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August 2011

Steve Ventura, grading practices, and a seismic shift in school culture

Standards and assessment Yesterday I attended the first session of GRREC's Principals Learning Network, featuring Steve Ventura of Doug Reeve's Leadership and Learning Center.  Co-author of Standards and Assessment: The Core of Quality Instruction, Ventura is a former superintendent who writes about and presents on a variety of topics including power standards, formative assessment, data teams (PLC's, properly understood), and effective grading practices.

A pdf file of Ventura's complete presentation is available here.

Ventura covered a wide landscape of topics in his presentation, all of which are excellent parallels to work my students are doing this semester in EDAD 683, Leading Teaching and Learning, and to the formative assessment work Tom Stewart and I do through Contemplative Learning Solutions.  I'll probably post more in coming days about the information he shared, but Ventura's primary topic yesterday was on making a compelling case for revising our traditional approaches to student grading.

Using straightforward mathematics, Ventura illustrated how a 100-point grading scale with zeroes for incomplete work devastates the possibility of students who get a few bad grades from missing assignments or botched tests from every passing a class.  This point was part of a larger argument that traditional grading practices do not align well with measures of what students actually know and are able to do.  Some students have mastered our learning targets, but their grades fail to show it for a variety of reasons.  And likewise, some students get fair or even excellent grades, but have major gaps in their learning.  Ventura offered several suggestions for specific alternative grading practices:

  • Offer an early final exam (say, two weeks before the end of term) and any student who passes it can be excused from additional class work for the remainder of term (allowing for further remediation on learning targets the rest of the students have failed to demonstrate mastery).
  • Rather than give students zeroes for missing work, simply make them do the work before, during, or after school.
  • Replace large, "semester killer" projects that take weeks to complete and have large point values with a series of smaller, incremental assignments each worth a smaller point total.
  • Encourage students who are failing to engage in extra-curricular activities, since there is a direct positive correlation between extra-curricular participation and higher grades.

Unfortunately, in the limited time available for Ventura's session, I'm afraid he didn't make the compelling case he hoped.  My sense from talking to some participants is that they remain skeptical.  Ventura will return for a follow-up session in January, during which time he might address some of the lingering doubts and questions, but I think what we didn't spend enough time discussing yesterday was what a signficant cultural shift such changes in grading practice really represent.

Ventura's suggestions only make sense in the context of a total revamp of the teaching and learning process.  A truly "balanced" assessment system has to be established in which:

  • Teaching is driven by collaboratively-written, student-friendly learning targets that emerge from an intentional process of unpacking and prioritizing standards
  • Commonly-developed formative assessment techniques are regularly used to measure student progress toward learning targets
  • Students (and their parents) are given rich, specific feedback on their progress relative to learning targets
  • Data teams (PLC's) meet regularly to review student progress toward learning targets as measured by formative assessments and make immediate instructional adjustments
  • School-wide systems of intervention are available to support students with continued intervention toward learning targets when classroom level differentation has been exhausted

In this kind of context, traditional grading practices naturally make little sense, and the alternatives Ventura suggests would be natural outcomes.  To just adopt one of these alternatives without addressing the total need for balanced assessment (and changes the grade-driven culture that currently reigns) would be a recipe for failure.

At any rate, I'm happy for what Steve Ventura offered and will be eager to hear him again in January.  GRREC's Principal Learning Network will feature three more sessions throughout the school year.  Space is still available for enrollment.  Contact GRREC for more information.

Using the TELLKentucky Survey Results

Earlier this week I attended a KDE training session for universities, co-ops and other educational support providers regarding how to use data from the TELLKentucky survey.  This statewide survey of teachers and school administrators, developed by the New Teacher Center of Santa Cruz, CA, in collaboration with KDE, was administered for the first time last school year and will be administered annually from this point forward. 

Teachers and principals were surveyed on a range of topics, including their perceptions about the following:

  • Planning time
  • Facilities and resources
  • Community support and involvement
  • Managing student conduct
  • Teacher leadership opportunities and collaborative decision making
  • School leadership, including the extent to which the school has an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect
  • Professional development, and
  • Instructional practices and support

Data is available at the school, district, and state level.  The statewide response rate was 80 percent; response rates for schools and districts are also reported. 

