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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

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

Jill_lead_pulse
Listening to School Leaders

DOE’s ambassador program connects policymakers with principals.
By Caralee Adams

Jill Levine has been in public education for 22 years, but no one from the federal government has ever asked for her opinion. “And I have lots of opinions,” says the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet, a PreK–8 magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Now, Levine is sharing her thoughts on everything from testing to professional development as one of three Principal Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s a great way to collect voices of principals and use those to inform the decisions that are made from here,” says Levine of the fellowship program, which launched as a pilot in 2013.

A Conduit to the Top

Modeled after a similar fellowship for teachers that began in 2008, the principal fellows work closely with the DOE’s communication and outreach office, as well as travel to meet with administrators around the country. Levine is based in Washington full-time, while two other fellows are part-time appointees. (Levine took a leave from her school and moved her family to Arlington, Virginia, for the year.)

“There is such a distance between the altitude where we set policies and form programs and the altitude where those policies and programs hit classrooms,” says Massie Ritsch, the DOE’s communications director. “A program like this aims to close that gap so we are hearing more directly from school leaders: what they need from the federal department of education, how faithfully our policies translate into practice when they get to the local level.”

Department officials say they are realizing the overload that principals face and how policies impact them. “A huge piece is just literally understanding what is happening in the school building,” says Gillian Cohen-Boyer, director of the fellowship program. “What we do becomes part of the equation…that can help and hurt.”

The fellows are trying to find more opportunities for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other officials to hear from principals at large conferences, at small roundtable focus groups, and in schools.

This fall marked the third year that the DOE hosted a principal shadowing day in October, where 30 officials worked alongside principals in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland schools.

At a debriefing of the event held at DOE headquarters last week, Duncan said he saw firsthand the challenges of running a large high school when he shadowed Rachel Skerritt, a fellow and a principal at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Duncan said he saw a lot of energy expended, from checking in cell phones to complying with the district attendance policy, to “make sure the ship is afloat every day.” He also commented that he gained a new appreciation for the demands of the job and that more needs to be done to convey to young people that educators are fighting for their lives and that school is their lifeline.

Lessons From the Inside

While the fellows are sharing their perspective with DOE officials, they are gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of the bureaucracy.

“It’s a two-way street for learning,” Skerritt says. “The intention of the fellowship program was to get feedback from us, but we had a lot of learning to do about what the federal government does and doesn’t do.”

Rachel-pulse2Although he used to be an 8th-grade history teacher, fellow Sharif El-Mekki says the program has helped him realize the influence of the federal government and the control that states have over implementing education policy.

The potential impact of working collaboratively with education officials drew El-Mekki to the program. “Years ago, I thought that could never happen. It was two different worlds,” says El-Mekki, who is the principal at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a 7th- to 12th-grade charter school in Philadelphia. “I thought whatever policymakers came up with, practitioners would just try to fix it or disregard it.” Through the fellowship, El-Mekki has discovered that the DOE is interested in the advice of principals.

“I’ve been struck by how much people here care,” Levine says. “It’s very easy to make joking comments about ‘Oh, the federal government,’ but the hearts of people here when they talk about the work they are doing is so genuine.”

So, now that Levine has their ear, what is she saying?

“The thing I most want them to know is how important principals are,” Levine says. “If there is a great administrator in the school who believes in an initiative and who buys into it and has the leadership skills to make it happen, it will happen.”

Skerritt agrees. “Principals really hold the key,” she says. For instance, with a new Teach to Lead initiative that the department rolled out in the spring, success will boil down to the school level. “It is going to fall on whether the school leader buys into that concept for the teacher to even have an opportunity to take on a teacher-leader role in a building,” Skerritt explains.

Principals must provide teachers with support for instruction to improve, adds El-Mekki, noting that PD and sharing of best training practices can help.

Leading a building is a complex job, and the new fellowship program has, in essence, been a “national support group” for principals, Skerritt says. Administrators in schools large and small, rural and urban, are sharing common challenges. One frequent refrain heard from principals is a call for autonomy.

“Principals don’t actually mind the buck stopping with them and the responsibility line,” Skerritt says. “But they definitely want the autonomy around key levers: hiring and resources that impact school success. They are really longing for that and it needs to be considered when holding them accountable.”

Next Steps

During the summer, the fellows met with DOE staff to summarize what they were hearing from principals, and they will be asked to do so again at the end of their experience, says Ritsch. They also participate in meetings almost weekly in which they are asked to chime in with ideas on communication materials going out to schools or language going into a speech.

The information provided by the principal fellows has already changed the way the department thinks about policy, says Cohen-Boyer. Administrators must clearly understand reform initiatives if they are going to be implemented with fidelity, she says. With 90,000 principals (compared with 3. 5 million teachers), the number is more manageable to reach, she adds.

The fellows have provided a reality check. “Things can sound perfect in the abstract when you are designing them on paper, but you need a person running a school to tell you if that’s going to fly,” says Ritsch.

