Friday, February 22, 2019

Hitting Targets, but Missing the Point? Take Stock & Make Adjustments...but Don't Delay!

In his 2016 NYT editorial How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers, Robert M. Wachter describes how medicine and education (“our most human and sacred fields”) have taken measurement and data-based decision making too far too fast. Measuring health and learning, it turns out, is far more complex than calculating quarterly profits. “The focus on numbers has gone too far,” Wachter argues. “We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

What an apt description of many Vermont schools in the Age of Act 77 & Education Quality Standards (EQS), which require that all high school seniors, starting next school year, graduate from a proficiency-based school system, using their Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) to meet proficiencies set by their local school system. Next year’s deadline has many Vermont educators, especially in our high schools, scrambling to comply with these connected mandates. Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements? Check. PLP for all? Check. New grading system? Check.

Targets hit, but are we missing the point?

Many schools are missing the point. They are complying with the letter, but not engaging with the spirit, of Act 77 and EQS. And this should shock no one, given the scope of the ask--a paradigm shift, for sure, not a mere tweaking of the system--and the fire-hose of initiatives that preceded and accompanied the arrival of Act 77 and EQS. Worn out and whiplashed, some Vermont educators have developed the very habits their students exhibit when asked to do too much too fast with too little support, resorting to retreatism and compliance. And as next year’s deadline nears, some are engaging in rebellion.

But not all Vermont educators and schools are missing the point. There are plenty of bright spots out there, educators and school systems that understand that Act 77 and EQS are Vermont’s antidote to the dis-ease that’s spread through our nation’s schools, infected by standardized tests and a race to the top that’s divided, rather than amplified, our efforts. These clear-eyed and inspired educators experience Act 77 & EQS as long-overdue relief that puts the reins back in their hands. They’ve stopped the wholesale adoption of nationally published standards; instead, they’re identifying and prioritizing with their colleagues the type and number of proficiencies that all students will meet locally.

And even more exciting, they’re involving students in the process, learning with them where things are working and what needs work. How many proficiencies are too many to do well? What type of proficiencies tend to bring out the best in learners? And what kinds of instruction and experiences do students need in order to meet and exceed these expectations?

And most promising of all, educators and schools are networking with each other in new and deeper ways, something that would not be happening without the momentum and focus of Act 77 & EQS. You might disagree with the direction Vermont’s schools are headed, but there’s no denying the brightness of our north star. And thanks to our thriving local professional community--nourished by our AOE, the Great Schools Partnership, our Educational Service Agencies (E.S.A.), and a wide range of local and national providers of professional development--Vermont possesses the expertise and resources we need to recapture our agency to make continual progress toward our mission of excellence and equity for all.

This doesn’t change the fact, unfortunately, that many Vermont educators are weary, which makes it hard for them to believe that Act 77 and EQS, rather than being two more piles on their already overloaded plates, are opportunities to create a new plate. Exhausted and even a little irritable, they’ve had it. “Whatever. Just tell us what to do.” Right when we most need all of our educators’ deepest engagement and creativity, too many of their tanks are empty.

What to do?

Well just about the worst message we could send right now is, “Hey, this is getting really hard, so let’s delay.” We, and our communities, deserve better.

A much better message would come in three parts.

1. We hear you. Yes, this is hard, and yes we are expecting a lot. You and your students are worth it.
2. You’re not alone. Will you show and explain what you’ve done so far, and share your current sense of what’s working and what needs work? 
3. We can figure this out. Will you propose your most sensible next steps and pose your most pressing questions? How might we / others help?

In other words, we should stick to our north star and make it possible for all Vermont educators and students to head that direction, regardless of the different paths and paces they might need to take. If we do this, we’ll be modeling the spirit of Act 77 and EQS and the mission of our public schools: excellence & equity for all.

I started this post with Wachter’s NYT editorial How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers because he takes such elegant aim at the false dichotomy far too many of us still fall for, one that pits measurement (proficiencies) against relevance (personalization).

Rather than delaying the use of metrics to improve medicine and education, Wachter urges doctors and teachers to proceed more cautiously and in partnership with their patients and students. “Measurement cannot go away,” he argues, “but it needs to be scaled back and allowed to mature. We need more targeted measures, ones that have been vetted to ensure that they really matter.” This is what teachers and students who are fully engaged with Act 77 and EQS are doing, determining locally and together the number and kinds of proficiencies that will matter most.

