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.

I am sitting in a workshop listening to an expert from our State Office of Education talk about the implementation of the Common Core Standards. She is doing a fine job and I appreciate the information and materials she is providing the principals today. We are sitting in a high school auditorium, the temperature is hovering around 55 degrees and people are really spread-out. This may account for the lack of dialogue taking place…it is quiet in here. The reason I bring this up is that we just went over the assessment implementation timeline and not one person commented on how this will affect teachers. I am perplexed!

Teachers will begin implementing the core standards next year. They are being told it is more complex, more rigorous, and that it does not align to our current end-of-level assessments. They are also being told that the SBAC and PARC consortiums are building amazing formative, benchmark, and end-of-level assessments…that will not be ready for trial until 2014-15! I am sure this all makes sense to someone…but I doubt they actually work in a school. So…if I understand this right, all we are asking teachers to do is to teach and formatively assess a new core (a more complex and rigorous core), monitor student performance relative to that core, yet wait three to four years for the assessments to arrive? Teachers must also remember that their school’s AYP status will be determined by their student’s performance on end-of-level tests based on the State Core they are no longer teaching. Simple!

It may surprise you to find that my frustration has nothing to do with the fact that teachers will be teaching one core while being held accountable to another. Ultimately, the job of a teacher is not to prepare students for an end-of-level test, it is to teach and monitor student performance relative to the core standards. My frustration is with the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to develop assessments that won’t even be available until 2014-15. It begs the questions…why are we investing millions of taxpayer dollars to develop formative assessments when these assessments should be created by teachers and district curriculum people? Every district I visit or talk to seems to have a math and language arts coordinator building formative assessments for their district around the new Common Core standards. Why aren’t we leveraging this work that is being repeated in almost every part of the country? I am also concerned that when formative assessments are created by “experts” outside the classroom, you minimize the role of the teacher in the assessment process.

The hurry up and wait for SBAC and PARC to create a bounty of assessments feels dangerous. Dangerous because teachers need the assessments today! Dangerous because the technological infrastructure needed to support the complex adaptive assessments promised by the two consortiums is beyond the capacity of most schools. Dangerous because teachers need core-focused formative assessments that are quick and effective…complexity is not required. Dangerous because the assessments are being created far from the classroom.

Sometimes the solution to a complex problem isn’t big, it isn’t expensive and it comes from practitioners….not the so called experts. Teachers don’t need to wait until 2014-15 to get access to quality, teacher created, core-focused formative assessments…a solution already exists….MasteryConnect. MasteryConnect has created the formative assessment super highway that allows teachers to solve the assessment problem themselves, and lets teachers build any type of formative assessment they can think of (rubric-based, writing assessments, multiple choice, etc.). With teachers all over the country sharing core-focused formative assessments and tracking student mastery relative to the core, teachers have created their own solution. While others wait three years for PARC and SBAC to deliver prepackaged assessments and item banks to the masses, teachers using MasteryConnect will be far ahead of the pack.

The other day I was perusing our Twitter feed and came across an exchange between two fellow educators. The first commented, in less than 140 characters, that BubbleScore was the worst education tool for the iPad yet. The second responded by providing this link toMasteryConnect and the additional statement of….what do you expect from MasteryConnect…sickening!” Wow, harsh words given that neither has ever used either product. Rather than get overly defensive, it caused me to reflect on just exactly what led us to create MasteryConnect and BubbleScore.

I am an educator and a parent. While I am also a runner, golfer, reader and novice fisherman, it’s those first two roles that best define me. Surprisingly, these two roles often conflict when it comes to my educational philosophy. As an educator, I know how hard teachers work. I know how much we ask of teachers every day. I know how little teachers get paid and how, over the last several months, they have become the scapegoats for those lamenting the budget shortfalls all over the country. I know the overwhelming challenges our teachers face when we expect them to differentiate curriculum, provide support for special needs students, meet the needs of ESL students and singlehandedly overcome the impact of poverty on our schools. As a parent, I just want my child to have a teacher who cares enough to meet my child’s unique academic needs! See the conflict…”cares enough”…those are fighting words for teachers. Of course they care! They must care about all 25+ students in their class, but as a parent…I am most concerned about my child. Should the parent side of me feel guilty for my selfish concerns? Should the educator side feel guilty for feeling overwhelmed by the expectations placed on our teachers?

