Creating the Right Setting for Self-Evaluation

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There is no magic formula to creating an environment in which self-evaluation can flourish, but there are some underlying principles that will help you to gain some personal clarity, establish a conducive setting and keep the school moving in the right direction at the right speed. It is essential to remember that people carry out self-evaluation and this is where you must initially focus your attention if you want the processes to work. Without the people aspect, you will simply have a production line that runs at a pre-set speed and churns out the same thing time after time – this is when self-evaluation becomes a meaningless activity and is essentially a burden on any school.

Create an inspiring vision for the school

Strategy is about big picture and about taking a long-term view that transcends day-to-day operational issues. It is very easy to get sucked into the detail and bogged down in the minutia of daily life in the school, but you must make sure that you filter what is most important and relevant. You can only do this if you have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve — a representation of what your strategy will actually deliver.

  • Establish in a vision takes time but it is time well spent.
  • Imagine what the school’s future will be like.
  • The vision should be clear and simple.

Your vision should be an aspirational description of what the school will look like in the future. It should allow people to see a picture in their mind and imagine what the school will achieve and accomplish, as well as providing them with a clear direction to plan their future goals and actions. If you represent the vision purely in words, then it is left open to different interpretations of language and things will get lost in translation.

As principal, you may understand and appreciate the importance of having a clearly articulated vision, but what about your senior leaders … your middle leaders … your teachers … your governors? Think about bringing different these different stakeholders together for a session during which you collectively create a vision board that summarizes and represents your school’s vision, which can then be displayed and shared across the school.

What makes your school unique and different from the school down the road? Your vision needs to answer this question and should serve as a marketing tool to convince potential parents that this is the school community that their children need to be part of. Yet, producing a vision and engaging in self-evaluation and improvement are not unique to schools, so reading about approaches outside education can help you think in a different way and see things from a different perspective — look to other cultures, education systems and the world of business for inspiration.

Create the right environment for people to buy in

This may sound a little obvious, but you might be surprised by the number of times school leaders struggle with some of the things they are asked to do in the name of self-evaluation. One of the biggest barriers to successful self-evaluation is when people blindly take part in activities where they have little emotional investment. In other words, they are simply going through the motions. Although this may ensure that the processes run and that some form of evaluation activity actually takes place, it is neither a useful nor profitable approach and wastes precious time and energy.

  • So how do you create the right environment for people to buy-in to self-evaluation?
  • Basically, you have to live your values and lead by example.
  • The buck may stop with you, but you cannot do it alone!

Demonstrate integrity by following your own advice, being honest and treating others the way you wish to be treated. In the context of self-evaluation, this means challenging yourself about what you are asking other people to do and being sure that your motives are clear enough and they understand why this action is important. By focusing on the why rather than the what or how, you will increase buy-in and subsequently accelerate the pace and speed of the process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Practice humility by not letting your ego control your thoughts and actions. Instead of comparing yourself and your school to others — and then trying to do everything yourself — focus on how you can help the people around you to achieve their part of the evaluation and improvement process.

Share your gratitude. Schools can only realize their strategy by working in teams and it is important to build in opportunities for recognition and acknowledgment of this. The most effective schools distribute their self-evaluation across all parts of their community — remember the Ninja metaphor and the pitfalls it can create!

Engage all stakeholders with authenticity and purpose

The most important thing to remember is that everyone must be pulling in the same direction and share a sense of urgency to make things happen. As principal, you need to be explicit about everyone’s responsibilities and set clear expectations and boundaries. Each individual should be able to explain their key priority — the main focus in their area of responsibility at any given point in time — and then be able to articulate their contribution to both evaluation and improvement.

Have courage and take responsibility for getting things done

It is important to realise that, although exterior conditions do have an impact, it is your internal decisions that are far more important when it comes to the actions you take and the type of school you are striving to create. As principal, your job is simply to take charge of the school’s self-evaluation, which requires responsibility, courage and discipline. Now that you have ensured that everyone understands the contribution they are expected to make to self-evaluation, your job is to set key targets and milestones that will allow you, and your senior leaders, to take the pulse and manage the rhythm of school improvement.

