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What makes for a great school?

November 7, 2015

A few years ago, I wrote a post,  What qualities make for an ideal school or classroom?  Lots of educational authors have written on this topic because they’re intrigued by the idea of what good schools look and feel like.  Is it a relative question or does it have a discrete and verifiable answer?  How would we know if we were in the presence of a great school?  In addition to my post, I have included other sources that have explored different perspectives on the topic.  By referencing them I am not endorsing any specific point of view.  In fact, while some are interesting and innovative others present a vision or approach that is not as interesting.

Regardless of our experience with school, we all have some notion of what qualities go into making school an ideal place to learn.  My image of good schools is closely tied to what teachers are saying and doing.  As I read about this topic, there are a set of ideas that I keep coming back to or that resonate with me.

  • Teachers appreciate that each child is a unique person
  • Teachers actively seek ways to reach all children, teaching to the whole child
  • Teachers strive to build a collaborative environment in which conversations flow in all directions
  • Teachers are learners and grow professionally throughout their careers
  • Teachers see themselves as helping students learn to “connect the dots” between important ideas
  • Teachers work at making the learning environment a joyful place to be
  • Teachers set high expectations but provide the scaffold for all students to reach their goals
  • Teachers don’t just tell, they help students see themselves as “meaning makers”
  • Teachers share the teaching with students and learn with them side-by-side
  • Teachers help students move from dependence to independence
  • Teachers create an environment that is safe for all learners
  • Teachers use assessments as evidence for learning and windows into whether their teaching is effective
  • Teachers model a collaborative culture by the way they interact with one another

Some people would agree with this set of ideas, while others would disagree with a subset of them.  If you accept the premise that good schools are defined by the quality of their teachers, then this is certainly a beginning list of what good schools would look and feel like if we were in their presence.

Is this a particularly important idea to pursue?  I think it is if we want to lead our schools from mediocre to good and finally to great.  We need a vision and a blueprint for how to make the vision come alive.  At the core, we have to work with teachers, helping them become the best professionals they can be.








Something to think about!

November 7, 2015

I am reading a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Differentiated Classroom, 2nd edition.  Here is an interesting quote:

​(she profiles four teachers) These four teachers understand the essential purpose of learning.  It is not an endeavor that is marked primarily by accumulation of random data, rehearsal of disembodied skills, or checking standards off a list.  It is something far more powerful.  We are born trying to gain dominion over our environments (maybe not a good thing).  We live and die trying to figure out who we are; what life means; how to understand joy, pain, victory, and death; how we must relate to others; and why we are here.  The disciplines we study, give us lenses that help us answer life’s ultimate questions.  The skills of those disciplines give us power to use knowledge in meaningful ways.  Thinking and puzzling about the unknown gives us far more power than rote regurgitation of isolated names, dates, facts, formulas and definitions or practicing disconnected skills.

​What do you think?  Probably a worthy quote to digest over time  and use as a way to think about our own teaching.

Using the new #SAT to Sort Students, We Haven’t Progressed Very Far!

November 1, 2015

new SAT.001

In today’s New York Times Education Life section, there is an article titled, Everything You Need to Know About the New SAT.  After reading the piece I was left feeling quite sad about the state of education and assessment in the United States.  It’s clear to me that our antiquated assessment practices are a reflection of our fear and inability to reconcile a traditional education system that does not serve all students.  Here are a series of quote from the article written by Eric Hoover, a senior writer covering admissions at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

the questions are more relevant and less gimmicky

That seems to me to be a productive change.  School should not be about gimmicks, it should be about learning important, meaningful and relevant ideas and concepts.  School will only be engaging to students if they are interested in what they are learning.  Otherwise, it is a required chore to complete and only those that are compliant are masters of the current system.

others foresee problems, especially for those who struggle with reading

Since students are reading less and less every day, this could be a problem.  See the article in Time Magazine, Number of Students Reading for Fun Keeps Declining.  This is particularly a challenge in a society that values “screen time” more than it does book time.  The Nation’s Report Card suggests that our students are not prepared.  “The government released the latest national test scores on Wednesday, and the news isn’t good: 12th-graders are headed toward graduation, but many don’t have the skills they need to succeed in college or work.”  More importantly: “It measured reading and math skills of 92,000 high school seniors in 2013 and found that reading skills of those 12th-graders have gone unchanged since the last time the test was given, in 2009, and they’re lower than those of students in 1992.”  Not a good sign for students being prepared to take the new SAT.

if you haven’t gone to a school that prepared you well, the test isn’t going to serve you well.

