Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Access and Equity: The Time For Devices is Now

When I talk about the reasons I am passionate about using technology in my classroom, I almost always list things related to pedagogy and engagement. But the reality is there is a new skills gap that has to be addressed when we talk about making students college and career ready and the only way to really address this growing divide is by ensuring students have consistent and equitable access to devices in their classrooms.

Technology integration in the classroom allows for more personalized learning, it allows students to be more connected globally, it increases collaboration and student interaction, and it prepares our students with the skills they need for the workforce, college, and beyond. A recent analysis of over 54 million employee profiles, across 350 industries determined that the ability to wrangle or navigate new technology was one of the top four types of talents aligned to employee success. Additional analysis found that 19 of the 21 most in-demand skills in job postings were technology related.

It doesn't matter which LMS you are using or whether you are a Google or a Microsoft school, at this point what matters is ensuring equitable access to devices. I know that there are plenty of us who have seen teachers who have tech and who don't use it to its full potential but that can no longer be the argument against granting students access to devices and that line of reasoning doesn't take into consideration how hard it is for teachers to learn how to best use tech when they themselves don't have consistent access to tech.

For every classroom that has an unused laptop cart, there are 50 more classrooms that have teachers who are learning and creating and growing as professionals on their own. Teachers spend their own time on Facebook and Twitter engaging in chats, sharing resources, and supporting each other in edtech. If the tech isn't in the hands of students, teachers can't help their students build those digital skills and teachers won't spend time developing their own skill set if there is no place to use it. We can't let that "one bad egg" keep devices from our students and teachers and we can't expect teachers to plan and prepare lessons that incorporate technology when the teachers have no devices to use with their students.

The real issue is for every year students are without access to devices at a school is another year gap in tech-based skills that their peers get elsewhere.

Now, I know teachers have been on picket lines across the country for basic needs for their students and so it's hard for me to write this post knowing that there are teachers out there not getting paid what they should, there are schools out there that aren't being maintained well enough to keep their students safe, there are bigger battles we need to fight right now collectively but I also worry that if decision makers keep using the bigger issues they need to tackle as an excuse for not tackling this one, students will miss out on essential skills they need to be successful in their future.

If you are a decision maker and your fear is getting devices and no one knowing how to incorporate them in meaningful ways, I get that, but then money has to also be invested in meaningful, sustainable, and effective PD and I have suggestions for that here.

I have a lot more I want to say about technology in the classroom. I have a lot more I want to say about access and equity but for now, I think it is important to remember that when teachers ask for these things they ask for their students. I don't want devices for me, I want them to support my students. I want to help them get ready for their unpredictable future. I want to prepare them for a future of work that we can't imagine yet.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Education Research and The Problem of a Single Study in Isolation

Recently, I have had some conversations online about grading practices where my use of grades and rubrics has been challenged. Most often my own defense of the letter grade or 4 point scale is often shot down by just one study: Ruth Butlers 1998 study on intrinsic motivation. This is the study that shows that feedback without a grade, just feedback alone, is the most beneficial and impactful for student learned. Now it is important to note that I absolutely love this study.

But this study, like most educational research studies, looks in isolation at one component of teaching and does not take into consideration everything else. One of the big red flags with this study is that it looks at the impact of grades, grades with comments, and comments alone have on student motivation "when no further evaluation was anticipated." It is not looking at grades and comments in a cycle of inquiry or as part of the process of the feedback loop, it is not looking at formative assessments versus summative assessments, it looks at these three feedback systems when students no longer anticipate they will be evaluated on their work and so this becomes a really tricky component of research to implement effectively and it makes me ask the question "well, what about when they DO anticipate another evaluation?"

A lot of people have taken this research to mean that the grade cannot be issued until the end of the grading term because it is demotivating to students but this always feels like we are making grades the enemy instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to empower students to understand and reflect on the progress they are making and the growth they are experiencing. When I think about how to implement the Butler research in my own classroom, it doesn't make me want to throw out grades but it does want me to improve on specific, actionable, & measurable feedback I can give my students throughout the learning process.

In a recent conversation, I was asked to show the research on my own grading practices and I took this as an opportunity to sit down and ensure that what I do has research to back it. I looked back through the major books I read that inspired me to make changes (Vatterott, Wormeli, Marzano, and Fisher & Frey to name a few). And while I feel like I need to dig deeper into the research behind the practices I also feel the need to explain what I know about the big practices that are a part of my classroom. So here are three big things I believe in and do in my classroom and some of the research to support it.

