Insane Store Policy: An Analogy to Insane Grading Policy

12 Jun

It all started when my wife asked me if I could pick her up a flat iron at Walmart on my way home from work.

Sure- that sounds simple enough.

As I traditionally need, she e-mailed me a link to the exact item she was looking for so that I could get the right thing in the store.  I found it in record time, only I noticed that the online price of $14 did not match up with the store price of $20.

Being thrifty, I asked the cashier if I could get the online price, to be told, “I’m sorry, we don’t honor the online price.”  She proceeded to ring me up, so I asked if I could go over to Customer Service and try.

At Customer Service I got about 3 words out (“The price online…”) before I was stopped and told, “I’m sorry, we don’t honor the online price.”  The young lady at the desk turned to someone I presume to be a manager of some sort.  The manager did not look up from the computer she was looking at and said something about the store getting credit for the sale versus online, and that’s why….blah blah blah.  This was quickly becoming a quest for what is sensical and fair more than wanting to save a few bucks.

So I ask: “I notice on your site that I have pulled up on this phone, that this item qualifies for free in store pick up.  Can I actually buy this item right now, right here, on my phone, and ‘pick it up’, thereby getting the online price?”

The “manager” (still not looking up): “Yes, I guess you can do that”

You have got to be kidding me!

So standing there, I bought the item that I held in my hand, online, via my iPhone.  Now technically owning the item, having paid for it, I said to the girl at the counter. “Ok, great- well now that I’ve bought it, what do I need to do now, just get a receipt?”

Her answer “Well you actually can’t pick it up until your purchase comes into our system”


When I go into a place like Walmart, I understand that it is not the workers’ fault when a policy like this doesn’t make sense, so I remained calm and just asked, “Well how long does that take?”

She said she didn’t know, so she would call someone over (for those scoring at home, this is now the 4th employee who has helped me with this transaction.)  A guy came over, was told the situation, and he said “Yeah, that takes at least 30 minutes…the longest I’ve ever seen is 5 hours.”  Mind you- I AM HOLDING THE ITEM I PAID FOR AND OWN IN MY HAND!

Still attempting to remain reasonable I say, “Well I did promise to bring home iced coffee- so I’ll run over to Starbucks and back.  Hopefully by then I’ll at least have visitation rights to my flat iron”

So I run over to get coffee, and as I waited, I received the e-mail from Walmart saying my item is now ready to be “picked up.”  I headed back to the store, go to Customer Service, and the girl at the desk recognizes me.  My flat iron (THAT I OWN!) is behind the counter, now taped up with special “In Store Pickup” tape.  This girl hands the item to a new girl (the 5th employee helping me complete the transaction) and asks her to take me to another part of the store where they do dot-com orders.  We get there, and after about 10 minutes of waiting for the computer to work, I am handed the item (which I feel like I’ve owned all afternoon at this point) and told the sale was finally complete.

So, finally, here’s the analogy: The purpose of a store is the exchange of money for goods.  That is the simple transaction at the heart of that purpose.  I had paid for that flat iron by exchanging my money, but because of insane policy, my good was being withheld until all the hoops were jumped through.

The purpose of school is learning.  The simple transaction at the heart of the purpose is assigning a grade that (hopefully) reflects learning.  However- we all have heard the stories of insane policy that gets away from that purpose. Even if a student has learned something, they may be subject to having their true grade withheld because they have not jumped through all the hoops.  Completion grades, zeroes, taking off points because a paper was 1.5 pages instead of 2 pages….the list goes on and on.  

As the “manager” was trying to tell me, there is probably a good reason why Walmart can’t just honor every online price.  However, there must be a better way to conduct good business than what I dealt with.  Everything that happened got away from the simple transaction of a customer exchanging money for a good.  (Not to mention that the company definitely lost more than $6 in productivity having 5 employees dealing with me.)

Likewise, there are good reasons to hold students accountable for following directions, meeting deadlines, and completing assignments.  However- there has to be a better way than getting away from truly measuring learning and assigning grades that communicate what has been learned- not behavior.  Tracking, documenting, and communicating these items are important.  They simply need to be separate from the grade, as the grade should be the measure of learning, which is the purpose of school.  


Bold Statement Monday: The Best Thing We’ve Ever Done for Standards-Based Learning

28 Apr

I had a college roommate who practiced “Bold Statement Monday”. On these days he would make outlandish bold statements, simply to defend and debate. Usually it centered on sports. (“Trent Dilfer is a Hall of Fame Quarterback”- this was 2001 and he is a Ravens fan). So I’ve decided to bring back Bold Statement Monday and tell you about what I believe is the “Best Thing We’ve Ever Done” to support the move towards Standards-Based Learning and effective grading practices in my school. While Trent Dilfer didn’t work out the way my friend planned, I could not be more confident about this one.

