future professional learning.
  • Lead Meetings: Representatives from each content area at each of our secondary schools meet after school approximately 15 times a year to extend the practices of PLCs at Work from the site to across the district. It’s common sense. If teachers within a school-based team can learn from another in their continual efforts to improve service to students, shouldn’t teachers and teams from the six high schools, nine middle schools, and 27 elementary schools have the opportunity to learn with and from another. Lead meetings provide the chance for us to collaboratively participate in The Learning Cycle mentioned earlier in the conclusion. In addition to these meetings, all teachers have four additional full days to engage in learning.

Michael Fullan reports that, “The main enemies of large-scale reform are overload and extreme fragmentation” (2000, p. 6). PLCs at Work mitigate these risks, at both the team level and at the more broadly system level, by reducing fragmentation. It’s common sense: Many hands make light work. The way educators work together is more important than the work of individual teachers (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010; DeAngelis, & Presley, 2011). The research-based and practical way in which educators work together in support of all students is by enthusiastically, authentically embracing and implementing PLCs at Work.

We have long suffered from initiative fatigue. This has led to us compromising the potentially positive impact of existing practices, to ceasing to use effective practices that are in fact working, and to over-complicating the already complex work of teaching and learning. There are common sense (and researched-based) sets of principles and practices that we have set aside or forgotten or that we simply have not implemented very well.

One District’s PLC Journey – Part I

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Like other schools and districts we have made PLCs a focus for years. We have a multi-year plan that defines PLC work.

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We’ve developed The Learning Cycle (TLC) that informs all school and district practices, from designing classroom learning experiences for students to designing professional learning experiences for educators:

  • Clarify
  • Elicit
  • Interpret
  • Act
  • Evaluate

From the board and superintendent to schools and the district office the principles and practices of PLCs define all we do.

The Ones Doing the Doing are Doing the Learning

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The sentiments expressed by teachers who are subjected to lecture-based professional learning should provide all the common sense evidence we need – humans do not learn best, are not motivated, are not engaged, and are not too happy when they’re talked at for extended periods of time. And yet, we still do it to students, in classroom after classroom, year after year.

A common sense commitment that we have made in our district is to ensure that every professional learning opportunity we have with our colleagues models the active pedagogies, strategies, and activities that we ought to see in the classroom with students. It’s a start.

It’s a relatively simple idea: When students are required to – when they are allowed to – think about a problem/situation/task, talk about a problem/situation/task, and actively participate in the problem/situation/task, then students are much more likely to find relevance in what’s happening in the classroom, care about what’s happening in the classroom, and remember what happened in the classroom tomorrow and “for the test.”

Classrooms today too often look like the classrooms of 1950. For every classroom in which students take advantage of flexible seating options and teachers guide the learners of student groups from multiple locations in the room, there is at least one classroom in which students are seated in rows and the teacher lectures from a podium. Sit and get is still a strategy much too common in schools.

Teachers are still too often directing the learning; they are too often the only members of the classroom community thinking and doing (and I don’t think we can count listening, thinking, taking notes, copying problems and solutions as doing).

Teachers are working much harder than they should be. Student engagement, energy, and motivation will remain lower than we’d like when teaching take priority of learning.

I was in a classroom recently in which the teacher had assigned a task and allowed for student interaction. Students were working with one another, making sense of problems and arriving at solutions together. And, students were (still) sitting in rows. The lengths to which students went to collaborate with one another were awkward, even humorous, stretching across the aisles to examine each other’s work and make suggestions on next steps. Imagine the improvement to the student experience and in student learning if students had been seated in cooperative groups and given guidance on how to collaborate with one another – on how to take ownership of their learning.

Of course, balance matters. There will still be opportunities when the teacher metacognitively models the thinking and problem solving needed to successfully engage in or complete a task. But this modeling need not always occur at the beginning of the lesson and it need not occur for the entire lesson. There may still time during which students sit in rows, but seating arrangements and classroom environments that promote collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking must increasingly be the norm.

It might be more efficient to lecture at students and we will certainly be able to get through more content, but student learning, engagement, and motivation will suffer. There’s another way, a way that makes common sense: People will learn more when they’re engaged. They’ll be more engaged when they are actively involved in their learning.

A key element of active learning is students collaborating with peers; Lev Vygotsky (1956) validated this notion over a century ago. Learning is social, and students learn more when they listen to peers, process the information that peers have shared, and rehearsed their emerging understandings with peers.

