Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Competency-Based Transcript and College Admissions

How will colleges be able to interpret grades when the high school switches to a four point scale? My son is a sophomore and I am concerned that he will be at a disadvantage when he applies to college.  - BHS Parent

This question was recently asked of me through our website.  It's a common question and an appropriate concern for parents to have.  There is a misconception out there that colleges and universities will not know how to interpret a competency-based transcript.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have spent a considerable amount of time consulting with admissions officers at top tier schools around New England and they have been consistent in their responses.  Colleges and universities accept students from all over the world.  Students from public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schoolers, international students, etc...  Admissions officers see a wide variety of transcript formats.  They see transcripts with and without class rank, GPA (weighted or unweighted), traditional letter grades and a variety of standards-based formats.  They consistently report that the transcript format is a non-issue.  The important piece is the school profile.  A well written school profile describes how admissions officers will interpret the wide variety of transcripts they review. The following is a direct quote from Caroline Weaver, Admissions Officer at Harvard:

"In a nutshell, we have no preference in how schools choose to evaluate their students.  We have every single variety of evaluation possible represented in our applicant pool.  As long as your school profile is comprehensive and explains how students are evaluated, which classes they are eligible to take in what years etc... we have all the information we need.  We are far less concerned with GPA and rank than we are with rigor of the curriculum.  We simply want to see students challenging themselves and doing well in those challenging classes.  Nearly half the schools represented in our applicant pool have done away with class rank.  And with today's crazy weighting systems GPAs mean very little if we don't have the "key" (school profile)....I think you will find this sentiment repeated by many of our peer institutions." 

This is consistent with the feedback we receive from the public and private colleges and universities with which we have consulted.  Although affirmations like this from top tier schools are reassuring, it's important to note that there have been no final decisions made about what the transcript or diploma will look like at Belmont High School.

Parents and community members who have followed our transition timeline understand that we have placed a much greater emphasis on teaching and learning than we have on grading and reporting.  As a faculty, we have committed to the study and implementation of research-based practices that have been shown to have the most powerful impact on student learning.  As we develop more sophisticated and effective instruction and assessment practices a natural shift in reporting will occur.

I have included a brief and well written article on class rank by Sarah McKibben.  Although no decisions have been made about class rank and GPA, it is important that we begin to have these conversations and, as a community, come to a deeper understanding of this issue.

I hope you enjoy the article and please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.

Stepping Out of Rank

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teacher Mindset and Student Success

If you've been following the transition that is taking place at Belmont High School, you would know that this transition is having a direct impact on the work teachers are doing in the classroom. One often overlooked piece of the transition is the shift in mindset (or perspective) that teachers must undergo in order to be successful in a competency-based teaching and learning model. Simply identifying standards, writing proficiency scales, posting learning targets, and reporting out on a 4-point scale is not enough to improve student achievement.

The impact of this work on teachers is significant and multi-faceted.  One of the most profound implications of the transition is the shift in emphasis from covering material to ensuring students have actually learned it.  This represents a subtle but significant change in how teachers must approach their practice.  In the world we all grew up in, it was common for a teacher to assign work from a chapter in a textbook, deliver instruction from the front of the room (often in the form of notes), assign classwork and homework, and give a test or quiz.  Then it was time to move on; whether students learned the material or not.  Feedback was minimal and often in the form of brief affirmations of performance, "Great Job!", "Excellent!", "Needs Improvement".  The quality of feedback was poor and sporadic.  If students did poorly they were often encouraged to study harder next time.

At Belmont High School, we are placing the emphasis on student learning rather than student work.  This concept is central to the philosophy of competency-based education.  Students must know exactly what they are expected to learn, how they are going to get there, and what success will look like.  Assessments are both formative and diagnostic.  Students are given opportunities to reflect on their progress so that they know where they are in relation to learning targets.

We have been working hard at BHS to foster a staff culture centered around reflective teaching and exemplary practice. We want all teachers to be able to answer the following questions:  What effect is my practice having on student learning? and, more importantly, How do I know?

During our most recent professional development day, we began a study of John Hattie's work on "Visible Learning." I've included a short video that highlights the eight mind frames that Hattie believes all teachers must hold. I firmly believe that these mind frames are essential to both teacher and student success.  I hope you enjoy the video.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Toxic Grading Practices

Last month's teacher workshop at Belmont High School was extremely productive.  We reviewed our goals for transitioning to competency-based education, studied the core principles that drive this work, and each teacher had the opportunity to reflect on how their practice will change in order to be successful in the months and years to come.

One of our work sessions was designed to build a better understanding of "toxic grading practices."  When we refer to "toxic grading practices," we are referring to any practice that contributes to a student's grade being less accurate than it ought to be.  One of the core principles of competency-based education is that academic performance is monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation.

