Peter Miller: Building a Districtwide PLC Vision through Repeated Story

An article recently published in Washington ASCD's eJournal, Curriculum in Context, was an attempt in summarizing my district's professional learning journey during the past several years.

A special thanks goes out to the teachers and administrators on our district leadership team who have spearheaded and refined this vision.  I recall at least three times in which this team overhauled my draft professional learning agenda.  I count it a true blessing to work alongside a team with such a high level of trust.

Standards-based grading: Assessing AND grading 21st century skills

I recently received this email communication from a high school principal:
We are doing some work with teachers on writing across the curriculum and I am with a group that includes a couple of CTE (career and technical education) teachers.  Conversation has gone to a discussion on projects that include a writing component, but has now focused on 21st Century Skills related to Iowa Core as another component of the project.   
Here is the question:  Collaboration is an important skill, and a 21st century skill.  With our philosophy of not grading behavior, and since collaboration is a behavior, under that presumption it would not be part of the grade.  However, it is a 21st century skill and if collaboration is an integral part of a project -- or series of projects -- couldn't it be a component of the grade?  Has the student learned how to collaborate?
This isn't the first time I've received an inquiry about including a content-neutral standard as part of the final grade!  My thinking stems from some recent work I've done with an elementary school  transitioning to a standards-based report card without letter grades.  After spending some time writing parent-friendly standards, this group of elementary teachers started revising their assessments and creating rubrics aligned with the standards.  Eventually, their focus turned to work habits and citizenship.  The teachers realized a need to observe students (formally and informally) for work habits and citizenship standards using rubrics they eventually created.  In essence, if it's going to be reported and/or graded, it needs to be taught and assessed.

Here was my response to the high school principal's email inquiry:
Hey _____,
Good to hear from you.  As a general rule, we ask our teachers to think about the instruction and feedback provided to students when considering what goes into the grade book.  For example, your accounting teacher will likely know the exact days in which he/she taught, provided feedback, reviewed and assessed payroll withholdings.  This same teacher could quickly tell you when he/she taught, provided feedback, reviewed and assessed the ideas of sole proprietorships, corporations and partnerships.  The accounting teacher would also likely have a rubric for these big ideas to determine what a full and partial understanding of these standards looks like.   
Could he/she point to the time in which students were taught (for example) collaboration, provided feedback on their ability to collaborate and then assessed it?  Does he/she have a rubric in place for this 21st century skill?   In other words, if it's going to be reported and included in the final grade, it makes sense to formally teach and assess it like any content standard.  
Does any of this make sense?
How would you have responded to this high school principal?

What is standards-based grading? [a.k.a. standards-based grading defined]

In my experience, departments, buildings and school districts working towards consistent grading practices benefit from establishing common grading guidelines or beliefs.  For example, in my current school district, instead of merely saying "we use standards-based grading," we have agreed to utilize the following grading guidelines: 
  1. Entries in the grade book that count towards the final grade will be limited to course or grade level standards.**
  2. Extra credit will not be given at any time.
  3. Students will be allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of classroom standards in various ways. Retakes and revisions will be allowed.
  4. Teachers will determine grade book entries by considering multiple points of data emphasizing the most recent data and provide evidence to support their determination.
  5. Students will be provided multiple opportunities to practice standards independently through homework or other class work. Practice assignments and activities will be consistent with classroom standards for the purpose of providing feedback. Practice assignments, including homework, will not be included as part of the final grade.
** Exceptions will be made for midterm and/or final summative assessments. These assessments, limited to no more than one per nine-week period may be reported as a whole in the grade book.

For those interested, a look at related scholarly literature yields several definitions:


One grading practice that is gaining popularity is standards-based grading, which involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Although many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades.

Source:
Scriffiny, P.L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based gradingEducational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.

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Standards-based grading (SBG) is an approach to assessment and reporting in which scores are attached to the specific learning objectives of a course, rather than to assignments or tests. Each score represents a student’s mastery of that learning objective, and may change over time in response to evidence that her level of understanding has changed.