As a school, we have spent several years taking the journey towards Standards-Based Instruction. (You can see my principles and tip sheets here.) This year, we decided we needed to formatively assess our professional development system and gauge where the instruction in the building is- for every course taught.

So, two months ago we began the process by asking each PLC to pull together a sample unit of instruction. Starting with the learning targets, a “GPS” for students, formative assessments, examples of feedback, and summative assessments. We went ahead and printed gradebooks for every person on the specific PLC. Of course, we created a rubric so they knew what we were looking for, and provided specific feedback to each group. The main two rules were this: 1) The purpose is to see where instruction is at a moment in time- it is not an evaluation, it is not a “gotcha!” and 2) You can not create anything for this meeting- “come as you are”.

Since then, we have set up meetings between each PLC, the Principal, me, our testing coordinator who practiced standards-based in the classroom up to last year before moving to administration, and the AP who supervises the given department. In all- this was approximately 80 meetings! We made the decision that if we can’t force the time to have these discussions, we had to start to wonder about our purpose as instructional leaders.

I will tell you strongly- it has paid off. So far our big take aways have been as follows:

1) Need for training on the gradebook as a communication tool: We found there needs to be consistency in weighting of formative vs. summative assessments, and descriptions of assignments in terms of specificity and being target-based.

2) Need for training on student “GPS” for learning. Call it a GPS, call it a unit-at-a-glance. Whatever you call it, students should be told up front where you are going, and what they will be doing to get there. A good “GPS” includes targets, vocabulary, potential formative assessments, schedule of summative assessments, and sample assessment items. A great GPS has these things plus a way for students to use it to track their involvement.

3) Need for school leaders- and teacher leaders- to continue facilitating these discussions- because teachers are doing great things, even if they don’t realize it. We were blown away by what some people were already doing. For example, some teams had very creative ways to breakdown summative assessments by target and communicate it in the gradebook. When we would meet with another team later, they would share their frustration in not being sure how to do it- but when we shared ideas from other teams it was a weight off their shoulders! Other teachers had fantastic unit plans for their own purposes, not realizing that they were also a step away from fantastic GPS’s and improved instruction- just by simply getting their plans into the hands of students! Not all teachers are “on board” but all have some talents to share that makes our instructional program stronger as a whole.

4) Need to listen and learn– I have to say it was simply nice to meet with teachers that may be outside of the departments I supervise that I have not had many instructional conversations with (we have a staff of about 165 teachers). I enjoyed discussing what good instruction in a cooking class, or a dance class, or an AP Physics class looks like- it only helped me become a more well-rounded instructional leader.

If you have ever done something like this with your staff- or are considering it, I would love to chat. You can find me on Twitter, @Ryan_Ferrera

Updated APUSH Curriculum- Now with Learning Targets!

29 Jan

Whether you are a fan of Common Core or local curriculum, or simply believe teachers should develop their own objectives for each course- it’s undeniable that the foundation of any good instructional program is clear learning targets.  Targets must be in place before assessment and planning can be clear to teachers and students.

That’s why I commend the College Board for updating a course near and dear to my heart with actual course objectives.  I taught AP US History when I was in the classroom.  My first year teaching it, I asked my new PLC-mates what they thought (they are awesome teachers).  Their response was, “You pretty much just teach everything- because anything can be on the AP Exam.”

Lack of specific curricular objectives made it a very difficult course to assess, and communicate progress clearly.  Students had to know everything, so discussions on progress with students and parents usually centered on behavior and task completion “They need to complete the nightly readings, to be ready for the quizzes”, “Chapter outlines must be done”, “Students must study harder”….

The exception was the essays, including the DBQ- which were more skills-based and included critical thinking.  They also had a clear rubric so students could understand the performance expectations and receive descriptive feedback from their teacher.  It was time the rest of the final assessment, and course, caught up.

From the new course framework:

The AP Exam will measure student proficiency in the historical thinking skills as well as the thematic learning objectives. Beginning with the May 2015 AP U.S. History Exams, every AP Exam question will be rooted in these specified learning objectives, relieving teachers from the pressure to cover an unlimited amount of content in their AP U.S. History course. 

