An AWSM way to increase middle schoolers' math success

How does student work inform instruction? I read Katrina Schwartz's MindShift blog post, "How Looking at Student Work Keeps Teachers and Kids on Track," and immediately found connections to McREL's Institute of Education Sciences (IES) study of a formative assessment model for middle school math, now completing its third year. Not only does Ms. Schwartz highlight the use of student work as a method for improving student learning and teacher practice—a cornerstone of our study—but she also relates this to mathematics.

For the IES study, McREL's math and assessment specialists developed a program that provides teachers with authentic samples of student math work and an interactive, hands-on experience to increase their use of high-quality formative assessment practices. The program, called AWSM (shorthand for Learning to Use Formative Assessment with the Assessment Work Sample Method), has a goal of increasing middle school students' math achievement. (Read our AWSM success story.)

AWSM differs from other formative assessment professional development in that it:

  • focuses specifically on middle school mathematics,
  • features supportive peer review of colleagues' assessment practices,
  • centers on the use of student work samples,
  • is job-embedded, and
  • fosters teacher collaboration.

AWSM graphic w-logo
Teacher data from our pilot tests are quite promising, and many of the points that Ms. Schwartz identified in her blog post were evident in our study. For example, Ms. Schwartz noted that often students don't have a "clear sense of what a great project would look like." AWSM is designed to help teachers articulate a clear learning goal, select or develop a mathematically rich aligned task, and communicate the criteria for successful task completion to students. With clear success criteria in place, students can track their own progress, provide descriptive feedback to peers, and make adjustments in their own learning.  

Blog_AWSM_quoteInterestingly, resisting the pressure to grade every assignment is a challenge for teachers in the AWSM program. AWSM promotes using descriptive feedback, rather than grades, when students are learning a new concept or skill, and, for some teachers, this conflicts with current practice and beliefs. When students receive a letter grade or number score on an assignment, they tend to pay little attention to the descriptive feedback offered by teachers, often missing important recommendations that could help them improve their work. Ms. Schwartz notes that looking at student work can bring the focus back to the learning goals, and this is echoed in our work with AWSM.

Using high-quality formative assessment practices requires many teachers to make significant shifts in their practice, as illustrated by these teacher comments gathered at the end of the pilot test:

"I used to think formative assessment was about the teacher knowing where students are in the learning process. Now I know that formative assessment must include students so that they understand how to improve their own learning."

"I used to think I had to grade everything. Now I know I can provide descriptive feedback and allow students to take action."

"It's the dimensions of clear learning goals and success criteria that have most impacted my instruction. I think I was always clear about what was being learned, but I needed to be more explicit about sharing this information with my students."

The AWSM team is disseminating study findings at conferences across the U.S. in 2014 and 2015. If you'd like more information about the program, please feel free to contact me directly at kdempsey@mcrel.org


2013_dempsey_IntranetKathleen Dempsey has more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator. She provides technical assistance and professional development to K‒12 mathematics educators and state education agencies, and she serves as the director of the North Central Comprehensive Center (NCCC), administered by McREL.


Formative Assessment—What it really is and why it matters

Teacher with student-feedbackOut of curiosity, I recently asked 60 teachers attending a conference session on formative assessment to explain the difference between “summative” and “formative” assessment. To my surprise, the first volunteer described formative assessment as “the formal assessments we give kids to find out what they really know.” Other participant responses varied, from descriptions of in-class observations to a general understanding that any assignment a teacher uses to measure progress are all formative assessments—including online tests administered quarterly by the school district to gather program data.

When asking the question, I had mistakenly believed that most participants would easily describe the two as processes that provide assessment of learning (summative assessment) and assessment for learning (formative assessment).

In a 2007 article in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Margaret Heritage, assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA, defines formative assessment not as a test nor a high-stakes standardized assessment, but as a process of feedback in which a teacher learns about a student’s current level of understanding to determine the next learning steps for that student. Sounds simple enough. Yet, as the teachers’ responses showed, there is still a lot of variation in how teachers define the two types of assessments.

So, why is the concept of formative assessment still so confusing? Part of the fault lies with educational jargon. Educators tend to use the term “formative assessment” to describe a whole host of opportunities to gather evidence of student learning.

In a 2005 book, Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, Lorrie Shepard, et al. tackled this confusing terminology, defining formative assessment as “assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning.” What differentiates formative assessment from other classroom-based assessments (such as interim and benchmark assessments) is, first, that the evidence of student learning is not graded and, second, that the information is used immediately to inform instruction. Feedback is a critical part of the process.

