by James (Jim) Thompson, consolidated by Stefanie Whitney
Towards the end of my 20th and final year of being an elementary principal, my Superintendent of Schools, Dave DeLoria, was also the guy with whom I played in a rock band in the mid ‘60s (our band was The Morticians). Dave was the lead guitar player and would often say something after a certain song: “Our plan for that song was good in theory but somehow didn’t work out when we played it... Somethin’ ain’t right...”
It was also during that 20th year of my career that Dave would say, “Jimmy, how come we don’t have more state funding for teachers coaching teachers? That would really make an impact… somethin’ ain’t right that we can’t make that happen more.”
Dave’s question touched on a topic I had been thinking about for quite some time.
In my humble opinion, I believe there are two essential questions that require our responsiveness as educators:
This article takes a deep dive into this second question. I channel Dave DeLoria in my candid response to how we’re doing:
“Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
First, let’s take a look at the current reality of responding to the question:
How are we improving our practice to more significantly impact learning for each and every child?
The following include current common approaches to improving our practice:
Let’s talk more about each approach to professional development.
Traditional Teacher Evaluation Systems
[Disclaimer: I was an elementary principal for 20 years.]
In my first year as principal, I had to conduct over 80 ‘observations’; plus, address all disciplinary issues, coordinate all curriculum implementation, and facilitate all staff development for a school with over 700 students and over 100 staff reporting ‘directly to me.’ (This experience is akin to being a secondary educator, often responsible for building relationships with, facilitating differentiated learning for, and providing feedback and assessment on work from over 150 students. In all directions, educators are overwhelmed with responsibility regarding continuous, impactful learning.)
I really loved my kids and really loved my staff. So much so that when it was time to do a post- observation conference with a teacher, I made coffee or tea for them, I gave them a warm welcome and thanks, I worked hard to affirm their great work with kids and offer some ‘stretchers’ to advance learning. And regardless of the care with which I took in providing post-observation feedback, inevitably, at the end of most of those post-observation conferences, the teacher smiled, shook my hand, and said something like: “Whew, glad that’s over until next year.” (Leaving me with a Neil Simon “Same Time, Next Year” feel.) Darn if I never heard a teacher say, “Gee, this was so beneficial I’d like to do a few more of these this year.”
I knew then, as I know now…that somethin’ ain’t right with this process. In fact, in 1998, I wrote an article for the School Administrators Association of NY Schools’ Journal (SAANYS) entitled “Supervision of Instruction: The Long and Winding Road from the ‘Kodak Moment’ to Collegiality.”
I began that article with a report card asking such questions as:
Twenty-three years ago, I gave myself failing grades in all three categories.
In New York State, the process to supervise instruction done by principals and administrators is called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Several years ago, superintendents from Monroe County, NY were asked: “What was the one state mandate they would like to repeal?” Their unanimous response: “Repeal APPR.” A sign that perhaps the answers to these 3 important questions indicate no real improvement.
Doug Reeves, in an article in the February issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership acknowledges this:
“I have never seen anyone evaluated into better performance.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development with Little or No Follow-Up Coaching
Often, professional development occurs through ‘one and done’ workshops.
Back in the winter of 2003, I taught a graduate course on Staff Development. In this class of 30, the majority of participants were directors of staff development. I asked each participant to make a list of all professional development they have endeavored in the last decade and then to put three stars next to each professional development event that included follow-up coaching, two stars for each event that did not include follow-up coaching but did include time to share practice with other colleagues in the days and weeks after the event, and zero stars if there was essentially no follow up coaching nor support with collaboration after the initial event.
In this activity, well beyond 90% of the events had NO STARS, indicating no follow up coaching, and little or no chance for reflection or sharing afterwards among staff members. Further, participants acknowledged that much of the actual professional development was in the form of a workshop. This was true in the 1990s and remains true today.
Jim Knight writes in the February 2021 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership,
“In my experience, it takes about three days to forget most of what we learned in a workshop.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development by Way of "Insert Big Name Speaker Here"
During my many years in education, I have experienced a lot of “big names” giving an opening day address. Folks were flown in from the West Coast, some were even flown in from abroad, some were funny, some were serious, and some looked like the cast of Baywatch (I specifically remember folks asking how the presenter ‘got such a great tan’) .
And a few—a few—were inspiring.
Doug Reeves addresses this approach to professional development:
“...it would be impossible to find evidence that three-hour workshops or 90 minute keynotes, on their own, however popular and entertaining, result in learning or changes in professional practice.”
One year a speaker from the Midwest was brought into my district as a keynote speaker. He spoke for three hours in the morning and several hours in the afternoon. I saw the invoice for the presentation: $8000, plus expenses.
Folks kept asking me during his presentation, “Who is this guy and who made the decision to bring him in?”
In a 2013 synthesis of research on professional learning, Allison Gulamhussein concluded that,
“most professional development today is ineffective. It neither changes teacher practice nor improves student learning” (p. 3).
When we look at how we are still conducting most professional development in 2021, it is hard to deny that, “Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
Watch for future articles on these topics in the coming months!
by Heather M. F. Lyke
Over two years ago, in the spring of 2019, I had grand ideas of how to grade differently—of how to motivate students with an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, rather than with extrinsic letter grades and percentages. After having spent four years working in the office of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and with plans to return to the classroom that coming fall, I wanted to take what I had learned over my four years—part of which had been a deep dive into grading practices—and implement them with flare. That plan resulted in the article "Seeing the Motivation: Filling ClassROWEs with Jagged Learners," which was first published in May 2019 and the full text of which is also embedded below..
