Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Did You Realize How Important Attendance Is To Student Success?

Today, I'm writing to you about an issue that has been identified in this district every year since I have been here (2010) - Chronic Absenteeism.  In order for students to learn, they have to be regularly present.  Chronic Absenteeism is a serious concern that affects PK-12 schools and districts all across the country.  RSU 3 is no different.  Not only does repeated school absence (excused or not) cause students to lag behind in their learning pathways and reduce student success rates in their classes, but it increases the propensity to do poorly on assessments, whether they be of the classroom variety or of the national standardized testing variety.  Chronic absenteeism is also linked to increased failure rates for students, and if left unchecked, it is one of the key indicators of students to drop out of school altogether!  

Did you know??? . . .

*  In a nationally representative data set, chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with lower academic performance in first grade.  The impact is TWICE as much for students from low-income families.  (Chang and Romero 2008)

*  Children from low-income families who were also chronically absent in kindergarten had the lowest levels of achievement in fifth grade (Chang and Romero 2008)

*  Compared to children with average attendance, chronically absent students gained 14 percent fewer literacy skills in kindergarten, and 15 percent fewer literacy skills and 12 percent fewer mathematics skills in first grade, based on analysis of a nationally representative data set (Ready 2010)

*  Children from low-income families with good attendance also gained more literacy skills than peers from higher-income families during kindergarten and first grade (Ready 2010).

*  Students who were chronically absent in both pre-k and kindergarten often continued to be chronically absent in later years, and are more likely to be retained and have lower achievement (Connolly and Olson 2012).

*  A study of New York City data finds that “While relative improvements or declines in students’ test scores are predictive of students’ progress towards graduation, changes in attendance during the middle grades are also equally, if not more, predictive of the likelihood that students will be on-track in ninth grade to graduate from high school within four years” (Kieffer, Marinell, and Stephenson, 2011).

*  Analyses of data from Chicago show that course performance in the ninth grade was the strongest predictor of the likelihood that students would graduate, and the school attendance was by far the strongest predictor of course performance. The study found that even moderate amounts of absenteeism had strong impacts.  Students with high test scores who missed two or more weeks of school per semester were more likely to fail than students with low test scores who missed a week or less of school (Allensworth & Easton 2007).

*  Analyses of data from multiple states and school districts, many conducted in partnership between the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the National Governors Association, have consistently found chronic absenteeism to be among the strongest predictor of dropping out of high school, stronger even than suspensions, test scores, and being overage for grade, after having controlled for student demographics and backgrounds (Byrnes & Reyna 2012).

(Note, these data were taken from a Literature review conducted by John Hopkins University entitled:  "The Importance of Being In School:  A Report on Absenteeism In the Nation's Public Schools" published in May, 2012)

Now, you might have read all of this, and thought to yourself:  "Ya, but my child isn't chronically absent!  He/she might miss a day or two here and there - but that's not chronic."  Well, you might find it interesting that research defines chronic absenteeism as follows:

Chronic Absenteeism - missing 10 percent (10%) of a school year for any reason.

So what does that mean?  It means that in Maine we typically have 175 student days per school year.  Ten percent of 175 is 17.5 days.  This means that if your son or daughter misses 17.5 days of school for the entire year, regardless of the reason, they would then meet the definition of chronic absenteeism.

How about some more facts about the impacts of Chronic Absenteeism. . . 

*  In the early grades, students who are chronically absent have lower reading and math scores as well as weaker social-emotional skills that they need to persist in school.

*  Only 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in both kindergarten and 1st grade were reading proficiently by 3rd grade, compared with 64 percent of those with good attendance in the early years.

*  Chronic absenteeism in the middle school is the #1 indicator of a potential drop out student later in high school, above achievement, above race, and above socio-economic indicators.

(Note, these data were taken from an article in Education Week, published Oct. 7, 2014 entitled:  "Chronic Absenteeism Can Devastate K-12 Learning")

Clearly, missing school, for whatever reason, has consequences for children.  Now, you might be saying to yourself:   "But this isn't an issue at my school!"  And I wish I could agree. .. but I can't.  It is an issue in all schools within RSU 3.  At the conclusion of the 2013-14 our attendance data indicated that we had upwards of 25% of our school's populations who met the definition of "chronically absent" - that is 363 students out of 1450!