Rather than feel guilt, the desire to address this conflict between the educator and parent role is what ultimately led to the development of MasteryConnect and BubbleScore. We had three major goals when we started developing MasteryConnect. The first was to provide a way for teachers to connect and collaborate with each other. The second was to provide a way for teachers to share formative assessments that target specific core standards. The third goal was to create a way for teachers to monitor student mastery relative to the core standards and be able to communicate student progress to parents. All of this needed to be done in a way that would require less, not more time from teachers.

Why focus on collaboration?

I like what Rick DuFour has to say about this when he talks about Professional Learning Communities and believe the concept of collaboration goes well beyond the physical walls of a school building:

The teams in a PLC engage in collective inquiry into both best practices in teaching and best practices in learning. They also inquire about their current reality—including their present practices and the levels of achievement of their students. They attempt to arrive at consensus on vital questions by building shared knowledge rather than pooling opinions. They have an acute sense of curiosity and openness to new possibilities.

Collective inquiry enables team members to develop new skills and capabilities that in turn lead to new experiences and awareness. Gradually, this heightened awareness transforms into fundamental shifts in attitudes, beliefs, and habits which, over time, transform the culture of the school.

Working together to build shared knowledge on the best way to achieve goals and meet the needs of clients is exactly what professionals in any field are expected to do, whether it is curing the patient, winning the lawsuit, or helping all students learn. Members of a professional learning community are expected to work and learn together.


At MasteryConnect we make this possible and we make it easy!

Why focus so much attention on formative assessments?

I love this quote from Rick Stiggens:

“There is difference between assessments of learning (summative) and assessments for learning (formative).”

Doug Reeves in his book Learning by Doing provides this list of compelling points:

  1. Common assessments are more efficient than assessments created by individual teachers. It is ineffective and inefficient for teacher to operate as independent subcontractors who are stationed in proximity to others, yet work in isolation.
  2. Common assessments are more equitable for students.
  3. Common assessments represent the most effective strategy for determining whether the guaranteed curriculum is being taught and, more importantly, learned. Doug Reeves (2004) refers to common assessments as the “gold standard” because they promote consistency in expectations and provide timely, accurate, and specific feedback to both students and teachers.
  4. Common assessments inform the practice of individual teachers. With this information, a teacher can seek assistance from teammates on areas of concern and can share strategies and ideas on skills in which his or her students excelled.
  5. Common assessments build a team’s capacity to improve its program. Collective analysis can lead to new curriculum, pacing, materials, and instructional strategies designed to strengthen the academic program offered.
  6. Common assessments facilitate a systematic, collective response to students who are experiencing difficulty. Because the students are identified at the same time and because they need help with the same specific skills that have been addressed on the common assessment, the team and school are in a position to create a timely, systematic program of intervention.


At MasteryConnect we make this possible and we make it easy!


Why focus so much attention on mastery tracking?

A quote from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s ASCD11 presentation (ASCD Community Blog) highlights this point:

“Reporting should be based on mastery performance on formative assessments, Tomlinson said, adding that a student who demonstrates mastery may not need to take every assessment.

This is the information I value the most as a parent. I want to know what my child knows and I want to know what they need to know to continue to be successful. If they are behind, I want to know which concepts or skills they are struggling to understand. How many parents have real-time access to this type of information and would it make a difference if they did? Do teachers have access to tools that will make reporting on mastery performance practical? At MasteryConnect we make this possible and we make it easy!

MasteryConnect and BubbleScore

MasteryConnect is the result of our quest to help teachers monitor student performance relative to the core, share common assessments and collaborate with colleagues all over the country. BubbleScore was created to accommodate teacher’s requests for a tool that would save time and create efficient ways to assess and record student progress. Together they are powerful tools that fulfill our goal to help teachers and parents come together in the support of all our children.