Now APUSH instructors can assess and communicate student progress towards specific objectives, and student grades should become more aligned with performance on the AP exam.  Still, with the skills-based DBQ and essays, instructors will focus more on application of these objectives, versus the cramming in of “everything that happened in United States History.”

Academic Dishonesty and Grading

23 Jan

As a former coach, I love the period of time between the end of college football season and the NFL Draft.  I find myself glued to the NFL Network as analysts give their evaluation of player skills during the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft Combine.  I guess I am kind of a nerd when it comes to sports and how players are evaluated in order to predict their performance.

And really, that is what Standards-Based Learning is.  During last night’s #sblchat on Twitter, one of the topics of discussion was academic dishonesty and grading.  Does the learner get a zero?  A redo?  The common question I often hear is “If students are doing something wrong, why should it become more work for the teacher?”

Well, this is a tricky area.  First, let me say that I understand how teachers feel when cheating occurs in their classroom.  They feel it is disrespectful and should have severe consequences.  Students must be taught a lesson.  I agree overall with that.  Students should learn the importance of academic integrity and being honest with their own learning progress.  Where I divide with many is that the grade and the behavior must remain separate.  As standards-based grading proponents have pointed out, a grade is a piece of communication.  It is not currency, an incentive, a weapon, a punishment, or a reward.  It represents student progress (or should).

A zero says the student knows nothing.  Not that he/she cheated, but that he/she knows nothing.  If we give a zero for cheating, we are not reporting accurate information.  So what consequences does a student receive?  That depends on your school’s discipline policy.  There is a referral process for discipline, and academic dishonesty should have some sort of consequence (and please let the consequence be a detention served, possibly re-assessing with a proctor- not simply more work/writing/etc).

Because I believe the issues surrounding grading and giving zeroes needs to be something teachers work towards naturally, I tell teachers that if a student is caught cheating they should call home, write a referral, and submit to the student’s assistant principal-  and what they do with their grade is their discrection, and I will support them.  But next we usually have a good conversations through the incident on what a grade is and what it reports.  Often, teachers will end up giving the student the opportunity to reassess as long as they feel the student’s behavior is being dealt with.  Sometimes, they feel strongly that the student “deserves” the zero- but those have become fewer and farther between as our school moves towards standards-based assessment and accurate grading.

Bringing this back to college football, I think of the cheating/behavior scandals of some big-name players and coaches over the last few years.  A couple of years ago, Reggie Bush was stripped of his Heisman for NCAA recruiting violations.   This past year, Johnny Manziel was suspended (very, very briefly) for allegedly breaking NCAA regulations.  Still, when those players had those issues, breaking ethics codes became only part of their stories.  They were and are still evaluated on their speed, strength, football IQ, leadership ability, etc., and teams were aware that they had talent “but” there were some issues to be aware of.  Bush was the 2nd overall pick, and Manziel looks like a top 5 pick this year- based on their overall package.  They weren’t told they had to give up football forever, or they would lose salary from their rookie contract.  What mattered is what teams saw by the time they were ready to draft.  They knew and know what these players can do well, and what they can’t, and they make a decision based on that assessment.

Now, other sports have had more severe cheating scandals (steriods in major league baseball), that have carried more severe consequences (long-term suspensions, being left out of the Hall of Fame).  But this mirrors life, too.  I can’t get away with cheating in my job, and could be fired if I go against regulations that govern what I do.  But I’m also a professional who has learned there are certain things that must be done a certain way, and that my position holds high moral and ethical standards.  Students are still learning the ability to discern that.

The stakes get bigger as they move into college and the professional world, so there should be consequnces, as previously.  However, giving a zero and moving on is really letting them off the hook from their main responsbilities as a student.  This is the responsibility to learn and demonstrate what they have learned, and what they haven’t.  Hammering them with an insurmountable F, on top of any disciplinary consequences, is not appropriate, and it certainly does not pass the test of good communication.  Addressing the behavior and learning as two separate entities is a best practice that we need to see more of.

Standards-Based Grading: Work Ethic and Preparation for College

8 Jan

Today I was drawn into observing a Twitter debate between @stopsbg and various proponents of standards-based grading. The sbg opponent kept coming back to a couple of key issues he has with standards-based grading: 1) The perception that it does not teach students to have a strong work ethic and 2) it does not prepare students for college (and he spoke with many college professors who appeared to support his stance).

