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What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System

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What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System

Determining your schools’ needs will help you zero in on the right choice for your district. By Maged Atiya

Being in school every day is vital for a student’s success, and with state funding associated with attendance, it is also important financially for school districts to minimize absenteeism. Improvements in ID Card System technology are helping to streamline the attendance process in timely, cost-effective ways.

Many districts have discovered that implementing such a system is well worth the commitment and investment, and others are finding that it’s time to upgrade their current systems.

There are a number of important factors to consider when you’re shopping around for an ID Card vendor/partner; here are some key elements to think about.

Dumb Cards or Smart Cards?

What do you want your card to do, how much functionality do you need, how secure must it be, and how fast does the card need to be read?

Dumb cards: These are cards with a magnetic stripe or bar code on them that usually do only simple things: they can open a door or pull up a food service or library account. Staff members typically swipe these cards to enter a building, which is easy enough to do. However, the wear and tear of swiping reduces the card’s lifespan.

Smart cards: These cards provide a host of options. They are contactless and use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology; students tap their cards onto a reader and they are logged in, quickly and easily. Readers can be installed on buses, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gym, or in the auditorium, which makes tracking students extremely efficient. In fact, some configurations can process a thousand students in just minutes.

Smart cards are coded with a unique ID number that is assigned to one individual; it’s the back-end computer that maintains all the information on that person. This means that additional functionality can be added quickly, all at once, at any time, on the base computer. School districts can start with a straightforward ID system, and add features at a later date when budgets or needs change.

Some smart card companies can interact with legacy card programs—those ID card systems that are already in a school district. So the upgrade to smart technologies doesn’t always mean the existing service cannot be used.

To Cloud or Not To Cloud?

We hear all about “the cloud”—and we know it’s important—but do you need a cloud-based ID card system?

In a non-cloud-based system, your data resides in a server somewhere in your school district. It is maintained by your IT department, and if you needed to expand your memory or upgrade your processing speed, then the district would buy a new, bigger computer/server.

If you want to upgrade functionality or software, your IT person has to go from school to school and manage each computer. And if there was a flood, fire, system crash, or security breach, all of your data could be lost and you’d have to start from scratch. Maintaining a traditional land-based system like this can be very costly—in time as well as in money spent.

Cloud computing means that your data resides virtually, in off-site servers, with backup systems in place, so if something happens, your data is safe and always available. Improvements are also simple to make: because the program resides in one place, it has to be upgraded in only one place, and added functionality can be transferred to every school instantly. This service-based process is more streamlined and cost effective.

Cloud services offer significant advantages, but make sure that your vendor/partner uses the highest level of data security available. There are international security standards (PCI, FISMA, SSAE16, to be specific), which are used by banks, credit card companies, hospitals and others, so look for them in your cloud-based ID card system.

Emergency! Emergency!

Sadly, it seems as though we hear about school lockdowns on a weekly basis. ID card systems can certainly help keep your buildings more secure, but there’s more to it than just knowing who came in the front door.

When there’s an emergency, look for an ID card system that can ensure that:

  • All doors in a building or across the district can be locked down with a single command, which can be issued from any wireless device or any computer. This immediacy improves time to action and can save lives.
  • An accurate location report is available on a tablet or computer that shows which staff members and students used their card for attendance and therefore can be identified in the building, in a specific room, which can help first responders react fast.

To automate the process even more effectively, some districts provide their local police and fire departments with precinct- or school-specific ID cards that allow them immediate access into school buildings.

Active or Passive RFID?

School districts have to strike a delicate balance between protecting students when they are on campus, and protecting a student’s right to privacy. You can defend yourself from litigation by making sure your RFID-based ID card system is passive, not active. You can also save yourself some money, too.

Usually battery-powered, active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source that is used to run the card’s microchip circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). This allows a student’s or teacher’s card to be read at any time—the card can be hanging around a person’s neck, held onto his or her belt loop, or in their backpack, and the reader can pick up its signal, as long as it is within a certain range.

