Teacher Evaluation and Supervision: You’re Doing it Wrong



In a recent course I took as part of my doctoral program at Widener University, I was required to read Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, by James Nolan Jr. and Linda A. Hoover (2010).  When I got the book, my attitude was, as it normally is toward textbooks, “yuck!” However, the book really shifted my thinking regarding teacher supervision and evaluation. Ultimately, I was smacked with the harsh reality that, “You’re doing it wrong!” But  I quickly realized, it wasn’t only me. It wasn’t only my district. It was the whole model designed by the state of Pennsylvania for administrators to implement. This model, or one similar, is probably used  in most states throughout the country. And there is one big problem! It does not promote the growth of all teachers. In fact, it probably stifles growth. In response, I want to share some thoughts and solutions.

Supervision and Evaluation are Different

Teacher evaluation was designed to ensure that all teachers meet a minimal level of quality in their practice. Traditionally, the measurement for this model includes formal and informal observations of teaching. In the end, the teacher will receive a rating of Failing, Needs Improvement, Proficient, or  Distinguished (or similar names). These mastery level ratings are not designed to promote teacher growth.  The criteria for each domain and indicator remain the same for all teachers, and the success criteria for each performance level remains constant. Once a teacher receives a proficient or distinguished rating, this model does nothing to promote continual growth. Teachers can only assume to keep doing the same thing, to receive the same rating. By design, there is no motivation or encouragement to continue improving and growing.

Teacher supervision was designed as a model to promote growth for all teachers, regardless of performance level.  Under differentiated supervision models, teachers may conduct action research, design portfolios with a focus on improvement, or participate in peer observation aligned with growth goals.  Differentiated supervision is designed to promote growth for all teachers, including those rated proficient or distinguished.  The problem I realized with this model currently, was that at the end of the year we still have to give each teacher an evaluation rating. Rather than providing quality feedback to promote growth, this model forces teacher supervision to act the same as evaluation. However, they are not suppose to act in the same manner. Much like feedback in the classroom does more to promote learning than grades, teacher feedback without evaluation ratings would do more to promote continued growth among our all teachers.



In most districts, evaluation and supervision to not work independent of each other, and they usually overlap. In honesty, most people would not be able to explain the difference, or even know there is suppose to be one.


In a three-year cycle, tenured teachers would be on a traditional evaluation mode once, and a differentiated supervision mode for two years. When in the traditional mode, a teacher would be formally and informally observed, lesson plans could be submitted for feedback, professionalism could be rated, and teachers would receive a traditional end-of-year evaluation rating. Once the teacher has demonstrated they meet minimal expectations, which is the purpose of evaluation, it can be determined they are ready for a differentiated supervision mode. If a teacher does not meet minimal expectations, they would continue on the traditional evaluation mode. This would also be true for new teachers, until they obtain tenure. It is the job of administrators to make sure new teachers are ready, and meet minimal expectations, before receiving tenure. This must be taken serious during the traditional evaluation mode.

During the two years teachers are on a differentiated supervision mode, they could choose from a menu of growth models including peer observation, portfolio, or action research. Each of these models would have a component which required teachers to focus on an area of growth. Teachers would be with administrators to plan implement and reflect upon their growth during these years. Ideally, they would not need to receive an end of year evaluation rating during these two years.  They would only receive feedback which would promote their continued growth.

So what to do about states that require domain and evaluation ratings every year?

If we take traditional evaluation seriously, isn’t it appropriate to assume the teacher could be assigned the same domain ratings they received the last time they were on traditional evaluation mode?  For example, if a teacher demonstrated they were “Distinguished” in Preparation and Planning, isn’t it safe to assume they would not all of the sudden drop to “Failing” the next year?  Can we have enough trust in our teachers, that they will at least continue to do as well as they did in the last year of traditional evaluation?  Removing a tie to do evaluation ratings during years teachers are on a differentiated supervision mode, would be a shift that could significantly promote the growth of all teachers.

Does your model of teacher evaluation and supervision promote the growth of all your teachers?  What ideas do you have for improvements?

culture of learning

Transitioning to a Continual Grading Period

Last April, I published a post The End of Marking Periods, in which I challenged the relevance and need for marking periods. I shared several reasons why I felt the use of marking periods were one of the many, traditional, outdated practices in education. Then, instead of just talking about it, our school began to take action.  

