Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Standards-Based Learning and Special Education

Guest Blogger: Sarah Crum, Special Educator at CVUHS
scrum@cssu.org

The thing about working in a standards based teaching environment is that it invokes new questions. I don’t believe that I have any more questions about my teaching than I did before, but I am certain that my questions are different than they used to be. One of the most genuine questions that I have and that I hear from teachers who are shifting to standards based learning and assessing is “what do I do when I can’t get a kid to the target?” Here at CVU, teachers develop classroom targets that articulate the skills being taught and assessed in the class. Accompanying that target is a four point scale that defines the foundational skills (a 1 and a 2 on the scale) leading up to the target (a 3 on the scale) as well as beyond the target (a 4 on the scale). Teachers develop intentional instructional activities to meet students at their current skill level and help to move them forward on scale. This scale is also used for assessment purposes and gives students feedback about what they are able to do and what they need to do next. Teachers are currently able to give feedback in increments of .5, when evidence indicates achievement in both levels.
Gone are the days when we could just give fewer problems on the math sheet or give more points for perseverance. It is no longer adequate to alter the rubric to account for student effort or to reflect our compassion for a student’s individual struggles. In a true standards based system, I, as the teacher, have to be able to define, and report out, on what a student can do. This requires that I actually know what the student can do, not which areas of the rubric the student could not achieve nor what habits of learning or achievement deficits are preventing the student from succeeding. I have to actually be able to clearly articulate what each student is able to do. This is an ambitious task.

To support teachers in this endeavor, it is helpful to begin to categorize the types of accommodations, modifications, and differentiation one might use. Jung & Guskey, in their article Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education, 2007, publish a flow chart and explanation that gives guidance to teachers in distinguishing between accommodations and modifications for students who are struggling. Using that model, we have developed a more detailed flow chart that articulates specific scenarios for modification and the implications for reporting that are specific to our school’s approach to SBL.

Click on flow chart link above to see as a PDF


Accommodation vs Modification
For any classroom task or activity, the first step is to ask oneself if the task at hand is an appropriate expectation without being adapted. Many classroom activities will fall into this category as intentional groupings or purpose of the task reveal that adaptation is not needed. However, there will also be many instances when a teacher will know that there needs to be some sort of adaptation of the task to render it accessible to a student or group of students. This often looks like planning one lesson but thinking about the types of adjustments that are made for different levels of reading or students who may struggle to maintain attention. This is still one lesson, but includes accommodations or differing approaches that allow students to access the learning. At this point, the teacher asks whether these adaptations allow the student to demonstrate the given standard or whether the adaptation fundamentally changes the standard. For instance, if the standard is a critical thinking target, then adjusting for different reading levels does not impact the standard itself, and the adaptation is an accommodation. However, if the standard being assessed is a reading comprehension target, then a student who needs an adapted reading level may also need a modified standard.

Types of Modifications
We have found that the students who require modified standards generally fall into three categories: needing temporarily shifted scales, needing shifted scales, or needing new scales. However, it is important to note that students may fluctuate between categories. It is also important to note that in our experience, the percentage of students who require shifted scales or new scales is quite low: about 5% of students, five out of a grade level of 100 students, or perhaps one student in your class of twenty.

Temporary Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets Primarily for Instruction
This type of modification requires taking the classroom target and spending quality time articulating the two and the one as well as a couple of steps below. It helps the teacher plan for instruction, maybe breaking the learning down into smaller steps. These students may need classroom activities & tasks designed at the two, one, or even below to make incremental steps towards the three. But by the end of the unit, these students can perform consistently on the typical classroom targets (may be receiving 1.5, 2, 2.5), but have clearly made significant progress in learning throughout the unit because they started at the 1 or below. These students typically feel good about their progress and their grade is an accurate reflection of their mastery of those targets. This modification can be, and should be used, for any student who is struggling to show progress on the classroom scale. However, adding an accommodation to an IEP, 504, or EST is an important step for those students who have a plan so that communication is clear. An example accommodation is as follows: Use shifted targets to clearly define small, incremental steps in learning. This level of modification applies to the majority of mainstreamed students with disabilities.


