How we stopped using Accelerated Reader

This post describes how our school stopped using Accelerated Reader. This was not something planned; it seemed to happen naturally through our change process, like an animal shedding its skin. The purpose of this post is not to decry Accelerated Reader, although I do know this reading assessment/incentive program is not viewed favorably in some education circles. We ceased using a few other technologies as well, each for different reasons. The following timeline provides a basic outline of our process that led to this outcome.

  1. We developed collective commitments.

The idea of collective commitments comes from the Professional Learning Community literature, specifically Learning by Doing, 3rd edition. Collective commitments are similar to norms you might find on a team. The difference is collective commitments are focused on student learning. We commit to certain statements about our work on behalf of kids. They serve as concrete guidelines, manifested from our school’s mission and vision, as well as from current thinking we find effective for education.

We first started by reading one of four articles relevant to our work. The staff could choose which one to read. After discussing the contents of the articles in small group and then in whole group, we started crafting the statements. This was a smaller team of self-selected faculty. Staff who did not participate knew they may have to live with the outcomes of this work. Through lots of conversation and wordsmithing, we landed on seven statements that we all felt were important to our future work.

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At the next staff meeting, we shared these commitments, answered any questions about their meaning and intent, and then held an anonymous vote via Google Forms. We weren’t looking for unanimity but consensus. In other words, what does the will of the group say? Although there were a few faculty members that could not find a statement or two to be agreeable, the vast majority of teachers were on board. I shared the results while explaining that these statements were what we all will commit to, regardless of how we might feel about them.

  1. We identified a schoolwide literacy focus.

Using multiple assessments in the fall (STAR, Fountas & Pinnell), we found that our students needed more support in reading, specifically fluency. This meant that students needed to be reading and writing a lot more than they were, and to do so independently. Our instructional leadership team, which is a decision-making body and whose members were selected based on in-house interviews, started making plans to provide professional development for all faculty around the reading-writing connection. (For more information on instructional leadership teams and the reading-writing connection, see Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead).

  1. We investigated the effectiveness of our current programming.

Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader.

I shared this summary report with our leadership team. We had a thoughtful conversation about the information, looking at both the pros and cons of this technology tool. However, we didn’t make any decisions to stop using it as a school. I also shared the report with Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. As you might imagine, they had a more slanted view of this information, in spite of the rigorous approach to evaluating their product.

While we didn’t make a decision at that time based on the research, I think the fact that this report was shared with the faculty and discussed planted the seed for future conversations about the use of this product in our classrooms.

  1. We examined our beliefs about literacy.

The professional development program we selected to address our literacy needs, Regie Routman in Residence: The Reading-Writing Connection, asks educators to examine their beliefs regarding reading and writing instruction. Unlike our collective commitments, we all had to be in agreement regarding a literacy statement to own it and expect everyone to apply that practice in classrooms. We agreed upon three.

Beliefs Poster

This happened toward the end of the school year. It was a nice celebration of our initial efforts in improving literacy instruction. We will examine these beliefs again at the end of this school year, with the hope of agreeing upon a few more after completing this PD program. These beliefs served to align our collective philosophy about what our students truly need to become successful readers and writers. Momentum for change was on our side, which didn’t bode well for outdated practices.

  1. We started budgeting for next year.

It came as a surprise, at least to me, that money would be a primary factor in deciding not to continue using Accelerated Reader in our school.

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)

With this information, we as a leadership team decided to end our subscription to Accelerated Reader. We made this decision within the context of our collective commitments and our literacy beliefs.

Next Steps

This story does not end with our school ceasing to using Accelerated Reader. For example, we realize we now have an assessment gap for our students and their independent reading. Lately, we have been talking about different digital tools such as Kidblog and Biblionasium as platforms for students to write book reviews and share their reading lives with others. We have also discussed different approaches for teachers to assess their readers more authentically, such as through conferring.

