Thursday, November 3, 2011

How Can Secondary Schools Respond Effectively to Our Students that “Get It” and those that “Don’t Get It” During Challenging Times?

As educational leaders we want ALL students to leave our institutions having maximized their potential to be successful in the future.  Particularly in these challenging times we must find ways to leverage our available resources to the fullest extent in order to bolster student learning.  In the current era of increasing public expectations, political uncertainty, shrinking budgets and increasing workloads that impact all stakeholders, a growing number of secondary schools are taking the proactive step to implement a new student intervention model developed specifically to meet our current challenges with courage and hope for the future without impacting educational budgets.

This emerging, systematic, customized, data-driven remediation model has shown promise for improving learning results among a wide spectrum of the student population.  The program has been launched in a number of public secondary schools under various “brand names”.  The more common identifiers are CORE/FLEX, CORE/Choice and The Choice Program.  The cornerstone of this style of intervention is the opportunity to earn access to unstructured time as a motivator for students to work toward proficient academic performance.  In most schools this segment of time is known as the “Choice Session”.  This is typically a 20 to 25 minute segment of time placed after second period, appearing on the bell schedule between three and five days per week depending on the school.

Schools implementing the Choice Program collect data on student performance at three-week intervals and use this information to support students in a variety of ways.  Students with one or more “D” or “F” grades are assigned to mandatory remediation often called “CORE”.  Students performing at or above standard (all “A”, “B” and “C” grades) have earned the privilege to decide how they will use each Choice Session.  These students are said to have “FLEX” or “Choice” Status.  At the end of each three-week period student achievement is evaluated again and students are reassigned to CORE or Choice based on their current individual academic standing.

Staff in Choice Program buildings must be assigned clearly defined roles and responsibilities in order to support the overall intervention structure and meet individual student needs.  Certificated staff members are responsible for maintaining accurate information on student progress, posting grades in a timely manner at transitions between data cycles and assisting students attending the various support and enrichment sessions.  Classified staff members manage the collection and organization of data while encouraging staff to meet various deadlines.  Administrators use student performance data to assign students to CORE classes with intentionality, monitor areas of campus open to Choice Students and balance equity of the program among certificated teachers.

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Typically, students are assigned to a CORE teacher with whom the student has earned a below standard grade (or at least a teacher that instructs the same subject).  Mandatory attendance is taken and monitored by one of several electronic information support systems used by most schools today.  CORE teachers offer targeted assistance to move students toward meeting standards.  Students have the opportunity to make up missing work, receive additional instruction, to preview upcoming lessons, to discuss recent discipline/attendance missteps, to participate in one on one counseling sessions and monitor academic progress.  The specific strategies used on a daily basis are applied at the discretion of the supervising staff member in order to better meet the needs of the group.  The directive nature of CORE helps avoid the difficulty of accessing struggling students outside the normal school day.

Students earning grades at or above 70% in all classes have earned Choice Status.  Individuals in this category have the opportunity to decide how they will use Choice Sessions to benefit their learning.  Choice Students have a variety of options available to them designed to support enrichment; such as computer labs, open library, AP seminars, content-specific learning labs, career exploration, post high school program investigation and guided study halls.  Students may also utilize common areas of the campus to study, socialize and relax.  Students must remain on campus and stay in the session they choose for the entire enrichment period.  Attendance for Choice Sessions is taken via sign in sheets in all locations with the exception of the school commons.  With significant numbers of students motivated to earn Choice Status, it allows CORE support groups to be small and manageable in size.

Many schools today struggle with assisting cohorts of students that have challenges beyond typical adolescent deficiencies in maturity, organizational skills or work ethic that result in one or two grades below standard.  When a student is experiencing limited performance across a wide range of classes, more significant intervention is required.  In the Choice Program the idea of Permanent CORE groups has evolved to facilitate improvement with these more troubled students.  In Permanent CORE groups, students are assigned to a particular teacher voluntarily.  Students served by this type of affiliation stay with their teacher regardless of changes in achievement status as the academic year unfolds.  The perception being that students experiencing significant “outside of school” challenges contributing to multiple failing grades need the one on one relationship and interpersonal consistency offered in this alternative setting.  In most cases, teachers working with a Permanent CORE group have also volunteered for the position and find meeting this type of challenge rewarding.

