The Puzzle Pieces Fit

Last year, the New England Association of School and Colleges visited Wamogo Regional High School in Litchfield, CT for our decennial accreditation. As this process was occurring, we were simultaneously engaged in the new, teacher evaluation process. In addition, other local initiatives placed additional demands on our staff. Specifically, we engaged a new Science and Math Curriculum as well as a 1:1 initiative and other expectations surrounding our use of instructional technology. As is often the case, as we experienced the flurry of initiatives and corresponding change, we sometimes had difficulty in helping our staff (or even ourselves) recognize the coherence that exists among these new practices. As can be expected, the combination of these professional responsibilities created a great deal of anxiety and stress for our staff. They complained of “too many initiatives” and could not easily connect these efforts with a cohesive vision. In hoping to assuage the fear and the collective feeling of being overwhelmed, the administrative team has constantly grappled with the challenge to make cohesive connections between and among these processes. The specific challenge our administrative team turned to was to create a simple and clear connection between the work we had done for the NEASC self-study and the expectations for instructional improvement and growth embedded in the teacher evaluation process.

Schoolwide 21st century rubricsDuring the NEASC self-study process we had developed a series of rubrics related to 21st Century Learning.  The staff and all teachers made a commitment to utilizing them across the curriculum endorsed these rubrics.  We were pleased to see that students and teachers alike embraced the rubrics to improve 21st Century Skills. Concurrently, with the beginning of the new teacher evaluation process, teachers struggled to write goals and design Indicators of Academic Growth (IAGD’s) that were meaningful to them but also measured student growth.  It seemed a natural connection to construct a framework by which teachers could partner the efforts started with the NEASC self-study and the teacher evaluation process.

Since our school-wide rubrics were already a measure by which we monitored student progress it seemed an organic connection to use this as our framework.  This summer, as an organization, our leadership team made a decision that all teachers will have the same Student Learning Objective (SLO) and they will have choice of IAGDs centered on mastery and growth that is connected to one of the four key components of our district goal.

DistrictGoalDuring a curriculum and assessment audit with ReVision Learning, we examined current and needed assessments in alignment with the four primary components of our district goal.  We established our own clarity about what assessment practice helps us measure our school wide success towards our district goal.   Since the four components are represented in our school-wide rubrics, these become the basis by which we will measure our school improvement and student achievement. In this way, teachers are given a comfortable and familiar structure and are then able to select a skill that they find most pertinent and valuable to their students’ growth within their respective discipline. The measure (rubric) is already in place and teachers are fully immersed and calibrated in its use allowing teachers to target and design their IAGDs accordingly.

Make no mistake that the decision to marry NEASC and teacher evaluation was not seamless and there was no light bulb moment. Rather, it was a painstaking response to teacher’s feeling overloaded and our administrative effort to streamline what we were demanding of them. This process has allowed for a cohesion that we had not afforded our teachers in year one of our teacher evaluation process. What is vitally important is that teachers have the autonomy to choose their focus and subsequently develop IAGD’s that they find important. But what is more important is that we have connected the dots for our staff by using an effective measure, already in use, to gauge both student progress and instructional improvement. Hopefully, we have simultaneously responded to our teacher’s need for clarity and cohesion by simplifying and de-pressurizing the process.



The authors participated in a two-part Summer Advance with ReVision Learning in July and August.

Bill Egan, Wamogo Regional High School Principal

Jody Lambert, Wamogo Regional High School Assistant Principal

Abbe Waldron, Chief Academic Officer – Wamogo Regional High School

The Right Conversation

Guest Author: Amy Tepper

Amy is a Senior Contributing Consultant with ReVision Learning Partnership

In April, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel for an “Information Night” about the Common Core Standards for parents based on current perspectives in classrooms. I was excited. I have been in over 100 classrooms in the past 12 months while serving in various roles from peer validator to embedded professional learning coach. I have observed some incredibly impactful practices. Just the other day, I was brought to tears watching Kindergartners engage in discussion about retelling information using textual evidence comparing two texts and was later blown away watching them evaluate peer writing with “I notice” statements. Share what I have seen? This was going to be great.

