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 (the 6.22.21 episode) 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 (the 6.22.21 episode) 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.”
by Dr. Louise Waters
Education innovation is beset by seemingly intransigent, although opposing, forces. The first is well known to any change agent. It is “Can’t Because.” We can’t do x, y, z because we tried it before and it didn’t work. We can’t because our children / families aren’t ready for it. We can’t because our context is unique. We can’t because our school is under-resourced. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A less obvious barrier is the true believers “Can and Must”:
Lasting innovation borrows from both. It is the “Can If” orientation described by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint. As I have experienced it, those with a “Can If” orientation view change as a Rubik's Cube with three dimensions: Strategic, Human, and Execution. Like the colored cubes embedded in the larger Rubik’s Cube, the components of each dimension are continually changing, providing new opportunities and constraints. All must be managed and aligned for innovation to lead to permanent institutional change.
The Strategic dimension incorporates the need - the call to action and a compelling vision to address it. Taken together these energize passion and purpose. It also includes the strategy to identify the barriers and assets already in place and the path to leveraging them. These constraints and opportunities are embedded in both the Human dimension - how to get buy-in, alignment and momentum from stakeholders - and the Execution dimension - how to make sure that each step of the strategy actually works and moves the system closer to achieving the vision.
Let me make this concrete. In the 1990s I became principal at a Bay Area Elementary School, the school two of my children had attended. One was a strong traditional learner and one struggled with severe dyslexia. Neither had been well served by the systems it had in place. The school was extremely diverse with no dominant ethnic group and situated in a working, middle-class community. The families were heavily immigrant or recent arrivals to the suburbs and were supportive but not demanding of their safe, welcoming, physically attractive school. The staff was complacent with the achievement level and with gaps attributed to language, culture, income and family structure. The likelihood that it would or could change to truly meet the needs of children like either of mine seemed low. If I came in as the knight in shining armor with all the answers for school improvement, I was going to be dismissed with Who are you to tell us how to do our job? or Yes, but our kids come from families who don’t prepare them for success! But if I entered trying to win their approval and agreeing with their complacency and prior beliefs, I would be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
However, I also came into school-site leadership after eight years as a professor of urban education and a school reform coach in low-income Black and Brown schools in nearby Oakland. I knew we could do better and the achievement gaps I had observed here were not inevitable. I had also seen how assessment and data could be used as entry points for fundamental change. And I knew from both research and practice that the traditional assessment, grading and retention system negatively impacted all students and had devastating effects on students with IEPs and low-income students of color. It was a key element of the systemic racisms embedded in American schooling. Like most aspects of systemic racism, it was taken for granted and largely invisible, simply “normal,” to people who had risen through it - here and at schools across the country.
Armed with data and the knowledge garnered from years of supporting schools in changing their outcomes by changing their assessment and grading processes, I had a vision for using this entry point to transform my new school. However, as a parent I knew the staff was highly seasoned, one of the most traditional in the district. It would be easy to trigger backlash and resistance. My goal: to move them from what would surely have been “We Can’t Because” to a more open “We Can If” that would allow us to align on a path to greater impact and equity. I knew this would mean a fundamental disruption in teaching and learning.
The strategy I began evolving then, so many years ago, I have come to term Disruptive Incrementalism. Disruptive Incrementalism is a contrarian theory of change. In accepted practice, particularly in the world of “Can and Must” believers, a visionary leader is hired and / or a long, blue-sky design process engages a large group of stakeholders to create a vision. Once leadership and vision are in place, implementation plans are created. Often implementation is delegated to a small, select staff with little transparency and engagement and often a very short timeline. Disruptive Incrementalism turns this process on its head: First build trust with outstanding execution and early wins with a good-enough, equity-oriented vision. Then collaboratively iterate, tailor to the local context, and deepen the equity vision.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Human Change
A veteran staff has seen innovations come and go, often poorly implemented, disruptive and time consuming, and seldom sustained over time. They have little reason to get on board. Trust is built through doing, not talking: getting early wins and being responsive. Here is the strategy for change in the human dimension:
In working with the staff at my school, this meant building an easy consensus that the hated elementary grading system had to change. It included a narrative K report card, an effort-based 1-2 card, and traditional letter grades at 3rd through 5th. A clear pain point. Second was shrinking the change. Initially this initiative was not about mastery grading, portfolios, the language arts program, homework, etc. It was simply designing a new K-5 report card for better alignment, greater transparency for families, and more equity across grades and classrooms. Obtaining district permission was a huge trust-building first step. Calling out equity as a piece of the initial good-enough vision set the stage to later deepen the discussion of equity. And finally, there were bright spots to build on. The kindergarten team used a variety of performance assessment tools, a number of teachers had writing portfolios, and so on. My job was to highlight these and why they worked - building internal models rather than simply holding up easily dismissed external exemplars.