While there is a feeling of uncomfortableness right now, I feel a sense of possibility that maybe wasn’t there when Accelerated Reader was present in our building. As Peter Johnston notes from his book Opening Minds, ““Uncertainty is the foundation for inquiry and research.” I look forward to where this new turn in instruction might lead us.

 

Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

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The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

Are We Talking About the Same Tree? (the Importance of Clarity)

The following is a crosspost from my school blog. I thought it might be relevant here as well. Have an excellent Labor Day weekend!  – Matt

Two members of the maintenance team stopped me in the high school hallway.

“Are you good with us taking down the cedar tree in the front of your building?”

When asked, I was 98% sure which tree they were referring to. Steve, our building custodian, and I had discussed last year about removing the tree. It had outgrown its space. The branches had now extended above the walls at the second level. It hindered the maintenance crew’s efforts to remove the snow from that upper area.

Still, I wanted to be sure that the tree they were talking about was, in fact, the same tree.

“Let me go back to school, check out that tree, and confirm with Steve.”

Yes, it was that tree.

 

Was it necessary for me to go back and confirm this, even though I was 98% confident? What’s the worst that could have happened? They could have cut down the wrong tree, I guess.

With teaching and leading in a school, it is even more critical that we are all on the same page. Clarity is critical for trust. Without clarity, we make assumptions about people’s beliefs and actions. For example, if we had different understandings of what it means to teach “the whole child”, our school might have different expectations and approaches in our work with kids. Some of us might not value the social and emotional needs of students as much as others. That is how we end up with inequity in our schools. Student placement in classrooms becomes a lottery system in which some kids get a considerably different educational experience than others.

Our faculty is engaged in the journey of knowing which tree we are talking about. Our “tree” is literacy. Specifically, we are focused on the connection between reading and writing. We are meeting monthly during professional learning communities to watch expert instruction together via video, have professional conversations about what we saw, and then try out the instructional strategy in the classroom. Celebrations of our efforts and student learning results happen regularly. Through these activities, we are achieving clarity about promising practices for reading and writing instruction. We are on the same page which helps ensure students are receiving equally effective instruction.

This is not to say that teachers don’t have some latitude in how they facilitate learning in their classrooms. The neat thing about this work is that it can be applied to many different resources and units of instruction. I’ve heard the phrase “This is common sense!” when teachers have engaged in learning about effective literacy instruction. As Regie Routman, the developer of our professional resources, notes, “When has common sense not been acceptable in schools?” As we have found agreement about what is important for all students to experience, we have collected these beliefs as statements and made them visible throughout the school.

 

As a school, we will continue this work of not making assumptions about our teaching and learning philosophies. We will continue to examine our instruction, our students’ results, and our beliefs about literacy. Even when we might be 98% sure about our work, we will strive to be on the same page, 100%.

Growing Teacher Leaders

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As the new school year begins, I am entering my third year as an instructional coach. This year I will serve K-2 teachers at two elementary sites within our district. This is a new coaching model that our district is moving to in order for our coaching team to have a stronger focus, impact student achievement, and achieve district goals.

In Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she outlines some specific ways that coaches can achieve success over time. These ways include knowing our purpose, sharing the vision, and maintaining a strong focus.  As our team embarks on this new coaching model, like Allen, we must ask ourselves, what is our focus and what are we willing to give up so that we can identify a small number of high-leverage moves that will help us reach our goals?

One of the challenges of this kind of successful coaching is scheduling. Being able to attend every grade level meeting is not possible. Allen acknowledges this challenge and the need for structures to be in place in order to “propel the momentum of our work.” For the work to be sustainable, it cannot only be dependent on one or two people. This is where teacher leadership must be cultivated in order to fill the gaps that having only one coach can leave.

Allen outlines a process that utilizes teacher leaders. This process provides a way for teachers to work and make meaning together and hold a common interpretation of the curriculum. The belief is that this raises the level of consistency in implementation of the curriculum, therefore, raising student achievement. The teacher leader facilitates the work based on what the team wants to emphasize.