Most aspects of the Choice Program are tangible and measurable to all stakeholders.  Choice-Style intervention programs can be described in words.  Program goals can be articulated.  Various types of interventions can be outlined.  However, it is difficult to communicate in written form how dynamic and adaptable Choice Style response to intervention is when applied intentionally and professionally.  In each new school where it is adopted the program takes on a certain “life” as the data-driven nature of the process allows for targeted modification to be implemented to impact students at regular intervals over the entire academic year.  Institutions can review local capabilities and challenges to develop facets of Choice Intervention playing to their strengths and mitigating weaknesses.  The Choice Model is a relatively simple and elegant foundation upon which schools may find ways to weave new support structures designed to reach individual students, assist them in reaching their potential, and reduce the impact of past challenges on current learning.

In schools piloting the Choice Model significant gains have been made in reducing “D” and “F” grades.  Discipline referrals have typically trended lower.  Schools have seen improved results with regard to the number of students taking and passing AP National Board Exams and the vast majority of stakeholders seem pleased with the program conceptually, logistically and in terms of overall performance.

Choice-Style intervention is not an instant fix for the significant and varied challenges faced by public education today.  However, institutions looking for a systematic, data-driven and adaptable response to intervention that meets the needs of both the highly capable and the progressing learner without additional program costs, may find the Choice Program to be of value.  In challenging times we must not forget that our students need our support and enrichment more than ever.  We must offer hope for today in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Tod Witzel is a Social Studies instructor at Enumclaw High School with over 20 years of teaching experience.  Tod has recently authored a teacher field guide directed at assisting staff in working through the process of developing, implementing and refining a Choice-Style intervention model in a secondary school for the first time.  Parties interested in further information may contact the author directly via email at:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Engagement of the Whole Child a Sustainable Educational Practice?

Printable Copy

Educating the whole child is undeniably important in producing healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged students who become productive citizens in our society.  However, severe cuts to school funding have forced many districts to make difficult choices in which programs to support.  Often times, programs that support the development of the whole child are sacrificed in order to maintain the continuation of support for the core academic curriculum.  With diminished funding to school programs, can the practice of “engagement” of the whole child remain a sustainable educational practice?    

Wiggins (1993) stated, “Education involves working with the whole child. Students can get excited by what the world offers, by what types of activities they are provided in school.” (p. 69)  Rather than just presenting information and expecting that it will be absorbed, the astute educator understands how to motivate the learner to work hard.  Increased motivation occurs when students see the connection of their learning to the broader community. 

Activities that engage the whole child often take students out of the school building to experience real world learning or invite experts into the classroom to impart their knowledge onto the students.  These formats may be too costly to sustain as educational strategies.  Shrewd educators look at their own instructional practice for ways students can engage with others, challenge their intellect, contribute service to their communities, and encompass participation in extra-curricular activities.

Classrooms with a sense of high energy seemingly support engagement of the whole child.  Many educators have restructured their teaching practice to ensure students opportunities to work with their classmates in cooperative learning structures.  “Students find working with classmates to be far more engaging than individual effort.” (Danielson, 2009, p. 38)  Also, providing students with an audience of their peers as they present their class work often brings out their best performance.  Students care deeply about the opinions of their peers.  Students are also driven by an innate curiosity about the world in which they live.  Educators utilizing inquiry-based learning challenge their student’s intellect to understand incongruous events, solve problems, or understand anomalies.  Skilled educators are adept at crafting their lessons to ensure all levels of intellect are challenged throughout the curriculum.  Students in high energy classrooms are engaged through creative and careful lesson planning and opportunities to collaborate with their peers.

Students participating in volunteer projects, internships, or service learning see themselves as contributing members of the community.  Collecting donations for local charities, becoming pen-pals with deployed soldiers or the elderly in convalescent homes, establishing an ink cartridge recycle program or helping at a local shelter are a few examples of sustainable student learning connected to the broader community.  Students engaged in these activities are intrinsically motivated to help others’.  They see firsthand how their efforts at school benefit local organizations, individuals or groups of people.  

Providing students with opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities is an effective way to engage the whole child.  Some students participate in sports and fine arts activities after school.  However, the cost of participating in these activities is prohibitive to other students.  Many schools find ways to provide extra-curricular activities at their schools through the use of community and parent volunteers, donations, and grant proposals.  Working with local colleges and universities can provide a win-win benefit for pre-service teachers and local schools.  Schools that are not able to tap into local resources look among their own talent pool to provide instruction.  School schedules purposely include enrichment classes during the school day.  Classroom teachers, instructional assistants, and other school staff share their talents and hobbies with various groups of students. Within the school or out in the community, many adults are eager to share their resources, skills and expertise with students to support the development of the whole child.

