Thought Partners: A Critical Relationship for Professional Growth

by Marcia Pool Rutherford, Ed.S. & Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

A term heard around education circles recently is that of “Thought Partners.” It’s a term used in the business world that has practical application capabilities in the education world.  Essentially, it means having a pair of listening ears sharing and challenging  your thoughts and plans about a particular topic. But while it might seem like a Thought Partner should share similar perspectives and ideas, that’s not necessarily the case.

The Thinking Collaborative, an organization committed to developing and supporting thinking and collaboration within groups, identifies three specific traits of thought partners. First, Thought Partners challenge each other’s thinking, pushing each other to consider ideas from different angles. Thought Partners can help change each other’s thinking and actions. The critical feedback can help a person see a situation differently, prompting a different way of thinking about it and even provide different actions in addressing the problem. Finally, Thought Partners can share information and spark ideas that lead to substantial change. Through the discussion and feedback Thought Partners provide to each other, both partners may ultimate make significant changes in the work they do.  

A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a colleague with whom you work in a structure such as a team or PLC. The relationships and culture within these kinds of work collaborations don’t always allow for the honesty and critical thought required of Thought Partners.  A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a friend in the social sense, either. Thought Partners are those to whom you turn when you want a critical eye and ear providing feedback on an idea or action. As the Family Engagement and Title I Coordinator for a digital school, Marcia Rutherford and two others were tasked to build a tiered interventions system which would impact all of our teachers and students.  Within the collaborative discussions, which took place via email, online and face to face, a relationship developed among the three that was honest, productive and motivating.  We all felt we were free to add our voice to the project even though there were contrary opinions. Moreover, our own strengths came to the forefront; we could not come to any discussion without ‘knowing our stuff’.  Difficult discussions were welcomed because we trusted the others’ opinion and knew our own craft would be improved.  We were better for it and because of it.  .  

Thought Partners are valuable resources. In our work as educators, we sometimes need a more objective ear and eye to provide perspective. When I am wrestling with an idea I’d like to try within my classroom, turning to a Thought Partner can help me better identify the strengths and weaknesses within my idea. What might initially seem like a great idea may have flaws that I hadn’t considered, but my Thought Partner, through careful listening and reflection, can raise questions that lead me to see aspects of the idea that need improvement. A Thought Partner is a sounding board. It’s also a true partnership. Not only do I ask my Thought Partner for feedback, but I also provide feedback when he or she needs it.

Think of it in this way: children working in maker spaces often rely on those around them to be Thought Partners. They will ask others for their reactions and suggestions to what they are building, all in the interests of improving the design and completing a successful project. They are using their knowledge and confidence about familiar resources to create something new, and the honest feedback from others is valued. As educators, we sometimes need a similar sounding board. By working in tandem with a Thought Partner, we have a sounding board willing to listen to our ideas and provide feedback.

There are some key principles guiding Thought Partners’ work with each other:

  1. A Thought Partner should challenge one’s thinking. He or she isn’t meant to be a cheerleader, necessarily, serving solely as confirmation that the decision you’re making is the best one. There may be times when a Thought Partner does that, but perhaps even more important are the moments when the partner shares a different perspective or raises potential issues that hadn’t been considered yet.
  2. A Thought Partnership is a true partnership. There is give and take. A Thought Partner must be willing to ask those thought-provoking, critical questions. As Thought Partners, we need to be willing to have those honest conversations.There is a mutual understanding that even though the feedback may be more negative, it is shared with the mutual goal of learning, growing, and moving forward.
  3. Thought Partners don’t necessarily have to be geographically close. Some partnerships may not meet face-to-face in the same space. It’s a relationships built around the common goal of improving practice. In fact, in some ways it may be best if the Thought Partner isn’t a colleague on the same staff or in the same district. The objectivity that comes with distance allows for a different perspective and possibly more honest discussion. Hearing how others in different parts of the country have faced similar challenges can be reassuring and inspiring.