Because the card transmits data, badge holders can be tracked and found anywhere, at any time. And while this may be an enticing scenario, schools have to consider student privacy rights as well. Also Active RFID cards require a battery and are heavier, more expensive, and need significantly more maintenance.

Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, and require a student to take an action, like tapping it on a screen, for the card to be read. This process makes it easy to track where students are, and you can get an accurate count of how many students (or teachers, or staff) have checked in at any particular time. However, because it is a passive process, these ID cards do not infringe on privacy. Also, passive cards are less expensive and last longer, hence they have lower overall cost.

Imagine That

Technological advances with ID card systems can make a host of administrative processes easier and more efficient. Here are just a few examples of what’s already happening in school districts across the country.

Attendance: An automated ID card system that generates a list of late/absent children; the parents of those children are then called by an automated system that reports them as absent, making the process more streamlined so office staff can focus on other tasks.

Classroom: Students tap their cards upon entering a classroom, so teachers don’t have to take attendance and substitutes always have an accurate count. Children tap out if they leave the class early and tap into the main office/nurse/guidance office, etc., which makes student movement easy to track.

Visitor Management: When a visitor arrives, there are visitor management modules that determine if he or she has been to the school before. If the person is recognized, a paper badge can be printed; if he or she isn’t in the database, the system determines if there are any district-defined exclusionary alerts regarding the person, while simultaneously checking for a match against the sexual offender database. An automatic alert is sent to the district, making the school even more secure.

Location and Time Clock Management: Staff members use their ID cards to open locked doors to enter school buildings or portable classrooms. Students with disabilities or injuries use their cards to access building elevators. Facility staff members use time clock kiosks to sign in and out of work, which keeps track of their time spent, their current location, and any overtime hours they work.

Students: ID cards are used at cafeteria registers and at libraries to check out books. The database carries personal schedule information, and cards are checked by hall monitors using mobile devices to verify that students are going to the correct class for the proper period.

Accountability and Control: ID cards are tapped for events that take place in buildings after school and/or at night. Students tap in to attend a sporting event, dance, concert, or any other school-sponsored program, which adds accountability and control to event administrators and lets them know who is in the venue for that event.

LASTLY

It’s important to plan ahead. With the pace of technology advances, make sure you find a partner that understands the needs you have today, what you might want in the future, and how you can plan to get there. And now that you’re armed with these important ideas, you can find an ID card system that works best for your schools.

Maged Atiya, Ph.D., is ScholarChip’s founder and principal partner, responsible for managing system and application developments with an eye towards emerging technologies. He founded the company to provide school districts with fast and powerful computing in order to centralize security and operations into a single low maintenance system.

Everyone Graduates

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Everyone Graduates

By moving to a performance-based model and giving students a choice in how they learn, this rural Kentucky district has eliminated dropouts for the last six years. By Charles Higdon

Taylor County is a rural community in central Kentucky. We have three schools serving approximately 2,900 students—60 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

We don’t fit the typical profile of a poor, rural school district, though: We haven’t had a single student drop out of school in more than six years, and in the last two years we’ve seen a 100-percent graduation rate.

We’ve achieved this success by embracing an innovative, student-centered approach to teaching and learning.

In Taylor County, we have moved to an entirely performance-based model in which students are placed in classes based not on their age, but their ability. What’s more, we no longer require seat time for students to advance.

While other schools in the state require 176 school days to get through the curriculum, we operate differently. Our students work through the curriculum at their own pace, and when they are ready to move on, they can—provided they can demonstrate proficiency on an exit exam.

To operate in this way, we have received special approval from the state. We’re one of the first five districts in Kentucky to be designated as a District of Innovation.

Three years ago, the Kentucky Department of Education invited districts to apply for this status, which gives those chosen more flexibility to be creative in their approach to educating students. There are now roughly a dozen Districts of Innovation across the state.

When we applied for this status, we had to submit a plan describing what we intended to do that would be innovative. Our performance-based model allowed us to apply, and in return, we were granted a waiver from the state’s seat-time requirements.