Developing healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged students is paramount in producing citizens that contribute positively to our society.  As each component of the whole child works in tandem, “engagement” is the area that motivates students to learn.  Understanding the importance of sustaining engagement of the whole child, classroom teachers are re-designing their instruction, schools encourage students to provide service to their communities, and school staffs take it upon themselves to create extra-curricular opportunities.  As school districts work within the constraints of reduced funding, schools are finding innovative ways to educate the whole child. 

Danielson, C. (2009).  Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wiggins, G. P. (1993).  Assessing Student Performance: Exploring the Purpose and Limits
Testing.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Karen Johnson, Principal
Evergreen Forest Elementary School
North Thurston Public Schools

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How can we be more like Bob?

I had the opportunity lately to travel back to Washington, DC as part of ASCD’s legislative committee.   Our sixteen-member committee spent a day on the Hill, meeting with representatives from the Department of Education, Democrat and Republican aides from the House Education and Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  This was a day for us to hear their perspectives in prepared remarks, followed by open question and answer sessions.   The next day involved an intense committee work session alone at headquarters, where we debrief what we heard, and begin the crafting of ASCD’s legislative agenda to be revealed in the spring.

 In recent years, the focus has been on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, (ESEA), nicknamed No Child Left Behind in 2001, and is now four years overdue.  This year, the majority party is different in each chamber, and the committee chairs have different approaches to reauthorization.  The Senate chair wants full-scale reauthorization, and the House chair is preferring to address one aspect at a time.   As we listened to our speakers, it became readily apparent that there was far more similarities than differences in what all of the sides wanted to fix about the law.   Supporting career and college readiness standards, (including the Common Core), making accountability more flexible and less punitive, and addressing teacher effectiveness rather than teacher licensure were clear themes. 

On this particular September day, President Obama held a press conference announcing the Department of Education’s waiver plan.  In it, he stated, “Our kids only get one shot at a decent education. They cannot afford to wait any longer. So, given that Congress cannot act, I am acting”.  This was a ‘throw down’ to Congress – which made the rest of the day quite electric.  Although the Department, and House, and Senate committees had far more in common than different about the reauthorization, they appeared to be at a stalemate – again.

As the day ended, we remarked about the apparent lack of collaboration and dialogue amongst the lawmakers, and discussed nuances of policy.  We walked out of the House office building, and into a charter bus to take us back to the hotel.  It was there that our day changed.

Bob was a large man that appeared to be in his late sixties or early seventies.  His hands were gripping the wheel while he waited for us to board – but his body was dancing to the Isley Brothers.  As we pessimistically boarded that simple bus, we were immediately engaged by Bob.  Soon, we were singing and dancing in our seats, and enjoying the moment.    Shortly after departing though, our bus began to experience difficulties.  We could go a few blocks, or maybe a mile, only to break down again.  Even through this hardship, the music was playing, and Bob was present in the moment.  His radio calls back to his headquarters were like stand-up comedy, and he had a way of keeping us calm and enlisting us as co-problem solvers.

What is the lesson?  It is easy to get lost in the complexities of education.  What is the algorithm used to calculate safe harbor?  Must we defer to supplemental educational service providers as a mandatory intervention, or is it a promotion of untested private business with public dollars?  A growth model is a better way to gauge student achievement, but what are the details and nuances of a potential model and is it fair?  Who is in power in DC, who is running for re-election, and how does that influence decision-making?  But, despite the ‘noise’ of all of these issues, the real question we need to focus upon, is how can we help our students (and ourselves) be more like Bob?  How can they find a role in society in which they can find joy?  How can they be of service, no matter their profession, to their fellow man or woman?  How can our education system keep its focus on what is important and not on distractions? How can we attend to the needs of the whole child with a well-rounded, high quality education?

I can assure you, that the following day was highly influenced by Bob.  When you see the agenda this spring, you will likely see words such as ‘citizenship’ and ‘statesmanship’.  By this, we don’t necessarily mean the study of governments, but what it means to take care of one another, show compassion, to find joy in our contributions, and to truly reason together to make our country a better place for everyone. Reauthorization of ESEA is critical to us on a daily basis, but I challenge you, as I am challenged, to try to remember Bob – and what our mission is all about. 

Dr. Becky Cooke
Deer Park School District

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Where are the Instructions?

"I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn," Albert Einstein.

One night in early May, my 21-year-old son John and I began work on a website using an open-source software called Word Press to promote my new book Navigating the New Pedagogy: Six Principles that Transform Teaching. I had consulted with a few web design specialists about pricing, but I opted instead to try and design a site myself so that I could make modifications when I pleased.