Observational and evaluative frameworks and protocols are gaining in popularity as educators recognize the impact of actively engaged students on behaviors, motivation, and learning. Several of Charlotte Danielson’s domains within her Framework for Teaching reference student interactions with other students and engaging students in learning (Danielson, 2008); Marzano’s Instructional Framework (2017) also emphasizes engagement. Bill Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework (2016) describes quadrants of learning – Quadrant Four is where students are doing the thinking and the work.

AJ Juliani and John Spencer (2017), authors of Empower, build the case for students taking a more active role in their learning and provide concrete examples about how to do this. Trevor MacKenzie (2016) describes how classrooms can foster inquiry mindsets. Spencer Kagan (2009) has provided concrete strategies for engaging students in active, cooperative learning for decades. The National Research Council’s (2000) comprehensive study, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, describes how learning, and what we’re learning for, have changed, encouraging the design of learner-centered environments and the importance of greater student involvement with one another and with the tasks that they are assigned. This analysis was seconded by David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson in Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom (2011; 2018). Finally, when students are actively involved in their learning, they are provided with the opportunity and the need to regulate their learning. Self-regulation is a skill that contributes to higher levels of student learning and a set of skills that students must have the chance to put into action in school, a notion researched by Barry Zimmerman among others (Zimmerman, 2001; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992).

In summary, research and best practices increasingly emphasize that students learning mathematics should think and act like a mathematician; that students learning art should think and act like an artist; that students learning science should think and act like a scientist; that students learning history should think and act like a historian. I could go, but the point is that students should be more active in the classroom and their learning.

Learning is Reflected in the Task

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Designing a guaranteed, viable curriculum, one that allows teachers and students to focus on depth and avoid the consequences of breadth, is not enough. Engaging students in their learning through active learning strategies, so that students are doing more of the thinking, talking, and doing, is not enough. And, ensuring that curriculum represents a balance of content, concepts, and skills, so that students can apply and makes sense of the content knowledge that they acquire is not enough.

It’s common sense: We must also ensure that the tasks with which students are engaged are rigorous. Understanding what rigor is and isn’t, and providing rigorous learning experiences for all students, will deepen learning, help make learning relevant, and better prepare students for college, skilled careers, and life.

We could not do our work as educators without curricular resources, and textbooks have been our most common resource. Unfortunately, the majority of tasks within too many textbooks are low-level, rote, and one-step. Even when textbooks promise to have more rigorous tasks (often at the end of the lesson), they are, in fact, simplistic problems is disguise or they are not assigned.

As Marcia Tate notes, worksheets don’t grow dendrites (Tate, 2016). While the detrimental effects of an over-reliance on worksheets is certainly related to what students are asked to do with them, too many worksheets require students to fill in blanks and solve procedural problems.

And far too often, we believe that we are increasing rigor by assigning more problems, or longer readings, or longer writing assignments, or problems with bigger numbers. We believe that we are increasing rigor by requiring more.

In the previous chapter, I noted educators have focused on content over skills by backwards planning from earlier generations of high-stakes assessments, which favored lower levels of understanding. The same situation occurs in respect to the quality of tasks. While the quality of high-stakes assessments has shifted, too many educator-created or textbook-provided assessments continue to focus on simplistic tasks. When teachers backwards plan from assessments like these, tasks too often lack rigor.

Lastly, it takes more time to facilitate the completion of rigorous tasks and the completion of rigorous tasks will undoubtedly involve productive struggle and healthy frustration. As long as mindsets remain fixed and learning is equated with points, percentages, and grades, there will be a reluctance from students, educators, and parents to engage in more rigorous learning.

We must increase the quality of the task with which we ask students to engage. There are several common sense ways of doing this.

On the topic of rigor, boy, do we have a wealth of best practice and guidance upon which to draw.

To start, the seven principles which comprise the instructional core, described in Chapter 1 of Instructional Rounds in Education by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel (2009) are amongst the most important, and common sense, sets of ideals that ought­ to be guiding our work. Principle four is, “The task predicts performance”:

What determines what students know and are able to do is not what the curriculum says they are supposed to do, or even what the teacher thinks he or she is asking students to do. What predicts performance is what students are actually doing. Memorization tasks produce fluency in memorization and recall, not necessarily understanding. Memorizing the elements of the periodic table is not the same as understanding the properties of the elements. The single biggest observational discipline we have to teach people in our networks is to look on top of the students’ desks rather than at the teacher in front of the room. The only way to find out what students are actually doing is to observe what they are doing – not, unfortunately, to ask teachers what students have done after the fact or to look at the results of student work after they have engaged in the task” (p. 30).

