It’s been a quiet March and April for the Academics Blog. But we’re back in action, with a renewed focus on questions related to teaching and learning across the Archdiocese. And as the Spring testing window for NWEA MAP Growth assessments opens this week, many of our teachers are asking: How should we approach this assessment and use it productively to help fulfill our instructional goals? Valid questions worth considering as we begin to wrap up the 2017-2018 cycle of NWEA testing and anticipate the 2018-2019 cycle.
But rather than offer a point-by-point defense of this Archdiocesan student learning assessment, I’m going to spend time in this post posing questions that will (I hope) guide your thinking about how to make sense of this assessment as one part of the teaching and learning culture in your schools. I encourage faculty throughout the Archdiocese to use the thoughts in this post to spark inquiry about the use and application of the NWEA MAP Growth assessments in your buildings.
Recently, I’ve been reading Christine Sleeter and Judith Carmona’s Unstandardizing Curriculum. This book really pushed my thinking about the relationship among instruction, curriculum, and assessment as well as the ways schools either do or do not create culturally relevant and responsive environments for their students and communities. I strongly recommend this book if you are considering reevaluating your school’s scope and sequence or if you are engaging in a curriculum audit right now. I’d also be willing to work with your school’s instructional leadership team to have a structured book discussion about this text if you plan on doing a summer book study with your faculty.
But it was the chapter on assessment in this book that struck me as most relevant during this season of spring MAP testing. Sleeter and Carmona ask a straightforward question in the beginning of this chapter: “Assessment generally asks how well students learned the curriculum. But what is assessment to be used for, to whom is it accountable, and how does it shape curriculum?” (p. 62). As it applies to NWEA MAP Growth, do you have a common (school-wide) understanding about the relationship between MAP assessments and your articulated curriculum goals? Are you (at the school or classroom level) using MAP in a way that helps you hold yourselves professionally responsible for meeting these goals?
At the Archdiocesan level, we at the CSO encourage schools to use MAP Growth results as a signal: a set of information that helps to diagnose student learning needs alongside school and class-based assessments of learning. It is one source (among many) of standards-based information that can help to clarify other curricular or instructional questions that may arise. Rather than punish schools for not reaching a certain achievement or growth percentile benchmark, we at the CSO ask that schools look across historical trends in their data, do occasional analyses of key standards-based areas where there is room for improvement, or identify learning needs they may not have otherwise emerged out of classroom-based assessments.
We want MAP to be a tool (among many other tools) that will provide you with information to help you accomplish three primary goals: to enhance your curricular offerings (are you offering a rigorous, standards-based PreK through 8th grade experience?); to rethink instructional approaches to better meet students’ differentiated learning needs (how do you go about meeting all students’ learning needs and do you have evidence of the success of your methods?); and to remain true to our Catholic mission to serve each child according to her or his needs. But, looking inward, since we also acknowledge MAP Growth assessments should not limit or circumscribe a school’s instructional vision or curricular scope and sequence: have we created the right conditions in the Archdiocese to help schools make sense of MAP as a way to probe student learning more deeply? Have we provided at the CSO the tools to help schools use MAP Growth to aid the continuous improvement of their curriculum and instruction?
Knowing that there’s always more work to be done in the supports we offer to you all, today I want to provide a quick guide for schools who want to ask these MAP-related questions of themselves. In their chapter, Sleeter and Carmona provide a list of questions to guide faculty discussion about school assessments. I’m going to highlight a few that apply directly to MAP as we journey together through this spring window. It’s important to note, though, that unlike your class- or school-based assessments, MAP is not an assessment of content or whether or not a student is “ready” to move from one grade to the next. Rather, it tells us what students’ abilities and strengths are across multiple different areas with reference to “typical” student performance at certain grade levels. It provides us information about the relative strengths and areas of growth for our classes that can aid in differentiated grouping strategies. But it can’t tell us whether or not a student has on a daily basis demonstrated their learning in multiple, rigorous ways in terms of the school-based expectations we have for those students. So with that being said...