Source: 
Beatty, I. (2013). Standards-based grading in introductory university physics. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2), 1-22 [PDF]
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Standards-based grading connects student grades to specific learning objectives, provides students with direct and specific information to guide their study, and often involves less grading time for the instructor than traditional methods do.
Source:
Duker, P, Gawboy, A, Hughes, B, & Shaffer, K.P. (2015) Hacking the music theory classroom: Standards-based grading, just-in-time teaching, and the inverted class. Music Theory Online, 21(2). [Available online]

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The goal of Standards-Based Grading (SBG) is to measure a student’s progress towards
achievement of a standard, and thus to show what students are able to do. Students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their achievement of the standard, and the final grade is based on the student’s overall mastery of the standard by the end of the term, not a weighted average of material throughout the term. Standards-Based Grading can also help instructors to more clearly communicate to the students exactly what they will be expected to know and demonstrate on assessments.

Source:
Post, S.L. (2014). Standards-Based Grading in a Fluid Mechanics Course. Paper presented at the 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, IL. [Available online]

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...and one of my personal favorites:

Traditional Grading SystemStandards-Based Grading System
1. Based on assessment methods (quizzes, tests, homework, projects, etc.). One grade/entry is given per assessment.1. Based on learning goals and performance standards. One grade/entry is given per learning goal.
2. Assessments are based on a percentage system. Criteria for success may be unclear.2. Standards are criterion or proficiency-based. Criteria and targets are made available to students ahead of time.
3. Use an uncertain mix of assessment, achievement, effort, and behavior to determine the final grade. May use late penalties and extra credit.3. Measures achievement only OR separates achievement from effort/behavior. No penalties or extra credit given.
4. Everything goes in the grade book – regardless of purpose.4. Selected assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, etc.) are used for grading purposes.
5. Include every score, regardless of when it was collected. Assessments record the average – not the best – work.5. Emphasize the most recent evidence of learning when grading.

Adapted from O’Connor K (2002).  How to Grade for Learning: Linking grades to standards (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.



Reflecting on five years in the district office

Five years ago, I made the transition from classroom teacher to district administrator.  Last year, I shared a four year reflection and it only seemed appropriate to share another annual reflection.

First, a summary of the action items I aspired to work towards last year around this time:

In no particular order...

Continue attending the quarterly area curriculum director meetings (Develop existing relationships and strengthen new ones)
I attended all four meetings this year in our area.  During the first meeting, a fellow curriculum director had a familiar facial expression...one that I knew very well: a desire to change the world in one year, but not knowing exactly how to maneuver the paperwork and wade through the acronyms well enough in order to stay ahead.  I invited this person to spend a few hours away from the office a few weeks later to share templates, ideas, success and struggles, and those other types of conversations about curriculum and assessment that curriculum directors get excited about!  A new professional relationship was gained and others were strengthened through these meetings.  My only regret is not following up with this rookie colleague more often to see how things are going on at her schools.

Seek out a leadership role in the area special education director meetings (Deeper learning in this area.  Consider finding an informal mentor)
I failed in finding an informal mentor, however I successfully co-facilitated an area special education director meeting this spring.  My co-facilitator and I have plans to continue these meetings next school year.  Dates are on the calendar!

Spend several hours observing and reflecting with district administrators in a similar role around Iowa.  (Establish a more formal learning community, face-to-face or virtual)
Major failure.  We have a Google+ Community setup around teacher leadership, but it didn't happen.  I appreciated the opportunities to network with district administrators around the state at the Iowa ASCD Curriculum Leadership Academy in April, however this was a one time event rather than an ongoing occurrence.  I plan to volunteer at the Iowa ASCD Summer Conference at the new curriculum directors' breakfast in order to meet fellow directors from around the state.

Pursue central office academic literature describing validated practices of central office administrators. 
Winner!  The longer I work in this role, the more I am realizing I need to pour into principals so that they can pour into their teaching staff. As I think about the Iowa educational context, I see others around me in a similar role: central office administrators in school districts with 1100 to 2500 students who may or may not have been principals themselves, trying their best to support principals' instructional leadership in a non-evaluative way. Through an early educational database search, I have read over twenty-five studies.  The urban central office administrators described in these studies typically play a dual role: supporting and evaluating site administrators. I have a hunch a gap may exist in the literature capturing the perspectives of folks like me: smaller district office administrators supporting principals' instructional leadership in a non-evaluative context.  It may turn into a dissertation topic!  Even if it doesn't, this academic literature exploration has been beneficial for me thus far.

