The Data-Driven Race
As school administrators continue to find ways to balance attempts to educate the whole child with demonstrating progress on high-stakes assessments, many have begun to re-examine their practices in order to determine if they are an effective means to accomplish that goal. At Lionville Middle School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, we have spent the last decade stressing the importance of improvement using student performance data. In addition to looking at instruction, we have used every available minute to attempt to help “bubble students” move to proficiency with PSSA preparation activities and various benchmarks. As the proud principal of this school, I was overjoyed when we saw these efforts move the needle, albeit slightly since we were already above 90% proficiency. When the PSSA tests were “realigned” to reflect common core standards, our scores took a hit like most everyone around the commonwealth. As years passed and we failed to see improvement, we grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of growth using our data-driven initiatives. As we continued to attempt to find ways to course correct, I was reminded of a saying one of my administrative mentors told me years ago, “The only good thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels good when you stop.”
This frustration coincided with an invitation from a friend to join him in viewing a documentary about the state of education. The movie, entitled Most Likely to Succeed, was a companion to a book written by Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner. While a couple of sentences will not do it justice, the gist of the work is to convince educators, parents and politicians that our schools should stop operating under a model created over 100 years ago if we expect to prepare students for the next 100 years. They stress the need to expand our definition of student success beyond that of scores on standardized tests. According to the authors, what our children need is authentic learning activities based on collaboration, creativity and problem-solving. These so-called “soft skills” are what is lacking in today’s graduates and what will be needed in tomorrow’s workers. Needless to say, less than ten minutes in to the movie, I was already texting colleagues and taking copious notes thinking about how we could apply this information in our school. It was time to get out of the data-driven race to meaningless scores and place our focus on helping students develop skills that they cannot retrieve from a smartphone. If effective, these efforts would be a more meaningful use of the time previously spent preparing for standardized tests and finals and could actually help our achievement scores by fighting test fatigue and helping students go deeper into the curriculum.
Soon after purchasing a copy of the book for every teacher, we began to get great feedback on what they were reading. Our initial goal was for everyone to read it over the summer and come back with ideas for application the following year. We quickly discovered that would not suffice. A committee of teachers volunteered to come back in to school in late June to discuss our next steps based on the novel. In my wildest dreams, I would not have imagined what would happen during that summer day of work. Within a few hours, this team of teachers had come up with the framework for a project that would change our school by improving the entire experience for our students to one that was student-driven and future focused.
“There’s No Turning Back”
Inspired by Most Likely to Succeed the teachers decided to dispense with final exams in all core subjects. While this may seem last a drastic decision, the idea of middle school students taking finals had never made sense to many of us. When we read Wagner and Dintersmith’s description of the folly of final exams, the idea of removing them made even more sense. Not only did the authors support our notion that finals only proved how good students are at memorizing content and were not worth the time and effort put into them, but they actually shared an example of research that destroyed any notion of validity in final exams. An elite private high school in New Jersey studied the efficacy of finals in their school by having students retake a simplified version of the exam when they returned in the fall. The discovered that, “When student took the final in June, the average grade was a B+ (87%); when the simplified test was taken in September, the average grade was an F(58%)” (Wagner & Dintersmith, pg 41). Why would we continue to spend so much time and create such stress when all that our students were doing was regurgitating the facts we had told them to memorize and then forgetting them. If we were going to create meaningful learning and downplay the importance of high-stakes tests for middle level kids, we needed to lead by example and remove these stress-inducing summative assessments that had little to no impact on learning. They knew that this would be a hard sell for many, but also felt strongly that it would help get buy in from our students for the new initiative that would be called, the Capstone Project.
The goal for the project was to have students develop the skills for success in the 21st century that were identified by Wagner and Dintersmith as, “ask great questions, critically analyze information, form independent opinions, collaborate and communicate effectively” (p. 20). These skills would be correlated to work and instruction from the content areas. The Capstone would provide students with a chance to extend their interests and cultivate a passion beyond the core curriculum. If they were inspired enough, many would have the opportunity to connect their learning to resources in the community either in the workplace or through voluntary charity work. The best part was that all of this could be done using advisory time during the school day previously used for standardized test preparation. Not only would there be no need for students to take even more time away from their families and interests to complete this project, it would be discouraged. The possibilities of topics and depth of learning were limited only by the imagination and passion of the students. What we knew we would not do, is spend time reviewing for finals or scurrying to administer test preparation activities hoping, at best, to move the needle a point or two. As one member of the committee said while this idea was being hashed out, “There’s no turning back”.
