Classroom Assessment: A Brave New World
Publication Date: 2006-10-24
NOTE: This presentation was the Opening Keynote at the 2006 Leadership for Classroom Assessment Conference
Standards-based classrooms have equally powerful effects on students in being responsible for their own learning by developing the skill of self assessment. I want you to meet Macy Morrison. Macy is a student in the Papillion-LaVista schools and was third grader two years ago when reporters from the Chicago Tribune were here to do a series of articles on Nebraska?s unique assessment. After spending most of a day in schools, she wrote:
? ?Macy can see for herself that she?s making progress. She?s been taking tests since the time school started and there are 33 measures of Macy?s progress in reading, writing and math that she has to complete.?
? In terms of the assessment, what Macy was doing that day was reading an Arthur book into a microphone on a computer. It was measuring her fluency. And when she finished it, she knew exactly what she had to do to improve.
? What Macy said to this reporter was ?My expression was just right, I?m getting there on smoothness but I had a lot of stops.?
? The reporter continued, ?Macy seemed a little nervous, she knows these tests are important. Her reasons for being nervous have nothing to do with the reputation of her school, because Macy said ?we take these tests so we can learn more and so our teachers can see how we are doing.??
? Classroom-based assessment. Standards in our classroom. What a different place they make for students and teachers.
Standards-based schools are also different from traditional schools. In standards-based schools, equity is the top agenda for the work of teachers and administrators. They consider it their primary job to help all students reach the highest possible levels of learning. In standards-based schools, teachers and administrators spend a large portion of their time talking to each other about student achievement. They talk about who is learning, what they are learning, who is not learning, what is not being learned, and why. They spend time determining what they are going to do about keeping the standards high for all of the students and determining what it is going to take to get them all to the high standards.
In standards-based schools, what students are to know and be able to do become the framework for most of the conversation. The center for most of the conversations is students. Most of the conversations are about the standards and the students, and are conversations that are teacher to student, student to parent, parent to teacher, teacher to teacher, and teacher to administrator.
And, in schools that are standards-based, equity of opportunity is what drives instruction. School staff spends a great deal of time talking about ensuring equitable opportunities to learn for each and every student. In schools that are standards-based, the staff measures success in terms of the equitable distribution of learning outcomes. No victories are claimed when the distribution of outcomes represents factors other than the effort of the students.
The second of the new world places is a place that will change the way we talk about things that go on in this state, from ?statehouse to school house.? I believe that classroom-based assessment will help us break the chains of the ?box? in which we find ourselves and struggle mightily to get out. This second place will reveal itself as we move from what I call a schooling box to a whole new box called an education box.
When we find ourselves ?in a box,? like the schooling box, we look for ways to get out of it. We tend to use language like ?thinking outside the box.? Thinking outside the box is not a very helpful metaphor as it conjures up an image and thinking process that has little to do with reality. Simply coming up with novel and innovative ideas is not sufficient to create change. Change comes when systems are impacted by new ideas and new ways of thinking. Thinking outside the box is often too far out, too random, and too disconnected to impact the current system. Thinking outside the box is a process that rarely gets us where we want to go and rarely results in any significant change.
As one tries to think inside the schooling box, one has to consider the boundaries of the box to understand just how constraining such thinking can be. The schooling box is constrained by the fixed boundaries created by time, budgets/money, organizational/governance structures and curriculums for all students. Each boundary is not only fixed but immutable.
Equity will never be the outcome of a schooling box, because resources like time are limited and fixed, the curriculum is limited and fixed, the money is limited and fixed, and it is difficult to determine what the variable of governance/organization contributes to anything related to quality in a school. In the schooling box, the fixed things will prevent us from making sure education happens for all kids because we won?t be able to provide the opportunities that are needed for all of them and we won?t achieve the outcomes because the schooling system does not commit to equity of either opportunity let alone equity in the outcomes.
What is the alternative to ?thinking outside the box? if major changes are wanted and needed? I would pose that a better strategy would be to ?find a different box to think inside of.? What we need is a box that has the right boundaries and one that allows us to think differently.
