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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

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

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

Russoelection2_pulse

Who “Won” the 2014 Midterm Elections: Reformers, Teachers Unions, or Conservatives?

None of them, actually.
By Alexander Russo

Did so-called school reformers (pro-charter, pro-Common Core Democrats, mostly) win the November 4 midterm elections, did the teachers unions, or did anti-Common Core advocates (most of them conservative Republicans)?

A casual observer could be forgiven for not quite understanding the national education implications of this year’s just-ended election season. That’s because the dominant media narrative has shifted in the days following the midterms, and it remains somewhat unsettled now, more than two weeks later. 

Most of the attention focused on the battle between pro-reform Democrats and long-standing Democratic Party supporters in the labor movement.

The first wave of news coverage and commentary suggested strongly that the midterms were a big win for reformers. But the second wave of coverage and commentary suggested that the midterms may really have been a big loss for Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party as a whole but not specifically teachers unions.

So who’s right? What’s the real storyline? 

The reality is that the midterm outcomes were inconclusive and mixed for reformers and teachers unions and Common Core opponents. Of course, that hasn’t kept the different sides from doing their best to make it look like they prevailed.

To take the reformers’ side, there is some accuracy to the notion that they had a good election, and the focus on reform wins and union losses was strong in the days immediately after the elections were held. Unions spent on and lost big races in seven states: Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. This was all the more embarrassing given that three of those states—Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts—are thoroughly Democratic. New York's pro-charter, pro-Common Core governor Andrew Cuomo easily won re-election without support from the powerful state teachers union, as did pro-reform senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Immediately following the elections, media outlets such as Politico, Education Week, and others wrote about how well the reform wing of the Democratic Party had done in 2014. The Washington Post followed suit with the headline “Teachers unions spent $60 million for the midterms but still lost many elections.” Pro-reform advocacy group StudentsFirst (until recently run by Michelle Rhee) claimed that its efforts prevailed in more than 80 percent of the 104 races it got involved in. And the education advisor for Mike Bloomberg’s pro-reform Independence USA PAC trumpeted victories in five gubernatorial races, including for incumbents Dan Malloy (D-CT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and Rick Snyder (R-Michigan), as well as challengers Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Gina Raimondo (D-RI).

“I have to wonder if there are any union leaders expressing misgivings internally about the current ‘defend-all-old-priorities’ strategy,” wrote Andy Smarick, who works for the moderately conservative Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.   

At first, there wasn’t much disagreement about how badly things had gone for the unions. The AFT cancelled a scheduled press call the morning after the results came in. Reform critic Diane Ravitch’s blog post the morning after the midterms was titled simply “Bad News.”  

However, most of the elections didn’t seem to turn on education issues and didn’t feature head-to-head matchups between pro-reform and pro-union candidates.

Much if not most of the money the teachers unions spent was designed to try to help the Democratic Party keep control of the Senate—an uphill battle that few expected to win. The unions were just taking one on the chin for the DNC. 

And so, a day or two later in the week, the media storyline began to change. While the midterms may have been a horror show for Democrats, the teachers unions began to push back against the notion that they’d lost on education issues. Teachers unions had “several victories to celebrate,” noted the Education Writers Association’s public editor, Emily Richmond. “Teachers Unions Say Midterm Losses Don’t Reflect on Them,” ran the title of a Huffington Post article featuring an interview with AFT head Randi Weingarten. “It’s hard for me to understand … what the business types and the testing types of this education debate think they won here,” she said. 

The unions won big with the election of Democratic Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf over incumbent Republican Tom Corbett, a race that turned in part on education cuts made in recent years. And the most closely watched and expensive race that pitted reformers and teachers unions against one another, for state superintendent of education in California, went narrowly to the teachers, with incumbent Tom Torlakson defeating challenger Marshall Tuck. It was closer than many expected, given the advantages of incumbency and the strengths of the teachers union in California, but it was still a win for the union side.

“It’s hard to believe a huge outpouring to defeat Obama—arguably the most powerful force ever to push for “education reform”—is somehow a resounding call for more education reform,” noted reform critic Jeff Bryant.

Understanding the meaning of the 2014 midterms isn’t just important on a factual level (i.e., knowing which side won which races). It’s also important because it shapes how the various parties and organizations think and feel and how fast and far they might try and push their agendas during the next few months and years. The midterm results are a signal to both sides about how they’re doing, and the simplified narrative that gets told and repeated for the next few months will shape those beliefs.

So where does this leave things for the near future?

The most fundamental issue that reformers and teachers unions face together—and have yet to deal with—is that the Democratic Party doesn’t currently appeal very much to white working-class voters who aren’t union members.

A secondary concern that’s been raised by the 2014 midterms is the prospect of further polarization down the line, creating situations in which education candidates beat each other to a pulp while Republicans or other candidates not necessarily so devoted to public education sneak into office.

Whether it’s congressional races, state governors’ offices, or even the White House in 2016, divisions among Democrats could in theory lead to Republican victories.

