Ask the Experts
What can districts do to prepare for the new assessments that will be linked to the Common Core Standards?
It is equally important not to upset local apple carts, students, parents, teachers and principals by undertaking major reorganization of curricula and assessments before a clear direction has been established. Doing so risks causing distracting stress and incurring major financial and opportunity costs, with the additional prospect of needing to redo the changes after the completion of development work at the national and state levels. There is much room for change between now and the time that the assessments will be in use, and all of us who have worked with state assessments recognize that the statements of standards and the assessments of those standards do not necessarily represent a close match by reference to focus, breadth of content or level of challenge.
It appears that the CCSS for mathematics and English/language arts will likely be with us for some time, now that all but six states have adopted both of them, according to the web site of the Common Core State Standards Initiative of the Chief State School Officers (CSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) (see http://www.corestandards.org/). It seems clear, as well, that the assessment of CCSS will result in considerable change, given that the 50 greatly varied state standards and assessments could be replaced by only one set of standards and two sets of national assessments. (Those interested in the variability of current state standards and assessments in relation to the CCSS. as well as a way to analyze and measure the variability, may want to read a piece titled “Common Core Standards: The New U.S. Intended Curriculum” by Andrew Porter, Jennifer McMaken, Jun Hwang, and Rui Yang that appeared in the April 2011 issue of Educational Researcher, DOI: 10.3102/0013189X11405038.)
If the state in which a district sits has adopted the standards, but has not initiated a process of realignment of state curricula or a process of involving local districts in analyzing differences between current curricula and the standards, then it would be prudent to spend some time and effort determining locally what the differences are between the standards and the current district curricula. Given major differences, and with agreement that the differences are important to the local district, plans might then be made to make adjustments over a period of a few years. In a state that has not adopted the standards (Alaska, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia), it would be important to know the degree to which the state intends to make changes in its own standards before launching a local effort.
Meanwhile, two multi-state consortia, with combined funding of $330M from the federal Department of Education, are currently engaged in assessment development. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Coalition (SBAC) (see http://www.k12.wa.us/smarter/), representing 29 states, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) (see http://www.parcconline.org/), representing 24 states (seven states are members of both consortia), are engaged in somewhat similar development processes. It may be worthwhile to have relevant staff follow the work of the consortium (a) to which one’s state belongs as test development proceeds. Both groups intend to have tests in use by the 2014-15 school year. End of year assessments would be joined by formative assessments and instructional support materials.
PARCC, for example, has announced a timeline that involves development work this school year, pilot and field testing and data collection and research in the succeeding two years (2012-13 and 2013-14), followed by full implementation of testing in 2014-15 and the setting of achievement levels in the summer of 2015. That would suggest that the earliest the assessments would represent high stakes for students, teachers and schools would be the 2015-16 school year.
My intent here is not to fully describe the development process, but to suggest the length of the timeline for completing the tests and the room for change. The nature of the assessments, including their foci, breadth of content and challenge, could change considerably during development. Such alterations could easily be engendered by research results, the experiences in pilot and field testing, the impact of rising costs, adjustments or transformations in political perspectives or the political system, or some combination of any of these factors. The likelihood of change between now and 2015 argues that school districts should approach CCSS thoughtfully and cautiously.
“But ye gotta know where ye’re just going to rush in. Ye canne just rush in anywhere. It looks bad, havin’to rush oout again straight awa’.”
Given both teacher and principal turnover, what advice do you have for how superintendents can sustain professional learning communities in their district over time?
Our journey to becoming a Professional Learning Community is somewhat unique. In the spring of 2005, after having identified by our State Department of education as a Program Improvement District, our Deputy Superintendent Rich Smith and I heard Rick and Becky DuFour present the PLC concept for the first time. We both recognized that this was exactly the structure that we had been looking for to carry our work forward and guarantee that learning for all became a way of life in our district. Our journey is unusual in that we did not return and say now we will reform some schools using this model or we will do this at our schools with the greatest needs or challenges, we said we are now a PLC district and we will do this in every school because it is the work our children need us to do. We came back to start the 2005-2006 school year and began the PLC journey as a district and we “learned by doing”. Our focus as a district became that of a PLC, a focus on learning, a focus on results and developing a collaborative culture. Our daily work was driven by answering the four key questions of a PLC, what do we want our student to learn, how will we know they have learned it, how will we respond when learning has not occurred and how do we respond when learning has already occurred.
