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Next-gen_pulse

Finding the Right Next-Gen Assessment

What to look for in your online program.
By Todd Beach

As educators, we’re all familiar with the problems associated with traditional print-based assessment: It’s time-consuming. It has limited flexibility to assess student knowledge. And it’s slow, which makes it hard to get meaningful, actionable data in a timely fashion. Methods to help in one area—such as using bubble sheets to reduce scoring time—give rise to other problems, such as limiting question types and ways of assessing students’ subject knowledge.

Online assessment is one way to improve these areas, but it also has some drawbacks. Many online assessments digitize traditional print assessments to save time on scoring, but they lack significant improvement in key areas, such as immediate actionable data for differentiated instruction in the classroom. Plus, these systems don’t necessarily support new methods that enhance student learning.

A better answer: a next-generation assessment solution.

What does it take for an assessment tool to qualify as next generation? In my opinion, a “next-gen” assessment tool should be intuitive, adaptive, and flexible enough to continuously be a generation ahead of a school’s or district’s needs and goals. It should go well beyond simply digitizing the traditional assessment approach. It should include features that enrich both the teaching and learning processes.

At Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools (ISD 196), in Minnesota, we’re providing a truly next-generation assessment solution for our teachers. We started our search for a solution several years ago, and today we are reaping the rewards. We began in 2010 with a group of early adopters, and since then the platform’s use has spread, initially from teacher-to-teacher; last year it went district-wide. We have found that our next-gen assessment platform provides teachers with actionable data for differentiated instruction andhelps both impact and transform student learning through more meaningful student-teacher discussions, personalized feedback, and student reflection.

Richer Data for the Personalization of Learning

The most beneficial feature of a next-gen online assessment platform is the resulting in-depth, actionable, individualized, and immediate data for each student. The data provided by these platforms makes it easier to identify where students’ learning gaps are and where they have been. Having multiple years of data at my fingertips has allowed me to reflect on my teaching practices and better meet my students’ needs. At the district level, teachers across all of our schools are now having the same experience.  

Next-generation assessments also allow our teachers to generate assessments with their colleagues, and to share results with students instantly, without waiting for a printed version. This allows students to immediately reflect on their results, and to use the platform to communicate with their teacher about what they understood and what they may need additional help with. Our teachers can better understand how each student learns and thinks, and they can encourage students to take more ownership of their learning.

These rich nuggets of data are also extremely beneficial to parents. Although most grade books are now available online, looking at a current or final grade provides only superficial information about a child’s progress; it doesn’t offer insight into how a student learns. Next-generation assessments show student performance based on benchmark standards, informing parents where their child’s learning challenges and successes lie.

Richer Discussions

Next-gen assessments lead to more engaging, informative, and collaborative discussions between teachers, providing deeper inquiry into student understanding as well as potential instructional gaps. Our teachers collaborate within teacher teams online, sharing item development and assessment creation and instructional resources, and tying them together through shared curriculum maps. We use the results of common assessments to compare classroom performance by learning target as well as individual questions. This provides meaningful quantitative data to aid our professional learning community (PLC) discussions.

Richer Feedback and Reflection

Not all online assessment solutions are next generation. A next-gen assessment should provide the ability to gain deeper insights into students’ understanding and engage the student in learning. We use processes such as confidence-based assessment, student justification/journaling, and student self-assessment and reflection to facilitate student-teacher conversations during the assessment process. We believe that, in conjunction with a variety of question item types, these processes help our teachers reach a deeper understanding of their students and facilitate teacher-student feedback more successfully than traditional methods. Perhaps more important, these features facilitate student self-assessment and help students gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, encouraging more ownership of their own work.

Intuitive and Adaptive

At ISD 196, we’ve been using Naiku as our next-gen assessment solution since 2010. It fits the intuitive, adaptive, and flexible criteria I believe next-generation assessment solutions should have. From the outset I noticed features within the platform—the rich student performance data and metacognitive processes—that I immediately identified as long-term benefits for myself, my peers, and the entire student body. This next-gen assessment platform fit my needs wonderfully at the time. And as I expanded my use of Naiku, the developers responded to feedback to ensure it would meet my future needs, which has been incredibly valuable. Five years later, the program continues to adapt to our district’s needs.

This school year, Naiku added “Curriculum Maps” and “Adaptive Learning Resources” to its platform. These features further extend our teachers’ capability to collaborate on standards-based learning and help personalize learning for students. With Adaptive Learning Resources, in particular, our teachers can automatically provide instructional resources to students based on performance, immediately after test submission. For example, those students who do poorly on a particular standard can immediately receive remediation resources—perhaps an instructional video—while students who do well can be sent enrichment resources.

Your Next-Gen Solution

So what does next generation mean to you? What procedure have you implemented in recent years that remains useful and relevant to you and your educators?

As you search for an online assessment platform, I encourage you to evaluate whether the assessment solution you’re considering does what you need it to do rather than what it says you need. Consider the following questions as part of your checklist:

  • Is it intuitive for your teachers’ use?
  • Does it provide richer data that’s easily shared?
  • Does it facilitate teacher collaboration?
  • Does it help increase student-teacher feedback?
  • Does it engage students beyond the traditional assessment experience to accelerate learning?
  • Does it aid personalization of learning?
  • Will the platform adapt and grow with your needs?
  • Will its developers welcome feedback from users and make every effort to stay ahead of users’ needs and challenges?