Two reflection templates are provided with questions for teachers to consider.

  1. Reflecting on Curriculum Units

What do you notice?

What questions do you have?

What are the key understandings for the unit?

What do you still need?

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  1. Reflecting on Student Work

What does the student know in regards to the learning goal?

What are the next steps for instruction?

How will progress be monitored?

What does the student still need to demonstrate to meet the learning goal?

Are any confusions or misconceptions observed?

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I am excited about this process since it gives me another tool to use in helping cultivate leaders and help teachers take ownership over their grade level meetings. It’s that next step I have needed as I reflect on my previous experiences with grade level meetings. The idea of helping facilitate meetings that will give teachers direction, a shared understanding of their unit, opportunities to share effective instructional strategies, and reflect on student work with common expectations makes this coach excited to get started. Let the growing of teacher leaders begin!

Principals Need to Know Literacy

When I first became a principal at an elementary school, I thought I had the requisite knowledge to be a literacy leader. My previous experiences in the classroom as a teacher of readers and writers led this misconception. So when I arrived in my new building, and one of the teachers encouraged me to attend a literacy institute, I declined. I cited the need to get the schedule, budget, and rosters ready before the students arrived.

During my first school year as a principal, I did engage in monthly professional learning with the faculty, also around literacy. We learned about the reading-writing connection through the Regie Routman in Residence program. This video-based professional learning experience gave me many new insights, most notably: I didn’t know literacy.

My misconceptions were many. Yes, I understood guided reading. But I didn’t realize that guided reading wasn’t the most effective way to teacher responsively with my former 5th and 6th graders. Instead, I should have been conferring with kids regarding what they were reading independently, as well as facilitating more book reviews and recommendations. As the year progressed, I started feeling a little guilty about some of my past instructional moves. However, I was thankful that as a faculty we were learning about promising practices together and would be better educators for our students.

When the opportunity came up a year later to attend that same literacy institute, I didn’t say no.

This article serves as a closing post for our online study group Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jen Allen. During the summer, many contributors offered their thinking and shared their experiences related to this excellent resource for literacy leaders. Our engagement in this study serves as evidence that none of us believe we have all the answers, nor will we in the future. The research and knowledge regarding literacy are constantly evolving, especially with literacy becoming literacies in light of our digital world.

As one principal to another, I need you to know literacy. Not so you can more effectively evaluate teachers. Principals need to know literacy because it is at the heart of the educational experience. Read just about any educational resource that calls on strong leadership for sustained schoolwide improvement. The authors will most likely cite reading and writing as critical to a principal’s (and students’) success.

When a principal knows literacy, they can have better conversations with their faculty during collaboration. They are speaking the same language instead of quibbling over semantics, like the definition of “guided reading”. When a principal knows literacy, they understand that one of their budget priorities is books, books, and more books. And when a community or board member questions these purchases (and it has happened to me), a principal can cite the research that supports these decisions. When a principal knows literacy, they can take a stand against a mindless adoption of a commercial literacy program. Their beliefs about reading and writing, in line with the rest of the faculty, becomes a firewall for anyone trying to standardize instruction only in the name of better test scores.

Only when a principal knows literacy and partners with teachers to become more knowledgeable together can all students truly experience success as readers and writers.

 

Study Groups for Voluntary Professional Development

In Chapter 4 of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen describes how she facilitates professional learning beyond the schoolwide initiative. She refers to these opportunities as “study groups”. They are typically designed around a specific educational resource. Jennifer reflects on the importance of having voice and choice in her professional learning.

As a teacher, I often found that my needs and interests were not met within the allotted in-service days designated for professional development during the school year. I was thirsty for professional development opportunities involving new instructional practices. Instead, I found that most of our in-service days were planned months in advance to address state assessment requirements. (pg. 59)

In the past, I had tried to facilitate study groups but encountered several problems.