Within a matter of minutes that evening, I had opened an account with Host Monster, secured a domain name, and downloaded Word Press to their server. When I opened Word Press, though, despite its claim of being user friendly, I was confused.

“Where are the instructions?” I asked aloud. I have experience using Blackboard for online teaching; it just came with extensive training.

“Let me take over for a while,” John responded, and he scooted his chair before my PC. With John in the lead, Word Press slowly revealed itself. He’d add one feature. Delete it if it didn’t work. When John had a question, he framed a word search on Google and usually found a document that answered it. My turn came to take over. Through a process of trial and error, we worked together to have a simple, multi-page website posted by 1 a.m.

Where are the instructions for today’s technology? My iPod didn’t come with any; neither did my new iPad. For our students, their technology world (so central to their lives) is largely instruction-less. Today’s youth experiment and tinker with cell phones, video games or their Facebook pages until they construct their own understanding of how it functions. When stumped, they may turn to a friend. Nonetheless, they are typically engaged throughout the process.

In contrast, our schools are places that often come with instructions; knowledge is dispensed. Students are often told math concepts rather than discovering these ideas for themselves. Science lectures deliver concepts; experiments reinforce rather than enlighten. Students are given traits of quality writing instead of analyzing authors’ styles to discover the techniques for themselves. Our schools often fail to engage students in the thinking/problem-solving skills that they do so well.

In my time conducting professional development for Spokane Public Schools, I have had the good fortune to observe many of the best and brightest teachers in our district. To a fault, each of these teachers used analytical/exploratory strategies whenever possible in their classrooms. In my book, I refer to this as “Turning Bloom’s on Its Head.” In this strategy, teachers create activities – often collaborative ones – where students need to analyze and evaluate then synthesize what they learn into meaningful knowledge and comprehension. In other words, they use higher level thinking skills to create understanding. Since the traditional method of teaching is to use lower level thinking skills in order to access the higher level ones, these strategies are essentially “Turning Blooms on Its Head.” This is exactly what students do in their daily lives.

Colleague John O’Dell uses these strategies regularly in the high school social studies activities he assigns. When he taught the concept of political action committees (PACs), for example, he opted to build student understanding using a discovery activity. Rather than explain the power of PACs, he had students research politicians’ campaign contributors for the largest donors, investigate them, and compare and contrast the donors’ interests with the politicians’ voting records. Students then had to draw conclusion about how campaign money impacts the political system. In other words, students used higher level thinking skills to build comprehension of this important concept. Students also built a deeper understanding than had they just read the information in a text book.

“This kind of instruction is real. It’s engaging,” O’Dell explained. “When I do these activities, I validate students’ ability to think. Kids like to feel smart and do activities that are meaningful. We need kids who can think about information and make sense of it.”

One Spokane Public Schools middle-school science activity quantified how powerful this instructional method can be. One set of classrooms taught the physics concepts of falling objects using the traditional method: read the text and do a few activities. A second set of classrooms employed hands-on experiments using coffee filters and balls dropped below motion sensors; students had to create a hypothesis, test it using this science apparatus, and then revise it if necessary after conducting their experiments. In other words, students had to construct their own understanding using their skills of analysis and synthesis. On district assessments measuring the concept of falling objects, classrooms that used these constructivist strategies scored on an average 25-percent higher than those that used traditional teaching methods.

If we are having trouble engaging students in our schools, it may be because we are not playing to their strengths. Teachers are lecturing or demonstrating to students who often have experience figuring things out for themselves. By turning traditional teaching on its head, we not only engage students in constructing their own understanding, we get them engaged in school as well.

Jeff Halstead, educational trainer, staff developer, and writer
National Board-certified English teacher
Ferris High School
Spokane Public Schools

Halstead’s new book New Pedagogy: Six Principles that Transform Teaching is available through major online booksellers. He will present a workshop entitled “Empowering Students through Transparent Assessment Practices” at the October WSASCD/OSPI conference. Visit his website at The New

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Could a Single Word or Phrase Provide Encouragement Right When it is Needed Most?

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“Never, Never, Never Give Up…” I have purchased this sign for many people over the past several years. I have also seen this sign in a few classrooms around our school district. As a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent (and father) I have known of the importance of helping others see their potential and even beyond. I get my energy and enthusiasm from supporting others. I am not used to being the recipient of this support. A couple weeks ago, however, I received it.

Running a marathon is a humbling experience. It's 26.2 miles and several much time to think. There are moments in everyone's marathon experience that you wonder whether your legs can take another step. For me, it was between miles 18-21.