It is my hope that now that you have read this data you either have a refreshed and reenergized understanding of the importance of children attending school regularly, or your eyes are now open to this important topic in a way they may not have been already.  Together, we can solve this problem for our children here in RSU 3.  Please know that the school understands that this isn't all "on you" as parents!  Oh no, we have a part to play in this work moving forward as well.  Our part is to do what we can to make our schools places where students want to be.  This can be done by working to improve engagement within the regular classroom settings, by offering more and higher quality after school programs, by tackling the issues around creating positive school climates where all students feel safe, and by making sure we are giving students voice in decision making at all levels (just to name a few).  Please know that we are very aware of our part in this work and are endeavoring to do our best to increase student attendance.

So now, you may ask yourself:  "As a parent/guardian, how can I contribute to this work to improve attendance at our schools?"  Well, I thought you'd never ask! :)  Here are just a few ideas, but feel free to think creatively and formulate your own:

1.  Make getting students to school on time every day a top priority.  In a world of many priorities, this may sound easy - but we know it is not.

2.  Work with your child to set an attendance goal per month and if they work hard and meet it, celebrate it! 

3.  Set out a regular bedtime and morning routine. 

4.  Lay out clothes and pack backpacks the night before so that in the morning all they have to do is get up and go! 

5.  Avoid extended family trips when school is in session.

6.  Last, but definitely not least - Communicate with the school and greater community agencies about barriers that keep kids from getting to school.  Is an issue bullying?  Is an issue transportation?  Is an issue a lack of day care?  The more we know what the specific problems are, the more equipped we are to find solutions together.

I hope you have found this piece informative.  If you want to learn more about the impacts of Chronic Absenteeism on children, please google that topic . . . there is a lot of information out there to help us all form a better understand of how best to address the issues at play.  Together, this is a problem we CAN FIX.  



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Communication, Communication, and MORE Communication!

Hopefully, you have seen communication increasing across the district this year as "Communication, Communication, and MORE Communication" has been the theme across all schools within RSU 3!  So far, you should have noticed an improved website with frequently updated student spotlights focused on student learning, more frequent phone calls home by teachers, and the creation of new Facebook Pages for each school! Moving forward, we will be hosting parent meetings at all schools in grades K-8 to help parents learn how to navigate the new EDUCATE/EMPOWER grading and reporting system, we'll have parent/teacher conferences, we'll be launching our new district Facebook Page and the RSU 3 Board of Directors will be approving and implementing their very first district wide communications plan to maintain our communication focus year in and year out!

Parents of students in grades K-8 should have received letters from each school giving you an overview of login information for the EDUCATE/EMPOWER system and announcing on-site meetings for each school to help parents learn how to navigate the new system and all the great information about your child's learning that can now be accessed!  Additionally, our Assistant Superintendent, Deb McIntyre will be hosting an online Webinar on November 17 from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. for those parents who might find it difficult to get out to a face to face meeting.  If you are interested in participating in this meeting, please let Deb know by e-mailing her at dmcintyre@rsu3.org if you are interested in participating.  If you miss the face to face meetings, and the online meeting we will be archiving the webinar and posting the link to our website along with our other EDUCATE/EMPOWER tutorials and tools.  That link is:  http://www.rsu3.org/index.php/educate  

Parents of students in grades 9-12 are still able to access your child's learning through Infinite Campus for one more year.  We have spent a lot of time this year in trying to make sure the information that you see on IC is accurate, timely, and a true reflection of your child's progress on meeting standards.  Although we are still using the 100-point scale to report grades to students and parents, there are very different things going into this calculation so its important to understand that although you still see a "82" or a "93" what's behind those numbers isn't the same straight average that it used to be.  

