So, you’re moving to standards based grading. You’re probably trying to decide how to replace traditional grades, and pouring countless hours into a report card redesign. Like many before you, you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed, and your goal of maintaining a single page is looking impossible… unless you change the margins and use a size five font. You may also be worried about the teachers. Will they embrace this positive change, this new approach to learning? It will take more time, and will require them to explain the changes to parents. Don’t forget about parents! Many of them will wonder how their children will apply for college without a grade point average.

If you travel the same path as many others that have tried to implement standards based grading with a report card reflective of that instructional approach, you’ll likely end up with complex multi-page documents that are difficult and time consuming for teachers to complete. Additionally, many proponents of standards based grading are surprised to learn that many parents are slow to embrace the changes and prefer the simplicity of a letter grade.

masteryReportCardWhat if there was a better way? Could there be a better way? Yes!

After many months of research, and working with our District partners around the country, we released our mastery-based report card last September. We continued listening to our District partners, in the field, as they were implementing the report card. We learned a great deal, and are excited to announce the release of the first mastery-based report card to preserve the use of letter grades. We know you might be a little skeptical, but take a minute to consider the benefits. Our letter grades are not like your parents’ letter grades, and likely not like yours. They are a much different, and a much more accurate reflection of the level of a student’s understanding. Therefore, much stronger. Rather than reflecting extra credit, or penalizing students for being late, or unexcused absences, creating a complex formula, or averages, they are based on mastery. Yes, mastery. What the student knows, relative to the standard. The mastery grades are a reflection of knowledge and understanding.

Creating the grades is much less confusing as they are automatically calculated in a teacher’s mastery tracker using the percent of standards mastered during the grading period. You have complete control over the criteria for determining the cut scores for the letter grades and the best part is that the report card links right to teachers’ trackers.

If you have already moved away from letter grades, that’s ok too; we can customize the report card to match your current grading system. There really is a better way. Take a minute to look over the new report card and imagine the possibilities.

NCTMstudyStudents just learn better when teachers use short-cycle formative assessments to guide student learning. That’s what we believe and that’s what the data shows. A district piloting MasteryConnect recently shared this research with the MasteryConnect team, so we wanted to share it with you!

The 2007 benchmark study by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found that when formative assessments were used between units during a school term, those assessments produced “greater increases in students’ achievements than class-size reduction or increases in teachers’ content knowledge.”

Teachers need smaller class sizes and constant learning, don’t get us wrong. But this study underscores the critical role of formative assessment work in the classroom!

In the study, student learning was doubled when compared to classes where formative assessments were not administered.

If you have a story to share about the impact of short cycle formative assessment at your school or district, we’d love to hear it!

Keep on Trackin’
The MasteryConnect Team

All Assessment Is Summative

December 7th, 2012

It has been awhile since we have posted a blog with the intent of defining who we are or what we believe.  In this weeks post, we decided to address one of the fundamentals of what we do: assessment. Why do we assess our students?  This seemingly rhetorical question is anything but rhetorical.  We assess our students to make sure they understand the concept(s) we just taught.  We assess our students because we have to enter a grade in the grade book.  We assess our students because there is a test at the end of every chapter. We assess because that is a part of what we do – we teach and then we assess.  Regardless of the reason, unfortunately, all assessment is summative.

Most of you are probably inclined to argue with that last statement, and you would be right to do so.  You most likely want to point out that formative assessment, assessment for learning, is quite different from summative assessment.  With formative assessment, the purpose or intent of assessment is to identify which students have or have not mastered the concepts or skills you are assessing and then provide appropriate support to all of your students.  You could also argue that formative assessment is a process that allows you, the teacher, to evaluate the effectiveness of your instruction by analyzing the data you receive from the assessment you just gave.  Additionally, it would be just as easy to argue that all assessment is formative if teachers choose to use the data collected to improve their instruction and provide interventions for students.

This brings up an important element of assessment.  The intent or purpose of an assessment does not define whether an assessment is summative or formative; it is the “action” taken by the teacher following an assessment that ultimately provides the distinction.

Following an assessment, if your action is to record the student’s score in the grade book and begin planning for the next concept, chapter or unit – your assessment was summative.  If, after giving an assessment, your next action is to remind those students who did poorly on the exam that they should have studied harder – your assessment was summative.  If the assessment you are giving was created by the district and labeled an interim formative benchmark assessment and the next action taken was to house the data in the district data warehouse and your action is to begin preparing for the next interim formative benchmark – your assessment, despite its name, was summative.