If we want student learning to improve, then the nature of the tasks that we assign to students must improve.

Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor in Your Classroom (2014), defines both what rigor isn’t…

  • Lots of homework
  • Additional items to solve
  • Only for some
  • Possible if scaffolds and supports are provided
  • Possible only with the right resources

…and what rigor is…

  • Transferring understanding to new contexts
  • Synthesizing multiple sources
  • Employing multiple complex steps
  • Approaching tasks from divergent perspectives

Rigorous, complex tasks are for all students and these tasks involve multiple contexts, sources, steps, and perspectives.

Sandra Kaplan and colleagues (1995) created icons of depth and complexity to represent rigor. The icons of depth are:

  • Using the language of the discipline
  • Discovering the big idea
  • Determining the essential details
  • Identifying rules, patterns, and trends
  • Proposing unanswered questions
  • Investigating ethics.

Complexity:

  • Describing change over time
  • Approaching solutions from multiple points of view
  • Making connections across the disciplines.

Tasks to which Kaplan’s icons are added ask students to go deeper and think more complexly; they make a task more rigorous.

Finally, Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s habits of mind (2000) can be infused into student experiences to increase rigor or will be present within tasks that are rigorous. Costa and Kaplan found that rigorous tasks require students to:

  • Persist and manage impulsivity
  • Communicate with clarity, accuracy, and precision
  • Gather data through all senses
  • Listen with empathy
  • Create, imagine, and innovate
  • Think flexibly and interpedently
  • Respond with wonderment and awe
  • Think about thinking
  • Take intellectual risks
  • Find humor
  • Question and pose problems
  • Apply past knowledge to new situations
  • Remain open to continuous learning

Like Kaplan, Costa and Kallick note that rigor is not asking students to do more work; rigor requires students to do more with the work.

Leadership: Resisting Newton’s Third Law

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There’s no doubt – leadership is difficult and serving as a school principal or other school system leader can be extraordinarily challenging. The stakes are so high; the futures of human beings are in development, and numerous stakeholders, understandably, demand that leaders have the answers. And yet, having all the answers may be the entirely wrong approach for leaders. Engaged and active leadership –yes. Leaders who dictate and demand – not so much.

We have, I suspect, worked with and for leaders who fit into the following categories:

  • The Competent Manager: Duty schedules and Back-to-School Night are well-organized. A vision for progressive and innovative practices is not really evident.
  • The People Person: The leader is a great person with exceptional interpersonal skills. When the going gets tough or boldness is needed, however, decisive action is wanting.
  • The Do as I Say, Not as I Do Boss: The words are impressive, but the actions and follow through do not match the promises.
  • The Authoritarian: Invoking fear is not a leadership attribute.
  • The Transactional Leader: Changes are rampant and things are happening. After a year, though, everyone is exhausted and the sustainability of improvements is highly suspect.
  • The Incomplete Leader: The intentions and energies are good, but shortfalls in vision-setting, professional learning supports, resources, incentives, or the implementation plan slowly and tragically erode away the potential benefits of the initiative.
  • The Door is Closed Leader: We think there is a leader, but the door is always closed.

Having served as a site principal and district leader for well over a decade, I cannot and am not passing judgment. These jobs are terrifically difficult and, frankly, I was neither adequately trained nor supported to be a leader. Efforts to ensure that school administrators are instructional leaders are laudable, but how about support in the basics of leadership?

We know Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Wise leaders will resist the temptation to push back when, inevitably, there are questions regarding continues improvement efforts. Questioning isn’t resistance, it’s engagement.

The preponderance of research and literature on leadership portrays the leader not as a dictator, but as a coach; leaders don’t order their followers to complete tasks, but collaboratively develop a vision, listen and learn with and from stakeholders, and build the capacity of their teams to do the work. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, in The One Minute Manager, write, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” (Blanchard & Johnson, 1982). Jack Welch, in Winning, notes that, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Welch, 2005). And John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.” (Maxwell, 2007)

In John Kotter and Dan Cohen’s work, The Heart of Change (2002), they note that leaders effect positive, productive, and sustained improvements in their organizations through the people with whom they work. Leaders gather a guiding coalition, craft a clear and simple vision, empower people to overcome obstacles, and strive to maintain momentum until the change becomes the new normal. Leaders don’t push the change, they guide the change.