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then you may have found your next-gen assessment. If you mostly answered “No,” then keep looking. The right solution is out there for you.

Todd Beach is the district curriculum lead at Independent School District 196 in Rosemount, Minnesota. He taught social studies for various grade levels throughout ISD 196 for nearly 25 years. In 2010, the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies named him the Minnesota Social Studies Teacher of the Year. Beach is also a consultant for the College Board.

Image:  Ian Lishman / MediaBakery

Testing_pulse

One district’s cross-district collaboration improves tests, speeds info to teachers.
By Cari Jo Kiffmeyer

In a growing number of states, K-12 directors of assessment like me are finding themselves in the center of a perfect storm. Districts are looking for ways to assess students in all subjects, not just those tested by the state. They’re trying to work out how to create technology-enhanced items and assessments to provide instant feedback to students and teachers. Yet they lack the funds to buy all the assessment content they need, and they lack the tools and processes to develop the content on their own. To add even more pressure, student performance data is now being used to measure educator effectiveness.

In Minnesota’s West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197), the primary purpose of our testing is to provide information to help improve instruction. However, we didn’t have a classroom assessment tool that was used district-wide, and therefore no way to accurately view data from a district perspective. We also wanted to be able to conduct standards-based item analysis for our classroom assessments, and compare that data to our district and state assessments. So, we turned to technology and crowdsourcing.

This fall, we began implementing a system called UNIFY that provides a computer-based platform where our teachers can collaborate and build common assessments. We decided to start our “crowdsourcing” initiative for assessment creation with mathematics teachers in grades 5-9. By launching a new initiative with a small group, rather than the entire district, we can provide more focused support and coaching for our teachers. We can also make sure we’ve set up the system in a way that will provide the most benefit for all stakeholders, and we can more easily make any adjustments that are needed before rolling it out to all students.

First, we provided our teachers with training on how to write quality assessments and how to analyze and use the data to drive their instruction. Then we created a block of time for teachers across the district to meet every two weeks. To eliminate travel time and expenses, teachers meet in professional learning communities (PLCs) via Google Hangouts.

We structured our PLCs based on the Professional Learning Communities at Work process created by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. Within this framework, our PLCs focus their work on four critical questions:

  1. What is it we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we respond when some students already know it?

During these 45-minute meetings every other week, teachers collaboratively develop common district assessments tied to designated learning targets and benchmarks. The teams also meet for extended periods six times throughout the year. They analyze and discuss the results from their previous assessments, both from a district perspective and an individual classroom perspective. Based on that data, they make decisions about how to guide their instruction.

In addition, once every nine weeks, teachers meet for a professional development day. During this daylong session, they create new assessments, refine existing assessments based on their data, discuss instructional strategies, and participate in training, if needed.

To date, the reaction to our crowdsourcing initiative has been very positive. Teachers have long had a desire for cross-district collaboration. Previously, common assessments were written only at the building level. This initiative has not only provided our teachers with opportunities for district-wide collaboration, but the tools and training to support that.

So far, one of the biggest benefits we’ve experienced is that we can now electronically tie each assessment question to a specific benchmark, which will give us valuable information later.

For example, previously a teacher and student might look at an assessment and see the student earned an overall score of 70 percent. While the score showed that the student passed the assessment, it didn’t tell them much more than that. In contrast, in addition to the overall score, they can now see how the student performed on each learning target or benchmark, so they know what the student mastered and where he or she needs additional support or practice.

If a teacher wanted this data before, he or she would have to do all of the analysis by hand. Now, with instant access to this data, our teachers have a much better understanding of how to guide their instruction to better meet their students’ needs.

At the district level, this data will also allow us to conduct better program analysis as part of our Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) process, which we’re launching this year. We plan to use this process to compare a program’s cost to what the data says about its results. This will help us see which programs are having the biggest impact on student learning, so we can invest our resources wisely.

Through our assessment and A-ROI initiatives, we will be better able to evaluate our students’ progress against our standards, adjust our instruction to meet their needs, and enhance our efforts to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We will also be able to identify which programs are the most helpful for our students, holding our district accountable for offering the best possible education.

Cari Jo Kiffmeyer is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (School District 197) in Minnesota.

Image: © Randy Faris/Corbis

Staff-meeting_pulse

A few simple rules can bring order to your school meetings.
By Jeffrey Benson

Schools, at their best, are hotbeds of ideas and innovation. The building is filled with well-educated, passionate, and verbal staff, and improvements are always needed. Yet differing perspectives on what is most urgent can provoke as many conflicts as concrete plans. The battles often emerge in the first moments a new idea is presented, even when an administrator is offering the innovation. Let’s examine this landscape and how to manage potential landmines.

Here’s an all-too-common scenario: A principal floats an idea at a staff meeting. There’s a barrage of questions and critical comments, and the atmosphere turns tense. It’s an exhausting ritual. This causes some principals to shy away from sharing ideas, retreating into silence. Others develop a small and trusted inner circle of supporters who hatch all the plans, further alienating staff members. Still others listen with increasing dismay to the negative reactions and stubbornly say, “I’m doing it anyway.”