Following an assessment, if your action is to evaluate student results and implement intervention strategies for struggling as well as advanced students – your assessment was formative.  If students in your class already know the assessment they are taking is being used to inform both you and them of their current level of understanding and retakes are expected – your assessment was formative.  If, following the delivery of a district created interim formative benchmark assessment, you analyze the results and evaluate the effectiveness of your instruction – your assessment was formative.  If you see teacher questioning and observation as a means for providing immediate interventions – you are formatively assessing your students.

One could argue that all assessment is summative or all assessment is formative or you can choose to take the middle ground and say it depends.  We believe that all assessment should be formative with the exception of high stakes tests, which we believe should be eliminated.  The ultimate goal of any assessment should be to inform instruction and provide opportunities for immediate interventions and these things only occur when an assessment is being used formatively.

It is worth noting that there is an additional element of formative assessment that we believe is the most powerful means of improving teacher performance – Common Formative Assessment.  When a teacher assesses his/her students, they are basing outcomes on a single measure: student results.  When teachers agree to collaborate and share the results of a common assessment with one another, teachers can evaluate the performance of the students in multiple classes as well as evaluate their own performance relative to one another.  This creates opportunities for teachers to maximize the effectiveness of the formative assessment process.

Whether you are working independently or collaboratively, you can call your assessments whatever you want, but immediate and targeted action is required if they are going to truly be formative; otherwise all assessment is summative.

 

How do you know if your child is attending a good school?  When we began creating MasteryConnect, we wanted to address a much more complicated, and in our view, more meaningful set of questions.

  • How do we know what each child knows and doesn’t know relative to the standards?
  • How are teachers responding to students who don’t understand?

MasteryConnect is an online solution that allows teachers to assess and monitor student performance relative to the standards and provides teachers with the ability to clearly communicate student progress to parents.  After all, if your child attends an outstanding school and yet struggles to master the essential concepts and skills necessary to succeed in school, does it matter that your child’s school is labeled “outstanding”?

National and local companies provide rankings for schools all over the country.  One of our local newspapers uses end-of-level assessments to provide a ranking of each school in our state.  Based on these rankings, which of these three schools would you want your child to attend?

  • School A: 82% proficiency (School Rank 203/546)
  • School B: 67% proficiency (School Rank 457/546)
  • School C: 88% proficiency (School Rank (197/546)

The answer for most parents is simple: School C is clearly the best. Parents may however, want to continue shopping as there are still 196 schools that are outperforming School C.  Parents may also conclude that there are real problems with School B.  Perhaps it’s time for a major overhaul of the administration, faculty, staff and curriculum at this school.  Some may go so far as to suggest that School B should be shut down or turned over to private enterprise to remedy these outrageous deficiencies.  This type of data is perfect for those who have an appetite for greater school accountability.  With a quick glance at the numbers, anyone can see which schools are excelling and which schools are failing. Numbers don’t lie…right?  I didn’t choose these schools at random; I selected them because I have worked as the principal of all three.  While the data does not coincide with my tenure at any of the schools, the results are similar to those we achieved.   Here is a little more information that may impact your opinion of each school:

  • School A is set in an aging, lower middle-class suburban neighborhood and serves roughly 500 K-6 students.  The faculty is outstanding and has a solid mix of veterans and newly-minted teachers.  The school has struggled with dwindling enrollment over the last few years as the children in the surrounding neighborhood have grown beyond their school years.  Parents generally take an active role in supporting their children’s education and for the last twenty years the school has been home to a magnet program for the gifted.  Roughly half of the students come from outside the schools boundaries to participate in the gifted program.  The end result is a unique and diverse culture of amazing kids that make this school truly special.  Would I send my own children to this school?  Absolutely!
  • School B is surrounded by low income housing units, apartments, a trailer park and modest single-family homes.  Student transiency is a constant problem, as families confront a wide range of financial and social challenges.  The school receives Title I funding, provides year-round breakfast for students and has an after school program.  Approximately forty percent of students are learning English as a second language and most begin kindergarten well behind their peers at Schools A or C.  Additionally, the school has provided specialized classrooms for children with autism and/or severe emotional or learning disabilities.  You can also throw in a magnet Spanish dual immersion program that draws students from all over the district.  Would I send my children to this school? I did.  Both of my children attended school B and received an incredible education.  They were given opportunities to excel as teachers differentiated instruction for all students.  The teachers were some of the most committed teachers I have ever worked with: they were willing to do whatever it required to help all students succeed.  The end-of-level scores could never quite reflect the incredible progress students made in School B or the dedication of its teachers, but I know for certain, that my own children were fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend such an amazing school.
  • School C is set high up on the side of the mountain with an amazing view of the valley.  The school is host to great teachers, incredibly supportive parents and amazing students who attend a thoroughly modern school.  My tenure at this school was shortest but my experience there was amazing.  I guess one could argue that scores in a school like this should be higher and I am certain they could be if the teachers would simply focus on teaching to the test.  As it is, students are given many opportunities to excel in classrooms with dedicated teachers.  Would I send my own children to this school?  I did.  My daughter loved her teachers and made many wonderful friends.  She excelled in school and pushed me out the door every day because she was excited to get there.

