Getting students excited about standards-based grading

I've been traveling around Iowa a bit lately to lead professional development workshops on standards-based grading.  Usually after an hour or two, a teacher in the group says something like this:

I agree with everything you've said so far.  Although it sounds like a lot of work, I think it makes sense.  How do I communicate this with parents?
My response:
Communicate this idea with the students first.  If you don't, you'll be doing this to your students rather than with them.
I suggest teachers get students excited about the failures of the current grading and assessment system using the same illustrations I use to motivate the change with them during the workshop.  Here are a few examples.


Bobby aces the homework, aces the quiz and aces the test.  He's the high flyer in your classroom, right?
Suzy doesn't really "get it" on the homework (75%) and struggles a bit on the quiz, too (80%).  Somewhere after the quiz, Suzy has a light bulb moment and "gets it" so she aces the test.  

Which student knows more? They both have the same level of understanding. 
Which student gets a better grade?  Bobby.  Why?  

Enter Jo-Jo.  
Jo-Jo bombs the homework (50%) performs poorly on the quiz (60%) and bombs the test, too (60%).  A week after the test,  Jo-Jo has a light bulb moment and walks into the room yelling, "I get it!" and can demonstrate a high level of understanding.   The old systems says,
 "Too bad, didn't get it by my arbitrarily set deadline."  
The new system should say,
"Awesome, Jo-Jo..let me go change that in the grade book.  I'm so thrilled you learned it a week after the 'test.'"
After getting students fired up about changing grading and assessment, it's time to pitch the idea of feedback focused on specific learning targets.  A volleyball/coaching analogy works well.

When you're a bench warmer and you want to become a starter, you say, "Hey coach, how do I get better?"  You do not expect him/her to say, "You stink" or "Get better."  A good coach says, "You need to get better at spiking and digging even though you've got a pretty good serve."  
Why do our tests, quizzes and projects only have a single letter grade or percentage attached to them?  What if feedback could be even more the good volleyball coach?

Letter grades just say "You stink" or "You're good."  We can do better.

(This story can be modified to use other sports or vocal/instrumental music)
These types of 5-10 minute conversations over a few week time period can really get students excited about changing the culture and grading/reporting system in a classroom.  In my own experience, students eventually were begging me to put these wild and crazy ideas into practice.  When that happens, you've started shifting the ownership of your classroom over to the students.

...and that's when the fun really begins.  

Feel free to share your successful standards-based grading student conversations in the comments below.

(Oh, and if you're still interested in communicating with parents after the fact, here's a place to start.)

Using Google Docs/Apps to motivate PLCs

I was recently interviewed by SimpleK12 about our district's use of the Google Apps suite to motivate professional development.  We use primarily Google Docs and Google Sites to create a "one stop shop" for PD resources.  Each learning team has a shared folder for meeting agendas/minutes, data files and any other documents they collaborate on.  I think it's safe to say our staff appreciate the feedback loops we've created through the use of Google Forms surveys, too.  The professional development planning process has become much more transparent and dynamic.  Check out the video below for more information.

Why #iowacore chat?

I'm not a big fan of #edchat.  Personally, I think it's difficult to solve the education system's problems in 140 characters and given so many different local contexts.  This isn't to say I think it isn't for everyone, but it's just not for me.

At the request of some folks in Iowa, I've helped start a weekly #iowacore chat.  Each week, we discuss a topic related to a statewide initiative called the "Iowa Core."  I view this time as an hour of information gathering.  We recently talked about Outcome 6, so I gathered some resources to share with the group.   Because the Iowa Core has created a common language around the "what" and "how" of Iowa schools, it's closing the geographical gap for us here in the heartland.  I can learn about the processes and current improvement goals from schools in all corners of the state.  I get most excited about the opportunity to connect outside of the hour reserved each week to talk about Iowa Core.  Whether it's emailing Bridgette or Brad a day later or Skyping with Karl the next week, there's more to #iowacore than the 140 character conversations (although our future Department of Ed. head provided some memorable humor!) because these are colleagues I can count on at anytime to share what's working in their district up the road or across the state.

Focusing on students rather than teachers: Iowa Core Outcome 6

Once upon a time, Iowa districts created their own local standards and benchmarks.  While local control seemed like a good idea, it was a potential headache for curriculum directors and teams to agree on what should be taught at each grade level and discipline.  Iowa is a little "behind the times" when it comes to embracing statewide content standards....until recently.

Educators are deeply entrenching themselves in the Iowa Core (that is unless, it's dropped, but that's a different topic of discussion) as a result of a new state mandate that includes both what and how.  In other words, Iowa school districts now have a framework for what essential skills and concepts all students should learn and how the instruction should happen:

Beginning with the 2009-2010 school year, each district was required to complete a "self study" (more information here) based on the six outcomes of the Iowa Core.  This permits districts to annually review their work in each of the six areas.  Each local education agency chooses which outcome(s) to focus on in a given year, however several alignment-related deadlines have been mandated by the legislature.

In general, I think the Iowa Core is a really great idea and am thrilled to be leading my district's professional development right now rather than several years ago when it seemed to be raining initiatives in Iowa.  I do have a bone to pick with Outcome 6 and that's the reason I'm writing this post.  Before the nasty comments come in, I should say that I've previously shared this information with two members of the Iowa Core statewide network, so in my opinion, this is not an unfair public rant. :)

The purpose of outcome six is...
Educators implement effective instructional practices to ensure high levels of learning for each and every student.
Sounds good so far.  When digging deeper into the self study for outcome six, things get a little shaky.  Target 6a says:
Educators deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core’s characteristics of effective instruction through collaborative teams.
and the action steps are...