“To what extent do assessment processes facilitate students showing what they know and can do?"
How do you use MAP results in your classrooms and schools to reflect what information MAP does and does not provide? How can the three-times-a-year assessment structure of MAP allow us to reinforce for students what is and is not important about this particular, individual assessment of their learning?
“To what extent do assessment results guide ongoing instruction?”
The Next Generation Student Learning Profiles provide an incredibly rich and detailed set of evidence about student learning drilling down to the standards level. How much time is allotted after each of the three assessment windows to make sense of this information (even just in small chunks)? How can we use this reporting feature in coordination with other in-school assessments to find out areas of potential reteaching or remediation needed within our curriculum?
“To what extent do criteria and standards for student performance facilitate communication about expectations in a way that is meaningful to students and their parents?”
How transparent are you with students about what MAP does and does not “do” for them, for us, for the school? How transparent are you with parents about these same points? What information do you provide parents and students about how you use MAP in your school? What additional learning is needed at the student or parent level to make better sense of MAP within your school community?
Sleeter and Carmona articulate what they view to be the real purpose of assessment in schools: “Assessment can be empowering when used as a tool for students to show what they know and can do, and for teachers and students to articulate clearly what they are working toward, judge progress and give feedback using understandable yardsticks, and gauge the rigor and integrity of the curriculum in meaningful terms” (p. 76). Our goal in the Archdiocese is to have the NWEA MAP Growth assessments serve these purposes. It might not always feel that way during a given testing window, but we continue to work to develop better systems of support (at the school and Archdiocesan levels) to accomplish our goals. Because what matters most is that we are providing faith-filled and rigorous academic learning environments for our students. This tool is one that might just help us do that. And as always, we at the CSO are open to suggestions from the field about how to use this diagnostic, analytic tool in more productive and student-centered ways.
Sleeter, C.E., & Carmona, J.F. (2017). Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press: New York, NY.
Why do we do what we do in the classroom? Are there rationales for the way we currently structure our class environments? Can we articulate how our daily instructional choices reflect our school’s expectations for what students will know and be able to do by the end of the year?
Earlier this week, Associate Superintendent Dan Roy and I had the chance to have a video chat with several aspiring instructional leaders at Catholic Schools throughout the Archdiocese and we left the conversation energized. These leaders all demonstrated the passion that our Boston Catholic Schools are known for and the discussion allowed us to seek clarity on what good instructional leadership could and should look like in our schools. But we were left with an overarching question for which I don’t yet have an answer: what does it say about a school if its instructional culture isn’t aligned with its Catholic identity? Said another way: has a school adequately lived out its mission if the instructional decisions teachers make aren’t clear examples of that mission in action?
This question hit me like a ton of bricks. Most of my time, I’m diving into the technical, granular work of enhancing teaching and learning and working out how curriculum and instruction can be better organized, implemented, and supported. But what emerged in this conversation with aspiring leaders was the following possibility: a high quality school that has effective instructional design and implementation, as well as a very clear sense of its Catholic mission, but that does not treat its instructional leadership and decision making as an extension of that mission.
In all honesty, my first reaction was, “What a nice problem to have. Mission effectiveness AND high quality instructional design?! Sign me up to teach at that school.” But I couldn’t let go of this thought, especially during this season of Lent, that we’re called as Catholic educators to do more than just this. We’re called to question whether or not what we’re doing (our instruction) actually coheres with the ultimate reason for why we’re doing that thing in the first place (to live our mission more fully). And we can see that call in today’s Gospel reading.
A group of John’s disciples ask Jesus why his followers don’t fast as much as either they or the Pharisees do. They try to comprehend why this teacher, who seems to demonstrate a lot of traits they admire and is saying all of the right things, doesn’t engage in the spiritual practices in the same way or to the same extent as they do. They have the faith, they have the practice. Things seem to be going well. But Jesus and his disciples act differently, engage in a different form of practice, and it makes them question whether they’ve got it right after all. Jesus offers the gentle reminder that any practice has to be engaged with intentionality and purpose: a perfect reflection during this first week of Lent to help us answer our call to better connect our Catholic identity and our instructional culture.