You can access all the complete reports at the TELLKentucky website here.  A four-page Executive Summary and General Trends report is available here.  Validity and reliability information is available here.

 KDE has disaggregated the responses by teacher demographic variables (like years of experience, minority status, etc.), but these reports are available only by special request.  This is because for smaller schools and districts, reporting demographic data might reveal the identity of respondents.

On Tuesday the facilitator shared a simple protocol for using the data to do school- and district-level needs assessments by comparing school responses with the state average.  Let me know if you'd like a copy of any of the materials shared on Tuesday and I'll send them along to you.

KDE and the New Teacher Center has also developed activity guidebooks for how various stakeholder groups can use TELLKentucky data for improvement planning.  Facilitator and participant guides for school boards and Site-Based Decision-Making Councils are available here.  Parent guidebooks are, I believe, in development.  KDE is also developing special reports breaking data down by cooperative areas, which might be useful for WKU and GRREC.

 The Kentucky Board of Education is currently discussing how to best utilize the TELLKentucky results, including using it in the new (and still-emerging) principal and teacher evaluation system.  The general idea seems to be that school leaders shouldn't necessarily be evaluated on the results of the survey, but should be accountable for using the data in meaningful ways for school improvement.

An interesting statewide phenomena the facilitators shared with us on Tuesday: on every key indicator item, administrators reported much higher levels of agreement than teachers.  This is unsurprising in some ways, and the facilitators were quick to emphasize that we cannot conclude from the results that either teachers or administrators are correct in their perceptions.  But the gap in perceptions poses an important culture, climate, and communication challenge for school leaders, one that should be given much thought and consideration. 

The TELLKentucky data is easy to access and understand, and I'd encourage you to consider ways you might use the survey in your schools for collaborative discussion, reflection, and short- and long-term action planning.

The Classroom as Spiritual Space

An interesting set of articles appears in a 2009 edition of Teachers College Record on spiritual awareness and "deep teaching."  You can read editor Lisa Miller's introduction to these articles, including her thoughts on the classroom as "spiritual space" here.

If the concept of integrating spirituality and schooling is new to you, let me emphasize that we're not talking about the constitutionally-prohibited practice of indoctrinating students into religious beliefs or ideas in public schools.  As Miller points out, while spirituality has direct links with various religious practices, the word refers to a holistic approach to human experience that incorporates the deepest ways in which individuals make meaning of their lives:

By the term spiritual is meant our relationship to the great surrounding world, absolute values experienced personally, and ultimate connection to meaning and transcendence, as expressed in every moment, most importantly right here and now.

Miller argues that conventional education requires students to disconnect the  head learning of traditional schooling from the heart learning that is central to the process of growing up and growing into a more fully human individual:

Students, observed Mary Rose O’Reilly (1998), often are not heard “into existence.” I suggest that often in the classroom, students are not welcomed wholly to exist. Students are asked to check the vast majority of their inner life at the school entrance—relationships to each other, concerns quite immediate about their feelings, the purpose or meaning of life, death of loved ones, justice and compassion for themselves or others they know. The heart of living, as it is being experienced right now, in the here and now, is not discussed. In that we ask students to leave much of their awaking selves behind, it hardly seems surprising that often students are not wholly present in class. The classroom chair has been occupied, but the spirit lives elsewhere; a disintegrated presence is created. This particular form of student disengagement does not emanate from the curricular level, nor does it entirely overlap with mental health issues. This crisis of education is spiritual.

The articles Miller previews in this edition of Teachers College Record go on to examine how teachers can more fully engage students whole "selves" in the learning process, including these deep, personal dimensions. 

I would argue that Miller and the authors she introduces are on to something important.  In my experience, though, it's not just students who are asked to leave their inner lives outside the door of the classroom.  Adults, too, are not encouraged to integrate their own emotional and psychological selves into their work.  We rarely honor the deeply emotional components in our work as educators, or the ways in which teachers and principals make meaning of their very lives through, in part, the work they do with students.  These are messy, touchy, unpredictable dimensions of our humanity and while they are always present in the background of our work, we rarely acknowledge, honor, or celebrate these parts of ourselves.

