Amanda Ripley Would Be Our Public Relations Coordinator . . .


Amanda Ripley Speaking at Glenbard North High School - October 14, 2014

Amanda Ripley Speaking at Glenbard North High School – October 14, 2014

Ripley, A. (2014). The smartest kids in the world: And how they got that way. New York: Simon & Schuster


I haven’t written an update here for about a year. But I have been overwhelmed with requests from my readers to persevere . . . OK, actually I just realized that I read closer when I hold myself accountable for writing a post about the book I am reading. So here we go . . .

I figured I would make my triumphant return by sharing Amanda Ripley’s great book in case anyone out there interested in education has not read it yet. We were fortunate in my district to partner with our Glenbard Parent Series and bring Ms. Ripley in to our district to speak to our entire staff. I also got the chance to talk to her after her keynote, and I learned a lot from her perspective as someone who is not an educator, but is an amazing investigative journalist writing about education.

WARNING: This post includes spoilers regarding her conclusions. If you haven’t read the book and know you are the type of person who won’t read it if you know “where it is going”, please just stop here and go read the book. Otherwise, read on for the moments from the book that I found most salient and motivating. I do not try to summarize any of the students’ individual stories here, but this is where the book really comes to life and why you need to read it yourself. It is the poignant student perspectives she captures so richly that make the book’s recommendations for reform so compelling.

In a perfect school, Amanda Ripley Would Be Our Public Relations Coordinator. Ok so I need to remind you here that this blog is completely hypothetical. In a real world, she would be a bad choice for this role, because I am afraid she would be a little “too” honest if there is such a thing in public service (her take on high school sports, for example, would not go over well). However, in a perfect, hypothetical world she would be an ideal public relations coordinator for our school district because she would tell a narrative about our students, families, and teachers that would emphasize how urgently important it is for us to have high expectations for our students and back up these high expectations with actions that send the right signals to our students.

At the outset, I would like acknowledge that there have been several excellent critiques published over the last couple years that have taken issue with the misuse of the word “rigor” in education circles. However, I think if you read her book, I think you will find that this criticism does not apply to Ripley because she defines it so comprehensively throughout the book. In fact, to put the biggest spoiler right up front, her conclusion is unequivocal on this term alone: “One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.” (p.193)

Here is the frame for this bestseller: Ripley studies 3 U.S. high school students studying abroad in Finland, Poland, and South Korea in depth, while also analyzing results from many other U.S. exchange students in these nations and students native to these 3 nations doing exchanges in the U.S. She juxtaposes these very personal vignettes and survey results with her own investigative reporting, which includes interviews with educators and policymakers around the world, data analysis, and personal projects (she personally took the PISA test to see what it was like).

Her passion for the project stems from her discovery that some nations were doing an amazing job educating their children without any clear advantages over the U.S., at least upon initial examination.

. . . in a small number of countries, really just a handful of eclectic nations, something incredible was happening. Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.

How to explain it? American kids were better off, on average, than the typical child in Japan, New Zealand, or South Korea, yet they knew far less math than those children. Our most privileged teenagers had highly educated parents and attended the richest schools in the world, yet they ranked eighteenth in math compared to their privileged peers around the world, scoring well below affluent kids in New Zealand, Belgium, France, and Korea, among other places. The typical child in Beverly Hills performed below average, compared to all kids in Canada (not some other distant land, Canada). A great education by the standards of suburban America looked, from afar, exceedingly average. (p.4)

The metric she uses to define which nations are getting it right is The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which she provides a detailed description and history of in her book. She also takes the PISA test herself to go through what students experience. She seems to score pretty well, but she should right? She leaves the test thinking that it does indeed measure critical thinking, which is the cornerstone of 21st Century learning.

PISA demanded fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate; in other words, the basic skills I needed to do my job and take care of my family in a world choked with information and subject to sudden economic change. What did it mean for a country if most of its teenagers did not do well on this test? Not all of our kids had to be engineers or lawyers, but didn’t all of them need to know how to think? (p.23)

By the way, the only metric we beat all of the other countries (except Luxembourg) on was spending per pupil. (p.24) Without commensurate results, this is not something to brag about.

Why do these nations achieve better results with their students than we do? Well, Ripley is too good of a reporter to make it simple, but she is also too good to not distill it down. What she reduces it down to is what I mentioned earlier: a societal consensus “that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.” (p.193) She argues that “Wealth had made rigor optional in America” in the past, but the fiercely competitive and flat global economy now makes it essential. (p.193)

So what is Ripley’s definition of rigor? It is very comprehensive and you need to read the book, but I think all of the components she cites revolve around the various “signals” (this is the word show uses throughout) a society expresses around if and why learning is important.

Our expectations for what students can do is a signal. She argues that we have low expectations for kids in math for example, citing surveys where “four out of every ten American fourth graders said their math work was too easy. . . Compared to countries around the world, the typical eighth grade math class in the United States featured sixth or seventh grade content; by the same measuring stick, the highest performing countries taught eighth graders ninth grade math.” (p. 77)

Our standardized tests, although often criticized for putting too much pressure on kids, resonate with students differently than the few, but very important matriculation tests students in other countries take. Ripley cites a reflection of one of the American students she followed.

Now, thinking back on the rhetoric about high-stakes testing and stressed out kids, Eric almost laughed. American tests were not high stakes for students. In fact, the stakes couldn’t have been much lower, especially for standardized tests. The consequences, if there were any, extended mostly to the adults who worked at the school; their school might, for example, be labeled in need of improvement by the federal government and, in a few places, a small fraction of teachers with extremely low scores might eventually lose their jobs. But for most kids, standardized tests were frequent, unsophisticated, and utterly irrelevant to their lives. (p.57)

The lack of focus shown in our frequent, low-stakes standardized tests, is also seen in our often incoherent standards. Ripley argues that countries that have fewer, clearer, and higher standards are better positioned than in the U.S. where “America’s tradition of local control was a nightmare for teachers. They were left to pick and choose between clashing standards as best they could, repeating subjects again and again under the direction of repetitive, sprawling textbooks.” (p.74) She cites studies that show our textbooks are four times the length of nations where they are clear about what standards students should learn when so they can master key skills and move on to higher order learning. She has a great section specifically on math which she sees as a “language of logic” which is of “rising value in a world in which information was cheap and messy.” (p.70)

In her section focused on Math, Ripley describes how it is not just the coherent standards , but also the engaging, artful instruction that makes a difference in student learning. She describes the experience of an American student re-engaging with math due to the way the teacher interwove mathematics disciplines in real-world applications.

He noticed, however, that the students were learning geometry in a totally different way from how he had learned it. The teacher wove trigonometry and calculus into the lesson, following the thread of the lesson across disciplines, as though geometry were just one solar system in a larger universe of math. Together, the different disciplines could solve problems in the real world, where mathematics was not boxed into neat categories. Geometry was the study of shapes, after all, and calculus was the study of change. To figure out how shapes behaved when they changed perhaps to design a video game you needed both. (p.76)

Teaching is an incredibly complex craft, and this kind of integrated instruction has very high demands on the skill of the artist. To scale this kind of teaching requires another key signal Ripley sees as a common thread in each of the three nations she dives deep into: they have very high standards for who can be a teacher. Her book is replete with stories of universities in these countries having very high admission thresholds, student-teacher applicants being rejected multiple times, and rigorous batteries of performance assessments that require a candidate to prove they can teach before they are allowed to do so. The bright side of these high expectations for those who enter the profession is that it allowed these nations to do as Finland did and remove authoritarian accountability measures and top-down control of instruction.