Over the past four years, our school has been taking steps to improve our grading and assessment practices. We have tried to move away from a culture of grading, which exists in many schools, and instead, promote a culture of learning. We’ve explored many flaws of traditional grading, and identified steps we could take to make improvements. Some of which, I discuss in my post Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes.

To enhance our improved grading practices, we proposed the idea of piloting an new approach to grading periods. Instead of the traditional, four marking periods, we would pilot a year-long, grading period. Our Continual Grading Period would allow teachers more flexibility with their pacing, lesson design and assessment practices. It would also allow us to enhance our assessment practices, which have incorporated re-takes and re-dos. But ultimately, and most importantly, it would provide more opportunities for students to learn, and demonstrate their learning. We discussed and reviewed the idea with our sixth grade teachers, evaluated the possible benefits and shortfalls, the decided to move forward with Continual Grading Periodour proposal.

Late last spring, my assistant principal and I met with our central administration, made a short presentation to our school board, and with their support, moved forward with our pilot.

Throughout the implementation this year, we continued to have conversations and meetings with students, parents and teachers to gain feedback. We informally collected feedback from students, and formally collected feedback from parents and teachers via surveys. Our student and teacher feedback was overwhelmingly positive. All of our sixth grade core teachers supported the continuation of our Continual Grading Period.

Our parent survey responses were a mix of positive and constructive feedback. The positive feedback included some pleasant surprises, and the critical feedback we allowed us to reflect and make improvements to our communication and implementation. We shared an overview summary of our parent survey, which included our planned improvements (which you can view here).

This month (May 2016), we evaluated all of the feedback and decided to not only continue our grading period in sixth grade, but also expand into seventh grade. With the support from our district, we plan to continue implementation during the 2016-17 school year. I am confident we will learn more in our second year of implementation, and continue to make improvements.

What are your thoughts on the relevance of traditional marking periods?



Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes

arbitrary GradesTraditional grades are at best, arbitrary, and at worst, destructive to student learning. For those of us stuck in a traditional grading system, there are flaws we need to be aware of, and practical fixes we can implement, to at least improve the system in which we are stuck.

Purpose and Beliefs

Flaws: Most teachers and schools have not established a specific or consistent purpose for, or beliefs about grading. In most schools, the teachers within a building establish their own individual policies, practices and calculations of grades. Due to a lack of quality focus on grading in undergraduate programs, these policies and procedures are usually based on their own educational experiences, personal opinions, and other non-research based factors. This inconsistency creates poor communication and understanding of grades for students and parents.

Fixes: School leaders should work collaboratively with faculty to develop a set of beliefs and/or guidelines about grading. For example, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a “Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights” created at his school. If you are a teacher and cannot push for school wide change, create your own set of beliefs and guidelines and clearly communicate them to students and parents.

imageIn our school, we’ve been using the belief statement: “A grade should accurately communicate what a student knows, understands and is able to do, as related to course learning objectives.” We use this statement to guide guide our work related to our grading practices. In our school, we do not have standards based grading, but we have been working to ensure our grades accurately represent a student’s level of mastery of course learning objectives (which we’ve created for each course, based on state standards).

What Gets Graded?

Flaws: Tradition, and lack of understanding related to student motivation have caused most teachers to create a “kitchen sink stew” of items to make up a student grade. Teachers add a little testing, a touch of homework, a pinch of participation, a sprinkle of attendance, and a handful of “secret ingredients” to create their own, individual grading recipes. Apart from the confusion and inconsistency this creates for students, it also creates an inaccurate reporting of student learning. This links back to the need for a belief statement. If we believe grades should accurately reflect student learning, then adding things like attendance, behavior and work completion make the reporting of actual learning, inaccurate.