Now, here’s what I’ll say before posting my own thoughts on these important issues: I am not from Iowa- I’ve never been there. It could be that “@stopsbg” has valid concerns for his community. Looking at his website, from his point of view (and supporters) it looks like there are issues with a rushed implementation and lack of leadership involving stakeholders. Additionally, it appears concerns with the Common Core are directly linked to concerns some in this community have with “SBG”. I live and work in a non-Common Core state (Virginia). Honestly, I don’t know. Therefore, this is not a direct rebuttal to that particular situation or person, but rather what I felt compelled to share in regards to the two “issues” stated above- as they are commonly shared with me in discussions with teachers who are anti-SBG.

I went to college at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had over 25,000 students (important as I am about to describe an individualized and standards-based education I received from some professors there despite its size). As a freshman, I took an English class in which over 50% of the grade was based on the final paper. Along with a description of the paper, I was provided with a clear rubric detailing how my work would be assessed. Wanting to do well, I took the professor up on her offer of submitting drafts of the paper during the semester. I submitted a first draft, which was returned with comments based on my progress towards fulfilling the rubric’s standards (which was based on course objectives). I had some mistakes, fixed them, and turned my work in again. The professor said I was close to a great paper, but now I was ready to go further. She gave me specific ideas on how I could bring more analysis, and better rhetoric- I was now not only demonstrating knowledge- I was demonstrating skill. Well, by the time the paper was due, I turned in an excellent final product- my third attempt. It was worth it- I had learned how to write a great paper. The paper was still due on the due date. I did not get to re-write it- because I already had, so I didn’t have to. My grade was not based on an average of my initial drafts- it was based on what I had learned in the end, after revising and re-working it. (By the way, earning a high grade in this class exempted me from Junior English because it was based on many of the same skills….SBG advocates will know what I am saying here.)

Another example, again from my freshman year. A course on Game Theory. After all assessments, I received a B+. I did not feel that accurately reflected my knowledge. Luckily, my professor offered all students the opportunity to come to office hours and discuss grades. When I got there, we had a great discussion on Leviathan, which I had initially made some misinterpretations on. He saw that I improved. He stated that the grade he gave me was not accurate (before I did!). He gave me an A.

Now, let me be clear: I did not get all A’s, I do not consider myself a genius, nor do I consider myself a grade-grabber. I had educators who were concerned that I learned the course standards and offered me multiple opportunities to improve and demonstrate my competency. Did it happen in every college course? Of course not! Not in most- however I was able to deal with those sink-or-swim courses because my work ethic was developed by these professors early on. I believe both of these vignettes capture the spirit of standards-based assessment.

Proponents of SBG believe in preparing students for college and helping them learn work ethic. For example, for many teachers at my school, formative assessments are not calculated into the grade, and students can retake assessments. However, in order to retake a test, a student must have fully attempted all preceding formatives for feedback. Students quickly learn that they can not just show up on test day having done no work and can just keep trying- they must learn it. So, they begin doing the formatives, and getting feedback, and then they do not NEED a retake!

I believe in standards-based learning precisely because it promotes work-ethic and college and workforce preparation. It promotes learning and becoming proficient at skills and knowledge. It takes time to implement correctly in a school, but once it is, you will begin to see the mission of education fulfilled.

Principles of Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment, and Tip Sheet for School Leaders

7 Jan

As a hard cold falls over the country this week, I can’t help but think about summer.  This past summer, I had the opportunity to present on standards-based grading, along with my principal and a team of teacher leaders in my school.  We presented to adminstrators and leaders across the school division.  While it was fun to share in person, I realize that I haven’t done much sharing with my PLN as of late.  So, please check out what my school has found to be the key principles of standards-based instruction and grading, as well as essential tips for school leaders (administrators AND teachers).

Also, please feel free to comment here or tweet me with your own.

