Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why do teachers STILL want to deduct late marks?

Ever since Growing Success (2010) was released in Ontario, our education system has been undergoing profound shifts in assessment and evaluation, not all of which are welcome by educators. Teachers continue to struggle with the adoption of the fundamental principles of the document which "ensure[s] that assessment, evaluation, and reporting are valid and reliable, and that they lead to the improvement of learning for all students" (Growing Success, 6). To do so, teachers should "use practices and procedures that are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students" (Growing Success, 6).

One of the areas that continues to challenge our staff are policies about late and missing assignments.  I find that this particularly disadvantages students with special needs (particularly communication based learning disabilities). Our board guidelines clearly indicate that all strategies and interventions are to encourage the completion of the work and support the fair assessment of student work, but some teachers continue to believe that punitive measures are the most effective way of getting students to complete work.

So, what to do? How can board staff better support the adoption of the fundamental principles of Growing Success, with an explicit focus on SUCCESS FOR ALL?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is the key to unlocking both the potential of ALL our students and our educators. "Assessment for Learning is formative assessment plus the deep involvement of learners in the assessment process. It is a process of both learners and teacher being engaged in seeking and interpreting evidence to figure out where learners are in their learning in relation to what has been taught, where they need to go next in their learning and how best to get there" (Davies et al).  To facilitate AfL, clear learning goals (derived from curriculum expectations), success criteria (ideally co-created), and a tight feedback loop are imperative.

A major shift in assessment practices includes administrators acting as "change agents" or instructional leaders. To facilitate change in our schools and systems, leaders need to model the change we want, especially if we want a focus on learning rather than a focus on grading. Our school board has been fortunate to be working with Sandra Herbst of Connect2Learning this year; in preparation of our work, I was able to attend a 3 day institute, "Using Assessment in the Service of Learning". In a recent article, "System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice," co-authored by Anne Davies, Kathy Busick, Sandra Herbst, and Ann Sherman, the focus on leaders to create change is clear:
  1. Leaders must take action and move beyond words to deeds.
  2. Leaders evaluate what they value and move beyond numbers to include triangulated evidence of learning.
  3. Leaders find ways to collect ongoing information and use frequent feedback loops. (Davies et al)

In our board, we are working to help educators use AfL deliberately and intentionally to support the learning of students. In her article and in her work in our system, Sandra Herbst is helping provide educators with strategies and examples so that our "students have clear learning destinations and are involved in the classroom assessment process" (Davies et al). Moreover, we continue to work on the triangulation of data from multiple sources in order to inform the professional judgement of educators. System level staff and school leaders position themselves as learners (rather than experts), we are using varied sources of data (including student voices & perspectives) and we are modelling the same strategies and protocols in our meetings or to guide decision-making.

In our school board, we strive to meet the needs of all learners and provide success for all students with fair and equitable assessment practices (including limiting late mark deduction), through creative programming (such as co-op recall, credit recovery, alternative education or experiential programs), more creative or innovative approaches to the curriculum (teachers are engaged in curriculum rewriting in PLCs and PD), and a consistent effort to engage our students in monitoring and evaluating their own learning in order to create independent learners.


Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S., & Sherman, A. (2014). "System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice." Curriculum Journal, 25(4), 567-592. doi:10.1080/09585176.2014.964276.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success. Queen's Printer for Ontario.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Co-Teaching in Secondary Schools

Teachers co-planning, co-teaching in a grade 7 UGDSB classroom

Imagine a classroom, full of students with a variety of academic, social-emotional, and psychological needs. For many Applied level secondary classrooms in Ontario, this is the reality. Some have formal identifications, some do not.  Students are rarely removed from the classroom for extra support (in many cases, there simply isn't support available). Not only is inclusion of students with identifications the law in Ontario, it is also the morally right thing to do. Segregation of populations is rarely beneficial to anyone.  To encourage student success for all, co-teaching is an effective practice that not only creates a positive environment for student learning, but also promotes highly reflective educators who are engaged in improving their own practice.

Although focused on Minnesota schools, the ideas espoused in “Supporting co-teaching teams in high schools: Twenty research-based practices” (Nierengarten, 2013) apply in Ontario given the focus on integration of students into “regular” classrooms rather than in specialized, withdrawal settings. As an example of the similarities, both jurisdictions have passed legislation for inclusion, both require Individualized Educational Plans for identified students, and both focus on a collaborative approach to providing support for student success. Co-teaching as a strategy would focus on all students in the classroom, not just students who are formally identified, which is fully supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education’s idea of “good for some, great for all”. Co-teaching is defined as “two or more professionals delivering  substantive instruction to a diverse, or blended,    group of students in a single physical space” (Cook & Friend, as cited in Nierengarten, 2013).