The Friday before the marathon, I received several cards of encouragement from family and friends. I was now the recipient of support and honestly wasn't quite prepared. I read through the cards right before falling asleep knowing that in a few short hours, I would be running and running and running. Below are a few excerpts:
I know you are very nervous for tomorrow, but what is the reason behind your nervousness? You are prepared and you can run 26 miles in your sleep. Just go out there and run like you know how to. In football, we are told to play with authority because we know what to do and we know what will happen. So tomorrow, you must run with authority for the same reason.

May your heart be blessed in quietness and confidence. May your heart also be strong enough to get you through this marathon run!

Allow yourself to be lifted up.

With every step of your marathon, you will encourage all those around you in everything big and small.

Run, Mike, Run.
When it became overwhelmingly difficult…, when my quads hurt worse than I could ever remember…, when I saw my wife, Britt, taking pictures with our car just a few steps away (I could just sneak into the passenger spot!)…, when I thought, "There is no way I can do eight more miles....." was then that quotes from the cards entered my mind....Run with, Mike run. For three miles, I pushed these quotes to the front of my mind. For three miles, I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. I kept myself focused on reading the cards in my mind....Run with, Mike run.

Although, it is hard to describe, I don't remember much of miles 21 -26. They just happened. I do remember the last .2, though. It was wonderful to see Britt. I couldn't help but smile. I could really see the finish line, not just imagine it like I had for the previous 26 miles.

I often write cards and letters to family/friends, staff and students after an event has occurred letting them know how impressed I was or how terrific I thought they did, etc. I would say about 80-90% of the time I write these after-event notes and only 10-20% before an event. I wonder if I might need to reverse this habit a bit.

If the friends and family who wrote me cards would have waited until after the marathon to write me a note, I wonder what I would have used during miles 18-21. What does this mean for the students we work with? Are you like me and write notes and talk to students after an accomplishment? Could our words and actions help them more if we were to offer them before an AP test, state assessment, presentation, or activity/sporting event? Could a single word or phrase help them right at the time they need it the most? I wonder how we might support our students and colleagues with authority before an important moment in their lives.

Mike Nelson
Enumclaw School District

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What is Quality Learning for the Information Age? Rethinking how we create Learning Environments

In the 21st century, the body of knowledge humankind has at its disposal is growing exponentially. The “half-life” of knowledge continues to shrink as the overall expansion of knowledge occurs. Put another way, this means that what may be considered the “truth” or correct information one day may become outdated and replaced the next day. Just look at a world map from a couple of years ago and compare it to today. Now expand this idea to science, art, literature, mathematics, music, engineering, technology, etc. and you will quickly see that simply teaching students what they need to “know” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Our students must be able to “think” in a process where they are perpetually learning and un-learning in an ongoing cycle rather than simply learning to know. Therefore, learning environments that are built on a teacher/textbook centered learning model that expects students to memorize rapidly decaying information that is disconnected from the learners’ life trajectory or fails to engage the learner in meaningful high cognitive demanding work is at best a futile educational effort and at worst a monumental disservice to the learner and to our society. In order for quality learning to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, the learning environments we create for students must also change.

To achieve this end, our practice as educators must change to support this shift in learner needs. The educational opportunity our students need today must be more of a learning platform that assists them to learn how to think independently rather than simply perpetuate the factory learning model designed to transfer knowledge from the teacher or textbook to the student as if their minds are some sort of biological file cabinet. To do this, we must create powerful, internally motivating learning environments that harness the energy behind every learner’s innate human need to learn. This work must begin with a redefinition of our roles as teachers from being simply deliverers of content (sage on the stage) to seeing ourselves as learning environment leaders (guide on the side) who use the content to develop independent life-long learners. Put simply, quality learning environments must be refocused to help students learn how to think rather than learn what to know.

A Learning to Think classroom (or better seen as a learning team rather than as a classroom) must be focused on assisting all learners to learn to think by using the content as compared to learning to know the content. The content remains vitally important but for a very different reason than we previously thought. Think of the content as more of a learning topography that the learners immerse themselves into so as to learn to think and thereby be able to learn anything (beyond the content used) independently of the teacher. In other words, the content is a means to an end rather than the end itself. A Learning to Think classroom is: 1) Designed to consistently engage the learner in both real and meaningful learning endeavors that expect the learner to have cognition beyond the memorization level; 2) Allow learners to receive and add on to multiple flows of information within and around the learning targets/objectives; and 3) Be built upon a foundation of trust that everyone within the learning team (learner and leader) has an innate need to own their own learning.

