If Not Common Core, What About Benchmarks of Quality?

In Wisconsin, we narrowly avoided dumping the Common Core State Standards. Many states are seeing the same political battle over CCSS, for a variety of reasons. I myself am not opposed to them, and see the benefits in having specific grade level expectations in literacy and numeracy.


photo credit: William M Ferriter via photopin cc

But what if they do go away? It is not out of the question. The arguments against these standards, such as how they might lead to a lack of autonomy in schools, are legitimate. If repealing the CCSS were to occur, I suggest Benchmarks of Quality.

Any school that is implementing Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) is probably familiar with Benchmarks of Quality. Also known as BoQs, it is an evaluation tool “to provide a way to assess and identify areas of strength and need for establishing future action plans for sustained implementation” (MiBLSi, retrieved here). There is generally around 50 or so statements that a leadership team would review, such as “Problem behaviors are identified” and “Team has a clear mission/purpose”. A participating school is evaluated against each statement, and rated as “In place”, “Needs improvement”, or “Not in place”.

Our school just went through this process today. Peg, our PBIS consultant, walked through the building for 2-3 hours this morning. She asked many questions of the students, staff, and me. “What are your schoolwide expectations?”, “Who is your PBIS team leader?”, and “How often do you meet as a leadership team?” were some of the inquiries. We were high in several areas. In the few we weren’t, constructive and specific feedback was provided on how to improve. Using a simple formula, the BoQ assessment will tell us how well we have implemented the critical elements of this initiative.

The process does not single out any one person, either teacher or student. Any individual issues are expected to be handled by leadership at the site level. System assessment tools such as Benchmarks of Quality focus on the building as a whole. They put “positive pressure” on learning organizations, a term shared by Michael Fullan in his book The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact (Wiley, 2014). This is different than the current academic assessment system many of us experience, which has a much larger focus on individual and small group results. Tying a teacher’s evaluation to the performance of any one individual, using a crude instrument such as a standardized assessment, fails to take into account all the outside factors that may impact a student’s performance. We end up with a deficit model and unhealthy competition.

Standards of some form, and hopefully Common Core, should still be in place for schools. Schools need to have something to strive for as learners. But that doesn’t mean it should also dictate how we teach, which can occur if the mandated assessments use these results for school performance ratings and teacher evaluations. Benchmarks of Quality would put positive pressure on schools and districts to come together on behalf of not only their students but best practice, too.

Nothing Wrong with a Little Rejection

I have to admit, things have been going well lately. My 5th installment on passion-based learning, posted on Powerful Learning Practice’s blog was selected for a March’s Editors Choice Content Award by SmartBrief. The manuscript for my first book, Digital Student Portfolios, looks more like a real book every day. The weather in Wisconsin allowed the students to wear T-shirts during recess today. Like I said, very little to complain about.


photo credit: Daniel Kulinski via photopin cc

These precipitating events helped ease the rejection of my article for the summer edition of Educational Leadership. Tentatively titled “Digital Book Clubs”, I wrote a narrative piece about how the students, staff, and parents in our school have all participated in accessing online resources as we engage in reading. I had a few people read it ahead of time; they thought it was a worthy submission.

What also helped in dealing with the fact that my article wasn’t good enough to make the cut was the feedback provided by ASCD. “I’m sorry to report that yours is one of the very good manuscripts we cannot publish. Because you have put so much work into this piece, I hope you will submit it elsewhere. Our editors gave it high ratings.” Although not specific to my article in general, the effort was appreciated.

This rejection is not my first nor my last. I am sure I will submit something in the future to Educational Leadership. What I can hang my hat on is that I was a learner of my own practice through the act of writing. What I learned during this process was invaluable, from drafting the initial piece, to revising and editing it to make it submission-ready, to subsequent revisions to improve upon it even more. As I came back to the text, each time I found an idea that led me back to why we tried these practices in the first place.

The difference in the spelling of “rejection” and “reflection” is only two letters. Maybe this is not a coincidence.

What I Learned While I Was Off Twitter This Past Week

I took another tech sabbatical during spring break (April 14-19). It didn’t mean I was totally removed from the digital world – only Twitter, my blog, and a few other feeds that could distract me from being present at home.

Here are a few reflections from my short break:

  • Learning can happen anytime. The distance I sought from my digital connections did not mean that I wasn’t learning. My mind came back to prior ideas, while I was at mass, raking leaves, and reading the news. In fact, having that extra time to process what I was pondering allowed me to more deeply reflect on these ideas and connect them elsewhere.
  • We don’t need technology to be distracted. One of my goals over break was to put together my manuscript for my first book. As I reverse outlined chapters in my notebook, my son would ask me questions about random stuff, such as how to play the guitar. I was so deep in thought during this task, that I sometimes did not hear his questions the first or second time. Being present is about what our minds are on, and not necessarily what are fingers are on.
  • Nylon guitar strings don’t sound as good as steel. I had my old guitar restrung for my son. We tried to play a few chords on it, but they all sounded the same. However, we did find a couple of cool apps on the iPad for tuning the guitar and taking lessons.
  • Ketchup + Horseradish = Shrimp Cocktail Sauce. Okay, not earth-shattering. The butcher at our local grocery store informed me of this fact, after noticing my prepackaged shrimp plate in my cart. Based on his information, I purchased fresh shrimp from him instead. Would the butcher have been as inclined to give me this advice, had I been checking my phone while shopping? Possibly not.
  • Prepare for the Unexpected. I had fully intended to put in a new raised garden bed in our yard. Instead, Central Wisconsin got this:



  • I like being connected. Although it gets easier every time I take a break from my digital connections, I did miss the interactions with my personal learning network. At the same time, taking a break helped me better appreciate everyone on the other end once I returned.