The next steps involved generating buy in via authentic engagement. This meant bringing those pioneer teachers together and exposing them to the relevant research and to their own classroom inquiry, building a design team focused on implementation not on vision. Each of them had a long history of pushing their own practice. Now they were working as a team encouraging each other and prototyping new grading practices, something I later came to call collaborative innovation. As they began fleshing out a new system and were provided the time and autonomy to experiment, others wanted to join - a process of demand pull.
By the end of the year, the pioneer group had the skeleton of a new report card and a plan for building the grading systems to support it. Presented at a full-faculty meeting, everyone was invited to join in extensive, paid, summer work. Those who did not choose to come committed to abiding by whatever the group had put in place, knowing that it was a pilot that would be iterated over the following year and subsequent summer. This second more inclusive stage I have come to call collaborative iteration. We can make this work if we…..Over those first two years the fluid teams - sometimes by grade and sometimes focused on content areas or specific populations like special education or English Learners, expanded their sense of accountability from their own students to all students. In later years as the report card and assessment system, and the design team, grew to include all elementary schools in the district, the sense of responsibility also expanded. Teachers began to feel responsible for all students in the district.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Execution
Attending to the human dimension of change means building trust and hope. Can staff trust that they will have a voice, that you will deliver, that there will be results? Much of the way you build trust and hope this is through how well you execute:
As I mentioned, my first big win was gaining permission to pilot a new report card in a district seen as highly centralized. The fact that I personally led the work and had visible support from top district administrators both validated and empowered teachers. The involvement of “Can’t Becausers” and “Can and Musters” meant issues of implementation were addressed all along the way. To address concerns, increase participation, reduce overwhelm and shorten timelines, different teachers prototyped different pieces of the system needed for the new report card to be successful. Some created mastery exemplars for grade-level performance in math, reading and writing. Some designed electronic lesson plan templates. Others thought through what a grade book would look like under mastery grading and how this type of report card would fit in with traditional practices like the GPA honor roll (eliminated) and parent conferences (became student led conferences). Still others worked on parent communication. Feedback from parents, students and teachers identified best practices as well as execution disconnects that could be addressed immediately before the next report card. Substantive issues were put in the parking lot for summer iteration. Problems were surfaced and addressed, champions emerged, and trust was built that nothing was set in stone.
Disruptive Incrementalism: A Strategy for Systemic Change
Many strategic guidelines are detailed above:
A word about goal and vision iteration. This is the contrarian aspect of Disruptive Incrementalism. Don’t invest time and political capital on a blue-sky vision and lofty goals - both of which will probably not be reached in the near term. Instead, start with something that has wide support and is concrete and achievable in the near term - but that is aligned to the long-term goal and vision. In doing the actual work, staff will expand their understanding of the issues and their belief that deeper change is possible. In designing a new report card you have to address what is the role of effort, of achievement, of mastery, of improvement - and how does this play out with a student far below grade level, an emerging speaker of English, etc etc. With strong facilitation, these questions drive people to the research and to classroom cycles of inquiry. If this is done in a learning, not punitive or lecturing, way and if that inquiry is public and inclusive (we called it “The Committee of Whoever Comes”), fundamental change can happen.
With strong facilitation, the measurable, systemic, equity goals can be teased out and called out and understanding builds. Over 7 years we built a district-wide K-5 developmental, standards-based report card utilizing authentic assessment and supporting an academic program that aimed to meet every student where they were. A critical element was a comprehensive formative data system for all schools. A wrap-around extended day program with multi-layer tutoring provided intervention and included 4 primary language academies to build primary language literacy. By the end of the first year, teachers were able to articulate a clear, measurable goal: All children would grow at least one year in reading, writing and math and students below grade level would grow at least a year and a half. After tracking data for three years an additional goal emerged for students entering the school with no English proficiency: grade-level achievement after four years. While few staff would have believed this possible at the beginning, most came to see that if data showed a significant number of students could meet these markers, it should be possible for all. That same data system, one which codified and tracked formative data, allowed for the close monitoring of these goals. In fact, individual data for each of the 900 students lined the wall of the faculty conference room for ready use in staff meetings. These goals and this comprehensive vision, especially when they became district wide, could have sparked rebellion and been shot down before change got started. Approached with collaboration, iteration and demand pull - the processes of Disruptive Incrementalism, changes few would have foreseen did happen.