As the 2017-18 school year unfolds, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on our partnerships. To whom might you turn as a potential Thought Partner?  If you have a Thought Partner, how can you continue to build and support that relationship? What discussions can you have with a potential Thought partner to begin a more collegial dialogue?  Take time to assess your needs as a teacher and identify others who share the same struggles.  Let the discussion unfold and let the relationship develop naturally.  The benefits of developing a Thought Partnership are tremendous for students and educators alike.

How to Develop and Use a Professional Text Set in Five Steps

By Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

Summertime for many educators means more time for reading, including professional selections we’ve wanted to tackle all year long but haven’t been able to fit into the nooks and crannies of our school-year lives. For me, the challenge isn’t finding professional literature to read, but rather selecting that which I should read. Crafting my own professional learning text set is just the solution I need. A text set is a collection of articles, videos, books, blogs, and other material that allows students to build their knowledge and vocabulary on a particular topic. In a well-crafted text set, the selections being at the student’s entry point and then build in complexity as the student gains more knowledge, vocabulary, and confidence. It’s a powerful approach that is useful across all content areas. It can be just as powerful for us educators and our professional learning.

Step 1: The first decision is the focus to use for the text set. What is it you really want to learn about this summer? This can sometimes be the hardest decision. If you’re like me, there is so much still to learn about teaching and learning, and is seems like people are always writing more books that will be such excellent choices. The benefit of a text set is that rather than getting a smattering of this or snippet of that, we can develop a deeper understanding of our selected focus. (Suggestion: if you’re struggling to find a focus for your text set, consider checking out Achieve the Core’s Summer Reading Challenge.)

Step 2: Find the Texts: Now that you have a focus in mind, it’s time to start gathering those texts. Remember that the term text doesn’t refer only to the printed word. What about including that podcast you’d heard about a few weeks ago, but never got around to listening to? Does the Teaching Channel have a video on the topic? As for the printed word, books aren’t the only option. Consider blogs. Remember that the goal here is simply gathering the set of texts you will use–you do not have to read the entire work to decide whether or not to include it. Don’t make your text set so large that it is overwhelming. Text sets don’t have to be long. A set of four or five pieces might be just fine.

Step 3: Sequence the Texts: Putting the texts into a sequence is another important step. While you might be excited about reading that article from the professional journal, if your topic is brand-new to you, you might want to start with the video, podcast, or blog post. The goal is building knowledge and vocabulary, so starting with a good entry point will keep the reading interesting and even exciting. Starting at a point that is too difficult could make the text set turn into a chore.

Step 4: READ! Once the focus, texts, and sequence are decided, it’s time to dig into the reading. As you work through your set, be flexible. Maybe you’re ready for that journal article earlier than you thought–read it earlier, then! Or maybe that blog post looked like it was going to be great, but by the second paragraph, it’s clear that it’s not really focused on your topic. In that case, set it aside and move on. It’s your professional learning text set, and it needs to be practical and useful for YOU.

Step 5: Reflect: Just as we want our students to consider what they’ve learned and then apply it in some way, so we need to do the same with our learning. How does what we’ve learned change our perspectives? What changes will we make in what we are doing in our classrooms and roles as educators? Reflect, envision, and plan for how to implement what you’ve learned in the year to come.

If you’re interested in collaborating with others, why not set up a professional text set for a small group study? If you have two or three topics you want to consider this summer, try crafting smaller text sets. Creating and using a professional text set and using it is a great way to deepen your learning and practice the process of developing text sets for students.



The Standards Revision Process: Lessons Learned for the Classroom

Tricia Ebner, Co-Chair of the ELA Advisory Group

Char Shryock, member of the Operational Working Group – Science Revisions

Over the past 18 months, Ohio has been involved in a cycle of standards reviews. Per state law, Ohio’s standards must undergo a revision process every five years. Teams of Ohio teachers, administrators, college professors and content experts have volunteered their time to do this work. In 2016, the math and ELA standards went through this process. During the 2016-17 school year, the science and social studies standards have experienced this same process.  This five year review and revision cycle enables educators and stakeholders to reflect and consider how well the standards are working and what improvements might be necessary.

