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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

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.


29 Jan

During my typical commute, I listen to Mike & Mike in the Morning (I am a big fan). This morning was different after engaging in two twitter chats last night, #vachat and #wcpd. I became so engaged in great discussion with great professionals around the country and all I could think about is how to apply what I learned to my professional development. So, rather than sports talk (I get it- Jim and John Harbaugh are BROTHERS and Ray Lewis is retiring), I drove with the radio off, reflecting on my experience from last night, and the power of Twitter in education.

During #vachat I learned some different perspectives on recent activity in the VA General Assembly regarding student discipline and teacher tenure, and was also able to take a small part in a discussion about the Common Core and VA being a holdout. Being a fairly new administrator, I have to say I am excited about the connections I made, and the future of education in Virginia based on the leaders who were part of that chat. I am already looking forward to the next one.

The chat at #wcpd (still looking to see exactly what that stands for- but that aside it was an awesome experience)- the discussion centered on differentiated instruction, and giving students choices in how they should be assessed. Rick Wormeli even stopped by and the chat produced some tremendous ideas and philosophical nuggets for me to bring into my building this morning!

I would give a more detailed summary of these discussions- but A) I am still reflecting on them, and B) I want to encourage anyone reading this to discover for yourself by searching #vachat and #wcpd. You will also find some great educators to follow there. My real point in posting is that I haven’t posted on here since June, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything to post about. Now that I am getting the hang of Twitter, I have the opposite problem- based on last night’s chats alone, I don’t know where to start!

The NFL: How NOT to Teach

3 Apr

Not that the NFL asked to be a model of how to teach, but the recent situation involving them taking action against the Redskins and Cowboys is a perfect example how poor instruction that we all too often see in schools.  If you are not familiar, you can link here for more background.  The short version is that the NFL owners agreed to not abuse the fact that they had no salary cap for a year…but at the end of the day they had no salary cap for a year.  Two teams, the Redskins and Cowboys, went ahead and front loaded a lot of deals (that would not normally fit under the cap if there was one), and a couple years later the NFL turned around and said they shouldn’t have done that- resulting in them taking money from these teams to spend in the off-season.  So, here is the NFL’s version of “How Not To Teach.”  (Disclaimer- I am not in any way a fan of these teams, yet I have to take their side on this one).

Step #1: Lack of Clear Learning Targets (or Objectives):  This is key- teachers and students BOTH need to know where they are going to end up.  The NFL basically gave the objective: “It’s an uncapped year, only don’t go crazy, so it’s kind of not…but it is.”  Questions for Educators: Do kids understand the objectives we put in front of them?  Do we spend time framing each lesson?  Do we just quote the curriculum or do we re-phrase it in student-friendly language, and take time to explain to students what the curriculum is looking for?

Step #2: Lack of Feedback through Formative Assessments.  Not that it would help without clear objectives to measure progress against, but there was a lack of feedback on the NFL’s part during the process.  The Redskins and Cowboys had to submit their contracts to the league office, and at those times, the NFL said the contracts were ok.  So they had formative assessments in place, they just did not give any specific feedback that could alter the actions of the teams.  The Redskins and Cowboys are now both saying, “We showed you what we were doing- but you never told us we were not doing it correctly!!!”  Questions for Educators: Do Formative assessments line up with clear learning targets?  Is there a method in place for providing clear and consistent feedback to students on their progress, based on the formative assessments?  Are formative assessments a vehicle for students to take ownership of tracking their progress towards demonstrating mastery of the targets?

Step #3: Summative Assessment that was unplanned, not aligned with objectives, and came as a surprise to students: At the end of the day, the NFL looked at what the Redskins and Cowboys had done and said, “You failed, and these are the consequences.”  The teams did not even know how, when, or why they were being assessed- they were just given a final “grade.”  Questions for Educators:  Are the summative assessments we give meaningful and authentic? (meaning they measure actual learning that is to have occurred?)  Do our students understand the methods that will be used to measure their learning of objectives?  Are these assessments methods communicated to students prior to instruction, or does it come as a surprise the day the assessment is taking place?

Clearly, these teams were not set up for success…giving us the perfect model of how not to set our students up for achievement.

Is “Teaching to the Test” as bad as it sounds? It depends on the test.

16 Jan



In our current age of accountability, one of the biggest criticisms is that since schools are judged by results on a test, it leads to “teaching to the test.”  And in Virginia, for example, the Standards of Learning are a minimal benchmark, and if teachers are “teaching to the test”, then we are actually hurting students.

My argument is that the standards are not the problem, the problem is how we assess student progress towards the standards- coupled with the lack of empowerment teachers have to work WITH the standards rather than in spite of them.  If we want students to learn beyond the standards, then our schools need to incorporate not only the knowledge standards but performance and reasoning skills as part of daily instruction.  After reviewing what curriculum standards must be taught, instructors should then consider how to rewrite the standards using these necessary skills, and then design assessment that will accurately gauge progress towards the new learning targets.  Then, classroom instruction must be geared towards supporting student success on the summative test (which could be construed as “teaching to the test”)

Let me use an actual SOL objective from the US and VA History curriculum:

STANDARD VUS.7b The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and their importance as major turning points in American history by

b)      identifying the major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War Era, with emphasis on Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass.