This year, our high school teachers are only "grading" what we call summative assessments.  This means that "formative" assessments, although still required, are not averaged into the grade as they have been in the past.  Before I go much further, its probably important that I define what the difference is between "summative" and "formative" - let's give it a try:

Formative Assessment

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.  More specifically, formative assessments:

*  Help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work 
*  Help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments generally have no point value and are not graded.  Examples of formative assessments include (but are not limited to) asking students to:

*  draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
*  Submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
*  turn in a research proposal for early feedback.

Summative Assessment

The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.  Summative assessments are what students use to demonstrate proficiency, and so they are what is "graded".  Examples of summative assessments include (but are not limited to):

*  a midterm exam
*  a final project
*  a paper
*  a senior recital

Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

Research has shown that students achieve more when formative assessments are used by teachers to provide feedback to students in their learning.  This feedback, then is used by students to better prepare them for success with the summative assessments.  

So as you can see, the purpose of formative assessments are to help students understand where they need to improve their work in order to be successful with the summative assessments.  Students are required to do this work as well, but it will not count towards the final summative grade.  When a student turns in a formative assessment and it meets the expectations of the teacher, that assessment will be marked "T" for Turned in.   Students who have not turned in work will have that worked marked as "I" for Incomplete.  Parents and students will need to go into the details of the Infinite Campus grades in order to see what work might be missing and how it is impacting the final grade.  If you have questions about these new grading practices at the high school, please reach out to your child's teachers, or to Mr. Tracy and they can help.  

These changes in grading practices are just a few things we are doing to make sure that we are prepared to meet the requirements of Maine's PBE Diploma statute and to move forward with the class of 2019 as our first graduates from MVHS to receive a true Proficiency Based Diploma

The RSU 3 Board of Directors continues to work diligently to update policies and to provide direction for our continued work in creating a Proficiency Based System of Education right here in RSU 3.  A system that will make our Mission a reality for our students and ensure their future success! My next post will focus on those continued policy changes - stay tuned! 

Monday, September 1, 2014


Hard to believe that the summer has already flown by and that school is set to start coming right up on Tuesday, September 2, 2014!  Already you can start to feel that fall chill at night, and soon we'll be trading in the t-shirts for sweatshirts and then inevitably the sweatshirts for thick winter coats, mittens and hats!  Gosh, I hope we have a little time before we need to worry about that for sure!

The 2014-15 School year is certainly upon us so I thought it would be good to update my blog for all of you so you can better understand what to expect for the 2014-15 School year.  I know I ended the year last year with a little projection forward, but even that has changed a little over the summer so here goes!

For parents of students in grades K-8, we'll be reporting out student learning in Trimesters this year (old hat for K-5 but new for 6-8) with progress reports going out every six weeks or so throughout the year.  We'll also be reporting out using our 1-4 grading scale this year, with .5 increments as suggested by our elementary parents during last year's feedback work.  Additionally, this year our student learning reports will include data that indicates where a student is in their learning progressions to better answer the question for parents around student pace and making sure your child is not only "meeting proficiency" but is also working at a reasonable pace.  Finally, our student learning reports will be open to all parents.  Yes, that's right - just like our Infinite Campus portal has been open to all parents in grades 6-12 for four years now, we're also going to open up our EDUCATE parent portals for all parents in grades K-8.  By using your parent portal login information you will be able to see your child's learning progress on a day in and day out basis which will help open up more communication between school and home.  We will be having parent nights sponsored by our school's PTO organizations to help parents better understand what our grading system means and also how to navigate the EDUCATE reporting portal so that you can stay informed and up to date on your child's learning progress - so stay tuned! :)

For parents of students in grades 9-12, we've made some changes to our work from last spring that I think you'll be pleased by.  First, the RSU 3 Board of Directors has approved seeking a ONE YEAR extension from the Maine Department of Education in order to meet the requirements of the state statute that requires us to issue a Proficiency Based Diploma by 2018.  What this means is that it will now be the class of 2019 that will be the first class projected to receive a PBE diploma.  By requesting this extension, the Board of Directors is basically "buying us" another year to figure out how best to move forward with our PBE work at the high school level in a way that makes sense to us without having to rush to meet the deadline of 2018.  Here are some specific things that parents of our high school students can be expecting for the coming year:

1.  We will use Infinite Campus for another year to track student learning and to report that learning to parents.
2.  We will use a 100-point scale to report grades to students and parents.  So, just like our old traditional system, students must have at least a 70 in order to be considered "passing" a subject.
3.  Because students either demonstrate proficiency in a particular skill, or they're not quiet there yet - only "Summative" assessments will count towards the final grade, so students must get at least a 70% on all summative assessments given by the teacher in order to be considered passing.
4.  Teachers will also give "formative" assessments to students. These assessments are intended to help students understand where they need to improve their work in order to be successful with the summative assessments.  Students are required to do this work as well, but it will not count towards the final summative grade.  When a student turns in a formative assessment and it meets the expectations of the teacher, that assessment will be marked "T" for Turned in.   Students who have not turned in work will have that worked marked as "I" for Incomplete.  Parents and students will need to go into the details of the Infinite Campus grades in order to see what work might be missing and how it is impacting the final grade.
5.  The high school grading and reporting committee will continue to meet throughout the course of this year to make decisions about how to continue to phase our PBE system in at the high school in a manner that makes clear our expectations that students graduate with a PBE diploma by the class of 2019, but also allows us the appropriate time to communicate changes to our system and the need for those changes to our students and parents more effectively.

Speaking of COMMUNICATION - that's something else parents of students in grades K-12 should be expecting more of this year!  We got lots of feedback from parents and students over the course of the summer, and much of that feedback suggests we need to DO MORE to help our students understand what is expected of them, and to help our parents understand so they can help us hold students accountable to their learning!  For example, if over the course of the year last year you heard your high school student say:  "We don't have to do homework anymore. . ." or "Our teachers don't teach us anymore. . . " well that just simply isn't true and we need to do a better job of informing parents what IS TRUE so that you can help us hold all students accountable to be working at their own individual MAXIMUM learning pace! We will be doing parent focus groups and student focus groups at all schools this year, we will be working with our PTO organizations to sponsor parent nights to help parents better understand our new systems, and we'll be reaching out to parents individually more often to touch base with you about your students so that we can build up those positive working relationships that will benefit everyone in the long run.  Finally, don't forget that WE NEED YOUR HELP in achieving our goal of improving communication by participating in forums and opportunities to give feedback,etc.  We are going to be working hard to offer multiple opportunities this year to learn more about our PBE system and its positive impacts upon our students but our efforts will be fruitless without all of you participating as well!

Well, this has gotten long enough. . . but before I go - I wanted to make sure to tell all of you that you can go to our district website to view all of our most up to date information on our PBE work.  That link is:  http://www.rsu3.org/index.php/community-links/our-journey-to-proficiency-based-learning  also, on that same page, but linked here for your convenience is a brand new Fact Sheet (FAQ's) that was developed over the course of this summer to assist in clarifying some of what our PBE system is:  http://www.rsu3.org/images/FAQs.pdf and finally (for now) - I wanted to share a link to a pamphlet (also created this summer and linked to our website) that outlines a brief overview of what our PBE system is: http://www.rsu3.org/images/RSU_3_Pamphlet_D3.pdf.

Well, its time to start another great year here in RSU 3!  Be sure to say "hi" and introduce yourselves to our two new building principals when/if you get the chance. . . Quinton Donahue is our new Middle School Principal and Bill Tracy is our new High School Principal.  Both of these individuals are excited to join us and will be great assets to our district moving forward - of that I have no doubt! We also have several new staff members across RSU 3. .. so don't be bashful about introducing yourself to them either . . . I look forward to another exciting year!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Projecting Forward to 2014-15...

I can't believe its been February since my last post!  Time sure does fly when one is building and working to pass a district budget. . . all of a sudden, we look up and its June already!  I think one thing that has thrown off timing this year has most certainly been the weather. .. seems like spring is just now springing, but with any luck we'll have an awesome summer to make up for all this cold and rain! We can all hope anyway!