I don’t have the answer to how to make any of this happen at scale. But I want to offer a few simple steps we can take as administrators, teachers, and instructional leaders to slowly move toward better alignment between our mission and our instruction.
1) Create a Crosswalk of Instructional Values and Catholic Values
Take your school’s instructional priorities and itemize them down one column of a spreadsheet. Then look at your mission statement and write the major concepts from that statement across the top row of the same spreadsheet. See where there is coherence or tension between your instructional priorities and your mission. This activity might allow you to see whether there’s something meaningful in your instructional priorities currently absent from your mission statement (or vice versa). I’m not encouraging you to abandon either your mission statement or your instructional priorities if there isn’t perfect alignment, but this crosswalk can help generate critical conversations among your instructional staff about how to differently articulate next year’s priorities in light of your mission.
2) Focus Instructional Rounds or Classroom Observations on Catholic Instructional Identity
There is always value in teachers observing other teachers in a school building. But maybe you take time to shift the focus of those observations to how Catholic identity manifests itself in classes that aren’t religion classes. You might have the middle school science teachers observe an elementary school morning meeting/community building session to generate ideas for how to make science instruction more mission aligned. Or you might have social studies teachers observe art, music, or physical education classes to see how experiential learning can better enhance a students’ engagement if this coheres with your mission or what your school values about Catholic identity. There are any number of ways to reframe an observation to get teachers thinking about what Catholic instructional identity really means in the first place.
3) Devote a Faculty Meeting to Discussing This Question
Take one faculty meeting and simply raise the question: is our instructional culture aligned to our mission? See what responses emerge. Dan Roy and I were fascinated to hear the perspectives of aspiring instructional leaders throughout the Archdiocese. It may be very productive to hear from within a single building whether or not this sense of alignment is either present or valued throughout the school community.
These strategies may work for you, they may not work for you. What really matters, though, is taking time to view our instructional practice as a logical extension of our Catholic identity. It’s impossible to ask ourselves prior to every instructional activity, “Is this worksheet aligned with our mission statement?” I’d be crazy to suggest such a thing. But over the course of time, making space for intentional conversation about instruction and mission alignment may just increase our capacity to live out our vocation.
There’s so much to cover that it was hard to pick a topic for this week’s longer post.
It’s the end of Catholic Schools Week. Our schools have been actively emphasizing the Catholic identity of their communities this week, following from the NCEA theme of “Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.” Throughout the Archdiocese, as you’ll see in the Superintendent’s Memo this week and on Twitter, students, parents, teachers, and leaders have come together to celebrate what makes our schools great.
And it’s Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (even though here in New England, we’re always prepared for six more weeks of winter). Science teachers across the Archdiocese are most likely leading conversations about what meteorology is, why rodents aren’t typically known for their weather prognostications, and trying to discuss with students whether to observe Astronomical Winter or Meteorological Winter (I’m on Team Meteorological Winter). Meanwhile, Social Studies teachers are engaging in fascinating conversations about the fact that there are actually MULTIPLE groundhogs that AREN’T Punxsutawney Phil, each with their own cultural background, ethnic heritages, and community customs (Staten Island Chuck is one of my favorites, mainly because he frequently disagrees with Punxsutawney Phil).
But, to get the focus back to teaching and learning, I couldn’t resist writing about a news item I read earlier this week. Recently, in one district’s schools in China, students were confronted with the following math question on an exam:
If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats on board, how old is the ship’s captain?
As you’ll see in the articles linked here and here, some students declared this an impossible, ridiculous question. Some students, on the other hand, tried their hardest to come up with a solution to this very difficult problem. Commentary about this question has ranged from the shocked to the intrigued. But I think this is exactly the type of math question we should be asking our students more frequently in our schools’ math classrooms. And here’s why:
1) Multi-step, Complex Thinking and Reasoning
In order to solve this problem, the students cannot just plug and chug. They cannot simply adapt an already learned, discrete mathematical skill and come up with an easy solution. This question requires a complicated multi-step solution that works slowly from the inputs and givens (a ship that can carry at least 36 animals and a captain) to an answer involving the age of the captain.