Create unity and motivate your team to perform

The successful delivery of your school’s self-evaluation will depend and rely on the people who implement the process. It is very rare that schools do not have some appropriate processes in place, but it is much more likely that they do not have consistent behaviors among their people. As principal, you need to understand how to motivate the different individuals on your teams and ensure that everyone understands that successful teams deliver more than the sum of each individual’s effort. There will inevitably be times when it would be quicker for you to do things yourself but demonstrating respect and empathy in the workplace means showing others that their ideas and opinions are valued. If someone makes a suggestion it is important that their voice is heard and that you, and their colleagues, do not dismiss it too quickly. Team building is a learned skill and fundamental to that skill is the ability to identify the individual’s voice and ensure that voice is recognized by the wider group.

See obstacles as challenges and opportunities to grow

Having a strategy for school-led self-evaluation is important but having the capacity to be flexible and adaptable when circumstances change is just as important. There are inevitably times when the unexpected will occur and you are faced with giving up or pushing through — this is where resilience and perseverance come into play.

The speed at which your school will deliver its self-evaluation is as much about managing the challenges and obstacles that get in your way than aligning performance with targets and goals. If you have someone on your team that you know is skilled in an area you may be lacking, don’t be afraid to go and ask them for help — remember everyone has a special talent and skill looking for an opportunity to shine and add value.

Despite their hierarchical position in the school, principals are often left feeling vulnerable and isolated, especially when things are not going well. As principal, you need to accept that feedback is rarely intended to insult — even when it may appear blunt and negative. It is important to learn to take whatever truth there may be in the criticism and act to move forward rather than dwell on it.

  • Never give up!
  • We often underestimate the time and amount of effort a goal will take to achieve.
  • Instead of giving up or lowering the mark, give yourself more time and/or increase your efforts.

Schools are learning organizations and, as such, have developed highly effective systems for reflection, review and development that are applied to personalize students’ learning. It should therefore be a relatively easy and natural progression to extend this same philosophy to a school’s self-evaluation to ensure that it is truly personalized to the needs of the school.

Reflect — what is working well and what is not?

Review — what challenges and obstacles are we facing?

Develop — what can we do differently to make sure our self-evaluation remains fit for purpose?

Blend all the pieces to develop sustainable practices

We already know that self-evaluation is an ongoing process rather than a one-off or intermittent event, so how do we blend all the principles together to develop and implement a coherent strategy that creates sustainable self-evaluation practice in the school?

  • Don’t try to do it alone!
  • Keep it simple — prevent yourself and your school from over-complicating things to the point of paralysis and inaction.
  • Create a clear and compelling vision to engage all stakeholders and make sure they understand their contribution.
  • Break every action up into smaller pieces until each individual chunk seems like a manageable task (focus and plan for one priority).
  • Define and articulate the behaviors you expect from your people.
  • Recognize, acknowledge and celebrate success.
  • Navigate obstacles — adapt your approach — learn from your experience.

Once you have developed your strategy it will be much easier to embed effective self-evaluation into your school’s practice … the next challenge is to ensure it is sustainable. This hinges very much on maintaining the morale and well-being of the people who have to implement the practice. Finding the right balance or combination of work and play in your school can be a challenge, particularly when the stakes are high. However, it is important to step back and build in time for renewal and recognition to ensure that everyone is engaged and feels valued.

School improvement is hard work —students and families are demanding — governors expect results yesterday — regulators expect schools to implement initiatives overnight. Consequently, as the accountable school leader, you must take responsibility for setting and monitoring the direction and pace of the school’s self-evaluation by having a clearly defined strategy.

by Lesley Hunter and Maggie Wright
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Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

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Trends in Teacher Evaluation: At A Glance

For decades, teacher evaluations were little more than a bureaucratic exercise that failed to recognize either excellence or mediocrity in teaching. As such, evaluation represented a missed opportunity for giving teachers valuable feedback that could help them improve their practice.