In conclusion, as educators we need to have a shift in thinking around how we create learning environments for our students. Failing to do so is similar to trying to teach someone how to drive a car by only seeing the image from the “rear view mirror”. As leaders of learning environments, we ourselves must look through the “windshield” and into the future and recognize that all signs point to a rapidly changing body of knowledge that our students must face. In other words, our students must become independent learners (i.e. thinkers) for a lifetime rather than simply knowers of information. This outcome can only occur if we ourselves as educators examine and change as needed first so as to create quality learning environments that are built upon learning how to think. Then and only then will our students have a real opportunity for quality learning for the information age.

Mark Mansell, Ed.D.
LaCenter School District
(360) 263-2131

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's Happening with the Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot? Wenatchee School District's Experience

Wenatchee School District is one of eight school districts and one educational service district chosen to participate in the state Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP). We felt we were prepared for the task, since we had recently invested six years of work creating and implementing a new teacher evaluation system in our district. We believed the knowledge and work from that process would contribute greatly to the new state model. Also, we wanted to be part of the process, not just the recipient of a model handed to us.

The Law
In March of 2010, the Washington State legislature passed Engrossed Second Senate Bill 6696 (E2SSB 6696), a law requiring
  • The revision of the teacher and principal evaluation system.
  • A pilot project that would provide funding to selected districts that would then develop systems that would align to the new requirements.
  • All districts in the state of Washington are required to adopt evaluation systems that align to the new requirements by the 2013-14 school year.

The law requires pilot districts to create new teacher and principal evaluation models that must be aligned to eight new criteria using a four-tiered rubric. It requires the identification of, or development of, appropriate multiple measures of student growth. It also requires professional development programs and evaluator training for teachers and principals. The new tools must be piloted and evaluated during the 2011-12 school year. A state Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) Steering Committee was formed to manage the process.

The Process
In Wenatchee, we formed three committees: a Steering Committee made up of the superintendent, four administrators and three teachers; a Teacher Committee with five administrators and six teachers, and a Principal Committee with six administrators and five teachers.

Among committee goals were to
  • Develop evaluation tools that reflect current research and promote professional growth.
  • Review the current tools and retain those aspects that are effective and eliminate or revamp those aspects that are not.
  • Build off of previous work and experiences.
  • Effectively use multiple measures of student growth for building/instructional improvement.
  • Develop tools that are truly beneficial, not just the fulfillment of a requirement

We brought in Scott Poirier, formerly Assistant Superintendent for secondary education at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), currently the K-12 Education Coordinator for the Washington Education Association (WEA), to work with us on the creation of evaluation rubrics.

Then the committees rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The Teacher Committee began aligning existing district evaluation descriptors to the new criteria set forth by the state. They created new descriptors and identified evidence and measures for evaluating performance criteria and student growth.

The Principal Committee identified research-based characteristics of effective principal evaluation to create rubrics keeping with the characteristics and standards of effective leadership. They wrote the ‘gold standard’ for each criterion and aligned indicators to each gold standard, then differentiated the language for each of the four tiers.

Communication and transparency are an important part of the process. Face-to-face is always best, so we meet with building staffs for interactive dialogs. We also have a website rich in information, including budget (we were allotted $115,000 in grant funds to support our work.), goals, meeting minutes, committee members, links to state resources, and newsletters. We mail print newsletters and send eNewsletters to the community, and use email to communicate with all staff.

In January, the Steering Committee attended a TPEP-sponsored conference in Spokane, where we submitted the rubrics-in-process to national education expert, Charlotte Danielson. At this juncture the state TPEP steering committee recognized the importance of including instructional frameworks in conjunction with evaluation tools. Wenatchee has been working with Robert J. Marzano, PhD, a leading researcher in education, for our instructional framework. We began matching evaluation criterion to the Marzano framework. We also began work on determining a summative rating.

Currently we have posted our rubrics on our district Evaluation Pilot website and are preparing to submit our rubrics to the TPEP Steering Committee.

Lessons Learned So Far
One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that a collaborative working relationship is a must. We also realized that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so technical support from WEA and the OSPI has been extremely beneficial. The work of finding the ‘cut-line’ has been challenging. We learned that an instructional framework is critical for creating a teacher evaluation tool, and that implementation of the new model will change the way we look at professional development. Professional development will now align to the instructional framework, where in the past professional development focused more on content-specific instructional strategies.