*All additions are in this font and noted by a gray, vertical line.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, vs. letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as RPS's established Prioritized Learnings.
In my current school community, Dover-Eyota Public Schools, we call these 'Essential Leaning Outcomes (ELOs)'. Some schools call these 'Power Standards'. No matter the name, this is valuable work the really helps hone the focus of student learning and growth.
However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
Last week, a student of mine from 2019-2020 reached out to me to inquire about a letter of recommendation. While a letter was the reason for her setting up a Zoom call with me, during our time together she shared with me that it was this flexibility—this acknowledgement that learning doesn't always happen 'on schedule'—that saved her in the spring of 2020 when we suddenly shifted to online learning. Numerous times throughout the video chat, she thanked me for grading this way.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic), even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
Since 2019, I have also been reminded often of how important visuals are for our English language learners, especially when students are involved with creating those visuals.
Advertisers lean into the power of visuals, so why shouldn't teachers? Essentially, we are 'selling' skills, a love of learning, and content...
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it All Together
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to the classroom in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
Perhaps the most complicated piece of this whole shift was figuring out how to explain it to students and parents. I suspected that many would need to understand why the shift was occurring and that most would want to know the logistics of how it would work and what they would see when it came to student report cards, transcripts, and online student information systems (SIS) like Skyward, JMC, Gradelink, Infinite Campus, etc.
As it turned out, while there were a few parents and students who were initially frustrated, ultimately everyone was either ambivalent (rare) or fully onboard (more common) about the change. Those who were the most hesitant to join us on this journey: students who had done well in the past because they knew how to navigate a traditional school system and now found themselves disquieted by this new one, and those who wanted to know what the minimum requirement was to get an ‘A’.
by Phil Olson & Nick Truxal
District-Wide Thoughts from Nick Truxal
Why the Focus on Feedback?
Work to redefine progress reporting and grading has been happening for far longer than I’ve been in education. With that said, there are some real attempts at change happening world-wide for the first time I can recall. There are currently pushes for:
Plus, the tools available to educators have been evolving to enable these approaches as well: there are larger comment areas in student information systems, there are now ways to weight newer assignments more than older assignments via the use of decaying averages, and there are tools like Mastery Transcript that attempt to focus purely on skills and students’ evidence of each of those skills.
I’ve worked with our elementary and middle schools in Dover-Eyota, Minnesota to move towards a feedback-only grading system focused on feedback around key skills, areas of growth, and illustrations of excellence. Upon our first parent survey—which admittedly had fewer responses than we would want to make lasting judgments—we were told that this system was preferable and that they would love some additional information as well, including ways parents can work with their students on areas of growth while at home.
With all the great work happening in our district, I wish I had discovered Sarah Zerwin, first—before we had begun this process. Her work is applicable to all grade levels and content areas, and it explains how to smoothly transition a community that can’t imagine life without letter grades into one that, instead, focuses on learning versus points and percentages. Her work, once digested, makes such approaches to grading and reporting seem obvious.
The simplest way to describe Zerwin’s thesis, at least to me, is that we can engage students through robust and meaningful activities, which helps create deep thinking and lifelong learning. Points, on the other hand, distract from learning: thus, the play on words that is Zerwin’s 2020 publication, Point-less.
Classroom Application for Any Grade-level or Course Area
In exploring Zerwin’s nine specific learning goals for an English classroom, we made a more general template that can be applied to any grade level and content area. The focus is simple—if we don’t have purposeful goals, we won't have meaningful activities to reach those goals.
Before diving in, a reminder that the single most important part of this work—at least to us—is to make sure we bring everyone along with us. That work starts with conversations with students about grading, reporting, and what is important to them. We need to be sure that parents don’t feel left out, that administrators have our backs, and that local colleges and universities support anything that drops points or grades from the picture. Zerwin further discusses ways to accomplish these things in our podcast with her as well as in her book.
Back to our generalized goals (these have been adjusted to target approximately a third grade reading level, thus the shift to “I can” language); of course, tweak and adjust these as needed for your own work, and at the direction of your conversations with your students.
While, Zerwin’s work in Point-less is relevant to all educators, it perhaps is most directed to English Teachers; the subtitle of the book, after all, is An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. In fact, I first learned about Zerwin from one of my colleagues, Phil Olson, a long-time English teacher in a nearby district who read the book and immediately tried some of Zerwin’s ideas. So, I invited him to participate in our podcast discussion with her and asked him to share a reflection about how things went in regards to implementing her ideas in his own classroom.
Classroom-Specific Thoughts from Phil Olson
Classroom Application for English
The 2020-2021 academic year was tough on students and educators. From technology overload to personal wellness, the effects of the pandemic hit schools hard. Still, we education professionals pushed through, and we now have another year in the books. Before we get too far into summer mode, though, let’s do a little more assessment:
What grade would you give your performance as a teacher or administrator this past year? An A, B, C, D, or an F?
Before you answer, consider that your grade must accurately encompass all of your efforts to teach and lead, including the ways you managed controllables and responded to uncontrollables. Keep in mind that your performance is also compared to that of your colleagues. Were you a top-tier, A-level educator all year, or did your performance flag at points? Perhaps, just for this one year, we should consider assessing ourselves on a Pass-Fail basis: that’s easier. Or, instead of a single letter, maybe we should discuss our performances with descriptors, as in “this was not my best year” or “I rose to most challenges.”
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.