The process is thoughtful and thorough. The review starts with a period of public comment, where teachers, parents, administrators, college and university faculty, and community members can provide comments, recommend changes, and point to research supporting those comments and changes. Then a revision advisory committee made up of teacher leaders and content experts examines each and every comment, with a goal of coming to consensus on the proposed change.  If the consensus is that the comment is relevant and will potentially clarify or strengthen the standards, it is passed along to the standards operational working group.  This second team of teachers, professors and content experts then work to make the revisions if they agree they are necessary. These revisions are then sent to the public for a second round of feedback, followed by the advisory committee reviewing those comments and sending any standards still needing work back to the working group.

As members of the advisory committee for ELA and the operational working group for science, we have been involved with standards review for the past two years. We’ve gained some insights into Ohio’s standards:

  • The vertical progression is key. As educators, it is critical that we know and understand the vertical progression within the standards. In the work with the ELA standards review, it didn’t take long to see that a change made in sixth grade, for example, would have a ripple effect running towards both kindergarten and grade 12. One important strand in the ELA progression is writing opinions/arguments. Standards help to frame the increasing sophistication of students use of evidence to support their argument. In science, this progression helps to map out how students build an understanding of a concept, like force and motion, starting with simple pushing and pulling in kindergarten and going all the way up to calculating force in physics. As a teacher, It is important to understand the foundation students have as they walk into your classroom.  It’s also important to understand that if that foundation is shaky, intervention needs to happen with an eye toward the requirements of the standard in previous grades. Additionally, knowing the vertical progression  of the knowledge and skills students will be working can help educators make decisions regarding students who have already mastered standards at a particular grade level. In this instance, a teacher can make a decision as to whether to broaden the student’s experiences with the skills in that standard, or accelerate the student into the next grade level’s work on that particular standard.
  • Knowing the vocabulary is also important. As we worked through the standards review process, it became clear that some terms used within the language arts standards, for example, needed a glossary, so that all educators in Ohio can work from the same definition in addressing those standards. As we prepare to transition into the revised standards, it is important to pay attention to the glossary to ensure each standard is clearly understood. These are the definitions the model curriculum writing teams are using in their work, and because the test blueprints will be developed based on these standards, the assessments will address these terms as defined in the glossary. In math and science, content specific vocabulary was also carefully looked at to be sure that correct terms were used consistently throughout the standards.  In science, the operational working group had many discussions over exactly the right word to use within each standard being reviewed. Many laundry lists of terms were replaced with a focus on a few key terms, keeping the standards language based in the building knowledge of science concepts and skills, not just memorizing lists or tables.  Beyond vocabulary for students, essential vocabulary was also clearly defined or explained as a support for the teachers who will be working with the standards.
  • Standards build from grade level to grade level, and they also work in conjunction with other standards at the same grade level.  Part of the work of standards review and revision is to be sure that the standards articulate across grade levels and within grade levels in a way that will make sense to teachers and to students. While we as educators need to break the standards down to understand their component parts, that is not the way we should be teaching our students on a daily basis. The standards aren’t meant to be taught as separate, isolated skills and concepts. While we may need to focus students’ attention on one aspect of a standard to deepen their mastery, it is also critical that we have them then work with the standard as a whole.  One way to look at the Ohio Learning Standards is to think of them as the story of the learning that we would like students to master at each grade level.  Within each story, there are a number of strands. In ELA, these include literature, informational text, writing, foundational reading, language and speaking and listening.  The science standard story begins with the nature of science statements, and weaves in Earth/space, physical and life sciences.  Just like any good story, the standards have connections to each other.  Look closely at the literature and informational text standards for reading, and you will see the writing standards reflected in the wording.  Spend time with the physical science standards and you will see that they can be taught through the lens of life science.  Going even further, it is also possible to teach many of the language arts skills through the context of the science concepts!
  • The standards are the floor, not the ceiling, of what students can and should be doing in Ohio classrooms. The standards don’t limit us to only the skills embodied within them. We can stretch beyond those standards. For example, I’ve heard concerns expressed that letter-writing is not specifically named in Ohio’s ELA standards. There is nothing preventing a teacher from addressing letter-writing skills in his or her classroom.  One creative teacher had students write letters to an author, another had students write letters to a story character, from another character.  In science, the working group worked hard to write standard language that would encourage teachers to let students explore the world around them, use authentic data, and find real world situations to build their understanding of science skills. This allows teachers to find science in their local community or their school yard and set students up to become lifelong scientists.  The science working group spent time revising the nature of science descriptions for grade bands k-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 to be sure teachers would have the flexibility to let students be actively involved in doing science.  people-woman-coffee-meeting