Increasingly, this is no longer the case. Since 2009, over two-thirds of states have made significant changes to how teachers are evaluated. For most states, the change was motivated by incentives available through the federal programs Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers, and Teacher Incentive Fund. State applications for these funds earned additional credit for upgrading teacher evaluation systems so they take place annually and are based in part on student achievement (Bornfreund, 2013). Other states revamped their systems in response to new political leadership. Regardless of the reason, the end was the same: in most states, teacher performance will now be judged for its impact on student learning alongside traditional measures such as classroom observations, lesson plan reviews and others. Combined, these measures make for more accurate evaluations and serves as a tool for continuous improvement.

The changes states are instituting are far from minor. The most dramatic and controversial is the inclusion of student achievement measures in teacher evaluation. The way student achievement data is used, however, varies significantly by state. For example:

  • Most states use student scores from state standardized tests, but many also combine this data with measures such as student learning objectives (SLO), formative assessments, or some other indicator of student achievement.
  • States use different statistical methods for attributing student learning to teacher performance. The most widely used models are value-added and student growth percentiles (SGP), both of which attempt to measure student gains so that the system doesn’t unfairly disadvantage teachers whose students were low-performers when they entered their classrooms.
  • Student achievement data comprises only part of teachers’ overall evaluation score. In no state does it count for more than half; in several states it’s considerably less.
While linking student achievement to teachers is certainly groundbreaking, nearly every state is revamping how classroom observations are conducted, too. Gone are the days when a principal sits in on a teacher’s class every couple years, armed with a checklist of instructional requirements that rarely were associated with high quality instructional practices. In contrast, teachers are now being observed every year — and for many, multiple times a year — by trained evaluators using a researched-based rubric that more accurately judges instructional effectiveness. More importantly, the new classroom observations provide more useful feedback to teachers.

Student achievement and classroom observations are not the only measures used to evaluate teachers. Student/parent surveys, lesson plan reviews, teacher self-reflections and student artifacts are just some of the other measures included in teacher evaluation systems. In most states, districts have wide discretion on which measures to include along with student achievement and classroom observations. Each of these measures has their strengths in providing teacher’s valuable feedback about their instructional practices. There is less evidence, however, that they accurately predict teachers’ impact on student learning. The exception is student surveys. In fact, a recent study by the Gates Foundation found that a high-quality researched-based student survey can accurately measure a teacher’s future effectiveness and can enhance the accuracy of an evaluation system when combined with measures of student achievement and classroom observations.

Keep in mind that identifying teacher effectiveness is a relatively new concept and no system will be perfect. But by examining the different approaches states have taken, state and local education leaders can learn from each other to refine and improve their own systems.

Across states we found:

  • Forty-seven states require or recommend that stakeholders, including teachers, provide input into the design of new evaluation systems. Such input is important to gaining broad-based support.
  • Forty-six states require or recommend that evaluations include measures on how teachers impact their students’ achievement.
  • Classroom observations are a component of every state’s evaluation system; about a third (33) of them require or recommend all teachers be observed at least once a year.
  • Forty-one states require or recommend teachers be evaluated on multiple measures as a more complete and accurate gauge of performance.  No state evaluates teachers on test scores alone.
  • Most states are primarily focused on using evaluation for the purpose of raising teacher performance but also use the results to inform personnel decisions.
    • More than half (31) of states use evaluation results to target professional development opportunities for individual teachers.
    • Teachers can be dismissed due to poor evaluations in 32 states. However, typically teachers are not eligible to be dismissed until they have been rated as low-performing over multiple years and only after being provided interventions to improve. Even if the teacher fails to improve, in most states the decision to dismiss is left up to the discretion of the school district.
  • Local school districts need flexibility in designing and implementing teacher evaluation systems so they are aligned to the needs of the district. But they also need strong support from their states.
  • Seventeen states provide districts flexibility as well as support in developing evaluations systems while 21 states leave almost all the responsibility for developing an evaluation system in the hands of districts.

Developing a comprehensive teacher evaluation system is far from straightforward. But state and district policymakers should make every effort to ensure teachers are being evaluated fairly and accurately.

Whether developing a teacher evaluation system, or implementing a new one, school district leaders should ask these questions:

How is the evaluation system developed?

What is the goal of the evaluation system?

Do those goals align with the district strategic plan?

What flexibility do districts have to tailor the evaluation system to the district’s strategic plan?

Does the district have the knowledge and resources in-house to develop their own evaluation system or modify the state model?

