#pbgrVT work day

Thursday I attended a Proficiency-Based Learning Work Day at South Burlington High School. The purpose of these work days is to examine and help refine the work of other educators who are implementing proficiency based learning in their schools and classes.

Unlike a typical conference, most presentations utilized either a tuning or consultancy protocol. The presenter had a dilemma or sample of student work which became the center of discussion. The first two sessions I attended used the consultancy protocol. I heard from the head of an independent school struggling with how to quantify proficiency, and from a technical education teacher wondering how to communicate the expectations of his proficiency based assessment to his students. It was different from any professional development experience I have ever had. Rather than being talked at by an expert, we addressed the concern of a fellow educator through a rich discussion. It provided a window into the current practices and problems people are facing when it comes to proficiencies. A++ would participate again.

Representatives from the Agency of Education were on hand for a Q&A session about proficiency based learning initiatives at the state level. Tom Alderman made some comments to the whole group about the current policy environment. Basically, PBGR is on its way. The groundwork is set in Act 77. It’s in the draft Education Quality Standards. There are funds available for schools willing to implement PBGR and Personal Learning Plans for all students sooner rather than later. The essential message was that The Agency is there to support PBGR implementation, but it’s up to educators in the field to get the real work rolling.

By the end of the last session of the afternoon, I had developed a severe educator-crush on Math Henchen from Harwood Union High School. Matt’s session was a deliberative dialogue on the specifics of proficiency-based assessment systems. The goal was to build consensus on the meaning of various terms related to PBGR as well as some general best practices. Matt shared a Google Doc where questions could be posted, and which also includes useful PBGR resources.

I came away with a few big ideas from Matt’s session. The first was what he described as a “Two Tier System” of proficiencies which I feel has significant implications for curriculum. The first tier includes the basic competencies required of all students. The second tier encompasses the specializations that a student can choose to pursue. Something Matt stressed that struck a chord with me was the need to decide on the first tier of proficiencies as a community. It made me think about our school as we work to develop a K-12 curriculum, and whether members of the community will have an opportunity to review and help shape that work.

Matt also got us thinking about the need to balance standardization and personalization. Proficiencies are a form of standardization; they are a set of outcomes required of all students. But to be successful, there needs to be a degree of personalization in how evidence of meeting those proficiencies is acquired. We require common educational outcomes, but also to acknowledge that students and teachers are at their best when they can leverage their own affinities.

The last big idea I took from Matt’s session was to consider the differences between Lenin and Bernstein. Lenin was an advocate of revolutionary socialism; that revolution was necessary to effect social change. Bernstein, by contrast, formed the idea of evolutionary socialism; socialism is the final result of liberal reforms which will occur slowly over time. When it comes to PBGR implementation, we should be like Bernstein. As well meaning as we are, if we try to drag educators kicking and screaming towards proficiencies we are likely to fail. Instead we can take small steps, always with the larger goal in mind.

Ultimately I found a common thread that ran through each session and the conversations I had. Teachers and schools need clarity of purpose. Proficiency based learning and assessment requires explicit expectations, and the hardest work comes from making the tough decisions about what every student needs to know and be able to do, and to have high expectations for their work. Everybody has a different answer, but somehow a community needs to build consensus.


What Works–Weekend Reading of Robert J. Marzano

About six months ago I posted about my weekend reading of William Glasser’s Schools Without Failure and The Quality School. To follow it up I’ve spent time reading through the work of Robert J. Marzano.

Marzano has published a number of titles in a series of “…That Works” meta-analyses of the existing research into the effectiveness of methods and interventions within a number of education topics. So far I’ve gone hands on with Classroom Instruction That Works, Classroom Management That Works, Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work, and School Leadership That Works. As part of my experimentation with standards-based grading I have also read Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Learning which is part of a more in-depth “Classroom Strategies That Work” series.

One powerful combination is Classroom Instruction That Works and the accompanying Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Classroom Instruction That Works sets out the evidence behind each of the nine categories of instructional strategies that Marzano identifies as being the most effective. The handbook provides a more detailed look at the application of Marzano’s nine categories. It also includes many worksheets, rubrics, and questions for reflection and self-assessments that are meant to guide you toward effective use of specific strategies within the nine categories. It is a great tool for the reflective educator.

There is nothing especially moving about Marzano. Glasser is deeply philosophical and his work reads like an urgent call to action. Marzano simply presents facts; the best evidence to date. It does not start a fire in the heart, but it does make a good basis for reflection. Am I doing what the research says will have the greatest impact for my students? Really that is the essential question we face as educators. It is our job to continually evaluate our effect on student learning, and make necessary adjustments. Marzano identifies for us a set of teachers’ tools that are typically effective. The trap I can imagine some educators falling into, however, is taking Marzano’s nine to be the only instructional strategies worth using.

The struggle I have, and this is something I want to work hard on over the summer, is identifying when to use what strategies. When is it important to identify similarities and differences? When should I use non-linguistic representations, and how do I make them most effective? What’s the best time and method to have students generate and test hypotheses in math? These are questions I want to take time to address as I methodically pick apart the standards I want to address with my students for the coming school year.

Marzano was, overall, a good read. It’s nice to know that some of my current practices are supported by the research, such as my foray into standards-based grading and my sustained use of formative assessments. Now I have just a few titles left on my reading list, including John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers and a neat cognitive science book called Why Don’t Students Like School.

In defense of “IEP kids”

This is a post where I say things to a colleague that I couldn’t say in the moment when it would have really mattered..

Can we please not refer to students with disabilities as IEP kids? It is not right to speak as if they were one homogenous group. This is especially true when blanket statements like “IEP kids can’t read” are applied. Many students receiving IEP services have print disabilities, yes, and it is an especially high proportion out of the students with disabilities in our high school. But many does not mean all. Some of our students with disabilities read quite well. Some of our students with print disabilities read better than their non-disabled peers.

Whether or not you realize it, the tacit statement you are making is that you do not want students with learning disabilities in your English class. You’d have them educated separately. But you’re operating on a common myth about learning disabilities; that they can be cured. Learning disabilities are never outgrown and can never just go away. We are talking about people who will struggle with basic skills their entire life. We can continue to build on those skills and narrow the gap between them and their peers, but not at the expense having an opportunity to do grade-level work with their non-disabled peers. This is the entire purpose of IEP accommodations; to ensure that students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment. Those IEP accommodations are not just nice suggestions either, they are legal requirements that I will hold you accountable for.

The difficulties with reading in our school are not even confined to students with disabilities. Our entire 7th grade struggles with reading. The number of students in our elementary Educational Support System who need additional reading instruction is staggering. What you are witnessing is the effect of trying to run a school without a curriculum, without systematic reading instruction, and with very few means of assessing whether its students are meeting grade-level standards. Do not make students with disabilities your scapegoat. The real problem is our dereliction of duty.