How should we measure success in schools?

When I arrived at my current school as principal, one of the first ideas we implemented was a schoolwide writing assessment. At that time, writing was taught once a week as part of a life skill block. My thinking was, if we assess it more formally, then student writing will improve because teachers will see it as a priority and start to teach it more frequently.

And at first, the approach seemed to work. Shortly after announcing the schoolwide writing assessment, one teacher came up to me and asked, “So writing is a focus for the building now?” I was noncommittal in my response but I did not exactly correct her thinking.

The heightened sense of writing as a priority eventually gave way to reality. Specifically, while writing instruction was happening more frequently in classrooms due in part to dedicated professional development, the actual assessment results did not reveal a lot of helpful information. Our leadership spent a whole day in the fall and in the spring calibrating the rubric with samples, assessing writing pieces with partners, and then adding students’ scores to the spreadsheet. For all of this work, we couldn’t make heads or tails if students were collectively growing as writers.

This experience has led me to ask some hard questions. Why is it so hard to measure student success in complex tasks such as writing? Related, why are we as teachers often the only ones who should be making a determination of success? If students should be a part of the assessment process, can the task itself be used for more than just measurement, such as motivating students to learn? 

Defining Success

The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. So knowing what the aim is along with the purpose for our work seems important for students and teachers. Mindless assessment practices should be called into question, but not without a clear understanding of success in the broader sense of the word.

In their article “What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement“, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers address the general culture of organizations and our infatuation with numbers. They note a disconnect between what is being measured and what the goals are of the group, along with how people move the organization toward these goals. 

“The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of management. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for a stellar organization?”

For our challenge, it felt (to me at least) that we were scoring our students’ writing in order to have a valid and reliable way of measuring their abilities. The result was a collective effort that was misaligned with greater goals.

  • There was misalignment between who was scoring the writing and who wrote it. For me, there was little context as I read and responded to each piece. For example, were they excited about the topic? If not, why not? Could the kids also present their work for an authentic audience? I wanted to pull each student aside to ask him or her more questions about their process that led them to what they produced.
  • There was misalignment between what was being taught and what was being assessed. Just because we had a common rubric did not mean the success criteria were clear for everyone in the school. Part of this issue is with rubrics themselves; they are lengthy and often too generic to use as a teaching tool. 
  • There was misalignment between our school’s mission and vision and how we were trying to realize these big goals.We were using simple instruments to give us information about complex work. Yes, kids had to respond to a task that had the potential to encourage students to write. But writing is more than words on paper. There is research involved, peer feedback and revision, and time to simply think, activities not a part of a writing assessment. 

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers have also observed cognitive dissonance between the necessary actions people should take to realize an organization’s vision and how leaders choose to evaluate success due to a group’s actions.

“We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.”

Described in this way, assessment is framed as an essential part of the learning journey toward success. The qualities of a community of learners should be embedded in the mission and vision of a school. Pulling these qualities out so they are understandable by all requires a description of success along with more authentic approaches for developing assessments that allow students to make their learning and thinking visible to all.

Engaging in this work is not necessarily more difficult. As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note about organizations that make assessment work for them, “their process was creative, experimental, and the measures they developed were often non-traditional.” It may instead require a shift in how we view success for all students, especially from their points of view. Maybe the word “measure” is itself too basic a label for what we are trying to really do: help students see themselves as genuinely successful and know how they arrived at this point. 

Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

Assessing and Celebrating School Culture #WSRA19

Below is a short article from my staff newsletter I wrote yesterday. We are the midway point of the school year, and I wanted to highlight our successes as a school culture by documenting evidence of our work in writing. I’ll be speaking more about this topic at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week in Milwaukee. If you are also attending, I hope we are able to connect! -Matt

I’ve asked a few staff members for feedback about my plan for publishing To the Point every other week. My theory on this is that our communication as a staff, both formal and informal, is strong. Information shared seems to be frequent and accurate. That is a major reason for my staff newsletters which also helps with not having more than one short staff meeting a month.

This thinking became apparent as I have prepared for a session I am leading at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week: “How to Build a Literacy Culture”. As I go through artifacts of our success and growth to present to others, I could confirm many indicators of a healthy and thriving school culture beyond only communication (these characteristics come from Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman). 

  • Trusting – We focus on our strengths first and follow through on our tasks before facilitating feedback about areas for growth.
  • Collaborative – Our different school teams work together to guide the school toward goals; instructional coaching is common.
  • Intellectual – We have thirteen shared beliefs about the reading-writing connection and reading to understand.
  • Responsible – The goals for the school are limited, focused, student-driven and clear, i.e. “A Community of Readers”. 
  • Equitable – We have high expectations for our students and provide additional support when necessary.
  • Joyful – Celebration and appreciation are interwoven in our interactions with each other and with the community.

It’s an honor to be able to highlight our collective work for others and share our journey toward success. Sustaining a school culture is an ongoing process that is far from perfect and is sometimes challenging. Yet the results we see with our students makes all the difference.

Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Time to Think

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

My wife and I are still at the stage in our lives where, if one of our kids is sick, one of us is staying home. Today was my turn. I planned to be back at school tomorrow, assuming my son only had a virus and not strep throat.

There always seems to be a twinge of guilt educators feel in these circumstances. It’s not like the work goes away. The students show up regardless of our situation. Will the guest teacher deliver the lessons like we prefer? or Who will step in if a student is struggling behaviorally? are typical questions that arise.

Once we get over this guilt, I start to see these occasions not as time off but more as time away. A change when time allows to reflect on my experiences and to let the mind wander a bit. Maybe an opportunity to read and learn from others online. More so, being at home or away from school gives me the mental space to look at my practice from a distance and be a little more objective about it (in between medical visits and meeting my child’s needs, of course).

When I come back to school after a short break, I often feel a sense of renewal. Sure, there are the tasks left on my desk or in my email that only I could take care of. But the larger projects are ongoing, progressing day-by-day in the classrooms.

Margaret Wheatley, writer and leadership consultant, offers answers to why our perspective and appreciation for our work improves after time away. In a 2001 article titled “Can We Reclaim Time to Think?“, she describes the current professional situation as it is today for many leaders.

In this turbo speed culture, we’ve begun to equate productivity with speed. If it can be done faster, we assume it’s more productive.

This calls to mind current discussions about assessments we might decide to administer for literacy. Conversations are often focused on attributes such as “time”, “reliability”, and “proficiency”. These attributes translate to alternative terms: speed, consistency, and being right. Now when you read these terms, does this call to mind engaging and effective literacy instruction?

Not for me. As I read Wheatley’s article today, I recalled a few memorable reading and writing experiences from my K-12 educational career.

  • Our elementary school librarian reading aloud George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, and the anticipation that built as George dumped one toxic ingredient after another into a mixture that would eventually be administered to his abusive grandmother.
  • A high school English teacher engaging us in a shared read aloud of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, rereading a passage of dialogue while explaining how what the main characters were saying revealed their personalities and potential future actions.

What these examples reveal is two teachers’ willingness to take the time to expose their students to authentic literature, not with the intent of scoring well on a test but to become immersed in the story itself. We read and “take up residence” in these stories, as far-fetched as some might be. To be able to empathize with a character and their situation requires the time to think about the story, sometimes after we have read a passage or even the entire book.

Wheatley offers a rationale for building in these opportunities to think about our experiences, fictional and real.

Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others.

Reading what Wheatley shares, how does this philosophy comport with the current world of teaching and learning? For many of us: poorly. We are driven to meet standards and make sure students are “college and career” ready. Time spent thinking and reflecting does not involve any type of visible action, and therefore leads people to assume that learning is not happening. Our respective missions and visions describe the ideal, and yet our practices more likely than not represent our reality.

Too often, the largest obstacles in our way are the professionals we consider colleagues. The more traditional mindset tries to pull down our ambitions of academic innovation and student independence. Moving toward more promising practices calls attention not only to our growth but also to the lagging skills in which our more satisfied colleagues might be so desperate to hide.

Again, Wheatley recognizes the challenge of carving out time for ourselves to reflect and renew in a larger educational culture that has a default of busy.

Don’t expect anybody to give you this time. You will have to claim it for yourself. No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something.


My son’s strep test came back: negative. “Do I have to go back to school?” The physician smiled, silently deferring to me. My first thought was: Is he trying to avoid school? And then I paused and asked myself, Is he looking for time to think? Maybe, maybe not. But I can empathize with him, trying to navigate his own educational world that rarely offers the opportunity to step back and appreciate our experiences.

Literacy Leadership: Expecting (and Embracing) Conflict

Our school is currently examining our beliefs about reading instruction. Faculty members respond with either “agree” or “disagree” to over twenty related statements. Examples include: “Leveling books in the classroom library is a good idea,” and “Students need to do lots of independent reading of self-selected texts.”  (These statements come from Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success.)

So far, half the teachers have taken the beliefs survey. Out of the over twenty statements, we are completely in agreement on five statements. My prediction is this number will be reduced after everyone has taken the survey.

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This is not a bad thing.

I’ve come to learn professional conflict can be a source of professional learning. I’m not referring to in-fighting over petty reasons. Instead, I refer to the deeper philosophical debates that should be occurring but are often pushed aside for fear of having a hard yet necessary conversation.

Conflict in the context of our instructional beliefs is the misalignment between our current values and practices and our colleagues. This awareness of our current situation is a good thing. Now we have information to act upon, as long as we accept our current reality. To address this misalignment, we need to start engaging in professional conversations around these important topics in safe and productive ways

Take the topic of reading levels, depicted in the previous image. It’s a constant source of disagreement in elementary schools. You see we are pretty divided already on this issue. The first question I might ask to start a conversation around reading levels is, “Why do you think the results are the way they are?” By asking wondering questions, we open up the floor to different possibilities. I am not taking sides on levels. I am curious.

Now imagine what the responses might be.

