Examining Our Beliefs About Literacy: Small Steps, Big Wins

During our school’s last professional learning community (PLC) experience, the entire faculty came together to examine our beliefs about literacy. Beliefs about teaching and learning are formed over time, through prior education, collaboration with colleagues, and classroom experience. Through structured conversations in vertical teams and watching professionals in the classroom via video, we found three areas in which we can all agree upon as best practice in literacy:

A child’s written story can be used to teach phonics and skills.

You can assess a child’s phonemic awareness by examining his/her journal writing.

Shared writing is an excellent way to record common experiences and connect to reading.

This may not seem like a big deal, at least at first glance. For example, shared writing, an instructional strategy in which a teacher leads their class to develop a story or report together, makes sense for teaching phonics and grammar in context. Using personal writing as a text for independent reading is authentic, and it honors students as authors. Yet this might seem counter to some of the instruction that pervades schools. Many of our programs and kits silo the various parts of language arts in an effort to ensure standards are being met. 

We sometimes wrap our practices around resources, both digital and print, without first examining our beliefs. As we use these resources “with fidelity”, our beliefs are formed by our practices, which were informed by the resources. (See Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success by Regie Routman for more information.) Our identities as educators are intertwined with our work, which is made public daily in our classrooms. This is what makes it so difficult to change. It is also a reason why companies continue to produce resources that often promote antiquated practices. The bottom line is sales. We buy the resources because we know them. It helps to remember that these companies are not educational organizations; they are businesses. 

The hardest part about change is not the lack of knowing what to do. We have multiple sets of data to support the need for building our collective knowledge regarding how reading supports writing and vice-versa. No one disagrees that this is an area where our school can improve as a faculty. We are not doing poorly; we simply know we can improve. The hardest part about change is in revisiting current beliefs about literacy and adopting new ones as a faculty.

Our school will continue this work in building our collective professional knowledge about effective literacy instruction. The three beliefs we unanimously agreed upon are a big step in the right direction. We will revisit them at this time next year. It should not be understated that we were able to come together as a team and find consensus on key issues in literacy instruction. These beliefs are now expected to be evident in our teaching and learning, regardless of what a program or resource might expect. I am looking forward to observing how our new beliefs will inform our future practices. 

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Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

Learning Management Systems: Who are they for?

A learning management system, or “LMS” is defined as “a digital learning system” that “manages all of the aspects of the learning process” (Amit K, 2015). A teacher can use an LMS for a variety of classroom functions, including communicating the learning objectives, organizing the learning timelines, telling the learners exactly what they need to learn and when, delivering the content straight to the learners, streamlining communications between instructor(s) and learners, and providing ongoing resources.

An LMS can also help the learner track their own progress, identifying what they have learned already and what they need to learn (Amit K). There are many options for learners to share their representations of their understandings within an LMS, including video, audio, images and text. In addition, discussion boards and assessment tools are available for teachers and students in most systems.

This definition and description of your typical LMS leads to an important question: Who is the learning management system for?

If an LMS is for the teacher, then I think they will find the previously listed features to be of great benefit to their practice. As an example, no longer do they have to collect papers, lug them home and grade them by hand. Now, students can submit their work electronically through the LMS. The teacher can assess learning online. The excuse “My dog ate my homework” ceases to exist. Google Classroom, Schoology and Edmodo fall into this category.

Also, teachers can use the LMS tools to create quizzes that could serve as a formative assessment of the lesson presented that day. Data is immediately available regarding who understands the content and who needs further support. This quick turnaround can help a teacher be more responsive to student’s academic needs. There are obvious benefits for a teacher who elects to use an LMS for these reasons.

If, on the other hand, an LMS is for the students, then we have a bit more work to do. With a teacher-centric LMS, not much really changes regarding how a classroom operates. The teacher assigns content and activities, the students complete it, and the teacher assesses. The adage “old wine in new bottles” might apply here.

With students in mind when integrating an LMS in school, the whole idea of instruction has to shift. We are now exploring concepts such as personalized learning, which “puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace” (Singer, 2016), and connected learning, which ties together students’ interests, peer networks and school accomplishments (Ito et al, 2013). In this scenario, it is not the students who need to make a shift but the teachers. Examples of more student-centered LMSs include Epiphany Learning and Project Foundry.