So what does one learn when they have the opportunity to serve as the principal of three very unique schools?  For me, the lessons are many.  I could say that all schools have their own unique challenges and yet the goals are the same.  We all want to make sure that all students LEARN in an environment that empowers them, nurtures them, and ensures their safety.  Schools depend on good teachers who feel supported by an administration that is empowered to lead.  Ultimately, what I learned is that defining what makes a good school requires much more than a single test score or school ranking.

–Trenton Goble

Growing up during the 1970’s and early 1980’s (and being just a bit of a technology geek), I have to say that I am enjoying having a 4 ½ year old son that is obsessed with watching Star Wars.  I also have to say, watching all 6 episodes on repeat mode, as my son likes to do, really starts to mess with your mind and get into your subconscious.  Thus, the title of this blog post…I’ll try not to take the analogy too far…

The Empire
Much of the story in education technology is not new.  In the 1980’s, an education technology “surge” drove millions of dollars to a market that had been largely untouched by technology and innovation.  Today, a new ed surge is happening with a lot of new investment dollars and technologies hitting the market.  The surge has been spurred on by a market transition to Common Core standards, and more philanthropic and government money reaching the space.  In this continuing saga of education technology (for the purposes of my analogy) the empire is NOT any one company, nor is it the dominance and control of the space by a relatively few players.  The empire is everything that is preventing choice for the best applications to be used in the classroom.  The empire is the inefficient market that plagues education and prevents efficient purchasing and distribution of the best products available to help teachers and students.

Death Stars
While the education field may seem like fertile ground for teacher-friendly innovation, current purchasing practices continue to reward mediocrity.  Common practice has been for schools and districts to seek massive solutions (shall we say “death stars”) that check every box and seek to provide one system that attempts to solve all problems.  Gravity and the energy field of the purchasing/RFP process takes it there.  For example, if a district is looking for a tool to administer formative assessments and provide related data for students and stakeholders, the RFP for such a system might also include requirements to deliver summative assessments, teacher evaluation tools, standards-aligned lesson plans, explicit curriculum mapping tools, behavior management tools, a report card system, a traditional online gradebook, an LMS delivery platform, and on and on….enterprise companies love to check the boxes…it’s what they do…it is what wins RFP’s in the empire.  Decision makers are often looking to try and solve many things by writing one large check with the hope of data interoperability within massive systems.  This approach effectively eliminates the competition and allows the vendor to charge more for a huge array of mediocre solutions.  In the race to “do more,” focus and attention on doing things well or innovating with new approaches to the problem are often tossed to the curb.  The result is too often a bloated software system that lacks innovation and a user-interface too difficult for teachers to navigate.

The proliferation and demand for the development and sales of these massive systems is often unknowingly exacerbated by those who have the intent to do the most good, like those who helped to get money for states through Race to the Top.  Case in point…North Carolina was given $400 million in RTT money.  Part of the requirements for this one-time money for states as outlined by the Department of Education is that RTT states use part of the millions they’ve been given to build an IIS (Instructional Improvement System).  So what did the recent state-wide North Carolina RFP look like?  Well, it looked a lot like what I described earlier. It read like one vendor will be awarded to come in and solve all these problems in one monster system.  While it is amazing to be at a place now in education technology where these ideas and the problem-set is being outlined and defined, I’m fearful that mistakes of the past with attempts to build such data systems will be repeated with all this new money.  As an edtech startup, I believe I can speak on behalf of many other innovators in the space.  Our collective hope and plea is for state and other education technology leaders to take a step back, just for a moment, to really think about the system architectures that are about to be built with this $5 billion infusion of RTT money… system architectures that could finally bring choice and innovation to the classroom.