Creating the Framework
Given that so much of the work was to be done by students on their own, a timeline for project proposal, feedback and production was established. Beginning toward the end of the first month of school, each timeframe provided opportunities for collaboration, reflection and problem-solving to help students work toward their final product that they present in multiple formats to an audience. The first marking period was used to help students explore topics and narrow their focus for the actual Capstone presentation. After a few weeks of this work, students then had to submit a proposal to be approved by their Capstone advisor. In this proposal, students had to not only explain their project topic, but also describe how this will challenge and help them to grow. Students also had to make connections between their project and the various content areas in order to demonstrate rigor and relevance.
The second and third quarters were used to develop the Capstone digital portfolio. As work was completed and collected by the students, they compiled a portfolio to document their efforts and help prepare for the final presentation. Additionally, students completed two reflection journals that helped to not only identify areas of need but also celebrate successful efforts toward their goal. By reviewing these reflections, advisors were able to detect student difficulties and provide guidance on how to overcome their struggles.
As the end of the year approached, students were asked to submit a final presentation plan that helped them organize their resources and provided the advisors with an idea of the space and materials needed to present. Students were also asked to submit their digital portfolio for review by their advisor before presentations. This included a final reflection paper covering the entire year of work done on the Capstone project. In previous years, the last week or so of school was a combination of culminating events along with the preparations and administration of final exams. Our new plan also required a flexible schedule in order to provide time for student presentations. Each student project would be presented to a combination of seventh and eighth grade homerooms. Students would have about five to ten minutes for their prepared remarks. This would be followed by a question and answer period, led by the advisors who had some prepared scripted questions focusing on both the process and the product. Student presentations were rated by the advisors using a “thumbs up”, “thumbs down” or “thumbs sideways” scale on a variety of basic required elements. These presentations were also an opportunity for parents to come in and see exactly what their child had been working on all year long. The final, culminating event was the Capstone Fair. Each team (we have four in seventh grade and four in eighth) had time to set up in our cafeteria or gymnasium to allow the other teams a chance to “Gallery Walk” through all of the presentations. Many students loved this portion of the project because it gave them the chance to share what they created with teachers and friends from across the school.
Learning for Both Students and Staff
Throughout the year, the Capstone committee solicited feedback from teachers and used that information to address concerns and gaps in details. This helped by demonstrating the committee’s responsiveness and genuine concern for everyone to understand what was taking place. As the year progressed, even the most ardent objectors to the Capstone Project, became fans. By the end of the year, we had easily the most memorable learning experience for many of our students and staff alike. The kids absolutely crushed their presentations, with many surpassing even their own expectations. Were there students who underperformed? Certainly there were. However, by our estimation, there were far fewer than would have underperformed on final exams. Countless parents contacted our team to express their delight in both the product created by their child and the skills that they developed over the course of the year that will help them in the future. As I said to many on our team, we could not have possible scripted a better experience and outcome for the first year of this project. It would be impossible to try to properly summarize the myriad of projects created by our students. The overwhelming majority were tied directly to curricular areas and promoted a deeper understanding of content that they would not have received in the traditional curriculum alone. Several students had direct content with relevant areas in the workforce, getting hands on experience that could not be replicated in the classroom. Now, we are even more excited to fine tune some of the processes and take this to the next level for our kids, knowing that the work they will be doing will help them in the present and the future.
Read Nick's "School Wide Clubs" article.
Positive connections between students, their teachers, administrators, and their school community lead to academic success and a balanced education. During the school year, most kids spend more time with their school family than they do with their own family. This gives the school family an incredible opportunity to help students grow and learn. To reach their potential, it is integral that children connect to at least one person in their school community. This connection needs to exist within a safe and stable environment providing opportunities for these relationships to strengthen and grow. The middle school leader plays a key role in fostering this these important components of success.
Consider the typical day of an adolescent child. Besides a myriad of changes taking place physically, emotionally and academically, these kids exist in one of the most volatile social worlds imaginable. How often have we looked back on our own middle level years and remembered the struggles? When you pile on the perils of social media and the increasing temptation of drugs and alcohol that our children face today, most of us cannot even imagine reliving those years.
For many of our kids, school is their one true refuge. Imagine being greeted by the soul-crushing energy of a teacher who does not like you or, even worse, an indifferent teacher. These children face chaos at home, in the neighborhood, on the bus, and eventually in our school. Creating a safe, positive environment for kids is critical, especially for these students’ success.