Two final corollaries of Disruptive Incrementalism are important to note if the goal of education reform is systemic change that sustains over time. These are:
Education change strategy seems to swing from researched-based fidelity to creative autonomy and back again. Disruptive Incrementalism has the opportunity to bridge these predictable poles. Neither autonomy nor fidelity are good in-and-of themselves. Rather they are means to an end. You cannot have equitable access and outcomes across teachers and classrooms, or across schools, without common standards along with consistent expectations and practices that allow alignment. The lack of these is an underpinning of systemic racism that allows the best teachers, practices, and programs to go to the students with the strongest advocates and most privilege. Consistency is also necessary for teachers to collaborate. If teachers cannot share data or curriculum, they have little concrete to collaborate about and little reason to identify best practices.
At the same time a system that is lock step does not allow teachers and schools to contextualize for specific communities and students. It also does not allow them to bring their own passion and tap into the passion and creativity of their students. Impact and equity need both. In the report card project, common standards, rubrics and exemplars supported consistency and high expectations but allowed teachers the latitude to build, borrow or iterate their content. For instance, the development of schoolwide, K-5, student-led conferences equitably supported student agency and grading transparency. However, the exact structure and artifacts of a given teacher’s SLCs invited creativity.
By starting small, under promising and over delivering, and calling the full range of school voices into the iterative design process, the so-called report card work attracted little attention beyond the boundaries of the school. The number of advocates increased, coming to include parents and students themselves. And their understanding deepened. By the time more fundamental changes were part of the vision, what could have been major issues, like the end of letter grades and the honor roll, brought inquiries not protests. And the trust that had been built meant that when true problems arose, like the incompatibility of the district’s online grade book and the new report card, teachers became problem solvers not saboteurs. The practice of summer collaborative iteration was in place and, though frustrated, teachers were willing to do work arounds until then. The spread to other schools was viral - teacher to teacher with pioneers from other campuses asking to join the summer work. The actual district-wide move to a new report card was uneventful. No concerns rose to the level of a complaint to the Board, let alone a public outcry. And the district-wide extended day program was celebrated.
This, then, is Disruptive Incrementalism. It has an end goal of disruptive, systemic change. However, the process is incremental, building the understanding of complex change, trust in implementation, and buy in from a range of stakeholders. It takes into account the three faces of change: strategic, human, and execution. And it leverages the cautions of the “Can’t Becausers” and the passions of the “Can and Musters” to move systems. I returned to my school 10 years, two principals and many teachers later. A new teacher gave me a tour pointing out school highlights, not knowing my role in any of them. Most were products of the “report card” work now institutionalized. 20 years later my granddaughter moved into the district to start kindergarten. The comprehensive extended day program, designed to support meeting students where they are, was still a touted feature of every elementary school in the district. I do not know how many of the deeper shifts have lasted, becoming invisible as they, too, just became part of “Who we are and how we do things.” That, too. is Disruptive Incrementalism, where invisibility and longevity may be the ultimate markers of success.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
It’s almost June: a month full of farmers’ markets, graduation parties, and fairs. (If we're lucky, this summer we will have all of that again.) June is also the month of Pride (read about the origin of Pride and other such details here in this CNN article).
Spring and summer are a great time to reflect on our educational practices. Combine that with Pride Month in June, and it’s only fitting to reflect on how our practices specifically impact our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families. How can we as educators work toward a space where all—including our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families—feel safe and welcome in our classrooms and schools?
To compile a list of ideas on this topic, I anonymously surveyed three dozen LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies, many of whom are current or former students of schools in Southeast Minnesota (SEMN) and some of whom currently work in SEMN schools. I looked for what themes arose from their feedback, and resoundingly these were the four key takeaways:
| 1 |
I work with everyone in my role at Dover-Eyota schools, both in classrooms and outside of them. Collaborativly, staff and I work with students, or we meet to plan for future work with students: anything to help students grow. This year, whether it be during an online check-in or over an outdoor beer after work, conversations have been particularly interesting. This week alone, four staff have made note of how much more they are grinding their teeth this year versus past years. I can relate.