A New Hope – The Application Ecosystem
This is an exciting time for edtech as new and innovative start-up companies are building amazing cloud-based solutions that are targeted to the specific needs of teachers and students.  These companies are agile, responsive, and the tools are user friendly.  They are building a loyal following of teachers by offering all or part of their solution to teachers for free, while working to secure funding from school and district leaders seeking to provide their teachers with quality solutions.

An interesting part of the North Carolina RFP story is that there was one part of the RFP that gave me hope.  In this episode of the edtech story, there is hope that there might actually be a chance for systems to be different, a chance there just might be balance brought to the force.  There on page 25 of the 106 page RFP (not including appendices), was the requirement that this massive IIS system be integrated and communicate with the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC).  The SLC is a $75 million dollar Gates-funded project that is being run a team at the Gates Foundation (Shout out to Stephen Coller doing a great job leading the charge), while code is being developed by a 60-person team (shall we call it a clone army?) from Wireless Generation in Durham, North Carolina (A $75 million project to put a rework and build upon on the Ed-Fi standards, not a bad gig when you can get the work).  The SLC is a data repository and integration framework that, given it becomes all it promises to be, will allow cloud-based or other solutions to “plug in” to student information and receive relevant information about students to use in an application.  The new standard promises a data communication layer to send information about the student (for example, mastery of a Common Core standard) back through to be stored in any system at a school or district.  My diagram below illustrates what could be done and modeled in states like North Carolina.  For example, if such an architecture were to be adopted, best-of-breed applications and new innovations could be easily plugged into the ecosystem with a common student data communication layer.  Teachers/Schools/Districts could make the decision to change out their apps much more quickly, and RFP processes could be dramatically changed.  Local schools and teachers could choose MasteryConnect for their formative assessments, BloomBoard for teacher evaluation, BetterLesson for lesson planning, ClassDojo for behavior management, GoalBook for IEP tracking, Engrade for a traditional gradebook, Edmodo for an LMS, and on and on.

Application Ecosystem

For many participating in this edtech saga, it sometimes feels like we’ve been at this juncture before, with the early promises and hope for standards, many are asking if this time will be different.  In my opinion, this time we are in a much better place.  With education technology finally becoming cloud-based and the evolution and emergence of easy-to-implement API’s(application programming interface) and integration tools, I am hopeful that we are close to ending the empire and creating choice for teachers and schools.

And the Shared Learning Collaborative isn’t going to be the only game in town for ecosystems.  While the SLC is indeed seeking to become the standard, their aspirations are to actually enable more ecosystems based on the standards that are developed.  The SLC plans to make everything open source to allow others to build on these new layers and standards.  Word on the street is that Pearson (who has made great strides in recent years in opening up more API’s) is thinking along these lines as well, although it remains to be seen if Pearson will choose to embrace the new SLC standards.  Companies like Education Elements (a MasteryConnect partner), have been essentially pioneering this model of an ecosystem with their blended platform.  Edmodo recently launched an app store for educators (Masteryconnect launched on the new Edmodo platform), a quantum leap forward to providing more choice in classroom technology.  New startups are also entering the market around these concepts such as LearnSprout and Clever, and a new market is emerging to help push student data to the cloud to make it more accessible for more ecosystems to thrive.

In the end, I go back to the plea to states, CIO’s, and district leaders (maybe in the same tone as Princess Leia saying, “help me Obi Wan Kenobi”), let’s work together to look at system architectures and ecosystems that support getting the best technology and innovation into the classroom.  We are on the verge of the next episode…let’s avoid the return of the death star.

We Still Believe in Love

November 10th, 2011

In her recent Edweek guest post for Rick Hess’ Straight Up blog, Roxanne Elden addresses the issues schools face evaluating technology-based solutions (The Relationship Status of Teachers and Educational Technology: It’s Complicated). Her six points for discussion hit the nail right on the head and mirror the philosophy our company adopted when we set out to create MasteryConnect. As an educator, I understand the complex issues associated with finding solutions that are teacher friendly, cost effective and ultimately improve student outcomes. Even with the best of intentions, finding success in the education space is daunting to say the least.<

We began with three seemingly simple goals:

  • Provide teachers with a tool that would allow them to track student mastery relative to the core standards.
  • Provide teachers access to great teacher created common assessments aligned to the core standards.
  • Allow teachers to connect with each other in a global professional learning community.