Often the problem is that the principal does not know if a comment or question is because a teacher hates the idea and has every intention of sabotaging it, likes the idea with some reservations, or has some thoughtful advice to offer. Without knowing the speaker’s intention, it can all sound like intransigence and obstruction. A wise principal will understand that in any hierarchical system, especially one so dependent on language and intellectual discourse, questioning is a tool, and that tool can be used to advantage.

One way to raise the level of communication is to ask people to preface their remarks with one of these four options when you open the floor up for commentary and questions:

1) “I love this idea and…” This opening gives permission to those who may think silence is agreement. And it gives those who appreciate your idea a way to improve the proposal.

2) “I am in favor of the idea but I have a concern about a detail.” Many teachers have a facility for detail. Once they identify a small concern, they feel a responsibility to pass it along—not as a criticism, but as a form of support. They want you to get this right. By identifying their intention, their contributions will be clear, and welcome.

3) “I like the idea, but I have a significant concern, and if it is not addressed, I can’t back the proposal.” What might look like a great idea in the principal’s office might not work day-to-day for teachers. They may spot a fatal flaw, perhaps an implementation landmine, which needs to be attended to. These teachers are not asking you to abandon your idea; they are acting responsibly. You may not be able to address their concern in the moment. Instead, you can say, “I will look again at the plan to see what we can do about that. Thank you.” Always thank teachers who able to identify their intentions in the interest of a better plan.

4) “I do not like this plan at all.” In a diverse and complex school culture, there are few plans that will meet everyone’s expectations and demands. If you find a large portion of the staff prefacing their remarks with this perspective, your proposal is probably deeply problematic. More likely, it’s only a small faction of teachers that will shoot down your idea altogether, offering no constructive criticism. Politically, you may still need to address their concerns and fears, but not at the larger meeting.

Implementing this protocol is not without its risks. Here are a few implementation pointers:

*All protocols take a little practice and adjustment to become a norm. Find the phrasing that works best for you and your team. Many adults chafe at being given scripts; the key to this protocol is not a rigid script but an expectation to state one’s position. Your leadership team may want to kick around phrasing that they like and offer the staff a variety of options for making clear their positions. In that way, you share the ownership and implementation of the new protocol. Don’t get stuck on the wording.

*Set aside “think time” between the airing of a proposal and the first comments. For example, you can say, “I want to hear where people currently stand on this idea. First, let’s take 30 seconds so each of you can frame a comment, if you wish to share one. Please remember to let us know your initial standing on the idea before you tell us the rest of your thinking.” This small investment in time will support your more reflective staff to engage in the conversation; the discussion is also less likely to be hijacked by the most immediately vocal people, whose opposition drives their passion to speak.

*Use the power of your position as principal to model a healthy discussion, and remind staffers to identify their intentions as they begin to speak. When someone fails to do so, you can honestly say, “Wait a moment. I don’t know if you like this idea a lot, or if you are identifying a small concern, or a potential fatal flaw, or whether you truly just don’t like this plan at all. I’ll hear you better when I know where you are coming from.”

*Be sure to give teachers the same level of transparent intention when they come to you with proposals. Since a principal is often besieged with requests, information, and opinions on a daily basis, make it a practice to say, “I want to give myself some think time with every proposal. Please send me a quick e-mail. Then I can let you know where I initially stand on it, as well as share with you my ideas and questions.” The extra time you spend with that e-mail will be well worth the headaches you deal with when your teachers feel that their best ideas are too quickly evaluated.

Let’s celebrate the fact that schools are hotbeds of ideas, opinions, and passion. That celebration is more likely to be genuinely felt when everyone works within this framework of intentions. The principal’s power to shape a culture of clear intentions is a small key to unlocking a culture of robust innovation.

Jeffrey Benson has worked in education for 35 years, from elementary schools to graduate programs. His book Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most(ASCD, 2014) shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections. Connect with him at jeffreybenson.org.

Image: Media Bakery

Skype_pulse

Demystifying Computer Science

Skype’s program connects students with industry experts to explain different computing jobs.

By Wayne D’Orio

Two facts: In just five years, one of every two STEM jobs will be in the computing field. About 9 out of 10 schools don’t teach any computer science. With Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code movement starting today, many schools and companies are beginning efforts to shed light on the first fact, and change the second.

One of those companies is Skype, which is taking the simple step of connecting students with computer science experts to show kids what the experts do, how they prepared for their job, and why they like the work.

“Skype enables students to engage with real people, putting a human face in front of the ones and zeros, taking the nerd out of it, and hopefully engaging students in the excitement of a career in technology,” says Ross Smith, the director of test for Skype and an Hour of Code participant. “These kids have grown up with technology, but they don’t make the connection” to computer science, he adds.

While most of the Skype calls are with middle school students, Smith says a colleague of his had a chat recently with kindergartners.

“It opens up a whole new world for these kids,” says Sandy Gady, a middle school design and engineering teacher in Des Moines, Washington. The class regularly uses Skype, and it’s become second nature for her students to set up a call. “Anything they can think up, they can automatically find a resource and set it up,” she explains. “They like the fact that they are in control of their learning.”