The government abolished school inspections. It didn’t need them anymore. Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks. They were trained the way teachers should be trained and treated the way teachers should be treated. (p.90)

It isn’t just teachers who Ripley says we need to hold to higher expectations. She criticizes parents for sending the wrong signals about what is important. Some of the things she criticizes border on sacrilege (the emphasis in the U.S. on sports takes a beating in her critique). Some things she says parents should do are less controversial but too infrequently practiced: things like having in-depth conversations with your student about what they are doing in school, reading to them when they are young, and (gasp!) reading for pleasure in front of them.

And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said. (p.111)

Ripley ties the reform stories in these countries together beautifully around this theme of rigor. But she doesn’t make it sound easy. When you read the book you will get a good picture of the growing pains these countries needed to suffer through to achieve these reforms. But you also get a vision about how the change happens.

One thing led to another. Highly educated teachers also chose material that was more rigorous, and they had the fluency to teach it. Because they were serious people doing hard jobs and everyone knew it, they got a lot of autonomy to do their work. That autonomy was another symptom of rigor. Teachers and principals had enough leeway to do their jobs like true professionals. They were accountable for results, but autonomous in their methods. (p.116-117)

The huge takeaway that was common between the U.S. exchange students she profiled was the clear message they experienced in the cultures of these other countries that learning was serious work: “one message: that kids’ futures depended not on their batting averages, their self-esteem, or their Facebook status, but on how hard they worked to master rigorous academic material.” (p.58) Ripley beautifully concludes with a simile addressing this unanimity of high expectations that manages to get in one last dig on American sports culture in the process.

That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else. High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high-school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted.  (p.191)

Amanda Ripley would be our Public Relations Coordinator because she would tell a narrative to our educators, our students, and their families that would hold us to the high expectations of our rhetoric.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .            Dan Rothstein & Luz Santana Would Teach Us (and our Students) to Ask Our Own Questions . . .

Steven Farr Would Run Our Teacher Mentor Program . . .

Farr, S. (2010). Teaching as leadership: The highly effective teacher’s guide to closing the achievement gap. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Steven Farr leads the teaching training program of Teach for America, a non-profit organization that enlists recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities and leverage research-based instructional strategies to close the achievement gap in American schools. Teaching as Leadership summarizes the high impact leadership principles Farr has identified in his work, providing an overview of research on each strategy, along with powerful illustrative anecdotes from Teach for America teachers who employ them. The book outlines 6 leadership principles: 1. set big goals, 2. invest students and their families, 3. plan purposefully, 4. execute effectively, 5. continuously increase effectiveness, and 6. work relentlessly.

While Teach for America (and this book), particularly focus on leveraging these principles to improve the effectiveness of schools in low-income communities, the power of the concepts and applications will resonate with teachers of our nation’s most affluent students as well. The book provides abundant, powerful stories from teachers in each of the 6 sections of the book that explicate the principles. Farr should succeed in prompting reflection by any reader in our profession on not only the expectations we have for our students, but the expectations we have for ourselves as leaders.

These teachers’ success forces us to ask ourselves some important questions. When we see students excelling in classrooms across the country in high poverty schools, how can we accept the prevailing view that the students’ successes are nothing more than heart-warming exceptions to the inviolable reality of the achievement gap? (p.228)

The importance of high expectations is a key theme that runs throughout the book. Each of the principles identified as key levers on accelerating student growth are rooted in a perspective on the part of the teacher that they can be a difference maker and that extraordinary gains in student achievement are possible if both they and their students are willing to work hard and maintain a growth mindset.

Without exception, the strongest teachers we have studied tap into an amazing phenomenon of human psychology: the self-fulfilling prophecy of high expectations. These teachers recognize that we get from our students what we expect from them. These teachers’ every action is driven by the insight that high expectations cause high achievement. (p.26)

In education, this concept is not new, and is most often cited in our professional training as the Pygmalion effect or the Rosenthal effect, after Robert Rosenthal, one of the researchers who conducted seminal studies demonstrating its impact. What is new in this book is the abundance of powerful first-hand accounts from Teach for America teachers testifying to the impact of it in practice with students. One powerful illustration comes from Brian Wallace, a fourth grade self-contained special education teacher from New York.

I’ll never forget the way that Melia used to beg me to reassess her reading level, even if the next assessment wasn’t scheduled for another month. Every time she would improve her time on a fluency passage or successfully decode an unfamiliar word, she would say, “see, Mr. Wallace? I’m ready to move up another level. Get out the stuff and test me now.” Melia was so invested in becoming a stronger reader and so invested in meeting her goal that absolutely nothing was going to hold her back from getting there–even me. But this didn’t just happen on its own. It took constant reinforcement of her efforts, setting small and attainable benchmarks along the way that would allow her to experience success, giving targeted and meaningful praise, and really celebrating even the smallest step toward the goal. (p.54)

This example also demonstrates the second leadership principle Farr identifies, which is to invest students and their families in the student’s success. In Mr. Wallace’s anecdote, Melia is clearly invested in her own success and demonstrates certainty in the efficacy of her own hard work.

I recently had the privilege to have dinner with Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success whom we contracted to come speak as part of a lecture series for parents in our district. Dweck’s groundbreaking work on the importance of students having a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset” is cited by Farr as a foundational principle of Teach for America’s work. You really should read Dweck’s book, as there is a hazard in oversimplifying her research, but for the purposes of Farr’s book, it is distilled down to the importance of students believing that they can improve their learning through hard work, and that they are not limited by predefined ceilings of possible achievement. Farr employs the term “student investment” and provides a simple formula.

Student investment = “I can” X “I want”

For any endeavor, consciously or not, students are asking themselves, “Can I do this?” and “Do I want to do this?” Your responsibility is to be sure that every student answers yes to both questions. When your students internalize those perspectives and become invested in working hard to reach ambitious goals, they are not only receptive to, but also eager for, instructional leadership. With invested students, your potential for influence expands dramatically. With uninvested students, your efforts will lead to very little learning. (p.57)

High expectations for all students, when combined with investing students and families in the student’s academic success, can enable the teacher to customize their instruction in way to provide class work that requires all students to “work at the frontier” of their abilities. This is a phrase Farr uses to describe the difficulty level where students are challenged, invested, and even frustrated at the appropriate frustration level where learning growth occurs. This is the true power of “differentiated instruction”, a term that has become somewhat of a buzzword and is sometimes misapplied. Farr provides a compelling anecdote of what this looks like in real classes, with real students.

When she started differentiating instruction to be sure her students were working at the frontier of their abilities, she saw that they were much more engaged, on task, productive, and happy. For example, Ms. Fraccaro uses the Developmental Spelling Assessment to differentiate her word study and spelling instruction. After administering this assessment, she is able to ensure that her students can work comfortably with spelling patterns that are on their level. (p.99)

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Teaching as Leadership is the resolve it brings to me as an educator and the potential it has to improve the esprit de corps of our profession. Reading the book, I remember back to the toughest days when I was a full-time classroom teacher and the common thread that ran through almost all of them: exhaustion, combined with the doubt of whether I was having an impact on my students. Farr clearly understands this universal cross that all teachers bear.

One educator suggests that “the most disheartening and discouraging” aspect of teaching is “the fact that results are so intangible and unobservable. A carpenter at the end of the day can actually see what he has built, a doctor can observe the patient responding to treatment, but a teacher oftentimes has to go along for months with relatively few noticeable results.” While the wait for results could be frustrating, highly effective teachers refuse to accept that they cannot find ways to gauge student learning along the way and thereby improve their effectiveness. These teachers create systems that illustrate student learning in the same way a carpenter can see a house or doctor can observe a patient. (p.178)

In a perfect school, Steven Farr would run our teacher mentor program because he would train our teacher mentors to share these key principles of teacher leadership. He would help teachers realize that they are the singular key difference maker in their students’ success and arm them with strategies to help their students invest in their own growth, and ultimately reach self-efficacy their learning.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Amanda Ripley Would Be Our Public Relations Coordinator . . .

Michael Fullan Would Facilitate Our Strategic Planning Team . . .