Anyone cringing yet? Well, I should have been, but I naively entered into this thinking I could ease parents’ concerns, fears and misunderstandings. I thought citizens could separate the issues and focus first and foremost on what our students need and have not been getting. Please know; by no means am I shouting from rooftops that CCSS is the panacea for our economic woes, crisis in achievement gap, and dismal international standing. But, I wanted to have a conversation about the imperative and urgent need behind the shifts.

What unfolded was far from the image I had conjured in my head. And I use “conjured” as a pun (can never take the English teacher out of me) because I am pretty certain I saw one or two torches wave and heard mutterings of “burn her at the stake.” Clearly I was wearing a scarlet “CCSS” (and yes, students learning in the age of CCSS will still be able to allude to great literary works.

One panelist likened the implementation of CCCS to child abuse. Seriously?

As I looked out at the 100 audience members, I only saw a handful representing the actual population I wanted to educate. I saw angry taxpayers who cheered for the opponents. They essentially booed those of us who shared success stories from actual time in classrooms and shouted denials of my (and my colleague’s) depiction of the current state of education. I did escape with my life, but have now resorted to touting my beliefs on a safer platform.

Having The Right Conversation

My colleague and friend Patrick Flynn is always telling me, “We must have the right conversation.” He reminds me that this is not to say that there is a wrong conversation. We just need to have the right conversation at the right time.

We have mountains of concern over testing–the funds required to complete online assessments, and issues over the actual SBAC questions. That is one conversation.

We have the “Bill Gates plot to take over America” buzz. Yet again, that is another conversation.

And then we have implementation concerns, and Governor Malloy’s task force is holding that conversation right now.

The conversation I wanted to have that night was about the actual standards and what our students need to know when they leave high school.

I was booed for saying things are a bit bleak in our schools. Can we not come together and admit that what we have been doing for so long is no longer working as effectively in our changing world? We all want the same things for our kids that our parents wanted for us (you know—be happy, achieve success, serve as a good member of a community and our planet, support and raise families). The key is that though the goals are the same, the steps our students need to take to achieve them have changed dramatically.

We still have countless employers and Fortune 500 companies begging us to improve student critical thinking, communication skills and problem solving abilities. This is still the conversation I want to have. As a side note, as I am still wary of proverbial stonethrowers (the electronic version), know that I do not view school simply as the grand creator of a talent pipeline, but it’s hard to ignore that nearly half of our current college grads are under or unemployed, that’s generally 284,000 who work at or below minimum wage (USDOL 2012).

Our Audience

As we begin to implement CCSS in our schools and districts, we must begin with the right conversation and it must occur with teachers, students and parents. Real discussions need to be framed around: Why did we shift? What is different but also the same? Why is it more challenging? What do we hope to gain? What can we expect? How can we support students in new and different ways? In my various roles, I am finding administrators and teachers cannot yet answer these.

No question, teachers are working hard, but we need to re-center their practices to achieve different outcomes. We need to frame their training around those essential overarching questions and address how students will apply the skills and strategies to ensure teaching practices are results-oriented and data-driven. Isn’t this how we ask teachers to plan a lesson?

Our Mirror

We must root our training in observation and evaluation and meet teachers where they are. I observed a first grade classroom a few weeks ago (though I love working with administrators, this opportunity is always an absolute joy and highlight of my week). Students were engrossed at their desks with an informational text of their choosing. Their task was to write one fact. I chatted with each student. They were incredibly excited to share about their books and topic, two or three leaning in to share and listen as I stopped by. But they were tasked with writing something they already knew. Here they held in their tiny hands beautiful and rich texts, only to list something they held in their heads before page 1. Oh, and on top of that, they were discouraged from talking to one another.