Who was involved in development of the evaluation system? Were key stakeholders, particularly teachers, involved in some way?

What is included in the evaluation system?

What measures are included in the evaluation system? How much weight does each measure carry in the overall score?

How accurate are the results? What are the evaluation system’s strengths and weaknesses?

What measures are used to determine the impact a teacher has on their students’ achievement?

What statistical model is used to measure the impact? Why is that measure used? How accurately does it isolate a teacher’s impact on student achievement?

Are the same measures used to evaluate all teachers? If not, how do they differ?

How often are teachers observed in a classroom setting? Does the frequency differ by experience or the teacher’s previous performance level?

Do evaluators have enough time to conduct all the observations required without impeding on their other responsibilities?

Who conducts the observations? How are they trained?

Is the observation rubric researched-based and aligned with the district’s goals?

How are results used?

When do teachers receive feedback from each observation?

Are the overall evaluation results used to improve instructional quality? If so, how?

Are the results used for personnel decisions? If so, how?

Are the results made public? If so, what information is made public?

Teacher evaluations no longer required, but useful with changes

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The nonprofit New Teacher Center recommends using evaluations as a tool for improvement

Armed with research about a teacher’s impact on student achievement, policy makers have required states and school districts to evaluate their teaching force, and the most readily available data has been standardized test scores. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act effectively back-tracked on this accountability strategy. No longer is there a federal mandate that schools evaluate teachers. And those that do will not be required to base their analysis on scores.

But former superintendent, principal and teacher Lisa Andrejko does not believe such evaluations will become a thing of the past.

“With so much time and effort undertaken at the state level in the implementation of accountability measures such as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), prescribed teaching standard frameworks or rubrics and student achievement data, I cannot imagine a scenario in which states would abandon their new methods for grading teachers,” Andrejko wrote for PeopleAdmin in May. She expects revisions, but not necessarily another overhaul.

Still, ESSA creates a level of freedom that some districts may find exciting. The law provides for the use of federal dollars to survey teachers about working conditions and offer professional development, professional growth and leadership opportunities. And, importantly, it offers an opportunity to recalibrate after the last 15 years of No Child Left Behind.
Anne Udall, executive vice president of program strategy at the nonprofit New Teacher Center, hopes district administrators stop and think carefully about where to take teacher evaluations in the coming years. NCLB attached accountability to test scores, primarily, and Udall says research clearly shows that is not a useful way to gauge educator effectiveness. “My hope with ESSA is that we’ve learned enough from what didn’t work that we’re going to try to find the more comprehensive, nuanced approach,” Udall said.

What, then, should this new approach entail?

Udall and Andrejko agree evaluations should be used to help teachers improve their craft. That means they have to come with more nuanced feedback and targeted professional development. While many advocates of test-based accountability demanded it to weed out the worst teachers, advocates of new teacher evaluation systems aim to use it as a tool for improvement.

How administrators can adapt

Administrators, in this new design, will need to sharpen a few skills of their own.

“You can know what great instruction looks like, but you may not have the skillset to mentor or coach a new teacher because you don’t know how to tell them what they’re doing well and what they’re doing poorly,” Udall said.
Professional development for administrators should cover strategies for recognizing high-quality instruction as well as providing useful feedback.

In many schools, even carving out the time for regular classroom observations will require a major shift. This is where district administrators come in. Central office leaders can provide the support that frees principals from other management duties, delegating administrative tasks to other staff members and leaving principals to focus on staff development.

One trend the New Teacher Center has identified is the formation of instructional leadership teams in schools. These groups bring together principals, vice principals, department chairs and teacher representatives into a learning community that focuses on how best to support teacher improvement, design evaluation systems and approach coaching

After years of watching evaluation be used as a tool to “sort and punish,” Udall is excited to see a new trend of using evaluations to support teacher growth.

A lot is still up in the air when it comes to ESSA. But as the Obama administration finalizes its rule-making and states decide how to proceed, school districts can set their own priorities for evaluation, at least. Now no longer required by federal law, it can provide the foundation for effective school improvement that focuses on bringing out the best in today’s teachers.

