Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead?  This is the fourth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership.  So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis; and processes.  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of professional development.  Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: relationship building, performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, “Curriculum leads model, expect, monitor, and evaluate continuous learning of all students and staff members.”  Modeling matters!  Central office administrators ought to be modeling curriculum leadership with principals through frequent and collaborative classroom walkthroughs.  Principals and instructional coaches, too, should carve out time to model curriculum leadership by being in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers.  Most importantly, these walkthroughs should inform upcoming professional learning.  In my experience as a district administrator, a team of principals, teacher leaders, and central office personnel visited classrooms at least twice per year.  The most impactful observations were purposefully scheduled one month prior to a full day of professional learning, for the purpose of influencing the details of the professional development day.  Similarly, PLC or data team leaders might visit colleague’s classrooms a week prior to an upcoming common formative assessment, in order to better understand the different pedagogical approaches taking place across a grade level or content area.

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to monitor and evaluate the impact of professional learning.  As I travel the state visiting with current and future school leaders, I often hear about professional learning as an event rather than a process.  Events look something like this: Group of staff attend Mr. Big-Name-Speaker at regional workshop or district brings in Ms. Book-Author to do a workshop for all teachers.  Following the professional learning event, those with positional authority do not articulate any expectations or timeline.  In other words, it’s up to individual teacher discretion to determine the next steps and impact, if any, the professional learning time will have on students in the classroom.  Furthermore, with such a scattering of professional learning, teachers may be wondering where they should be prioritizing their time in order to work towards district goals.  Meanwhile, the district has invested taxpayer funds and staff have depleted their limited time away from students which may or may not yield any long-term improvement.  As such, curriculum leaders owe it to our colleagues to assist in identifying at least one new learning/behavior resulting from professional learning opportunities, and provide ongoing support for this new idea to enhance student success.  In buildings and districts with a strong vision for professional learning as a process, every opportunity for new staff learning is carefully planned, building upon the previous learning opportunity, student learning needs, and district goals.  A quick and efficient approach might be sending a professional learning follow-up survey soliciting participant perspectives such as their biggest take away, lingering questions, and suggestions for needed implementation supports.  When a leadership team summarizes this feedback, sends it to staff, and carefully plans the next professional learning supports using this information, not only will teachers appreciate their voices being heard, but also see curriculum leaders making plans to connect new learning with previous learning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving professional learning in a school district invest their time to ensure it is a process rather than event.  This function requires leaders visit classrooms and systemically follow-up on each staff professional learning opportunity in order to purposefully model and monitor continuous improvement.

Resources to further learning as a leader of professional development:

  • The Principal as Curriculum Leader, 4th edition, by Allan A. Glatthorn, Jerry M. Jailall, and Julie K. Jailall (2017, Corwin)
  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • Professional Development That Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators?, by Fred Ende (2016, ASCD).

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

[Note to readers: This column was published in a September 2018 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

Last school year, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change

In the first column, I posed some key questions and shared my own experiences related to being a leader of curriculum, instruction and assessment.  Curriculum leads are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, all the while trying to keep up with changing state standards and assessments (ready or not, here we come, Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress!)  In the second column, we considered how curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions” through tools such as innovation configuration maps.

The curriculum leadership journey continues in 2018-19!  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of processes.  “Curriculum leads establish and monitor common practices and procedures to assure alignment and achievement of initiatives and plans with district and building goals.”  Perhaps the most tangible example of this function in action is the teaming structure of a building or district.  Whether data teams, collaborative learning teams or achievement teams are the structure of choice, the common goal is to create a community of adult learners who are focused on ensuring students learn at high levels.  Curriculum leaders can and should play a key role in these teaming structures.  Rather than merely requiring agendas and minutes from each team, curriculum leads might map out differentiated deliverables throughout an academic year.  For example, elementary teams could share a summary of the data used to identify students in need of reading intervention on a monthly basis.  A secondary science team working through the Next Generation Science Standards likely has a list of revised units and assessments which would serve as evidence of collaboration time well utilized.