Isn’t this a problem for many students in the United States.  Some studies and reports say that between 10-15% of schools in the US are failing (click here).

test-taking savvy is still going to make a big difference when students pick up the No. 2 pencil

This no doubt will favor students whose parents can afford to spend enormous sums of money getting outside tutors and using test preparation companies to boost their child’s chances of doing well.

how should students prepare?  By reading often and diving into various kinds of texts, especially nonfiction.

Seems to me this will require schools to rethink the focus of their academic program so that students read a more nonfiction.  Most schools language arts programs focus on reading fiction, while most science and social studies curricula use textbooks that are generally not interesting to read.

…writing section, which will demand prolonged concentration.

Do schools teach their students to engage in prolonged concentration?  Are we helping students develop the skills of patience, perseverance, and fortitude?  Finally, do we structure school so that students can practice these skills?  Take a close look at the typical day of a high school student and I think the answer to this question is probably not.

to answer questions about grammar, punctuation and usage, students will have to wade through extended passages relating to history, humanities, and science.

Interesting that one of the most high-stakes assessments in the United States will use history, humanities and science passages to answer questions about grammar, punctuation and usage.  Doesn’t this diminish the value of understanding concepts in these disciplines because of their inherent interest, and using one’s understanding of them to solve interesting and complex questions or challenges?  Strikes me that is a waste of valuable knowledge!

The most fundamental change is that there are many, many more words.  If you don’t read well and happily, this test isn’t going to be your friend.

What a sad statement!  Many students in the United States don’t read well or happily, even those from wealthy backgrounds.  Our societal values are part of the problem.  We have lots to change if we expect students to be reading well and happily.  Get rid of the TV.

some questions will require knowledge of statistics, a course relatively few students take in high school.

Great, a test that expects students to know something they don’t experience in school.  Who was behind that decision?  Again, we should be rethinking our school curricula before we design a high-stakes test.  Test design shouldn’t come before rethinking and redesigning our traditional programs that might be out-of-date.  I think statistics is important, but then let’s teach it first to build capacity before we assess students.

questions throughout will require students to cite specific examples that support their answers.  No longer can they get by on writing skills alone.

OK!  I think citing the text for examples to support a point-of-view is important.  However, so is demonstrating that you have good writing skills, especially in a creative way.

At 3 hours and 50 minutes the SAT is a still long, exhausting test.  Besides measuring what students have learned it will measure how they perform under pressure in a high-stakes situation–just like the old model.

A good assessment is one that measures what students know and can do, regardless of how long it takes them.  Most important things that have been discovered or learned have not been achieved under pressure in a high-stakes situation.   There may be examples like the invention of the atomic bomb that were discovered under pressure and in a high-stakes environment, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  Placing value on performing under pressure only favors a specific kind of learner.  We know so much more about the neuroscience of learning than 25 years ago.  Why not use that knowledge to design an assessment that really shows what student know and can do or what they have mastered?

Mr. Ingersoll (founder of a CA test prep company) spotted the same “trap doors”–questions designed to distract or confuse and to enhance the test’s difficulty–that he finds in the current version.

How absurd to have “trap doors?”  I didn’t realize that teaching and learning was about distracting and confusing students.  All the excellent teachers I know, and there are many of them, are not interested in distracting and confusing their students.  They are interested in defining the learning targets they want students to hit and helping them learn the skills that it takes to hit the target.

colleges use the SAT to sort applicants.

