Profiles of Effective PD Initiatives : Owen J. Roberts Middle School

March 21st, 2013

We often hear of schools and districts that have built large-scale PD programs around Stenhouse books and videos. We wondered how they developed these initiatives and what sort of impact they were having on professional growth and student learning. So we’ve asked Stenhouse editor (and longtime education journalist) Holly Holland to interview the innovative staff developers and administrators behind these initiatives and write a series of case studies. In the first installment of the series, Holly writes about how the staff of the Owen J. Roberts Middle School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania restructured their thinking about assessment and grading through their work with Rick Wormeli’s book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question — five lucky commenters will get a free copy of Fair Isn’t Always Equal!

Owen J. Roberts Middle School, Pottstown, PA

In his previous school administrative job, Robert Salladino led a faculty study of Fair Isn’t Always Equal (Stenhouse, 2006) and “felt this incredible connection” to author Rick Wormeli’s message about effective assessment and grading in the differentiated classroom. So in 2007, when Salladino became principal of Owen J. Roberts Middle School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, he made sure every teacher had a copy of the book.

Salladino and his leadership team also attended a two-day workshop with Wormeli and began encouraging teachers to implement recommended strategies such as letting students redo assignments and ensuring that all recorded grades were accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning. The research supporting those practices is so strong that Salladino was surprised when many faculty members resisted the changes.

“We were hearing every argument that Rick mentions in the book,” Salladino said. “We were living it.”

Like Wormeli, he believes grades should indicate progress toward learning instead of reflecting an arbitrary and inconsistent collection of academic and nonacademic factors that might include test results, compliance with homework policies, subjective evaluations of effort, and points for class participation.

“The traditional way of thinking about grades is they reward kids or punish kids. We really have to say that grades are informational,” Salladino said. “One of the things we took away from Rick’s work is that in order for grades to be meaningful we have to focus on mastery learning. It should be about how well I learned, not how I turned in assignments. For late work and redoing work, for instance, we said to teachers: ‘The way we currently structure school, it’s set up so everybody should demonstrate mastery at the same time. If we let go of grades used to rank kids, what should it matter if you learned something after the teacher retaught it in a different way? It’s getting to the destination. It doesn’t matter if you needed a different route than the rest of the class. Ultimately, did you learn what we wanted you to learn?’”

Some teachers protested that letting students redo work would encourage them to shirk responsibility, whereas Wormeli and other assessment experts claim the opposite: If students have to keep revising their work until they meet high standards, they develop persistence and respect for excellence.

History teacher Michael Brilla and science teacher Stephen DeRafelo likened the philosophy to how they coach wrestling. Just as they don’t stop guiding kids when they perform poorly in a competition, which is a form of assessment about skill development, they also shouldn’t give up on students who need more time or instruction to understand subject content.

“If a kid bombed a test, why would I just move on?” asked DeRafelo. “If I’m structuring my class to build a knowledge base, it’s negligent of me to move on. The only way to offer the opportunity and encouragement for kids who didn’t get a lab right or a test is, ‘Let’s do this again.’”

Both teachers acknowledge they were initially skeptical about the value of shifting from traditional assessment and grading practices that expect everyone to learn at the same pace. Brilla had an “aha” moment when a colleague used the metaphor of two families traveling on the same day to Disney World. Must one family cancel the entire trip just because car trouble caused a delay in reaching the destination?

“As far as retests and redos, we talked about how as adults all the high-stakes tests we take you have the opportunity to do them over—the SAT, the LSAT, even the driver’s license test,” Brilla said. “The idea that you could learn from your mistakes from your first evaluation made sense to me then.”

Brilla and DeRafelo said they don’t offer retakes without reinforcing accountability. Working with students, they carefully analyze test results and design strategies that will help them do better the second time. Students and their parents must sign off on the plans, assuming ownership of the process. Brilla also asks students to complete a self-evaluation and reflection after every social studies project, which they then use to craft a plan to correct mistakes.

“I think kids are more willing to take risks than before because they know they will have the opportunity to fix things the next time,” Brilla said.

Salladino believes some teachers at Owen J. Roberts Middle School have resisted making similar changes because grading is one of the few areas in education they can control, and many are reluctant to open their practices to scrutiny. To persuade the skeptics, Salladino encourages teachers who’ve shifted to standards-based grading to share their successes with colleagues. Krista Venza, the school’s instructional support facilitator, said she also guides her colleagues to free resources, including explanatory videos and answers to common questions, which Wormeli has provided at a companion website.

“It’s really helpful for me to use Rick’s words to share with teachers,” Venza said. “It’s a different way of hearing it than maybe what I’ve been saying, another way for them to get it.”

While guiding the school’s veteran teachers toward fair and consistent grading practices, Salladino said he also questions job candidates to determine whether they would be supportive of the shift toward mastery learning. Additionally, new teachers receive copies of Day One and Beyond (Stenhouse, 2003), Wormeli’s guide for new middle-grades teachers, as part of the school’s induction program.

Salladino said he tries to model principles he expects teachers to use in the classroom in his own work with the faculty. For example, when new teachers turn in lesson plans, he does not offer a cursory and meaningless review. Instead, he suggests specific changes and asks them to resubmit the lesson plans after reflecting and revising their work. Before he distributes school communications, Salladino also seeks feedback from the assistant principal.

“We need to have the idea that all of our work needs polishing,” he said.

Math teacher Matthew Charleston took that message to heart last school year when he instituted a policy that students could retake any unit exam or major test. This school year he extended it to include all assignments, quizzes, and tests—with an important caveat. To take a similar but more difficult second assessment, students must correct and explain all errors in the previous version. High-performing students are easily motivated by the chance to improve their grades, he said. For struggling students, Charleston provides time during class or during breaks throughout the day to offer guided corrections.