In Switch (2010), Chip and Dan Heath note that resistance to improvement efforts often comes from a lack of clarity; what is perceived to be laziness is often the result of stress because we’re moving faster than the speed of trust; that perceived problems with people are often problems with the plan. The lesson is: Work with your colleagues, not against them. The vision is what’s important. How we get will likely emerge through the change process itself.

Simon Sinek (2009) famously encourages us to “Start with why.” What we do and how we do it will emerge from the why. Starting with why requires that we collaboratively define the why, and the individuals within the organization should be involved in the process.

And of course, this thinking of leader as a coach who empowers teams isn’t new. W. Edwards Deming (2013), Peter Drucker (1990), Peter Senge (1990), and Jim Collins (2001) reached the same conclusions. Interestingly and not coincidentally, the principles of leader-as-coach merge smoothly with the principles of PLCs at Work, and PLCs at Work may be the most common sense practice of all, a notion that I explore in conclusion of this book. The work of Deming and Senge are precursors to the work of DuFour and Eaker. Leadership is most definitely a challenge and it represents a set of skills that can be learned and continuously improved. This profession deserves and demands that leaders possess the most refined qualities and skills.

Exhaustive analyses of leadership in exceptional schools notes that, “The most direct and impactful way principals can influence student learning is by building and main­taining a strong learning climate in their schools” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26). And shaping strong cultures requires that principals empower others to lead:

“Teachers and students need support to build their leadership capacity…By developing structures to build teacher leadership capacity, principals empower teachers to take ownership over moving learning goals forward…this includes involving teach­ers in school-wide decisions, purposefully distributing leadership responsibilities (as opposed to ad hoc task delegation) to teachers and other student support staff” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26).

But, others will be wary of assuming leadership responsibilities if mutual trust is missing; trust is foundational to collaborative leadership (Bryk, Schneider, & Kochanik, 2002).

Common Sense Re-Assessments

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Re-assessing is a logical, common sense practice, communicating to students, “We expect you to use the feedback to relearn and then show us what you know now.” This has raised the issue of fairness. Some teachers express the belief that it is not fair to other students – students who passed the test the first time – when we allow multiple opportunities for students to take a test. And some teachers feel that we are not teaching responsibility when we allow multiple opportunities.

We all have an important decision to make because of a firm commitment to all students learning at high levels and a firm commitment to only one chance to demonstrate that learning is entirely incompatible. We all recognize, as parents, caregivers, and/or teachers, that children rarely learn at the same rate and in the same manner. To terminate instruction at an arbitrary date and suggest that learning of that content is at an end, and the one-time opportunity to demonstrate mastery is upon us, defies common sense.

But what about teaching responsibility? It is our position that responsibility is better taught by demanding that students persevere until they succeed than by giving them only one chance to do so. What are we teaching students when we communicate that they don’t have to actually learn the content once they’ve failed that first test – that they are off the hook and need not keep trying?

Does it not teach responsibility when we demand that students keep up with the new concepts and receive additional support on the old concepts until they reach the level of understanding needed for them to be successful? We are teaching perseverance; we are insisting that they learn how to learn, and continuously strive to improve. The “real world” in which there are no second chances for which some teachers think they are preparing students is a myth.

Colleges and universities increasingly embed multiple layers of support for students – they want high retention rates and are committed to equity and access. Careers have always provided multiple opportunities to enter professions: multiple chances to pass the state teaching exam; multiple opportunities to pass the bar; multiple opportunities to revise the thesis or dissertation. It’s not easy, and it will take collaborative action to design a system that provides remediation and allows for additional chances to take assessments. However, we cannot continue to defend a stance that denies the reality of the ways and rates at which individuals learn. It is disingenuous, or worse, to craft mission statements that promise high levels of learning for all if we retain the fine print that expresses that there will be no second chances for the 5- to 18-year-olds we serve.

Our district has been inspired by the high school math teacher, Matthew Beyranevand. The author of the blog, “Math with Matthew,” he’s a Global Math Project Ambassador, the K-12 Mathematics Department Coordinator for the Chelmsford Public Schools, a member of Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council, and the author of “Teach Math Like This, Not Like That.” His blog, “Retaking Assessments: Many math teachers are late to the party!” described his sustainable and successful process that so many of my district’s teachers are using in slightly modified forms.