Fullan, M. (2011). The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Michael Fullan is a prolific education researcher based out of Ontario, Canada. This book is great because it is a very concise summary of major themes that have run throughout his work over the last decade. While brief, each chapter features a couple powerful pieces of research supporting the themes, along with a few poignant case studies case studies drawn from a diverse array of fields including education (many from his own work in Ontario, Canada), medicine, and exemplars from corporate America you might expect to find in an MBA course.

The book is structured as a survey of the six “secrets” prefaced by an introduction that explains how interdependently these key components function. Throughout, Fullan provides powerful examples and applications of the component that paint a compelling vision of the impact they could have on schools if they were identified as the targets of a clear strategic plan. I will summarize each secret briefly here, but won’t really do them justice without the rich context Fullan provides.

The first secret is to “Love Your Employees”, primarily by providing them opportunities for continuous learning and growth as professionals to help them find meaning with their work. In schools, we have a mandate to maintain a laser focus on the importance of focusing on student learning and prioritizing the needs of students in all of our decisions. But while supporting this mandate, we cannot underestimate the importance of teachers as our primary investment, as “the quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” (23). Fullan recommends that the best way to express this “love” to your teachers is to provide them the tools and conditions they need to be successful so that they can experience efficacy and meaning in their work. Fullan cites case studies from employee empowering companies from corporate America identified in the 2007 Firms of Endearment study providing illustrative examples of corporations in competitive sectors outperforming their comparison companies by placing a premium on making their employees feel valued, empowered, and supported in their professional growth.

Secret two follows as the primary strategy for showing this “love” and it is embodied in Fullan’s charge to “Connect Peers With Purpose” by fostering “purposeful peer interaction” to help maintain the necessary balance of loose-tight leadership (12). Under an effective “loose – tight” leadership model, teachers and leaders are empowered to make key decisions during the change process (the “loose”) after the organization has outlined the few non-negotiable goals they have agreed to pursue with discipline (the tight). Fullan explains how purposeful interaction can improve focus and cohesion by applying the principles of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005) through the levers of using technology to increase collaboration, flattening the organization, and including the participation of a broader array of stakeholders.

Put simply, bringing peers together to collaborate, provided it is with clear purpose that supports the higher calling of the organization, almost always results in powerful action plans. One of the examples from education Fullan cites is something he dubs “lateral capacity building” whereby schools and districts implement purposeful structures to learn from each other. These networks not only create a powerful forum for sharing effective practices, but also a conduit to transparently share each organization’s results, creating very positive competition between schools and districts. Fullan cautions that it is very important that these collaborative efforts must focus on a higher purpose beyond one individual classroom, project, or initiative. He calls for a larger collective “we-we commitment” towards improving the work of each other in pursuit of the same higher purposes of the organization (p.50).

The third “secret” that Fullan reveals is that “Capacity Building Prevails”, calling for organizational improvement by “investing in the development of individual and collaborative efficacy” and providing accountability through an approach that embraces “nonjudgmentalism”. Through this approach, he argues organizations can provide accountability through transparency and peer interaction instead of pejorative judgments and punitive actions.

Fullan spends considerable time arguing that what he dubs “judgementalism” or stigmatizing and hectoring people for poor performance, is counterproductive (p.58). He contends that fear-based negative monitoring not only is counter-productive in the long-term, but that it can motivate employees to wrong and even unethical decisions in the short-term. Instead, we must focus on the long-term higher goals of the organization and building collective commitments to action.

The prescription for this capacity building, according to Fullan is as follows: 1. hire outstanding people, 2. eliminate stigma and fear, 3. Increase purposeful peer interaction, and capitalize on the positive competition that will result in order to build capacity.

The most resonant component of this capacity building recipe is the one that I have seen as most influential in my 15 years in our profession: hiring outstanding people. Fullan presents compelling studies of top performing school systems in Singapore, Finland, and Boston in order to highlight the commitment they have made to recruiting and developing the very best teachers, and then subsequently inducting them into professional growth programs that develop them into even better teachers, instructional coaches, or principals. But I didn’t need Fullan to cite research for me on this one. The very best Principals and Superintendents I have had the privilege to work for or with in my career were the ones that relentlessly demanded rigorous hiring processes that identified outstanding candidates. They then assured the new hires that they were expected to grow as a professional, take risks with confidence, and become leaders.

The fourth “secret” is “Learning is the Work” which Fullan highlights as the need to embed the belief that the best learning happens every day in the midst of the work, not during a three-day conference hundred of miles away. It is not as simple as ensuring that professional development is job-embedded, but also that is focused and disciplined on the goal of constantly improving instructional practice. The secret of developing this culture, according to Fullan, lies “in our integration of the precision needed for consistent performance (using what we already know) with the new learning required for continuous improvement” (76). So the hard part is that the learning must simultaneously focus on both improving consistency and fostering innovation.

Fullan cites a powerful example from the field of Medicine culled from Atul Gawande’s Better (2007) and engineering (vignettes from Toyota’s relentless commitment to constant learning and reflection). From education, he tells the story of outstanding work in Thornhill Secondary School in Ontario, where great gains in literacy scores are “possible primarily because teachers sustain their willingness to improve with relentless consistency” (p.85).

A major caveat that Fullan is careful to stress is that the learning must take place in context. Fullan quotes another giant in the field of school reform, Richard Elmore, to articulate this challenge.

The problem [is that] there is almost no opportunity for teachers to engage in continuous and substantial learning about their practice in the setting in which they actually work, observing and being observed by their colleagues in their own classrooms and classrooms of other teachers in other schools confronting similar problems of practice. (cited on 86)

The fifth secret is that “Transparency Rules” as Fullan prescribes the “clear and continuous display of results” to create the “positive pressure” that drives continuous improvement. It is important that this is accompanied by the development of a culture whereby stakeholders understand that “Transparency requires assessing, communicating and acting on data pertaining to the what, how, and outcomes of change efforts” (93). He Emphasizes that the measurement and reporting should not be conducted an in attempt to have the “tail wag the dog” through fear and retribution. We should also not seek to measure, collect, and report endless data for which there is no accompanying action. Instead, measurements should “focus on selected outcomes and specific actions” (94). An example he gives from Ontario is the development of networks of school districts who have gathered themselves around comparison districts they have identified as “statistical neighbors” to enable teacher leaders to chart their progress against challenging, yet attainable targets (96).

Fullan explains that “transparency rules”, firstly because it is ultimately inevitable due to the exponential “flattening” Friedman describes, but also because it provides employees the ability to assess the progress and impact of their work, thereby enabling them to find the meaning essential to the vibrant organizations he describes (100). It is incumbent on leaders to develop an organizational culture in which candor is encouraged and it is safe to fail for the type of transparency he describes to have a transformative effect.

Fullan’s conclusion outlines the final secret that “Systems Learn” which essentially calls for an organization to find ways to always be seeking to improve and have the humility to be willing to change in the face of a complex world. He says this is best achieved by developing leaders who can live the paradox of having the confidence to grapple with the increasing complexity of the world while maintaining the humility necessary to change when the context demands it.

Michael Fullan would facilitate our strategic planning process because he would not only be able to to help us identify the areas of our school systems that we want to improve, but also help us embrace the key organizational values that will make those improvements possible.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Steven Farr Would Run Our Teacher Mentor Program . . .

Amir Abo-Shaeer Would Coach Our Robotics Team . . .

Bascomb, N. (2012). The new cool: A visionary teacher, his FIRST robotics team, and the ultimate battle of smarts . New York, NY: Broadway.

This is the first book I have written about for this blog that is a non-fiction narrative rather than a research piece. Based on a true story, it reads like a novel and is cinematic in the way it builds drama around a group os students preparing for the FIRST Robotics Competition. If not yet optioned for a movie, I see this as a likely candidate for the feel good education film of 2014.