The role that teachers have traditionally filled looks very different than what a more student-centered, digitally-enhanced learning environment might resemble. I don’t believe either focus – the teacher or the student – is an ineffective approach for using a learning management system. The benefits in each scenario are promising. Yet we know that the more students can have ownership over the learning experience, there is an increased likelihood of greater achievement gains and higher engagement in school.

References

Amit K, S. (2016). Choosing the Right Learning Management System: Factors and Elements. eLearning Industry. Available: https://elearningindustry.com/choosing-right- learning-management- system-factors-elements

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Media and Learning Research Hub. Whitepaper, available: http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning- agenda-for- research-and-design/

Singer, N., Isaac, M. (2016). Facebook Helps Develop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans. The New York Times. Available: http://nyti.ms/2b3LNzv

Data-Driven or Data-Informed? Thoughts on trust and evaluation in education

Data-informed or data-driven? This is a question I have wrestled with as a school administrator for some time. What I have found is that the usefulness of student data to inform instruction and accountability rests on the level of trust that exists within the school walls.

First there is trust in the data itself. Are the results of these assessment tools reliable (consistency of results administered over time and students) and valid (accuracy in the results of the assessments to measure student learning)? These are good initial inquiries, but should only be a starting point.

Security of student information should also be a priority when electing to house student data with third parties. One question I have started asking vendors that develop modern assessment tools include “Where do you house our student data?”, “What do you do with this data beyond allowing us to organize and analyze it?”, and “Who owns the student data?”. In a commentary for The New York Times, Julia Angwin highlights situations in which the algorithms used to make “data-driven decisions” regarding probability of recidivism in the criminal justice system were too often biased in their results (2016). Could a similar situation happen in education? Relying merely on the output that a computer program produces leads one to question the validity and reliability of this type of data-driven decision making.

A second issue regarding trust in schools related to data is how student learning results are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers and principals. All educators are rightfully skeptical when accountability systems ask for student learning results to be counted toward their performance ratings and, in some cases, level of pay and future employment with an organization.

This is not to suggest that student assessment data should be off the table when conversations occur regarding the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her impact on their students’ learning. The challenge, though, is ensuring that there is a clear correlation between the teacher’s actions and student learning. One model for data-driven decision making “provides a social and technical system to helps schools link summative achievement test data with the kinds of formative data that helps teachers improve student learning across schools” (Halverson et al, 162). Using a systematic approach like this, in which educators are expected to work together using multiple assessments to make instructional decisions, can simultaneously hold educators collectively accountable while ensuring that students are receiving better teaching.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many schools. Administrators too often adhere to the “data-driven” mentality with a literal and absolute mindset. Specifically, if something cannot be quantified, such as teacher observations and noncognitive information, school leaders may dismiss these results as less valuable than what a more quantitative tool might offer. Professional trust can tank in these situations.

That is why it is critical that professional development plans provide educators with training to build assessment literacy with every teacher. A faculty should be well versed in the differences between formative and summative assessments, informal and formal measurements, deciding which data points are more reliable than others, and how to triangulate data in order to analyze results and make a more informed decision regarding student learning.

Since analytics requires data analysis, institutions will need to invest in effective training to produce skilled analytics staff. Obtaining or developing skilled staff may present the largest barrier and the greatest cost to any academic analytics initiative (Baer & Campbell, 2012).

Building this assessment literacy can result in a level of trust in oneself as a professional to make informed instructional decisions on behalf of kids. If a faculty can ensure that the data they are using is a) valid and reliable, b) used to improve student learning and instructional practice, and c) considers multiple forms of data used wisely, then I am all for data-driven decision making as a model for school improvement. Trust will rise and student achievement may follow. If not, an unfortunate outcome might be the data cart coming before the pedagogical horse.

References

Angwin, J. (2016). Make Algorithms Accountable. The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/make-algorithms-accountable.html?_r=0

Baer, L.L. & Campbell, J. (2012). From Metrics to Analytics, Reporting to Action: Analytics’ Role in Changing the Learning Environment. Educause. Available: https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub72034.pdf

Halverson, R., Gregg, J., Prichett, R., & Thomas, C. (2007). The New Instructional Leadership: Creating Data-Driven Instructional Systems in Schools. Journal of School Leadership. Volume 17, pgs 159-194.