Standards-Based Planning, Instruction and Assessment: Principles

  1. This is about communication as much as anything else: The purpose is that teachers, students, parents and administrators are all very clear on the learning targets of a particular course, how students will be assessed on their progress, where they stand in relation to these targets, and what to do as next steps towards mastery.
  2. Backwards Planning is a must:  Once established, look at your targets then plan assessments.  Consider that different types of assessments match up better with different types of targets.  Once assessments are planned, instruction can be planned.
  3. Give students a “GPS”: Students should know the targets and assessments up front.
  4. The goal of multiple opportunities is that students will learn each target:  Re-testing or re-assessment policies are not to raise grades artificially or make things easier on the student.  These policies are in place to let students know they will learn, and will have the support necessary to do so.
  5. Descriptive feedback is vital: Any system that allows students multiple opportunities without descriptive feedback on an ongoing basis will fail.  Students should be clear on these three questions through the formative assessment process: “1. Where am I going? 2. Where am I now? 3. How can I fill the gap?” (Stiggins)
  6. Quality assessments and quality rubrics must be developed:  This will take time, and requires reflection and continuous improvement.  Assessments and rubrics must be aligned with targets and expectations.
  7. Continue to document and communicate student behavior, apart from the grade: Although the grade should be based on mastery of clear targets, behavior is still important.  Follow the discipline and parent communication processes as usual.  You will find parents will back you when they realize their son or daughter is being given every opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.
  8. Gradebooks should be organized by targets, not assessment type: This will change the conversation from what the student is doing or not doing to what the student knows or does not know.
  9. This is not a program or a one-time fix: This is an ongoing process for all of us as professional educators.  We must continue to learn about assessments and grading that is best for students.  One size does not fit all!

Standards-Based Planning, Instruction and Assessment:

Tip Sheet for Administrators and Teacher Leaders

  1. Start with where you are now: Analyze the key issue.  For us, it was lack of clear learning targets across departments.  Some schools may already be beyond that and need to look at assessment practices, gradebook, etc.
  2. Go Slow: Understand this will take time and be patient.  Even if you are not making the progress you expected, ask yourself, “Are we further along than we were a year ago?”
  3. Read the research and apply it to your staff development and school plan: See the resource matrix provided, add your own.  It is not just about gaining the knowledge, but application.
  4. Find your core people: Start with any teachers who are “on board”.  Do not hold them back or make them wait for others to catch up.  Empower them to lead the way.  Give others time.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders: Use the syllabus, parent meetings, Principal’s Advisory, letters home to educate the community.
  6. Offer ongoing professional development: This is not a one-time training.  It has multiple components and requires a lot of follow-up and reflection.
  7. Align with the evaluation process: The PPP has several areas of focus that support this approach.  (Especially Standard IV- Assessment OF and FOR learning, Standard VII- Student Academic Progress)
  8. Be open to different approaches: Allow teachers room to use strategies that are true to their style.  There are many different ways to get to the same goal.  Support time for PLC’s to work together and plan the best approaches for their content.
  9. Build capacity for teachers to produce exemplars and lead staff development: Look at what teachers across departments are using for targets, pacing, assessments, gradebooks, “GPS for students”.  Collect these and use in staff development.  Eventually, teachers should be the ones delivering the staff development in your building.

Teacher Evaluation: The Power of Instant Feedback

6 Feb

With a new school semester, my number one priority has become doing a better job of getting into classrooms and providing teachers with growth-producing feedback.  I currently supervise 54 teachers across three departments- and reflecting upon some of the observation forms I completed in the first semester, I gave my self a failing self-evaluation.  My feedback was not timely, often generic, and did little to have an impact.  My time was focused mainly on new teachers, and while there is nothing wrong with that- I realized I was not giving much time at all to my veterans.  Furthermore, I gave the teachers in my departments a survey to evaluate me.  While it seemed that teachers appreciate my leadership in a general sense, my lowest area was clear- they felt a lack of feedback from me on their instruction.

Well I knew this wouldn’t do.  There are hundreds of things that can happen in a given week to pull a high school assistant principal away from instruction, particularly in classrooms where I know teachers are “doing fine”.  But if I have a group of professionals desiring feedback, and I am not giving it, what is the point?

After brainstorming a number of ideas, I settled on using my iPad and Google Drive to get the job done.  So far, the results have been amazing.  I put my school division’s observation form on Google Drive.  I go into the room, talk to students, take notes, and for informal observations see at least one full segment between transitions.  I try to be specific, and include student quotes where helpful.  More than anything, I try to be positive, even in giving an area I see for improvement.  Right there in the room, I e-mail the Google Doc as a PDF attachment to the teacher.  The feedback is already sitting there in their inbox by the time they sit down after the lesson.

I gave my teachers one condition for doing this: they have to print out the form, sign it, and come talk to me about the lesson (or let me know when they are ready and I will go to them).  Where there would be some teachers I would go weeks without seeing, so far I have teachers coming down immediately after school to discuss aspects of their lesson.  I even had one teacher send me a note thanking me for the kind words about her lesson.  It makes my day to make teachers happy, and the door of opportunity for constant dialogue about quality instruction has been flung open.  Everyone, myself included, feels more effective by simply tweaking a system that wasn’t working, and finding a system to efficiently give teachers instant, specific feedback on their instruction.