Tara Garcia Mathewson I September 14, 2016

Teachers integrate technology into classrooms with help from ISU online master’s program

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ISU’s online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instruction technology has helped 67 educators in the last decade to incorporate technology into their classroom. The online program is part of ISU’s School of Education, and offers the same curriculum as another on-campus program at the university.

“The growing use of technology in the schools was really picking up. We realized that we needed to make available professional development,” said Clyciane Kossatz Michelini, the program coordinator. “Technology is everywhere, most people use technology. But what is effective or a way to really make a difference in their teaching? We don’t want to get technology for the sake of technology. It has to be meaningful, has to be motivating the students, has to be making an impact while they’re teaching.”

The program is offered every two years, with the next cohort beginning next summer, and students are in the program for three years. Students learn about trending uses of technology in the classroom, how to teach courses online and, because most participants are already teachers, students get to conduct their research in their own classrooms.

One course is offered each semester, and Michelini said it makes it convenient for full-time teachers, as they are not required to be on campus for their coursework.

Denise Schmidt Crawford, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, said students are asked to visit campus just twice a semester—once at the beginning of the program and once to present their final oral exam. Those who cannot attend are also able to use a video conference set-up to meet the requirement.+

Michelini noted that because the coursework is available online, the program has reached students even outside of the state, and working with teachers across the country has “really brought in another perspective.”Michelini said students leaving the program are entering new jobs that give them leadership roles in technology, and teachers are now “confident in what decisions they make and how they can help other teachers to step up and use more technology in a more effective way.”“Just because you have computers in the classroom, that doesn’t mean you’re making that better for the students,” Michelini said. “You have to really understand how to integrate that to the content and your teaching style and the way kids learn

STEM in a Chaotic Classroom

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Lydia Withrow uses a CSI-themed project, creating a mock crime scene to incorporate STEM into her English curriculum

Not many people would think to compare STEM and English to cops and robbers. Most see the two roles as total opposites in personality, goals, and demeanor, but without the “bad guys,” where would the cops fit in? In a way, the same can be said for STEM and ELA. While most teachers know the subjects as poles apart, when they are combined, their differences create a balanced learning environment that is not only educational but fun—what we like to call “organized chaos.”

As we shift into a new age of education, students are no longer sitting at their desks filling in bubble sheets and reading out of textbooks. Although there is a need for direct instruction in all classrooms at some point, my fellow teachers and administrators at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, West Virginia, believe in—and have seen the benefits of—student-centered classrooms and project-based learning. After seeing a dramatic drop in face-to-face interactions with our youth thanks to social media and gaming, we must engage these young, impressionable minds in learning and explore new topics through teacher-guided self-discovery in a nontraditional classroom.

For an outsider looking in, my classroom might seem a bit chaotic, which I happen to love and embrace. Here, students are walking around, talking loudly, and asking each other questions, which is the exact opposite of what we’re used to as teachers. Handing students the reins isn’t letting go of control, and being a bit more hands-off doesn’t make me any less of a teacher. It’s a different style of classroom management that works by keeping students from falling asleep and zoning out during important lessons.

During our secondary education, teachers are conditioned to believe students must be sitting with their feet on the floor, eyes up front, and smiles on their faces for teachers to be in control. In other words, students should be silent and passive. That teacher-led classroom is missing the components that allow students to work together, a skill today’s employers see as necessary for all employees. While there is a time for both silent and passive, classrooms that are humming with excitement and action are often the most productive. Students who are engaged are involved. Involvement, to us, means action and application of learning.

Rotating Classes Are a “Win for Both Sides”
At Horace Mann Middle School, we have a rotating basic skills class built into our curriculum. As part of the daily schedule, each teacher chooses a performance task from the hundreds of cross-curricular, career-focused projects offered by Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement. Each class spends three weeks focused on a holistic project that not only tests students’ cognitive ability, but also teaches them life skills and allows for hands-on career exploration. After three weeks, when students complete the task, they rotate and start a new project with a new teacher. In 18 weeks, students complete six in-depth projects, and we (the teachers) perfect our skills and save valuable lesson-planning time by teaching the same lesson six times to different groups of students.