We also give students a choice in how they learn, because one size definitely does not fit all. We have implemented a “wagon wheel” approach, which places the students at the center, surrounded by six spokes, each of which represents a different way of learning.

Both our students and teachers choose which approach to instruction is right for them, and then we match students to the teachers and modes of instruction they desire.

Included in this model is a traditional approach, in which students come to class for 176 days and receive direct instruction from a teacher. Some students and teachers still prefer this method.

But we also offer five other, more innovative approaches, for those who want to learn in a different way.

Online learning: Students can work at their own pace using Odysseyware’s online courseware. We have created a virtual academy in which students log in to their online classes from a computer lab, and a fully certified teacher serves as an on-site guide. Since we’ve opened our virtual academy, many of our at-risk students are now actually moving through the curriculum at an accelerated pace and graduating early.

Project-based learning: Students can learn the curriculum in the context of authentic, real-world projects. For instance, a local business donated LEGO engineering kits to one of our elementary classes, and students worked together in groups to design factories.

Self-paced learning: In this “flipped” approach to instruction, teachers record their lessons and students can watch these videos as often as they need in order to learn the material. Teachers serve as facilitators during class time to help students master the content.

Peer-led instruction: In these classrooms, students learn from each other, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. For some students, it helps to hear an explanation of the content from one of their peers as opposed to a teacher.

Cardinal Academy: In this new high school program, students develop their own learning plan. They have an advisor, who oversees them to ensure they’re completing the objectives they need to and are pacing themselves correctly, but students can choose for themselves what subjects they will work on, and when. They can also learn off campus through internships.

Letting students learn at their own pace, and giving them a choice in how they will learn, empowers students to take control of their education—and we have seen this approach pay off.

As educators, we’re not here just to ensure that students score well on state exams; we’re here to educate students fully, and prepare them to succeed in college or a career. And we are doing that here in Taylor County.

Charles Higdon is assistant superintendent for Kentucky’s Taylor County Schools. He can be reached at charles.higdon@taylor.kyschools.us

Image: Media Bakery

Instructional Rigor

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Instructional Rigor

It’s a hard goal, but achievable if principals make sure their teachers follow these three critical guidelines. By Barbara R. Blackburn

Over the past few years, the concept of rigor has taken hold in education. Although it is typically used when referring to the Common Core or other state standards, it is also addressed in discussions about improving student performance.

One of the challenges is that rigor is a loaded word. Many teachers quote the dictionary definition (“extremely thorough”) as a reason not to implement rigorous instruction. But instructional rigor is not harsh or rigid. It is not assigning more homework or work that is not achievable.

Rather, instructional rigor focuses on student learning. In my book, Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, I define rigor as “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels” (2012).

There are three main components of instructional rigor. First, in a rigorous classroom, there are high expectations for students. We must expect all students to learn, not just the high-achievers. All students are capable of rigorous work including those at risk and with special needs. For example, Level Three (Strategic Learning) of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge requires that students be encouraged to explain, generalize, or connect ideas. All students can be taught to do this, beginning at the earliest grade levels. Some may struggle more than others, but all can learn how to explain their ideas and justify opinions.

When I work with principals, I ask them one simple question: “When you are observing teachers, do you look to see if the teacher is asking higher-order questions?” Unanimously, they respond positively. However, if a teacher asks a higher-order question but accepts a low-level response from a student, that is not rigorous. Teachers should probe and encourage students to expand on their answers, rather than answering for them or moving on to the next student.

Next, students are supported so they can achieve higher standards. They are not expected to learn without appropriate scaffolding. I regularly hear educators say, “But students should be able to do the harder work.” Rigorous work is challenging, and we should not expect students to simply jump to that higher level. Do you remember the first year you were a principal? Did you need help? If we need assistance with challenging experiences, why wouldn’t students?

Support and scaffolding can take several forms. Teachers might model expectations through thinking aloud or showing samples of student work. Chunking is an important part of all lessons. Providing graphic organizers so students can visualize what they are learning makes a difference. And, at times, students may need separate direct instruction in small groups. Both generalized and individualized support are important.