At a recent conference, I was able to hear of a successful co-teaching project in Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, which focused on Applied classes. They were able to create a sustained, supported program which embedded a co-teacher into classes to support the learners and the teacher with literacy. Many of the students were those with IEPs and this enabled the teachers to provide support in a timely and reasonable manner as opposed to having the students withdraw and access help via a resource room teacher. Much of the success of the KPRDSB program (and it wasn’t always successful) was due to careful planning, timetabling (to ensure common planning time), and the support of the administration (at the school and board level), all of which was supported in Neirengarten’s summary of the strategy. Another key part of the strategy is the use of peer coaching and observation between the co-teachers; since the teachers are focused on improving student success for students, they are working to constantly improve their practice through collaborative inquiry. Fundamental to improving outcomes for students with IEPs is ongoing support and professional learning. New technologies, new pedagogies and new understanding of adolescents (brain research continues to evolve our thinking about learning) is leading to exciting changes in secondary schools such as co-teaching.

Nierengarten, G., E.D.D. (2013). Supporting co-teaching teams in high schools: Twenty research-based practices. American Secondary Education, 42(1), 73-83. Retrieved from

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How Can We Engage Parents/Guardians in Education?

Copyright Bhaskar Peddhapati

I cannot recall all of the conversation, but I recall freezing and not knowing what to say. In my first phone call home as a teacher, I was attempting to find out why Dylan was having trouble in class. I knew that Dylan had ADHD and was significantly behind in reading and writing (his IEP told me that, but unfortunately, not much else). He was struggling with everything: from academics to classroom behaviour to social interaction, nothing was going right in my grade 8 English class for Dylan. And I was stumped. I thought that calling home to talk to his parents would help - after all, I reasoned, they must know what works to help him calm down, focus, and get something done.  I called, explained Dylan's latest blow-up in class, and well, it turned ugly pretty quickly when mom asked, "What did you do to set him off?" 

I made some pretty big assumptions and errors in that phone call. Firstly, I really didn't have a plan; I assumed that all parents would offer some form of support for my travails and challenges as a teacher, completely neglecting the idea that a) they might not be supportive of me; b) they possibly wouldn't have strategies for helping me - after all, school and home are very different environments; and c) maybe I did "set him off". 

15 years later, I still reflect on that first experience as I continue to dislike phone calls home. Let's face it: most aren't for positive feedback. But, I did manage to work out a few key ideas for communicating with parents and guardians, whether it's in a phone call or a face-to-face conference.

What are the 5 most important criteria for communicating with parents/ guardians?

Kindness - start with something positive, or better yet, call home with good news. Be sure to offer some concrete examples of something that is going well in class. Clearly establish that you are trying to help Dylan or Susie succeed in your class. Avoid judgement statements while stating the problem: focus on the behaviour or the issue (which can be corrected).
Honesty - be honest about what's happening. The purpose of the phone call or conference is to ensure that everyone knows that Susie or Dylan is struggling and why. Don't speak in edu-babble, but outline what the problem is clearly and succinctly. Use specific, curriculum based examples if it's an academic issue. If it's a behavioural concern, reference the learning skills, and again, use specific examples. Ensure you know the student's IEP or history as outlined in the OSR.
Ask questions - if you are unsure of why a student might be struggling, try to determine what might be contributing to that issue. But, of course, there could be things happening at home that a parent or guardian simply may not want you to know. Hopefully, a kind approach and a focus on solutions will help create a positive relationship so that you might get more information. But, we can only go so far in our questioning. 
Offer solutions - explain what you intend to do, what you thing might be done by the student, and what supports the parents/guardians could offer for the student's success. Be sure to have specific next steps. Solicit their feedback to ensure that everyone understands what needs to happen in order for the student to be successful. Provide resources if possible.
Listen - most importantly, be sure to listen carefully to what is being said (and what isn't!). Be responsive to what the parents/guardians are expressing. Rephrase what you are hearing in order to clarify and summarize so that there is no misunderstanding. 

Have other suggestions? What would make your list of success criteria for effective communication with parents/ guardians?