  • From a teacher who supports levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they can point to the fact that younger readers make so much growth in a short amount of time that teachers need a reliable evaluation tool to inform instruction. Likewise, if students are not making growth at the primary level, we need to be responsive and implement a reading intervention to address any deficits.
  • From a teacher who does not support levels as a way to assess student reading progress, they might point to past experiences in which students were treated as a level, such as organizing the classroom library only within a leveling system. Or, they feel that levels for older students are not as helpful as conferring notes, student self-assessments, and performance tasks such as book trailers.

Who is right, and who is wrong? I believe both perspectives make a strong case. This leads to a potential second question that guides a discussion to consider a third option. As an example, “What if designated reading levels were only helpful at certain grade levels?”, or “Might there be a better way to phrase this statement to both recognize the benefits of this approach and point out its limits?” This line of inquiry may lead to a revision of the statement, such as:

Designated levels can be an accurate way to assess student reading progress at the primary level and inform authentic instruction.

If a faculty can agree on this revision, then we can own it. (By the way, a professional conversation like this can happen during a staff meeting or professional learning communities.) If the revision is not acceptable to all, it can be brought back to an instructional leadership team for further revision.

The benefits of embracing conflict within structured professional dialogue are many. First, we air out our issues in a safe and productive way. Second, we start to develop a common language. For example, maybe some staff members are unfamiliar with benchmark books as an assessment tool. Teachers with this knowledge can explain this concept; unhealthy conflict is often the product of lack of communication and making false assumptions. Third, when we agree upon a belief then we own it. There’s no opting out in the building. The faculty is free to call out each other when these beliefs are not translated to practice. But this doesn’t happen often because we own the belief. Teachers are more empowered to act on it and seek out support if needed. Finally, a school leader has modeled what it means to have a professional conversation that is productive and doesn’t end in hurt feelings.

What are your thoughts on the role of conflict in leading a literacy initiative and/or a school in general? Please share in the comments.

Data-Driven Decision Making: Who’s the decider?

After I shared out my previous post, describing my confusion about making sense of certain types of data, the International Literacy Association (ILA) replied with a link to a recent report on this topic:

It’s a short whitepaper/brief titled “Beyond the Numbers: Using Data for Instructional Decision Making”. The principal authors, Vicki Park and Amanda Datnow, make a not-so-provocative claim that may still cause consternation in education:

Rather than data driving the decision-making, student learning goals should drive what data are collected and how they are used.

The reason this philosophy might cause unrest with educators is that data-driven decision making is still a mainstay in schools. Response to Intervention is dependent on quantitative-based progress monitoring. School leaders too often discount the anecdotal notes and other qualitative information collected by teachers. Sometimes the term “data-informed” replaces “data-driven”, but the approach largely remains aligned with the latter terminology and practice.

Our school is like many others. We get together three times a year, usually after screeners are administered. We create spreadsheets and make informed decisions on behalf of our students. Yet students nor their parents are involved in the process. Can we truly be informed if we are not also including the kids themselves in some way?

To be fair to ourselves and to other schools, making decisions regarding which students need more support or how teachers will adjust their instruction is relatively new to education. As well, our assessments are not as clean as, say, a blood test you might take at the doctor’s office. Data-driven decision making is hard enough for professional educators. There are concerns that bringing in students and their families might only contribute to the confusion through the fault of no one.

And yet there are teachers out there who are doing just this: positioning students as the lead assessors and decision-makers in their educational journey. For example, Samantha Mosher, a secondary special education teacher, guides her students to develop their own IEP goals as well as how to use various tools to monitor their own progress. The ownership for the work rests largely on the students’ shoulders. Samantha provides the modeling, support, and supervision to ensure each student’s goals and plan are appropriate.

An outcome in releasing the responsibility of making data-informed decisions to students is that Samantha has become more of a learner. As she notes in her blog post:

I was surprised that many students didn’t understand why they got specific accommodations. I expected to have to explain what was possible, but didn’t realized I would have to explain what their accommodations meant.

“Yes, but older students are able to set their own goals and monitor their own progress. My kids are not mature enough yet to manage that responsibility.” I hear you, and I am going to disagree. I can say that because I have seen younger students do this work firsthand. It’s not a completely independent process, but the data-informed decision making is at least co-led by the students.

In my first book on digital portfolios, I profiled the speech and language teacher at my last school, Genesis Cratsenberg. She used Evernote to capture her students reading aloud weekly progress notes to their parents. She would send the text of their reflections along with the audio home via email. Parents and students could hear first hand the growth they were making over time in the authentic context of a personalized student newsletter. It probably won’t surprise you that once Genesis started this practice, students on her caseload exited out of her program at a faster rate. (To read an excerpt from my book describing Genesis’s work, click here.)

I hope this post comes across as food for thought and not finger-wagging. Additionally, I don’t believe we should stop with our current approaches to data analysis. Our hands are sometimes tied when it comes to state and federal rules regarding RtI and special education qualification. At the same time, we are free to expand our understanding and our beliefs about what counts as data and who should be at the table when making these types of decisions.