Challenges ­– Now and in the Future
We’re squeezing a tremendous amount of work into a very short period of time. We have the challenge of changing our culture to provide accountability, while supporting and ensuring growth. Developing a method to use data in determining impact on student learning has been a challenge. Constructing a summative rating has been a challenge, but thanks to some great math minds on our committees, we’re feeling confident about our method.

What’s Next
  • We are developing a pilot year plan and beginning the process of selecting fifty teachers from a pool of teachers who apply to participate. All principals will be evaluated using the new rubric.
  • We are creating a Professional Development Plan for use of the new tools, including calibration training, and we are developing a plan for evaluating the new tools.
  • In June 2011, OSPI will collect and analyze materials from the pilot districts and make recommendations to the Legislature regarding the adoption of one or more of the systems for use by districts in the state. We will pilot the new evaluation system in 2011-2012. We’ll evaluate, modify, and pilot again in 2012-2013. The following school year, 2013-2014, we will launch the full implementation of the new evaluation system in all school districts in Washington State.

It’s a task whose time has come. Creating the best possible schools is the ultimate outcome of effective evaluation. Positively impacting teacher and principal quality and student learning is the gold standard we are striving to achieve.

Brian Flones, Superintendent
Wenatchee School District
(509) 663-8161

Wenatchee TPEP Team Interviews from WA TPEP on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is Quality Teaching?

Nearly every day I read something, observe a classroom, have a conversation, or spend time in reflection, which then causes to me to see the answer to the question: “What is quality teaching?” in yet a new way. My life as an educator began in 1962 when I started “Miss Becky’s School,” the summer after my freshman year in high school, which means I have been doing this for about fifty years. So, in this short article I can’t take you down the winding path that would explain how I have come to define quality teaching, but I would like to invite you into the thoughts that are rattling around in my head in the spring of 2011. I am now working with a high school as a school improvement consultant and thus have the opportunity to define, in practical terms, what quality teaching is and ways to bring about more of it.

There are two thinkers, Richard Elmore and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who are currently in my mind as I help this high school refine their focus on quality teaching and learning. I am fortunate to be working with building leaders (administration, instructional coach, and teacher leaders) who are willing to invest the time to observe, listen, talk and then act upon new and refined ideas about quality instruction.

First, we are spending time digging into Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning by Richard Elmore. Study the three figures below for a minute and think about their implications for improving instruction.

First, Elmore argues that to improve instruction one must focus on the “Instructional Core,”. However, one cannot just focus on an element of the core; all elements must be addressed. That is, one must simultaneously work to improve the teacher’s skills and knowledge, the students’ level of engagement and participation in learning, and the rigor of the content being taught.

Elmore also notes that in most attempts to improve instruction, we have not focused enough attention on the content or the role of students.

The way one evaluates whether there are improvements in the three elements of the “Instructional Core,” and student learning, is to analyze the task that students are actually doing.

Task predicts performance
What predicts performance is what student are actually doing...the instructional task is the actual work that students are asked to do during the process of instruction-no what teacher think they are asking student to do or what the official curriculum says that the students are asked to do..."
Susan Perkins Weston on the Prichard blog sums up what Elmore means by increasing the level of tasks kids do in classrooms,

An Elmore catch phrase is that "task predicts performance." I think I understand that. If you ask me to peel vegetables, that's only going to give me a small step toward becoming a competent cook. If you assign me to walk around the block daily; that will never get me into shape for a marathon. And, if you give me worksheets and drills and lists of facts to remember, that isn't going to equip me to analyze demanding texts, build strong arguments from credible evidence, or tackle serious math and science challenges effectively.
I have had many conversations with the school’s leadership team to get clear about these ideas and we have visited classrooms to test Elmore’s theory. Now, the leadership team has begun to think about how our reading and observations can be put into action in the next round of school improvement strategies.

The other thinker we are spending time with this spring is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi’s work addresses the emotional challenges caused by increasing the demands on both school personnel and students. The connections between Csikszentmihalyi and Richard Elmore are also very explicit. For years Elmore has argued that if we are going to ask teachers to dramatically increase student performance, we must provide significant professional development.

Since we are increasing the demands on teachers and students, we must also increase the skills of those asked to perform at higher levels. We need to provide the skills and knowledge training for both adults and kids and not just expect them to know how to reach higher levels of achievement. We want both our school personnel and students to be in the “flow channel” at the highest level. If we expect that, we need to be mindful of what happens if there is too much demand without increasing skills and also what happens if there is not enough demand.(We can see the area where flow occurs. Too much challenge or skill and we’d move out of flow. Too little and we wouldn’t care enough to keep going.)