Shifted Scale: Backing Out Targets for Instruction & Assessment
Again, this type of modification requires taking the classroom target and backing it out by articulating the two, the one and below. Then, like using a ruler, the teacher assesses the student on a different set of 1-4, but using the same targets and skills so that the ultimate goal is to get back on the classroom targets. This is a student who may start the unit two or three steps below the one and work towards making the one on the regular classroom target. This student now has a new scale: the original course target of a one has become this student’s three. The expected growth for the student is the same as peers in that we would hope a student would jump maybe two slots on a scale and should receive a grade that reflects that achievement (this prevents a student who has jumped from a negative 2, so to speak, to the 1 from receiving a D in the class when the amount of growth is the same as peers). The number of targets that are backed out may vary, and depending on the student and the team, can decide the appropriate credit reported; the class name can be changed on a high school transcript if appropriate. This is the type of scenario where it may be appropriate to share the whole scale with the student and/or family (depending on the situation), so that they are clear about their child's skills in comparison to peers. This can be really delicate and would be done on a case by case basis. The Shifted Scale may be incorporated into the IEP goals, but an accommodation agreed upon by the team is also included. This type of modification typically applies to students with more significant disabilities. However, it is important that the school district is willing to make this level of modification available to any student.


New Scale: Developing Learning Goals for an Individual Student
This student is significantly below the targets in most areas and needs separate learning goals for class: New Scales, that may relate to the classroom targets, but aren't necessarily in perfect alignment with the classroom targets. In this case, they aren't really backed out targets. The classroom teachers and special educator take data on what the student can do and develop learning goals that make sense for that student in the mainstream classroom. Because the scale is different, the course name on the transcript in high school can be different. Showing the typical classroom targets may not be appropriate here; the family may already be aware of the need for an alternate curriculum. However, it is important to communicate with the IEP team that this student needs a New Scale and that this decision is made as an IEP team. This level of accommodation typically applies to more intensive needs students and the New Scale may become some of the IEP goals for the student. It should also be listed as an accommodation for those students with a formal plan.


Source: Flowchart has been adapted from Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2007). Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), 48-53. Copyright 2007 by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Differentiating in a Standards-Based Class

Perhaps the single greatest instructional benefit of standards-based learning is how effectively it sets us up to differentiate by readiness. When tracking achievement based on tasks (as we did in the traditional teaching model), it’s easy to gloss over differences and complicate our assessment and communication; we can add or subtract points for everything from lateness to neatness to skill demonstration to content knowledge. When planning, instructing, and assessing using learning targets and scales, however, it’s nearly impossible to ignore student differences. In a standards-based classroom we track specific skills, not general tasks, and so we can no longer confuse a student’s neatness with her ability to develop a thesis statement. Once we have isolated this skill achievement, we cannot ignore our role (and responsibility) in each student’s progress, and so we must differentiate.


There are many ways to differentiate and many reasons to do so. The focus of this blog is on differentiating by readiness based on formative assessment data. Differentiating by readiness is not tracking. One main difference is the flexibility that comes from determining needs based on precise learning targets; students in the top group for one skill will not be in that same group for another skill, and students who struggle with a particular skill one week will find themselves in a different group (and with different peers) when focusing on a new skill the following week. Another main difference between readiness grouping and tracking is the timing; tracking is long-term, while grouping is often no more than 30 minutes in a class. Tracking assumes a broad skill strength or deficit (often incorrectly or unfairly), and readiness grouping is based on specific evidence of a precise skill, and is therefore much more likely to change and vary in time. We should not group students based on broad categories of skill (i.e. Reading, Writing, Speaking), but rather on specific skills that we have assessed (i.e. inference in reading, purpose in writing, or projection in speaking).

After years of differentiating  in our humanities class (sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so well), we developed a system that helped make the planning and organization much more effective. Since becoming coaches and working with classrooms at all levels and in all disciplines, we have seen this system help teachers new to and experienced with differentiation become more intentional and efficient in their attempts to help all students progress.



The Readiness-Differentiation Planning Model



Target and Scale: Start with a target you are currently working with in class. You will need a scale for the target, preferably a transferable skill scale. As we discovered years ago, trying to differentiate content targets is nearly impossible without just throwing more work at some students and less at others. This usually does little to improve skills and may lead to frustration from all involved. But if you have a scale that defines multiple levels of skill progression (increasing in complexity), designing multiple tasks becomes much more manageable. Our example is a speaking scale with a specific focus on voice and presence. Our summative was a persuasive speech, so we needed to work on multiple elements of speaking; we isolated this skill as it seemed to have the most variation.