This principle is often misunderstood and misapplied in schools and classrooms that remove deadlines for turning in work and fail to hold students accountable for their actions.  At Belmont High School, we believe deeply in the value of a strong work ethic and student accountability.  We also believe that it is part of our responsibility to cultivate a strong work ethic in our students and that the ability to meet deadlines is important in school and in life. The claims we make about academic achievement, however, must be accurate.  Academic success must be defined by the achievement of expected standards and must be an accurate reflection of what students know and are able to do.

Equally important, behaviors such as meeting deadlines, responsibility, and work ethic must also be valued and reported on separately (we would expect to see a correlation between work ethic and academic performance).

This change in perspective requires significant challenges to how teachers approach their practice. Teachers are rethinking the ways in which they manage their gradebooks, how they categorize and weigh assignments, and how they assess and record student progress.  The change process is not easy.  I've been impressed with our teachers willingness and ability to collaborate and share ideas to develop viable solutions and first steps to improving our grading and reporting practices.

I've included a short video of writer and consultant Doug Reeves talking to a group of educators about common "toxic grading practices." We are already working to eliminate these practices from BHS and I hope the video is helpful to parents who are still developing an understanding of the rationale for our transition work.  Reeves has a bit of an edge to his delivery and I think his take on student accountability and "getting the work done" is spot on.  I hope you find the video helpful.

Doug Reeves - Toxic Grading Practices

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Homework in a Competency-Based Classroom

Over the last several weeks I've received number of inquiries from parents about how homework will be handled as we move forward with competency-based teaching and learning at Belmont High School.

A common misconception (certainly not unique to Shaker Regional) is that teachers will "not count" homework or perhaps not even assign homework at all.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the way we think about homework may change, working at home will remain an integral part of the educational experience at Belmont High School.

In my last post, I wrote about the effective use of learning targets in the classroom. Once teachers have identified learning targets, any work they assign should be designed to help students hit those targets.  This is just as true for homework as it is for work that is completed in school.  We shouldn't look at homework as a unique category in a teacher's gradebook that is mathematically calculated apart from work done in school.

In a high functioning competency-based classroom it's simply regarded as work.  Some of that work will be done at school and some will be done at home.  The reality is that if students are off task in school, they will likely have more work to do at home.  Likewise, if students are struggling to meet learning targets and are required to "redo" assessments, they may have alternative or additional assignments that need to be completed in order to demonstrate what they have learned.  Again, some of this work will be done at school, and some will be done at home.  Students who are working towards exceeding standards will also likely have meaningful work that will need to be completed outside of the classroom.

The key is the quality and purpose of the assignments.  The value of homework should never be measured by volume.  Just like any other assignment, work done at home must be directly connected to desired learning outcomes.  Students should know exactly what they are expected to learn and the criteria for success should be clear to them.  Homework should never be busy work.  At Belmont High School, teachers are working collaboratively to re-examine and improve all aspects of their teaching, including how they approach homework in a competency-based classroom.

In the article I've included below, Rick Wormeli writes about various ways teachers can make homework more meaningful for students.  Originally written for the middle level, I have adapted the article to make it more pertinent to the work we have begun at Belmont High School.  The strategies Wormeli presents apply not only to homework, but to all assignments, and they ring true in any classroom at any level; competency-based or traditional.

Throughout my career, I've observed teachers use many of these strategies in their practice. In classrooms in which teachers use them regularly, rates of homework completion are consistently high. In classrooms in which these strategies are absent, homework completion is often inconsistent. They really do make a difference.

13 Ways to Make Homework More Meaningful
Adapted from Rick Wormeli's Smart Homework originally published in MiddleWeb, August 2014 

1. Give students a clear picture of the desired outcomes using sound learning targets. This doesn’t mean everything is structured for them, or that there aren’t multiple pathways to the same high quality result. Authentic "voice and choice" are critical to student motivation. Students must know exactly what is expected, however. Clear learning targets set purpose for doing the assignment. Priming the brain to focus on particular aspects of the learning experience helps the brain process the information for long-term retention. Setting purpose for homework assignments has a profound impact on learning as well as the assignment’s completion rate.

2. Allow students to collaborate in determining how homework will be assessed. If they help design the criteria for success, such as when they create the rubric for an assignment, they “own” the assignment. It comes off as something done by them, not to them. They also internalize the expectations—another way for them to have clear targets.

With some assignments we can post exemplars from previous years (or ones we’ve created for this purpose) and ask students to analyze the essential characteristics that make these assignments exemplary. Students who analyze such assignments will compare those works with their own and internalize the criteria for success, referencing the criteria while doing the assignment, not just when it’s finished.

3. Avoid “fluff” assignments. For example, assigning students to create a life-sized “dummy” or a 3-D poster of a person found in a novel (or in history, in science, in math, etc.) doesn’t further understanding. It’s a lot of coloring, cutting, wadding paper, and stapling for very little return. Make sure there is a clear connection to curriculum, not just something that would look cool when displayed in the classroom. Students will figure out how empty these assignments are very quickly. They’ll see homework as serving little or no purpose other than to give them something to do, which sinks motivation like a big chunk of granite.