“It’s a win for both sides,” said Shandon Tweedy, our assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School. “Students are always gaining new experiences, and teachers get the rare option to choose to teach lessons they are enthusiastic about. And they save valuable time by not reinventing interactive lessons every three weeks.”

As students rotate, we often hear conversations between students about how much fun the project was and what they learned. As teachers, we know we’ve done a good job if classroom conversations are happening outside the classroom.

This format is exciting for the teachers because it plays to our individual strengths. For example, the algebra teacher may choose a prebuilt Defined STEM lesson on creating a bakery, which includes the math and business skills students need to become entrepreneurs. A science teacher who is passionate about fish might choose a lesson about building a fish tank, which teaches ecology, physics, and design.

The Classroom Is a Crime Scene
As an English teacher, you would think my task of choice would involve research followed by a report and presentation, but that’s not the case. I’m constantly trying to think of ways to incorporate STEM skills like problem-solving, formulas, and tech into my word-filled classroom.

For example, I love CSI and the detailed processes that go into solving a crime, so I chose a lesson called Crime Scene Investigator. I thought, “What is the best way to give my students hands-on experience when they obviously can’t go to a real crime scene?” Soon, the stairway of our school turned into a life-size crime scene complete with caution tape, splattered fake blood, and a lone shoe next to a body outlined with spray paint. I’ll never forget my students’ faces when they walked into the elaborate scene.

“I was super excited because I knew the kids were going to be totally sold on the lesson, and they sure were. The reality TV that the kids see, and the mysteries they have read laid the groundwork for huge enthusiasm with the students,” said Tweedy. “I loved the creativity that Lydia brought to the project with her personal touches, such as the book our ‘victim’ was reading. Our seventh grade looked at the stairwell staged for the class with envy, realizing it was part of an eighth-grade lesson. They immediately got excited thinking about the lessons to come their way.”

Students were transformed from eighth-graders into forensic scientists tasked with solving a murder. Using graph paper, students had to draw the scene to scale, placing each blood splatter and piece of evidence in the correct area. Using the Defined STEM task materials, each group of students became experts in areas including bite-mark analysis using paper plates, lifting fingerprints using a fingerprint kit from the local police department, and collecting DNA samples. Each specialist group then presented its findings to the class so every student was able to learn different aspects of analyzing a crime scene. The class prepared its evidence as a full crime report as if it were going to be analyzed in court. To solve the crime as a team, they used skills from all areas of study, including collaborative problem-solving, making precise measurements, creative writing, and presenting their research and findings to the class.

Setting up a crime scene may seem like it required a lot of prep time, but it didn’t. At Horace Mann, project-based learning isn’t viewed as a dreaded part of the curriculum or “one more thing,” because teachers see firsthand the benefits to students. It also doesn’t have to be hard or drain a teacher’s personal pocketbook. In fact, if done right, it’s pretty easy, cheap, and fun for not only the students, but the teacher, too.

I live by the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” I tell my students to go through their junk drawers to find things to use in their project, because buying new supplies won’t get them a better grade. Once grades are handed out and the projects are over, I deconstruct them and put everything in a box to use next time.

Experience Can’t Come from a Textbook
During the lesson, many students share what they’ve learned in my class with friends and family. Many go home and critically watch crime-scene shows on TV, pointing out “mistakes” producers make and debunking the “made-for-TV” reenactments. Becoming forensic scientists like the investigators on TV boosts the students’ confidence and empowers them to apply what they’ve learned in every situation.

Their biggest discovery? It takes a lot longer than 60 minutes to solve a crime. And while they are having fun trying to find an alleged murderer, they are actually refining 21st-century skills that textbooks can’t teach.

“Taking notes and reading about a crime scene, for instance, is nowhere near as powerful as creating a crime scene, and it is definitely not as engaging,” said Tweedy. “Plus, students have to work alongside others, which is a 21st-century skill they will carry with them far beyond high school. While the process isn’t always clean and quiet, the reward is cross-curricular career exploration and thinking in ways students never thought were possible.”

The basic skills rotation allows students to explore new careers they may have never known about. For example, when we started the crime scene lesson, students had no idea solving a crime involved so many people, from investigators to local police officers to the FBI to the BCA to forensic scientists and ballistics specialists. In their minds, everyone was a cop. By actually acting out each part in the scene, students were able to envision themselves as adults working in a careers. Because of the lesson, they can truly say they have as close to hands-on experience as they can get (as an eighth graders.)