In order for us to be successful we knew that the user interface needed to be elegant and simple and so we spent months making it intuitive for users to use and navigate. We worked to create a “freemium” model that would allow all teachers to use MasteryConnect free of charge with quality upgrades that would be affordable to all and allow us to continue to improve our product. We knew we needed to be agile and responsive to the needs of users which has allowed us to quickly evolve in response to user feedback. Most of all we knew that we needed to create a product that would help teachers do their job more efficiently and with better outcomes.

We are educators, parents and unabashed entrepreneurs committed to our founding principles. At MasteryConnect we are driven by a passion to make a difference and we understand that our success will be determined by our ability to connect with those we seek to serve.

Roxanne’s final thoughts:

Deep down, we still believe in love. Sure, we’ve got some trust issues from being burned in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re nostalgic for the days of clapping erasers and calculating grades by hand. Teachers have had good experiences with technology, too, and we’d love to have more. The good thing about teachers is if you treat us right, we’re loyal, and we’ll tell all our friends how great you are. For now, trying to take it slow doesn’t mean we’re not interested. We just want to know we can rely on you before we introduce you to our kids.

At MasteryConnect, deep down, we still believe in love too.

When we started the Masteryconnect blog, we decided that we would not just fill our blog with posts talking about our latest feature releases and regurgitated content from the industry (although we do that too)…we wanted to write about our thoughts and even express our opinions and an occasional controversial idea. We see the edtech startup experience as more than just a set of features and product announcements. We see it as a grand endeavor to make things better for teachers and students. Many of us at MasteryConnect have parents, spouses, and siblings that are teachers and our children go to public schools. We are a team with passionate ideals and a deep emotional connection to education that comes with an incredible desire to have real impact on student achievement and a push for getting at the heart of what our kids know and don’t know relative to the core. As the co-founder/CEO of MasteryConnect, it’s often hard to find the time to sit down and share my thoughts in a post, but tonight I wanted to share something that was on my mind. You see, I come from a family of teachers. I grew up with a father, who, in the 1960’s, spent his first two years as a teacher in a small Inuit village in Alaska. He came back to the lower 48 and taught history and social studies with great passion and the desire to inspire kids to do great things in life. That passion of my father translated into my two siblings becoming teachers and ultimately inspired me to channel my software skills to education. I even married a teacher!

With that long background, I wanted to share a quick experience. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with an elementary teacher who has been using MasteryConnect for over a year now. We’ll call her Miss Jones for this post. I didn’t know Miss Jones very well, we’d had a few email exchanges and I had been to her classroom once before for a feedback session. After a recent email from Miss Jones, I wanted to get with her personally and gather her feedback and thoughts. More importantly, I wanted to really connect with Miss Jones as a user and as a teacher. As our discussion started, we talked a lot about her experience in rolling out the Common Core this year. It was fascinating to hear her talk about the first two weeks of school and the challenges of managing 30 students while teaching and assessing standards and managing all the new expectations. It’s important to note that Miss Jones is what I would call a “super teacher.” This is the kind of public school teacher that labors night and day researching for lessons and developing formative assessments and going back and spending the time to identify students that don’t understand concepts and reteach them. She’s the kind of teacher that when you have your own kids in public school, you fight tooth and nail to make sure your kid ends up in her class.

Miss Jones shared with me that her school was piloting a new Common Core textbook from one of the major publishers (as with Miss Jones, we’ll keep that name quiet too). I sometimes like to refer to myself as a “Common Core Geek,” so I immediately wanted to see the new text and see what the major publisher had done. I asked her if I could take a look at the new book. As she pulled the shiny, new teachers-edition out of her book bag, she said to me, “Please wipe the table underneath it and please don’t get any of that chocolate cake on it, and please please don’t spill on it.” At first I thought she was being overly cautious about a new book, but she elaborated on why she needed me to be careful. I was shocked to hear that her principal had presented her with a piece of paper from the legal department of the publishing company. The legal document stated that, should anything happen to the book, (be it chocolate cake spills or an accidental coffee slip), she would PERSONALLY be responsible for the $500 cost for the replacement. Given that Miss Jones is a team leader, she was also entrusted with a special set of materials worth about $1,000. I quickly did the math of a teacher’s salary and realized that an accidental slip of my drink or chocolate cake could cost Miss Jones a significant portion of her monthly income.