I was most struck by the child carrying a book about salmon. The book was far larger than his whole body. He went up to his teacher to show her an interesting fact, but she sent him back to his desk because she was conferring with a student. I wanted to curl up in the corner around that book with him. Who knew there were so many types of that tasty fish? Or let’s at least validate his excitement. And the pictures, oh the pictures. As a K-12 reading specialist and a classroom evaluator, I continue to witness the power of the first CCSS shift of increasing the volume of informational text in K-5. Yet, these students were dissuaded from holding discussions (that were academically rooted) and were never encouraged to share new facts learned.

Students joined the teacher on the carpet for the next portion of the lesson. They would be writing their own books about pets they would like to have. They were directed to select an animal about which they knew a great deal, because they were writing books that would contain facts they already knew. As they returned to their desks, they were excited to make their choice and chatted with neighbors. I actually heard the teacher say, “You are getting too excited. There is too much talking.”

How do we coach this teacher? Where do we start? Clearly, we must have that conversation about what it is ultimately we want our children to be able to do and which practices will lead them down that path. It has to start there.

Forging Ahead

As we have begun to implement CCSS across the state and country, we have made huge assumptions about teacher and administrator understanding of the big picture, of what we are trying to accomplish and how we should get there. As educators, it is our responsibility to provide students with every opportunity to be successful as they enter the world–a tough task as we are preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist yet. It is also our responsibility to ensure our teachers have every opportunity to be successful in this endeavor every day in every classroom.

This begins with the right conversation. Pull up a chair. Grab a snack. Let’s talk.

Enriching Teacher Evaluation Through Artifacts and Collegial Conversation

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I wrote in a previous post about what we believe authentic observation practice looks like and how it can influence a deeper, more meaningful application of teacher performance and practice reviews related to teacher evaluation models. We have not hidden from the fact that we believe much more in the validity and possibility associated with a “learning approach” to observation practice than that which is being sold throughout our state (and most states at the moment) of “scripting” a lesson and “tagging” evidence. One Superintendent recently stated when I presented our ReVision Learning Supervisory Continuum, “This is what I need to help my administrators understand the process and stop referring to themselves as ‘Taggers’.” What we want more than anything for the administrators/evaluators we are supporting is for them to begin calling themselves “teachers” of teachers not “taggers” of teacher evidence. Hence, our strong advocacy in our previous post to observation practices for learning, not a scripted defense.

What we also know is that most evaluation systems have given short shrift to the importance of artifacts and conversation in supporting a learning focused relationship between the teacher and their supervisor/evaluator. We are working with evaluators to understand that observation is only one modality of evidence collection and it is certainly not the only one. There are three modalities to collection of information about teacher performance and practice that need to be built into teacher evaluation models if the system will truly support the teacher as a learner. These three are:

  1. observation (the evaluator has seen the performance and practice being applied),
  2. artifact review (the observer reviews documentation aligned to the performance and practice), and
  3. collegial conversations (through structured conversation, a teacher has shared a depth of understanding about the performance and practice).

Performance and Practive Evidence Collection Modalitites

Our points on observation were made clear in the previous post so let me expand on the next two:

Artifact Review:

magnifying glassBoth teacher-developed and student-developed artifacts provide deep insights into teacher capacity across multiple domains of most teaching and learning frameworks (Danielson, C (2008). The Handbook For Enhancing Professional Practice: Using The Framework For Teaching In Your School, Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development). Analysis of these artifacts should become a substantial part of any administrator’s/evaluator’s skill set when evaluating teacher performance. One of the best ways to carry out this recommendation is for supervisors/evaluators to review the indicators of practice and determine useful and accessible documents to helping demonstrate that practice. The most concrete example is that of a lesson plan or a unit plan in helping to determine performance relating to the way a teacher plans for student learning. A direct but less used example might be that of assessing communications with parents. In Connecticut, the Common Core of Teaching (state performance standards for teachers) includes an indicator of practice that includes the following “proficiency” statement:

“Communicates frequently and proactively with families about learning expectations and student academic or behavioral performance and develops positive relationships with families to promote student success.”