Skype in the Classroom, a Microsoft YouthSpark program, allows any teacher to sign up in less than a minute, and then explain who their students are and who they want to connect with. When a match is made, both sides are contacted to work out details. Microsoft YouthSpark and Skype’s program, while ongoing, supports Hour of Code.

Smith says that he constantly reminds today’s students to “dream bigger than you can” because it’s likely the future will outpace their expectations. “I work with people in India and Europe every day, and I walk around with all of human knowledge in my pocket,” he says.

Gady says her students even use Skype to set up ad hoc tutoring with classmates. She wonders if the connections will naturally cut down on bullying. “It’s hard to bully someone who is helping you,” she adds.

Schools can get involved with Skype in the Classroom at education.skype.com, or set up an Hour of Code event by registering at hourofcode.com.

Watch the video to learn more about Skype in the Classroom and Code.org's collaboration:

 

 Image: Courtesy of Skype

Salt-lake-city-pulse

Innovations Bold Gamble

Salt Lake school puts students in charge of their learning—and their curricula, and their schedules.
By Wayne D’Orio

Kenneth Grover had a big problem without an easy answer. As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, he saw firsthand the struggles of the city’s high schools. Graduation rates were slowly increasing but they weren’t budging beyond 80 percent.

Not satisfied with adding a percentage point of progress every year, Grover knew a different model was needed. “Nothing changes with outcomes if you don’t change the inputs,” he says.

He did his homework, absorbing Clayton Christensen’s seminal book Disrupting Class, poring through Daniel Pink’s writings on motivation and success, and even gleaning insights from Steve Jobs’s best-selling biography. He visited schools, hopping from San Diego to San Francisco to Florida, searching for models he could emulate. While none of that work resulted in an “aha” moment, he did slowly zero in on what he thought would work best. Simply put, he aspired to create a school where students were in charge of their learning, directing the time, path, and pace of their education.

All of this work led to the hardest part of his journey: getting the Salt Lake City Board of Education to turn his concept from an idea into a living, breathing school.

“We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” he says. “We wanted to teach kids how to structure their own day.”

Grover presented his idea to the board. After the proposal was tentatively approved, he gave the school a name, Innovations Early College High School, and started recruiting students. Board members reacted immediately. “They brought me in front of the board for a three-hour Q&A and none of the questions were positive,” he remembers.

Once they saw he was serious, it was more than some board members were ready for, Grover says. “Board members said, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard of. You can’t do it.’ They added, ‘Show us a model that works, and we’ll support it.’” When Grover told them no schools existed at this level and depth of student-directed learning, the board said it couldn’t approve the school.

That’s when the meeting got even more contentious. Grover told the board, “If the premise is to find something that’s successful, are we closing our traditional high schools?” He explained that with a graduation rate of below 80 percent, he didn’t consider any of the city’s existing schools a success. “That really shook them up,” he says. “You said you wanted leaders,” I told them. “This is what leadership looks like. I’m not a manager.”

From Drawing Board to Reality

Fast-forward three years: Grover is holding court in the gorgeous lobby of his new high school. Students check themselves in and out of the school by smartphone, set their pace in classes that they choose, and in some cases even pick which books they will read. However, in many ways, the school looks like a “regular” school. Students sit in classrooms, sometimes being taught by teachers but more often working alone with headphones on. They consult with peers or teachers when necessary.

So is Innovations successful? Has it reached the goals set by Grover? Yes, and no. Last year’s senior class of 55 students had a graduation rate of 89 percent, and Grover hopes this year’s group of 89 students hits 95 percent. But for a high school principal who tells parents, “A high school diploma is meaningless,” he’s aiming much higher. This year, one student is expected to graduate with an associate’s degree already completed, thanks to Salt Lake Community College, which shares the building with Innovations. “In five years, it would be nice if half of our students graduated with an associate’s degree,” Grover says. “That’s ambitious.”

During a recent visit, a group of nine students sat in a semi-circle, answering questions from visitors with nary a school official in sight. While they all spoke enthusiastically about Innovations, I noticed none of their answers was the same. One student came to Innovations because a medical condition caused him to fall behind in his studies and he needed time to catch up. (“Although I’m smart,” he added.) Another mentioned how the small environment allows people to get to know you personally. One student spoke of the freedom to take one class at a time, concentrating solely on a single topic for weeks, while another mentioned that a typical day for her ping-pongs between working on U.S. government studies, completing a creative writing assignment, and then, after lunch, taking part in student government.

In a way, the answers backed up Grover’s initial concept: Students are a collection of individuals and treating them that way will improve their engagement and allow them to learn at their own pace.

When I told Grover his students all seemed bright, and asked if the first-come, first-served public school catered to a somewhat elite group, he quickly mentioned that “a good 10 percent were reading two levels below grade” when they started at Innovations. But with the school’s blended concept, they were given the materials and the time to backfill their knowledge and bring themselves up to, and usually beyond, grade level. Another student got pregnant, and Grover said teachers told her she would have to frontload her work to stay on target. She did, took time off for childbirth, and remains on track to graduate, he adds.

Creating a New School Model

Setting up a school without too many rules is, in some ways, like building a house without a blueprint. Each decision has to be considered, agreed upon, and carried out, all without the benefit of following more than a vague outline.