This is a reation paper I wrote for a graduate course I am currently taking (Technology and School Leadership). Feel free to respond in the comments to extend this thinking.

Yes, School Funding Does Matter

The tweet gave me pause when I first read the headline:

I followed this link retweeted by Frederick Hess, contributor to Education Week, to a US News & World Report opinion piece titled More Money, Same Problems. It was written by Gerard Robinson (the source of the tweet) and Benjamin Scafidi. Robinson is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank” (Source: Wikipedia). Scafidi is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University.

The authors acknowledge that “public education is important to the economic and social well-being of our nation”. They go on to point out that there are some students who are successful in public education and far too many who are not. You have no argument from me. Robinson and Scafidi also concede that an adequate level of “resources matter to education”.

Their commentary then gets into the the problems that they believe plague public education:

– While student school enrollment increased 96% since 1950, public school staffing increased 386%.
– Since 1992, public school national math scores have shown little growth (click to their source).
– Today’s graduation rates are only slightly above what they were in 1970.

Robinson and Scafidi follow up with their ideas for improving student outcomes in public education:

– Better involvement from parents
– State control of failing public schools
– Charter schools (a result of state takeovers)

While I appreciate their passion for providing a better experience for students who do not have access to a high quality public education, I take issue with their ideas for improvement.

First, parent involvement. While it can have an impact on student learning when the involvement is positive, it is often not something we as public educators can control in our settings. My experience tells me that the best public schools focus the majority of their efforts and resources on the limited time that they actually have with students. Dr. John Hattie’s research on what works regarding instruction places family involvement on the lower end of the effective educational approach spectrum. It can be effective, but there is a ceiling.

So what’s on the higher end of the spectrum? Everything that Robinson and Scafidi failed to mention, including:

– Formative assessment
– Feedback strategies
– Self-assessment
– Vocabulary instruction
– Classroom discussion
– Response to Intervention

In fact, one of the least effective practices for improving student learning outcomes are…charter schools. According to Hattie, charter schools have around the same effect size as ensuring students had appropriate amounts of sleep and altering classroom/school schedules. My time is important, so I will let charter school and school choice proponents wrestle with these findings.

What I do want to point out is that the most effective instructional strategies require generous amounts of school funding. Here’s why: Teaching is one of the most challenging professions. To do it well, educators need consistent and effective training in the areas of curriculum, assessment and instructional strategies. This requires funding and support for job-embedded professional development. Dollars should be allocated for training, time, resources, and opportunities to apply these new skills in a low risk/high success environment. If this sounds like a lot of money for this type of work, please remember that teaching is a profession. I am sure you would agree that our students are worth it.

Citing graduation rates and flatlining test scores might serve to perpetuate the opinion that public education is broken. However, this argument is a generalization of our system as a whole. Yes, there are ineffective schools and there are effective schools. No one would dispute this. Yet each school is an individual learning community. They each have specific strengths and needs, and should be assessed with valid and reliable measures. To paint a broad stroke over public education with data that is questionable at best (see here and here) is a disservice to the hard work and dedication that all public educators put in every day on behalf of our students.

I won’t argue that public education needs to improve. We do. It is the work that we should be engaging in every day. The least that people outside public education can do is to ensure that they consider multiple perspectives on a position they support and provide valid and reliable evidence to back it up.

Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.

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For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias). 

 

Three Recommended Technologies for Digital Student Portfolios

Right now I am closing in on finishing Chapter 4 of my upcoming ASCD book Digital Student Portfolios: A Guide for Powerful Formative Assessment (working title).

The first three chapters offer a definition of digital portfolios and why they should be utilized in every school. Now I am at the fun part: Describing the technologies that can be used for this type of initiative.

Next is a graphic I have “rendered” that summarizes the pros and cons of each of the three recommended technologies for digital portfolios: blogs, dedicated portfolio applications, and websites. It’s a draft. What are your thoughts on this topic? What am I missing or possibly misinformed in my knowledge about these tools? Please share in the comments.

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