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.

 

The Power of Quality Tier 1 Instruction

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A reflection of a former classroom teacher:

I wish I would have known more.  I wish I would have known more about the volume of reading. I wish I would have known more about small group instruction in tier 1.  I wish I would have known more about the five components of reading. I wish I would have known more about teaching metacognitive strategies.

I wish I would have known the importance of first focusing on tier one instruction when contemplating how to best meet the needs of  students on the “bubble.”

In chapter 7 of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she discusses the power of tier one instruction, outlining the approach her school took to address the needs of bubble kids.  As opposed to outlining the approach, I will instead focus on two powerful sentences in the chapter.

  1. My hope was that student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students (Allen, p. 128).
  2. In their research, Allington and his colleagues demonstrate how students benefit from long, uninterrupted chunks of learning time as well as from consistent instruction from high-quality teachers. Yet our neediest kids tend to have the most segmented days, being shuffled from intervention to intervention (Allen, p 128).

I have been a part of many discussions and teams concerning Response to Intervention.  Let me first say, I commend all the teams I have worked with as they try tirelessly to help our struggling readers and writers.  There have been so many collaborative discussions about targeted instruction and tier two support.  And, all of this is valid.

However, let us be real and know that sometimes, or more aptly, most times, we skip a key component of Response to Intervention: solid, research-based instruction by the classroom teacher in tier one.

So, when considering our “bubble” kids, let us start with this: “How do we provide professional support for all of our classroom teachers.  Because the better their craft is, the fewer kids we have on the “bubble.”  The result of this: 1) Solid, research-based instruction benefits all kids of all levels. 2) Solid, research-based instruction will prevent a great number of kids from falling into tier two intervention, thereby allowing us more time to provide targeted instruction to kids who do fall in tier two instruction.

So, to new teachers, I say study your craft as much as possible.

To veteran teachers, I say guide discussions that focus on tier one instruction first, then tier two.

To coaches, send this message over and over again–we need to devote as much time and finances we can to develop the teacher.

Administrators, provide that time to build the craft of your teachers in tier 1, while also supporting tier two and three.

Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.

Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

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photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Data Poor

Have you heard of “DRIP”? It stands for “Data Rich, Information Poor”. The purpose of this phrase is to convey the idea that we have all of this data in schools, but cannot organize it in a way that will give us the information to make responsive instructional decisions.

photo credit: Images by John ‘K’ via photopin cc

But what if this is not case? What if we are actually data poor? When we consider only quantitative measures during collaboration, such as test scores and interim assessments, we miss out on a lot of information we can glean from more qualitative, formative assessments. These might include surveys, images, audio, journaling, and student discussions.

In this post for MiddleWeb, I profile two teachers in my district who have leveraged technology to better inform their instruction and student learning. The videos and web-based products the students and teachers develop are captured as close to the learning as possible. The results are dynamic, authentic, and minimally processed.

In tomorrow night’s All Things PLC Twitter chat (follow #atplc), we will pose questions to dig more deeply into what data means in the modern classroom. There are too many ways for learners to show what they know to ignore the potential of connected learning and continuous assessment. Join us at 8 P.M. CST for this discussion.