  • First, I was selecting the text. Teachers didn’t have voice and choice in what to read.
  • Second, I did not have regularly scheduled dates communicated ahead of time. I would ask teachers when they would want to meet, a few would get back to me, and then we tried to make it fit.
  • Third, I saw this as a way to teach instead of an opportunity to learn from the resource and with each other. As Jennifer notes in Becoming a Literacy Leader, “I participate as an equal member of each group. I think the reason study groups work is that the teachers are directing their own learning.” (pg. 65)

By learning from my experiences plus this resource, we have prepared a more responsive approach to personalize professional learning for faculty.

Research Relevant Resources to Offer

In the spring, I thought about what our school’s needs and interests were as we prepared for next year. Some of these topics would need to be beyond our schoolwide initiative of authentic literacy. For example, personalized learning and Responsive Classroom were two areas I knew teachers were interested in learning more about. I made a list of all relevant resources available, discovered through researching publisher websites, professional reading resources, and book search tools such as Amazon and Goodreads.

Select Resources as a Leadership Team

Before the school year begins, our school’s leadership team reviewed the titles collected for consideration. Teachers on the team provided their input, knowing what their colleagues might and might not be interested in.

Offer Study Group Opportunities to Faculty

I typed up a list of titles with descriptions along with dates the study groups would meet (image on left). Teachers can click on a link to a Google Form and enroll in one or more study groups (image on right).

After teachers have signed up, we will need to assign co-facilitators for the groups. One facilitator would likely be a member of the leadership team. The other facilitator would be a participating teacher. These facilitators would cover for each other in case one of them could not make it.

Jennifer also has a routine agenda for the study groups to ensure a successful study group experience (pg. 74):

  • Discussion/Sharing (10 minutes)
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Video Clip
  • Toolbox (15 minutes)
  • Putting Ideas into Practice (5 minutes)
  • Next Month

Just as important to providing teachers with voice and choice in their professional learning, I believe it is equally powerful to have teachers model lifelong, voluntary learning for our students and school community. I look forward to seeing how the concept of study groups will have a positive impact on teacher autonomy and student learning.

 

 

Better Data Days Are Ahead

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We’ve all been there, we collect data, make beautiful color coded spreadsheets detailing nearly every data point we could possibly collect on each possible child. We compare district data to state data, nationally norm referenced data against in class assessments. We highlight students’ projected growth in order to make adequate progress for each child. We look at whole class data and determine standards to re-teach. We attend collaboration and intervention meetings in order to discuss students who are receiving services and what progress is being made. We create, update, and review a school data wall. We can name multiple data points on each student in our classes at the snap of a finger. 

Face it, we are inundated with data. But are we always really looking at the data for all children and determining the next steps?
Chapter 6 “Supporting Curriculum and Assessment” made me pause and think about how important it is to take that next step in data. Jen dives deep in this chapter with some really important details to consider as literacy leaders in a building. Not only should we be tracking student achievement for ALL learners, we should carve out time periodically to review this data and determine next steps. Some prompting questions Jen outlines are as follows:

  • What are the strengths and needs of each student?
  • What students are you concerned about?
  • What students have made the most growth?
  • What observations can you make about your overall literacy data?

Jen suggests having these literacy team meetings each fall, winter, and spring to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Each person has a crucial role in the process; the teacher reflects on each student, the principal reviews the student’s cumulative folder, the assistant principal listens and takes notes for student placement, and the literacy leader takes notes on students who are still at risk of failure.

As a result of reading this chapter, I have had some really great discussions with teachers and my administration about how we can create a better culture of data REVIEW. I am excited that our staff is ready to take the next steps in data review and that we are clearly beyond the idea of just being great collectors of data. 

This is going to be a great year. Teachers are asking for the next step in our data process and are ready to take it on and make it our own, and make it meaningful. I am confident that as a result, our teachers will feel a better sense of direction and purpose. And once again, the work that goes on behind the scenes will play out better in classroom instruction, in our relationships with our students and families, and will result in increased student achievement.