School communities need to gain a firm grasp on how well they really know their students in order to effectively connect with and eventually educate them. An activity called “Do You See Me?” (also known as the “Dot Activity”) provides leaders with a chance to measure not only how many students connect with educators in the school, but also how many staff members each student might see as a resource or support. “Do You See Me” is best done toward the end of the first quarter which gives staff time to get to know their students.
To prepare for this critical activity, we take the student pictures provided digitally by our school photographers at picture day and print out a copy of each student in the entire school. We fit two 5x7 images on one standard letter-size paper. We then tape all of the pages onto paper and hang them in a large area like a gymnasium or library. From there, faculty and staff are given a small variety pack of small circular “dot” stickers (available at any office supply store). Then give the directions below:
After completing the survey, conduct a group discussion with your staff (whole or small group depending on the size of your staff). Use a protocol for the discussion to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to have a voice in the conversation. Some examples of effective discussion protocols include Affinity Mapping, Final Word Protocol, Four Corners, Pinwheel Discussions, and Socratic Seminars. This is an opportunity to focus the conversation on your building goals, vision, or specific issues you are facing at your school. Some guiding questions for these discussions may include:
After the activity ends, be sure to follow-up in the coming days and months. Consider having your guidance counselor(s) collect the student papers that had very few stickers or more superficial stickers. Identify ways to support the students who need more of a connection in your school. Look for commonalities between the students with lots of stickers. Do they have any similar characteristics that could translate into skills to teacher less connected students? In the final analysis, there is no right or wrong way to go about performing “Do You See Me?” As long as the building community has the opportunity to reflect on the relationships they have with students in the building, it’s guaranteed to be a successful exercise. All students need to know that they are more than grades on a report card, more than a discipline form. They need to know they matter.
One word I usually don't use to describe school systems is "agile." Change and action in districts happen at a glacial pace. This can be incredibly frustrating for school leaders (and everyone). Recently, I was listening to an episode of Seth Godin's podcast, "Akimbo," where he discussed the benefits of Critical Path Management. Simply defined, Critical Path Management (CPM) is used to complete projects on time by focusing on key tasks. In his podcast, Godin focused on an important part of CPM that involves "getting out of the way" of personnel completing key tasks.
First and foremost, I would love to see public school entities actually adopt a philosophy of project management. I am personally a fan of CPM because of the intense focus on execution and action. But more importantly, school systems could learn from the "get out of the way" mentality, especially when further steps in the project management chain are on hold waiting for a prior step to be completed. How many times have you been stalled because other departments or parts of your organization hadn't yet completed their portion of a complex project?
In closing, I'd like to adjust the old saying, "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way." For our purposes, let's go with, "Lead, Follow, AND Get Out of the Way!"
In light of the recent articles highlighting research showing the failure of the standardized testing push in the United States, this look at a recent employer survey shines further light on the disconnect between the "real world" and "what's easy to measure."
As educators, it is our responsibility to prepare students for what comes after the traditional school years. So it would stand to reason that our curriculum would center around current research around the skills needed to be successful in today's economy. And that means we should be collaborating with large companies and employer sects to see what skills they are looking for. We should be researching the shifts and trends in the economy to steer kids in the directions of careers that have potential for robust growth.
But wait. We are not doing any of that. Nope. Instead, we still cling a 100+ year old philosophy that has seen very little upgrading. We all know the reasons why. "Big testing" dictates much of what happens and their products can only measure very basic (and mostly unimportant) things.
So "No Child Left Behind" didn't produce scores of students super prepared for the workforce and we didn't conquer the world in international test scores. This should further empower school leaders at the local level to do what's right for kids. Trust the real research and trust your gut. And guess what? States and Commonwealths are beginning to respond. Take a look at this link:
The choice is ours. Start small. Take a look at the "skills employers want" in the picture attached to the main article. Bring this list into your next set of classroom walkthroughs. Ask yourself, your teachers, and your students, "Does this lesson check off any of these boxes?" If it doesn't, well, let's make some changes.
Dr. Nicholas Indeglio, the 2017 Digital Principal of the Year, shows you the people and organizations in education you should follow to grow your PLN: http://bit.ly/2DlSmvy
Nicholas Indeglio, the 2017 Digital Principal of the Year, shares a quick guide on hashtags and chats to help you connect with other school leaders on Twitter: http://bit.ly/2Fa0rk9
"THe Boss" Jon Ross and "The Dr of Proctors," Nick Indeglio
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