Second, Wachter quotes Avedis Donabedian, “a towering figure in the field of quality measurement” and “hard-nosed scientist” who, before his death in 2000, declared, “The secret of quality is love.” This is what teachers and students who are fully engaged with Act 77 and EQS are also doing, determining locally and together the most meaningful ways for learners to engage deeply with what matters most.

We are still new to the powerful & paradigm-shifting practice of making performance the coin of the realm, regardless of when or where learning occurs. Thanks to Vermont’s Legislature and State School Board, we’re on the right road to increasing excellence and equity, but we need a lot more practice and feedback to determine what next turns to take. This complex and at times threatening-feeling process exposes vulnerabilities in teachers and students. They must be handled with care, if they’re going to engage fully in the process of actualizing the promise of Act 77 & EQS.

And let’s not confuse delaying with caring. Delaying will undermine hard-won momentum, while wrongly suggesting that schools on the move, but a little off pace, will somehow be punished. That’s not true. The only teachers and schools rightfully worried are those willfully disregarding our common charge.

So onward, I say, from wherever you are, committed to the cause, and with the wisdom of William Hutchison Murray at our backs.

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance…”

Below I’ve included a list of organizations that have been helping Vermont educators make their way during these exciting times. By no means is this exhaustive! (Please share your favorites in the comment section below or on twitter: #nodelay @rhlearning.) And here’s a single-page instructional sequence for anyone interested in inviting your learners--be they students, teachers, parents, or community members--to help you take stock & make the kind of mid-course adjustments likely to improve learning.

Helpful Organizations
Vermont AOE Proficiency-Based Learning
Vermont AOE Personalized Learning
Great Schools Partnership
Tarrant Institute for Innovation in Education (TIIE) & Blog
Middle Grades Collaborative
PLP Pathways
Standards-Based Learning and Grading Facebook Page

Bill Rich
Red House Learning, LLC

Friday, February 15, 2019

Why Should We (& How Can We) Engage Students in the Assessment Process?

Today I’m kicking off Teachable Moments: Timely Mini-lessons & Practical Resources for the Time-Starved Teacher. Each Teachable Moments blogpost will include a short slide show / voice over to frame the topic, along with suggestions for how to use a few practical resources (included below) to apply.

  • This is what the original cover page looked liked when my Bread Loaf professor, John Warnock, first asked me / my peers to complete one. Here’s a modified cover page that you can adapt to any product students are working on. Please make a copy and adapt this for you and your students’ needs.
  • Consider regularly inviting your learners to share with you what’s working, what needs work, and what can be done about it. So simple. So effective.
  • Short piece by Robert Marzano that describes the powerful impact of having students join us in tracking their learning. Such a simple way to get students more engaged in the assessment process!
  • When students can compare their works in progress to exemplary models, they can determine what needs refining.  Begin collecting and saving exemplary models of what we seek from your students. Over time, invite students to compare their work with these curated student products to determine how to close the quality gap.
Bill Rich
Red House Learning, LLC

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Why, What, and How of Learning Scales

Why Learning Scales?

In their remarkable book, Made to Stick, the Heath brothers describe a compelling and instructive experiment. Participants are divided into two groups, the tappers and the listeners. The tappers study a list of well-known American tunes (Happy Birthday to You, The Star Spangled Banner, etc.) and practice tapping out the melodies. Each listener then pairs up with a tapper, who taps out the melody of a song and then waits for the listener to name that tune.

The tappers predict that the listeners will correctly guess 50% of the songs. But the listeners only correctly guess 2.5% of the songs. Why?

It’s pretty simple. The tappers (teachers) forget they have the entire tune playing in their heads as they tap, and the listeners (students) do not. The listeners, according to the Heath brothers, hear a kind of “bizarre Morse Code”, while the tappers hear the whole score.

Ironically, teachers’ expertise--the very trait that enables them to become teachers--can blind them to the reality of the beginner’s mind. The more expertise we possess, the more susceptible we become to what the Heath brothers memorably call The Curse of Knowledge & The Expert Blindspot. And each year this gap can widen, tempting teachers to stare at their learners with the same condescending astonishment of a tapper whose listener just can’t seem to recognize Three Blind Mice.

Drafting and revising learning scales over time provides an antidote to The Curse of Knowledge & The Expert Blindspot. The process requires educators to slow down and imagine in detail what it is that learners can do to make progress toward an important learning outcome. Over time educators become more clear themselves, not just on paper but in practice, and this clarity helps learners, who use learning scales as a formative tool (diagnosing progress and needs during learning) and as a summative tool (communicating levels of performance after learning). Learning scales, at their best, help educators better anticipate and prepare for what their learners will need, while enabling learners to play a more active role managing their learning.