While the fellowship pilot lasts for 18 months, going forward the appointment will be for the academic year. According to Ritsch, new fellows will be selected in the spring for 2015–16. Last year, 600 applications were received for the three positions. Application information will be available by the end of this year here.

Image: Chris Adams

SLO_pulse
Lessons Learned: Launching a SLO Initiative

By Jo-ne Bourassa

In Georgia, as in many states, approximately 75 percent of teachers teach subjects that are not assessed by state tests—for at least part of the instructional day. To meet the student growth and academic achievement component of Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System, teachers of these non-tested subjects must implement student learning objectives (SLOs) to gauge student growth.

As one of the original 26 Race to the Top districts in Georgia, Bibb County School District jumped in early on to launch a SLO initiative. In the first year of the pilot, during 2012-13, the Georgia Department of Education required that 52 SLOs be given. To help districts prepare for this, the DOE provided training in assessment alignment and SLO creation.

In Bibb County, we decided to use a pre-test/post-test format to determine student growth over a semester or school year. Several challenges became apparent during year one.

Year One Challenges

To start, we faced a steep learning curve and a massive amount of work. As part of Georgia’s system, student growth and academic achievement are measured by student growth percentiles in tested subjects, or SLOs in non-tested subjects. Only 25 percent of our courses provide growth percentiles through Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Testsin grades 4-8, or end-of-course tests in high school. That meant we were now responsible for creating and administering SLO assessments—and arriving at SLO scores—for 75 percent of our courses.

To save time, we initially used public-domain SLO assessments created by other districts. This, unfortunately, meant our teachers felt no ownership of the materials. In addition, the administration and grading of the 52 pre- and post-tests caused almost all other activities to come to a halt. The tests took two to four days to administer. All were done via paper and pencil, which consumed our paper and copying budgets. The student scores (about 52,000 scores) were collected by hand on an Excel spreadsheet and sent to the central office for summarizing.

Mid-Year Changes

By the end of the first semester in year one, it became clear that teachers, students, and parents did not take the SLO assessments seriously. They even joked and complained about students taking “SLOW” tests.

So, in December 2012, we decided to change our SLOs to GLOs — growth learning objectives. We also switched out the labor-intensive assessments for instruments we already had for PreK-3, including AIMSweb for reading and math in grades 1-3; district writing assessments for English language arts in grades 1-3; Gkids portfolio pieces for kindergarten ELA, math, and reading; and Bright from the Startportfolio pieces for PreK literacy and numeracy. We had to live with the assessments in the other grade levels until we could write our own.

Year Two Revisions

For 2013-14, our district was required to have at least one growth measure for every certified teacher from pre-kindergarten through grade 12. This included P.E., fine arts, and career, technical and agriculture education (CTAE) teachers, as well as any class for which a teacher did not have an existing GLO or student growth percentile. This necessitated the creation of 100-plus additional GLO assessments.

We knew this would be a nearly impossible task without technology. So, after issuing an RFP and evaluating several systems, in January 2013 we selected the SLO Module from Performance Matters, along with the company’s assessment and data management system. Then, from February to July, we revised and developed 100-plus GLO assessments in ELA, math, science, social studies, P.E., fine arts, and CTAE.

In June and July 2013, we conducted training on the Performance Matters platform for our administrators and testing coordinators. Then, in August, we administered the GLO pre-tests in all 41 schools via plain paper scanning and online testing. Instead of having to collect the pre-test data on a spreadsheet, the results were automatically available in the company’s system, which also made it easier to send to the DOE. In addition, our teachers could now see the baseline assessment results and growth targets for each student. This allowed them to more easily monitor students’ progress toward the growth target during the school year, and identify what their students needed and which standards they needed to focus on to reach that target.

We went through the same process to administer the post-tests. Even though we were now administering twice as many assessments, we saved a significant amount of time and energy over the previous year, when we had to gather and analyze the data by hand. Our teachers and administrators could now access the target score and the results data from the pre- and post-assessments for each student under each SLO. With the SLO Module’s automatic calculations, teachers could see whether or not each student met the SLO, as well as the overall percentage of students achieving the SLO by class or by course. In addition, school leaders could use the data to group teachers into the appropriate ratings category—exemplary, proficient, needs development, or ineffective—on the SLO portion of their annual evaluations.

Lessons Learned

Here are some key takeaways from our successful launch of an SLO initiative.