Formatively Assess and Sort: Carefully and intentionally design a formative assessment that will provide data of student achievement at all levels of the scale. For the sample below, we had already introduced the scale to the class and practiced at all levels as a group. Once we had played with the skill for a few classes, we designed a formative (a practice speech)  asking them to demonstrate what they could do. Sort your student formatives into 4 piles, each corresponding with a level on the scale. This is a great time to revise the language of your scale if necessary, as often seeing student work can help define the levels of the scale more accurately and clearly. If you do revise the language, remember to let students know you did! Once you have your student work sorted, enter the student names (names below have been changed!) in the second row of the template.




Determining Needs: Now that you have work sorted, take a look at each pile or evidence of work (in the case of the speaking scale, we had filled out rubrics with notes on achievement) and look for common misconceptions, patterns, missing ideas, and clear areas of need. Based on your analysis, what does each group need to move “plus one”? Think about the difference between instructional needs and practice needs. Consider which groups would benefit from individual work, and which need group instruction or work. This is where you plan for the ideal, meaning you write what each group needs regardless of logistical difficulties.





Organize and Manage: Finally, it’s time to determine the best way to organize the differentiated lesson. You may need to compromise a bit based on realities of your experience, your particular students, your environment, or your time constraints. But try to get as close to the ideal as possible, as that is what you (the professional) has determined will provide the greatest learning. You may decide to combine a few groups, to split the lesson into multiple days, or to ask a colleague to help for the lesson. Note that we chose to run 3 groups only for this lesson, as the needs of the two middle groups were similar (and we were worried about the management of 4 groups in a small space!). Here is a link to the 3 task sheets that we used to keep students focused and organized.


Here are some questions to consider when planning:
    1. How many groups do you think you can manage? Is there another person who can help you?
    2. How can you minimize transitions?
    3. How will you explain the differentiation to the class? (if this is not the culture of the class)
    4. What kind of task sheets will you need to ensure clarity?
    5. Which groups need you first, last?
    6. Within groups, do you want them working together or individually?
    7. How will you physically organize the space to meet the above needs?
    8. Do you have specific students you need to consider when grouping?



Here is a link to a google doc of the full template filled out (better quality than images above!).

Differentiating by readiness is the most efficient and effective way to ensure student progression on a particular skill. When we meet students where they are and provide appropriate challenge to get them to the next, clear target, they are much more likely to get there. Experiencing success is vital to learning, and when students see that the work they did in differentiated groups led to immediate growth, they will be much more willing to persevere when struggling. The outcome for the most advanced students is equally as rewarding; we all want to be challenged, and when our achievement is recognized and honored by added complexity rather than additional work, we feel respected as learners. Our role as teachers is to challenge each one of our students, and differentiating by readiness not only allows us to do this, but demands that we do.

There are many ways to differentiate by readiness, but this model has been successful for us and for the teachers and learners we work with. Here is a blank template. Feel free to make a copy and turn it into something that works for you and your students.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Common Sense and Homework

Nothing gets teachers, parents, and students fired up more than homework. One of the reasons for this is the contradictory research findings that seem to suggest that homework both supports and prevents learning, both encourages and discourages effective habits, and is both emotionally healthy and emotionally destructive. As intelligent people who all want the best for our kids, what are we to believe?


Great book!
We believe decisions about homework should consider these three things:
  • The research about the brain and learning.
  • The research about child and adolescent development.
  • Good old fashioned common sense.


The research about the first two can be found fairly easily (we suggest James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain, Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind, and Thomas Armstrong’s The Power of the Adolescent Brain), so in this blog, we are going to focus on the third.


Common Sense and Homework:


Quality:  Common sense tells us that at certain levels or ages, homework could very well have a positive impact on learning.  However, we also know that for learning to be positively affected by homework, it needs to be high quality homework. All homework is not created equal. And let’s be honest...we all think our work isn’t busy-work. But if our homework isn’t created or assigned based on what we know about learning, and if it isn’t directly used to inform instruction, then there’s a pretty good chance it is, in fact, busy-work.
  • Rigor: More is not better. The classes that give the most homework are not the most rigorous. This is a huge misunderstanding, one it’s time we stop perpetuating. More does not equal harder; difficulty is not the same thing as complexity.  (The Critical Difference Between Complexity and Difficulty)
  • Standards-based and Differentiated: If we are in a standards-based class, then homework needs to be standards-based. And if we are in a standards-based class, then we know precisely what each student needs, and therefore, we know that homework needs to be differentiated. Yes, this is difficult. Here’s a link to a handout about Homework in a Standards-Based Class.