While potentially observable during parent nights or parent teacher conferences, I know few evaluators who have the time to sit in on every teacher-parent meeting. Instead, evaluator review of artifacts such as webpages, email communications or letters to parents can provide quality insight to this important teacher practice. Furthermore, this can happen collaboratively with a teacher during pre-organized meetings so that the review becomes another opportunity to nurture a collegial and supportive relationship towards learning and growth.

Artifact review also should not be limited to teacher-produced documents and should include student-created artifacts as well. I recently worked with a group who was discussing how they reviewed the for the following (high level) performance statement:

“Strategies engage students to transfer critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to new or different content, applications, or contexts.”

One administrator shared how he was able to provide evidence in alignment with this indicator based on review of a series of student generated YouTube videos based on the concepts being taught in one of his teacher’s classes. In this instance, the administrator was able to identify (and celebrate) this outcome aligned with the rubric indicator, citing it as clear evidence of quality teacher practice.

Collegial Conversations:

What is a “collegial conversation”?

collegial conversationsSimply put, it is engaging in targeted conversations with a teacher about practice to help support an evaluator’s understanding of what the teacher knows and is able to do and a teacher’s understanding about the type of practice that embodies the vision of teaching within a school. When asked why we feel this is such an important part of an evaluator’s toolkit in assessing teacher performance and practice, we typically respond with how influential this strategy can be at building a relationship and clarifying expectations about the importance of setting a vision for learning within a school. In fact, while some have questioned the validity of collegial conversations in supporting an understanding of teacher performance and practice, this concern is typically rooted in what should be a more threatening concern; a lack of trust within the relationship between the evaluator and teacher. In other words, those who say, “You can’t use what a teacher says they do as part of an evaluation because they could just be talking the talk,” may be viewing their work as an evaluator as formulating a defense versus fostering a relationship. We believe the latter is the only way to ensure growth and development for both the teacher and the school as a whole.

Evaluators can work to enrich their review of performance and practice by taking time to review their rubric with staff and collaboratively determine the methods best suited for examining practice. Establishing the evidence modality with teachers can not only offer a way to understand whether or not the teacher is engaging in the variety of actions required for great teaching but also provides for an open discussion among all staff members about what quality practice looks like and how certain strategies may be creating the best results. Evaluators should work directly with teachers to identify those areas potentially best evaluated based on documents and establish a list of exemplars that help demonstrate the practice. This will expand understanding of the operational nature of the rubric while generating an additional layer of ownership within the process, continuing to foster a positive evaluation environment.

Repeatedly, I have asked evaluators to tell me how they know that quality teaching practice is occurring in their buildings. I typically will get answers like, “I observe teachers in classes,” or “I see teachers in the PD or staff meetings,” or “I watch teachers during duties.” When I ask about how they know if a teacher effectively plans assessment of student performance or collaboratively reviews data within their team, or communicates with parents, they are often without targeted strategies. Artifact review and direct one-one dialogue about practice is the most effective way to determine if these essential practices are a part of a teacher’s repertoire. If it is not currently written into the district plan, begin to infuse this practice into feedback sessions and conferences by asking teachers to identify documents that represent or qualify performance in a given area on the rubric. Such analysis will enhance the dialog and drive towards improved teaching and learning while contextualizing the mission and vision of the school – effective teaching to ensure powerful outcomes for students.

Student Exploration Nurtures Student Engagement

Guest Author: Mike Maunsell

Mike Maunsell is in the last phase of his teacher preparation program at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, CT. He is entering the teaching profession as a second career.