Perhaps the greatest take-away we have had from the work of directly helping to review and revise Ohio’s Learning Standards is the power of teachers from various grade levels and backgrounds working together to really unpack standard language together.  If time could be spent in teacher based teams, grade level teams, professional learning communities having the same kind of focused dialogue, teachers at all grade levels would grow in their own understanding of the the standards, and begin to share best practices for how to help students to master these standards.  

One Thing

By Tricia Ebner, M.S.Ed., NBCT

Every year friends and family ask me if I’m ready to wind down the school year, and I usually reply, “There is no winding down–we wind up.” There are so many end-of-year activities added into the typical academic day, and squeezing it all in can be challenging.

Yet even in the rush of poetry coffee houses, 20Time presentations, and mock trials, I find my morning and afternoon commutes filled with reflection. What went well this year? What needs work? How could I change what I’m doing to make it better?

Over 20 years ago, Indiana Writing Project leaders encouraged me to focus on changing one thing each year. Trying to change too much is overwhelming and exhausting. Focusing on that one thing gives me permission to devote intense focus to the change I want to make. I’ve been trying to follow that advice ever since.

Last May, the “one thing” was inspired by our technology department. Eighth grade moved into one-to-one technology for the 2016-17 school year, and we had a brand-new LMS to go along with it. My principal asked me to be part of the team rolling it out and supporting our teachers in learning and using it, so my one thing was learning how better to integrate technology into my classroom. Two years ago I spent time analyzing my classroom assessments to ensure they were aligned to our standards. Three years ago it was mapping out a plan for implementing 20Time in my classroom. The “one thing” approach has been an ongoing journey.  

This year, I’m mulling over several options for my “one thing.” There are always lots of possibilities and options: developing a stronger focus on vocabulary, for instance, or continuing to search for fiction and nonfiction texts that will challenge my gifted children while still being appropriate to their social and emotional development. The one that keeps resonating with me, though, is working on narrative writing.

The challenge I have with narrative writing is that I tend to settle it lower on the priority list because it’s not tested on the state assessments.. That’s truly not a good reason; narrative writing is still part of our standards and needs attention, too. It’s also a great entry point into writing and getting to know students; middle school kids love storytelling and sharing their lives. When I don’t provide opportunity for that, I miss out on the chance to build those relationships with my students.

I’ve blogged before about ways of addressing narrative writing, such as this blog about using Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a springboard for writing. Earlier this year I asked my students to take a poem by Gary Soto and write the story within the poem as a story, in prose, rather than in poetic form. I know there are other approaches, too. So this summer, I will take some time to investigate ways others are addressing and incorporating narrative writing within their classrooms. I’ll start by looking at some of the mini-tasks and modules on the Literacy Design Collaborative web site, and then I’ll branch out from there. A few hours this summer can result in big payoffs next school year, and it’s an investment well worth making for my students’ learning and my own professional growth.

So let me challenge you. As you drive to and from work in these remaining days of the year, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What worked really well in your classroom this year, and why?
  2. What didn’t work so well and could use some improvement?
  3. How could you change that to make the learning and classroom better?

And most importantly . . .

What is one thing you can change to make learning better in your classroom next year?


The Power of Good Questioning

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

During one of my first post-observation conferences as a novice teacher, my principal told me that while I had many strengths as a teacher, my questioning skills were weak. He said I needed to improve those in order to continue strengthening my practice. It was something that I stewed over for days afterward, but then I began to reflect on my practice and expectations. I wanted my seniors to be highly engaged, excited about the British literature we were studying and eager to share their ideas in discussion and writing. I was working really, really hard to generate that kind of engagement, and yet nothing was happening. The texts were rich, the writing tasks seemed solid. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit the questions were the weak point. It simply wasn’t possible to generate the kinds of rich discussion I wanted with basic who-what-where questions. I needed to pose better questions.