Separating Out Academic and Non-Academic Feedback 

This is one of the concepts I am most passionate about, non-academic behaviors are so often a part of the grade and this does absolutely nothing for learning and instead corrupts the letter grade from a measure of learning to a measure of compliance. By going standards-based with clear learning targets and rubrics to show mastery for their grade level I am able to ensure the feedback they get on learning is actually about the learning while the feedback they get on behaviors in measured through a citizenship grade and rubric that never becomes a part of their academic achievement grade.

Marzano Research lists a study in math classes where they separated out academic and non-academic feedback and the effect size was 9.25.

This practice alone does not make good teaching, teaching is not just one good practice on repeat. It is the blend of sound research-based practices and it requires teachers to know their students and know their content to make the most of the research.

Scoring Guides and Feedback 

In multiple studies conducted by Marzano Research, the use of scoring guides or rubrics mixed with feedback has proven to have a substantial positive effect. A study of science classrooms showed an effect rate of 3.6. Another study with math teachers showed an impact of 3.2 and a third math study just on the impact of the use of a scoring guide had an effect size of 2.4. Additionally, studies on feedback alone done by Marzano without scoring guides or other learning strategies measured as part of the study had smaller effect sizes. A study on specific vs. non-specific feedback in math had an effect size of 1.87.

The reality is that it is never just one practice in isolation that we need to look at in our classroom but how the practices work collectively to help students learn. This research shows there is a lot of work to still be done to determine the best approach to feedback and scoring guides or rubrics but I think it is too early to throw out the practices when evidence shows they can have a significant positive impact.

Learning Goals 

In a study on repeated learning goals, it showed an effect size of 2.18 on student learning. In a study of Language Arts classrooms, the use of learning goal tracking folders by students had an effect of 1.51. In my own personal narrative experience, the ownership students take of their learning with the use of learning goals and reflection is one of the most impactful practices I have tried but I have tried it in combination with the above practices so it is hard to say if on it's own this practice is the most impactful or if it is the creation of a Standards-Based learning environment that makes all of these practices combined so meaningful to student learning.

The Problem With Educational Research

For almost every study I listed you can find one that shows a negative effect of the same practices. So how do we as educators move forward with the conflicting data? We have to focus on the studies where the impact has the highest effect and attempt to further replicate and study those practices more. For example, when we talk about studies on "feedback" that is way too vague of a term and each study could be measuring wildly different feedback practices. To really compare studies we need to know when and how was the feedback given? Were students given time to engage with the feedback? Was feedback only narrative? Was feedback only a rubric? And what other practices in the classroom support that strategy or practice that might not be mentioned in the study?

Teaching really is an incredibly intricate blend of science and art. It is important that we engage in conversations on what works and what doesn't both from the lense of research and from the lense of what we do and see in our own classrooms. If we know that feedback without comments is one of the strongest tools we have for student motivation according to Butler's research, how do we balance that with the research on learning goals, separating behaviors, and scoring guides?

For my classroom, I find value in making sure students know where they stand in their own personal growth. I want them to be able to articulate as easily as I can what they know, what they are struggling with, and what they are expected to do. I could get rid of letters or numbers to do this but in the end, whether you call it an A, 4, or Meets Expectations it is all the same: a measure of accomplishment. The culture I create in my classroom is one of growth, working with feedback to improve, and trying again. Since making these shifts, I haven't seen the same level demotivating impact of letter grades because we talk about grades differently in my classroom. I absolutely still have work to do, I always have that one student asking about extra credit that I have to remind that there is no purpose in extra credit when you can try again as often as you need to show you have met mastery.

Note on the research presented: I used the Marzano Research Database to create this post. I made the decision to use this after looking through the list of books I have read on grading practices and determining that action research from real classrooms is the best starting point in response to the challenge for research. I hope to follow up this post with more research soon but also feel the need to point to this Rick Wormeli piece.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Books Talks and Literacy in the History Classroom

Last year I saw Douglas Fisher at a PLC conference and one of the things he talked about was how easily we can increase student literacy and reading engagement just by sharing our own love of books. Now, it's been a while since I saw Doug speak so I might not remember his message exactly but I do know what seeing him speak inspired me to do and what an incredibly positive impact it has had on my classroom culture.