Fixes: When discussing or evaluating WHAT we grade, there are a few topics that always seem to come up in discussion. First is the grading of formative assessments (ex: homework; classwork; some quizzes). Since formative assessments are used to provide feedback, drive instruction, and guide student learning, their purpose is not to be included in a grade. Teachers should only be including summative assessments in their grade calculation. Rick Wormeli has stated that a teacher has the power to ultimately decide when an assessment becomes summative. This means that teachers have the power to allow redo’s and retests in order to provide additional opportunities, after an intervention, to reassess. The student’s grade should then reflect the new, and hopefully improved, assessment score. Averaging the first and second scores, or deducting points for attempts, would then fail to meet our previous criteria of reflecting an accurate grade.

The other topic that inevitably comes up is the inclusion of behaviors into a grade. Things such as attendance, participation, work ethic, or taking points off for late work, would lead to an inaccurate reporting of the academic grade. However, these behaviors could certainly be reported elsewhere on a grade report, as they provide important feedback to students and parents.


Tom Petty once sang: “The wai-ai-aiting is the hardest part.” Well, when it comes to traditional grading, I find that the “weighting”  of assessments is the hardest part.

Flaws: How many teachers participated in education courses or professional development on the practice of weighting assessment items or assessments in general? The answer here is “very few.” So, in a traditional grading system, how do teachers determine the appropriate weight, or “number of points”, to assign to each question, task, or assessment? At best, the answer is “arbitrarily.” Often times, teachers assign a certain number of points based on the type of question or task. Test? 100 points; Quiz? 50 Points; Homework? 2 Points; Multiple Choice question 3 points each. Essay question? 30 points.

When I created assessment as a teacher, I would assign a number of points based on how difficult the question. The assignment of points ignored the amount of course content, or number of objectives I was assessing with a question, task, project or test. On a test, I would sometimes assess a lower level skill, but through the use of an essay question. I would assign it 20-30 points. My essay prompt asking students to compare and contrast the Virginia and New Jersey Plans was really only assessing my students’ ability to recall the similarities and differences of the plans. This was a low level task void of  evaluation or analysis. At the time, it seemed good to me. It was an essay question afterall. I imagine other well intentioned teachers have made similar mistakes.

Fixes: This is a challenge! However, teachers in our building have been working to assign a weight, or number of points, to an assessment based on the amount of learning objectives it assesses. For example, if their course has 100 learning objectives for the year, they would assign up to four points for each objective. This allows them to grade the assessment of the objective using a 4 point scale. Therefore, the score of the assessment would be based on the student’s performance on each learning objective assessed. Focus on learning over product. One student may be able to demonstrate mastery through a conversation, another may do best offering a presentation of the content, while a third most accurately demonstrates learning on test. If the points are based on demonstration of mastery, the method in which students demonstrate learning, is not as imperative.
Our teachers have also been discussing the fact that not all our objectives are the same level or rigor. We have been working to evaluate objectives and agree upon a 1.0 or 2.0 weight, based on the level or rigor.

Marking Periods

Flaws: In a previous post (found here) I called for an end to marking periods. I explained that in my situation, a student’s final grade was calculated by averaging the grades from each marking period. Aside from averaging being a bad practice itself, giving each marking period an equal value/weight was misrepresenting the grade report. The final grade certainly did not meet the criteria for being a mathematically “accurate reflection.” Due to weather, standardized testing, field trips and award ceremonies, not all marking periods were created equal.

Fixes: If marking periods are a problem, why not get rid of them? This year we are piloting a “Continual Grading Period” with our sixth grade students. In this model, the entire year serves as one long marking period. This allows teachers to implement best practice in reteaching and retesting without the frustration of arbitrary deadlines. The continual grading period also eliminates the unfair weighting of clearly unequal marking periods. How did we make this magic happen? The steps, process, and reflection on this endeavor will be shared in a later post.

Setting a purpose and beliefs about grading, deciding what gets grading, developing weighting methods, and establishing a fair way to report student learning are key first steps for those of us stuck in the traditional grading system.

What are some other practices or strategies we can use to improve grading practices in a traditional model?




Five Simple Rules of Teacher Questioning

Teacher questioning can be a very effective and engaging instructional strategy. However, if misused, it can be a strategy that has very little impact. As we know, since the days of Socrates, teachers have been using questioning to encourage student thinking and check for understanding. However, high-quality teacher questioning is much more than just tossing out questions. Developing questioning skills can take a lot of time and professional development, but there are some simple rules teachers can follow to make some immediate improvements.