Finally, each student demonstrates learning at high levels. There are two aspects of this. First, each student demonstrates learning. Often, teachers lead a class discussion and periodically call on a student. When this happens, only a very few students get to demonstrate their understanding. In a rigorous classroom, the teacher shifts to providing opportunities for all students to show they have learned the information or concepts. Teachers can use thumbs-up/thumbs-down, exit slips, small dry-erase boards, clickers, iPads, or simple pair-shares to allow students to demonstrate their learning. Rigor demands that we know whether a student is making progress, and these formative assessments provide that opportunity.

Students also demonstrate learning at a high level. Too often, we are asking students low-level questions, or we give them work that requires basic recall skills. How often have you picked up a handout or worksheet from a teacher that was at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy? Have you ever looked at a teacher’s rubric and noticed that it evaluates for completion of work rather than quality of work? It’s important that we push students to higher levels of learning, and that requires application, transfer of learning, and deeper thinking.

Ultimately, rigor is about students learning at higher and higher levels. Rigor is never-ending since there is always room for growth. Isn’t that exactly what we want for all of our students?

Dr. Barbara Blackburn is the author of 15 books, including Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders. She regularly provides professional development to leaders and teachers on motivation, rigor, and leadership. 

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

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Using Productive Struggle to Personalize Learning

How to instill a growth mind-set in your students.
By
Marcella Bullmaster-Day and Aleta Cruel

It’s a challenge educators face every day. Engaging students in meaningful academic learning is no small task. They often get discouraged, stuck in a perpetual cycle of being unable to tap into their full potential. However, when students grapple with problems or work to make sense of challenging ideas, they engage in a process of productive struggle—effortful practice that goes beyond passive reading, listening, or watching to build lasting understanding and skills.

Typically, most students work at learning through rote repetition; for example, reading and rereading a text or solving problems of the same type that practice the same skill set to burn that individual skill into memory. These activities have short-term benefits when they are employed right before a test, but they rarely lead to meaningful, long-term learning. Often, the student is unable to recall the information at a later date and has to relearn it.

In contrast, successfully meeting the more rigorous Common Core standards requires building long-lasting understanding of concepts so that students can apply previously learned facts and skills to new situations. This kind of durable knowledge is achieved through productive struggle.

Productive struggle entails effort and persistence. Students encounter new information through their limited short-term working memory, which concentrates attention by filtering out most environmental stimuli. Working memory holds new information for only a few seconds while it seeks associations between the new material and concepts students already know. The more actively students work with new material over time, the stronger the associations and the better new facts and skills are organized and integrated into existing knowledge. Building lasting connections between new and old information requires conscious work to repeatedly retrieve newer information from memory, including making and correcting mistakes through feedback and practice.

Productive struggle also enhances a student’s ability to set learning goals, plan strategies to meet those goals, monitor progress, and know when and how to ask for help.

When a learning goal is clear and the challenge is set at the appropriate level, students are more likely to be motivated to engage in productive struggle to achieve the goal.

Motivation for productive struggle requires
a “growth mind-set,” the understanding that success is a result of effort more than of raw ability. A growth mind-set makes students eager for new challenges and fosters an enthusiasm for learning from mistakes. Students who believe their ability levels are “fixed” are less motivated to engage in productive struggle because they fear failure, resist risks, and worry about the judgments of others, which impedes their learning.

To motivate students, teachers must find ways to inspire them. How do we help students see the value of productive struggle in their everyday lives? For example, top athletes challenge themselves and struggle to become great. They put tremendous effort into their practice. When they fall, they pick themselves up and work to improve their technique. They don’t become great overnight.

A student’s drive to persist in the face of a challenge is affected by the quality of the teacher-student relationship and the scaffolding provided through feedback and support. When a student becomes frustrated because the goal is unclear or out of reach, it is up to the teacher to intervene as soon as it is apparent that the student is not making progress.

Effective feedback clarifies goals and helps students measure their progress and understand what they need to do next. Instead of merely correcting student errors, effective feedback guides students to develop better strategies for processing and understanding the material so that they gain mastery, confidence, and motivation. Digital tools can also provide useful feedback through access to hints and customized suggestions, which empower students to seek help when they need it.

