Who owns the grades? [Playing the points game]

Guskey and Bailey (2001, p. 18)

"Around the middle school years and sometimes earlier, students' perceptions of grades begin to change.  Although the reasons for this change are uncertain, it seems likely due to teachers' shifting emphasis from the formative aspects of grades to their summative functions.  As a result, students no longer see grades as a source of feedback to guide improvements in their learning.  Instead, they regard grades as the major commodity teachers and schools have to offer in exchange for their performance.  This change brings a slow but steady shift in students' focus away from learning and toward what they must do to obtain the grade commodity."  
Take aways:

  1. Yet another reason not to grade formative assessments. 
  2. Who owns the grades in a classroom?  In my earlier years of teaching, I believe that I did.  Students could dig themselves into a hole, but it was difficult to fill it back in. 
  3. I tend to agree that the system creates grade craving for students.  Somewhere in school, students begin playing the "points game" and it becomes increasingly difficult, but not impossible, to undo this craving as a given student progresses through the K-12 system.

Review: Differentiated Professional Development in a Professional Learning Community

Differentiated Professional Development in a Professional Learning Community was the most highly anticipated book on my summer reading list.  As a curriculum director for a district embracing the professional learning community concept, this book seemed right up my alley.

Author's spin
Linda Bowgren and Kathryn Sever are both retired educators.  They quote a wide range of authors without a clear bias towards any single source.

Worth quoting
On explicit changes to the way staff development is structured,
"Districts must gradually and systematically move from one-shot, one-day, out-of-the-district workshop to job-embedded, teacher-led collaboration in which everyone's learning style can be consciously considered" (4)
Later in the book, this idea is re-visited,
"When planning professional development, districts and schools should evaluate their in-house capacity to address their own needs" (31)
"...the best way to motivate adults is to enhance their reasons for participating in professional development and to make learning as relevant and convenient as we can" (38)
I read this book before attending the PLC Institute.  At the institute, one of the breakout session facilitators challenged the audience to "be the learner today you want your students to be" rather than sitting in the back row passively participating.  This idea of ongoing and continuous improvement came out in the book,
"If the universal focus of mission statements is to support lifelong learning, then all educators must be committed to putting that mission into action in their own lives" (100)
A zinger from p. 109 may spark some serious conversation in the teachers' lounge,
"Sending one or two teachers to attend a conference based strictly on teacher interest will not move a PLC forward"
The authors ended by hammering home the point that staff development time should not mirror a large college lecture hall.
"We recommend that the majority of conference days be devoted to work that furthers the targeted goals of vertical, departmental and grade-level teams...teams facilitated by teacher leaders provide the structure for working on curriculum alignment, analyzing data, and refining common local assessments" (104)
The bottom line
This book was a pretty easy read.  While I believe its intended audience is those in charge of formally leading a building or district's staff development, I can also see the potential for a team of teacher leaders to read it.  In the spirit of the book, teachers should be provided the ownership of their professional learning in the PLC conceptual framework, it only makes sense that they would eventually read this book, too.  I made a note for principals to read chapter 9, "Ten Principles of Principals" because it succinctly summarizes an administrators' role in supporting his/her staff as a part of the professional learning community concept.  

Differentiated PD in a PLC lived up to the expectations I had for it.  I recommend it for any educator who "gets" the PLC concept, but wants to know more about "making it happen" at the local level.  

With Students in Mind: Episode 11

(due to its standards-based grading focus, this post has been cross-posted from With Students in Mind, a podcast hosted by Russ and me)

An Iowa teacher recently contacted Russ and inquired about implementing standards-based grading.
Hi - I am one of the high school math teachers at Central City High School and beginning Fall 2011 we are switching to standards based grading in our classrooms. I have been given the name of a few school districts in Iowa from my administration that have converted to SBG and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions regarding how you run your classroom.
My main concern is: how you transform your standards into final grades (A, B, C, D, and F]. I know colleges are not interested in getting a standards report of where they are proficient and not proficient, rather they would like to see what letter grade they received. Even though it would be ideal for them to see, unfortunately, colleges aren't at that stage, therefore, I must produce some kind of letter grade. I have been trying to do some research about how to transform a child's standards into a final grade. and haven't come up with much. So, long story short, do you have to have so many 4's or 5's to receive an A, or do you do percentages/averages of all the standards?My second concern is homework. In the past I have given students completion points for having their homework done everyday. However, I have been reading on other blogs that they don't incorporate homework into their final grades, as it is strictly standards. How do you incorporate homework in your classroom? Is it required for students to do it? Do they have to have completed all of their homework assignments to pass the course?
And then my last concern is assessments. How often do you have kids assess over standards? I have read and thought about it myself this upcoming year, is to test multiple times over one standard. Can they retest over a standard? How many times? What are your rules for retesting? Do they have to come in before or after school to receive "extra" tutoring, or are they required to have completed practice problems before they retest?
Sorry for all of the questions! I hope you aren't overwhelmed by all of them. I know there are no right or wrong answers on how to implement SBG in your classroom, but I am trying to get a feel for what other teachers around Iowa are doing.
Thank you for your time and I am anxious to hear what you do in your classroom with SBG.