With so little given, students have to think critically to fill in missing information, to infer connections between and among the givens and the desired solution. This means that students have to ask questions like, “How old are ship captains normally? How big is the ship? How much do the animals weigh? Do size and weight effect who can captain this ship?” Then students would have to carefully organize these complicated pieces into a complex, abstract whole, using the basic arithmetic operations to construct a response.
That’s a level of reasoning we simply don’t offer our students in math classes frequently enough. But it’s exactly the kind of abstract and complex reasoning that we need more of if our students are going to become the kinds of critical thinkers they need to be in our complex world.
2) Deep, Real World Knowledge
In order to solve this problem, students also need to have deep knowledge (or be able to ask deep questions about) the real world applications of the problem’s pieces. This means that a problem like this not only requires mathematical knowledge and reasoning. It also requires interdisciplinary reasoning. One solution to this problem for the Chinese students who received it involved knowledge of ship weight regulations and an awareness that ship captains require licensure with age restrictions. That real world, authentic knowledge is a design feature of this problem, not a flaw. The whole point of the problem is that this real world, deep knowledge is required. Otherwise, you could just say, “This is a made up math problem; it doesn’t matter how old the ship captain is.” No. The problem is written in a way to make you solve for the ship captain’s age, because it is inherently valuable to struggle with math concepts incorporating deep, real world knowledge.
The teacher’s task, then, is to guide students through the construction of the solution and help them find the right questions to ask so they can eventually access this deep knowledge. Students may not have much or any knowledge about ship captain regulations and policies. But a well-designed in-class mathematical investigation with this problem at its core can be designed to help you guide your students’ critical thinking. Which brings me to my last point…
3) No Single Solution
There’s no “correct” or single answer to this problem. Students are forced in this problem to articulate not only mathematical reasoning but a broader chain of logic and argumentation leading to their solution. The fun of the problem would be in probing multiple students’ reasoning to see which one is most plausible. Instead of having all students arrive at a predetermined solution (“The ship's captain is 50 years old”) you can create a classroom discussion about how and why different students arrived at different ages based on their mathematical and abstract logic. As you guide your students through questioning and constructive criticism of other students’ responses, you can build consensus about which chains of logic make the most sense given the known information in the problem. This not only gives students an opportunity to think critically, it gives them an opportunity to engage in a level of metacognition often missing from math classrooms focused on skill development.
So I challenge all math teachers: between now and February break, give your students a problem like this (or this very problem). I would love to hear how students in the Archdiocese are processing these types of math problems. Devote an entire math class to it if necessary. Allow your students to engage in complex and complicated reasoning, push them to incorporate deep real world knowledge, and guide them in the pursuit of multiple solutions. These are the types of problems that will truly start to engage students in math. They’re fun, they’re quirky, and they really make students (and teachers) authentically think.
PS: for those who demand an answer, I’ll just say that I was persuaded by the Chinese student mentioned in the articles who determined the captain had to be at least 28 years old.
How do you really know if what you’re doing in the classroom is working?
It’s 4 PM on a Friday and you’ve had a hard week. Lately, you find yourself asking the question, “What week hasn’t been hard?” You are in the middle of a year that began with big changes to your practice based on professional goals you set for yourself connected to the school-wide instructional focus your principal has introduced to the building. All of the changes you’ve made this year in your classroom practice were done dutifully with as much fidelity to the school’s strategic plan as you could offer. All of these changes were supposed to lead to student learning growth. But it’s January and you simply don’t know if that’s the case.
It’s at times like this where a few things tend to happen: 1) you continue to implement the changes half-heartedly since you don’t see evidence of their positive effects; 2) you give up on the changes and revert to the way things were last year because you assume they’re working just as well as your former practices; 3) you adopt a whole new set of changes mid-year thinking that something else may work, causing the room to be slightly more unpredictable and chaotic. All of these are signs of a very common form of professional despair, which can be triggered easily during these winter months in this middle part of the school year.