Time: For years, we have heard that students should have 10 min of homework per grade. So a first grader should have 10 minutes, a 7th grader 70 minutes, and a 12th grader 120 minutes. While the simplicity of this rule is seductive, does it make sense?
  • We know that learning is not time-dependent. For some students, a task that we intend to take 30 minutes will actually take three times that. For others, less time. So if we are going to play by the 10 minute rule, we need to be assigning tasks that are not time-dependent. In other words, we need to tell students that finishing a task is not the goal (and then we need to stand by that, not punishing or rewarding students based on what they have finished--not taking away recess or free time because a task we assigned for homework is incomplete). For example, asking students to read for 25 minutes is okay; asking them to read 4 chapters may not be. Also, this rule does not mean 10 min per class, per grade. It’s total. That means if a student in 9th grade has 8 classes a day, then each teacher should be expecting just over 10 minutes for their individual class; in a 4 block day, that means about 20 minutes of work per class.
  • We know students are busy outside of the traditional school day. Kids have family responsibilities, jobs, chores, sports, music, clubs, and after-school programs. All of these things enrich our students’ lives, and provide avenues for them to learn incredibly valuable life skills; we want to encourage these activities, not have students opt out because they’re too busy. But a typical 6th grade child may attend school from 7:30 to 3:00, go to an afterschool activity until 5:00, get home and settled by 5:30, then be in bed by 8:00. That leaves a possible 2 and a half hours of awake time in the entire day that is not school controlled. That’s absurd. Add dinner, chores, and 60 minutes of homework...and those hours are gone. As teachers we often lament the lack of creativity and imagination in our students, and yet we allow so little time for them to be imaginative outside of our classrooms. Kids need time to be kids. They need time to play and imagine and be bored. And brains need time to consolidate—which means time to play and SLEEP!  (TED Talk on the relationship between the brain and sleep)


Habits: Despite pockets of research that say homework teaches students to have effective habits, common sense says this is probably just not true.
  • Teaching v. Evaluating: Homework more often rewards or punishes existing habits, and sometimes speaks more to the habits of the parents than of the students. If our goal is to help students learn time management and organizational skills, there are many ways to do that that are way more effective, measurable, and equitable than homework. In addition, what we know about child and adolescent learning tells us that humans do not fully develop their executive functioning skills until their early 20s (Armstrong)...so asking students to be good at these at age 8 or 12 or even 17 may be developmentally inappropriate. Here’s a blog that discusses these issues and makes suggestions about how to instruct habits: Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?
  • Preparing students for the “next level”: In the middle schools, we say we need to assign homework to prepare students for high school, and in high school we say we need even more to prepare them for college. The best way to prepare students for the rigorous work and complex thinking they will encounter in the future is to teach them how to ask questions, how to think critically...how to learn. We don’t need tons of homework to do this. In fact, we can do this much more effectively within our classrooms. Side note: The average college student spends 15 hours a week in class, and 15 hours outside of class doing homework (citation). The average high school student spends 35-40 hours in school each week, not including homework. Hmmmm…..seems to us we could use this time more effectively, rather than just adding on to it.


You can find research to back up your opinion about homework, regardless of your beliefs (unless you teach K4, in which case there is growing consensus that homework is not beneficial). While all this contradictory information could be viewed as frustrating, why not view it as liberating? Let’s use what we know as professionals--not what was done to us or what we’ve always done--combined with our common sense to develop a homework policy or belief system that we (and our families) feel good about. We need to make sure it supports what we know about learning, respects our students as young people, and maybe most importantly, makes common sense.

Still want to see research about homework? Okay. We get it. We have spent hours reading it all as well. Here’s a great resource from Brandon Blom called “If We’re Going to Do Homework, Let’s Do It Better”: there is a really comprehensive list of resources at the end!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?

Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?

Habits of learning are important. We know that students are more successful as learners when their habits are effective. But what makes habits effective? Why do some students seem to be more successful than others? Why do we keep fighting the same battles over and over and over? Why can’t they just be more responsible?!

In all of our time teaching and working in schools, there seem to be two types of habits of learning that most concern teachers: those that focus on compliance or behavior, and those that require executive functioning skills. Yes, these overlap at times, but it’s helpful to look at them through this simple lens in order to allow us to focus on what’s most important: learning.

Habits of Compliance or Behavior: Often, when we talk about responsibility and preparation and participation and self-direction, we are really talking about compliance or behavior. We want students to do X because, frankly, it will make our lives easier (and yes, with large classes and little time to plan during the school day, our lives being easier often leads to us being better, more efficient teachers). Here are some examples of habits of compliance or behavior:
  • Coming to class with a pen or pencil.
  • Turning the homework in on time.
  • Walking in the hallways.
  • Being on time to class.
  • Not having phones out in class.
  • Raising hands to talk, or not talking out of turn.
  • Staying on task.