Now it’s easy for a small company like ours to throw darts and take pot shots at the big Goliath multi-billion dollar publishing companies (that often buy-out many start-ups like ours), and yes, sometimes it’s fun to throw a little mud, but a couple of things struck me at that moment. You see, I was there to get connected with Miss Jones and find out how we could improve what we are doing. I was looking for unfiltered feedback after deep use of what we had built and after she’d bruised and beaten up what we had created. The disconnect I had in my brain was that a start-up education company like ours labors night and day to get usage in the classroom and gain insightful feedback from a teacher, and yet, this publisher has the power to actually strike fear in the heart of this teacher and “threaten” her with a monetary punishment for a product that she was being told she would have to use. She expressed to me that she was afraid to take the book home. Wow, I was dumbfounded…this felt so broken. As a CEO of an edtech startup desiring feedback, my thought was, ‘why wouldn’t you want to make this teacher feel like they could take the product home, pour over it, write her notes in it, highlight it, bend the pages, USE it!, and yes, even possibly spill on it?’ So what if she spilled on it or dropped it? The value of her buying into what you are giving her and the feedback you gain has to be far more valuable than the $20 cost of printing in China. Why wouldn’t you just give it to her? And wouldn’t you want to take a peek at that note-filled, bent-paged, run-over, highlighted copy so you could see how she used it and the feedback she provided and make your product better?

My point here is that teachers are often made to feel less than professional and sometimes even second class citizens in their own profession. It’s difficult enough that we often undervalue them with pay, but we go deeper when we, through these types of situations, imply that they are not trusted as professionals. A few years back, my wife signed a similar agreement with her district-issued laptop. She was forced to sign a document saying she’d replace the full $1,500 cost of the laptop should something happen to it. The school told her that if she didn’t sign the contract saying she’d pay for the laptop, she might even lose her job. This made her go through the same thought process as Miss Jones…‘Why would I take this home if it’s going to cost me my month’s paycheck if I drop it or spill on it?’ When I looked at my wife’s situation through the eyes of a business owner and through the lens of productivity, this baffled me as well. I quickly did the math in my head of the number of extra hours my wife spent at home (outside of contract hours) vs. the value of that laptop. My crude calculation showed that the value of productivity the district gained from the issuance of that laptop equated to a few weeks of work my wife did with the laptop after hours. Wouldn’t it make more sense to set aside money for accidental damage, or even look into some sort of hardware insurance policy rather than making my wife feel second-class, untrusted, and that she’d have to replace the whole laptop with personal money?

To finish off the story, Miss Jones sent me an email today. She writes in the email, “I want you to know that one of the things I have loved about working with MasteryConnect is that I feel valued as a professional. Whenever I visit with one of you, I feel like you get that teachers work hard, care about kids and are invested in their success.” With all the hard work and pain of an edtech startup, just reading her email seemed to make it all worthwhile.

Now, I don’t share that quote to toot my own horn or say that MasteryConnect is perfect, it’s to illustrate the point of what it takes to value our teachers as professionals. Ultimately, we’ve all seen that there is often a giant gap between educators and “solutions providers”. I’ve seen many an engineer come into this market having “the answer.” As many non-educators come into the market trying to solve problems in education, it’s easy to take an attitude of “we know how to solve your problem” without taking the time to really listen and connect with teachers with the spirit and understanding that these are professionals that care about kids and know a lot about solving these problems and doing their jobs. We need to find more ways to bridge the gap of the solutions that we can provide to improve student achievement and what happens on the ground at the classroom level. When we first started MasteryConnect, we worked with a 17-year veteran educator (Trenton, who you see writing on this blog) and we immediately found a gap between his understanding of what was possible technologically and our understanding of the real-world classroom. It has been a great journey as we’ve worked and continue to work to bridge that gap.

My hope is that we as solutions providers (especially my colleagues in the start-up world) remember that we have a deeper calling because we work in this industry of education. Ours is to seek to understand the difficulty of the task that teachers have, and to make sure that teachers feel like esteemed professionals as we go about serving them and the students we are all trying to educate. As teachers head back to the classroom this month, I’d like to express my deep appreciation and humble gratitude for the dedicated and selfless work of all teachers. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude for teachers like my father, my sisters, and those like Miss Jones, whom we work to support.