“The first year was a rough transition,” Grover says. For instance, English teacher Heather Bauer notes she excelled at classroom management. But when she enthusiastically switched to Innovations, she realized her skills didn’t quite apply anymore. Since she’s not often at the front of the room, the dynamic is different; now, when a student acts out, she can talk to them one-on-one immediately.“It took me some adjustment,” she admits.

“I don’t lecture all day, but I do have classes,” says Bauer. “We do have lessons. They last as long as they have to. Some students leave early, others stay.” The best part of Bauer’s day, however, is the one-on-one time she has with students. “I get to reach each kid where they are and I get to help them move forward. Ten minutes of dedicated time with one student can mean more than hours of lecturing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

The school’s curriculum is online. Some of it is purchased, some created by staff. Teachers are responsible for being in school eight hours a day (students attend six and half hours, anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.). Salt Lake’s union contract calls for eight-hour teacher days, but about six and half hours of that is spent in school, while the rest is taken up by grading papers, creating lesson plans, and other work done after school. Innovations’ teachers do all of their work in school, with the expectation that they shouldn’t have to keep working when they leave the building. The fledgling school of 320 students has seven full-time teachers and one half-time teacher, all of whom chose to work at Innovations because of the model. No teachers have left, reports Grover.

Each teacher mentors just over 40 students, meeting them weekly either in person or via e-mail to assess their progress. Mentors send out a progress transcript to parents once a month. Math teacher Chris Walter says he regularly sends notes to fellow teachers detailing which students are behind in their class work; his colleagues then find their mentees on his list and address any issues in their next weekly meeting.

Language arts teacher Dana Savage talks about how something seemingly as simple as meeting students weekly took a while to sort out. Because students progress at their own pace, the conferences are helpful checkpoints during which to set goals. What Savage quickly learned was that many students preferred to connect on Mondays. With some weekly meetings taking up to 30 minutes, Savage realized she needed to formalize her process, mandating that students sign up for slots so she can balance her work. Savage spends her time divided among four tasks: mentor meetings, class meetings, grading, and helping students individually.

Grover, when asked what aspects of the school he’s nailed, and what he is still working on, grows animated. “We’ve nailed the culture, we’ve nailed the rigor,” he says proudly. “We’re working on cross-collaboration among teachers.” Teacher evaluation is also still being defined. With so many kids working on their own, Grover and the staff are puzzling over how to create an evaluation model that best fits the school’s workflow.

Acclimating Students

Giving students this much freedom, when most come from Salt Lake’s traditional schools, took some adjustments, too. “One of our teachers said it best today,” Grover says. “We hold their hand a little more until they can fly. Some figure it out in a few weeks; some take three to four months. We build in structure as needed.”

Freshmen start out with a rough schedule, making sure they understand the school’s ethos before being cast out on their own. Some students can earn a credit in one week’s time, while others accomplish nearly nothing, says Grover. “It’s fascinating to see the lights turn on.” Conversely, he notes that some students do have problems adjusting back to regular classes when they go to college, although “none are hampered by the rigor.”

Students are expected to earn eight credits per school year, though the pace is theirs to determine. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that most students would avoid math as much as possible. To block this, Innovations requires that students stay current and on level with their math and language arts studies.

Classrooms have a collection of students working on their own laptops; they can check out computers from the school, if needed. Students who want courses not offered at Innovations can travel to nearby high schools for these classes. (Innovations is co-located with the district’s Career and Technical Education Center, so classes in hairdressing and automotives are offered on-site.) The school has just a couple of clubs, but no sports or music classes; students can participate in those extracurricular activities at the school in their zone. The district of 25,000 students operates four other high schools.

Innovations offers AP classes, but with the community college located just across the hall, most students are choosing to simply take college courses for extra challenge. After paying a $40 registration fee, students can take as many college classes as their schedule allows.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

When asked if the Innovations model would spread to the city’s K-8 schools soon, Grover shakes his head. “Give me a break,” he says, with mock indignation. “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired.” However, the blended learning idea is already spreading to the city’s four other high schools, and a three-year plan exists to push student choice into middle schools.

Similar experiments are sprouting up in other parts of the country. Partly because Innovations’ model doesn’t call for any radical restructuring of a school’s physical space, other districts have started to create their own student-driven schools. Twenty-two school districts in Kentucky are implementing personalized learning after visiting Innovations. An extremely rural district in Indiana is implementing the idea, while other districts around Utah are piggybacking on the model.

“We’re starting to build a little network,” Grover says proudly.

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

Top Stories for Wednesday 12/3

Former IN Supt. Under Heat

Ample evidence was found to support Bennett’s use of state staff and resources for his re-election campaign. HuffPost

Are Our Schools Focusing Too Much On STEM?