Not long ago I was speaking with my friend Patrick Flynn, Executive Director of ReVision Learning, about teaching and learning in classrooms. At the time, I was a second semester student in the Masters program at the University of Bridgeport and preparing for the time when I would be working with a classroom of my own. Patrick directed me to a Ted Talk entitled, “Build a School in the Cloud” by Sugata Mitra. The talk blew me away. Sugata spent years traveling to the poorest parts on earth and merely “dropping” a computer for local kids to learn and teach themselves. The results were astounding! Children from the poorest places on Earth began to teach themselves everything from different languages to high level physics on their own with a simple laptop and internet access. Months passed and I now am student teaching in a 5th grade class at Oxford Center School, Oxford, CT. Needless to say the last few months have been cold so we have had months of indoor recess. I recalled this talk and began to ask myself how I could incorporate what I had learned to the classroom. As an experiment, I began by leaving safe Science equipment on the back table for them to play with. We were covering Color and Light so I had prisms, colored filters, flashlights, etc… I didn’t acknowledge they were there and didn’t make a big deal of it. The children would come in from lunch and slowly gravitate towards the materials. What began to happen was amazing! They began to teach each other science. They would conduct their own experiments. Students that I previously noticed were struggling with science concepts, were learning from their peers in a way they seemingly could not learn during a more traditional lesson. Just because they could, they would play “Science” for recess. The end result was that all of the students became completely engaged in Science.

As I went back into my science lessons during instructional time, I found myself teaching with a fully engaged class. They all became “experts” in color and light and I began to hear daily accounts from students of observations they made at home after school, in addition to a few students who told me they had been conducting research at home when it wasn’t called for. They could not get enough of it.

I am starting a lesson on fractions next week and for the past few weeks I have been leaving the fraction manipulatives out along with the science equipment. I am already noticing the same patterns. I simply left the materials there without saying anything and they began to ask questions of me like “what are these and how do we use them”. I would sit and do a quick demonstration and then leave. They began to ask me to give them examples to work on during recess. As was suggested by Sugata Mitra in his Ted Talk, it is amazing what students will learn and do when they feel that they have discovered it on their own, feel that no one has told them they have to learn it, and there isn’t a test involved.

As I begin my career as a teacher, having witnessed directly the power of curiosity to incite learning for students, I feel even more excited about teaching than ever before. I realize now the importance of giving students space and time to learn and explore on their own, and to question and problem solve without fear of having to regurgitate it on a test. In our crazy, fast-paced culture we have forgotten what it is like to sit, explore, and think deeply, and this type of learning and reflection must take place in order for true learning and problem solving to take place.

Authentic Teacher Observation Supports Professional Learning, Not a Scripted Defense

Over the past three years ReVision Learning facilitators have routinely been met with the comment from administrators “but that’s not how we were told we have to observe teachers.” We first heard this in New York as we provided training to Network Teams and then in Connecticut with districts that engaged in on-going calibration activities with us. In some ways this had become a beacon, reinforcing that we were actually on the right path to helping administrators/evaluators complete the difficult and complex work of reviewing teacher practice to support professional learning and student outcomes. As we engaged in our work which to this point includes over 2,100 classroom observations and calibration training of over 500 administrators in over 20 districts and school systems, we began to realize that what was being taught was not about completing observations to provide information for professional learning, but, instead, a mechanical recording of evidence to satisfy a set of guidelines established by each district in response to state mandates.

Scripting, the act of writing/recording everything one sees and hears during a class, was being taught as the sole approach to recording what was happening during a formal observation as opposed to observing and engaging in the classroom learning experience to assist teachers with feedback that supported areas of growth as well as reinforce areas of strength. Observation of teaching practice was not about supporting and continuing to nurture effective teaching (the authentic purpose of evaluation practice), it was about documenting as often as one could in order to create a defense for a summative review at the end of the year. It is no wonder that teacher evaluation has been met with such disdain from teachers. Even the most relationship-focused administrator was starting off in a deficit with their staff.