I challenge you to think about this phenomena.  What parts of yourself to do you leave behind as you enter your school building each day?  What are the costs of fragmenting yourself this way?  How could you welcome more fully all the dimensions of your humanity into your work?  Even more importantly, how could you make a workplace safe for others to be fully authentic and fully present with you?

Monroe County elementaries adopt standards-based feedback system

Elementary schools in Monroe County have adopted a new feedback system this year, aligned to Common Core Standards, for communicating student progress toward learning targets.  The new system will replace letter grades for all students up through grade 5.  Principals unveiled this new approach at a recent board meeting.  Gamaliel Elementary Principal Christie Biggerstaff:

“The teachers will be communicating their student’s progress as a NM (Not Mastered), PM (Partially Mastered) or M (Mastered), with children being able to have additional opportunities for remediation or enrichment depending on their assessment.”

Teachers will be keeping work samples from each child in a binder, the principals added, to be able to document student progress and discuss with parents which standards might need more remediation for mastery.

I commend the Monroe County schools for taking this bold step.  Communicating rich, detailed feedback on student progress relative to specific learning targets is a key, but far-reaching part of implementing a truly balanced assessment system.  It recognizes that letter grades often communicate very little about what students actually know and are able to do, offer little feedback for student improvement, and sometimes have the effect of actually demotivating students or rewarding students for non-academic behaviors.

School leaders are often skittish about this move, worrying that parents will not understand performance reports that don't include grades.  In my experience, based on the efforts of individual teachers to implement a standards-based performance reporting system (including at the middle and high school levels), parents and students alike quickly embrace this approach and value the rich, specific feedback.

There will inevitably be some bugs to work out, but I hope Monroe County's experience paves the way for other schools to take this important step.

EdTech TeachMeet KY "Unconference" to be held at Corvette Museum Oct 21

Bowling Green City Schools will hold a second annual TeachMeet KY "Unconference" at the National Corvette Museum on October 21 focused on educational technology.

According to the website, an "unconference" is different than a regular conference because it's free, highly interactive, and participants themselves help decide the sessions that will be held.

Bowling Green High School Assistant Principal William King explains more in an email sent out to area educators:

This is our second year hosting a TeachMeet in Bowling Green, and we expect a lot of good things to come out of this unconference. TeachMeets are imports from England and consist of teachers sharing ideas with other teachers.  They are fast paced tech unconferences, meant to help educators discover different technology and Web 2.0 tools. Each hour will consist of three 20 minute tech sessions by presenters who are passionate about educational technology and teaching. Most of the tech tools that will be demonstrated are free online applications. All of the tools will help students be more engaged in learning and help educators stay up to date with changes in ed tech applications. Most of the tools can be used with any student age group. Potentially topics include: Twitter for Educators, Prezi, Edmodo, Screencasting, Flipped Classroom, Google Apps, Mobile Devices in the Classroom, as well as presentations given by local students.

King says the conference is open to teachers, administrators, IT staff and anyone else with an interest in educational technology.  Participants sign up here and presenters sign up here (if you have any tech tool you'd be willing to share as part of the conference, you're encouraged to sign up as a presenter. 

Academic Integrity

For all students enrolled in EDAD courses for the fall semester:

As noted in your syllabus, plagiarism is a serious offense. Faculty in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research have grown increasingly concerned about the prevalence of plagiarism appearing in student work in EDAD courses. I don't believe many students deliberately plagiarize. Usually, students are simply unaware of the rules of proper citation and referencing and unintentionally pass another author's work off as their own. Even when unintentional, however, issues of academic honest are extremely serious. The academic work of a student is expected to be his/her own effort. Students must give the author(s) credit for any source material used. To represent ideas or interpretations taken from another source as one’s own is plagiarism. To lift content directly from a source without giving credit is a flagrant act. To present a borrowed passage after having changed a few words, even if the source is cited, is also plagiarism.