Some debate whether the hype of STEM is hindering our students to be well rounded. Atlantic

DOE Putting Focus on Principals’ Roles

The Teach to Lead Initiative promotes teacher-leadership roles in schools. EdWeek

Teacher Earnings Not Up to Par

Many teachers earn less then their counterparts in other cities making it hard to live in the middle class. NYT

LAUSD IPad Project Docs. Seized

FBI subpoenaed records the $1B Common Core Technology Project. HuffPost

Reading_pulse

Common Sense for the Common Core

Four ideas to help maximize your schools’ chances for success in implementing the new standards.
By Regie Routman

As a mentor teacher, leader, and coach who has been working in diverse classrooms and schools for more than four decades, I’ve learned that no matter what reforms, standards, or new programs come along, literacy achievement gains tend to be fleeting. Here’s what I’ve observed over and over: Without administrators who have a solid knowledge of effective literacy instruction, schools wind up focusing on implementation of isolated skills and/or standards with the hope that all the parts will add up to something meaningful. At best, this yields short-term gains and superficial learning. A good example is No Child Left Behind. After many years of a national commitment that cost billions of dollars, most students got good at phonics but showed no measurable growth in reading comprehension. My concern is we may soon see a similar outcome with the Common Core standards, and educators, parents, and the public will once again become disillusioned. So let’s take a look at the historical and present realities to assess what is possible and advisable.

The Common Core State Standards—or some set of common standards and framework for what kindergarten through high school students need to know and be able to do to pursue college and career goals—became necessary when it was blatantly apparent that not all students in U.S schools had equal opportunity to learn. In particular, factors including income inequality and school re-segregation doomed many poor and minority students, as well as English language learners, to an inferior education, with the result that many of these students routinely performed at least two years below grade level. In addition, many schools had not been challenging, engaging, or meeting the needs of large numbers of average-scoring and high-performing students for years. The need for common, high standards with content that spirals coherently from grade to grade was real.

Implementing the CCSS has become even more complex in the wake of the recent U.S. midterm elections, as more state governors have said they intend to replace the Common Core with homegrown standards. Also, some educators now view the CCSS as another fad that we need to “wait out.” The reality is that standards are necessary but insufficient; all standards are eventually replaced by “new” standards and expectations. Propelled by continuing pressure for quick results and high-stakes consequences for failure, schools understandably implement new reforms, mandates, and standards, but often without sufficient preparation or support for teachers. Predictably, we wind up with disappointing results.

So what’s a conscientious administrator to do? The vision and goals of the CCSS are commendable. In the hands of a masterful teacher supported by a knowledgeable administrator, standards are a plus. However, despite worthy intentions, two huge obstacles may eventually cause the downfall of the Common Core, and both are common-sense factors.

  1. First, the success of these new, higher standards depends on teachers and leaders knowing how to expertly implement them. Many teachers, principals, and administrators have not been properly prepared to teach reading and writing well, and they are relying on rapidly proliferating “Common Core-aligned” materials, most of which are severely wanting; even for experienced teachers, implementing the standards is daunting. The challenge for administrators is to provide professional learning that puts the highest priority on ensuring all teachers receive a deep foundational knowledge that transfers to expert instruction in the classroom. Without that theoretical and practical knowledge, teachers cannot effectively implement the CCSS or expertly teach and assess. Effective application of complex tasks and concepts requires a high level of expertise, and such expertise requires time and practice through well-planned, long-term schoolwide professional development. We are a “quick fix” society, and we often reject a commitment to long-term goals and outcomes. 

  2. Second, and attached to the first factor, is the high-stakes testing that accompanies the standards. History tells us that such stakes breed fear and distrust as pressure mounts for results. What’s on the test is what gets taught, resulting in a narrow curriculum broken into bits and pieces to “match” the test. Rather than relying on putting our efforts into high-level professional learning for all teachers and leaders, we waste enormous sums of time developing, preparing for, and executing tests with major consequences for students, teachers, families, and society.  

Administrators need to take the lead in providing the guidance, coaching, and expert professional development teachers need to successfully implement and sustain any set of literacy standards or learning outcomes. Here are some recommendations and actions for teachers—and administrators, too—for where put the literacy emphasis to increase student learning.

  • Become discerning readers and writers. We cannot teach what we do not know or value. Apply what you do as a strategic reader and writer to teaching readers and writers. Let students know how and why you read and write for real-world audiences and purposes that go beyond the classroom—and this may include blogs, social media, opinion pieces, and more.

  • Do more read-alouds of excellent literature. In the course of reading, think aloud to show students how readers figure out vocabulary, question the author, make inferences, reread when confused, notice the author’s craft, and so on. Your read-alouds should include more emphasis on nonfiction.

  • Embed shared experiences in your teaching. Before asking students to read complex text, read complex text with them. Demonstrate “close reading” and reason through how to find, use, and analyze evidence from the text to make meaning and support a point of view.

  • Organize curriculum through emphasizing big ideas and important concepts. The best place to start is with the K-12 Common Core anchor standards for reading. These include key ideas and details, craft and structure, integration of knowledge and ideas, and range of reading and level of text complexity. Beware starting with small pieces of the standards; teachers and students can get stuck in the details and never get to the highest levels of understanding.

The Common Core State Standards are a worthy ideal of what’s possible for our students but they should be approached with perspective. Standards do not transform teaching and learning; effective teachers supported by knowledgeable principals and administrators do. Implementation and “how” to effectively instruct and assess student learning requires years of professional learning with skillful teachers, coaches, and leaders in a culture of trust, inquiry, coaching, collaboration, celebration of strengths, and, yes, even joy. In such learning cultures, students, teachers, and leaders thrive. It is up to knowledgeable administrators to ensure teachers and principals do not continue to drown in a culture of minutiae over testing and teaching to individual standards. Rather, savvy and courageous administrators ensure that being accountable for students’ engagement, enjoyment, and success as readers, writers, and thinkers comes before any set of standards, assessments, or mandates.