What we need to begin thinking about is how we get into an education box where the discussions and conversations are totally different. The fixed parts are the things we think will change the way we do the business of education and the way we design and implement the schooling process. The education box starts with outcomes, the one we want for everyone. The outcomes for every student are then matched to an opportunity for achieving that outcome. In an education box, the accountability is based on progress in the system and progress is documented when students demonstrate that they have learned what is expected.
In an education box, the system of education is likely more productive if it is redesigned around the concept of PreK-16. Equity of outcome is possible in this system because valued outcomes can be matched to opportunities (to learn). Progress is documented by student demonstration of learning, and because a more systemic approach to learning begins when students are coming to school ready to succeed. Beginning with early education and early literacy programs that extend through K-12 to where students go when they leave our schools.
The third place in our new world is a school system where there is a huge and significant redistribution of leadership including new ways in which professional roles are identified and specified. The system that we have right now looks like a series of triangles stacked one on top of the other. In this hierarchy, the bottom triangle is the local school system progressing upward to principals, superintendents, and boards of education.
The next triangle in the hierarchy is the state levels. The departments of education, the chief state school officer and state boards of education, the legislatures, and the governors. And the triangle at the top is the federal one with the federal department of education, the secretary of education, Congress and the President.
This model of our ?system? is actually three sets of hierarchies, stacked on top of each other but not really connected. This arrangement is not in any way a system or systemic. Why can?t this be considered a system? Why doesn?t it really work very well?
All one has to do is to look at the level where the real action takes place. If the work of the system is teaching and learning, this work takes place at the bottom of the heap. With our classrooms at the bottom, we have to ask ?who has the most to say about what happens in our classrooms?? I believe the majority of the conversations and discussions about what is taught, how subjects are taught and when they are taught are taking place in the upper levels, about as far away from the classrooms as one can get. In fact, I would contend that as decisions come down through the hierarchies, the last ones to have anything to say about any idea or proposal for the classroom are teachers and by the time it gets to their level the decision has already been made. And, if that is not bad enough, the decisions that come down through the hierarchy often reflect more political issues than they reflect educational practice.
This is clearly not a system of education. The levels are not connected. They do not communicate with each other very well and they clearly do not work together as partners.
Regardless of NCLB as law, Washington does not know best. Lincoln does not know best. We are a lot closer to the action than the folks in Washington, DC.
We need to find ways to break down this hierarchical system because it is not going to get us where we want to go. We need a system where although there are different jobs to be done, the players come together collegially and as equals. Everyone comes to the table with something to contribute.
The system I would like to see is the classroom in the center exactly where it should be. In this system, the jobs are markedly different from traditional ones defined by hierarchies. For example, with the classroom in the center, the job of the teacher is teaching the students. The job of the principal is to insure the classroom teacher succeeds. The job of the superintendent and the board is to ensure that principals and classroom teachers succeed. And, shouldn?t the state and federal government be partners in making sure the whole enterprise succeeds? This is the system that has the chance of achieving equity for all of our kids. This is the one that?s going to meet challenges of the diversity we face in our state. This is the one that is responsive. This one will consider all of the kids. The classroom must be at the center, not at the bottom.
When classrooms are at the center, not only are jobs redefined, but so are the leadership roles. In the old, hierarchical model, teachers are too simply defined as ?just teachers.? Principals are instructional leaders. Being superintendent is a management role and the role of the board is described as administrative oversight. What a waste of time, energy and talent.
The people who ought to be the instructional leaders are classroom teachers. They are the ones who know their content. They are the ones who know the strategies that go with the content. They are the ones who know the strategies that address the needs of kids from poor homes, kids of color, kids learning the English language and kids with disabilities. Teachers have to be in roles where they are regarded as the instructional leaders.
Once we redefine teachers as the instructional leaders, the principal becomes a leader of learning. As leaders of learning, principals sit with the teachers in collegial settings and they talk about who is learning, what they are learning, who is not learning, what they are not learning, and what needs to be done for both. In such schools where the teacher is the instructional leader and the principal is the leader of learning, learning by students is a total staff responsibility. In such schools, the entire staff is engaged in achieving the learning goals or learning standards. No matter what the learning outcome may be, achieving it is something that is for all students and achieving it for all the students is a total school responsibility.