To assist students in understanding the proper rules of citation and other issues surrounding plagiarism, beginning in the Fall 2011 semester all EDAD students will be required to verify in writing that they have completed one of two online tutorials addressing this topic. I will provide you the verification form in the first few weeks of the class. Once you've completed the online tutorial you'll submit the form to me verifying that you have completed it and understand the rules of proper citation and the ramifications of plagiarism. The online tutorials include the following:

The Harvard Graduate School of Education online tutorial: Principles of Paraphrasing: How to Avoid Plagiarism in Three Easy Modules -

Indiana University’s Plagiarism and Academic Integrity -

You may complete ONE of the two tutorials listed above. Additionally, I've posted a link on the Blackboard main course menus (and in the left-hand side bar on the blog) with other APA resources that will assist you in proper citation and referencing.

Students who commit any act of academic dishonesty may receive a failing grade in that portion of the course work in which the act is detected or a failing grade in the course without possibility for withdrawal. Acts of academic dishonesty shall be reported to the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research for possible disciplinary action that may result in permanent disqualification from the program.

Above all, please ask me if you have specific questions regarding proper citation or plagiarism prior to submitting an assignment.

Seeing with the "Administrative Eye:" What's your education administration program really about?

I've been thinking a lot lately about my own teaching practice and about the role and function of educator preparation programs in general.  This process of self-reflection has opened me to new insights about the contribution colleges of education can realistically make to the future of P-12 schools and to my own gifts, strengths and values as a leadership educator.

My recent trip to visit schools in England provoked some of this professional soul searching.  In part, I was struck by how little formal leadership preparation school principals in England receive prior to assuming their official duties, and by how relatively little preparation was actually desired by aspiring school heads.  The conventional wisdom seemed to be that leadership is largely innate and that training programs were rarely practical or effective.  Until quite recently in England, aspiring principals needed no formal education or certification other than their teaching credential.

It made me wonder: if suddenly the state stopped requiring Kentucky principals to receive a university-provided administrative certificate, how many of my students would still sign up and pay for the classes I teach each semester?  I get great evaluations and feedback from students on their learning experiences in my courses, but they still have no choice but to take the classes, from WKU or some other university program approved by the Educational Professionals Standards Board.

And, I know full well that being in my classes is certainly no guarantee that my students -- even some students who pass with an "A" -- will turn out to be great school leaders.

So what is the value-added?  What's the great contribution that I'm making to educational leadership aside from satisfying a state requirement? 

Students in both teacher and administrator education programs often complain that their formal training does little to prepare them for the plethora of practical demands they will face on the job, especially in their early years of service.  In response to these complaints, colleges of education often double-down on their efforts to provide real-world, skills-based, practical technical knowledge and field experiences that will better equip students to successfully solve everyday problems of teaching and leadership.

In an excellent Education Week essay called "Schools of Education: Doing One Thing Well," City University of New York Professor Emeritus William Proefriedt argues that this is the wrong approach.  In fact, he says that colleges of education are not particularly well-equipped to teach aspiring educators the vast technical knowledge they'll need on the job, and argues that school- and district-based mentoring and staff development programs are better suited for this task. 

Not that colleges of education should not offer a curriculum that addresses, in part, these practical matters.  Proefriedt argues, rather, that what colleges of education do best and should make their primary focus is teaching aspiring educators how to think, how to become more thoughtful, well-read, self-aware and self-critical professionals.  College of education professors "should do what college professors do best: teach courses reflecting the spirit of the liberal arts and sciences," applied to the context of teaching and leadership in schools:

We should help our students to assess the variety of theories, policies, and practices within which they operate. We should adopt comparative and historical approaches that treat these policies and practices as contingent possibilities emerging within particular contexts. We should not take the present language of educational discourse with its litany of national competitiveness, preparation for the 21st-century workplace, high expectations, and individual accountability for granted but, rather, transform it into a subject of inquiry. We should not induct students into a set of policies and practices; we should, instead, help them assess critically the assumptions and efficacy of those policies and practices.

