Using the Formative Assessment Process With Teachers to Improve Instructional Practice

As a FAME (Formative Assessment for Maryland Educators) Leader at the district and school level, I have found, and believe, that the formative assessment process is one of the single most important things that educators can do for their students. The statement “formative assessment is a verb, not a noun” truly articulates that formative assessment is a process… not an event, questions on a piece of paper, or even an app. What makes an assessment formative is the context in which it is used.

The CCSSO defines “Formative Assessment” as “a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.” By utilizing the 5 Critical Attributes of Formative assessment, this deliberate process can truly transform a teacher’s practice, but can also be transformational for their students.

 5 Critical Attributes of Formative assessment

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As a school administrator, I have watched and observed teachers who participated in our FAME Cohort transform their practice and implement these critical attributes. I have also observed how powerful the process of formative assessment is in their classrooms and its impact on student growth.

As I went through the FAME Cohort with my teachers, I too began to transform my own practice as an administrator and instructional leader.   I found that collaborating with teachers through formative assessment allowed me to provide more descriptive feedback to them. It also allowed me to support teachers in their own learning to improve instructional practice.

During my introduction to FAME, my leadership efforts were focused around Critical attributes 3 and 5 (descriptive feedback and collaboration). Naturally, I then began thinking of ways to incorporate all 5 Critical Attributes of Formative Assessment that provides feedback to teachers and can be leveraged to improve instructional practice that impacts student learning.

“How can I use the formative assessment process with teachers to improve instructional practice, but also impact student learning?”

The Solution

When teachers develop SLOs (Student Learning Objectives), they identify a specific learning goal and a specific measure of student learning used to track progress toward that goal. Within the process of developing a Student Learning Objective, teachers must also identify the professional development, materials, and resources that will support their instruction and assist students in meeting their growth target.

My vision this school year is to work with teachers to develop an instructional goal, connected to the teacher SLO, that will help shape their overall approach to instruction and will facilitate students in attaining the long-term academic goal.

Where are they going? Where are they now? How will they get there?

Teacher Instructional Practice Goal and Success Criteria

From the teacher instructional goal, I collaborate with individual teachers to develop a Criteria for Success that will identify key instructional strategies (related to the instructional goal) that are specific, concrete, and descriptive of what success looks like when the instructional goal is reached.

This Criteria for Success will assist teachers in:

  • Clarifying expectations within instructional practices that can help them meet their instructional goals.
  • Obtaining feedback around their instructional practices related to their Student Learning Objective.
  • Providing descriptive and specific feedback that encourages reflection.
  • Developing next steps to refine instructional practice related to the teacher’s instructional goal.
  • Promoting teacher self-assessment.

As an instructional leader, I feel it necessary to utilize the formative process to engage both teachers and myself in dialogue, descriptive feedback, and reflection around instruction. By utilizing the 5 Critical Attributes of Formative Assessment in a coaching method with teachers, I can provide feedback to teachers that will promote the improvement of instructional practice, but also impact student learning. In turn, I am hoping this process will promote self and peer assessment, as well as lead to a collaborative culture where we are all partners in improving learning and instruction. Furthermore, this process will help teachers feel comfortable in taking instructional risks and becoming empowered to take ownership of their own learning process.

“We Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice”

Just recently, I was fortunate enough to listen to Jay McTighe speak at our 2015 District Leadership Conference.  Lucky for me, this has been the second time in the past 3 months that I have heard his message.  His message is simple, but DEEP: “Curriculum is a plan to achieve designated goals, not a list of topics and related activities.  Thus, transfer must be earned and requires understanding and making meaning by the learner.”

As I reflect, we as an educational society must embrace a shift from student compliance to autonomy.  In order for authentic tasks to truly be authentic, the goal is learning, not just completing a task.  We are preparing our students to enter a rapidly changing world with easy access to information, social media, and shifting employment.  This shift requires teaching for understanding, as well as recognizing various drivers of change in our society that will impact education and learning.