Such times of despair provide us as teachers with an opportunity to take stock. These are not times for massive changes to instructional or curricular practice. Rather, these winter months are time to deliberately make sense of all that is currently happening around you. So much has happened since Labor Day and if you don’t take the time to investigate the effects of those changes, you’ll lose sight of what remains to be done this year with your current students. But you can’t reframe and understand whether or not all the changes you’ve made have had positive or negative effects if you don’t allow yourself to approach your practice in a slightly new way. Instead of making a new year resolution to get more organized or lesson plan more efficiently, make a resolution to ask better questions about what you’re doing in the classroom. In the rest of this post, I’ll explain how asking better questions may clarify and refocus your work in the remaining months of this year.
What is a “better” question?
The work of asking better questions begins with figuring out what a “better” question about your teaching practice looks like. Though important, it’s not useful to only ask, “Did my students learn?” This question tends to elicit answers that rely on only two pieces of evidence: in-class assessments and standardized testing data. Asking “Did my students learn?” limits us from looking at the array of effects impacted by the implementation of new methods or strategies in our classrooms. It also limits our discussion of the numerous social, spiritual, and academic learning outcomes we expect for our students in our Catholic schools.
Student and professional learning is complex; the questions we ask about whether changes this year have led to student or professional learning growth should be similarly complex. For example, if you adopted a project-based learning curriculum, don’t just ask if students met their MAP growth goals. Ask if collaboration and cooperation have increased in the classroom. If you have tried to differentiate your math instruction more intentionally this year, don’t just assess if students’ math learning has increased. Inquire into how your questioning techniques have shifted with individual students based on their differentiated learning needs. There are many incisive questions we could and should be asking ourselves that are fundamentally consistent with the work we are already doing.
We don’t need to do something different; we need to take what we’re already doing and ask higher-order questions about how or why the work is impacting desired social, spiritual, and academic learning outcomes.
How frequently should I be asking better questions?
The frequency with which you ask better questions depends on the broader purpose of the work itself. If your school has made its instructional focus providing opportunities for all students to do enrichment-level work, you may take time once each week to review what you did to accomplish this goal in your classes. At the end of the month, you would have four “data points” to examine that can help you improve or shift your practice related to this goal for the next month. If your school has put more time and energy into making individualized learning plans accessible to parents and students, you may ask yourself at the middle and end of each grading period how the methods you’ve introduced with your students/families has worked or not worked. No matter the frequency, keep track of the evidence you are collecting.
Which brings me to my last point.
How do I go about answering the better questions I’ve asked?
The key to answering these better questions is to keep track of what you’re finding. Like any good researcher or scientist, ask the question and collect the evidence. This evidence should be in numerous different formats: formal student assessments, brief daily or weekly teaching reflections, lesson planning notes, student work products, etc. If it is something that is generated in or around the classroom and it relates to your question, it’s evidence. Then take time every 3-4 weeks to look through that evidence and unpack what trends you’re noticing. The act of asking better questions doesn’t have an inherent start or end time. But it does require that you hold yourself responsible for the things you are learning once you have started asking these better questions.
Like the Jesuit spiritual practice of the examen, asking better questions will help you re-center what matters most about your teaching practice. You will begin to discover (or uncover) what matters most (to you, to your students, to your school community) about what you’re doing in the classroom once you take the time to more carefully interrogate the intricate, complex relationships between what/how/why you are teaching and what/how/why students are learning.
The new year has come; it’s back to school after a much deserved Christmas break. A new year always brings with it the opportunity to make resolutions and to think about what we can do to improve ourselves in the new year. Resolutions are all well and good, and I highly recommend taking the time this January to make a professional resolution for 2018. But today, I want to raise a different issue. For most of us in Archdiocesan Catholic schools, our work doesn’t fundamentally change just because the last two digits at the top of our papers do. Now that one third of the school year has passed, most teachers in the Archdiocese aren’t asking themselves what they should be doing differently. They’re asking themselves a much more pressing question: what do I have the capacity to do with these remaining few months of school to continue to help my students learn given what I have learned about them in the first third?