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Finally, I wanted publicly state how much I am excited for the upcoming school year.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses and I'm grateful the administrative team has allowed me to grow during the past five years.  Our superintendent is moving to a larger organization and I'm excited to learn under a new leader.  I'm also jacked to work alongside our district's first instructional coach cadre.  I've often felt my reach in the central office is limited in some areas.  I believe the teachers a committee has selected for this cadre are all well qualified and eager to learn.  I anticipate they'll push my often cautious outlook on systems change and I believe I'll look back one year from now and realize how little I really knew about instructional leadership.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I am thankful for a virtual friend of mine, Bill Ferriter, whose writing continually pushes me and most recently reminded me that blogging really does matter.  #whyblog

Doctoral program: 12 month update

Nearly one year ago, I started a third graduate program.  During the past twelve months, I've completed eighteen (18) hours of coursework, a combination of research methodology at core doctoral classes.

Coursework
While courses such as "Models of Professional Development" have been intriguing, I've learned the most from the three research methodology courses.  

Research Design was a solid overview of well, research design.  I learned about theoretical frameworks, ethics when engaging in human subject research, critiquing research methodology, and this thing called mixed methods research design.  The instructor was well organized, supportive, yet challenged my thinking about educational research.

Quantitative Research Methods was the course that came easiest to me in the program so far.  If one were to examine my undergraduate transcript, it would be pretty obvious a calculus-based statistics course was the one I struggled with the most.  It was only fitting my principal asked me to teach an introductory statistics class to high school students for six years.  One and two sample hypothesis testing made sense in this graduate course, because I learned from many mediocre attempts facilitating these same ideas with teenagers.  Ironically, the course left a bit of a foul taste in my mouth.  Quantitative research methodology seems to me so distant from the action.  Crunching numbers is not currently my idea of meaningful educational research.

Qualitative Research Methods was by far the most interesting course in the program so far.  Our professor was really into ethnography and in turn our primary task was to integrate ourselves into the culture of a virtual world.  After a long write-up of our data collection, analysis and conclusions, the professor asked my group and several others to make some serious changes with a quick turn around.  For some, the timing was not idea.  For me, it was a 48 hour opportunity to figure out areas of qualitative research methodology, specifically theoretical frameworks, I had a false sense of mastery.  To make a long story short, this course was filled with trials and successes, but throughout the semester I feel I grew tremendously as a consumer and critic of educational research.

Cohort Camaraderie
Whenever colleagues or family ask me about my experiences as a distance education doctoral student, my immediate reaction goes something along the lines of "I'm thankful to do most of my coursework after 9pm and on the weekends" in comparison to driving to class in the midst of Iowa winters.  I enjoy putting my son to sleep and then getting after coursework rather than missing this time due to commuting.  

Another response I often share with inquisitive minds is the uniqueness of classmates in multiple timezones.  Most recently, my group work has consisted of a guy in California and another in Georgia.  The three of us have an ongoing texting thread in which we clarify assignments, coordinate our group work and keep up on each others' personal lives.  We established a routine of using a three way conference call while working collaboratively through Google Drive beginning around 9pm CST.  

Our entire cohort continues to share class questions and personal updates through our closed social media community.  About ten of our twenty one cohort members continue to participate actively in this online community.

Looking ahead to years two and three
Beginning this summer, the coursework emphasis will change a bit.  Because I was able to transfer in twelve elective credits in educational leadership, I will continue taking two courses per semester.  During three consecutive semesters, we will be taking a "dissertation mentoring course" in which we'll learn about the dissertation process and write the first three chapters.  This leads up to summer 2016 in which we'll each (hopefully) defend our dissertation proposals on campus.  

In year 3, we will continue to take a core doctoral class in addition to dissertation research hours.  If all goes well, I will collect data summer 2016 and write it all up fall 2016 and spring 2017.  Defending in early April 2017 is an ambitious dream.  I'll keep you updated during the next two years!