We Are Talking About Practice! by Greg Acre
If you have a few extra minutes, search for an online video with the keywords Allen Iverson and practice. In 2002, Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson addressed a room of reporters after a lackluster playoff performance. Many were critical of his obvious lackadaisical attitude and his general lack of intensity in practice that week. Behold one of the most unique press conference rants in professional sports history. As a building administrator in the year 2016, one of my many goals is to facilitate the growth of every student and increase overall student performance on state mandated tests. To meet this challenge, I think back to what Iverson said, albeit in a completely different connotation, we ARE talking about practice.
As a novice administrator in the summer of 2012, I made it a personal mission to understand all components of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone tests. It became clear that I needed to fully comprehend the individual pieces of this data if I was going to communicate effectively with teachers and guide meaningful educational change. After weeks of meticulous organization and scrutiny, my final product resulted in a digital comprehensive data collection system that provided me with precise information on every single student in my building. Of course there were obvious areas that needed to be addressed with content area teachers in the middle school and high school. However, the most glaring area of need was the consistently poor scores on open-ended problems, regardless of the test or content area.
After examining all testing data from 2012 to 2015, I discovered that our students averaged a 53% on their PSSA and only a 38% on Keystone open-ended questions. Another trend that I noticed was that as the tests evolved, more weight was being placed on these open-ended questions than ever before. Through deeper examination of student testing data, I was surprised to find that in the eyes of the state, even our advanced and proficient students struggled with their writing abilities. It wasn’t uncommon for our basic and below basic students to earn 0%-10% on their open-ended questions. The students were performing well with their multiple choice questions, and as a result, we had achieved reputable overall scores when compared to our district neighbors. While respectable is adequate for many, I understood that we needed to adjust the focus of our building to meet the needs that were highlighted by real, meaningful data. In short, we needed to utilize this data to drive daily instruction in the classroom. As of the summer of 2015, priority one became the improvement of student performance on open-ended response questions. Strong performance on multiple-choice questions led me to believe that the students possessed the knowledge, but could not adequately apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. After much thought, my conclusion was that our students needed more opportunities to apply their critical thinking in written form, not just in tested subjects, but in all areas across the curriculum. I also recognized that for this to be successful I would need to incorporate teachers in planning and decision making. This could not be perceived as a district initiative devised exclusively and handed down by administration.
During the first in-service meeting of the school year, I met with small groups of teachers and explained my concerns about student writing, showing them the specific data that had been collected. After establishing the context and promoting a sense of urgency, I unveiled my plan of action to the staff.
Each academic department was given the task of creating a list of ways that they had already integrated writing in their curriculum. This open exchange of ideas provided colleagues with an opportunity to see how others had creatively incorporated writing into their daily classroom rituals. As an adamant believer that teachers are one of the greatest resources, I found that this exercise was more valuable to the teachers than trying to blindly search “ways to incorporate writing into the classroom” on a search engine. These lists were then submitted, copied, and distributed to all staff members in the building, quickly providing our educators with hundreds of proven writing strategies that had already been used by their peers. Each department was given one afternoon to complete their lists.
The members of each academic department were charged with creating a content-specific rubric, something that could be used by both seventh through twelfth grade teachers. The teachers were provided with scoring guidelines from the state tests, examples of student writing, and models of previously used rubrics from other districts and organizations. Each department was given the task agreeing upon 5-8 priorities that they look for when examining student writing assignments. While the demands and expectations differ among teachers, I believe that the students would benefit from consistent expectations. After the department identified specific characteristics of mastery these were placed on a traditional rubric grid. Teachers were given approximately a month to complete this step.
After examining, collaborating, and approving each department rubric, I created a digital excel file that the teachers could use to enter their collected data. These files were organized in a manner that eliminated the need for teachers to create a data management system. As a result, the teachers could focus on the evaluation piece and not have to worry about finding the best way to record/manage the data. The information and priorities were taken directly from the department rubrics.
With all logistics in place, our buildings were ready to officially begin our Open-Ended Initiative on November 1st. Every teacher, regardless of their content, was responsible for infusing this writing program into their classroom. The teacher retained the discretion to determine exactly what assignments/methods they would use as the medium for students to write. Student work would be evaluated using the department created rubrics and results would be published to the digital excel file. Teachers were asked to use this platform at least one time per month in each class from November to May.
Every teacher is responsible for implementing this program to assess student writing a minimum of seven (7) times during the 2015-16 school year. Hypothetically, a student in the building has seven (7) classes during the course of the school day, meaning that a typical student would have approximately fifty opportunities to sharpen their writing skills between November and May. Since the teachers asses the writings by means of the department rubric, the students should be receiving consistent, clear feedback in a frequent manner.
Visions of grandeur often times experience hardships during their execution, and this program has been no exception. It has been a challenge, encouraging teachers to incorporate writing into courses that have never included writing components. Additionally, many of our faculty members find the time that it takes to fit these writing exercises into their curriculum to be exhausting to develop, grade, and provide adequate feedback. Even though many teachers do not appreciate a building mandate that alters their individual education vision, it is our main responsibility as professionals to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students.
While admittedly, I might be oversimplifying the connection between open-ended questions and test performance, I completely believe that the students will benefit from greater emphasis on writing. Of course there are other areas that need to be addressed in unison with an increased emphasis on writing. As the students advance through our school systems, we want them to be confident and competent critical thinkers and problem solvers. In a world that becomes increasingly withdrawn from face-to-face interaction, our students must have the ability to convey their knowledge and communicate effectively through writing. I remember the first time that a parent visited my office to “voice their displeasure” at a decision that I had made regarding her child. I can vividly remember my uncomfortable feeling and my heart racing so fast that I couldn’t hear or think clearly. However, I have become much more comfortable in these situations because luckily, I have had the pleasure of experiencing these situations many times during my administrative career. I only felt more comfortable because I had practice with these situations and have learned how to better handle myself properly if a situation spirals out of control. In an abstract way, I want the students to experience this same sensation, for if they have adequate practice and gradually feel more comfortable with their writing in the classroom, they will know how to handle themselves when the time comes for their PSSAs and Keystone tests. Even after a decade I continue to enjoy the hilarity of Mr. Iverson’s press conference. While I disagree with his own interpretation about the importance of practice, I agree with his statement that indeed we are talking about practice.
Greg Acre, Principal, Mercer School District