4. Give students an authentic audience. Create an audience for the students’ work other than the teacher. For example, when students work on something that uses technology – whether it’s a PowerPoint talk over the internet, a project blog, or Twitter and other social media, it’s not the technology that’s motivating—it’s the fact that there will be an audience other than the teacher. Somebody will see this, they realize. What will they think of it? they ask themselves. So how can you create real audiences for homework?

5. Incorporate a cause into the assignment. Teenagers are motivated when they feel they are righting a wrong. They are very sensitive to justice and injustice. As a group, they are also very nurturing of those less fortunate than them. Find a community or personal cause for which students can fight fairly and incorporate your content and skills in that good fight— students will be all over the assignment.

6. Incorporate people whom students admire in their assignments. Students are motivated when asked to share what they know and feel about these folks. We are a society of heroes, and teenagers are interested in talking about and becoming heroic figures.

7. Allow choices, as appropriate. Provide a "menu" of assignment options to choose from. Let them identify their own diet and its effects on their health. Let them choose to work with partners or individually. How about allowing them to choose from several multiple-intelligence based tasks? If they are working in ways that are comfortable, they are more likely to do the work. By making the choice, they have upped their ownership of the task.

8. Incorporate cultural products into the assignment.
If students have to use magazines, television shows, foods, sports equipment, and other products they already use, they are likely to do the work. The brain loves to do tasks in contexts with which it is familiar.

9. Spruce up your prompts. Don’t ask students to repeatedly answer questions or summarize. Try some of these openers instead: Decide between, argue against, Why did ______ argue for, compare, contrast, plan, classify, retell ______ from the point of view of ______, Organize, build, interview, predict, categorize, simplify, deduce, formulate, blend, suppose, invent, imagine, devise, compose, combine, rank, recommend, defend, choose.

10. Have everyone turn in a paper. In her classic, Homework: A New Direction (1992), Neila Connors reminded teachers to have all students turn in a paper, regardless of whether they did the assignment. If a student doesn’t have his homework, he writes on the paper the name of the assignment and why he didn’t do it.

I’ve had students add their parents’ telephone number so I could call home and share what the student said about his homework. Calling parents usually results in a terrific homework completion record for students—at least for a few weeks. An added dividend is that classmates don’t get as many opportunities to see who didn’t do their homework—a reputation to avoid.

11. Do not give homework passes.
I used to do this; then I realized how much it minimized the importance of homework. It’s like saying, “Oh, well, the homework really wasn’t that important to your learning. You’ll learn just as well without it.” Homework should be so productive for students that missing it is like missing the lesson itself.

12. Integrate homework with other subjects.
If teachers share the same students, one assignment can count in two classes. Such assignments are usually complex enough to warrant the dual grade and it’s a way to work smarter, not harder, for both students and teachers. Teachers can split the pile of papers to grade, and assess the learning targets pertinent to their class.

13. Occasionally, let students identify what homework would be most effective. Sometimes the really creative assignments are the ones that students design themselves. After teaching a lesson, ask your students what it would take to practice the material so well it became clearly understood. Many of the choices will be rigorous and very appropriate.

Consider your true goal with homework: learning that moves into long-term memory, right? Cramming is the stuff of partial memories to be parroted for a test that week, then dumped in the brain’s recycling bin, never to be seen again.

If we are genuinely committed to teaching so that students learn and not focused on appearing rigorous and assigning tasks to show that we have taught, then we’ll carefully consider all the effects of our homework expectations. Our students will be more productive at school and have healthier lives at home.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Learning Targets at Belmont High School

This year at Belmont High School we have been spending a great deal of time talking about learning targets. Teachers are beginning to use them in the form of "I can" statements in all of our classes. The effective use of learning targets at the classroom level is a critical compontent of our transition to competency-based teaching and learning.  A teacher's ability to write good learning targets is far more complex than it may appear on the surface.  It's more than just posting  daily objectives on the board. Good learning targets should describe what students are expected to learn, why the learning expectation is important, and what the work will look like when the target has been met.

Writing good learning targets is an important skill that teachers must practice in order to master.  In the following article, Susan Brookhart and Connie Moss write about the importance of good learning targets.  Brookhart and Moss assert that effective learning targets will:
  • Describe exactly what students will learn by the end of a day’s lesson.
  • Use language students can understand.
  • Be stated from the point of view of a student who has yet to master the knowledge or skill being taught.
  • Contain a performance of understanding that translates the description into action – what students will do, make, say, or write during the lesson.
  • Include student look-fors or criteria for success in terms that describe mastery of the learning target, not a score or grade.
  Please take the time to read the article that was published in the Educational Leadership journal, October, 2014.  I hope you enjoy the article.