While unions have to worry about decreasing influence and the ability to deliver elections to the Democratic Party, reformers have to worry about a bipartisan retreat from annual testing required by all states under NCLB. Another reform worry is the rollout of the Common Core assessments this spring and the results they will provide. More than 30 states will receive scores from the new assessments this spring, and they’re not likely going to be easy to look at.

That’s why there were words of caution from the reform side of education’s civil war, too, in the days following the midterms: “We have one year to strengthen the argument for the core reforms under way all across America before the next set of candidates start locking in their positions,” cautioned Duncan’s former communications guru, Peter Cunningham. “The beach is secure, but the threats are never far away.”

Common Core opponents (most of them conservative Republicans, as well as some liberal Democrats), have to figure out how to strengthen their case, as well. They won state superintendent races in Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, noted the Wall Street Journal. Arizona also elected an anti-Common Core governor, Republican Doug Ducey. However, pro-Common Core governors won re-election in at least two other states, and pro-Common Core former Florida governor Jeb Bush seems to be inching closer to a run for president in 2016.

Photo (from left): Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press; Sacramento Bee/ MCT /LANDOV

Top Stories for Thursday 5/1

How a Top-Performing Country Handles Tech
Singapore uses tech to encourage collaboration. Hechinger Report

Google Stops Scanning
Google announces the halting of storing student emails. Education Week

Overdoing Test Prep?
NYC chancellor promised pull back but has anything changed? The New York Times

2014 National Teacher of the Year
Sean McComb of Maryland announced the winner. The Washington Post

Charter vs. Public Funding
Report shows charter schools receive less, is the gap unfair? Huffington Post

Virginia Extends In-State Tuition
Children of illegal immigrants will qualify. The New York Times

Top Stories for Thursday 4/17

How Will The New SAT Test Vocab?
The redesigned SAT will focus on ‘high utility’ words. What exactly does that mean?

Choosing Sides At Northwestern
Last month’s vote to allow a union causes friction. The New York Times

Opposing Views on Teacher Tenure
Calif. case outcome could become example for other states. The New York Times

Common Core Aligned With Cognitive Issues
Field tests for students with disabilities administered. Education Week

Indiana Rushes to Make New Deadline
First state to drop Common Core to approve new standards. The Huffington Post

Pay It Forward Tuition
New idea could allow students to go to college for free. NPR

Top Stories for Wednesday 3/12

Will the Common Core Spell the End of the Letter Grade?
How standards-based grading could revolutionize assessment. The Atlantic

NYC Building Collapses
Middle school shaken by nearby explosion. The New York Times

School Lunches Transformed
How one fed up parent is making big change. Education Week

Charter School Supporters Aren't Giving Up
Thousands protested De Blasio’s decision in Albany. Education Week

Foreign Students Struggle in Universities
American colleges try to keep foreign students enrolled. The New York Times

Are For-Profit Schools Taking Advantage of Students?
States work to correct for-profit school oversights. Hechinger Report

Top Stories for Tuesday 2/11

Superintendents Speak-Up on ESEA Renewal Plan
Large-district supers pressure Congress to act. Education Week

Tennessee Teacher Evaluations: A Step Too Far?
Teachers push back against Race to the Top promises. The Huffington Post

Good News for Snowed-Out Schools?
Harvard study says snow days don’t hurt student achievement. The Washington Post

Survey Zeros-In on College-K12 Disconnect
Why higher ed and K-12 administrators need to work together. Hechinger Report

Cuomo Accuses NY Officials of Diluting Teacher Reviews
Gov. continues to push new teacher evaluation system. The New York Times

2014: Is This Year a Game-Changer?
What upcoming elections may mean for your school. Education Week

Common Core: It’s Working
How one school implemented the new standards successfully. Hechinger Report

Top Stories for Monday 12/2

New Tests…for Teachers
After two-years of piloting, new performance-based licensing test rolls out. Education Week

Tea Party to Gov. Scott Walker: Say Goodbye to CCSS 
Common Core critics ask Walker to “be the hero in this story.” Huffington Post

LAUSD Teachers Rate iPad Rollout
Admins give the project mixed reviews. Los AngelesTimes

Are You Double Testing Students?
15 states seek waivers to reduce testing. Education Week

Urban Schools Aim for Environmental Revolution
How to re-engineer your cafetaria to be green. The New York Times

Why Geniuses Don't Need Gifted Ed
Jay Mathews says these students are best in regular classes. The Washington Post

Top Stories for Tuesday 11/26

5 Unanswered Questions in Federal Grant Data
SIG program report may be missing key components. Education Week

Texas Board Flags Bio Textbook Over Evolution Concerns
Delays approval over concerns it presents evolution as fact. The New York Times

Report: 3 Ways Districts Can Fund Special Education
Proposes locally based strategies in absence of federal reform. The Huffington Post

Lessons From Philly: Experimenting with Hybrid Schools
What Philly can teach us about education reform strategies. NPR

Common (Core) Tutoring
Tutoring firms get in the business of Common Core. The Washington Post

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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.