What an antiquated use of an assessment!  Assessments should be used to measure what students know and can do.  In fact, our goal should be for all students to get an 800.  The day that all students in the United States master their learning environment in such a way that they achieve an 800 on a high-quality assessment is the day that we have reformed our educational system.  Of course, this will be an assessment very different from the new SAT.

you can’t have all students scoring a 750…it needs to be a benchmark of student achievement, but that is at odds with selective colleges’ need to have a test that sorts and ranks.  These quirks and trap doors make the test perform the way it needs to.

What is achieved by sorting and ranking students?  We promote a culture of haves and have-nots.  We promote a culture in which many students have a fixed mindset.  It certainly does not promote a growth mindset.

some expect the new SAT will be even more challenging for the disadvantaged.  …the test would seem to best serve students at high-performing schools, with the strong teachers who prepare them for state standards, as well as affluent students with access to test prep.

So the new SAT will further divide our country into families who can afford to buy a “good education” and those who are marginalized into schools that cannot afford to provide a “good education.”  It’s all about what you can afford because we know our politicians have not demonstrated the resolve to eliminate the complex problems that befall families relegated to schools that are fighting an uphill battle.  Where is John Dewey’s democracy of education?

it’s going to generate the same hierarchy of scores that exists now.

Then it’s not a “new SAT!”

Why do we redesign a high-stakes assessment that students have to take for college admission before redesigning the schools that are supposed to meet the needs of all students?  It doesn’t make any sense.

If we want the new SAT to measure things we value, we need to start with what we value in education.  What are the enduring learnings that all students should achieve from their schooling?  It won’t only be defined by what is in the Common Core or what is on the new SAT test.

Making #learning visible through a school’s coaching project.

October 30, 2015

At Westminster Schools (#WestminsterAtl) we are working on introducing a coaching model into our program.  We have supported some coaching professional development through Jim Knight’s Kansas Coaching institute, but we believe the coaching work needs to be adapted to our context and school culture.  This year we launched the project with our department chairs in the Upper School and curriculum leaders in the Middle and Lower Schools.  We divided people into two cohorts of about 15 people per cohort.  Our goal is to provide background, experience and time to share work on learning and integrating different instructional strategies into our teaching.  We accomplish this through two-hour workshops scheduled once a month on a particular strategy that faculty expressed a desire to learn more about.  We collected this information through a survey on different instructional strategies.

After a workshop to learn and practice a strategy we ask the teachers to integrate it into their classroom practice or iterate it to their particular situations, and share the strategy with at least one other person.  At our next meeting we review the progress people were able to make and then launch into working on a new strategy.  Over time, we hope to build capacity for our faculty to have a richer toolbox of strategies to use in their practice.

At our first workshop, we looked at how to make learning visible through the use of a chalk talk.  If you want more information on the technique you can go to the book, Making Thinking Visible, or the website, Visible Thinking.  Coaches (faculty) who attended the workshop ended up either using a chalk talk or adapting it in some way to fit their lesson or objective.   Some teachers used the visual thinking strategy developed by Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen as a way to making the learning visible.  In the slides below, you will get a sense of what coaches did to incorporate it into their teaching and how they shared it with colleagues (some of the embedded videos may not play in full).  We have a professional learning community (PLC) structure in our Middle and Lower Schools so some coaches shared the strategy in their PLC, while others shared it with a colleague.

We are in the midst of collecting feedback from the coaches, iterating our model, and looking at how best to enhance every teacher’s toolbox of strategies to reach all students.


We come full circle, or maybe half circle on #assessment.

October 25, 2015
How should we measure success in school?

How should we measure success in school?

The New York Times produced an article written by Kate Zernike, Obama Administration Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools.  The opening paragraph states:

Faced with mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in the nation’s public schools, the Obama administration declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful.

Interesting, it has taken decades amidst widespread criticism from classroom teachers, parents and higher-education experts that our focus on high-stakes testing, or testing in general, has been misguided and does not serve our students well.   Read the story about Dawn Neely-Randall, a fifth-grade teacher from Ohio, written by Quinn Mulhollland, The Case Against Standardized Testing, in Harvard Political Review.  Ms. Neely-Randall realized the absurdity of the demands placed on her students with excessive testing that she spoke out and wrote two essays for the Washington Post.