The book follows a year in the life of the students taught by Amir Abo-Shaeer as they prepare to compete in the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high school robotics competition organized by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The competition requires students to design and build a 120 pound robot to compete in a new game challenge every year against other robots. Abo-Shaeer is a physics teacher and former mechanical engineer who established the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) during his first year of teaching at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California. The Dos Pueblos students on the team come from diverse backgrounds and work tirelessly after school and into the night to design, build, and constantly reiterate versions of their robot.

The FIRST competition was founded by the genius inventor Dean Kamen (who counts the Segway as one of his many inventions) to elevate the emphasis and prestige of students pursuing science and technology innovation.

“We get what we celebrate,” Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, said between matches. Given how American culture celebrates ballplayers, movie stars, and, until recently, Wall Street titans, it was no wonder to Dean that so few kids pursued studies and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. At this world championship, and throughout the season, forty-two thousand high school students came together to celebrate something quite different. (p.3-4)

A key partner to Kamen in the development of the FIRST competition was MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers, who Bascomb also interviews for the book on the impact projects like the FIRST competition can have on the way we approach STEM education.

Why was FIRST working? Woodie Flowers understood it better than most. “1 think it’s time to shift away from the ‘Sage on the Stage,‘ ” he explained. “What do we do? Learn by doing. First, understand the phenomenon before we tackle the abstractions…. Second. learning with always trumps learning from.” For too long, Woodie believed, schools have focused on what he called “training” instead of education. In a speech at Olin University, he broke down the difference:

Training and education are very different. Training is a commodity. Education is the part that confers comparative advantage. Much of what we call engineering education is in fact training and poorly done. Learning calculus is training. Learning to think using calculus is education; Learning a CAD program is training. Learning to design is a much more complex, sophisticated thing . . . Once you could be trained to be a professional if you knew things, that was enough, but information is ubiquitous [now], you can’t have an advantage in society [just] because you know something. (p.18-19)

Bascomb’s narrative builds drama throughout the timeline of the diverse group of ten students struggling to refine a robot that will be able to compete for a championship. They work with Abo-Shaeer and another adult engineer who volunteers to help the team as a mentor. Throughout the breakthroughs and setbacks of the build process, Bascomb also makes you care about the team by providing rich backgrounds on these kids who have found this passion and joined the team from many different pathways: cut from the basketball team, theater production guru, concert pianist, and master mathematician. The students split up into “crews” who are accountable for key components of the robot (electrical system, drive train, programming, shooting mechanism).

The journey of the team is an inspiring example of what can happen when a teacher relentlessly embraces the constructivist “learn by doing” approach that Woodie Flowers describes. From the first stages of the build process when the students first learn of the game parameters, Abo-Shaeer makes it clear that the students are going to solve the problems themselves.

“This will be a crazy game, the hardest I’ve seen,” Amir said, chopping the air with his hands. They were rarely still when he spoke. “It’ll be chaotic, but let’s start to figure it out. The most important thing to do right now is understand the game and come up with a strategy.” He asked for volunteers to inventory the kit of parts to make sure everything was there. He wanted everyone else to break into teams of four to brainstorm ideas. “No idea is a stupid idea. One idea that might never work could lead someone to think of another that will.” (p.39)

The book is not subtle in its two big takeaways: 1. Great teaching is an inspiring thing to watch, and ultimately results in students becoming passionate about owning their own growth as a learner and “doer” 2. We need to elevate the emphasis on, and prestige allocated to students pursuing STEM education.

American universities graduated 70,000 engineers in 2004, while China graduated 500,000 and India 200,000. Only 32 percent of students in the United States graduated college with science or engineering degrees, while China boasted double that percentage. Overall, American students were failing to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in great enough numbers. and the statistics were even more abysmal for women and minorities. (p.20)

I don’t want to spoil the dramatic narrative for you. But needless to say, it is an inspiring read for anyone who wants a glimpse of the passion and dedication to student learning our greatest teachers take into the classroom every day. I will leave with a rejoinder Abo-Shaeer fires at the adult mentor for the team when he presented a compelling argument that the design for the build the students had called for was too ambitious and that they would need to scale back the sophisticated design if the team had any hope of finishing on time.

“I’m doing this with the students,” Amir said. “We came to an agreement on the kind of robot we wanted to build. I can’t go to them and look them straight in the eye and say it’ll be okay to cut these things. I can’t sell this to them. It’s their project. It won’t be the same robot they signed up to build. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

I’ve never me Amir Abo-Shaeer, but you tell me if that doesn’t sound like a great teacher. In a perfect school he would coach our Robotics team because inspiring teachers not only change the lives of students, but serve as examples of how other classroom teachers can make the transition Woody Flowers calls for from “the sage on the stage” to “the guy on the side”.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Michael Fullan Would Be Our RTI Coordinator . . .


Tony Wagner Would Do Our Global Readiness Audit . . .

Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York, NY: Scribner.

I got the chance to talk to Tony Wagner when I was presenting at the College Board AP National Conference in Orlando last July!

Basically, Wagner is to the education profession what Thomas Friedman is to the business world. He provides a relentless voice to the argument that our schools are adapting too slowly to the reality that we must help students learn differently than they did 30 years ago, resulting in a widening gap between our graduates’ competitiveness in the global marketplace. Wagner cites Friedman’s work frequently, reminding us that routine work is going away as an option for a well-paid career and knowledge is growing exponentially, changing constantly, and rapidly becoming a free commodity. In short, “sage on the stage” content delivery teaching circa 1975 prepares students for careers that no longer exist.

In his previous book The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner cited seven “survival skills” that should drive our teaching instead.

1. Critical thinking and problem solving

2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence

3. Agility and adaptability

4. Initiative and entrepreneurship

5. Accessing and analyzing information

6. Effective oral and written communication

7. Curiosity and imagination (p.12)

This is a very high bar for a rather conservative social institution like public education. Wagner tries to make the challenge more manageable by spending the bulk of the book profiling students and teachers who embody this type of work in real schools. As a public school administrator, I was honestly discouraged to read the majority of the amazing students profiled went through private schools. However, there were some public schools in the stories as well, and the students and teachers in all the vignettes were truly inspiring, ranging from the product manager for Apple’s first iPhone to a kid who led an internationally recognized effort to save endangered sea turtles. Through these amazing stories, Wagner illustrates his view of what schools should look like by starting with the most outstanding products of our schools and working backwards. He interviews the students, their parents, and their teachers to identify common threads in their learning experiences that might build larger lessons for the profession.

Wagner concedes the challenge this kind of change presents for American schools, providing a concise review of the profession’s history to acknowledge how the conservative foundations of our school systems are significant.

Educational institutions are inherently conservative, especially at the high school and college level, for some important and valid reasons. Our education system is charged with an essentially “conserving” task—preserving and transferring our knowledge “capital” to the next generation. Such knowledge is essential for “cultural literacy”-a term coined by E. D. Hirsch—to be an educated adult, and it can be a source of enormous personal satisfaction  as well. Knowledge is also essential in order to innovate. You need foundational information to be able to discern what can and must be improved upon or changed. One problem with this traditional approach to learning, however, is that the way in which academic content is taught is often stultifying: It is too often merely a process of transferring information through rote memorization, with few opportunities for students to ask questions or discover things on their own—the essential practices of innovation. As a result, students’ inherent curiosity is often undermined-“schooled out” of them, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have written. Additionally, research has repeatedly shown that too many students graduate from even our most elite universities with little or no conceptual understanding (p.141)

Wagner also points out how outdated this approach is, once we reflect on how exponentially knowledge is being created and obsoleted in the digital age.