  • 6.a.1 - Educators form and maintain collaborative teams.
  • 6.a.2  - Educators acquire awareness of the characteristics of effective instruction.
  • 6.a.3  - Educators engage in dialogue about practices that support the characteristics of effective instruction. 
  • 6.a.4 - Leadership Team facilitates a process to determine the degree to which practices that align with the characteristics of effective instruction are in place in classroom instruction. 

Target 6b says:
Educators study and implement instructional practices that support the characteristics of effective instruction.
and the action steps are...

  • 6.b.1 - Leadership Team makes decisions about how to strengthen the district/building professional development plans to address the Iowa Core. (See Outcome 5.)
  • 6.b.2 - Educators engage in professional development that follows the Iowa Professional Development Model (IPDM) to implement instructional strategies, models, and/or approaches supportive of the characteristics of effective instruction (see Outcome 5).
  • 6.b.3 - Educators implement with fidelity selected instructional strategies, models, or approaches that demonstrate the characteristics of effective instruction.
To summarize, teachers should be forming and maintaing collaborative teams so that they can deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core's characteristics of effective instruction. It all sounded fine and dandy until I took a step back and compared this to what I knew about Rick and Becky DuFour's professional learning communities (pdf) philosophy.  The three big ideas of a professional learning communities are....

  1. Focus on learning. (What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they have learned? What will we do if they already know it?)
  2. Build a collaborative culture. (Teachers working together are more effective when working in isolation)
  3. Focus on results. (Results rather than intentions.  Results are based on student learning)
Outcome 6 misses the mark in two of these three areas.

It focuses on teacher behavior (implementing five research-based instructional practices) rather than student learning (results).  I'm familiar with school districts around the state spending lots of time and resources digging into the characteristics of effective instruction, but how is this progress being measured?  Walk throughs?  Self-reporting?  Surveys?  Those all make sense, but these measurements focus on the teacher and do not ensure students have learned better/more/pick-your-phrase as a result of the modified instruction.  John Doe can "teach for understanding" using "formative assessment" as a part of a "rigorous and relevant curriculum" while "teaching for learner differences" in his "student-centered classroom" as shown in his observational walk through template, but if student learning hasn't improved, it was likely done in vain. 

We should instead be looking at both the art and science of teaching, but through the lens of "Is it working?"  Russ said:
 Have I taught if my students haven't learned?
It's the age old "I taught it, but the kids didn't get it" staff lounge conversation we've all heard from time to time. 

For every problem that's raised a solution should follow, so here's my proposal.  Outcome 6 should more closely align with the DuFour's three big ideas, specifically results and students learning.  The fuel for Iowa's collaborative learning teams needs to shift towards students and away from teachers.  The input becomes areas where students are not learning so that instruction changes and in turn results, as measured by student learning, are positively impacted.  The metric for success is student learning rather than implementation of specific instructional strategies.   In this solution, teachers become more concerned about little Suzie "getting it" than they do the specific strategy used to get her there.  

Any of this make sense?

Thanks to everyone who was able to make the first #iowacore chat on Twitter.  Our next one will take place on Monday, January 17, 2011.  Your input is appreciated to set the time and topic.

Results with (and without) a reason

Over Christmas break, I read Transforming Professional Development into Student Results by Doug Reeves.  Overall, I felt the book did not live up to its title, however one chapter stood out and continues to stick in my mind.

Reeves proposes a "Leading and Learning" matrix describing the effectiveness of school districts and their level of understanding why they are (or are not) successful.

(adapted from Figure 1.1 on p. 17)

As a district administrator, I'm thinking about adapting this framework for classifying teachers and/or learning teams.  This could evolve into a potential staff development conversation starter.  

For the first four years of my teaching career, I believe I bounced back and forth between quadrants I and III.  Looking back, that's pretty scary because I believed that, at times, I was successful at helping high school students learn math, but I had no real understanding why.  I wish I could say I instead spent most of my time in quadrant II, but the students I inherited were the difference.  If several external factors changed, I could have easily been stuck in quadrant I.  During years five and six, I danced between quadrants II, III and IV.  

Which quadrant do you most identify with and why?  

One post can make a difference


  • Middle school principal  blogs about it his smart phone purchase over Christmas break.


  • Middle school teacher reads principal's blog and decides to give cell phones a try in the classroom.


  • Middle school teacher consults with district media specialist (Kathy is a rock star, if you haven't met/followed her yet) who sets him up with our district PollEverywhere account and shares a link with him about cell phone use in the classroom.
  • Middle school teacher comes up to my office to explain it all with comments such as... "I told the kids I might be the only teacher in this school that does not own a cell phone, but it's time we start using them responsibly in our classroom" and "Tomorrow, the kids in my class will bring their phones.  Two of them do not have phones and they're going to use a laptop from the computer cart so they're not left out.  They walked out of the room excited."  
Vocabulary word definitions will no longer be scripted by the teacher.  Instead, students will come up with a common definition based on the resources at their finger tips.  

Students will no longer raise their hands when they want the teacher to slow down.  Instead, they will push a button on their phone to set off the ring tone.  

I'm told these were both student ideas.  I'm looking forward to visiting this classroom tomorrow (Friday) to see it in action.  The excitement I have is not centered on the technology tool -- it's about the change in pedagogy, the change in control from the teacher to the student.  

It's amazing how one post can make a difference.