Here are Five Simple Rules for Teacher Questioning:

1. Have a Purpose!

When asking a question, the question itself should have a purpose. A teacher should know if the question is intended to promote a conversation, dialogue, discussion, or simply solicit a simple response to check for understanding. Good questions engage more than one student at-a-time. They provide an opportunity for students to discuss (ex: turn and talk; debate; conversation), lead to students generating their own questions, and allow for multiple responses. However, when teachers ask a question that has one specific answer, and call on one student to answer it, the question has very little value for the rest of the class.

2. One at a Time!

Most teachers would be surprised to have a count of how many questions they ask in one class period. In our building, when we tallied the number of questions teachers were asking in one, 42 minute class period, the total number was usually between 100 and 200 questions. In some classrooms, the number of questions posed in one class period exceeded 200. Without realizing it, many teachers use a rapid-fire approach to questioning, asking multiple low-level (Webbs DOK) questions, one after another. When it comes to high-quality questioning, less is more.

Challenge: Have someone come into your room, unannounced, and count how many questions you ask in one period.

3. Pick One Question!

Teachers should know the question they are going to ask, and ask it clearly. If it needs to be repeated, it should be repeated verbatim. Many times, teachers will ask a question… immediately rephrase it… add more detail… ask it again in a different way… add even more detail… then rephrase the question again. By the time the teacher states the final, revised question, it is drastically different than the original one. This can leave the student who raised their hand to answer the original question, pretty confused. Pre-planning some of our questions is the only way to ensure we are asking high-quality questions. These questions should be aligned to the objectives or learning outcomes for the lesson. Of course, teachers can also utilize spontaneous questions, as appropriate. However, key questions should have a purpose, be pre-planned, and align with objectives or learning outcomes.

4. Wait a Minute!

Some teachers feel rushed to get through a lesson. Others feel uncomfortable in silence. However, it is important for teachers to provide appropriate wait-time after asking a question. Remember, if teachers are asking high-quality questions, requiring thinking and discussion, it will take time. Teachers should avoid calling on the first student who raises their hand. Personally, I stopped allowing students to raise their hand in my classroom. I called on students randomly, making sure I always responded to them in a way that made them feel safe, whether they knew the answer or not. Although I am not aware of a specific, scientifically proven “appropriate” amount of wait-time, I like to use at least ten seconds. It is also important to never include a student’s willingness to raise their hand as part of a “participation grade” (which shouldn’t exist anyway). I’ve heard teachers say a student’s participation grade has suffered due to lack of participation. Then I’ve watched the same teacher repeatedly call on the first or second student to raise their hand, which didn’t even give most students a chance to participate. Give time for students to process the question.

5. Use Scaffolding!

When planning questions, it is important for teachers to review the content around the question. Teachers should review the prerequisite knowledge, as well as the knowledge that will extend the learning beyond the initial answer. If a teacher asks a question and a student doesn’t know the answer, they can scale down to more simple, prerequisite knowledge questions. Then the teacher can build back up to the original question. This strategy is more supportive of that student’s learning, than just jumping to another student when someone doesn’t know the answer. Be able to adjust questioning from simple to complex, as a student requires.

Reference Disclaimer:

Some of the rules and ideas shared in the post were adapted from information shared by Dr. Rebecca Woodland, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the work of the East Penn School District Instructional Leadership Team, during a professional learning session.

Student Behavior: It’s Not About You!

“You don’t have the skills to get a job a Walmart. Even they require their employees to remember to bring their vest everyday!”

It is with great shame I admit these horrible words once came out of my mouth… to a student. It seemed like the hundredth day in a row one particular student forget his pencil. My frustration, with what turned out was my lack of control, overflowed and I let him have it. I verbally attacked, and probably humiliated, this student in front of classmates. It was soon after this shameful experience that I realized something was wrong with my traditional methods of classroom management. Sure my rewards and consequences approach seemed to work for many students, but not for all. In reality, any system works for the majority. Eventually I realized, even when something works, it doesn’t always make it right. In addition, my approach certainly was not working for some of my students. I knew something had to change.