We developed collaborative teams who worked together to seek to answer these four question for “our kids” rather than my kids at every site in the district. We embraced Rick DuFour’s definition of team, “A group of people who work together interdependently to achieve a common goal while holding one another mutually accountable” , and realized that not only were we seeing student learning increase, but adult learning was occurring at the same rate. We moved quickly from doing PLC’S to being PLC’s. Today six years later the journey continues, but as a district we are in a very different place than we have ever been before. Jon was right, the culture that has developed because we are a Professional Learning Community continues to sustain us in a very challenging time!
How do we sustain this as Superintendent?
First we must understand that it is our job to lead this transition, we must be the voice of belief in our districts and we must invest ourselves in the continuing development of practice, shaping the culture over time to bring our districts to the point of “being” a professional learning community. Effective implementation of PLC’s requires effective leadership and that begins with us, the superintendants, we must know the work! We then need to develop the capacity of those who lead the work at all levels, from our cabinet and District Office team, to site principals, and teacher leaders in the PLC’s themselves. We must recognize that simply setting an expectation of our leaders is not enough, there is a obligation of reciprocal accountability, if I have an expectation of you, I have an obligation to equip you with what you need to be successful, to build your capacity to lead. We have invested in developing the knowledge base and skill set of our leaders, principals and teacher leaders alike and that has had dramatic impact. A starting point is to make sure that throughout your organization you have developed a common mission, (why do we exist?), vision, (what must we become to accomplish our purpose?), values, (how must we behave to achieve our vision?) and goals, (how will we mark our progress?).
These foundational understandings in our organization support the development of a common intent and common purpose that further impacts our organizational culture.
PLC practice builds leadership
PLC supports teachers in transition
When we invest ourselves as superintendents in development, the outcome is the development of a world that is self sustaining!
My students, being forewarned of the importance of this lesson, were on their best behavior and the “dog and pony show” went off as planned. My boss, seated in the back of the room with his clipboard, took notes for 30 minutes or so and then left the room. Later in the day we discussed the best time for an evaluation conference. At that meeting, we reviewed his notes and the evaluation form, which had been completed with the appropriate boxes being checked and some comments added. We both signed the form and I left the meeting with my NCR copy of the form secure in the knowledge that I would not have to repeat the process for another two years since all the right boxes had been checked.
Unfortunately, my experience with evaluation as a teacher has been the norm rather the exception in a process that is all too often simply a compliance ritual rather than an effort to actually achieve the intended goal; guiding the improvement of employee performance.
Today, with the dramatically changed role of leadership in public education, everything that we do must support the mission of student learning. The evaluation process must be one of those supports. The evaluation must be a coaching tool that is the culmination of a series of ongoing conversations focused on the work.
An essential component of a successful evaluation system must be grounded in reflective conversations about what was seen during multiple classroom visits. We expect each of our site administrators to visit every classroom at least twice a week with some form of feedback provided regarding the visit. Feedback must be focused on specific areas of emphasis. Often the site leadership team has previously agreed that for a period of time the focus of observations will be on a specific element of instruction that is a school wide area of emphasis; such as student engagement or checking for understanding.
A formal observation process that is specifically tied to individual teachers instructional goals for the year complements this system of regular ongoing informal observation and feedback. At least twice each academic year, teachers in that year’s evaluation cycle are formally observed by their site administrator. A pre-conference is held to discuss specifics of the lesson to be observed and a post-conference is held to review the effectiveness of the lesson delivery focused on evidence of student learning.
Post-conference feedback is a two-way reflective conversation and are intended to define areas of focus and feedback for future observations. This system of ongoing conversations and feedback tied to regular classroom observations, both formal and informal, results in the final evaluation document provided to the employee. This document is a summary of the cumulative year’s work and provides specific information regarding strengths and areas of future focus.
While not perfect, this process is much improved from the model that I grew up in the profession with and is built around what I would suggest are the essential elements of a successful evaluation system. It guides the improvement of employee performance through the use of regular, focused, and timely feedback about both the elements of effective instruction and the outcome of that instruction; student learning. The process involves ongoing reflective coaching conversations over time tied to observed evidence of effectiveness. As the result of the feedback loop in the process, there are no surprises for the teacher; the evaluation itself is the summary of the collaborative work of the site instructional leadership and instructional team member over time.
Click on the link to see Previous Ethics Cases.
The Ethical Educator column presents a real dilemma in school leadership. The panelists are Shelley Berman, superintendent, Eugene, Ore.; Roy Dexheimer, retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.; Joan McRobbie, senior associate, National School Reform at Community Training and Assistance Center, San Francisco, Calif.; and Paula Mirk, director of education, Institute for Global Ethics, Rockport, Maine. Abbreviated answers are published in School Administrator magazine.