“You see that ‘aha,’” he said. “They have more confidence.”

Charleston and other teachers who have adopted the changes recommended in Fair Isn’t Always Equal said they frequently encounter colleagues—including their own teaching spouses—who disagree with the different expectations. They believe evidence of their own successes will eventually sway the doubters. Having collegial conversations about difficult issues and giving teachers access to good professional resources is part of the plan to change the school’s culture one mind at a time.

“I want them to believe this is right for kids, not because my boss told me I had to do it,” Salladino said. “This has been no easy journey, but we continue to forge ahead. With each month and marking period I think we are bringing more people on board.”

Entry Filed under: Assessment

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie Cazer  |  March 22nd, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    It appears this approach to mastery fits the CCLS. Could this also be applied to Elementary Grades? I currently incorporate Rick Stiggins work in my K/1 Classroom and Fair Isn’t Always Equal may be a worthwhile resource at my grade levels.

  • 2. Christine Pinkley  |  March 22nd, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    I was thrilled to read your post. This past week the state legislature in Arkansas has introduced a bill addressing grade inflation and transparency in grading. In writing to my legislators to refute the premise of grading on a curve and the idea that grades should be a reflection of students’ progress in relation to each other, I suggested that the way to address “grade inflation and transparency” was with appropriate professional development and student feedback. At the time I made the suggestion of professional development I had the work of Jane Pollock in mind; however, I will be reading Fair Isn’t Always Equal to bolster what I already believe is best practice. Christine Pinkley, NBCT, First Grade

  • 3. Michelle Schmitz  |  March 23rd, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for the article. I really like how this strategy of grading is student-centered and focused on growth rather than a letter grade. I teach 3rd grade and hate the fact that I have to give them letter grades. Often times the grades are inflated because there is a lot of parent help on homework, but then test grades show a different story. I think this would be a great way to get our staff all on the same page. Several teachers reduce grades by 25 % if not turned in on time. I understand the responsibility part of completing your work, too, but somewhere there needs to be a balance. Thanks!!

  • 4. Lenore Kline  |  March 23rd, 2013 at 8:28 am

    I enjoyed this article. I’ve often struggled with the idea of retaking assessments. After reading Holly’s article, I feel more apt to utilize this technique in my classroom. I’m sure my students will appreciate the opportunity to improve their comprehension of skills, even if it means retaking a more challenging assessment. I’ve forwarded this article on to my supervisors for their take. Can’t wait to get Rick’s book”

  • 5. Kate Parr  |  March 24th, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Great ideas for how to think about assessment of students’ learning and encouraging ownership of that learning. I particularly liked how the process of learning and ownership is not just for students but for teachers to get feedback so that they can improve as well.
    Thanks. A lot to think about here.

  • 6. Catherine Trinkle  |  March 26th, 2013 at 9:00 am

    While I do agree with the concept of assessment for mastery, I don’t understand the logistics. I have radically changed my homework and feedback practices in the past 3 years but I still have trouble with the increased time it takes to reteach and regrade until a student reaches mastery. It isn’t that I’m unwilling to do this, but I don’t know how to set up a system so that I can reteach and regrade in addition to the existing agenda and grade requirements. I would be interested in learning more about this.

  • 7. John Norton  |  March 26th, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Excellent idea to share models of how schools and teacher communities can put professional books to work to improve practice and transform schools. And who better to tell these tales than the consummate education writer Holly Holland.

  • 8. Chris  |  March 26th, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I truly believe these are the most effective ways to ensure student learning. I wish more educators felt the same. Punitive grading practices are still too common.

  • 9. Jane McVeigh  |  March 26th, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I need to investigate Wormeli’s book and the work of Jane Pollack, mentioned in another comment. Now that I am teaching sixth graders, I am giving letter grades for the first time in a forty year teaching career. When I give writing assignments that are due in two weeks, with some daily check-ins about how things are going, some students did far more than what was required; others saw this writing as something to do after the work that would be graded as completed homework, such as math or social studies. How do you help students be invested and work hard if you are competing with teachers who haven’t changed their gracing practices? Does Wormeli address this? How do you address it in your school?

  • 10. Brandon  |  March 26th, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Rick Wormeli has some great, innovative ideas about education. Cognitive coaching is a great way to open the door to discussion and gives teachers ownership in the change process.

  • 11. Caroline Anderson  |  March 27th, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    I have not had a chance to read Fair Isn’t Always Equal, but after reading this blog, it moves to the top of my list!

  • 12. Barbara  |  March 27th, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    I was fortunate to attend a two day workshop featuring Mr. Wormeli two years ago; it transformed me! I find myself quoting him all the time! Ongoing self reflection is key!

  • 13. Katie  |  March 30th, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I am inspired to read Rick’s book after reading this post. It is moving up in my Amazon wish list!

  • 14. David Turner  |  April 9th, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I am the principal at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Michigan and we are using this same philosophy with our grading practices. We have even taken grading practices to another level by providing two grades: Academic Achievement (culminating assessments, major projects, essays, and authentic assessments) and Effort (classwork, homework, participation, quizzes, and other practice opportunities). This practice clearly communicates what the students knows and their level of engagement in their learning process. When students look at their Academic Achievement grades, 100% of their grade is based on the summative assessments. 100% of their Effort grade is based on formative assessments. Students are allowed to retake all assessments (formative and summative) only after they have demonstrated they are ready for the retake. It has really helped with parent/teacher communication and the level of homework/classwork completion has not been negatively affected.

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