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. 

Top Ten Tips for Reading Aloud

20120922-200634.jpg

1. Schedule It

Reading aloud shouldn’t be left to that few minutes before lunch. Richard Allington, in his ASCD article Every Child, Every Day, states that students should listen to a fluent adult read aloud every day; it is an essential element of reading instruction in classrooms. As a principal, I try to model this practice. My teachers schedule me in to read aloud in their classrooms for half hour time slots, anywhere from twice a week to once every two weeks.

2. Be Intentional

Classroom time is important, so my visits should be connected to learning. What helps are the learning targets posted on the board. As I visit classrooms, I can see the concepts being taught. This information gives me ideas for books that would work well with what students are studying. For example, poetry is a focus at 4th grade, which led me to read aloud Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

3. Start Small

The first book I share usually rhymes, has a beat, is a captivating story and/or is short. These are the “can’t miss” stories, books that are guaranteed to capture the students’ attention. Titles that come to mind include Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin and Neville by Norman Juster at the primary level, and Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco and The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg for intermediate grades.

4. Assess Your Listeners

Teachers know that every class they inherit is different from year to year. To get a read on my new listeners, I pay attention to how the students respond as I read aloud to them. I use formative assessments to alter my instruction for learning. A great resource about formative assessment is Checking for Understanding by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. Strategies they recommend include noticing nonverbal cues like puzzled looks and boredom, as well as having student “Think-Pair-Share” during the story.

5. Plan Ahead

Classroom success comes to those prepared. For me, I don’t read aloud a book to a classroom until I have read it myself. This is the best way to determine if it will make a good read aloud. Did I have a hard time putting the book down? Would I recommend it to others after I finished it? Was it character or story driven? If I don’t have time to do this, I often refer to The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. It has great recommendations for read alouds as well as research and tips for supporting this practice. I have also nixed books I had high hopes for, but realized it is more of a read alone story upon review.

6. Build Stamina

Unfortunately, some kids enter school without a lot of stories read aloud to them. This is evident when we assess our five year olds and too many cannot even recognize sounds and letters. To expect kindergarteners to sit through twenty minutes of James and the Giant Peach on the first day of school may be unrealistic. Once I have Started Small (#3), I recognize their growing abilities to listen to stories with specific comments such as, “Wow, you sat for ten whole minutes while I read you A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting!”. For more on building reading stamina, check out The Daily Five by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser.

7. Pick the Right Text

Just because a book is an award winner doesn’t mean it will make a good read aloud. In fact, many of my favorites don’t have this recognition. I get recommendations from colleagues, local bookstores and on Goodreads. These experts help me find stories that have short chapters, limited dialogue, interesting plots, and characters kids can relate to. I also read aloud nonfiction and informational text. Two of my favorites are Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz and Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon.

8. Set Up the Story

In Strategies That Work, Stephanie Harvey describes the process of introducing the think-aloud (a guided version of reading aloud). The idea is to get students thinking during the story, not just at the end. Reading a book cold doesn’t activate students prior knowledge, which is necessary for getting the most out of it. I start a story by first reading the title and the author’s name. Next, I might ask an open ended question related to the book or do a picture walk and make predictions. This modeling creates a bridge to developing independent readers.

9. End as You Began

As I read, I give opportunities for students to predict what may happen next, ponder a question, or make an interesting observation. Once completed, we go back to how we started. For example, when I have read aloud The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, the students and I first discussed what “courage” means. I collected their responses and started the story. As I read, I asked students to identify examples of courage and marked that text with a Post-it note. At the end, we took our notes and revised our previous definition as a whole group. Other fun ways to wrap things up are writing a book review and doing book talks on stories in the same genre or by the same author.

10. Stick With It

No doubt there are days when I feel like I don’t have time to get into classrooms and read. That is why scheduling it in my calendar is so critical. I also remind myself of all the benefits: Kids are introduced to authors and stories that might not otherwise have been exposed to, both students and teachers see how much I value literature, I am able to stay current on what kids are reading, and I connect with students in a positive and fun way. I cannot think of many things I do as a principal that are more important than sharing myself as a reader in school.

20120922-200730.jpg