Several strategies have proved particularly effective for building lasting learning by challenging students to repeatedly retrieve information over time, thereby strengthening long-term memory and transfer. These include low-stakes quizzing and self-testing; spacing study and practice over time and locations; and mixing different types of problems.

Low-stakes, ongoing quizzing requires students to express, from memory, what they understand about new material, and allows them to pinpoint and correct their knowledge gaps or misconceptions. Productive low-stakes testing methods include creating flash cards; generating summaries, outlines and questions; and taking multiple-choice or constructed-response tests.

Spreading study, quizzing, and practice sessions over time and locations has been shown to produce lasting learning because long-term memory of the material is strengthened each time information is actively retrieved. And practicing different kinds of questions and problems builds learning-for-transfer more effectively than the more common massed-practice approach of working on one type of problem at a time until it appears that students have mastered it. This is an area in which personalized digital practice tools that challenge students at their individual levels of performance, allowing them to progress at their own pace, are particularly useful.

Teachers who use these strategies to motivate and engage their students in productive struggle for lasting learning are able to identify individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, adjust goals appropriately, and accelerate academic achievement. Look for tools and ideas that facilitate this model and begin setting students on a path to lifelong academic success.

Marcella Bullmaster-Day, Ed.D., is the director of the Lander Center for Educational Research at Touro College.

Aleta Cruel is a sixth-grade English and history teacher at TEACH Academy of Technologies in Los Angeles. She uses Triumph Learning’s Waggle to implement productive struggle in the classroom.

Image: Keith Brofsky /Media Bakery

What Is My Purpose for Leading?

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What Is My Purpose for Leading?

Self-reflection is key to helping drive school improvement. By Baruti Kafele

The principalship is a complex position replete with numerous day-to-day challenges that, quite frankly, not all principal candidates are built to meet. To be successful in this business, a principal must skillfully juggle challenges that range from student achievement, motivation, and conduct to staff effectiveness and morale to parental engagement and school safety—and everything in between. It takes a special person to lead a school, whether at the elementary, middle, or high school level and whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting.

With the myriad challenges that principals face, the self-reflection process is unavoidable. To perform consistently at an optimal level, self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-adjustment must be major components of each principal’s practice.

There are so many aspects of the principalship that require regular self-reflection. When I compiled my 50 reflective questions for The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, I categorized them into the following 10 categories:

  • The Attitude of the Leader
  • School Brand
  • School Climate and Culture
  • Building Collegial Relationships
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Accountability and Responsibility
  • Planning, Organization, and Time Management
  • Professional Learning for the Leader
  • Professional Learning for Staff
  • Parental and Community Engagement

The first category—the Attitude of the Leader—sets the stage for everything that comes next in a principal’s school and career. The first question I pose in this category is simple but important: Do I lead with a definite purpose that drives everything I say and do? With this question, I’m asking the principal to reflect on several more specific questions: Why do you lead? Why do you want to lead? What is your purpose? What drives and moves you? Why do you bother to do this work?

A principal must have a clear and personal purpose for leading that goes beyond traditional responses such as “to provide my students with a world-class education.” While this is indeed a noble purpose, I want the principal to dig much deeper―to develop a unique purpose that is both reflective of himself and the overall school community. This will be the driving force behind everything he says and does within the realm of the principalship.

I often compare the principal’s purpose to the words in a dictionary. Each word has a definition. None has a blank space next to it. The definition is what gives the word meaning. The principal’s purpose must work the same way. If the principal has no defined purpose for her principalship―if there’s a blank space where a purpose should be―then the principalship has no meaning. The principal may show up to work and take the required actions on a day-to-day basis yet still remain at a leadership deficit with no direction. The principal’s leadership style and goals, in this case, are undefined.

A school’s overall success is directly tied to the principal’s sense of purpose. When I was a school leader, my purpose was “to motivate, educate, and empower every student in the building.” It was my alarm clock—my personal reminder of why I woke up in the morning. It screamed out to me every day and reminded me what was important and what I needed to focus on.