  • Develop clear and concise test administration instructions to guide school testing coordinators and teachers through the pre- and post-test process.
    We created a spreadsheet with “administration notes” for each course. These notes instruct testing coordinators and teachers how to administer and score each test, which eliminates confusion and ensures consistency in each course.
  • Form two teams of teachers to develop SLO assessments—a team of writers and a team of reviewers.
    Having a team of writers and a separate team of reviewers not only improves the quality of the assessments, but it also encourages teacher buy-in since they are actively involved in the test-creation process.
  • Train teachers on test development and assessment alignment.
    Within each course, teachers should be able to determine which standards are most important for students to master the course and prepare for the next grade level. They should be able to plan what percentage of course time should be spent on each of these “power standards,” taking into consideration the percentage of the test that will cover the standard. They should be able to dissect each standard and identify exactly what students must be able to know, understand, and do to demonstrate mastery. They should also be able to articulate the depth of knowledge of each standard, so the assessment item can match that level of cognitive complexity.
  • Allow at least six months—and a large team of teachers — for the development, review, and input of the SLO assessments.
    It is also important to gather input from teachers of English-language learners and students with disabilities who can provide insight into what, if any, modifications might be required to meet specific needs or individualized education plans.
  • Create an item template to ensure consistency.
    Instead of purchasing an item bank, we collected items from a variety of sources, including state-released tests, or we developed our own. Each item was created using a template, which included the following fill-in-the-blank components: question number, DOK level (1-4), curriculum code, question stem, answer choices A-D, and correct answer. Having this template made it much easier to review and vet the items, before we put them into the assessment and data management system.

When we launched our GLO initiative more than two years ago, we had no idea how much work it would be to create and administer the assessments, and then crunch the data for each GLO to determine if students achieved the academic goals set at the beginning of each course. The use of technology has allowed us to automate and streamline the GLO process and ensure more accurate calculations for effectiveness ratings for our teachers. It also gives our teachers easier access to the data they need to inform their instruction, so they can meet the primary purpose of the SLOs — to improve student learning in the classroom.

Dr. Jo-ne Bourassa is the Race to the Top coordinator for the Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia.

Image: credit: Zero Creatives/Media Bakery

Broad prize pulse

Broad Prize: Two for One

A pair of finalists take home foundation’s top prize.
By Wayne D'Orio

When the finalists were announced for this year’s Broad Prize, it was somewhat of a letdown. Instead of the typical four or five districts battling for the unofficial title of best urban district, there were only two: Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida.

That mood shifted when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the announcement in New York Monday, saying, “I feel like Santa Claus. We have two winners.”

The tie was a first in the foundation’s 13-year history; the two districts will split the $1 million award. And it was Gwinnett’s second victory, newly eligible again after winning the prize in 2010.

Interestingly, while the districts have similar profiles, they took different paths to success.

Gwinnett has some of the most stable leadership in the country. Not only has superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks led the district for 18 years, but the most junior member on the district’s five-person board has nine years experience. The tenure of the longest-serving board member even predates Wilbanks, stretching back to the 1970s. The district’s steady progress netted it the highest SAT participation rate among the 75 Broad Prize-eligible districts, and its students had one of the top AP participation rates.

Orange County’s progress has been more dramatic. The district’s low-income middle school students showed improvement in reaching the highest achievement levels in state tests. In reading, student scores rose 6 percentage points at the highest levels, compared to 1 percentage point of growth for the rest of the state. The district also narrowed the achievement gap between Hispanic students and white students in elementary, middle, and high schools in both math and science.

“We wrestled with performance versus improvement,” said former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell, a member of the prize’s selection jury. “We were impressed with Gwinnett County’s steady, sustainable gains and with Orange County’s urgency and commitment to improve student achievement quickly.”

Gwinnett has about 170,000 students and spends $7,548 per pupil. The district has 55 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 16 percent English language learners. Orange County has 187,000 students and spends $7,965 per student. Sixty percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while 13 percent are designated as English language learners.

Advice from Tony Blair, Arne Duncan

Held at Time Warner in New York’s Columbus Circle, the Broad Prize event drew a large crowd of top education leaders, including former education secretary Rod Paige, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Philadelphia superintendent William Hite, and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair kicked off the event by remembering the struggles he faced when he started to reform Britain’s worst-performing schools. “I think the toughest thing you can do in life is to take a system in the public sector and make the changes and improve it.”

“When you first propose change, people resist it,” he said. “When you are doing it, it's hell, and when you are through doing it, you wish you did more of it.”

Blair joked that Britain and the United States had “a disagreement a couple of hundred of years ago,” but added that both countries “learn best when we learn from each other.”

Duncan spoke next, and he recounted vignettes from his recent three-day bus tour through the South. The secretary marveled at the hardships some children overcome to continue their education. He spoke of children fighting to be the first in their family to graduate high school. “They have amazing potential to do well if we meet them halfway,” Duncan said, praising the teachers, principals, and counselors he has met.

“I’m hopeful about where we are going. Graduation rates are at an all-time high, half a million more African-Americans are in college—we’ve made huge amounts of progress. Yet we come to work every single day because we are not getting good enough fast enough.”

Publicly available data from 2009 to 2013 was used to screen districts this year. Districts can’t apply or be nominated for the award; the 75 largest districts that serve significant percentages of low-income students are automatically considered.

Photos (from left): Invision for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation/AP Images; John Raoux/AP Photo

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