How do we get there?

As many know, I am a former Division 1 Collegiate Baseball player and coached at both the high school and showcase levels.  In doing so, I find great value in athletics and how they relate to our lives.  Jay McTighe also relates sports and shared this analogy at our conference:

“If transfer is the game we are preparing students for, what is practice going to look like for our students?”

This idea resonated within me, and made it easy for me to relate and reflect on how we are preparing both our students and our teachers in learning and teaching an understanding based curriculum.

Yes, Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ ’bout practice!” and YES! IT MATTERS!

On May 7, 2002, Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson expressed his opinion in a rant of how the media was putting too much importance on practice.  I am here to tell you, more so than ever, that we must talk about practice!  Without practice, we (our students and teachers) will have the inability to perform to our highest potential during the game (assessing and demonstrating the transfer of knowledge and understanding).

Practice is the process that we as school leaders must coach for performance and use the playbook as a resource.  After listening to Jay McTighe and thinking about the playbook and practice plan at my school, I’ve concluded that we must trust the process.  A solid practice plan must foster student understanding and transfer, as well as empower and encourage teachers to develop skills and make meaning of Essential Understandings.

By thinking big and starting small, as well as establishing a need for change, I feel we can establish a culture where we value practice.  Thank you to Jay McTighe and Allen Iverson for confirming that “Champions play as they practice,” and by having well constructed practice plans through the “backward design process,” teachers and students can reach their full potential.

Redefining Time – Prioritize for Effectiveness

As school leaders, we constantly find ourselves trying to work more efficiently by multi-tasking the many responsibilities that consume the time in our day.  We conduct classroom walk-throughs, manage discipline, respond to email, police the lunchroom, and the list of “to dos” goes on.  The strategy of multi-tasking at times seems to be the most efficient, and is most definitely the easiest method to “getting things done.”

When we divide our attention, however, we have the inability to focus and prioritize our efforts, making them less effective.  Thus, it is proven that in most cases, efficiency does not always lead to effectiveness.  As the late Peter Drucker explains, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”  If we make it a goal to prioritize our time by doing the “right things,” it will almost always lead to us “doing things right” over time.

One of the more timeless illustrations that symbolizes how we prioritize our time is the “Jar of Life.”  In this video, it’s quite obvious that if we fill up our time with “little things that really don’t matter,” they will squeeze out and limit space for meaningful, and “IMPORTANT things.”  However, if we prioritize and give time to the important things first, we can make space for the “little things” we have to do.

As Ron Ritchhart explains in his book Creating Cultures of Thinking, The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, we must establish a short list of our own “big rocks” that become our priorities.  We as school leaders must then make room for these priorities in our schools and instill these as values within our staff every day.  By doing so, we will establish a school culture where learning (both student and adult) is the priority; and look beyond the “sand and pebbles,” such as paper work and other “to dos,” or non-essential activities that consume our day.

As the new school year steadily approaches, I felt it necessary to identify my own “big rocks” that will help prioritize my own time and refocus energy that can lead to effectiveness:

  • Great teaching matters.

This has been a “big rock” in our district for the past few years; however, it also continues to resonate with me. With a focus on great teaching, our efforts will promote learning that is engaging and authentic, as well as aligning resources that meet the needs of our students. Great teaching is also relevant and encourages problem solving. This champions a 21st century curriculum that focuses on deep understanding, instead of being “coverage oriented.”

  • Invest in coaching great teaching.

As we develop and communicate our expectations of great teaching, I find it necessary to invest time in our people.  As Todd Whitaker adamantly reminds us “…our most important work is to improve the people in our schools. Nothing makes as much difference as the quality of our teachers.”  These efforts will most certainly provide a vehicle for learning in our buildings.  Not only will coaching great teaching enhance our teacher’s practices, but it will also dramatically improve student achievement.  We must continue to support our colleagues and teachers, as well as empower them to pursue our vision of great teaching and learning.