My colleagues at McREL and I recently piloted a new mathematics formative assessment program, the Assessment Work Sample Method (AWSM) in a Colorado Springs school district, providing professional development for middle school math teachers to help them learn how to implement classroom formative assessment using authentic student work samples. (Read our Success Story here.) One teacher in the pilot said, “AWSM has helped me realize that differentiation is crucial. It helps me look for the outliers in my classes—the ones who are overachieving and the ones that are falling behind.”

When implemented effectively, formative assessment provides ongoing feedback to students about where they are relative to their goals, it equips them with resources and suggestions for further exploration, and it encourages questions that propel the learning process. Formative assessment matters because it has been shown to help students learn. Not only does it help with cognitive processes, but it also fully engages students with their learning.

Anne Tweed is McREL’s director of STEM learning. She is the former president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and spent 30 years as a high school science teacher. She is the author of
Designing Effective Science Instruction: What Works in Science Classrooms (2009), and co-author of the NSTA book, Hard-to-Teach Biology Concepts Revised 2nd Edition: Designing Instruction Aligned to the NGSS (2014).


The “Innovator’s Mindset”

GearsI recently read a blog post on developing innovation by George Couros, a principal with the Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. I'm a regular reader of Mr. Couros' blog, "The Principal of Change," but this one struck a particular chord with me.

In his blog post, Couros refers to Carol Dweck's work on "fixed" versus "growth" mindsets. In an interview with the OneDublin.org education blog's founder, Dr. Dweck differentiates between the two mindsets, explaining:

"In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it."

Building on Dr. Dweck's work, and encouraged by the knowledge that mindsets are impermanent—one can move from one to the other—Mr. Couros proposes that it is also possible to move past the growth mindset to what he calls the "innovator’s mindset." In his blog post he sets forth eight important characteristics educators should focus on to develop an innovator's mindset to model in their classrooms for students.

I should also point out that Dr. Dweck's research and her seminal book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), are heavily referenced in our 2012 second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works.


2014-PitlerHoward_7046_webA former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be reached by e-mail at hpitler@mcrel.org  and on Twitter at @hpitler.


What’s STEM got to do with it?

Engineering boy focus 1Meaningful careers. Financial stability. Happiness. That's what we all want for the future of our students, right? This might feel like an abstract, far-off concept when working with elementary school students. However, the foundation built during these formative years is exactly what supports achieving those goals. How do we cultivate the curiosity, tenacity, and student empowerment to help our students realize that future?

Think: Science… Technology… Engineering… Math.


Everyday STEM Blog_image2What is STEM and why does it matter?

While the STEM acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, the real excitement comes from more than just teaching and learning academic content in those four areas, it comes from vitalizing the connections between these fields. In the best STEM programs, students are engaging in real-world problems—and solutions—creating a context for developing a deeper set of skills and new ways of thinking. STEM learning shows kids how they can make a difference, and also empowers them to make that difference.



Engage students in math and science early on—and never quit

ISTEM learning Blog_image1ncorporating science inquiry, technology solutions, engineering design, and math applications into classroom instruction helps even young children make meaningful connections to the real world. The elementary classroom, bursting with kids' innate curiosity and energy, creates a natural environment for integrating key skills such as reading, writing, and math across all content areas. STEM can capitalize on elementary students' natural enthusiasm and curiosity—yet that window quickly closes on their interest in science if it's not fostered and encouraged.

Here's where a STEM paradigm excels. STEM learning urges students to personalize their learning: tackling a problem or pursuing a line of inquiry, organizing and articulating their ideas, and sharing discoveries. Children learn how to become comfortable with taking calculated risks, exploring real-world issues, and personally investing in the outcome of their explorations.

STEM learning is among the most powerful initiatives to invigorate schools in recent years. Businesses are increasingly eager to support STEM initiatives in schools at all levels, participating in events such as STEM fairs and presentations, and, for older students, offering career-path internships. When schools collaborate with businesses, students perceive previously unimagined or unexplored career paths as real possibilities. They begin to discover that their learning can make a difference in their larger community—how powerful is that?