While this observation and my subsequent realization happened over twenty years ago, my reflection on question hasn’t stopped. At the time my first principal made his observation, the internet was new enough that I didn’t have access to it. (Yes, this was shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, or so it seems to my middle school students today.) I read all I could. I perused the college textbooks I had kept. I searched my growing library of English Journals from NCTE. As I worked on my master’s degree, I read resources in the university’s library.

My quest for asking good questions still continues. While I have changed and improved, my students have also changed. The types of questions that resonate well with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are those that dig deeply into our studies. When I ask deep, powerful, open-ended questions, we all learn. The connections and insights students make through these kinds of questions are key. They foster critical thinking. Asking these kinds of questions also models the kinds of questions students need to ask independently, of themselves and their reading and research.

I’ve found the lessons on the web site to be particularly strong and powerful. They’ve helped me better understand what strong, solid question about text look and sound like. Recently I used the questions surrounding the short story “Eleven.” After reading the text independently, we began going through the text a second time, this time stopping to note various plot, characterization, vocabulary, and writing style choices. At one point, I asked the student to consider why Cisneros had chosen to start five sentences in the first few paragraphs with the word “And,” a question suggested by the lesson plan on the web site. As they shared various thoughts, the class realized that this approach conveys a more conversational style and gives the narration the voice of an eleven-year-old. Then one student said, “It reminds me of what Gary Paulsen did in Hatchet.”

This kind of powerful connection was possibly largely because of the kinds of thoughtful questions we were discussing. Asking questions like this gets students to consider the author’s purpose and reflect on how writing style can support the purpose. The critical thinking that goes into answer questions like these and then extending them into observations and connections with other texts is powerful. It’s also the kind of reading we need our students to engage in as they continue learning and growing in this 21st century.

The challenge of questioning in the classroom isn’t one solved quickly. There are no five-minute strategies to developing strong, powerful questions. It takes time, effort, and practice. Sometimes question sets I have developed have been flops, with students quickly answering in short, surface-level responses. Every flop has taught me more about crafting better questions. It’s a journey and process, and one that is well worth pursuing. By crafting deep, powerful, meaningful questions, we are helping students to stretch their learning, use texts as resources, and become more independent, empowered learners.

One tool for crafting good questions about text is the “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions,” also found here on the www.achievethecore web site.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Listicle: Bryan’s Top Five ELA Resources

by Dr. Bryan Drost

This week’s blog continues with my top resources for language arts.  This was even harder to do and pare down, as unlike math, you can really take anything you find out on the web and create it into a meaningful activity for students by following the basic principles of the standards shifts.

That being said, here are my top five resources to support you as you are making the change to using resources.

5 – Florida Center for Reading Research. Although many of these activities were written before the CCSS were fully created, the center has taken significant time to realign the activities to give students specific practice on skills that are embedded within the standards.  Click on the charts in the middle of the page to access items from graphic organizers to activities that will help support text analysis for grades K-5.


4 – The Vermont Writing Project.  One of the largest concerns I am hearing from teachers right now in our state is that they aren’t sure what writing needs to look like in their classrooms.  I think we know that best practice shows us that we have to have a reading-writing connection with questions that are text dependent.  Check out this link at the Vermont Writing Project for vetted reading-writing tasks.


3 – In Common Writing.  So now that we know what to ask them, we need to know what3-ela it looks like.  Check out the In-Common Writing link from Achieve the Core that provides a progression of writing across grade levels, where students write on the same prompt at different grade levels, as well as providing multiple examples of student writing within a grade across a variety of content areas.



2 –  Whether you pronounce it News “ella” or News E L A, this great resource has hundreds of free, high-interest, leveled news articles, often with quizzes that you can use to check student understanding.

1 – ELA Mini Assessments. As I shared in an earlier entry on this blog, our teachers need help in writing assessments that have questions that are worthy of kids’ time.  This resource from Achieve the Core does just that – it provides already made mini-assessments that can be used from a professional standpoint to help teachers understand how to write great questions but can also be used for purposes of short-cycle or common assessments.  A must-see resource!