I always send a link of my latest blog to a few respected colleagues and eagerly await their critique. This last week I received a very thoughtful response from a good friend that, part of which, I believe warrants a response. He said:

“Finally, if your goal is to persuade others toward your line of thinking, I think you’d do better to blog under a different identity than MasteryConnect… Having participated in online discussions about education for many years now (and having been regularly approached by technology vendors on a near-daily basis for the last several years), I’ve likely become more skeptical of the advice offered by people – when it’s also tied to a product – than the typical educator might be. In a nutshell, why should I trust what you’ve written as MasteryConnect, when you’re clearly motivated – at least in that space – by commercial gain? (How are your actions there any different than the actions of Pearson here? http://goo.gl/078cI )

I definitely understand where he is coming from and agree that blogging for and promoting a company creates a potential conflict of interest. However, MasteryConnect did not hire me to promote their products or entice me to peddle their wares. Rather, MasteryConnect is the culmination of my life’s work in education. It is the outcome of one of those moments where you find yourself sitting around the dinner table sketching out some ideas on the back of a napkin. It is the result of having the right people, people much more talented than myself, present to act upon a set of deeply held beliefs; where a conversation full of “what if” statements turns into a two and a half year call to action. I am deeply proud of the work that is being done at MasteryConnect and the passion and energy every member of our team brings to our products.

Over the last few weeks I have made an effort to outline our core beliefs. We began with the idea that we could make a difference for teachers, students and parents and have worked to that end each day. We have created the most comprehensive and downloaded Common Core State Standards app and provided it to teachers for free. We continue to upgrade the app and respond to teacher requests for improvement…for free. We have provided teachers access to a community that allows them to connect and share CCSS focused formative assessments…for free. Both of these products were created by world class developers who did so at great expense of personal time and money. Prior to MasteryConnect I had no idea how much time, talent and skill it would take to turn an idea into an elegant web 2.0 application. The challenges and commitment required are immense.

Yes, MasteryConnect’s full version is a product that aims for commercial success. The people (and their families) who have given so much of their lives to creating it are counting on teachers to see the value of the work they have done. Teachers go to work every day in the hopes of making a difference in the lives of their students…but they expect to be paid for their efforts. The expectation of getting paid is not an act of greed on the part of teachers; it is the expectation of compensation for services provided, years of study in college, countless hours of practice and professional development and a desire to have the means to continue doing the work they love. Our team goes to work every day with the same hopes of making a difference in the lives of teachers and students. We are absolutely committed to this end.

In response to my friend and colleague…yes, I am “clearly motivated by commercial gain”…our survival as a company depends on it. We continue to work toward improving our product in response to the feedback we receive from appreciative teachers across the country. Odds are we won’t become the multi-national conglomerate with a market cap the size of a Pearson, but we will always be a passionate team listening to and focusing on the needs of teachers. We are committed to making a difference and I will continue to blog for MasteryConnect in hopes that my voice supporting our cause just may….”persuade others toward your/our line of thinking”.

More on Teacher Autonomy

August 2nd, 2011

I would like to continue discussing teacher autonomy/responsibility this week and hopefully provoke others to share their thoughts on this subject. My summer months have been filled with professional development surrounding the Common Core State Standards. This has resulted in a collection of name badges, cheap book bags filled with hand-outs, schedules and free pens. Those hand-outs have included massive bound copies of the core, detailed pacing guides and links to online resources. It is clear that State and District officials have been hard at work providing teachers with everything they need to hit the ground running.

Reviewing the pacing guides I am impressed by their comprehensiveness. Teach this standard this day…assess the standard on that day using this formative assessment. Education’s version of plug-and-play. It is clear that an amazing amount of work has gone into the planning of these guides and assessments. These are well intentioned “experts” working hard to help teachers save time and improve their effectiveness. Why then do I feel so unappreciative of this work? Why do I feel like their intentions have more to do with control than benevolence?

The answer comes down to teacher responsibility and autonomy. If the State and/or District want to develop suggested pacing guides…great! If the State and/or District want to develop benchmark and formative assessments…great! I believe the line is crossed when those time-lines and tools become mandates. Certainly teachers have the responsibility to maintain proper core aligned pacing guides while using formative assessments to monitor their student’s progress. However, I believe teachers have the responsibility to determine their pacing, based on individual teaching-style and the students they serve relative to student performance on a multitude of formative assessments. To deny teachers the autonomy to address these responsibilities is maddening.