Tune in to Episode 11 below to hear our response. 

(comments have been disabled.  Please direct all comments here.)

Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute

On June 9-11, five classroom teachers and three administrators including myself attended Solution Tree's Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in St. Charles, Missouri.  Without reservation this is the most beneficial conference I have ever attended for two reasons:

  • The entire team commented on the quality of the keynote speakers as well as the break-out sessions.  In general, the hallways were empty and the break-out rooms were full.   This speaks to the quality of the super-majority of the speakers.
  • I was amazed by the connectedness among all the keynotes and breakouts.  Too many times, I have experienced conferences that lack a cohesive theme.  This was clearly not the case.  All of the speakers made explicit connections to the "big ideas" of a professional learning community.  
Our district has a year under our belt exploring and beginning to implement the professional learning community philosophy.  Our progress varies by building and team, but all teachers are familiar with and have participated in at least one learning team focused on student learning during 2010-11.  The educators from our district attending the conference had read a chapter from Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work as well as a webinar by Rick and Becky Dufour on the idea.  Several of them had read Learning by Doing which was given to all attendees as part of registration.  

Here is a summary of our collaborative notes:

Context:  Educators work really hard.  No teacher comes to school thinking "How can I screw up kids' lives today?" 
Problem: "There is no way a single teacher has all the time, all the knowledge, and all the skills to meet the needs of every child."

We shouldn't be "doing" PLCs...it should be the way we operate.  This concept cannot be accomplished in a year or two or five - it is ongoing. 

We need to continue focus on learning (there was quite a bit of grading talk at this conference!)  Our teams should be spending their time continually answering these questions:

  1. What is it we expect kids to learn? (think: standards, alignment)
  2. How will we know when they have learned it? (common assessments, when appropriate)
  3. How will we respond when they don't learn? (systematic and directive (not voluntary) response by the staff in the building, not merely individuals - think: high school "seminar" time -- "Allowing students to choose to be irresponsible does not teach responsibility")
  4. How will we respond when kids already know it? (extensions, etc.)
We need to continue to be committed to a collaborative culture
Students should not be at the risk of an educational lottery.  A teachers' right to work individually should not trump the students' right to the collaborative expertise of teachers in the school. 

"The challenges of schooling are too great for individuals to shut themselves away behind closed classroom doors and try to resolve them alone.  A concerted collaborative effort is necessary when teachers and other colleagues work and learn collaboratively with a clear focus on the learning of students as well as themselves" - Stoll, Bolam, McMahaon, et. al 2006

Teams need to have scheduled time for collaboration on a regular basis with team norms, and should be pursuing specific and measurable goals. 

In other words, teams should be collaborating on the four questions above to stay focused on student learning.

Last, we need to continue assessing our effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions.
Teams should be continually setting SMART goals.  When goals are achieved, set a new one...a little bit higher.

Our team also created a list of action steps which we will be using throughout the year to continue our journey.  Many of the details are specific to our building and district's schedules, staff and resources.

I'm interested to hear from others who have attended this conference or who are currently embarking on the professional learning community philosophy.  What are your success stories and struggles?

Review: The Principal as Assessment Leader

I recently finished The Principal as Assessment Leader, edited by Thomas Guskey.

Author's spin
Although Thomas Guskey edited the book, its chapters were contributed by various consultants, teachers and administrators from around North America.  With so many authors, it's hard to identify a single "spin" portrayed.  After viewing the works cited at the end of each chapter, it became evident that many of the authors have been influenced by Marzano, Guskey, O'Connor and each other, too.