In my own teaching, I often frame this perspective with the phrase, "The way schools are is not the way they had to be nor have to be in the future."  There are historical, cultural, political, and economic reasons why schools function the way they do.  If we want our schools to be different, to improve, we have to understand all the varied, competing perspectives that contribute to schooling as we know it and explore and articulate new perspectives and approaches that match our values and vision.

This isn't a kind of politicized approach to the study of education, but rather a highly personalized perspective that introduces students to problems they haven't considered before, helping them to make their own meaning of the varied demands, duties, and challenges of school leadership.

I never present myself as an expert to my education administration students.  I do not suggest that by listening to my views or experiences they'll become an effective leader, or that I can impart to them secrets that will guarantee their success as a school administrator. 

I do have some areas of expertise based on my past experiences as a teacher, school leader, and researcher, and I try to share that technical knowledge and skill with them when appropriate, recognizing that at best they'll leave me with a rudimentary understanding that can only be developed and refined in the field of practice.   But the technical knowledge needed for highly-effective school leadership is constantly changing, and if practitioners struggle to keep pace, how much more difficult for a professor like myself?

Ultimately, what I do best is present aspiring school leaders with a range of problems they are likely to encounter in the field, multiple perspectives by which to make sense of those problems, and a safe but rigorous learning environment in which they can come to understand their own strengths and weakenesses relative to the challenges of leadership and how they might begin a life-long journey of professional learning around those challenges.  My students will not leave me with a guarantee of future success, but if I do my job well, they'll leave thinking deeper thoughts, pondering bigger problems, and with far greater self-awareness and self-understanding.  Ultimately, I believe these capacities are far more important for future leadership success than mere technical knowlege, which is constantly shifting on the winds of new curricular approaches, policies changes, and political developments.

My WKU colleagues Ric Keaster and Bud Schlinker have called this broader perspective the capacity to see with the "Administrative Eye." They argue that no matter where our former education administration students' professional roads might take them, even if they never leave the role of classroom teacher, they will be enriched by learning they shared with us.

As a new academic year begins, I feel energized and inspired with a greater clarity for what we're really all about in the field of school leadership preparation and what my gifts are as a teacher and researcher in this program.  To my students, I invite you once again to join this enormously difficult but immensely gratifying journey, to discover the endless challenges of leading schools and improving teaching and learning, but above all, to discover yourself.

Reverence in the Classroom

Just read this thoughtful essay from Jim Garrison and A. G. Rud featured in a 2009 issue of Teachers College Record, on the concept of reverence in classroom teaching.  Link here.  A worthy antidote for the hectic busyness of back-to-school month.  Pay special attention to the concepts of humility and silence related to the virtue of reverence.  Good stuff.

Where do you experience reverence in your own work?  How can you experience more of it?

The state of national education policy: One perspective's Katherine Mangu-Ward conducted an interesting interview with Hoover Institution analysis and former US assistant secretary of education Bill Evers yesterday.  You watch the whole thing here.

Evers is concerned about the continually expanding role of the federal government in K-12 education.  He suggests that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan would like to create a national education policy similar to France's Ministry of Education.

Perhaps a bit overstated, but Evers raises important questions about the constitutional role of the federal government in schools and the potential pitfalls of a national curriculum. 

This issue has practical implications.  As a new school year commences around the state of Kentucky, few issues are troubling teachers more than the implementation of the new Common Core Standards for math and language arts, a key initiative of Secretary Duncan (and, ironically, the state's governors).  There's no doubt the Common Core represents some curricular improvement over past standards, but what are the implications, both positive and negative, to an essentially mandated, one-size-fits-all curriculum for the entire country?  Everyday educators are busy trying to make it work, but pondering the political and instructional consequences is important.


Kentucky Board of Ed revises accountability system again

News from Frankfort yesterday: the Kentucky Board of Education has again revised the weightings for the various components of the new "Next Generation Learners" statewide school accountability system.  Now test performance and non-academic targets will make up 70 percent of the total formula, while program reviews for non-tested areas will make up 20 percent and the new teacher and principal evaluation system will constitute just 10 percent.

This is a welcome change from the 50/30/20 split adopted previously this summer, a formula that, in my opinion, gave far too much weight to a program review and evaluation process that is still very much in development.