Now that I’ve shared my top five for you, I challenge you to share yours!  Consider the power of the listicle and don’t just stop at 1 – try for 10!

Listicle: Bryan’s Top 5 for Math

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I’ll admit it!  I’m guilty as charged.  Before I fall asleep after a long day of supporting teachers with instructional shifts, I secretly look forward to checking out Buzzfeed! Part of the reason that I head to this website is because it’s mindless.  The other reason, however, is that I’m always craving their latest listicle because the structure allows me to consume larger amounts of information with less effort.

Me being the standards nerd that I am, I had to come up with a listicle to help support the frustrations I’ve heard from educator leaders across our state whom are unsure of what resources to use to help support their teachers with instructional shifts.  This is where this blog entry comes in.  A quick and dirty listicle for busy folks who need to support teachers with mathematics.

Below, find my top 5 resources for math teachers, resources that I know you can use to help encourage instructional understanding which will in turn support student mastery in a format that will only take you a few minutes to digest.

P.S. For you Buzzfeed fiends out there, I promise all of the links work, there will be no Rick-Rolls, and there will be no banner ads in the rest of the post!

Bryan’s Buzz for Math Resources:

#5 – Math Guides.  Let’s face it.  One of the most challenging things for our teachers is that they’re not quite sure what good, aligned math instruction looks like in the classroom. Couple that with resources that aren’t aligned and the perfect storm sets in.  Use the Math Guides on Unbounded.Org to help teachers understand the standards and clusters and then show them some lessons that truly get at the three instructional shifts.

#4 – YouCubed Free Online Courses + IPGs.  Many math teachers struggle at conceptual understanding.  This is especially true of elementary teachers who were not trained as content experts.  Although there are pay-for online PD courses for teachers to learn the math on YouCubed, you can utilize the free student courses to help teachers understand what the classroom should look like (BONUS – teachers can have students use the site free as well).  Add in the Achieve the Core Instructional Practice Guide   to frame the discussion and you have a recipe for helping teachers analyze their own practices, a resource bank, and a free tool that they can use to self-reflect as well as design their own lessons.  I love 3-for’s.

#3 –  Rigor – I take this document and place 10 problems, some from each cate3-mathgory, on one sheet of paper.  Then I ask participants to identify what part of rigor each problem refers.  The first time I did a version of this activity with a roomful of principals, I had a high school and middle school principal get into a fist fight across the table.  Granted, there were more issues going on between these two former math teachers than I knew about.  However, if this resource can encourage such a strong reaction in getting at the difference between conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application, it has to make this list.


#2 – Addition Mini-Assessment – This assessment changed my life and my teachers’ lives.  We never knew how many ways there were to ask addition and subtraction problems.  The most important part – neither did our textbooks! Once we worked through it together, the thought was that we needed more time to actually focus on the major work of the grade level. 2-math
#1 – The Coherency Map – This map was the brain child of Jason Zimba who mapped the standards out using wire.  It can easily be used from an intervention standpoint to figure out what skills a child is missing; but, it is also a great tool to show the importance of what happens in each grade level to support algebraic thinking that is the gateway to student success in mathematics.   Couple this with a coherency flash card activity and you’ve got one day of PD that participants will never forget.



Bonus Item: For getting this far, I challenge you to watch this TED Talk by Dan Meyer on why our math classes need revamped. Couple this with these resources in the Top 5 and I am sure that you’ll be on your way to improving our students’ mathematical achievement.

Stay tuned for a  listicle next week on my top language arts resources.

Assessment Literacy: What educators need to know and understand about assessments to strengthen teaching

by Dr. Bryan R. Drost

Whether we like it or not, assessment is a hot topic for everyone in education right now: how do we know students have learned? How have we formatively assessed?  Are teachers making the right instructional adjustments based on assessment for learning?  Are we asking kids the right questions?  The list goes on.  

What all of these questions bring to mind is the fact that educators, now more than ever, must have a solid understanding of assessment literacy.  Chappius et al (2011) describe assessment literacy as follows: “Assessment-literate educators…come to any assessment knowing what they are assessing, why they are doing so, how best to assess the achievement of interest, how to generate sound samples of performance, what can go wrong, and how to prevent these problems before they occur.”

