19 May 2012

A Return to the Brave New World

Three and a half years ago, I wrote about a district that was turning up standards-based reform all the way to 11. In the Brave New World, the Adams 50 school district planned to do away with grade levels and group students based on their level of proficiency.

Education Week recently profiled the district and its challenges with implementing this type of competency based approach (subscription required).

But four years into the effort, Adams 50's work shows how hard instituting such changes can be, even with broad support.

For example, the district divided its curriculum into 10 academic levels, expanded those to 14 levels when 10 were deemed too broad, and then has had to tweak the levels again when the state adopted new literacy and mathematics standards.

The initiative also continues to be challenged by state testing requirements, which force Adams 50 to group students by grade, even though those students may not have been working on the particular academic areas that the tests cover.

And incorporating the approach into the district's two high schools has been bumpy. The competency-based model is currently being used in the 9th and 10th grades in those schools, but Adams 50 is working through what level-based learning means for grade point averages and class ranks.

Even the most experienced teachers have been left feeling like first-year educators in the wake of the changes, district leaders say they have heard.

Adams might be one of the first districts to take this on, but many states are also considering a change to the way they look at credit.
While Adams 50 has gotten attention for its efforts, competency-based learning has a foothold in 36 states, according to a 2012 issue brief from the National Governors Association. That means those states "provide school districts and schools with some flexibility for awarding credit to students based on mastery of content and skills as opposed to seat time," the NGA brief said.

It went on to note, though, that a common challenge for many such efforts is that other education structures within the state may work against that flexibility. For example, student-level data may be housed in systems that prevent teachers from getting all the information they need to evaluate if a student has fully mastered the academic content.

States also vary in how much they encourage districts to take advantage of such flexibility. New Hampshire is a leader in that area: It is the only state that is requiring its high schools to do away with Carnegie units, which award academic credit based on seat time, and instead award credit based on mastery of course-level competencies.

Connecticut offers districts the ability to separate seat time from credits, but recently, a coalition of district superintendents said it would like to see the state embrace even more widespread change. Every school leader in the state signed on to a proposal that, among other changes, would require that students advance to the next level on the basis of content mastery and would offer year-round learning opportunities.

In the coming age of "anytime, anywhere" learning coupled with standards-based reform, it would seem to make sense to take a renewed (and long overdue) look at how we recognize learning. Seat time is no guarantee of learning. Neither is the number of days in a school year. Efforts to lengthen school days/years might move forward under the veil of increased opportunity, but they are still "one size fits all" models when it comes to mastering skills and content.

Systemic change like this is just about impossible, but I am impressed with these states and districts which are making an effort to move forward. Euphemisms about building the plane during flight aside, the simple truth is that we are never going to have all the answers we need at the time we need them. Sometimes, you just have to jump and trust that you can figure out what to do when you land.

16 May 2012

What's Your Evidence for That?

Last week, I participated in a workshop on data coaching. Along the way, there was a piece on measurable goals. I don't have a problem with including these sorts of goals. Even qualitative data is a form of measurement. But I couldn't help thinking that the term wasn't quite right. Decisions aren't made by data alone. We have to apply context to the measurement in order to make sense of things. I started wondering of evidence-based might be a better fit. Sure, it makes me a bit of a pedant to pick at something like this, but I think word choice is important...especially when it comes to something being packaged for school districts.

One of my favourite quotes I've run across during recent research has been this one:

While data may mean numeric information, the term evidence implies something that furnishes proof. Data become the mirror that reflects the evidence teachers and leaders use to make decisions on effective practice (Ruffner, 2008, p. 19).

When we set goals for ourselves, our students, or our schools, we may not be looking for measurement, in a traditional sense. If I have a student whose behavior is making me nutty, do I care more that the behavior stops (or is modified) or about a particular number of times s/he behaves appropriately? In other words, with some goals, is observation "enough"? When I cook, I make observations about temperature, seasoning, and so forth---I don't stick my thermometer in the flame or have a rating scale for saltiness. I could, but why? The evidence from observation is sufficient to get the job done.

Rick Stiggins has said, "Students should be presumed innocent of understanding until convicted by evidence." We collect measurements (scores) and observations about student learning, but in the end, it's our professional judgment (based on this evidence) that allows us to convict students of understanding. I think this same mindset could easily be applied to other decisions in a school.

I do think that measurements for some goals are important. We track student scores as one way to look at learning...we monitor student absences...we need to know specifics about which students and families need additional services. But, being "measurable" isn't quite broad enough to describe how we view what happens in a classroom (or our lives). I would be far more comfortable with telling people to collect their data, but look at a broader base of evidence before making decisions.

On the other hand...this tweet appeared in my feed this week:

https://twitter.com/#!/alixmortimer/status/200864111133859840

Does this mean that sticking with the data---the measurement---is the better bet? I would agree that the way we look at data is coloured by our knowledge and experience...but I don't see any way to get away from that. Data don't interpret themselves---only humans can apply them. There is going to be some subjectivity. The key is to be aware of biases and reduce them whenever possible.