Finding and pursuing a purpose is not as simple as it sounds. A purpose brings expectations with it. Mine brought with it a heavy—but worthy—load to bear: my students’ motivation, education, and empowerment began with me. But, once that purpose was established and that expectation was set, they drove my daily words and actions.

Just like I did, I strongly encourage every principal to pay attention to why he or she leads. Determining this will then help the principal better understand his or her role and establish a plan. When it comes to school success, the attitude of the principal is a crucial factor: A school needs a principal with clear purpose and the drive to bring that purpose to life.

Baruti Kafele is an award-winning educator and best-selling author. His most recent book, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, was published by ASCD in March. Under his leadership, Newark (N.J.) Tech High School went from being a low-performing school in need of improvement to being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's best high schools.

The Science of Hiring

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The Science of Hiring

How to hire the right teacher (almost) every time. By Wayne D’Orio

Maybe it’s happened to you, too, even if you don’t want to admit it. You’re watching TV, some infomercial comes on, and despite all your intelligence and resistance, the sales pitch starts to work on you. I’m sucked in when products promise to solve a bevy of problems, whether it’s a set of knives that can cut through everything from tomatoes to pennies (?!), or some rubber sealant that can fix objects as disparate as broken flowerpots and leaky gutters. 

I don’t actually buy those products, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But for the 60-second vacation they offer, you start thinking of how much better your life would be if only you had those things.

As school leaders, you certainly have a multitude of problems with which to grapple. How to improve student learning is the top one, of course. But on any given day, your list could include teacher evaluations, the struggle to successfully implement a new technology, and whether you finally want to deal with that ineffective teacher who’s not improving.

Instead of tackling each of these tasks individually, what if you had a “magic” solution, sort of like an educational version of an infomercial? Your magic solution could be as straightforward as improving your hiring practices. And it’s not magic at all, really, but rooted in cold, hard data.

Now, you might feel there’s nothing terribly flawed about your current hiring practices. But what if a few key improvements could lead your district to make consistently better hires? What would happen if those better teachers started to spread throughout your district? Student learning outcomes would certainly rise. But think longer term. With a stronger cadre of teachers, decisions about tenure would be easier. Implementing new programs, and new technologies, would also be simpler with a motivated workforce. And that drawn-out process of firing an ineffectual teacher that you’ve been dreading? Well, the better your teachers are, the fewer times you’ll face this disheartening process. There’s one more benefit: With less of your time devoted to problems, you can actually brainstorm more ways to improve teaching and learning in your schools instead of constantly putting out fires.

How hard is it to change your hiring practices? And could your district really see the benefits described above?

Don’t take it from me, the salesman of this story. Listen to your peers talk about how they made the needed changes, and what benefits they are seeing.

The Importance of Each Decision
“If you make better hires up front, you can avoid a lot of trouble down the line,” says Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research at the University of Washington. “Interventions don’t work, [and nobody wants to deal with] the politics around teacher dismissals.”

Dale S. Rose is even more blunt. “If you believe better teachers make for better student outcomes, then why not do everything you can to improve hiring?” asks the president of 3D Group, a consulting firm dealing in human resources assessment. Rose is also the coauthor of Hire Better Teachers Now.

Research, says Rose, has proved that students with a good teacher will see gains of 1.5 grade level equivalents per year; those with a bad teacher, only 0.5.

“Better teacher selection not only has the potential to improve the quality of the teacher workforce, it is likely to be far more cost-effective than other avenues of reform,” writes Goldhaber in Screen Twice, Cut Once: Assessing the Predictive Validity of Teacher Selection Tools, a report on Spokane (Washington) Public Schools’ hiring practices that he coauthored.

How costly can a bad hire be? Gold­haber’s conservative estimate is that for every teacher hired and tenured, a district is making a potential investment of about $2 million. If you’ve forgotten how hard it is to get rid of a tenured teacher, consider these examples: Chicago Public Schools mandates 27 steps before firing, while in New York City it costs about $250,000 to fire a teacher.