Worth quoting
On why assessment reform is a touchy subject in schools today,

"It can be hard for teachers  - entrenched in an assessment culture heavy with summative assessments, normed scoring, and grades used for ensuring compliance - to recognize the flaws in a system that they themselves have respected for many years and worked to perfect" (11).  
A often quoted theme throughout the book was common formative assessments.
"Common team-made formative assessments make teachers mutually accountable to each other.  These assessments result in collective responsibility for individual student learning for all students within the team and ensure high levels of learning for all students because teachers agree on a mutual proficiency standard" (38).
I appreciated the pragmatic outlook on assessment reform.
"Unfortunately, educational pedagogy still remains steeped in a culture where it is the role of the teacher to teach and the student to learn.  But what happens if the student does not learn or actually chooses not to learn?" (227)
"Principals occasionally get caught up in the seeming dichotomy of focusing on results or building relationships" (255).
The bottom line
This anthology of writings is without a doubt geared towards school administrators, but classroom teachers would undoubtedly benefit from reading the majority of the chapters, too.  The writing combines a nice balance of theory and practical suggestions.  I wasn't left feeling like I had all of the answers, per se, but instead a broader collection of ideas around the idea that "the way we currently assess and grade students is broken."  I wouldn't recommend reading this book straight through as I did over the past few weeks, but instead selectively reading chapters when the timing is more appropriate.  For example, Chapter 8 was about the courage to implement standards-based report cards.  Not all principals may be ready for this leap, whereas it may be within the zone of proximal development of the principal AND the culture of his/her building that it could be extremely timely.

As a fan of anthology books published by Solution Tree (such as the grand-daddy of all assessment books Ahead of the Curve) I recommend this book for the shelf of any and all readers of this blog.

Review: Wasting Minds - Why our educational system is failing and what we can do about it

As part of my summer routine, I will be finishing up several education-related books and starting a few more.  I plan to use this space to quasi-review several of the books.  Let's begin with Wasting Minds: Why our Educational System is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ronald A. Wolk.

Author's spin
Wolk is the former editor of Education Week and Teacher Magazine, so many of the schools and educators he quotes come from these sources.  The book is framed around " flawed assumptions" about education followed by "parallel strategies."  Think of this as the author's way of telling the reader what's wrong with education in the first half of the book with solutions in the second half.   From the preface:

"The old cliche is that pessimists see the glass half empty and optimists see the glass half full.  I am neither.  Regarding public education, I am an idealist: I see the glass as it is and can't accept the fact that it is not full" (6).

Worth quoting
I often look back at my own notes to re-visit the main points of a book through quotes.  Here is an abridged version of my notes from this book:

On the problem of education,
"The issues are so complex and controversial that people find it more expedient to accept most of the system as a given and pursue reforms that are incremental and marginal" (11). 
Regarding the author's approach to education reform,
"Lacking reliable research findings, much of what I argue is based on personal observations, logic and common sense" (13)
On educational standards,
"To insist that all students be treated the same way, that they all study the same subject at the same tme in the same way, is a strategy that denies reality" (25).
"Student motivation is probably the most important prerequisite to learning and school success.  Standards don't motivate students" (34).
Wolk takes on the idea of all 8th graders enrolling in algebra,
"Students who reach the 8th grade ready for algebra and higher-order math should be encouraged (not required) to take it, and, I suspect, many of them would.  But some won't because they have neither and interest in math nor a talent for it.  These students may do well enough to pass their courses, but they are not likely to excel or remember much of what was taught...There is no guarantee that simply taking courses in any subject, including higher-order math, will increase a student's thinking skills" (48-50).
 On effective principals,
"Anyone who shadows the principal of a large urban high school for a day soon discovers that the 'principal instructional leader' (like teachers) lives in real time, with little opportunity for planning or reflection and almost no time for instruction or collaboration with colleagues" (71).
"As in the preparation of teachers, aspiring principals have too little clinical experience.  Most principals are former teachers, but few of them have a genuine understanding of the principal's job" (73).
Wolk has opinions about grading!
"I have always been somewhat mystified that parents would rather have their child's performance expressed in an A or a C than in a written evaluation of the student's work and behavior" (137).
The bottom line
Giving students and teachers more choice through options such as, but not limited to, charter schools is a start.  With a bit of a capitalistic twist, the author questions,
"Why should schools be held harmless if students leave a district school for one that they believe better meets their needs?  States don't hold urban schools harmless when their students migrate to the suburbs" (164)
Wolk admits this is challenging work in the conclusion,
Perhaps the most discouraging lesson I've learned in more than 30 years studying K-12 education is that the vast majority of the public, parents, and opinion leaders accept most of the existing system as a given...They cannot imagine schools that are much different from the ones they attended" (175).
I'm not left believing this book is intended to be read by practicing educators alone, but instead by all stakeholders.  It's one of those we all need to be in this together type of books that could easily be pushed aside as a dreamy keynote speaker at an education conference.  If you're looking for a pragmatic book to jump start your school year, this isn't it.  If you're looking for a conversation starter at Grandma's 90th birthday party this summer, this might be the one for you.

Full disclosure:  A big thanks goes out to Laura Berry, former ASCD Communications Specialist, for sending me a complementary copy of this book. I have not received any compensation to write this review and did not receive the book under any obligation to write this post.