I also grind my teeth. Five years ago, it was so bad a doctor said I needed to wear a stint on my bottom teeth at night to relax my jaw muscles at night: that stint lasted me four years. Last spring, I had a new one made--less than twelve months later, I have litterally cracked my stint because the night grinding and jaw tension has increased that much during this pandemic. But doesn't that crack simply highlight my humanity?
This has been a school year like no other. Our staff, students, and community are having to navigate more stress and more negativity than many have had to process in years past. Knowing that, what can we do?
For that, we lean on Amit Sood:
With the pump installed and the radon back to less than 2.0 pCi/L, our sleep quality crawled back to normal. Then I had a brilliant idea--why not take radon levels down to zero? Just to compensate for the years of radiation. Few quick clicks on the internet, and I knew that wasn’t possible. Radon is part of the natural environment. Its level can be reduced, but not eliminated.
It turns out this is true for most other toxins. The normal blood mercury level is less than 10 micrograms/liter. It isn't zero. Even if you never enjoyed grilled mackerel or a tuna sandwich, you still will have some mercury in your body. The same is true for lead, arsenic, aluminum, and now micro-plastics.
“Isn’t that true also for negative thoughts?” I thought.
Every week I think thoughts I would rather not think. Being alive is being imperfect.
Here are three ways you can leverage these insights:
- Accept and embrace your negative thoughts, knowing that they are universal and also because they serve a purpose. Rational fears keep you safe. Healthy envy can push you to work harder. A resilient mind has space for both positive and negative. In fact, extreme positive can be a net negative.
- Just as you can mitigate high mercury or lead levels, you can decrease your negative thoughts if they are usurping too much space. Fill your mind with gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, meaning, and hope, and you’ll see toxic anger, fear, and envy exiting your headspace.
- Have compassion for those mired in negativity. They may have faced a rough tide in the past, may have vulnerable genotype, and more. Deep down, they are hurting. Your compassionate engagement will help their self-worth and might start their journey toward freedom and healing.
If you agree with the preceding, then...
Here is your challenge:
Just for today, choose to accept one mildly annoying aspect of one person in your life. Remember that an excellent first step to help others improve is to accept them as they are. And also, that people don’t like to be improved; they want to be validated.
Dr. Sood, my dentist (and my pocketbook) thank you for this. I suspect my colleagues' dentists will be thanking you, too.
Dr. Amit Sood is one of the world's leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and the creator of the Resilient Option program. He has also athored many articles and books, including The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living.
Heather M. F. Lyke is the Teaching & Learning Specialist for Dover-Eyota Schools and author of numerous articles focusing on quality education.
So, this article shall be that. Where do we find quality resources, and where do we find quality resources that help us find quality resources. It is a babushka doll of an article. Plus, if you’d like to read more about mirrors and windows, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Suggestions from the Rochester Public Library
This list recommends books (mostly at the elementary level), along with how they can be taught across content areas, what controversies they may spark, what grade levels they best fit, and most importantly—how it may act as a mirror and window. (If you check the link, make sure to try the category tabs at the bottom.)
Suggestions from Wiley Blevins
- The American Library Association, with its excellent list of inclusive books.
- The School Library Journal, which frequently publishes articles on diverse books and makes them easy to browse by topics, categories, reading level, and so forth.
- Publisher Weekly does much the same as School Library Journal as far as articles, but with a more complicated way to browse past articles.
- Let’s Learn on PBS: a show that popped up during the pandemic in order to help students continue to learn from home.
Ideas for your own Reading
- Consider trying the site book club: see how you are reflected in the book you’re reading or how it allows you to peer into an experience different from your own.
- If you’re able to join us locally, join us for our summer book-club-like-no-other: Talanoa (details below)—we’d love to talk books with you.
Wiley Blevins is a world-renowned expert on early reading, an educator, and author of many books--from A Fresh Look at Phonics to Happy Birthday Clifford. He has worked as Vice-President and Editorial Director of Macmillan/Mcgraw Hill, is the Associate Publisher at Reycraft Books.