Of course, choice is a big factor in hiring. In Spokane, a district with 45 schools and 1,750 teachers, human resources gets about six applicants for each job. Nationally, studies have shown that there are just over two applicants for every teacher hired. Variances can be large; in Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the districts have at least three applicants for each job. But for popular jobs, such as elementary, math, and English spots, there were 10 applicants for each hire.

Rule One: Formalize Your Process
If there’s one rule everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it was this: Formalize your hiring process. While it’s standard for many large districts to have a process they follow for each hire, this isn’t always so. “In a lot of school systems, especially small ones, a principal may hear about a person, interview two people, and hire someone,” Goldhaber says.

Even if your district has a process, it might be too informal, warns Rose. “A huge majority of schools are using processes that are not grounded in the science of what works best.”

Simply rating every applicant on the same scale, from an out-of-town candidate to the best friend of your top ­teacher, goes a long way toward making better hires. In Spokane, where Goldhaber’s study evaluated the district’s hiring practices over four years, starting in 2008, the HR department rates each applicant on a 21-point scale. Then principals can request certain candidates, say everyone scoring above a 14. School personnel re-rate each candidate on a more rigorous 60-point scale and decide whom to interview.

“The actual structure of the system helps to prevent the ad hoc-ness of hiring,” says Goldhaber, who is continuing to analyze Spokane’s hiring practices. “When you put people through the same process, there’s a certain degree of fairness and some independence.”  

Pick the Right Factors
If it’s relatively easy to set up a formal hiring system, the real work is assessing what traits are most important in new hires while de-­emphasizing those skills that do little to boost student achievement.

“Use the same indicators that you will evaluate them on” when they are teachers, suggests Sid Camp, executive director of human resources for Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Too often, says Rose, the hiring process is “driven by individuals rather than what predicts results in classrooms.” Rose sets up a list of 49 key skills in his book, but he knows that each district, and sometimes each school, will have its own criteria. “Take a careful, thoughtful look at your school,” he says. “Classroom management is a standard skill, but in a large urban district that’s overcrowded, management is even more important.”

If you’re just starting the process, ask your top teachers to help identify what skills are the most valuable. After you’ve created a system, Rose adds, collect data on your hires and review their interview scores to see if the numbers correlate with who the best teachers are.

In Spokane, this work led Superin­tendent Shelley Redinger and chief HR officer Tennille Jeffries-Simmons to recognize that classroom management, collegiality, and a professional manner were three important characteristics of good teachers.

What isn’t as important as you think? Grade point average and where a candidate went to school. Google famously used to refuse to hire any candidates with a GPA below 3.0, but now the company doesn’t even consider GPA when screening for jobs. “Research has shown that GPA isn’t that predictive of performance,” Rose says.

Spokane also changed its policy to make letters of recommendation confidential. “That changed the content,” Redinger says. While candidates choose who writes a recommendation, often this includes a supervisor, and getting an honest assessment can be revealing, she adds.

“I know people are skeptical about references,” says Jennifer L. Hindman, assistant director of the School Leadership Institute in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and the author of Effective Teacher Interviews. “They feel people may not disclose all they know.” She recommends making phone calls to further vet your group of finalists.

Changing your interview questions to delve into scenario-based queries can also help reveal key differences among candidates, says Camp. Gwinnett has stopped asking applicants about their philosophy of education and now asks: What type of students do you like to work with? The district also hands candidates a set of student data and asks them to design an instructional plan that’s differentiated based on the data. “It’s a scientific approach,” Camp says. “We have very structured interview questions.”

Another suggestion is to ask candidates to respond to revealing questions, such as how they would handle a parent’s complaint about their child’s grade, says Hindman.

Actively Recruit and Act Early
“One of the key things people conflate is the difference between recruiting and selecting,” says Rose. “Recruiting is extraordinarily important.”

Both Spokane and Gwinnett heavily emphasize the importance of recruiting.