Regie Routman is an educator who works with teachers and administrators in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on regieroutman.org.

Image: Getty Image

PD_pulse
How to Support and Develop Your Staff

Use professional development to boost teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

By Donald J. Fraynd

In part one of this story, I talked about how to best identify and interview the strongest teacher candidates.

Finding and hiring quality candidates are just the beginning of the journey, though. Quality professional development is the best way to develop and maintain teacher effectiveness and, ultimately, to increase student achievement.

Many districts may think they have effective PD programs yet don’t realize their teachers may not be benefiting much from these efforts. In 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked, “What do you think we spend on professional development each year? $2.5 billion. But when I say that to teachers they usually laugh or cry. They are not feeling it.” A 2013 study by the Center for Public Education found that most teachers find their professional development programs to be “totally useless.” One-time workshops are the most prevalent model for delivering professional development. Yet researchers have found that workshops rarely influence or change teacher practice and student achievement. This is troubling for an industry that costs $2.5 billion annually. What’s worse is that when teachers don’t benefit from professional development, neither do their students. Schools are missing out on a huge opportunity to develop more effective teachers and increase student achievement. How do we fix this? We commit ourselves to implementing high-quality PD plans.

High-quality PD should include the following four characteristics: it’s personalized, it’s inclusive, it’s data-driven, and it uses technology.  

Programs should be highly relevant to the district, school, and most important, the teacher. Administrators have to address factors like low-income, special-needs, or gifted students. The most essential component of a quality PD program is that it is customized based on the strengths and weaknesses of an educator. As mentioned in part one of my column, research has found four key success indicators of an effective teacher: teaching skills, qualifications, attitudinal factors, and cognitive ability. This baseline candidate information is the foundation upon which a robust professional development plan is built. Quality PD addresses specific challenges in the classroom, school, and district in an effort to support teachers, giving them the knowledge and resources needed to be successful.  

Inclusiveness is another important component of a robust professional development plan. It’s important to get the teachers themselves involved. Teachers should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and they should be involved in the goal-setting process and creation of their program. What do your teachers think of the current PD program? Create a free online survey with a tool like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to get feedback about your current program. By asking teachers which subjects or activities would be most helpful, they feel supported, appreciated, and involved.  

Data collection is increasingly popular in schools as it’s the most objective way to measure progress. Thus, a robust PD plan should include a strong data component in order to track teacher progress and show that the plan is working. Schools should be collecting teacher and student data so that they can align PD efforts with student success. Quality professional development will show improvement in teacher effectiveness, and in turn will improve student performance. For example, if we know that math instruction is a weakness for a particular teacher, we can look at teacher and student performance in a math unit before and after the teacher takes a math-instruction PD course. It’s important that teachers see where they are growing and what needs more work.

Finally, technology is an essential component of quality professional development. Technology makes PD more efficient, measurable, and relevant. Software has made it easy to plan, track, and grade. Programs like TeacherMatch Thrive, integrated with Schoology, Desire2Learn, and Moodle, allows you to search for courses based on set goals and send the course to a teacher to sign up. Tools like TeacherMatch Thrive automatically track progress and award credit-based progress in the course.

Perhaps teaching is perceived as an “average” career choice by today’s college students because schools have a hard time identifying and developing effective teachers. That perception was built by the teachers these students had while growing up—teachers who probably didn’t have access to quality PD. It’s time to elevate the teaching profession and give students the best opportunity to succeed by recognizing the importance of quality professional development programs and the impact they can have on teacher effectiveness.

Donald J. Fraynd is CEO of TeacherMatch, a data-driven, people-powered formula for success for K-12 education talent management. As a principal in the Chicago Public Schools, his school was rated in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report. He is part of a team that spearheaded the design and implementation of a comprehensive hiring and professional development plan involving thousands of teachers and used by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact him through TeacherMatch.

Image: Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Hire-teachers_pulse

How to Identify, Hire, and Develop More Effective Teachers
By Donald J. Fraynd

Is teaching a profession for “average people”? According to a recent poll by think tank Third Way, a large percentage of millennial college students look at teaching in this light. Yes, there may be average teachers out there, but it certainly takes an extraordinary person to be an effective teacher, one who advances student learning and achievement.

It’s difficult to develop and retain high-quality teachers, and equally difficult to identify which candidates can make the most impact on student achievement. A resume and brief interview don’t provide enough information. It’s important for administrators, principals, and fellow teachers to understand what characteristics will predict whether teacher candidates will be effective. Undoubtedly, certain qualifications provide clues to future performance, but many in the position of hiring overlook other, more powerful indicators that could explain why one teacher succeeds and another does not.

Assess and Identify

According to an extensive review of literature on teacher effectiveness, certain knowledge, dispositions, and traits from three areas are just as important as qualifications: 1) attitudinal factors; 2) cognitive ability; and 3) teaching skills. Recent research that uses results from this review have made it possible to develop a powerful tool that is used to predict the impact a candidate will have on student achievement. Developed by an interdisciplinary research consortium made up of top universities, scholars, and nonprofits convened by TeacherMatch, the educator’s professional inventory (EPI) represents a shift toward adding science to the art of teacher selection. After taking an online assessment, a tool like the EPI can rank candidates based on potential impact on student achievement. 