While we don’t want our children growing up too fast (that’s the mom in me talking), we do want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible so they’re able to choose the path that fits them best. We also want students to be thinking about their futures far before they’re seniors in high school.

“I cannot tell you how many students have remarked to our teachers that they had no idea that some of the activities they are seeing with this program are actually options for a career,” said Tweedy. “To be able to inspire a student in that manner is, indeed, life changing, and that is what it is all about: inspiring the future.”

Teaching is not about theoretical knowledge. It’s about using everything at one’s disposal to accomplish one’s goals. Knowing the correct answer on a test or writing an essay doesn’t necessarily mean a student has mastered the content. Years of studying how to be the best cop on the force, or how to successfully rob a bank, doesn’t mean a person actually knows how to put those studies to use. He won’t know until he applies what he has learned and does it. The same goes for STEM and ELA: You can read all you want about combining the two in project-based learning, but until you actually try it, you’ll never know the outcome. So what are you waiting for?

Lydia Withrow is an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Charleston, WV

From Language Magazine OnLine.

School Testing 2016: Same Tests, Different Stakes

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It has been a high-stakes year for high-stakes standardized tests.

The debate over renewing the big federal education law turned, in part, on whether annual testing would remain a federal mandate. Republicans initially said no, Democrats said yes. Ultimately the overhaul passed with tests still in place.

On the other hand, this fall President Obama addressed parents on Facebook and released a “Testing Action Plan.” He wanted states to cut down “unnecessary testing” that consumes “too much instructional time,” creating “undue stress for educators and students.”

Meanwhile some parents, notably in New York state, opted out of the tests and made a lot of noise about it. The use of test scores in teacher evaluations was a big bone of contention. And many states dropped out of PARCC and Smarter Balanced, the two Common Core test consortia, in favor of giving their own state tests.

The arguments for annual student testing come down to accountability and equity. If we have accurate data on the academic progress of each and every student, testing advocates say, we’ll be able to compare results and highlight gaps, whether between rich and poor kids or across states. That information, presumably, can spur effective, targeted action to improve.

The outstanding question is whether it’s possible to reform school testing in a way that gets schools, parents and leaders the data they need, while avoiding the problem the president is talking about: an overemphasis on testing.

And moreover, is that reform likely? Here’s what we’ve learned about testing in the past year, and some predictions of what’s to come.

Federally mandated testing is likely to increase, not decrease, next year.

Despite what the president said, the Every Student Succeeds Act still requires states to test at least 95 percent of students each year in reading and math for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Not only that, a higher percentage of students in special education will have to take the tests. The percentage who are given an alternative test because of cognitive disabilities can’t be higher than 1 percent.

The stakes will be lower, though.

Instead of a federally mandated (and widely seen as unrealistic) “100 percent proficiency” goal, each state will set its own targets and decide on its own path to improvement.

The opt-out movement may have some of the wind taken out of its sails.

According to two national polls last year, most Americans don’t support the opt-out movement.

The 95 percent testing rule continues to give school leaders a reason to try to hold the ceiling on parental opt-outs, which reached above 50 percent in some schools and districts last year. More important, one political justification for the movement may be fading: ESSA leaves room for states to de-emphasize test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

There’s been so much test turnover recently, most districts can’t track progress.

Chalk this up to an unintended consequence of the Common Core. According to a report this year by the Council of the Great City Schools, a full 65 percent of the biggest school districts in the country saw a change in their big state tests between 2011 and 2015. These changes, the districts said, made it near-impossible to track student achievement over time. And forget about comparing test scores across states: With all the states dropping out of the two Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, we’re back to a patchwork of tests and cutoff scores nationwide.

Many people agree there is too much testing, but where to cut back is not clear.

In a national poll last year, two-thirds of the American public agreed there was too much testing in schools. The Council of the Great City Schools study showed students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, often in overlapping subjects and at overlapping times. The director of the CGCS, Michael Casserly, called school testing “redundant and uncoordinated.”