In the “Essential Knowledge” portion of the curriculum, teachers are given several events to choose from (Election of Lincoln, Fort Sumter, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Appomattox) and an example of how to describe each of the individuals listed (for example, Frederick Douglass: “Former enslaved African American who became a prominent abolitionist and who urged Lincoln to recruit former enslaved African Americans to fight in the Union army”)

So, if a teacher were to create a test using this standard, they may be tempted to ask a question such as: “Which of the following individuals was a former enslaved African-American who became a prominent abolotionist? A) Frederick Douglass B) Ulysses S. Grant C) Harriet Tubman D) Sojourner Truth”

Obviously, this question asks for a low-level of understanding- especially if going by the standards, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are not even taught, and students can remember that Ulysses S. Grant was not African-American.  But does the student have a true understanding of Douglass’ contribution to the Civil War era?

A teacher would be better off- instead of slapping the SOL objective on the board and asking students to memorize the names and events- having the empowerment to rewrite the standard to reflect a deeper analysis (and performance skill) that goes with the content knowledge the SOL is asking for.

For example, how about putting on the board: “Student will analyze the impact of key leaders of the Civil War Era by writing an essay in class that compares and contrasts the goals and contributions of the following individuals: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass- with analysis of how the outcome of the Civil War may have been different without one of the individuals involved.”

As an assistant principal, I would much rather walk in and see that on the board than a regurgitation of the SOL objective- it is skills based (historical inquiry, writing, compare/contrast), relatively clear (although would be made more clear with a rubric for the essay), and authentic (students will need to learn the material in order to be successful).  The essay would become the summative assessment (the “test”), and all lessons leading up to the day the students would write it would be lead up to it.  One lesson could introduce each of the men, then maybe a day comparing and contrasting each, with mini-lessons on essay writing and thesis statement development sprinkled in.  Who knows- a teacher may find they need to take a step back and teach students how to determine if a historical event or individual is “significant”- it depends on the need of the classroom.  After a few days, students could be prepared and supported to give their best shot.  If that is teaching to the test, then I say go right ahead!

My point is that if we do a better job coming up with assessments that truly measure learning, then students could go to any state in the union and perform well on their standardized test, yet alone the Virginia SOL.  I know we are judged by how many pass the SOL- but let’s have higher expectations for students, and judge ourselves by how many pass the SOL “advanced”.

Before we get to building assessments that go beyond the standards, and instruct to those assessments, there are a some things that need to happen:

1) Empower (and train) teachers to take their curriculum, and rewrite it into clear, meaningful, and rich learning targets for students, as described above.  These targets will align with, but go beyond, state standards to support the needs of the students in their classrooms.

2) Empower (and train) teachers to write summative assessments that align with THEIR learning targets.

3) Empower (and train) teachers to design lesson plans and formative assessments that align with their summative assessments.  Data on formative assessments should be collected by PLC’s to determine if students are ready to take the summative assessment.

4) Empower teacher leaders who can train other teachers to handle #’s 1, 2, and 3 above.  Not everything should come from administration- it is much more powerful when it comes from colleagues.

5) Building a culture that focuses on learning of the curriculum versus coverage.  Yes, it may take more time for students to work on Objective 7b as I described above- but students would be better served truly learning 80% of the curriculum than simply “being exposed to” 100% of it.

Bottom line: Teaching to the test can be a good thing, as long as it’s the right test.

The Question

15 May

Ever since I’ve become an Assistant Principal, I’ve noticed that I am repeatedly asked one question by the teachers I interact with.  Upon further reflection, I realize that it’s a question that I ask myself every time I encounter a new and challenging situation as an administrator that I never had as a teacher.  And it’s a question that I never know how to answer.

The question?

“Do you miss it?”

On the surface, it’s a fairly simple “yes or no” question…but it really depends on what is meant by “it.”   I know that they are referring to teaching in general, but I have to sit back and analyze the “it” every time I am asked this question.

Is “it” guiding students to new levels of discovery?  Engaging them in dialogue and debate centered around concepts of basic human rights, war, peace, power, and leadership- as I fondly remember doing as a Social Studies teacher?

Is “it” working with students to improve the two most basic skills needed for success- reading and writing- and feeling energized when they show measured improvement throughout the year?

Is “it” working with other dedicated colleagues and administrators to drive student learning, and feeling empowered to make instructional decisions for my group of 150 students?

Is “it” the “thank you” on the faces of students and parents for making a difference not only in the education, but the lives of young people?

Is “it” something as simple as the camaraderie felt in those lunch-time discussions held in the teachers lounge?  (I say simple, but this might be the “IT” I miss the most)

If “it” is any of those things, then yes, absolutely yes, I miss it!

However, as I look back on my first year as an administrator, I realize what I would miss if I went back to “it”…

As an Assistant Principal, I might meet with a young teacher, or a teacher who is not so young but wants very badly to become a better teacher- and serve them as a resource to help them improve their practice.  That’s the new “it” that makes me excited to come to work in the morning.

Or when I can (at least try to) help a student who has a rough discipline history, marred with poor relationships with teachers, parents, and peers, turn things around…that’s the new “it” that makes the bad days worth it all.

When I collaborate with my administrative team, and central office, to make sure I am helping to build a whole school- and district- that puts student learning first…professionally, that is what “it” is all about.

And the realization that I no longer have an impact over a group of 150, but that number has been multiplied by nearly 20?  That “it” is a little overwhelming sometimes, but often leads to an adrenaline rush like none other.

So, that is why I never know quite what to say to teachers who ask me, “Do you miss it?”

My answer is that I do in fact miss it- but I would miss this “it” even more if I ever went back to that “it.”