My Not-to-Do List for Spring Break


My Not-to-Do List for Spring Break

Spring break is here. I have a lot of items on my to-do list this coming week: Set up a new raised garden bed with my family; Clean up my existing garden beds (see photo); Finish the Silo series by Hugh Howey; Put together my manuscript for my first book; Paint my son’s bedroom; Get that outlet fixed in our main bathroom.

When taking some time for ourselves, I also think it is important that we create a not-to-do list. It is so tempting to stay plugged into our digital feeds. We might miss something! But when do we give ourselves time to consider what we have learned? In my experience, my time away from my connections has allowed me to reflect on what I discovered and consider how it applies within my context. I don’t think we take enough time to think deeply about those few essential ideas that can blossom into something bigger, if we only give them time to grow.

So here is my not-to-do list: For one week, I am taking a tech sabbatical from Twitter, my blog, and other social media that keep me loosely attached to school. Otherwise it might be like I never left. I will be a better principal, friend, husband, and father because of it. When circumstances allow, consider a tech sabbatical for yourself.

Using Evernote for Literacy Instruction

This screencast was created to present four ideas for how teachers and students can use Evernote during the K-5 literacy block. The content shared here started our staff’s fourth and final tech night of the year.

While this quick tutorial was nice for considering what’s possible, we really appreciated our Skype guest Cathy Mere (@cathymere), author of More Than Guided Reading (Stenhouse, 2005). She took a lot of time answering our questions about technology in the elementary classrooms, such as “How do get your 1st graders to become so independent with the iPads?” (The answer: Shared demonstration)



While I can talk about technology use in the classroom, Cathy and my teachers are doing it, every day. That the work they do is grounded in strong literacy instruction makes all the difference. Their approach in considering how digital tools can best support and augment student learning is the right approach.

Assessment Practices

One of my favorite roles as a principal is serving as a mentor/guide for aspiring administrators. Recently, one teacher posed the following questions to me as part of her coursework requirements. These inquiries are based on the work by Rick Stiggins. Please share in the comments how you might have responded, or what you think about my answers.

How are assessment practices developed in your current position?

As a principal, I mostly focus on developing assessment literacy with my staff. I try to address anticipated questions, such as, “What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?”, “Can we use these standardized test scores in a positive way?”, and “How can we make instructional decisions based on the student data we have?” If the teachers can answer these questions, then I have done my job, because they are the ones that can actually have an impact on student learning by using assessment data.

How are you using daily assessment data?

In my position, I use assessment data to look at schoolwide trends. For example, how many office discipline referrals are we averaging per day? How does this compare to last year? Last month? I then look for spikes in areas and times that need more attention, such as lunch recess for 4th grade. This helps me make informed decisions, such as providing more supervision during this time, or talking with those students who are being referred. I wish we had a system and software as powerful as PBIS and SWIS for our academics. Hopefully as we continue to learn about RtI, we will be able to respond just as quickly to students’ curricular learning needs.

What kind of assessment model are you following?  (ex. Stiggins model)

I subscribe to the Optimal Learning Model, developed by Regie Routman. It is based on the Gradual Release of Responsibility, from Pearson & Gallagher (1983). What I like about this framework is it doesn’t separate assessment and instruction. It is intertwined and interdependent of one another. We are good teachers because use ongoing assessments to inform our instruction. This leads to better teaching and a stronger impact on student learning. Maybe the OLM is not an assessment model, but too many people push assessment as a stand alone in classroom instruction.

If you are following a model- is it to your liking? are you interested in other kinds of assessment models available?

I am not sure how to respond to the first question. I am interested in the concept of triangulation, where professionals use multiple forms of different assessments, such as summative, benchmark, and formative, to make instructional decisions. I was introduced to this concept from the book Assessment in Perspective by Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan (Stenhouse, 2013). As for formative assessment models, I highly recommend the resource Embedding Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam (Solution Tree, 2012). He nicely breaks down the five types of formative assessments. Very applicable to all educators.

If you aren’t or are looking for other models, does the Stiggins model appeal to you?

What I like best about Stiggins work is his focus on including students in the assessment process. It is unfortunately very rare that we ask students, “What did you think about your work?”, “Why do you think that?”, and “What would you do differently next time?”. At Howe, we are taking our first steps in this process, through digital student portfolios, and through posting our writing with student reflections on a mastery wall. Stiggins’s focus on including students as part of the assessment process is so important.

Would you consider using it as an outline for your assessments?

Unfortunately, I am not real familiar with his outline. I would have to research it some more. What I would be wondering as I read his work is:

  • How is assessment integrated within instruction and support good teaching on a daily basis?

  • Is this framework reliable? That is, has Stiggins described or experienced good assessment practices within the context of the classroom?