  • Great things come from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

If we continue to do what we have always done, we will continue to get the same results.  I feel we must always continue to develop a culture in which our teachers and students recognize the benefits of stepping outside of our comfort zone.  If we put a priority on desiring continuous learning, we must continue to take risks.  By taking risks, we continue to grow, develop creativity, and foster innovation.

These principles can lead to increased time to make effective change.  It can also lead to our staff rethinking how they value time.  This can drive risk taking and creative use of time in our schools such as Genius Hour, remediation, multiage grouping, etc.; and the elimination of non-essential activities and outdated practices.

As school leaders, we understand that change takes time, however we are out of time.  We must make a conscious effort to invest our time in practices that encourage great teaching and learning.  By doing so, we will become more confident and effective in providing time in our schools to invest in others, ourselves, and cultivate a culture that fosters innovation and risk taking.

Successful Leadership is Shared

iStock_000016658196MediumOver the past 2 weeks, our school leadership team has been fortunate enough to work alongside our teachers, both at the district level and school-based level, in developing their curriculum through the “Backward Design” process (A process created and perfected by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins).  As a result of this training, I have watched our teachers take ownership in not only the data and supporting standards that will drive the prioritized standards, but also in their daily teaching and how they are going to design unique learning experiences and assessments for students.  This “curriculum” will act as the vehicle that drives students towards transfer (The ability to use knowledge appropriately and fruitfully in a new or different context than that in which it was initially learned), the “Holy Grail” of teaching and learning.

By empowering our teachers to lead their colleagues through this process, our instructional teams have become motivated and inspired.   The autonomy given to our teachers to sequence and plan for learning across the year with increased student independence, allows for more authentic curricular connections.  When student achievement is the focus, and teachers are entrusted with making responsibly innovative decisions in how they teach, a vision becomes shared and it’s easier to build leadership capacity amongst our staff.

As Todd Whitaker states, “There are really two ways to improve a school significantly,” one of those being: “improve the teachers you already have.”  Furthermore, by developing teacher leaders, we are building both leadership capacity and professionally developing teachers at the same time.

Below are the Four Steps to Building Leadership Capacity Lyle Kirtman references in the Harvard Education Letter that focuses on enhancing the capacity of school based leadership teams in order to attain goals and successes.

Four Steps to Building Leadership Capacity

  1. Leaders examine their own leadership style.

As leaders, we must always be reflecting on our own leadership style.  Through this reflection, we develop an understanding of our own behaviors, beliefs, and values.  This also allows us to assess the culture we are cultivating; making sure it’s an environment that values risk taking and a growth mindset.

  1. Leaders review the leadership profile of their team.

As we begin to understand our own way in which we prefer to lead, we must also identify and recognize the leadership styles of those around us.  By doing this, it allows us to build on the strengths of our staff and identify their specific leadership styles so that we can mobilize resources and provide support.

  1. Leaders commit to an ongoing process.

Leaders should also engage and commit to a process of continued leadership development within their building and organization.  This process encourages and supports other staff members to take on leadership responsibilities, empowers them to seek continuous personal growth, and promotes change as an element of school improvement.

  1. Leaders maintain a positive culture of change despite barriers.

School administrators must understand the dynamics of change.  We must learn to rely on the best staff in our buildings and entrust them to utilize their leadership strengths that will lead to a school culture of equity, where all staff has input centered around school norms and values.  Through professional development and support, staff leaders with a variety of strengths and competencies have the ability to drive meaningful change, build a capacity for sustained improvement, and cultivate a culture that makes everyone around them successful.

As a school administrator, it is our leadership responsibility to pave the road for future leaders and put the pieces in place for all staff leaders to be successful.  We motivate our staff by knowing, understanding, and recognizing their strengths, as well as inspire them to to follow their passions and become self motivated to lead.  I truly believe that everybody has the opportunity to be a leader in some capacity, it’s our job to discover and identify the capacity in our staff, and empower them to lead with passion and purpose.