The bad news is you didn’t have enough planning time during your hard-earned vacation days to come up with any solutions to this question. Who ever does, right? The thought of what to do now looms large in these first weeks of the new year, especially as winter NWEA testing and Catholic Schools Week festivities quickly approach. The good news is you’re not alone. Your fellow teachers in Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese are working alongside of you in solidarity toward the same mission this winter and spring: re-engaging student interest in and re-enlivening classroom spaces for spiritual and academic growth.
And we here in the Catholic Schools Office continue to work hard to reach out to you in support of this incredibly important work. As can be seen in one of our office’s infographics, this support often comes in the form of phone calls, e-mails, visits, or workshops. You may be saying to yourself, “What does all of that have to do with what I need to do day-to-day? With these students? In the middle of the year?” While there’s no easy answer to these questions, we’ve recognized that the CSO needed to do something else to help teachers address these questions in a more practical way.
As one of our CSO 2018 resolutions, we designed this resource sharing website and blog to establish a forum for inquiry and discussion and to help enhance the professional quality of our schools. The resource sharing feature of the website will provide suggestions and ideas for content that may help you improve your practice, as well as a space for teachers to submit ideas, links, or resources for broader dissemination. The blog will contain regular posts about bigger topics related to curriculum, instruction, teaching, and learning posted at least twice a month.
You may be excited for the resource-sharing but may be wondering, “A blog? What good is a blog about academics in the Archdiocese and how is that going to help me?” As a former middle school ELA teacher, I never grew tired of reiterating the importance of purpose, genre, and audience to my students. So let me use the rest of this first post to delve more deeply into each of these three things in order to flesh out just what role the blog will play on this website.
Purpose: The more we communicate with each other about teaching and learning, the more effective teaching and learning will be across the Archdiocese. The sole purpose of this blog is to make that vision a reality. Let’s open up our classrooms, expand our ideas about what constitutes ambitious instruction and effective teaching, and continue to communicate with each other about our professional vocation using any means available to us. We can’t live out the Gospel mission in our schools if we don’t have academically rigorous schools. And we can’t have academically rigorous schools if we don’t care passionately about teaching and learning. I think this blog can be a place to raise questions and explore ideas that we otherwise may not have the time to ask or research on our own. This space serves to highlight the curricular and instructional strengths currently in place in RCAB schools, to address persistent dilemmas that plague teachers in the Archdiocese, and to drill down into concrete strategies for educators’ growth and improvement.
Genre: The posts on this blog will be concise, easily digestible accounts of how to strengthen some concrete aspect of teaching and learning. The posts will be somewhat informal without sacrificing being professionally meaningful. Example topics include: how to design well-differentiated math lessons; how to best interpret student assessment data to improve instruction; what ambitious, authentic standards-based lessons look like; what other teachers in the Archdiocese are doing to help aid student learning; and many more. A key feature of the blog genre, in general, is that there is also a tight relationship between the post and the audience. If you want to see a topic discussed, we can easily produce a post about that topic.
Audience: The most important thing to remember is for whom this blog is designed. It’s for you - our teachers - the instructional backbone of our schools. We value the professionalism and purpose you bring to your work and therefore we want to continue to provide resources to help you in your professional development. Which leads me to one of the key outcomes I hope this blog brings about: functioning communities of practice engaging in authentic inquiry about teaching and learning. This blog is designed to encourage this audience to continue the conversations introduced on this website and to use ideas generated after those conversations to influence instructional practice. This website is not a compendium of all knowledge related to curriculum and instruction. Rather, it’s a place for a community to digitally gather to become partners in developing a more rigorous professional culture in Archdiocesan schools.
We know it can be difficult to fulfill the responsibility to make sure that authentic, ambitious, and faith-filled teaching is happening in our classrooms. This resource-sharing and blog space has been designed to help better support your work.
CSO Academics Blog
Director of Academics, Andrew Miller, will post regular commentaries in this space about teaching and learning throughout the Archdiocese.