This is merely a snap-shot of the deep work of Elmore and Csikszentmihalyi. I encourage you to read the original work and enter the conversations around this work that can be found on the internet.

Rebecca J. Downey, Technical Assistance Contractor
The Office of Superintendent of Instruction

The original texts:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Elmore, Richard. Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2009.

A start on the internet conversation:

Richard Elmore:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Monday, March 21, 2011

What is the Purpose for Grading?

Few issues have created more debate among educators, parents, and students than those associated with grading and reporting student learning. Despite the many debates and multitudes of studies, conversely, recommendations for best practice remain elusive. Although teachers generally try to develop grading policies that are honest and fair, strong evidence shows that their practices vary widely, even among those who teach at the same grade level within the same school.

Although educators would unquestionably prefer that motivation to learn be entirely intrinsic, grades and other reporting methods are important factors in determining how much effort students put forth. Studies show that most students view high grades as positive recognition of their success, and some work hard to avoid the consequences of low grades (Feldmesser 1971). At the same time, no studies support the use of low grades or marks as punishments. Instead of prompting greater effort, low grades more often cause students to withdraw from learning. To protect their self-images, many students view the low grade as irrelevant and meaningless. Other students may blame themselves for the low grade, but they may feel helpless to make any improvement. Sorrowfully, some teachers consider grades or reporting forms as their “weapon of last resort.” In their view, students who do not fulfill the teacher’s expectations must suffer the consequences of the greatest punishment a teacher can bestow: a failing grade. Such practices have no educational value and, in the long run, adversely affect students, teachers, and the relationship they share.

Measurement experts such as Peter Airasian explain that educators use grades primarily 1) for administrative purposes, 2) to give students feedback about their progress and achievement, 3) to provide guidance to students about future course work, 4) to provide guidance to teachers for instructional planning, and 5) to motivate students (Marzano, 2000). According to the research, each of the five purposes for grading has some support from educators. A useful question is which of the five purposes are the most important or, more generally stated, what is the relative importance of the five purposes? One of the more obvious purposes for grades is to provide feedback about student achievement. Studies have consistently shown support for this purpose. Both educators and non-educators perceived providing information about student achievement as the primary purpose of grading.

This is a very complex dilemma we face in education today. Many districts shy away from dealing with this issue because it is so complex. In Grandview School District, we have decided to embark on this topic. We have commitment from the school board, superintendent, and all administrators for job-embedded professional development, training teachers and administrators to understand and implement standards-based instruction and assessment. We have created a Standards-Based Reporting Committee with representation from all stakeholders, including parents, to develop a grading/reporting system based on a clear purpose for each reporting method. With parent representation in our committee work, they are able to communicate the system to other parents and the community. We have come up with a district purpose for grading in our district. This is “to communicate academic progress to students, parents, teachers, and others.”

Using Ken O’Connor’s ’15 Practices that Distort Achievement’ from A Repair Kit for Grading:Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, our district committee is now attempting to address our grading practices. Below are these 15 Practices:

  1. Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc) in grades; include only achievement.
  2. Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late; provide support for the learner.
  3. Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement.
  4. Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades; apply other consequences and reassess to determine actual level of achievement.
  5. Don’t consider attendance in grade determination; report absences separately.
  6. Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence.
  7. Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals.
  8. Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear performance standards; provide clear descriptions of achievement expectations.
  9. Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement compared to other students; compare each student’s performance to preset standards.
  10. Don’t rely on evidence from assessments that fail to meet standards of quality; rely only on quality assessments.
  11. Don’t rely only on the mean; consider other measures of central tendency and use professional judgment.
  12. Don’t include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment; use alternatives, such as reassessing to determine real achievement or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient Evidence.
  13. Don’t use information from formative assessments and practice to determine grades; use only summative evidence.
  14. Don’t summarize evidence accumulated over time when learning is developmental and will grow with time and repeated opportunities; in those instances, emphasize more recent achievement.
  15. Don’t leave students out of the grading process. Involve students; they can - and should- play key roles in assessment and grading that promote achievement.
I believe grading and reporting practices for any district should support the learning process and encourage student success; and grades need to communicate academic progress to students, parents, teachers, and others. What do you think is the most important purpose for grading?


Feldmesser, R. A. 1971. The positive functions of grades. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.

Marzano, Robert (2000).Transforming Classroom Grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

O’Connor, Ken (2010) A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, Second Edition, Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Jose Rivera, Principal
McClure Elementary School
Grandview School District
(509) 882-7100