Fishers talk inspired me to take 5 minutes a week to tell my students about a book or article I had read and enjoyed. So each week, I start one class with "Oh my goodness guys, I just read _____ and I want to tell you about it!" Then I give them a really brief summary of what it was about and what it reminded me of. If it's a book I try and have a copy in the front of the room for students to look at and if it's an article I send the link to them on Remind later that day. Last year when I started this, I found students staying after school to ask me book recommendations. This had never happened before. I am a history teacher and students were spending their own time to ask me what book they should read next. Right then I realized that this insanely simple thing was making magic happen in my classroom.

This year, I started a small library of books in my classroom with a QR code students can scan to check the books out. Now when I do book talks I try to also mention what books I have in class that it is similar to because usually, someone is ready to check the book out by the end of my book talk. I have to ask students to wait until the end of the day so I can share the title with all my classes. I've loved doing this, students come in and ask me if I've read certain titles, they tell me what they are reading that they love and what they are reading that they hate. When they were all reading Count of Monte Cristo for class and I admitted that it was my favorite book when I was a kid we all had a discussion about weird books we love that no one else does (don't worry ELA teachers, most admitted to loving Count of Monte Cristo by the end.)

Does this mean I lose five minutes of history instruction per week? Absolutely. But I have kids who come in each week looking for new books on my bookshelf. I have kids asking me which books are similar to TV shows they like. We have a community around books that never existed before.

Do I still have students who claim to hate reading? Absolutely. But I am not forcing them to read the books I tell them I love, I am simply letting them know these worlds exist and are options for them. And the surprising thing is my "book haters" usually listen just as attentively and ask as many questions as my bookworms.

The problem is, I need more books. It is a really good problem to have but it is the problem I currently face so for the first time ever I am going to end this blog post with a link to a DonorsChoose page. I know if you are reading this you are probably a teacher who is already spending a ton of your own money on your classroom because let's face it, that is the reality of being a teacher these days but if you happen to have $10 to donate that would give me one more book for my students to read and enjoy.

If you are a teacher, I encourage you to try it. If you don't have a book obsession like I do, share an interesting news article you read, try comic books you love, or maybe pick a website like and tell them each week about a new person you learned about. What I love about book talks is my students see me actively engaged in reading beyond the classroom and we have a place to talk about and normalize that culture for them which makes them more likely to engage in reading.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hacking the System: Using a 4 Point Scale with a Traditional Online Gradebook

When I first started down the road of "how do I make sure my grading system supports learning and is not just a tool for communication" I found my biggest challenge was not creating lessons or building proficiency scales, it wasn't student buy-in or parent buy-in, it wasn't admin support or all the things you would think would stand in the way of such a foundational shift in practices. No, it was something entirely out of my control, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to get the digital grade book I had to use per my contract to play nice with a 0-4 scale. 

Why a 0-4 Scale?

The 100 point scale is a dream killer and it is full of opportunities for our own bias to trickle into the grading process. Maybe Johnny and Sally did the same level of mastery but Johnny had an attitude when completing it, how likely is it that Sally will get an 85% and Johnny will get an 80% while those few points might seem like nothing, that can add up. The bias that can find it's way into 100 point scales is just one reason to abandon it. Another is to consider are there really 100 different levels or mastery or achievement for that particular task or skill? Is the difference between an 80 and an 83 really 3 degrees of mastery or proficiency? If it isn't, why are there so many points you could award for the task at hand? Add to that the fact that a 0-4 scale allows for great inter-reliability between teachers. And then there is the role of a 0 on a 100 point scale where it acts as a dream killer and grade destroyer. It takes, on average, 8 assignments to make up for the impact of a single 0 on a 100 point scale so why would a kid even keep trying when all they can see is the hole they are in and no way out? 

Now, this post today isn't really supposed to be about the reasons to go with a 0-4 scale, if you want to learn more I suggest looking here and here. Instead, I want to focus on trying to make this shift when you are stuck with a traditional grade reporting system that ONLY reads 100 point scales. The first thing you have to do when you convert your class to a 0-4 scale is you have to take time to determine what each level of the scale will mean for each assignment or task you give. I always talk to teachers about developing their rubrics and ranges first because this is where the actual scoring and grading happens. This is where you as the teacher (hopefully with a PLC group) determine what mastery looks like. And this is where your traditional scales don't always need to be changed that much, what you considered an A before can probably stay an A or a 4, what you considered an F before can probably stay an F or a 0. The purpose is not to make the rigor or expectations lower, the purpose is to make the system of measure more equitable and accessible. 