Moving beyond “pockets of excellence” should be a common talking point for curriculum leads embracing their role as leaders of processes.  Dr. Thomas Guskey (2000) suggests school leaders consider five critical levels of evaluation: participants’ reactions, participants’ learning, organization support and change, participants use of new knowledge and skills, and student learning outcomes.  While professional learning alone that directly affects students learning may be viewed as the holy grail because it is often a costly and time-consuming process to isolate and track down the necessary information, this does not mean schools should give up evaluating professional learning efforts all together.  As a leader of processes, curriculum leaders take the time to plan desired student learning outcomes and then work backwards to identify adult knowledge/skills to be acquired, organizational supports, and related learning activities.  Following each professional learning opportunity, participant reactions and levels of learning might be captured through a tool such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.  In addition, classroom observations should be scheduled to note the degree to which participants are applying newly acquired skills.  For example, at my former school district, principals and instructional coaches scheduled classroom observations to follow-up on a multiple year reading-in-the-content area initiative.  Using information from these observations and participant reactions captured via Google Forms, we were able to plan future professional learning opportunities that targeted areas of fine tuning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving processes in a school district invest their time in structures to ensure each professional learning opportunity counts.  This function requires a leaders to think of change as a process rather than an event, such that each professional learning opportunity builds on the previous one, using multiple sources of data in the planning process.

Resources to further learning as leader of processes:

  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • The Data Teams Experience: A Guide for Effective Meetings, by Angela Peery (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities (3rd Edition), by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Thomas Many, and Mike Mattos (2016, Solution Tree)

End of an era and beginning of a new one

For the past fourteen years, I have worked in the Solon Community School District (Solon, Iowa).  When I interviewed for a teaching position in 2004, I had no idea Solon would be such a wonderful place to work. During that interview, I found out the high school building was only a few years old and principal at the time told me there were occasional “Taco Tuesdays” in the staff lounge, so it sounded like a good place to land a job! Beginning with my first months as a teacher, and later as a district administrator, I am grateful for the way Solon staff allowed me to ask lots of questions and learn from making (many) mistakes. Solon is a tremendous place with high expectations for adults and students. I feel blessed beyond measure to have called the Solon Community School District my professional home for so long.  Many, but not all, of the ideas on this blog were somehow related to my professional experiences and thoughts in Solon.

Beginning in August 2018, I will transition to a tenure-track assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.  In this position, I will teach aspiring principals, central office administrators and superintendents.  Our mission is to develop and nurture reflective leaders of learning, service, and change in schools who positively impact students.  After finishing a doctorate degree last year, I had no idea an opportunity in higher education would present itself so soon, and one that will allow my family relocate to a familiar part of the state while our three boys are (hopefully) too young to remember it. Mentoring and teaching future school leaders is a professional chapter I have been looking forward to for a few years.

While I will begin writing more regularly in peer-reviewed journals as part of my new responsibilities, I hope to communicate even more frequently on this blog, too.

Standards-Based Grading and College/University Admissions (Summary)

Two articles were published in the February 2018 issue of School Administrator (AASA) describing university admissions office perspectives on standards-based grading (SBG).  The full e-edition is available online and brief summary of each article is below.

High school students experiencing SBG receive a fair shot at higher education admissions

The authors interviewed admissions folks at several Midwestern universities with the purpose of determining if high school students experiencing standards-based grading receive a fair shot in the university admissions process.  Three key findings emerged.

  1. Letter grades and transcripts based on standards are acceptable, if not preferable, by admissions folks, with a few caveats.
  2. When universities receive profiles/transcripts from schools with alternative grading/reporting systems, these students receive equal consideration.
  3. Due to limited personnel in the admissions office, grades and standardized tests are the most trusted measures.

Buckmiller, T., & Peters, R. (2018). Getting a fair shot?. School Administrator, 75(2), 22-25. [Available online]

University admissions offices are aware of SBG and preparing to adapt, as needed.

Voices from university admissions administrators across the country share their experiences with class rank, standards-based grading, and alternative reporting measures.  For example, Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington, says he does not believe students currently applying under a standards-based are at a disadvantage in the admissions process.  If/when high school transcripts change, the general consensus shared is that admissions offices will need to be better prepared.  However, the “fact that college admissions offices will have to make some adjustments should not deter high schools from pursuing meaningful reforms in the way they teach and evaluate students” (p. 29).

Riede, P. (2018). Making the call inside admissions offices. School Administrator, 75(2), 26-29.