Another equally serious problem with the traditional model is the exponential growth of information. One cannot possibly cover all of the academic content in a given area. The more a teacher tries to do this, the more the curriculum becomes a kind of forced march through the material. The result is that far too many of our students graduate from high school and college knowing how to pass tests, but less motivated to learn and lacking essential skills. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know. The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today. All successful innovators have mastered the ability to learn on their own “in the moment” and then apply that knowledge in new ways. (p.142)

This idea that “what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know” becomes the shorthand for Wagner’s prescription for reforming our schools. If a canon of knowledge is no longer enough to make our students successful, we must equip them with the ability to create and work with knowledge, not just consume it. His vignettes identify that these skills are most often learned by tapping the more intrinsic drivers of learning: passion, purpose, and iteration. He describes how students today are far less motivated by extrinsic rewards and punishments and far more inspired by the opportunity to attempt something, fail, and attempt again. It is no surprise, then, that a common thread in the learning experiences of the students profiled is the emphasis on problem-based learning that places value on inquiry and the application of knowledge.

It is striking, too, that both Shanna and Kirk had experience with a transformational project~based course that was hands-on, interdisciplinary, required teamwork, and encouraged risk-taking. For both, the opportunity to collaborate and build real products with others was the most exciting and motivating part of their education—and something they had never previously experienced. These courses enabled their passions to evolve into a deeper sense of purpose. In the model of how the qualities of innovators are developed that I introduced at the end of the last chapter, the culture of these courses continued to develop their intrinsic motivation, as well as their creative-thinking skills, and expertise. And both courses were taught by iconoclasts who did not fit the conventional academic mold. (p.69)

These “iconoclast” teachers that are featured so prominently in the lives of the inspiring students in the vignettes have different backgrounds and approaches to their classes. One characteristic that I found common among them all, however, was their comfort in shifting the power dynamic in the classroom to the student. They were willing to give up control of the learning process and allow for that scary moment where students are asked to struggle with a problem without a clear answer. One such teacher profiled was Ed Carryer who teaches a design class at Stanford that has produced many students who have become true innovators.

My goal is to empower them. I want them to feel like they’ve taken command of a body of material and can do things with it. We have lectures, and they are jam-packed-—-always overflowing—but the real learning goes on when they get into the lab, where they have to actually apply what they have been hearing and reading about—build circuits, write software, make it work. And most importantly integrate all of these pieces together. I take a very hands-on, application-oriented approach to the material. (p.48)

This is easier said than done. Wagner acknowledges that to retrofit our schools to provide this learning to students on a large scale in public schools, we will need to place a renewed emphasis on pre-service teacher preparation at our universities and intense professional development once they are in the profession. Citing Finland, where a nation revolutionized their schools in a single generation, Wagner calls for a commitment to the profession that can produce “master” teachers at a large scale in order to harness the passion, purpose, and play of all levels of students, not just those talented or privileged enough to attend the elite private schools profiled in much of this book.

Tony Wagner would do our Global Readiness Audit because like Thomas Friedman, he would identify the gap between our practice and global competitiveness along with a roadmap to close the divide.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Amir Abo-Shaeer would Coach Our Robotics Team . . .

Larry Ainsworth Would Prioritize Our Standards . . .

Ainsworth, L. (2003). Power standards: Identifying the standards that matter most.Englewood, CO: Lead and Learn Press.

As teachers everywhere are looking to adapt the curriculum of their courses and their daily instructional focus in order to prepare students for the new common core standards, I think it is a great time to revisit this concise handbook Larry Ainsworth published 10 years ago. Although one of the key advances of the common core standards is that they outline fewer, more rigorous standards, an examination of the ELA and Mathematics standards can still be daunting at first glance. These standards are indeed more rigorous and performance based, where students are asked to demonstrate progress towards discrete skills. Ainsworth’s work gives us a digestible perspective to start actually implementing these new targets in our classrooms, as he shares the power that can be leveraged by prioritizing key standards that can open doors to developing a broad array of skills. In this post, I will briefly revisit Ainsworth’s book and then provide an example of two “power standards” in the ELA Common Core Standards.

Ainsworth defines “power standards” as “prioritized standards that are derived from a systemic and balanced approach to distinguishing which standards are absolutely essential for student success from those that are “nice to know” (p. 2). A key hallmark of standards that qualify for the “power” distinction is that they “give students the ability to use reasoning and thinking skills to learn and understand other curriculum objectives” (p.5-6). Put simply, a key identifier for power standards is the potential that achievement of the standard has to be helpful in learning other key objectives in the future. When selecting which learning targets we should prepare students to hit first, we should pick those that when achieved, best prepare students for subsequently hitting another important target. On page 13, Ainsworth cites Doug Reeves, a favorite of this blog here and here, in identifying three key criteria and accompanying questions by which to select “power standards”. First, Reeves emphasize endurance, which carries with it the key question of “Will this standard or indicator provide students with knowledge and skills that will be of value beyond a single test date?” Second, we should look for leverage, for which we must ask “Will this provide knowledge and skills that will be of value in multiple disciplines?” Finally, we should consider Readiness for The Next Level of Learning, for which we must consider “Will this provide students with essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for success in the next grade or the next level of instruction?” Hopefully, when working in teacher teams to decide which of the common core standards to attack first, our finalists would speak well to each of these three questions.

Ainsworth simplifies these three components down to a consideration of “What do your students need for success–in school (this year, next year, and so on), in life, and on your state tests?” (p.14). For the rest of the book “school, life, and the State Test” is Ainsworth’s shorthand for choosing the standards that  are most worthy of focus. So this kind of prioritized focus sounds great, but how is it accomplished? Ainsworth argues that we must first change our perspective on what it means to teach something. He revisits the sad emphasis on coverage instead of learning that many other experts have lamented, quoting one teacher who, discouraged, admitted “I’ve stopped teaching. Now I’m just giving the kids worksheet and practice drills so I can at least cover the rest of the material they will be tested on” (p.8). Ainsworth calls this “The Frantic Coverage Model” which if widespread, neglects student learning in favor of “teaching” every objective (p.9).

“The Frantic Coverage Model” p.8

Ainsworth prescribes a new model, which he names “From Coverage to Focus” by which we develop a focused curriculum, assessed by performance-based assessments, to track student progress towards carefully identified power standards (p.9). Achievement of these power standards then prepares the students to more readily attack the rest of the key knowledge and skills they are expected to master.

“From Coverage to Focus” p.9

This indictment of the “mile wide and inch deep” problem is certainly not new ground being discovered by Ainsworth. However, the neat thing about Ainsworth’s handbook is that he not only identifies the problem, but he also provides a process for addressing it by laying out the conversation a teacher team should have when identifying power standards. This is followed by three chapters that provide an in-depth narrative of how three districts (one in each chapter) identified power standards, along with example artifacts from the curriculum they developed. The process Ainsworth identifies for discussing and identifying which standards should be prioritized begins with limiting the discussion to a specific grade level and content area.

Now, ten years after this book was published, the Common Core Standards have already done this for us (at least in English, Math, and Science) by identifying grade level specific standards for K-8 and grade band specific standards for 9-10 and 10-11.  The discussion then proceeds to “table talk” among the team to build consensus around which of these grade and content area specific standards best speak to the three questions (see above) (p.19). The next step is to discuss vertical alignment of courses in order to identify which of the power standards can be taught at each grade level, thereby developing an articulated plan for when the students will master each of these key understandings. Ainsworth and Reeves call this the “safety net” curriculum which was described in one of the school district artifacts as “a very limited set of academic standards organized for each grade and for each subject. It is not the total curriculum-just the “safety net” that every teacher should ensure every student knows” (p.89). Once this kind of safety-net curriculum is agreed upon, really engaging plans to attack the standards can be developed.