She is quoted in the HPR article:

I can no longer be part of the problem in my students’ lives, and that’s when I started speaking out.

Teachers, administrators and other educators have been speaking out for a long time about the abusive environment we create in our schools when we test, or prepare students for tests, for upwards of 10-15% of their life in school.  If we include all the formative, summative, benchmark, end-of-course, state and national standardized assessments and international assessments we subject students to it would be considered excessive, unproductive, and maybe abusive, and probably accounts for more like 20% of time spent in school.  Certainly, that’s the conclusion Ms. Neely-Randall came to and felt moved to speak out.  Here is how she expressed her feelings about one of her fifth graders in the HPR article.

“She had a complete meltdown,” Neely-Randall told the HPR. “And I could do nothing to help her, I couldn’t help her with the test. I could just let her take a little break then, but then she was going to run out of time, and she was watching the clock, she knew.

How have we gotten to this point?  I would venture to say that we let the wrong people, mainly politicians, corporations and educational policy types, make all the decisions around what’s best for students.  We should invest in the intelligence and sensitivity of our school administrators and teachers to decide how best to assess student learning.  Assessing student learning should be a local responsibility.  I am not against all standardized testing, but I am against the rampant, out-of-control testing that has been put in the hands of large corporations making large amounts of money on the backs of our students.

In all of these essays and articles, there is little mention of the fact that almost all of the state and national assessments students are subjected to are known to be inadequate measures of what students know and are able to do.  Few of them actually ask students to think critically or creatively about important problems and ideas in the real world.  They are certainly not authentic by most measures.  If  we used Benjamin Bloom’s framework for categorizing educational goals as a lens, most assessments would not be looking at whether students could make connections between ideas, justify their position on ideas, or create new ways of looking at ideas or concepts (see the framework below).


If we want students to take state and national assessments to determine what they know and can do, then we have to design and construct them to be worthy of their time.  We can no longer use as an excuse that more authentic assessments are harder to grade and taken longer to grade.  Our students deserve better.  We are capable of building the most advanced fighter jet in the world, the F-35, at a cost of over $200 million per jet.  You mean to tell me that we can’t create an authentic assessment for students to take that measures what they KNOW  and CAN DO.  The “can do” is very important.  Our assessments should have a performance component that allows students to demonstrate their understanding in more ways than with paper and pencil.

The Obama Administration is calling for a change in policy that would result in a student spending no more than 2% of his or her classroom time on testing.  I hope they have pulled out a calculator and worked out the math.  Based on 180 school days, 2% of classroom time (not including lunch and recess) would be about 21 hours of testing (based on a 7 hour school day).  At an average of 6 hours of school per day (not including an hour spent at lunch and recess) that would be about 3.5 days of testing.  Is the 2% they reference all testing?  Public schools in Atlanta that I know spend about 12-15 days on preparing and administering high-stakes tests to students.  That doesn’t include all the other testing that is mandated by districts or school leaders.  Do we have bold and courageous leaders in our schools that are prepared to cut the testing environment by about 200%?  Even if they are bold and courageous, do they have the expertise and authority to figure out a better way to design and implement a more productive assessment environment in their schools?  I think they do if they trust and use the wisdom of teachers in the design process.

Arnie Duncan, the architect of a whole new effort these past eight years to increase our emphasis and reliance on high-stakes tests, is quoted in the New York Times article as saying:

“I still have no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, who has announced that he will leave office in December.

My questions are these: on track for what purpose and what end, and support on what aspects of their learning?  Again, most of these assessments, whether state or federally orchestrated, are insufficient and inadequate instruments to measure these two outcomes.  First, most districts and schools do not receive the results of the testing early enough to act on what students know or do not know.  In addition, the assessments cannot be disaggregated sufficiently to provide teachers and administrators with clarity about whether learning targets were mastered.  Second, schools promote students to the next grade before the results are in.  So if a students goes to the next grade not having mastered all the learning, they aren’t held back in most cases.  Take this one sobering statistic as an indication:

The literacy rates among fourth grade students in America are sobering. Sixty six percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test, meaning that they are not reading at grade level.1  Even more alarming is the fact that among students from low-income backgrounds, 80 percent score below grade level in reading.  (First Look: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, National Assessment of Education Progress at Grades 4 and 8 (click here))

Nothing new in this report!  Compared to other countries, we fail in math, science, and reading.