Changing Your Mindset

The first step in establishing a positive classroom environment is to have the right mindset. In his book, Lost at School, Dr. Ross Greene (2008) proposes the idea that “kids do well if they can.” This idea promotes a belief that if a child is not meeting academic or behavioral expectations, it is because they lack the skill to do so. Early in my teaching career, I had a very hard time accepting this belief. In fact, my beliefs in terms of students being able to meet behavioral expectations were completely opposite. However, after a few years of teaching and implementing traditional behavior management strategies, it became clear to me that no child would willingly subject themselves to the punishment and embarrassment I sometimes put them through.

By changing my mindset, I began to approach all students, in all cases, as if they needed help to meet expectations. I started to believe that kids would do well, if they had the skills to do so. When a student wasn’t getting started on an assignment, I would approach them and ask questions like:  “Is everything okay?”, “It looks like you’re having trouble getting started, do you have any questions?”, “Let me sit with you and help you get started.” I completely stopped assuming students were just refusing to do their work.

And, when a student forgot a pencil, I gave them one. In reality, it didn’t really matter why they didn’t have one. Ensuring they had what they needed to be successful became my only priority.

When responding to student misbehavior, it is important to remember it is not about you. It’s not personal. It is not you v. them. Remembering this in a frustrating situation can be difficult, but when it becomes part of our everyday mindset, it gets easier.

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment

Here are a few ways to establish a positive classroom environment or respond to misbehavior:


  • Give Verbal Praise (A LOT OF IT!)


This is one of the most powerful strategies a teacher can use. Recognize students, individually or as a class, for every direction/instruction they follow. Students who crave attention will often adjust their behavior to receive this praise.

Examples: “I really like the way you are walked into the classroom; Thank you for using a quiet, raised hand; I really appreciate the way you are including everyone in your group discussion.”

  1. Use Subtle Strategies for Redirection

Using proximity, walking over and standing next to a student while continuing to teach, will often be enough of a cue for a student to stop talking.

Quietly going over to a student and whispering “Do you have a question?; Is there something I can help you with?” will either unearth a student question, or cue them to get back on task.

A teacher can also quietly ask the student if they can speak with them on the side, or in the doorway. When doing so, the teacher should state the expectation the student should be meeting, and ask them what they can do to help them meet the expectation: “I see you are having trouble getting started on your fraction activity, is there something I can help you with, or any questions I can answer?”

  1. State/Restate the Expected Behavior

When a student is not following a direction, instead of using “no; stop; don’t”, recognize a student who is meeting expectations, or restate the expected behavior to the whole class.

Example: If a student is calling out in class, a teacher can remind the class, “Please remember to use a quiet, raised hand when you would like to participate.” The student who is not following the expectation will often get the hint.

  1. Avoid a Power Struggle

When responding to students with challenging behaviors, it is important to avoid power struggles, especially in front of their peers. Teachers can completely destroy a relationship with a student in a power struggle scenario. If a student is refusing to do work, and does not respond to offers of support, it is important not to increase the demand and create a power struggle. Threats such as, “Do your work or go to the office; Get started or I’m going to call your parents,” create a me v. you power struggle. In this situation, even if the teacher wins in the moment, overall, they lose. They lose because they damage the relationship. And ultimately, that damage will have to be repaired at some point in order for the teacher and student to have success working together in the future. If a student is not causing a significant disruption to the whole class, the teacher is better-off waiting until the end of class to have a private conversation to establish the cause of the student behavior. Other students pick up on this, as well. Creating a scene by yelling or posing threats does not “prove” to the rest of the class that you are in charge. Instead, they may be left worrying about the possible consequence the next time they make a mistake. Maintaining composure and offering respect, even if it is not being reciprocated at the time, goes a long way in building a positive classroom culture.

How do you ensure students’ emotional needs are being met in your classroom? What strategies are successful for you?

To learn more about responding to students with behavioral challenges, I recommend:

Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. New York: HarperCollins.

Sometime We Fail!