Chapter 9 of the book identifies one of these processes which Ainsworth calls “unwrapping the standards”, by which teacher teams develop interdisciplinary connections though which to attack the same power standards in different content areas, and then developing an engaging “hook” by which to get students excited about this work in more than one of their courses (p.108). Finally, I promised to pick out two standards from the ELA Common Core Standards that meet the “power standard” threshold of “enduranceleverage, and Readiness for The Next Level of Learning” or as Ainsworth quips, “school, life, and the State Test”. Here’s an easy one. The common core emphasizes critical reading of nonfiction text in order to identify perspective and argument. An example is the following standard for the 9-10 grade band.

RI.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
This clearly meets the “endurance” standard, as the ability to read critically is essential to active citizenry, success in careers, and managing the logistics and finances of a successful life. For a high school freshmen, meeting this standard clearly meets the “readiness for the next level” standard as these are key skills they will need in advanced social studies and english courses as juniors and seniors. What about “leverage”? Well, I don’t need to make an argument here. Just read the following corollary found in the 9-10 grade level band of the ELA Writing Standards.
W.9-10.1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
It would clearly be difficult to write this way without mastering the critical reading standard, while doing so would provide a significant head start to tackling this writing standard.
Larry Ainsworth would prioritize our standards because a prioritized order for attacking the common core will enable our students to leverage early learning for greater mastery later, making acceleration possible for all students.
Next On In A Perfect School . . .             Tony Wagner Would Do Our Global Readiness Audit . . .

Mike Schmoker Would Do Our Fidelity Checks . . .

Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

This book is a continuation of a theme that Mike Schmoker hits on in all of his work (i.e. Results Now), being that school leaders already know what works, but too often don’t have the courage to implement a sustained focus on it while ignoring everything else. It affirms the “less is more” leadership advice Doug Reeves gives in Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matters Most for Student Results that I reviewed in my second post of this blog.  The “it” that Schmoker describes as essential and worthy of being prioritized across our schools is a short list.

Three simple things: reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach); sound lessons (how we teach); and far more purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach). (p.2)

Basically, Schmoker argues that we don’t need any new initiatives, programs, or technologies to close the achievement gap. We just need to implement a sound and very focused (less is more) curriculum (see Larry Ainsworth’s concept of power standards), be very disciplined in our use of proven instructional strategies (basic good teaching which he reviews, not a fancy new model), and frequent engagement of students with authentic literacy activities (basically reading, writing, and speaking with a purpose, usually argumentative). For the rest of this blog post I’m just going to call these “The Big 3” (D-Wade, LeBron, and Bosh eat your heart out). Schmoker accuses the schools that don’t do “The Big 3” of having students whose attention is too attenuated to build enduring skills, and teachers whose work is too distracted by fad initiatives to provide outstanding “Big 3” lessons every day.

Schmoker puts together a powerful argument for “simplicity, clarity, and priority” which he argues should define all school improvement efforts. (p.12) He weaves together really impressive examples from other books (i.e. Pfeffer & Sutton’s The Knowing-Doing Gap), corporate America (Steve Jobs’ relentless focus at Apple), and a middle school he personally taught at that had a completely common curriculum and a unified and disciplined (yet formulaic) instructional model that achieved outstanding results for kids. He cites studies that assert that deep focus on “The Big 3” could eliminate the achievement gap in the United States in 5-7 years (p.1).

Schmoker also has a little fun arguing that until we have these three elements in place, we should not take on any new strand of program, workshop, or technology. In fact, he argues that any new workshop, training, conference, or book study should come with the following warning:

WARNING: If you or your staff do not already implement a reasonably sound, common curriculum that covers an adequate amount of subject-area content; that is taught with the use of the most essential, well-known elements of effective lessons; and that includes ample amounts of meaningful reading and writing, then please don’t sign up for this. This training will have no effect on learning in your classroom or school. Master the fundamentals first. Then, if you still need this workshop (and you might not), we look forward to seeing you. Have a nice day. (p.14)

The danger of this argument misapplied, of course, is that it could be used as an excuse not to innovate a school’s curriculum or instructional practice in a school system that did not already have “The Big 3” in place. Schmoker’s thesis could then be used as an excuse not to improve.

This, of course, would be a misapplication of Schmoker’s argument.  All of his examples of schools who had adopted this relentless focus on his “Big 3” did so with a dedication that in and of itself would need to be a major “new initiative” in your typical school.  So if a school made fidelity of “The Big 3” its only professional development and PLC focus, and did so with intensive continuous improvement efforts and collaborative reflection, I could agree with Schmoker that bringing in any additional school improvement fad or technology would be doing a disservice to their reform efforts. This would be a bold path to commit too, but he argues it would be extremely effective in accelerating student learning.

After providing the overarching argument for his call to action, Schmoker then outlines the action plan itself in the subsequent chapters. He has a concise chapter on“What” we teach that summarizes the best practices of curriculum design that should be applied to pare down our courses to “tasks that prepare students for college, careers, and citizenship: meaningful reading, writing, speaking, and thinking-around an adequately coherent body of content in the subject areas.” (p. 28) Schmoker also endorses my favorite author on the work that is required for unpacking the Common Core to identify “power standards,” Larry Ainsworth. (p.41) When selecting which standards will be the focus of our pared down curriculum, Schmoker prescribes Doug Reeves’ three metrics of Endurance (will kids need this later), Leverage (will this be valuable in other areas), and Readiness for the Next Level (p.47).

Reassuring to those of us who work in schools that have embraced the Professional Learning Communities model is Schmoker’s recommendation that this work is best done and monitored through a collaborative process in PLC teams. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as DuFour always emphasizes that a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” is a prerequisite to the PLC process, and the first of our four PLC questions is “What do we want students to learn and be able to do?

Schmoker also outlines the “how” of teaching by providing a primer on what effective teaching should look like. Nothing here is new either, but it still embodies what 95% of the great teachers I have seen work their magic do on a daily basis. Schmoker reviews the key components of good teaching we all hopefully learned as undergraduates: 1. Clear Learning Objectives, 2. Teaching / Modeling, 3. Guided Practice, 4. Checks for Understanding / Formative Assessment. He then outlines specific examples of what this looks like in a typical lesson, an example from Adlai Stevenson high school, and two in depth templates of how these components are implemented with the maximum impact.

Schmoker argues that although these components seem obvious, too many of our typical lessons are poorly built and do not hit on all of these components effectively. He then summarizes research by Dylan William (2007) that makes stark assertions about the impact effective lessons can have. Specifically, he cites the power of effective formative assessment and checks for understanding “would add between 6  and 9 months of additional learning growth per year.” (p.61) This is supportive of evidence Rick Stiggins has collected on the power of formative assessments summarized here in a previous post.

It is these sections of the book that really give you pause as someone passionate about leading positive change in our profession. Rededicating ourselves to supporting teachers in the hard work of delivering extremely sound lessons rife with formative assessment and authentic literacy is a serious commitment. It is also not a commitment that is “new and shiny” like a new packaged reading program or a 1-1 device deployment. After reviewing meta analysis work by Robert Marzano which also reinforces the power of chunking lessons with frequent segments of highly responsive formative assessment, Schmoker acknowledges that his prescription is not necessarily exciting.

Bored yet? Don’t be, despite the fact these elements of instruction are quite familiar. Because the payoff isn’t in knowing these components; the payoff comes from actually doing them. What would happen if we did design and implement this simple universally affirmed structure into our lessons? I’ll say it again: We would make educational history. (p.60)

Schmoker uses the subsequent chapters to go in-depth on what “The Big 3” look like in English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Math. In each chapter, he begins by reviewing the need to reduce standards in that particular curricular area and discusses which type of skills should be emphasized when selecting power standards.

In English Language Arts he recommends tons of writing and assignments that emphasize “simple, redundant literacy” in which we teach vocabulary, establish a purpose for reading, and then lead the students in activities to work with the reading by annotating, discussing, and writing (p.126). Basically, what great English teachers do every day.