Mastery-minded grading in secondary schools

I was invited to share our district’s standards-based grading journey with the national superintendents’ professional organization, AASA.  A brief summary:

In Solon, Iowa, teachers’ gradebooks describe students’ current levels of learning without the customary array of A’s and C’s or numerical grades. The small district is at the forefront of a new assessment movement in some local schools known as standards-based grading.

Read the entire February 2018 e-edition of AASA’s School Administrator publication or access the individual article here.

Leaders of Data Analysis: More than Crunching Numbers

(Note to readers: This is part three in a series of columns written about Iowa ASCD’s current focus on supporting curriculum leadership across the state.)

In the last column, I proposed curriculum leads consider getting their feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of data analysis.

According to our organization, curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions.” At first glance, this function may seem like it’s all about spreadsheets, databases, crunching numbers and creating elaborate reports filled with pie charts. Sure, there’s a time and a place for disaggregating data to reveal gaps across subgroups.   Without a doubt, curriculum leads should be providing assessment and other data in formats staff, parents and community members can easily understand. Our job is to use data to inform others. It is equally as important to “tell the story” about the data for the purpose of generating a solution or next steps than it is to merely crunch the numbers. Let’s be clear: our positions do not require an advanced degree in statistics or mathematics! Our ability to communicate through written language will directly impact our capacity to be leaders of data analysis. Here’s an example. Consider FAST (an early literacy assessment) scores in an elementary building indicating only 65% of students had met grade level benchmarks. If, during the previous school year, 45% of students had met benchmark, this year’s scores would be a huge celebration! On the contrary, comparing this data to the state’s healthy indicators for differentiated accountability (80% or more meeting benchmark is the universal target), the numbers may seem bleak. Clearly communicating these contextual comparisons can be helpful in sharing progress and next steps to stakeholders.

We live in an era with more than enough educational data to fill weeks of endless number crunching. As a former high school math teacher, I naturally bend towards looking at the numbers in isolation rather than figuring out if there’s a bigger picture to consider. Instead, our job is to look at the data in its context, and ask (ourselves and others) compelling questions, such as “Is there anything else we need to know about these data points?” An example of this in my life happened last year when we noted a small drop in Iowa Assessment scores in several grades. It would have been easy to suggest our instruction or curriculum materials needed a boost, however after a closer look, we realized the areas we could most notably improve upon would require us teaching to the test rather than the grade-level standards (which is not something we were willing to do). Investigating the context around these data points lead us to a completely different next step.

Using data to monitor and evaluate is important, too. At a recent AEA curriculum directors’ meeting, a few of us discussed program evaluation and the struggles that go along with effectively and efficiently evaluating various programs in our districts. Realizing program evaluation data does not always need to solely involve test scores was a helpful reminder. For example, my district uses several self-audits and continuums to identify our current level of implementation. We have a continuum to assess each team’s current progress towards our professional learning philosophy (i.e. power standard development, common assessments, data analysis, and action planning) that has informed professional learning and team goal setting during the past several years. Asking questions such as “To what degree are we implementing this practice with fidelity” may be a precursor to concluding the degree to which an initiative or classroom practice is impacting the expected outcomes.

In closing, curriculum leaders are relentlessly building capacity in the school system to use data as a driver of informing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating results and corresponding decisions. This function does not require advanced training in spreadsheets or mathematics! Leading data analysis does involve summarizing and formatting data in a meaningful way that will allow others to draw conclusions from the information in order to address a specific problem or challenge.

Resources to further learning as a leader of data analysis:

  • Partnering with Parents to ask the Right Questions by Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein, and Agnes Bain (2016, ASCD)
  • Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action by Duke Okes (2009, ASQ Quality Press)
  • Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement, 4th Edition by Victoria Bernhardt (2017, Routledge)

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

[Note to readers: This column was printed in a November 2017 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

Not too long ago, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD this school year by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change.

In this column, I’d like to describe my experiences leading curriculum, instruction, and assessment, several key questions curriculum leads might ask themselves, and a few resources to further learning in this function.  Throughout the year, future columns will be dedicated to the remaining curriculum leadership functions.  Whether you are a principal also serving in a curriculum leadership role, a full-time central office administrator, or an aspiring teacher leader, I hope this information will be helpful to you in growing your curriculum leadership capacity.