A few weeks ago, I attended a fundraising dinner for a rescue mission in my area, which supported homeless men. I’ve attended this event for the past few years, and each time the chosen speaker from the mission would share inspiring stories of the recovery and success of some of the men they’ve supported. These stories were encouraging, captivated the audience, and inspired them to continue to support the mission. They would also share statistics of all the meals and beds they provided, and all the great programs they were running. These were awesome stories of success! But this year was different. This year, the speaker began by sharing three stories of tragedy. Three stories of men, that despite their best efforts, they were unable to help. The end of each story resulted in death or long-term imprisonment. The speaker shared these stories to share the reality of what they do. The reality that sometimes they fail. That despite all  the work, all the heart invested, all the tears, that sometimes, they still fail. I don’t share this story of failure to damage our hope or resolve, but to encourage us not to be afraid or ashamed of our failures.

Our Reality

In education, it seems it is never okay to admit that we will fail some of our students. I use the term “fail” in reference to the reaching the goals we want to accomplish with all of our students. The reality is that all of our efforts, interventions and supports will not be enough for some students. The reality is that some things are beyond our ability to support. So when this happens, it can create shame and feelings of failure among teachers and administrators. As a principal, I’ve recently experienced situations where we’ve felt like we did everything in our power to help and support a student, but in the end, we failed. We didn’t fail at trying or doing everything within our responsibility and power necessary to succeed. We failed in achieving the goal of helping all students be academically and behaviorally successful. We may have made the decision that another placement was more appropriate, or we eventually had to promote the student despite failing grades, but we didn’t meet our goal. We failed.

Taking it Personal

As a leader, it’s hard not to feel guilty and down about these experiences with failure. After all, when I look at social media, all I see is success stories and celebrations. But how often do schools share their failures? In what way do we discuss these situations? I am not saying we should promote these situations on our Twitter feeds, but how do we share and discuss them within our PLN’s? Or are they just ignored and hidden away, not to be discussed in public. I wonder how much we could grow by sharing and discussing our failures. After all, it is a least a small part of our reality.

Failure Can’t Stop Us!

We should never give up hope, diminish our efforts, or let this reality change what we do. We should never let our failures stop us. However, we need to admit this is part of our reality, discuss it, and use it to help us improve moving forward.

Where do you discuss your failures openly and honestly?

How can we safely share failures within education?

Creating A Culture of Learning, Not Grading

Grading practices can have a major impact on student learning. However, grading is often an overlooked aspect of classroom culture. We must remember that everything we do impacts our relationships with students. Sometimes our grading practices create a culture of grading, rather than learning. We need to make sure our grading practices promote trust, reflection and growth, not a “gotcha” culture of rewards and punishment. The purpose of grading is to accurately communicate learning. They should be used as a communication and reflection tool to promote student growth and learning. Grades should not be for rewarding, punishing, ranking or sorting students.

Creating a Culture of Learning, Not Grading

Most teachers would agree they would like their classroom to be a supportive learning environment. However, many times, their approach to grading sends a different message. For example, when teachers do not accept late work, they are putting the grade in front of the learning. They send the message that the learning demonstrated is not as important as the grade that must be enforced due to the behavior of turning in the work late. When teachers put the importance of behavior in such a high position that the learning no longer matters, they are destroying a culture of learning. Grades should not be used as punishments for student behavior. Too often, teachers hit students with the “grading paddle” as punishment for not following directions on an assignment or failing to follow protocol for submitting work. These behaviors rarely have to do with the learning that is aligned with standards, but instead fall in the category of miscellaneous things teachers choose to grade based on personal preference.

Another example is when teachers assign zeros for students who don’t complete assignments and just move on. Many teachers will argue this practice is done to “teach” responsibility. However, punishing a student with a bad grade for a behavior doesn’t “teach” anything. If this was a successful teaching method, we’d have much more responsible students. No student would ever get a second zero because they were “taught” responsibility. This is just not the case. The reality is that the student who receives the first zero usually follows up with several more zeros because the teacher didn’t hold them accountable to the right thing, which is the learning.

How Re-Testing / Allowing Re-Do’s Improves Learning

If a student fails to demonstrate the knowledge and/or skills on an assessment, and the teacher moves on to the next unit with no additional follow-up, the learning becomes secondary to pacing and grading. Learning must come first. There must be a level of reteaching and reassessing to show the importance of learning the content or skills to students. When teachers just move ahead and plow into the next unit, they send the message that the learning not attained during the previous unit, really wasn’t that important.