Amazing things begin to happen when you unleash the power of distributed leadership especially at the levels of the teachers and principals. However, once the roles of teachers and principals have been redefined, the role of the superintendent becomes that of CEO or chief education officer. As the chief education leader, superintendents take the lead in developing budgets, policies, buildings and facilities, and public engagement processes that support the leadership of teachers in instruction and principals in learning.
When superintendents become CEO?s, the role of the board of education changes into leadership as well. The role of the board of education lies in the arena of policy leadership not management oversight. Policy leadership for boards means representing the public in determining policy that clearly defines why things are done, the purposes to be achieved, the efforts required to accomplish goals, or the need to reset the goals and move forward.
The fourth place in this new world is one where success is defined differently than the average performance of the group. In this new place, success is defined by equity. When success is defined by equity, there are three levels of success that need to be met. And, just meeting one or two of them is not equity. All three are required to be met if success is to be claimed.
In an equity definition of success there are three components of success. First, the overall achievement of the group is high where at least 80% of the kids are getting 80% of the stuff (whatever ?the stuff? is such as standards or the content.) Second, while the overall achievement is high, the performance of each subgroup is a mirror of the overall group. No matter how you put the subgroups together, be it by gender, color, socioeconomic status, learning ability or whatever, their achievement mirrors the whole group. And third, both trend lines are on their way up in ways that include the narrowing of any gaps in proficiency levels.
In this definition, there is no victory in inequality. We simply cannot rest until success is defined as the equitable distribution of learning outcomes. It is better for a school to have 60% overall achievement and 60% across the subgroups with both trends moving upward than it is to have 80% overall and 50% in some of the subgroups.
The fifth place in this new world would be one where we would substantially redefine accountability. This new definition of accountability would move us from accountability limited to the reporting of results to one that reports improvement. It is entirely appropriate to hold schools accountable for results, but the results should be defined as progress or improvement. Progress over time and against a school?s own baseline is a far better accountability than a system that recognizes current status only and compares that status to other, often widely dissimilar, schools. In such a system, schools would be compared to themselves and their past performance. Schools and districts should be held accountable for improvement and the improvement that includes narrowing proficiency gaps.
The sixth and final place in this new world is a futures dimension. This new place is a future that seems like the one I would want to move toward and one I want for my own children. It is called 21st t Century Learning Skills. 21st Century Learning Skills is a model for moving our education system into the 21st Century in ways that make sense and blend the present with the future.
Let?s look at the 21st Century Learning Skills model. 21st Century begins with core subjects that are very familiar to all of us?English including literature, reading and writing, math, science, world language, civics, government, economics, art, history and geography. Within these core subjects, 21st Century learning integrates into the core global awareness, financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy, civic literacy and health and wellness.
Also infused into 21st Century Learning are learning skills like critical thinking and problem solving, communication, creativity, collaboration, context skills, and information and media literacy skills. In addition, 21st Century infuses interactive and communications technologies into the curriculum by using technology to learn, to communicate, and develop new knowledge.
21st Century Learning places a significant priority on ?life? skills that includes knowledge and skills as innovativeness and creativity essential to productive business climates. The leadership of our country in a global world in terms of productivity will be dependent on life skills such as leadership, ethics, accountability, personal productivity, and self direction.
How is Nebraska uniquely positioned to move into the 21st Century Learning agenda? As you look at the knowledge and skills required for the 21st Century, few of them are measurable with paper-pencil testing and most are not measurable with state level/high stakes testing. The knowledge and skills of 21st Century Learning will have to be measured in classrooms and by teachers depending on the curriculum that is being taught. Our classroom-based assessment knowledge, skill and expertise will serve us well in the new world described by 21st Century Learning.
Clearly, most anyone can see that this new world is a different place and at the same time scary, exciting, threatening and promising. We have positioned ourselves to make these new places real and possible. We have laid the groundwork and laid the foundation.
What is left to do if we want to go to these new places is to lead. We will have to be leaders and we will have to lead differently than we have in the past. This new world requires not only that think differently, it requires that we lead differently.
I?m not going to talk about leadership models or leadership content. I am going to conclude this presentation with an outline of a leadership required for this journey one that will be as different as the new world we have been discussing.