As exciting as assessment literacy is to me as a psychometric, my reality as a curriculum director, principal, professor, and teacher, has been that many educators have never learned to write and use assessments in this manner. On the one hand, I don’t hold them personally responsible, as it is something that has never been taught to them. On the other hand, I do hold myself personally liable for teaching them as “how a teacher tests–the way a teacher designs tests and applies test data–can profoundly affect how well that teacher teaches” (Popham, 2003). As research has proven time and time, the connection between teaching and assessment is critical.  When this critical connection is understood, instruction improves (Drost, 2012).  

To help solve the assessment problems that were happening in my previous district, I built a professional learning community over the course of the year for my teachers.  To start with, I had teachers list all of the assessments that we were giving throughout the district as I had heard many times that we were giving too many. This helped teachers reflect on what we were actually doing and to really think about assessments in terms of formative and/or summative purposes. It also encouraged a bit of buy-in to this assessment literacy PLC as we were home to the opt-out movement in our county and several of my teachers wanted assessments gone, period.

Next, we analyzed the following three articles to give the group a knowledge base in relationship to assessment:

By exploring these articles, the team learned that it needed to be our mission if we wanted to improve instruction for our students and to continue to meet state standards that we needed to become more data literate.  

Now that minds had been primed, I worked with my teachers to understand the test development process, a process I have personally experienced at the state and national levels several times.  I focused on the idea that data is evidence of student mastery and that data is only effective if it ties back to claims—i.e. if students can answer a particular type of question correctly, an instructor can infer what a student knows or can do. I asked teachers to bring some of the assessments they had been giving and from a psychometric perspective, we began looking at the questions in terms of validity: did the assessment questions give evidence of student learning tied back to the standard?

To help support teachers in answering this rather lofty question, I utilized a template for a Table of Specifications found in Guskey’s (1997) text Implementing Mastery Learning.   After analyzing our own assessments (resource specific or teacher-created), and finding that we had a ton of gaps in relationship to student learning, we began to analyze Ohio’s released items in science and social studies in relationship to performance level descriptors and blueprints.  Ah-hah’s quickly showed up: staff members were surprised to see that questions that the state had written that were once “just too difficult for students to answer” were really truly aligned to the standards and their expectations.

Following these ah-hahs, we as an instructional staff were now ready to design assessment tasks that met the levels of understanding that students needed to demonstrate.  Utilizing Scalise’s chart on assessment question types, we back mapped assessments using a table of specifications and developed the following filters as things to look for as we wrote new questions. Each of the filters is designed to get at the overarching question of what evidence of student learning are you going to look for?

Filter 1 – Identify skills in learning sub-targets to assess

  • Have you identified all skills in learning sub-targets that represent all students included in the assessment?
  • Have you included questions/answer choices that allow students at each level to show you where they are in their mastery?
Filter 2 – Identify the level of rigor and/or Depth of Knowledge of the learning sub-targets

  • Is the degree of rigor for each skill identified by its approximate level according to Bloom’s Taxonomy and/or Depth of Knowledge?
  • Have you accounted for the content literacy standards?
  • Do you have items in place that allow them to show what they know at the right level of complexity?
Filter 3 – Determine types of assessment questions

  • Have you determined the appropriate type of assessment questions to assess skills?
Filter 4 – Additional considerations

  • Is the number of assessment items concise?
  • Will the scoring of the assessment measure the level of mastery for each learning target?
  • Is there vocabulary in the question that would impede student understanding of what is being assessed?
  • Do you have differentiated materials for students to communicate their responses?

At the end of the year, I was proud to say that we had solid assessments in language arts and math in many grade-levels that aligned to the standards.  Were they perfect?  No! Did tweaks need to happen to some of them? Definitely.  Did kids misinterpret questions – yup!  Did some teachers need to adjust instruction in relationship to their data – of course! Does the staff still have room to grow – completely! Did we strengthen our teaching as a result of this process – completely!