The conversation shouldn’t be about high-stakes tests, how much time students are being assessed, and whether the assessments are the right ones.  We should be talking about why 66% of all US 4th grade students are below proficient readers and figure out what to do.  If 66% of 4th graders can read effectively, how can we expect them to finish high school (many aren’t), go on to college, and be informed citizens.  Again, we solve lots of other problems that are just as complex like figuring out that there is water on Mars.  How much did we invest to solve that riddle?  You can bet that all the folks that contributed to solving that problem can read at grade level.

What if we invested billions of dollars into helping ALL students in school read at grade level.  Take a look at this fact from the Harvard Political Review article:

The law (NCLB) has come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution determined that states spend $1.7 billion per year on testing, an enormous increase over the $423 million states spent in 2001 before NCLB, according to the Pew Center on the States. All of this money has fueled a booming testing industry, with companies like Pearson racking up billions in sales. A POLITICO investigation published on February 10, 2015 revealed that Pearson receives tens of millions in taxpayer dollars even though there is “little proof its products and services are effective.”

Again, what if 1.7 billion dollars went into improving reading programs in all schools instead of into the corporate pockets of companies like Pearson?  Maybe all students would learn to read at grade level.

Arnie Duncan, I think its a little late for this quote to impact our direction:

“It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves,” he continued. “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

Duncan is leaving office and Obama is less than effective working with Congress to initiate any meaningful change.  Let’s face it, our government has shown a lack of leadership with regard to understanding the assessment landscape in school and designing effective programs to impact improvement in student learning.  This article highlights the disasters that have fallen on the backs of schools, administrators, teachers and students.   Obama and Congress have been unsuccessful in orchestrating a clear direction for America as illustrated in this quote from the article.

“But as the Obama administration pushed testing as an incentive for states to win more federal money in the Race for the Top program, it was bedeviled by an unlikely left-right alliance. Conservatives argued that the standards and tests were federal overreach — some called them a federal takeover — and called on parents and local school committees to resist what they called a “one size fits all” approach to teaching.”

It’s clear to me that politicians, educational policy makers, and corporations whose bottom line depends on selling tests should not be the visionaries behind a new direction in assessment.  Take this quote from the New York Times article:

But it (Obama Administration) also said that tests should be “just one of multiple measures” of student achievement, and that “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator or a school.”

And  yet, through Race-to-the-Top, the Obama Administration pushed states to use a single assessment, the state’s high-stakes test, as one of the main indicators to measure teacher effectiveness.  In the face of criticism from all types of educators, the administration persevered even though many high-stakes assessments are flawed and “no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision.”

We have a long road to climb and we shouldn’t invest in our government as the guide.  We need to put more authority and responsibility in the hands of schools, while also training principals and teachers to be excellent practitioners of all types of assessment.

Check other blog posts by the Center for Teaching on teacher supervision and evaluation and assessment.




It begins with a word and evolves into an artistic and personal narrative.

October 16, 2015

Two Westminster art teachers, Kim Blodgett and Walter DuPriest, start their 8th grade students on a journey that begins with a word.  Students choose a word that has meaning to them at this point in their lives.   They start off with a few instructions on the materials to use (blue tape) and where to start, and then set off on a journey that inspires them to develop their artistic narrative of the word they selected.  In the process of constructing their narrative they learn a great deal about themselves.  Maybe the most important outcome of this project is the self-discovery that comes from reflecting on a word and building a personal narrative.  Below are some of the words and images of their artistic expressions.  Since the narrative evolves, the images capture a moment in time.