I believe the practice of using prescriptive curriculum maps, pacing guides and time-lines with cookie-cutter assessments undermines the true art of teaching. Teachers must balance the art and science of instructional practice and this is impossible with the remotely created, inflexible and unrealistic pacing guides, time-lines and assessments. I have watched teachers diligently work to stay on course, only to fall behind when a difficult concept demands more explanation and certain remediation. The appreciation for the pacing guides quickly gets replaced with frustration and feelings of failure.

I have heard high-level education officials question teachers’ capacity and ability to create quality formative assessments. This same lack of faith applies when they mandate prescriptive curriculum pacing guides. The underlying message being broadcast to our teachers is that they are not competent to do the most fundamental aspects of their job. Why bother asking teachers to subject themselves to the rigors of college and teacher preparation if we begin with the premise that they are incapable of actually doing the job for which they have earned a college degree? The growing belief that teachers lack the substance and skill required to meet the complex needs of their students without a carefully crafted script is insulting. It is also demoralizing to those who seek to modify their instruction based on the needs of the students in front of them…regardless of what the pacing guides might require.

At MasteryConnect we believe in teachers! We believe that teacher created formative assessments are best and that teachers should be given the opportunity to share their assessments with others. A community of teachers working together to build and share quality assessments will ultimately create a body of work that will be unmatched anywhere. We believe teachers should be given the tools they need to monitor student performance relative to the core, collaborate with teachers all over the world, share assessments and effectively communicate student progress. Fundamentally, we believe teachers are professionals and they have earned the right to be granted the autonomy necessary to do their job.

In this weeks blog I am going to attempt to walk a bit of a tightrope in regard to teacher autonomy. In their book District Leadership that Works, Marzano and Waters outline the concept of “defined autonomy”…their website describes it this way:

Bridge the great divide between distanced administrative duties and daily classroom impact. This book introduces high-level leaders to a top-down power mechanism called “defined autonomy,” a concept that focuses on district-defined, nonnegotiable, common goals and a system of accountability supported by assessment tools. Defined autonomy creates an effective balance of centralized direction and individualized empowerment that allows building leaders and classroom teachers to maintain stylistic freedom to respond quickly and effectively to student failure.

On the surface, defined autonomy seems to provide teachers with (as mentioned above) the ability to “maintain stylistic freedom”. I would argue that the term “defined autonomy” is disingenuous and that “defined responsibility” would have been a more accurate term to describe their intentions. Teachers have the defined responsibility to teach the core standards and monitor student mastery of those core standards. If their intentions were to allow teachers the autonomy to maintain stylistic freedom, why would Marzano become engaged in the iObservation program that is focused on evaluating a teacher’s practice in the classroom? I have heard many experts over the years proclaim that “we know what works” (video of Marzano) in education and it appears to me that when someone makes this proclamation, defined autonomy quickly becomes low on the autonomy.

At MasteryConnect we had as a founding principle the idea that teacher must have the autonomy to teach and monitor student performance. I believe teachers have the “defined responsibility” to teach the core standards and monitor student mastery of those core standards, however the methods used to meet these responsibilities rest squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. I have worked in schools long enough that I am willing to concede that I don’t have all the answers on what works for every child, teacher, classroom and school. What I do know is that teaching is a human event and it is complicated.

I was once the principal of a school where I had two exceptional, but very different first grade teachers. It would be easy to label Kris a very traditional teacher and Scott a very non-traditional teacher. Both were passionate and dedicated educators. When I observed Kris’s classroom, students sat in neat rows, her management was impeccable and the quality of instruction was first rate. She was a master of providing remediation for students and challenging those who were ready to go on to more challenging work. Scott was an artist and his room looked like an art studio. He was a master of integration and inspired children to think creatively and well outside the box. His methods were non-traditional and highly effective. I don’t believe Kris could ever be effective trying to teach like Scott and the reverse is true. To impose defined autonomy on either would be offensive and would certainly minimize their effectiveness.

At MasteryConnect we believe teachers already have a defined responsibility to teach the core standards and monitor student performance relative to those standards. We believe teachers are best suited to defining their own autonomy when determining how they are going to meet their defined responsibilities. Teachers sharing common formative assessments, monitoring student mastery of the core standards and collaborating in this pursuit is fundamental to being true to the responsibilities of teaching. How teachers teach is fundamental to maintaining true autonomy in the profession.