Mission Accomplished: Instructional Leadership on a Shoestring Budget

by Dr. Bryan Drost

In our modern age of school accountability, the most important job of the school administrator is instructional leadership.  Yet, leading a staff through instructional shift is no easy task.  Insert a shoestring budget where there is no money for instructional coaches and limited funds for professional learning, and you have at times what some in my district have referred to as an insurmountable challenge.

This has been my life as an administrator for the past year. As Director of Educational Services (read that as jack of all trades, even though my contract says Curriculum and Instruction, Human Resources, Technology, and Professional Development) for a small district in northeast Ohio, my focus this year has been to help our staff identify and apply the instructional shifts that are necessary to help meet the standards in language arts and math with fidelity. As there is only one of me, my goal was to teach our principals to be coaches on the instructional shifts as well as hire a literacy and/or math coach to help ensure that our teachers could integrate the shifts into their daily lessons.

Sounded like a great plan: request denied as the money tree hadn’t been fertilized again this past year.

Given this obstacle and the importance of developing our staff’s understanding so they implement the instructional shifts, I created a style of professional development, that internally, I referred to as the “Elite.”  This model is applicable to pretty much any “project” that you might have (I can say that I have replicated it with two other initiatives that I didn’t think I could pay for this year either).

Here’s what I did:  I developed a presentation for my principals on instructional shifts and did some activities with them to help them understand what they looked like, sounded like, and felt like in the classroom.  Next, I sent them off to learn what it was like to be an instructional coach at a local professional development conference.  During this training, we studied Hall & Simeral’s book, Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success (2008). The intent behind this was to help them understand how to support their teachers as we were asking them to change their instructional habits.

Next, I asked my principals to identify teachers at each of their various grade level bands that met the following criteria: those that completely get the instructional shifts and are applying them (translation = 1), those that have glimmers of it (about 4), those that could easily learn given enough time and support (five), and those that we need to get up to speed yesterday (a bunch).

From there, I built a cross-representational group (I always believe in keeping your naysayers close by and put a high performer or too on there so I didn’t commit myself).  Next, I worked intensively with this team on two pull-out days in relationship to the shifts and then brought in a consultant from our county to have them do some co-teaching within their classrooms, so that they could be guided while implementing the shifts within the classroom (again there is only one of me).  These Elite teachers grew in their understanding of the shifts tremendously since we started, can now incorporate the shifts into most lessons, and self-reflect on the process. For me, this entire process has only cost me sub-money and two boxes of donuts (because we have to be real, nobody wants to meet at 7:00 A.M. and be developed on some other crazy initiative that the CD has put into place that will “go away next year”).   

Now for the twist and to ensure that it doesn’t go away: next year, my Elite teachers will do a presentation for staff on our professional development day explaining what they’ve learned and the “services” that they can provide to teachers during the school year (translation = no cost and I just saved myself at least $1000 on getting a speaker for the day).  Their services are as follows: each of my Elite receive two “release days,” where they can work with other teachers in their classrooms, helping to plan as well as helping to work through lessons that meet the shifts and that help support our students and teachers in meeting Ohio’s Learning Standards.  I did a demo of the process this year to make sure this would work with two Elite, and staff have latched onto them, as they like the fact that the “expert” is right down the hall from them. Mission accomplished: instructional leadership on a shoestring budget.

Although this blog entry paints a rosy picture, everything wasn’t completely kosher as change is difficult.  We had one staff member drop out of the group, one staff member who was upset that they were not asked to join the group, and another staff member who didn’t feel comfortable supporting her peers. In hindsight, I probably should have done an application process for the group and then encouraged those who didn’t apply who I felt were crucial to its success to apply.  Given the amount of learning that the Elite have put in, I also wish that I had been able to find a way to secure some type of college credit for them.  

I can say that despite the messiness, our staff is improving in their understanding of the shifts and my budget line isn’t bleeding red (although June 30 is right around the corner and I have about 10 purchase requisitions yet to sign off on). I do believe that by addressing professional learning in this way, we are building capacity amongst the staff, which is helping to foster the change process.  This capacity will lead to further instructional growth for our students; it is a change process that will stick as it is coming directly from our staff within our ways and means.