Think about this leadership with this basic principle: ?It?s really easy to walk when the road is flat and the wind is at your back.? There is no risk in wading in the shallow end of the pool. While you can risk drowning in the deeper parts of the pool, you might just learn how to swim. This new leadership is a steep climb and against the wind. It will require learning to swim in deep and turbulent waters.
Please think about this leadership and the lives we live. I really do believe that we are placed in this world to make it a better place. We may not change the whole world, but we can change it where we are, and change it where we can.
Here is what is I think describes the leader of the future, or the leader who will get us to these new places. First of all, this leader is a vision-builder. And the vision that is being built, is one that is values-driven. These builders are people who build visions of change, build visions of good practice, and build visions about community. I also think these leaders understand that when they get a chance to run with the ball, their role is take the ball to a better place. While some leaders are admired for just having the ball in the first place, these leaders do something with the ball. They advance it. They move it down the field. They try to reach the goal. Lots of people get a chance to hold the ball. A few may get the chance take the ball to a new place and to perhaps redefine the game.
Here in Nebraska we have taken it to a new place. We have not done it like everybody else. I believe we are redefining the game. Our vision has the ?right? values about kids, about teaching, and about learning.
The second leadership quality is that leaders know their voice. They know exactly their voice, where it comes from and how to use it. To change things, these leaders know that you have got to enter the conversation and be heard. They know they have to be able to impact the conversation to change it.
These leaders understand the principle that ?when soul enters the room, people listen differently.? Soul was present in the room when those three schools met with the U.S. Department of Education. It is pretty hard not to be drawn to teachers who are that passionate, that committed, and that dedicated.
Leaders also know that conversations with opposing points of view are not conversations at all. They know that what we need are dialogues where the focus is not about getting all the points of view to the table. In dialogues, it is about coming to the table with a common center. Often the role of the leader is to bring the center. Our center is kids, teaching, and learning.
Third, these leaders need the courage to speak. These leaders know their center and knowing that center gives them courage. There?s a Native American proverb that says ?when you know your heart, you protect your heart.? We know that the classroom-based assessment model is about right things. We are not paralyzed by fear that we might not be where we want to go, that we could fail, or that we might not do it exactly right. What we do know is that we are on the right journey and if we stay our course, we will keep getting better and better and better.
Fourth, these leaders need strong conviction that not only is there important work that needs to be done, they also know that not just any work will do. They know that there is certain work they are called to do and that work will define them and their legacy. This work to which they are called is not just being principal in any school, a curriculum director in any school, an assessment director in any school, a superintendent or a teacher in any school or a chief state school officer in any state. These leaders know their work is to be done in certain schools or certain settings. These settings are the ones that are getting on with the business of moving toward these new visions, toward this new world. Leaders of this type get chosen by the work, they don?t choose the work to be done. For these leaders, they are drawn to the work and drawn to the settings where the work is done.
Fifth, these leaders need to have confidence in the place from which their leadership is coming. I think that means they ?know what they know? and ?know what they don?t know.? These leaders are able to trust what they know and trust their wisdom because they have stopped searching for wisdom and have recognized that wisdom comes softly. It comes softly when they stop looking for it and start becoming the person that they are capable of becoming.
And finally, these leaders live in a state of change and they love it. Not because there?s change and chaos going on around them, but because in change, there is opportunity to lead and that opportunity is tied to their place of discovery. Leaders live for these places where there is opportunity to discover more about who they are, who they can become, about others and their capacities, and the discovery of brave new worlds to go to.
In conclusion, nothing in my professional career has captivated me like this work. Nothing has sustained my attention for so long. Nothing like this has generated so much passion, so much heat, and so much challenge. I believe it is so because this work is about kids and their learning, about teachers and their teaching, about leaders and their leading. That is the kind of work I want to spend my life doing.
I know it is the right work to do, I know it?s the right place to be and for me, this is the place where I know I?m supposed to be. I hope the same for you, too. It has taken a long time for me to understand that this job, this vocation is not my goal. It is my gift. My gift to receive, to claim, to live, and to give to others.
It is also your gift as leaders. It is your gift to receive, to claim, to live and to give to others as well.
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