And, over time, teachers learn a potent lesson: tap less; listen more.

What’s the Difference between a Rubric and a Learning Scale?

To understand the main difference, take five minutes to compare the rubric and learning scale below. Which one would be more helpful to learners? Make a list of the specific design features that make one more helpful to learners than the other.
Everyone agrees that the learning scale would be more helpful to learners. Not so surprising, since learning scales are designed to provide formative information to learners so they can determine the kind of practice they need to improve. Rubrics, on the other hand, tend to provide summative information to teachers and students so they can calculate grades.

Learning scales:
  • Are written in first person and present tense.
  • Emphasize what students can do (strength-based rather than deficit-based), so descriptors begin “I can….”
  • Describe a specific progression of development to help learners (and teachers) determine what to do next to improve learning.
  • Calibrate grain size of the target with the duration of the assessment window.
  • Bold the learning target.
  • Target skills that are moving toward transfer (rather than the characteristics of a specific product).
  • Include headings (Getting Started, Making Progress, etc.) or a simple arrow that points to progress, rather than the grade (1-4 / F - A).
  • Can include links to resources that will help the learner identify and take their very next steps.
There’s no need to pit learning scales against rubrics, though. They’re both seeking to make clear what matters most, a necessarily ongoing cause for educators. (Plus, how teachers and students use these tools trumps their differences.) But rubrics do carry the baggage of being born and raised in 100 point / summative-minded school systems; even as teachers tweak them to make them more formative, rubrics retain features that can keep students (and teachers) counting points rather than tracking learning.

Learning scales have baggage, too. Born and raised in school systems transitioning to proficiency-based learning and reporting, they strive to make clear to multiple audiences what learning matters most, what it looks like as it progresses through predictable stages, and where students and teachers should focus to accelerate progress. That’s a big ask for educators, who struggle to identify right-sized standards, let alone describe the stages students go through as they make progress toward and beyond those standards.

All of this would be so much more simple, of course, if educators were in the habit of showing students what we expect, rather than describing it. Imagine where we’d be in just a few years if all educators began curating (with their students!) examples of student work / learning that show what our rubrics and learning scales are trying to describe? Imagine how much easier it would be to write learning scales if we were staring at actual samples of student work that show what learning looks like as it progresses towards and beyond a standard?

How to Begin (and Get Better at) Writing & Using Learning Scales?

Getting clear about what matters most, and getting better at communicating that clarity, is one of education’s (and life’s) most enduring and meaningful challenges. One never reaches the mountain top. Below are tips and resources for accelerating your progress on this career-long hike.
  1. Here is a simple set of directions for getting started. 
  2. Use this learning scale to guide your journey. You’ll find all sorts of resources, some for novices and others for the experienced. (Two of my favorites: Introducing & Acclimating Students to Learning Scales & Tips for Refining Learning Scales Over Time.)
  3. Read this excellent description (thank you, Cult of Pedagogy!) of the types of rubrics out there, and cross reference these ideas / examples with this single-page description of the purpose and design features of learning scales. (Tip: the single-point rubric described by Jennifer Gonzales can be a great way to begin transitioning to learning scales.)
  4. Since the road to clarity is long and steep, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves why we need to keep at the climb, so check out the Heath Brother’s description of the Tappers & Listeners experiment, on page seven of Teaching that Sticks, an inspired executive summary of the Heath Brothers’ magnificent Made to Stick. This humorous and compelling read reminds us why it’s so difficult (and vital!) for educators to be clear and understandable to those we instruct.
  5. Resist expending your precious clarity-seeking energy pursuing low-level, topic-bound learning outcomes. The best way for students to meet those lower-level outcomes is to inspire them to aspire to higher-level outcomes. Here’s a single page doc and a helpful guide for determining the complexity of your outcomes. While it might take time to figure out how to teach to these more sophisticated levels, it’s the key to making the learning compelling, meaningful, and enduring.
  6. Develop the habit of (and a system for) collecting samples of student work that show what learning looks like as it progresses toward and beyond specific standards. Curate as you go, and when summer comes, consider how to use these samples next year as instruction and assessment tools to clarify what you’re after. Over time, invite your learners to help you locate more samples of their work to widen your collection of models. 
  7. Make the climb with clarity-seeking colleagues. Without the sounding board of others, we reside in an echo chamber of our own minds, thinking we’re getting clear, when we’re deluding ourselves (and eluding our learners). Share your ideas / products and study theirs. Revise again. Repeat.
Bill Rich
Red House Learning, LLC