So I am 100% okay with teachers converting their scales on assignments, assessments, and tasks like this: 

Even though the above is acceptable as a way to make the shift it is still absolutely worth it to take the time and go through your rubrics and ranges with your PLC to determine if the scales you've been using truly reflect what you are trying to measure. And if you are going Standards-Based (which is what I actually do in my classroom) then you REALLY need to have conversations on what a 4 is for each standard you plan to measure throughout the year, that's a process that you can read about in more depth here, here, and here

Hacking The System 

When I first started exploring grade reform practices I started with just this, moving to a 0-4 scale with weighted categories but when I went to input grades into Aequitas (our grade reporting system for our district) I had to hack it to get it to read the grades the way I wanted it to. You see Aequitas can only read grades out of 100% scale and the default scale is the one we have all taught with at some point. 

But when using that default scale if you enter a 2 for a grade (which on a 0-4 scale should be the equivalent of a C) then the computer system then assigns them a 50% which is an F. Since Aequitas only offers the ability to average scores on a 100% scale I had to hack the back end scale and adjust it so it would always read that a 4 = A, a 3 = B, and 2 = C, and a 1 = D. It is messy and imperfect and I don't feel totally comfortable with it but I still feel MORE comfortable and confident with the messy imperfect hack than the traditional dream killing way I had been reporting grades before. 

Now, remember, this is NOT the scale I would apply to individual assessments or tasks. This is just what I do to the grade reporting systems overall scale so it will read individual task grades accurately and you actually have some options on how to approach this hack.

Option 1 - an A in your class means exceeding expectations on every. single. task. 

If you choose this one, A's become incredibly rare. I don't personally use this one but it could absolutely hack the grade book to make this level of rigor a requirement. To me, it seems at odds with my views on learning but that doesn't mean there aren't scenarios in which it would work.

Option B - What I Do And Why 

For the most part, there range between each letter grade is equal distance with the exception of an F which is anyone with a total below 10%. This system reads that a 3 = B and a 2 = C but it will also move a student to the letter grade above if they start to average anything above a 3 or above a 2. Because I am standards-based, this is ideal for me (well kind of, averaging, in general, is not ideal but that's a post for another day.) Each task in the grade book is a standard, not an assignment not a worksheet not an essay and so if they are averaging above a 3 I am comfortable with them earning an A. Does this make it a little easier to move from a B to an A with just a few tasks averaging above a B, absolutely it does but this is what I feel most comfortable with it because as students see themselves progressing forward they are more likely to try again and resubmit. My goal is to get students inspired to keep trying and so I need them to be able to easily see what that looks like. When I tried the scale below, it did not work as well for me and my goals but again, this is because my grade book is only standards, if you were using a grade book of only more traditional tasks and weighted categories Option 3 might be more ideal for you. 

Option 3 - Everything is Equal 

Every letter grade is the equal distance on the scale and a 3 still equals a B and a 2 still equals a C but now students have to average a little higher to move from one grade to the next. This one works really well with a classroom that is traditional in every other way except the use of a 0-4 scale. It could work in an SBG class as well but for me, it wasn't ideal for my classroom it didn't help me with my goals of growth as well as the scale I currently use but that doesn't mean you couldn't successfully use it. 

The important thing to remember when looking through the three main options is that these are all hacks to the system that does not lend itself to grade reform. None of these are truly ideal, if I could have it my way with my SBG classroom that 100 point scale would disappear forever but I have a contract I follow and a grade reporting system I am required to use so I've done what I can to make the most within the limitations I must work in. 

As I said before, the biggest challenge has been finding the best ways to hack a system that doesn't align with grade reform at all. There isn't a perfect way to make this work. The perfect way would be the ability to use alternative grade reporting systems that allow us to think past median scoring but that's just not where we are at yet so I've tried to do the best I can with the systems that are in place. 

And what is important to remember is that grade reform is not about making it easier for students to pass or do well. You aren't changing your scale to make your class easier. It is true that I have less F's than ever before but I also have significantly fewer A's. Grade Reform practices are never about making it easier, they are about making it more accurate. 



I tweeted a late night thought this week that I really didn't think anyone would notice. It's a tweet I almost deleted because I ...