Whitney Cobb provides professional development and K–12 curriculum design with special expertise in STEM and cross-curricular initiatives, and is the voice behind STEM@McREL Twitter and Facebook accounts. She is McREL's lead for NASA’s Dawn Mission education and communications team and a partner with NASA's Discovery and New Frontiers Programs. Whitney was an assistant principal, science specialist in 1st-8th grades, and high school science teacher prior to joining McREL.


Are you identifying and developing your leadership talent?

Male principal in hallway with studentsSuccessful school systems understand the need to attract, select, develop, and retain the right leaders. In a 2004 study for the Wallace Foundation, Kenneth Leithwood and the study's authors found that effective leadership is second only to good teaching when ranking school and classroom factors that have a measurable effect on improving school outcomes and student performance. A later report from McKinsey & Company further emphasized that school improvement requires a strong pedagogy, supported by collaborative practices and leadership continuity.

The impact of leadership continuity was also explored in a 2011 New York Times article that highlighted how frequent replacement of the principal can create instability in a school, hindering growth. While there are other factors within the school, the local community, and home environments that affect student achievement, effective leadership is a catalyst for improvement, as my colleagues Tim Waters and Greg Cameron explain in The Balanced Leadership Framework®. Arguably, turnover in leadership is a growing concern, compounded by a shortage of qualified and potentially talented replacement leadership candidates, as described in a 2010 study from the Wallace Foundation.

So, then, where should we focus our attention when cultivating good school leadership? We're probably all familiar with the business term "Human Capital Management" (HCM), widely defined as an organization's approach to acquiring, developing, and retaining employees whose value can be measured, and whose future value can be enhanced through some type of investment. While the term might seem cold and impersonal in education, a profession where people-development is essential to success, we can translate the business definition into an educational context. HCM in education is an investment in leadership talent identification and development to improve school productivity and student achievement.

In fields outside of education it's, perhaps, not surprising that research suggests that a concerted focus on leadership talent identification and management can have a significant return on investment. According to a report by the international human resources research company, AON Hewitt, companies demonstrating best practices in leader talent identification and development are also more successful.  

Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that the same attention to talent identification and development in the field of education would result in positive outcomes? McKinsey & Company's survey of top-performing school systems in the world revealed that the world's best systems often take a focused approach to leadership talent identification and management, resembling the practices of high-performing global companies. In fact, in School Leadership that Works, McREL's authors reported that a concerted focus on leadership talent identification and, specifically, development can predict, on average, a 10 percent increase in school-wide student achievement. Seems like a good return on investment.

The key leadership talent development practices demonstrated by the top-performing companies are:

  1. Creating a strong leadership brand. Top executives promote their organizations to the outside world and work hard to develop a meritocracy inside the organization, rewarding and advancing top performers on the basis of their performance.
  2. Applying rigorous measures to attract the best leaders. Top companies are clear about the qualities of good leaders and carefully assess candidates, identifying only the best to become leaders.
  3. Casting a wide net and developing deep bench strength. The best companies start leadership development as early as entry-level positions with succession planning, creating a large class of potential future leaders for whom they provide formal, yet individualized preparation—namely coaching, mentoring, and transition plans—as opposed to "one-size-fits-all" leadership development.
  4. Rigorously assessing the talent pipeline. Industry-leading companies use 360-feedback and other measures to assess their future leadership talent. At the same time, they continuously collect, monitor, and respond to data about their leadership pipeline, paying particular attention to critical or hard-to-fill positions. Specifically, top-performing companies also assess the strength of their pipelines (e.g., how many potential future leaders have been identified?), diversity within their leadership pipelines (e.g., what percentage are minority or women?), and retention rates of high-potential staff (e.g., are they losing the next generation of leaders to competitors?).

Perhaps, more than anything else, the best performing companies take leadership seriously. Many educators understand the value and contribution of leadership to education's bottom line: school productivity and student achievement. But, in many cases, the internal systems for talent identification and development in our nation's school systems are insufficient or inadequate to produce an intentional and sustained approach to leadership identification, support, and retention.

To meet this need, my colleagues and I are working with districts to develop and pilot a model approach to sustainable, effective leadership coaching. Our early results are very promising, but we're continually seeking additional information from educators to refine our thinking.

As an educator or a leader, what are your system's biggest leadership pipeline challenges? What approaches has your system taken to cultivate and retain the best talent for your schools?


2008_Davis_for web_A former middle and high school principal, Dr. Tony Davis provides school- and district-level leadership training; research, design, and implementation of educator evaluation systems; and educator effectiveness technical assistance to state education agencies across the nation.