He describes social studies courses “with literacy at the core” that make reading the focus of all exploration and debate and utilize a “task, text, talk” approach to assignments where students are given a challenge, use the text to develop an argument, and then discuss the issue in various structures (p.141).

In science, Schmoker also prescribes the “task, text, talk” approach and cites studies that support “effective science inquiry through literacy.” (p.168) More controversially, Schmoker says we could afford to give up many of lab practicums which he claims are often too “cookbook” to make them as good for scientific inquiry as literacy assignments.

In mathematics, he summarizes research on the importance of “extensive practice” in mathematical reasoning, wherein students are asked to express verbally the meaning of the problem and the solution, and then write fluently to explain their reasoning (p.212).

While I agree that we need to replace more poster projects and group PowerPoints with close reading and argumentative writing, I don’t fully endorse all Schmoker’s prescriptions for what “The Big 3” should look like in each area. For example, Schmoker has a penchant for emphasizing literature and long papers in English, whereas I think current research identifies greater leverage in frequent non-fiction and short position papers. In most cases, however, Schmoker’s recommendations are right on and are buttressed by sound research, supportive case studies, and templates that are compelling.

Mike Schmoker would do our fidelity checks because he would challenge us to ensure that we were supporting the most important and most difficult work in our schools (great teaching) as a prerequisite to, and throughout the implementation of, any new initiative. He would constantly challenge us to apply and expect what we already know great teaching looks like, and in the process, accelerate the learning of all of our students.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Larry Ainsworth Would Select Our Standards . . .

Doug Reeves Would Still Write Our SIP Plan . . .

Reeves, D. B. (2010). Transforming professional development into student results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Those of you who know me (this blog’s entire readership?) know I got to meet Doug Reeves a couple weeks ago! In honor of this fanboy moment, I have altered the original plan for this month’s post in order to write about another Doug Reeves book, Transforming Professional Development into Student Results (click here to read my earlier post on my favorite Doug Reeves book: Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matters Most For Student Results).

This book came out when I was two years into my dissertation, which addressed concerns that are central to this book, so when I first read it I found it very affirming. It is a really quick read, as the last 30 pages are the results and rubric from a study establishing a model for Planning, Implementation and Monitoring (PIM) of professional development. In the 110 pages which proceed these appendices, however, Reeves provides a pretty scathing indictment of how most systems attempt to deploy professional learning programs, a summary of research on how to  create high-impact professional learning, and an action plan on how to sustain it. The aforementioned Planning, Implementation and Monitoring (PIM) in the appendix provides the capstone to the book as an outstanding tool to assess how close your school is to best practice in your design and implementation of professional development programs.

Reeves exhibits his characteristic style of summarizing research from other giants in the field (e.g. Tom Guskey, Michael Fullan) interspersed with fun illustrative vignettes from scientific research, history, and fictional scenarios. Throughout, he argues that “High-impact professional learning has three essential characteristics: (1) a focus on student learning, (2) rigorous measurement of adult decisions, and (3) a focus on people and practices, not programs” (p.21).

Reeves exhorts leaders to develop a short list of topics (suggesting several that are high leverage in accelerating student learning) around which to provide deep, sustained professional development activities. He then calls for administrators and teacher leaders to remain disciplined.

First, leaders remain fixated on the fact that student achievement is the criterion for evaluating teaching, the curriculum, and assessment strategies. This is the opposite of consumer-driven professional learning, in which teaching professionals select courses and conferences from catalogs. With relent­less regularity, focused leaders ask the question “Is it working to improve student learning?” Every other leadership decision that they make must be seen through the lens of the effect on student learning. (p.70)

Reeves then charges leaders to design implementation plans for the professional learning that don’t just bring in some guru to do a one-day lecture on a topic. The best schools follow up the guru with the expectation of sustained  “deliberate practice,” the components of which include “performance that is focused on a particular element of the task, expert coaching, feedback, careful and accurate self-assessment, and—this is the key—the opportunity to apply feedback immediately for improved performance” (p.66).

Referencing the “myth of linearity” I discussed in my previous post, Reeves presents research demonstrating professional development only impacts student learning after extensive “deliberate practice” takes place on the part of teachers (30-100 hours over 6-12 months! (p.67) ). He acknowledges that these kind of sustained implementations can seem impossible to those of us in traditional school districts with limited time dedicated to professional learning. However, Reeves challenges us to consider what would be possible if we chose to radically harness the admittedly limited time that we do have.

Although this sort of commitment may sound overwhelming in a time of tight budgets and crammed schedules, trade-offs are possible. What would be the effect on professional learning if you combined the traditional opening-of-school inspirational speech, four district-level staff development days, and 18 biweekly staff meetings—perhaps 48 hours of professional learning—and focused all of them on improved literacy instruction? While your immediate thoughts might migrate to all of the content that teach­ers would miss by forgoing those workshops and meetings, weigh that loss against the power of focus on a single area of improved teaching. To make the comparison more dramatic, stop for a moment and evaluate the effect on learning of the school opening, the one-day workshops, and the staff meetings of last year. What aspects of that content are you applying? What would you have missed by being absent those days? If you were to decide in the months ahead to substitute high-impact learning for meetings, assemblies, and workshops, you may decide that you are not giving up very much after all. (p.67)

Reeves argues that professional development programs should not only be evaluated based on student scores on the next subsequent test after the professional development program takes place, but also on the adult decisions that resulted (or did not result) in sustained deliberate practice on the part of teachers. Do we as administrators and teacher leaders hold ourselves accountable to implementing professional development deeply and not get distracted by “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Brain Research” syndrome (p.48)?

How can we assess ourselves in relation to these high standards? Well, Reeves provides a tool. In Appendix A, Reeves sites a major study that “makes the essential link by showing that effec­tive assessment of adult learning processes is directly related to improved student learning.” In Appendix B, he then provides the assessment instrument used for the study called the “Planning, Implementation, and Monitoring” (PIM) rubric, currently used in more than 2,000 school plans in the United States and Canada.

It includes the following elements: compre­hensive needs assessment, inquiry process, specific goals, measurable goals, achievable goals, relevant goals, timely goals, targeted research-based strategies, master plan design, professional development focus, pro­fessional development implementation, parental involvement strategies, monitoring plan, monitoring frequency, and evaluation cycle. For each of these elements, the planning, implementation, and monitoring process was assessed on a three-point scale. (p.96)

As a school administrator, I can attest that one glance at the PIM rubric is a pretty humbling experience. It sets a high bar. Here’s a sample of the descriptor on the “professional development implementation” domain. Before you read the descriptor, please note that this describes a school that achieves a TWO on the three-point scale. This isn’t even the top score!

A majority of key initiatives described in action steps are supported by specific professional development and research-based strategies. Professional development support is evident. Examples include time, patient and persistent coaching, mentoring linked with initiatives, and multiple opportunities for training or retraining to support teachers. In a majority of professional development action steps, consideration of adult learning needs and change processes is clearly evident and reflected in time, strategies, and resources (limited initiatives, focused professional development, integrated planning, related support structures, etc.) to sus­tain growth over time. (p.97)

In a perfect school, Doug Reeves would still write our SIP Plan because it would include a short list of professional development topics, carefully chosen to support student learning, implemented through many hours of deliberate practice. The evaluation of the professional development would consist of ongoing assessment not only of student results, but of the decisions made by administrators and teacher leaders to sustain implementation.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Mike Schmoker Would Do Our Fidelity Checks . . .

Ken O’Connor Would Design Our Report Card . .

O’Connor, K. (2009). How to Grade for Learning, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

As I discussed in my post on Rick Stiggins, we ultimately need to get away from the industrial age fixation with sorting students. When we do, the report card will become an anachronism. Unfortunately, as I explained in that post, outside pressures will slow our journey to this point no matter how rapidly we seek to reform our conceptions of grading as practitioners concerned with helping all of our students learn.  These pressures include the majority of universities still asking for class rank or relative GPA, parents who want to evaluate their child’s competitiveness in relation to their peers, and students themselves who have been conditioned to the extrinsic feedback loop of norm-referenced grading.