I chatted a bit with one of the leaders of the workshop. He said that he didn't think that there was any difference between a measurable goal and one that was evidence-based. What do you think? Are these the same or different? Is one a better descriptor for how we should develop decisions?

13 May 2012

Back to Basics

Several years ago, I bought Classroom Instruction That Works (CITW). I was a seasoned classroom veteran by that point, and while none of the strategies presented were new to me, what I appreciated about the book was that it validated many of the things I had intuited over the years. My teacher prep program had not been very good, leaving me to use trial-by-fire methodology to learn how to teach. (My poor students, those first few years...oy.) The book was one of the first I'd ever seen that took educational research and presented it in an accessible way. I often shared bits and pieces from the information with parents and students as we talked about learning to learn---not just science, but developing habits for a lifetime of learning.

CITW has been a part of work I've done with beginning teachers---another lifesaver in the pool that they could grab as they started their journey. The book has also been a part of a few of the edtech programs I've been involved with, as we look at ways to integrate technology into instructional practices. For experienced teachers, it has served as a quick reference as they extend their skills into new areas.

You might have seen that there is a new edition of CITW. ASCD was kind enough to send me a copy, and while I'm sure the intention is that I would post a review right away, I really wanted to take the book out for a test drive first. This spring, I have been working with a few groups of rural schools around the state. I've been going out to them to help them engage with some after school PD. The schools take on a variety of forms---from the near one-room schoolhouse (which couldn't host another staff for PD because they didn't have a room big enough for 30 adults), to a district where the teachers are bused/carpooled in every day, to ones with a significant agricultural base (I had a teacher tell me she couldn't stay for the session because she had to help hubby fix the tractor), to ones with no math curriculum. CITW, coupled with educational technology, has been the basis for our sessions together this spring. Every group of districts was offered three sessions based on components from the book: Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback; Cues, Questions, and Advance Organizers; and Cooperative Learning. I'm wrapping up my road show for the year, so it seems like a good time to reflect on the second edition of CITW and its impact with teachers.

I think that one of the most powerful attributes of the book is simply that it isn't new stuff. Perhaps that sounds like a disadvantage or waste of time. What I discovered was that in the simple reminders of what constitutes sound instruction, it both validated what teachers were already doing (and made them feel good about it), and also allowed them to engage in reflection and deeper discussion. In other words, they might not have learned something "new," but this meant our time together could be spent thinking about professional practice in their classrooms and what they'd like to recommit to. Many of these teachers wear multiple hats in their school districts---you might not just be the fourth grade teacher, you may well be the principal and superintendent, too. The plain, but potent, ideas presented in CITW are the right sort of nag about the classroom. You know good questions are important...what reminders would be helpful before meeting with your students tomorrow?

Keep in mind that many of these teachers teach in isolation. If you're the only K - 2 teacher in your school, you don't get the opportunity to talk about teaching with other primary teachers. But CITW provided a common language base so that when these groups of teachers were in the same room, they could move their thinking forward during those 90 minutes: A little prompting from the research presented with time to talk about what works in their own classrooms. It's easy for a lot of us to forget about all the challenges small rural schools have. Teachers there are just as passionate about teaching and learning...and just as overwhelmed (if not more) by the responsibilities posed by their jobs. I won't tell you that a discussion of CITW (or any other book) will change their lives or solve the problems they face, but it does provide a connection with teachers in other places. I have been told that even when "outside" PD opportunities are available, many of these rural teachers do not feel comfortable attending because they think others look down on their job situation (i.e. small school = hick). To have a time and space to safely meet and talk with other teachers is a powerful opportunity for them.

As I've prepared for these sessions, I've had an opportunity to really dig into the second edition of CITW. There are several improvements over the original version, beginning with the simple reorganization of chapters. I like that there is some structure now for learning environments and supporting students to understand and extend their knowledge and skills. I think this would be especially meaningful for beginning teachers who are learning how to put the pieces together and when to leverage particular strategies. The research for this edition of CITW has been updated. For my work with rural teachers, I was able to use Google Scholar to create links to the new citations. Cooperative Learning is not a new idea or strategy, but what we know about how it works in the classroom increases all the time. Fresh eyes are important. I don't want my doctor restricted to using information from 30 years ago...I want him/her to keep current, even if the disease isn't new. I like seeing new references in the educational research. It doesn't mean the old stuff was wrong, just helps us extend what we know. While the first edition supplied more specifics about the effectiveness of each strategy, the second gives better ideas about applying the strategies, along with brief case study examples. This edition even extends the ideas into the realm of technological ways to demonstrate learning. For example, how might teachers and students use blogs in the classroom to reflect on learning goals and set new objectives? I won't claim that the edtech way is better than pencil and paper---you know me better than that---but I do like the acknowledgement that there are multiple ways for students to access and demonstrate learning.

I've had a lot of fun this spring getting to know and learn from teachers all over Washington. We'll also be having 3-day summer events where we will bring many rural educators together for some intensive discussion and work. These are fabulous events. It's so much fun to see them interact with others who really "get" what their classroom world is like. CITW will continue to be a part of the sessions this summer. We'll dig in a little deeper, make more connections with the work they do, and extend it into assessment, grading, and data use. This year, it's all about getting back to basics.