Matthew starts with a belief to which I wholeheartedly subscribe: All assessments can and should be formative; that is, the feedback we get from the evidence students provide should be used to inform future instruction…and to provide feedback to students. The concepts in the “next” unit almost always build upon the concepts in the “last” unit. By not committing to relearning and reassessment, we are pretty obviously setting up students and ourselves for failure. Matthew starts by assigning students a reflection ticket, which requires them to reflect upon why errors were made. Our teachers are using various forms of exam wrap and test correction processes that similarly achieve the goal: Students are required to identify the learning target with which they need support and begin to analyze why the target was missed. Matthew then requires students to seek and receive assistance. Each of our district schools have tutorial times within which this support can be received. We are also increasingly assigning Khan Academy (and related personalized, online tools) lessons with which students can engage in targeted relearning. Matthew also requires that students complete any and all missing work from the unit. Then, any student who scored 20% to 90% on the first attempt can re-assess. And importantly, the new grade is the new grade, no averaging. Teachers in our district are following very similar procedures. We are working out the kinks and striving for both success and sustainability. But, we are committed to finding a solution; we’re not going back.

On last common sense idea on feedback. By the end of a semester or school year, students have given us a lot of feedback. What if we systematically recorded this evidence and systematically forwarded this feedback to next semester’s or next year’s teachers? How much more prepared would we be to support all students to success through scaffolds and differentiated supports? How much earlier in the year could we provide intensive supports when the feedback from the prior year reveals significant needs? This is a low-cost, highly effective form of universal screening, and it can and should inform proactively prepared Tier 1 instruction and Tier 3 intervention. It’s common sense and it’s based on feedback that students give to us and, in this case, feedback that we give to our colleagues.

Assessments – big and small, simple and complex, formal and informal – are events during which students give us feedback. We are committed to more accurately and intentionally gathering that feedback and in turn give students feedback about where they are and what they need to do to grow. And, we’re giving them the time and support to make the growth and the opportunities to show how us that they’ve made the growth.

RTI is Common Sense in Action

Students in all classrooms – whether Kindergarten or high school, college prep or honors – have different readiness levels, learning styles, and interests. Students are different and require different approaches to ensure they all learn at high levels. It’spredictable. It’s common sense. 

Some students will need more time to learn at high levels; not all students will learn on our time tables. It’s predictable. It’scommon sense.

There are students in our schools whose needs in foundational skills – in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and behavior – will significantly impact their success in any grade level and any content area. It’s predictable. It’s common sense.

If we can predict these situations (and we can), then we can prevent the negative consequences that are likely to occur by actively anticipating student needs and proactively preparing supports, as a teacher, as a team, as a school, as a district.

Some may call this response to intervention, while others may call it multi-tiered systems of supports. I call it common sense in action.

In too many schools, the first opportunity for support come when a student has fallen so far behind and has experienced so much frustration that staff concludes that there must be something wrong with the student – that there must be a learning disability. Learning disabilities are very real and students with disabilities deserve the very best supports. Waiting for failure (or for a 1.5 standard deviation difference between ability and achievement) to identify needs and provides supports is not, however, a good answer.

On too many schools, “learning for some” may not be a phrase in the mission statement, but it is a reality. A close cousin to “learning for some” is the tyranny of low expectations, as in, “I’m not sure that all students can learn at high levels, but I’ll conceded that all students can learn something.” In either case, students and society demand that we reject the fallacy that some students will and some students won’t or can’t learn.

“The normal curve is not sacred. It describes the outcome of a random process. Since education is a purposeful activity in which we seek to have students learn what we teach, the achievement distribution should be very different from the normal curve if our instruction is effective. In fact, our educational efforts may be said to be unsuccessful to the extent that student achievement is normally distributed (Bloom, 1971, p. 49).”

We have not been prepared for the needs that we know exist. We are either heroically failing to prepare what we can predict or we just don’t believe in the mission statement that graces school marquees and websites.

We too often solve the problem of student differences by assigning students with labels, often accompanied by specific tracks. Ability grouping does not work (Hattie, 2009), once and for all for any student, and this includes gifted students.

Lastly, grade retention. There simply aren’t many scenarios that could logically lead to retaining a student in a grade. If a significant need in identified, then we must immediately provide an intensive a targeted support, and if the student does not respond, we must continuously adjust the support until the student does respond. If the student still is not responding, which should not be common (see Allington, 2011), then the team ought to request permission to conduct a formal evaluation to determine special education eligibility, upon receiving parental permission, so that even more intensive, targeted, and individualized supports can be provided. I do not see retention becoming an option, in most cases.

I encourage all of us to embrace a fierce, unwavering belief that all student will learn at high levels – we just need time and the right supports. Labels, tracking, repeating courses, and repeating grades don’t really require more work from us; they place the burden (and the blame) on students.