While these behaviors may help students be ready to learn, they really have very little to do with learning directly. To be clear: we are not saying these are not important behaviors, and we are not saying we don’t want to encourage these in every way possible. But they are not really habits of learning.

In order to improve these behaviors, we need to determine what’s most important to us, come to terms with ourselves about why it’s important, and then develop structures and systems that help students comply or behave, and minimize the environments and situations that encourage behaviors we don’t want. A few years ago, we wrote a blog post about this called Cleaning the Counters: Changing our Habits to Improve Theirs, which focuses on problems such as turning work in and timeliness. These are student behaviors we can improve by changing our own behaviors, systems, and structures.

One side note about these habits. Next time you are at a faculty meeting or at an inservice, note how many adults tick off the above list. Note the number of adults who are late, those who have their phones out, those grading papers, those having side conversations; and ask your administrators how many of the adults in the building turn in their paperwork on time, or their reflections, or even their grades. And if you ask these adults why they are late or why they are checking their phones or why they are grading papers instead of focusing on the task, they will almost all say that what they are doing is important. They will cite trouble at home for the phone use, an important meeting with a student for why they are late, and not enough hours in the day for why they have the stack of papers on their lap. All good reasons. All legitimate, perhaps. But no more legitimate than our students’ reasons for the same behaviors. Saying “kids these days” lack responsibility is usually not true, and allows us all off the hook.

Executive Functioning Habits: True habits of learning are often related to executive functioning skills. These are actual skills (as opposed to behaviors). And here’s a shocking, horrible, and unbelievably important fact: executive functioning skills don’t fully develop until humans are in their early 20s. Yup. In mid adolescence, age 15-16, most students can function fully in what’s called “cold cognition” environments...in other words, in a vacuum. In “hot cognition” environments, or any times there are other teens around, the functioning is compromised. In middle school, there’s not even full functioning in that vacuum (Jensen). What does this mean? It means we can’t expect students to be good at things that their brains are not developmentally able to be good at!

But this also means that we should be instructing executive functioning, modeling it, and allowing students to practice it in a safe, supportive environment. We should NOT be taking points off, punishing or rewarding students, or expecting the improbable.

Here are a few common examples of executive functioning skills:
  • Organization
  • Time management (planning and prioritizing)
  • Self-monitoring
  • Task-initiation
  • Perseverance

These are all things we often expect students to be good at, but developmentally, most of them are not there yet. Because of this, it’s easy to spend crazy amounts of time and emotional energy focusing on these as problems, when we should be looking at them as opportunities to develop and practice these skills.

What can we do to help students develop these skills?

Model effective habits of learning and be intentional about instruction: the more students see what these habits look like, the more models they have to imitate. Letting students see a variety of strategies can help them choose one that will work for them.  Here are some examples:
    1. For time management: When you are giving directions, model how you break down a task and keep track of the steps.  In addition, provide time estimations and periodically stop tasks in order to have students check these estimations and set individual time goals.  If we want students to become self-aware and effective time managers, we need to teach and monitor these skills in class, where we have the ability to control and adjust as necessary.  Task sheets can be really helpful for this.   (Side note: Homework does not teach time management.)
    2. For organization: If using Google Classroom, take 15 minutes once a week to model how you organize your inbox; with all of those emails coming in, students need to learn to prioritize, organize, and occasionally purge technologically. If students keep binders, spend time each week in school (not for homework!) showing them different ways to organize these.
    3. For perseverance and self-monitoring: teach students about zones of proximal development, and provide them with a system to self-identify their challenge level. Recognizing levels of challenge is the first step to being able to self-regulate, and it encourages perseverance. Here’s a video of 2 students explaining how to use Red, Yellow, and Green cards to self-monitor.


Intentionally articulating, modeling, instructing, and providing feedback on habits will help students improve. But too often we stop at articulating, telling students what we want them to do or how we want them to behave without using what we know about their brains and development to help them get better. If we are going to report about student habits, we have the responsibility to do more than just reward or punish. Putting these habits and behaviors on students--expecting them to take the responsibility to improve--may not only be developmentally inappropriate, but may distract us and them from the learning that is most important. There’s only so much time in our day...let’s use it responsibly.

Helpful resources about child and adolescent brain development:

Power of the Adolescent Brain by Thomas Armstrong