“Effective curriculum leaders must assure that there is a laser-like focus on the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment with identified district-wide standards and benchmarks at every grade level.”  When I was a classroom teacher in the early 2000s, the role of the curriculum director was to assemble a team of teachers and task them with creating a list of the standards and benchmarks for a given content area.  Too often, we grabbed the standards document from a neighboring school district, made a few tweaks and called it our own.  We probably rushed through the standards identification process because we were more concerned about selecting the next textbook series.  With any luck, the materials we recommended for purchase might have some degree of alignment with the standards we documented earlier in the year!

Enter the Iowa Core Curriculum Essential Concepts and Skills in the first decade of the 21st century. Finally! Iowa became the last state in the country to adopt state standards.  Gone are the days of selecting our own standards.  From the outside, selecting textbooks and accompanying materials seems like it should be an easier task now that we have state and national standards.  Not so fast. I often tell the teachers in my district, “there’s no such thing as the Iowa Core police!”  In other words, just because a publisher uses a “standards-aligned” sticker doesn’t mean that we as curriculum leaders should accept it as face value.  I recommend that curriculum and materials committees consider using tools such as the “Publishers Criteria for the Common Core Standards for Mathematics” (available at achievethecore.org) as a starting point when screening sample materials.

Using these tools, curriculum committees might ask questions such as, “Are there any chapters or units that appear in our standards documents?”  You may be surprised to see chapters and sections that publishers carried over from previous editions of the text without any consideration to the grade-level standards.  Curriculum committees might also consider investigating the level of cognitive complexity the materials assume students should be learning the standards.  Resources on IowaCore.gov note some standards’ alignment with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  A well-designed set of materials should consider a wide range of questions and activities within Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

Finally, curriculum leaders must be concerned with how the standards are assessed in classrooms across the district, beyond vendor-provided tests.  Solution Tree authors and speakers Rick and Becky Dufour have written extensively on the need for teams of teachers to develop common assessments based upon power/priority standards.  Curriculum leads might consider providing these teams with protocols and processes for developing power/priority standards, such as the ones written in books by Larry Ainsworth.  Using these most important standards, teachers should be allocated significant time during the contract day to create common assessments for the purpose of informing classroom instruction.  When two or more teachers analyze data from these assessments, effective teaching strategies can be shared and students in need of additional assistance can be identified for supplemental support.

In closing, curriculum leaders are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Because it seems state standards are constantly under revision (Hello, ELA, science and social studies standards as of late!), our work in this area will never be done.  Relying on neighboring district documents and publisher labels may be an easy way out, however a viable alternative exists.  I hope you will consider getting your feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas.  Through this deep dive, we can develop the collective capacity of the organization to assure that all students are successful.

Resources to further learning as a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment:

  • Leading Curriculum Development by Jon Wiles (2009, Corwin Press)
  • Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker (2011, ASCD)
  • Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment by Larry Ainsworth (2006, Corwin Press)
  • Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning by Douglas Reeves (2007, Solution Tree)

Top 5 pitfalls to avoid in a standards-based grading system shift

Are you thinking about making the shift to standards-based grading in your building or district?  Based upon hundreds of phone calls, consultations, workshops and emails, here’s a list of five pitfalls I have observed that school leaders should avoid.