How else do grading practices communicate a culture of learning, or grading? Share either view.

Looking to implement effective grading practices, I recommend:

Preparing Students for Higher Ed or The Real World?

The title of this post shouldn’t be a question. Additionally, it shouldn’t contain an “OR”!

The photo above is of a sign hanging in a classroom at a well-respected university. The school itself doesn’t matter, because I am sure there are too many like it, in colleges and universities throughout the nation.

As K-12 schools, we are challenged to build the necessary skills students will need to be successful in the “real-world.” However, by now we know that our approach is often in conflict with what students need to be successful in higher ed. Notice, the set of skills is not the same for both. But it should be!

As a middle school principal, I constantly hear about how we need to do certain things differently, or in some cases, not provide certain supports, in order to “prepare our students for high school.” I usually respond by reminding people that our primary purpose is to educate our students in our curricular areas, and build the skills necessary to be successful in the workplace. In response, I often hear how we are setting kids up for failure. But why should we have to do things that are not in the best interest of student learning, just because high schools or colleges do them? I refuse to budge from making sure we are doing what’s best for students, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

So why do many high schools have different views on what’s educationally appropriate and necessary? Of course — It’s because of what colleges and universities deem educationally appropriate and necessary. But what if they’re wrong? What if many of our post-secondary institutions, who are notoriously slow to change, are not doing what’s best for students? What if they are still refusing to embrace the power of leveraging technology in and out of the classroom to engage students in a type of learning necessary to compete in the real-world? What if the professors in our universities have been out of real-world practice and have only been doing research and teaching college courses? What about the fact that many university professors are/were knowledgeable in their fields, but frankly are just poor teachers? Should they be setting the example for K-12 schools to follow?

To be honest, I’m tired. I’m tired and frustrated with higher ed dictating what high schools should be doing, and down the line. There are too many decisions influenced by higher ed that shouldn’t be. Grading practices would be the first one I’d like to throw out the window. But there are others.

Whether you are at the elementary, middle or high school level: How are you, or your school, negatively influenced by practices of schools at the level above you?

Making School Culture Our Focus

I have attended a few different conferences, workshops and EdCamps lately where I have been introduced to an amazing amount of ideas and strategies related to instruction, technology and innovation. These sessions have been inspiring and excellent educational learning experiences. However, an underlying tone that has existed in some of the sessions I’ve attended has related to school culture. In technology sessions I’ve heard concerns about trust and support. In curriculum or instruction sessions I’ve heard teachers express concern about not feeling safe to take risks or not having autonomy in their classroom to try new things. These concerns relate back to school culture.

If we do not focus on a positive school culture first, attempts to lead change or incorporate innovative ideas and technology become that much more difficult, if not impossible. There are too many schools that constantly shove new initiatives and ideas onto teachers while simultaneously destroying the culture of the school. School leaders are so caught up with doing what they feel is urgent, like incorporating the latest tech, or introducing new programs to address test scores, they miss what is important and crucial, which is school culture. As leaders, we need to get our school culture in a good place before trying to lead change in other areas. Admittedly, I have not always been perfect in this area, and have learned a lot through my failures and experiences as a leader. However, I have seen the positive effects of making school culture a central focus (see my previous post). The challenge for me has been maintaining a balance between keeping school culture a central focus, but at the same time, incorporating some new ideas and strategies.

So why isn’t there more of a focus on school culture?

At conferences and EdCamps, why are there dozens of PD sessions on the latest Apps and Google tools (all of which are awesome), but little to no sessions or focus on school culture? I was recently asked by a participant in a school culture session I facilitated “How much of your administrative coursework was focused on building school culture?” My honest answer was “ZERO!” I am certain there are institutions and programs that address school culture, but how many make it a focus? How many programs communicate to leaders that building a positive school culture is the key to school improvement? We need to see more sessions at EdCamps, conferences and professional development sessions that focus on how teachers and leaders can build a positive school culture. We need more teacher and administrator preparation programs make school culture a central focus.

In Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert’s book School Culture Rewired, they write “Culture represents the unwritten mission of the school – it tells students and staff why they are there” (pg. 30). School culture is the central component of a school, it exists in some form – good or bad, and impacts everything within a school. We need leaders at the district and building levels to make improving school culture a top priority.

Improving Formative Assessment

Our school’s journey toward improving formative assessment begun two years ago with our faculty reviewing and discussing a list of Fundamental Instructional Practices (FIP’s). As a group, we chose formative assessment as the practice we felt was the most high-leverage and worth focusing our attention and professional development. Over the course of the next two years, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT) made up of 14 teachers and 2 administrators (@MurphyMusings5 and I) began to study, plan, implement, monitor and revise formative assessment definitions, frameworks and planning documents.

Establishing a Common Understanding

After our faculty chose formative assessment, we first had to build our common vocabulary on the topic of assessment. At a faculty meeting we compared summative and formative assessments, including definitions, characteristics, examples and non-examples. We eventually created a summary document we titled a Formative Assessment Overview. As a group, our common initial understanding of formative assessment was that it was something we did (check for understanding), rather than an ongoing process. Checking for understanding would become just one step in this process.

Developing a Framework

Over the next few months we also began to create a Formative Assessment Framework, including a working Theory of Action. This document is still in revision, but the goal is to create a framework to help guide us in the systematic evaluation of implementation. The framework would not be used to evaluate individual teachers, but instead, as part of the Instructional Rounds process which takes a systemic look at school-wide implementation of a specific practice.

Identifying a Process

After initially creating our formative assessment framework, it became evident to our SILT that although we kept referring to formative assessment as a “process”, we actually lacked the identification or formalization of this process.

So now we needed a process. However, instead of attempting to develop this from scratch, we began reviewing books and literature on the topic and we found exactly what we were looking for in the book “The Formative Assessment Action Plan” by Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher. In their book, Frey and Fisher outline a practical four-step process for formative assessment. We immediately ordered copies of their book for our entire SILT and began our work to adapt their process to make it our own. We tweaked the names of the steps a bit, but ultimately stuck with the process. In addition, we worked with our faculty to create and revise a practical planning document that could be used to assist in their thought and planning process when designing formative assessment.

The process to create these documents and develop our understanding of formative assessments involved monthly meetings with our SILT, as well as the devotion of faculty meeting and professional development time. Many of these meetings were led by teachers who were part of our SILT. This was work we believed in and our teacher-leaders invested a lot of time and effort to ensure the high quality results that could be transferred into the classroom.

Back to Basics

After implementing the formative assessment process into classrooms throughout our building, through observations it became apparent that we could not accomplish steps 2-4 to a high degree of quality before we first were able to appropriately set the purpose for learning. Our course curricula lacked clear, specific, student-friendly learning objectives. If we were going to engage students in the formative assessment process, they first had to be able to understand the learning objectives. After modeling and sharing examples of student-friendly learning objectives, including the use of “I Can” statements, we allocated numerous hours of time during faculty meetings and professional development for teachers to write objectives for their courses. This involved reviewing curriculum, pacing guides, unit and lesson plans. Teachers worked together to create “I Can” statements for each unit in their curriculum and began to communicate them to students on a daily basis in their classrooms.

Modeling the Practice

As teachers began to implement the use of student-friendly learning objectives into their classrooms, building administrators modeled steps 3 and 4 of our formative assessment process by giving ongoing, specific feedback to individual teachers so they could continue to improve their practice.

Next Steps

Our next steps as a school include revising our Formative Assessment Framework to better reflect the four-step process we developed. In addition, our faculty survey feedback and observational data show that we need to spend professional learning time on methods and strategies related to Step 3: Feedback and Step 4: Follow-Up.


During this two-year journey we have learned so much TOGETHER. I think this is the best outcome from this process and journey. A group of teachers (SILT) took a leadership role in improving instruction, engaged the faculty, and devoted an appropriate amount of time for the work. During this time, our school did not focus solely on formative assessment, but also on Questioning, Grading Practices and other topics. However, our formative assessment work is where we really invested ourselves and has helped us create a culture focused on improving instruction.

How does your school create a culture that focuses on improving instruction?