A district HR director once told me that when he first took on his job, he went through a list of all the new teachers who were hired over the past five years. He noticed a disturbing trend: All of the teachers hired had last names that started with A through F. He realized that the district system sorted resumes in alphabetical order and that the hiring managers were getting worn out by time they got to the candidates farther down the list.

The EPI eliminates this problem by displaying the top candidates for each position, not by an arbitrary filing system but by their potential to impact student growth. I generally recommend that districts start by interviewing the top five candidates on the EPI candidate grid. Candidates are invited to interviews based on objective measures related to potential success on the job rather than more subjective techniques like resume reviews or personal connections.

Interview and Hire

Used in concert with powerful interview practices, a tool like the EPI can help school leaders transform the hiring process. For example, TeacherMatch’s research from the Northwest Evaluation Association and the University of Chicago suggests that baseline attitudinal factors correlate with teacher effectiveness. Traits like emotional objectivity, empathy, the belief that all students can learn, and positivity are great indicators of an effective teacher. A University of Memphis study called, “Highly Qualified for Successful Teaching: Characteristics Every Teacher Should Possess,” found that compassion and humor increase effectiveness in the classroom. It’s important to look for these traits in the interview process. After using a research-based tool like EPI to rank candidates by their potential for having a positive impact on student achievement, interview questions can be designed to delve deeper into candidate attitudes. Some sample questions might be:

  • Describe a time when you did not succeed.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to adapt because a situation changed at the last minute.
  • How do you stay positive when others around you are not?

Knowledge of strong instructional practices and teaching skills are also extremely predictive of future success in the classroom. It’s critical to see candidates in action as part of the hiring process. Candidates in the final round of consideration should prepare and teach a sample lesson. Principals should use a rubric that measures the level at which a candidate is enacting strong instructional practices. It’s also important to gauge cultural competence. Another strategy: Give a group of final teacher candidates a culture-focused education article to read and then review the group as they have a discussion. A research-based assessment in concert with powerful interview techniques can give decision-makers the full picture they need to make strong hiring choices.

In part two of this story, set to run on December 2, find out how a strong professional learning program can help to support and develop your teachers.

Donald J. Fraynd is CEO of TeacherMatch, a data-driven, people-powered formula for success for K-12 education talent management. As a principal in the Chicago Public Schools, his school was rated in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report. He is part of a team that spearheaded the design and implementation of a comprehensive hiring and professional development plan involving thousands of teachers and used by the U.S. Department of Education. Contact him through TeacherMatch.

Image: Getty Images/Blend Images RM

Mathskills_pulse

Making Math Relevant

Connecting math to real-world jobs shows students its importance.
By Joseph Goins

“I'm never going to use this in real life!” This is a response that teachers, particularly math teachers, hear almost every day. To the students making this remark, math is just a bunch of computations on a screen or board that they're forced to wrangle with for no good reason.

As educators, we know that's not the case. Even manufacturing jobs now require strong skills in mathematical concepts such as fractions, decimals, and basic trigonometry. So how can we help students see the meaning in math? Hundreds of software programs have been developed to guide learners through mathematical complexities but how do educators convince those learners that the effort is worthwhile? The answer: Bring relevance and context to the subject.

Career and technical education (CTE) provides a prime example of how to help students make the connection between math and real life. Applying classroom learning while working with the technology required for a chosen career path has proven to be so engaging that the Association for Career and Technical Education reports that among the advantages CTE students exhibit are gains in motivation, engagement, grades, and math skills.

The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education took math skill advancement a step further by developing a Math-in-CTE model in which lessons emphasized the mathematics already existing within the occupational curricula. After just one year, students in the math-enhanced CTE classes performed better on standardized and community college placement math tests than students who received the regular CTE curriculum. Those results are especially impressive since regular CTE students were already reporting greater general math proficiency than students not involved in CTE.

To help teachers bring this concept into their own lessons, my company launched a career-based math solution, WIN Math, which contains math and project tools formed around 16 different career clusters.

Within the framework of linking real-world projects to math, teachers can include not just obvious choices such as STEM professions, but also law and public safety, corrections or security, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources. Lesson units can conclude with individual or collaborative projects based on authentic workplace tasks such as the following:

  • Creating a “green” blueprint (uses algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus/calculus, probability and statistics, linear programming)
  • Producing a marketing plan or performance chart (uses algebra, calculus, mathematical economics, statistics)
  • Developing a disease prevention/response program (uses pre-algebra, algebra, statistics, dimensional analysis)
  • Arguing a legal case centered on a math-based problem, such as time and distance in a murder trial (uses algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, finite mathematics, statistics)

The added advantage of the career-based approach is that it gives students a taste of what a particular profession entails. For that reason, the career paths chosen as lesson frameworks can be aspirational as well as practical.

The U.S. education system is facing increasing demands that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. To accomplish this, students need to understand why math matters. To do that, educators need to form a math curriculum around business and industry skills to help them connect what they’re learning to the real world.

Joseph Goins is executive vice president of WIN Learning, a software firm focused on career and college readiness initiatives. Goins is a doctoral candidate in education policy and administration at Vanderbilt University.

Image: Getty Images

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.