The steep ascent of the climb, however, should not be an excuse to abandon the expedition. School systems across the country, especially at the elementary and middle levels, have increasingly begun to adopt grading practices that intentionally move away from this sorting mission. Instead, they have moved in favor of communication of student mastery with the purpose of accelerating the progress of all students towards skills-based standards, not sorting strata of students in a rank order in relation to their peers. As Ken O’Connor summarizes this charge in How to Grade for Learning, K-12, “as it is virtually impossible to do away with grades, it is necessary to find ways to make grades more meaningful.” (p.23)

Grading doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, grading as effective feedback can be very powerful. In my post on John Hattie’s Visible Learning, I discussed how his research sought to rank order the effect size of different initiatives we focus on in schools to improve student learning. The effect size for student feedback was off the charts (.79), demonstrating that if we can use grading as a form of effective feedback to clearly communicate a student’s progress towards mastering key performance objectives, grading systems can be powerful tools to accelerate student learning.

So grading is a necessary evil at worst, and at its best, not an evil at all. But what does effective grading look like? O’Connor provides extensive research, case studies, self-assessments, and rubrics practitioners can use to implement some key best practices. At a very basic level, effective grading moves our communication to students away from a norm-referenced evaluation to that of a criterion-referenced evaluation. We are comparing students to their progress towards a performance objective, not comparing them to their peers. Secondarily, it is key to select meaningful criteria towards which to evaluate progress, otherwise criterion-referenced systems are just good ways of evaluating progress towards bad goals.

The common core standards, currently in place for Mathematics and English Language Arts, provide excellent performance-based criteria for us to evaluate students’ progress towards. So half of our work is done. O’Connor says that it is important to report student progress and achievement in relation to clearly identified performance standards and “the meaning of grades (letters or numbers) should come from clear descriptions of the standards.” (p.47)

The performance standards should be clearly identified to students and students should be given the chance to practice the types of summative assessments used to assess their achievement before they are asked to demonstrate mastery on that type of assessment for a grade.

Only summative assessments should be used to determine a student’s achievement grade in a course. Formative assessments assigned to monitor student progress or provide students an opportunity to practice should not be included in their grade. Instead, O’Connor recommends we “provide feedback on formative performance using words, rubrics, or checklists, not scores.” (p.247)

The grade a student receives should only be based on their individual achievement in relation to the performance-based standard. Group grades, “as well as effort, participation, attitude, and other behaviors should be reported separately.”(p.247)

Students should be given an opportunity to make-up summative assessments and zeros should never be recorded for missing assessments. Eliminating zeros is not the only change in the math of grading O’Connor calls for. As we transition from the sorting goal of grading, it is important to consider “the body of evidence” testifying to a student’s mastery of an achievement goal. We should seek to “determine” rather than “calculate” a grade, and when math is used the median or the mode is a better metric than the mean. (p.248)

These ideas are not new, but O’Connor does a great job of providing specific research and case studies to bring them to life. Many districts have already moved from norm-referenced grading philosophies that seek to reliably sort students into a bell curve distribution. They have bravely transitioned to criterion-referenced grading systems that seek to move all students towards clearly identified achievement goals, not identify the distance of the interval between a student and their peers. The most common term you will hear used to describe these systems is “standards based grading”, and many districts have adopted these reporting systems in conjunction with a separate “work habits” or “civic responsibility” rubric that allows them to report to parents on the progress of their child’s movement towards positive traits unrelated to academic achievement.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of districts who have moved to standards-based grading are K-8, and the class rank, GPA, and college admissions competition looming at the high school level still has a huge impact on grading systems 9-12. However, this progress at the elementary and middle grades is encouraging. It provides hope that we can soon transition to an entire public education system that values reporting a child’s success in relation to their progress towards valuable knowledge and skills rather then their relative outpacing of their peers.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Grant Wiggins Would Be Our Curriculum Specialist . . .

Robert Barr Would Be Our Instructional Coach . . .

Barr, R., Yates, D. (2009). Turning your school around: A self-guided audit for school improvement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Barr, R., Yates, D. (2010). The kids left behind: Catching up the underachieving children of poverty. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Robert Barr directs the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies and Boise State University. If you have seen him speak, you know he lends a powerful voice to his work which focuses on practical strategies to help schools actualize the conviction that we must maintain high expectations for children of poverty. His books bridge the gap between the established belief that we must have high expectations for poor kids (a core belief that a writer like Jonathan Kozol has done a great job compelling us to embrace) and the inevitable next question of We are working as hard as we can, but what can we change about what we are doing to help increase the success of our students from poverty? The gap between believing we can accelerate the learning of poor students and actually taking real next actions to achieving this growth can be daunting. Barr is a great voice for coaching us through this knowing-doing gap.

There are two books Barr wrote along with Debra Yates that together really provide a practical roadmap fro optimizing your school’s efforts to best maintain high expectations for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the first book, The Kids Left Behind, Barr and Yates provide a meta-analysis of 18 published studies of diverse types of schools from across the country which identifies “eight specific strategies and practices found in successful high-poverty, high-performing schools” (p.9). I found their analysis compelling in its integration of a data set that was more diverse than previous studies pursuing this same insight into the persistent nationwide achievement gap between poor students and students of means, such as Doug Reeves’ acclaimed but relatively narrow research on 90/90/90 schools. It also buttresses large meta-analyses such as the one I discussed by John Hattie, which demonstrate some factors we can control (such as effective feedback) can have a greater impact on student learning than major outside factors such as poverty which we can only hope to mitigate.

The 8 significant strategies and practices they found in their metaanalysis were efforts to “1. Ensure effective district and school leadership 2. Align, monitor, and manage the curriculum. 3. Engage parents, communities, and schools to work as partners. 4. Understand and hold high expectations for children of poverty and culturally diverse students. 5.Target low-performing students and schools, starting with reading. 6. Create a culture of data and assessment literacy. 7. Build and sustain instructional capacity. 8.Reorganize time, space, and transitions.” (p.9)

The second book, Turning Your School Around, makes this great research actionable by providing self-audits that a school determined to take on these challenges can conduct in order to self-assess their progress towards embracing these strategies, as well as real next actions they can take to improve their support of staff and allocation of instructional resources to accelerate the learning of students from poverty.

As someone who has seen Barr speak, I can attest that these research conclusions and self audits only really come to life when accompanied by Barr’s truly authentic personal voice and riveting stories about his own experiences as a child of poverty. His compelling arguments for maintaining high expectations for students from poverty, when accompanied by the practical action plans of the second book, are more likely to fire up administrators such as myself than I to leave them discouraged by the deficits to be overcome.

It is also encouraging that the key practices identified as critical to realizing results for poor students are resonant with some of the most prominent reform efforts being adopted widely by schools recently. These include efforts to “create a culture of data and assessment literacy”, which is key to the work of professional learning communities . Also, the emphasis on literacy skills as a high leverage topic for professional development and additional resources aligns with a widespread trend towards embedding reading instruction across the curriculum as an accelerator of student growth.

It should be said that in a perfect school, we would hire the younger Robert Barr of 20 years ago, as this senior fellow may be too senior of a fellow to really connect with a median age teacher. But that’s not a dealbreaker, as in a perfect school we would have a time machine right?

In any case, whether we hired the 70 year-old Robert Barr or his 1990 vintage younger self, he would be one of our instructional coaches in a perfect school because his compelling authentic voice for maintaining high expectations for students of poverty would not be delivered with a side of righteousness, but with a healthy serving of pragmatic action planning.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Ken O’Connor Would Design Our Report Card . . .