The federal government’s “testing action plan” promises resources for districts and states to audit and streamline their testing programs.

But how, exactly, to cut back? Four out of 10 districts in the CGCS survey reported having to wait between two and four months before receiving their state test results. That lag makes it near-impossible to make decisions — like grouping students by ability or signing them up for special tutoring — before students pass on to the next grade.

So, if schools want timely data-informed decisionmaking, they’ll still need to give their own diagnostic tests. And if districts want to know how they’ll do on the state tests, they still need to give their own benchmark and practice tests.

States will turn to new forms of accountability.

Under the ESSA, states create their own accountability formulas. Along with test scores, which are mandatory, these may include graduation rates, measures of student engagement, teacher engagement and school climate (such as attendance or behavior). Some states and districts are also including student projects and surveys that try to measure noncognitive skills.

Leaders and Moral Courage

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One of the most difficult things to do is to let go of the familiar, of the terrain you have crossed and mastered.  It is, for some, frightening to ask if habits and practices that have developed over time and served well are still the right answers for the present problems and purposes. Personally, some of these habits helped us learn and grow; some of them guided us through professional and personal hard moments. Professionally, all of us have habits and practices that contributed to our success at our jobs.  We even wonder if we are wasting time to reexamine those well-worn paths to success. But…these past few decades are unrelenting with daily challenges and unanticipated demands.

Two Right Options
The educator’s dilemma arises within the domain of what’s good enough. An “acceptable” number of students graduate, and an “acceptable” number of students go on to college or join the work force.  Where did that “acceptable” number come from and whose hand moves it when we glance away? We lead schools, institutions that exist at the core of our society; they are expected to both keep pace with change and hold true to tradition. We choose often between two right options, trying to find which one is the better one or which serves a higher good.

Finding Moral Courage
Enter the need for moral courage. Nearly every decision or action is accompanied by some degree of risk, however small.  Here, from Rushworth Kidder:

So it is with moral courage, where danger is endured for the sake of an overarching commitment to conscience, principles, or core values.  Here too, the key lies in properly assessing the “measure” of peril.  Underestimating the danger, and our moral courage will be written off as imprudence.  It will be seen as pointless self-sacrifice, doomed from the outset because we never understood the difficulties we would encounter.  But overestimate the danger by inflating mundane annoyances into fantasies of fright-and then riding bravely out against them in battles we’re sure to win-and the world will credit us with nothing more than bluster, bravura, and rant. (pp. 109-110)

In another book read a long time ago, with a title and author long forgotten, a compelling story about a well-liked Superintendent’s generosity reveals the real dangers that lurk for leaders.  It was Christmas Eve and the Superintendent, who lived in the district with his family, was getting ready to head home and decided to offer the custodian, who had been suffering hard times, the Christmas tree that had been decorating the office. Following the holiday, a Board member accused the Superintendent of stealing district property. Those in the district who had some disagreements with the Superintendent joined in the attack. It was on the front page of the local newspaper, was embarrassing to him and his family. Ultimately the accusations continued. He lost his ability to be effective as trust was eroded. He left the job and the people he loved working with and for.

From Where Do Our Dangers Emanate?
It is plain common sense that if the ways schools are organized and operate, if teaching and learning continue as they were in the century past, can we state with confidence that we are serving our students well?  A danger exists in ignoring the danger in remaining with habits and practices from years past. If following one’s heart to offer someone in need the opportunity give away a tree rather than discard it is a simple and quick decision before schools close for a week or more. Yet the fallout strongly impacts a well-intentioned leader’s life.  We wonder if the tree created a family memory for the custodian and that in the long run, that human exchange of a gift during the giving season enriched both men’s lives. But, who knows?

Know Yourself and Be Yourself
Leading in this century will always happen under the cloud of urgency. And, criticism is always just around the corner.  So as the days grow shorter and we light trees and our homes, families gather and we think about the important things in life. Our message is: Leaders, know yourself and be yourself.

Change is something we talk about so much it becomes an abstract, academic exercise. But, every decision and every change leavens possibilities, some we plan and others surprise us. The most important thing is that we can live with whatever arises because our hearts were clear and true to our calling.

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers

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