  1. Use exceeds as a descriptor in the grade book at the secondary level.
    Nothing frustrates Sally and her parents more than realizing the teacher taught the class how to learn the concept in class, but in order to get the highest mark in the grade book, Sally must come up with some type of application or knowledge beyond what was taught on the assessment.  Instead, consider removing “exceeds” and replacing it with “understands the standards” for the top indicator.
  2. Fail to communicate the standards-based grading shift.
    Traditional grading has been around for over one hundred years, so there’s reason to believe a shift to something new or different will require communicating a solid rationale and plan, repeated multiple times in multiple mediums.  Of McRel’s twenty-one leadership responsibilities, communication is one that takes a hit during second order change (and yes, standards-based grading is likely a second order change for many teachers, parents and students in your district).  Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em. And tell ’em again.
  3. Do not report practice in the online grade book at the secondary level.
    We know that reporting academics separate from work habits is a cornerstone of standards-based grading/reporting.  At the secondary level, the standards (rather than quiz and test numbers) are often reported through an online grade book , leaving little, if any room to document work habits.  Whether it’s retrofitting a grade book designed for traditional grading practices, or using a grade book more in tune with standards-based grading practices, it only makes sense to continue reporting levels of homework completion to parents, despite these assignments not counting towards the final academic grade calculation.
  4. Forget to tell stakeholders what is staying the same during the shift in grading practices.
    If your middle school is switching to a standards-based report card, be sure to let parents know you will continue to host parent-teacher conferences twice per year.  If your high school is shifting to a standards-based grade book, parents will want to know final course grades are still reported on the transcript, and that grade point average will be communicated with university admissions offices.  In addition to communicating what’s changing, don’t forget to let them know what will remain the same.
  5. Inconsistent implementation
    During the first year of standards-based grading implementation, we surveyed parents and students to find out their perception of this change.  Frustrated Roger = Frustrated Roger’s mom and dad, and one of the biggest sources of this angst was inconsistent implementation.  While we had an agreed upon purpose of grading and board-approved grading guidelines, we relied on (often inconsistent) institutional knowledge rather than a documented tight and loose implementation guide for our teachers to operationalize the tenets of SBG.  Somewhere between “every teacher for his/her own” and a lockstep approach is usually a good place to land.  Ensuring teachers are supported to implement agreed upon standards-based grading non-negotiables, will help students and parents adapt more quickly to the change, because they’re seeing it in multiple courses and/or grade levels.

What other pitfalls would you add to this list?

Recommended reading:

Frankin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29. [Available online]

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017) “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative in the midwestern United States. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2014). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards-based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action2(2), [Available online]

Swan, G.M., Guskey, T.R., & Jung, L.A. (2014). Parents and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299.

Urich, L.J. (2012). Implementation of standards-based grading at the middle school level (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/12492

“It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative

A new peer-reviewed article I co-authored is now available in your local academic database!

Peters, R., Kruse, J., Buckmiller, T., & Townsley, M. (2017). “It’s just not fair!” Making sense of secondary students’ resistance to a standards-based grading initiative. American Secondary Education, 45(3), 9-28.

 

 

The School Leader’s Guide to Grading [book review]

As a result of a top 10 standards-based grading books list published not too long ago, a reader of this blog made me aware of The School Leader’s Guide to Grading by Ken O’Connor.  So, I bought a used copy on Amazon and read it during a summer airplane trip, halfway across the country.

I cannot believe I had not read this book until now and whole heartedly recommend it to all principals and central office administrators who are considering a standards-based grading shift.

The preface states, “This book is intended to provide principals with ideas that will improve their effectiveness in helping and supporting their teachers in evaluating and communicating student achievement.”  I believe this book does just that, in a concise and easy-to-read manner.  Although the title of the book does not refer explicitly to “standards-based grading,” author Ken O’Connor communicates four critical conditions for effective grades which are right in line with SBG principles.  For example, one of the conditions states, “Grades must be meaningful” and the author further explains “Getting a B in history tells students and parents almost nothing….To be meaningful, grades need to be based upon standards, outcomes, or expectations” (p. 2).

Perhaps the aspect of this book I appreciated the most was Ken O’Connor’s ability to articulate both theory and reality.  While eliminating letter grades may be the gold standard, O’Connor realizes this may be beyond state, district, or local expectations, therefore he proposes practical ways to help principals keep the focus on learning.

Another helpful component of the book is the examples from schools who are working towards each of the grading conditions.  O’Connor is quick to note these are all examples and not models, which again illustrates the practical and humble approach the book takes in assisting principals with grading shifts.  For example, the book suggest students should be provided multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.  Often times, this will involve students completing “correctives” prior to reassessment.  A sample “Assessment Retake Reflection” from a school in Wisconsin is provided for principals to use as a starting point in their conversations with individual teachers or an entire faculty.

Finally, at less than 100 pages (including ~20 pages of appendices), I believe this book is an appropriate length for principals who are often busy managing the day-to-day operations of a building.  If I were to lead a course for school leaders looking at standards-based grading, this would be my first choice.

(Much of this book review was cross-posted on Amazon.com)