At the Center for Teaching, we encourage teachers to take risks in the design of their curriculum and instruction.  In taking a risk, the learning environment becomes a laboratory for exploring how to engage students in relevant and meaningful work.  Kim and Walter have taken a risk that benefits student learning about art and themselves.

For more information about this project, contact Kim or Walter below.


Westminster Schools’ Middle School academic program

Kim Blodgett, Art Teacher,

Walter DuPriest, Art Teacher,


Why performance-based #assessment should have educators on the edge of their seats?

October 4, 2015

In the September 2015 edition of Phi Delta Kappan, Ruth Chung Wei wrote a thoughtful and informative article entitled, Measuring What Really Matters.  The authors make the case that performance-based assessments should be used more widely as a tool for getting feedback on student learning.  Their use could enhance our understanding of whether students are learning what we expect.  They write:

Performance assessments can tap into students’ higher-order thinking skills-such as evaluating the reliable of sources of information, explaining or arguing with evidence, or modeling a real-world phenomenon-to perform, create, or produce something with real-world relevance or meaning.

This would be in contrast to non-performance-based assessments that most primary and secondary school students are inundated with.  For example, worksheets, multiple choice tests or other assessments, that test lower-order thinking skills, are used as a default assessment tool by many teachers.

In their article, they explore what we can learn from past mistakes, especially the technical, practical, and political mistakes that hampered previous attempts by schools to use performance-based assessments as a tool.  Their recommendations are:

  • state assessment and accountability systems should be based on multiple measures of student learning, including locally developed assessments.
  • assessment systems should be coherent (they imply improved teacher professional development geared towards improving practice)
  • systems of assessment should support shared accountability and whole-system improvement (they write about reciprocal accountability)

By reciprocal accountability they mean:

all levels of the system-state, local, school, teacher, and student-are responsible for and must be actively engaged in building the capacity of educational systems to be responsive to the learning needs of all students.

It is interesting to think of the student as a stakeholder in the assessment system.  It seems totally reasonable because assessments are administered to give information about what a student learns.  Shouldn’t the student be in the assessment conversation?  Shouldn’t students take ownership and responsibility for their assessments?  It is their learning we are talking about.  If the answer is yes to these and other questions, then students need to be active players in assessment practices not simply passive participants.

In a Center for Teaching post on assessment, I wrote:

Assessment is a powerful tool in the teachers’ toolbox. It has been shown that effective assessment strategies can influence student achievement more than any other tool at the teachers’ disposal.

I also referenced an article, The Quest for Quality, by Stephen Chappuis,, in which the authors make the case for five elements that go into building a quality assessment program. The five are:

1. clear purpose
2. clear learning targets
3. sound assessment design
4. effective communication of results
5. student involvement in the assessment process

The authors argue for a balanced system of assessment in which the users, teachers and students are assessment literate.  These goals are also embodied in the piece by Chung and her colleagues.  They write:

For such local assessments to become a viable and trustworthy component of multiple-measures assessment system, they require well-designed systems to support technical quality, including design tools-design frameworks, task templates or shells, common rubrics, task specifications, task quality criteria-and an effective system of peer review for validation.

While they argue for this approach at the national and state level, I would argue that these design specifications should be required within every school and every classroom.  To achieve that end, we would have to help teachers learn how to become more effective designers of assessments, as was indicated by Chappuis in their article.

Performance-based assessments, commonly used by teachers who are engaged in project-based learning (PBL), are more authentic because they ask students to utilize a wide variety of learned skills, as well as their knowledge.  They often require students to read critically, think aloud, analyze sources, communicate their understanding, and collaborate with peers.  This example from Edutopia shows how a chemistry teacher uses performance-based assessment in his classroom.



There are numerous examples of performance-based assessment as part of PBL instruction at High Tech High and New Tech Network schools, as well as schools like Illinois Math and Science Academy that focus on inquiry-based instruction.

As Wei and her colleagues write in their conclusion:

But clearly, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders are telling us we need a change.

The change we should not be afraid of puts students at the center of the assessment conversation and teachers in charge of building high-quality, performance-based assessments.




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