“You can’t just post a job on your website or the Internet and pray that someone qualified applies,” Camp says. “You have to build talent pipelines.” Gwinnett, a district of 134 schools that hired more than 1,700 teachers this school year, has a variety of initiatives designed to improve the number and skill of applicants. Officials work closely with local college deans, branding the organization to education students while making sure graduates are ready to be solid teachers. “In 2004, we had 250 student teachers. This past year, we had over 1,800,” Camp adds.

A microcosm of this work is reflected in the district’s ties to Georgia Gwinnett College, a liberal arts school created nine years ago as part of Georgia’s university system. Camp says the district was involved before the school even opened. “We helped them put together a conceptual framework of teaching,” he says.  

Spokane’s path was similar. It reached out to colleges to let candidates know about the district. While it has done a good job of getting applicants, the district was losing many top candidates because it took too long to make job offers.

Spokane revamped its process to get applicants out to principals more ­quickly, allowing for faster job offers. But Redinger decided to go further. When the district identifies top teaching candidates who are juniors in college, it offers them teaching contracts that became effective once they graduate.

Gwinnett does something similar, putting teachers under contract in March for the following fall. The best teacher candidates are available in March, Camp says. “The bell curve declines [as we move] into June and July. If we hire earlier, we get a better share of teachers.”

No matter how hard you work to fill a spot, sometimes the best choice is not to hire someone. “The most courageous decision is to list your teacher as ‘TBA,’ ” Hindman says. She recommends filling a classroom with a strong sub and recruiting more, or waiting for ­additional graduates in December.

After the Hire
No matter how excellent your hiring process, sometimes a bad fit occurs. Both Gwinnett and Spokane try to quickly weed out hires who aren’t working out.

“The number of nonrenewals has gone up,” says Jeffries-Simmons. “We want to continue to make sure that if somebody is not a match, we [enact] nonrenewal swiftly but fairly.” Washington state recently revised its rules, requiring certified hires to work provisionally for three years before granting tenure.
Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, Gwinnett doesn’t have tenure. While Camp emphasized that the district worked hard during the recent recession to avoid layoffs, he says teachers are faced with nonrenewal if they aren’t working out.

The work in these two districts appears to be paying off. Spokane has increased its graduation rate from 60 percent to 83 percent in the past five years. And Gwinnett took home its second Broad Prize last year as the outstanding urban district in the country.

“I’ve seen this play out over and over again,” Redinger says. “You’re only as good as your people. We’re not shy about it. We’re looking for continuous improvement.”    

The $$ Factor
Pay has a role to play when hiring the best staff but it’s not the most important factor. When it comes to attracting the best teachers—and keeping them once they are hired—how important is pay?

Though both Camp and Redinger say it’s not the top factor, it is important. Camp says that Gwinnett, which has one of the top pay scales in Georgia for veteran teachers, is looking for ways to increase starting salaries. And Spokane is just beginning a study to compare its salaries with those of nearby districts.

Across the country, districts have tried financial rewards to make jobs more attractive.

Urban districts typically have a tougher time attracting candidates than suburban counterparts, due in part to lower salaries. Oakland’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is trying to face this problem head-on by proposing to raise salaries by 10 percent over three years. Rural districts can sometimes face the same problems as their urban counterparts, typically paying less and offering fewer social perks than a metropolitan area. In South Carolina, the state government will knock $5,000 off a federal Stafford loan if a teacher spends five years in a low-income school. In-state loans can be forgiven, too, if the recipient fills a high-need position.

And in maybe the most extreme pay experiment in the country, teachers at one charter middle school in Manhattan make $125,000 a year.

A recent study of the Equity Project school shows that achievement was higher for students who attended for four years than for students at similar New York City schools. But the teacher attrition rate was a whopping 47 percent after one year, almost twice that of nearby public schools.

The generous pay teachers receive at schools like Equity also bring extra responsibilities. These demands can cause burnout. Teaching is a delicate balance of skills, and while pay is a key component, it’s
certainly not the most important factor.

Image: Science Museum, SSPL via Getty Images (beaker); Juanmonino/istockphoto (figure)

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. 

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

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

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