During calibration activities with district evaluators who experienced this model of training, we began to expose them to (sometimes remind them of) additional strategies. Creating classroom diagrams that could be used to track such instructional elements as student engagement in the instruction, teacher movement and teacher questioning techniques, student response, student-student interaction, resource use, and so much more. We introduce the use of “Scriptive Verbatim,” an approach that targets particular dialogue among any and all members of the classroom helping to focus teacher feedback on particular areas of growth. We taught non-disruptive observation strategies that allowed the observer to move throughout the classroom, talk with students to determine the levels of understanding they had of the learning content, ask questions of students to better understand and provide feedback to the teacher about the impact of selected teaching and assessment strategies.

The bottom line is that engaging in observation and reviews of practice is about leading people not managing them. The observation strategies being taught seem to focus more on management of process and information than they do on leading of people towards growth and change. This will not lead to effective teachers in every classroom and administrators and evaluators have to work towards finding a balance in their practice. They have to consider how their observations are not about just doing it right but doing the right thing.

A couple resources that have proven helpful to evaluators:

I. The ReVision Learning Supervisory Continuum

With the new evaluation systems being applied, evaluators found themselves in what can be considered “new learning.” What better way to help someone understand new information but a rubric? So, ReVision Learning developed and applied a continuum for evaluators with two domains. The first focuses on evidence-based observation and defined the evaluator practice associated with collecting and organizing evidence before, during and after an observation. The second domain focuses on coaching for feedback and is introduced later in our training as we turn from calibration training to teacher feedback and support (a topic for a future post).

We have used the tool in multiple ways with evaluators. At first the tool is used to analyze how effectively an evaluator can collect and organize evidence during a classroom observation. These are most often based on videos of lessons and became a primary mechanism for gauging an evaluator’s readiness for the work in the districts we serve. During the school year, evaluators are encouraged to use it as a self-reflection tool to review their observation reports and help measure growth in their own practice. At any time, evaluators can submit one of their reports (names removed of course) and ReVision Learning will review their reports, “score” them and provide specific feedback using this continuum. One principal went as far as to share it with her staff as a way to hold herself accountable within the process. That was by far my favorite use of the tool.

II. ReVision Learning’s Collegial Calibrations™ Model

Another major obstacle to the development of strong observation techniques and, ultimately, calibration to the rubric or instruments being used is the fact that simulated, video-based classroom lessons can only allow for certain techniques to be authentically practiced. In response, we created a model for live calibrations with teams of evaluators. Led by a facilitator (at least at first), teams of evaluators complete observations in real classrooms with real students, and with real learning happening. This allows evaluators to work collaboratively in post observation debriefs, compare evidence collected, review and assign a performance level to help “calibrate” in a deeper more meaningful way than video sometimes allow. Additionally, a ReVision Learning facilitator uses the continuum throughout the year and provides targeted feedback towards evaluator improvement.

An additional resources for authentic instructional analysis…

The Research for Better Teaching, founded by education leader Jonathan Saphier, provides outstanding resources for leaders targeted at on-going and effective instructional feedback.

RBT’s Skillful Leadership Program is well aligned to ReVision Learning’s approaches or – better put – we align well to Dr. Saphier (he’s been doing this much longer). RBT has provided an instructional observation framework that provides a more authentic and meaningful approach to observation of teacher practice. Saphier encourages interaction with the learning versus a process for record keeping that merely manages information and therefore, will merely manage people.

By considering the reviews of practice associated with teacher evaluation as an opportunity for deep change, observations will not simply become another method of collecting evidence and information to support general analysis of teaching in schools. We will be able to shift our understanding of teaching and learning through routine and collaborative analysis of data sources that highlight the learning within our classrooms. On-going analysis in this manner will also reinforce an understanding of performance beyond what is witnessed in a classroom on a given day for a given lesson, generating a more complete picture of a teacher’s work and it’s support of student outcomes. Based on the varied data, administrators and teachers can build targeted solutions that will positively impact teaching practices and learning outcomes. Framing our observation practice as learning opportunities versus the organization of a scripted defense will also allow teachers and administrators to create collaborative learning communities to help support school-wide and differentiated professional learning.