I wanted to take a minute to reach out to parents and others in RSU 3 to talk a little bit about what everyone should be expecting for next year's work in our continued efforts to make our Proficiency Based Mission/Vision a reality for the children of RSU 3!  Its certainly been a busy year this year and there's more work to be done for sure!  The purpose of this blog post is to just try to keep everyone informed so that discussions and feedback can continue to inform our work moving forward!

Elementary Level (K-5) Expected Work for 2014-15:

*  Teachers will continue to grade and report student learning on a 1-4 point scale with a 4 indicating that student learning is going "above and beyond" what was taught in class to apply the knowledge to new learning experiences, a 3 indicates a student meeting proficiency, a 2 indicates a student meeting foundational knowledge, and a 1 indicating that with help, the student knows some foundational knowledge.  Based on student/parent feedback we will also be reporting out in .5 increments so instead of just 1,2,3,4, we will report out on 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4.

*  EDUCATE will continue to be our tracking software for student learning.

*  All parents will be given login information to be able to access reports of their children's learning via EDUCATE at any time.

*  EDUCATE reporting will change to include reports that indicate where students are in their progressions of learning in order to help parents better determine whether students are on pace with learning by end of benchmarking periods.  (Benchmarking will occur at the end of grade 5, grade 8, and grade 12 and is intended to insure students meet learning targets and measurement topics at a rate that will enable them to graduate within a reasonable time frame).

*  Early release workshop days will be spent providing individual training to teachers focused on creating student-centered classrooms, using a balanced instructional model, and maintaining rigor in the learning environment.

Middle Level (6-8) Expected Work for 2014-15:

*  Teachers will be grading and reporting student learning on a 1-4 point scale with a 4 indicating that student learning is going "above and beyond" what was taught in class to apply the knowledge to new learning experiences, a 3 indicates a student meeting proficiency, a 2 indicates a student meeting foundational knowledge, and a 1 indicating that with help, the student knows some foundational knowledge.  Based on student/parent feedback we will be reporting in .5 increments so instead of just 1,2,3,4, we will be reporting out with 1,1.5,2,2.5,3,3.5, 4.

*  Instead of Infinite Campus, teachers, parents and students will use EDUCATE software to track and manage student learning.  All parents will be provided login information (and opportunities for training) to be able to access reports of their children's learning via EDUCATE at any time.

*  EDUCATE reporting will include reports that indicate where students are in their progressions of learning in order to help parents better determine whether students are on pace with learning by end of benchmarking periods (grade 5, 8, and 12 as outlined above under Elementary).

*  The Middle School will be reporting out in trimesters next year instead of quarters, with progress reports in approximate 6 week intervals.

*  Early release workshop days will be spent providing individual training to teachers focused on creating student-centered classrooms, using a balanced instructional model, and maintaining rigor in the learning environment.

*  Schedules have been created at the Middle School to allow for more frequent grouping and regrouping of students across grade levels and content areas with teachers according to where they are in their learning so that teachers can maximize student instructional time.

*  Over the summer, work will be completed to revise Athletic Eligibility requirements for students at the middle school level.  This information will be shared with parent/guardians and students when school opens in the fall.

High School Level (9-12) Expected Work for 2014-15:

*  Teachers will be grading students on a 1-4 scale and translating those scores to a 100 point scale for parents during a 1 year transition year.  The translation scale will look like this:

1 - 50
1.5 - 60
2 - 65
2.5 - 70
3 - 90
3.5 - 95
4 - 100

*  New Graduation requirements will be as follows:  The classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017 will graduate according to the "old" credits based system.  Currently, each course in our program of studies has identified the Measurement Topics that are met by taking the course.  Similar to our old system, students simply need to pass the classes associated with the required credit requirements and a diploma will be awarded.  Students will be graded on a 1-4 scale, that will then be translated to a 100 point scale for the purposes of transcripts (as outlined above).

According to the new graduation policy, the class of 2018 will be held to the PBE diploma, HOWEVER RSU 3 will be seeking an "extension" from the Maine Department of Education for one year.  Once this is granted, the class of 2018 will be treated similarly to the classes listed above for the purposes of meeting graduation requirements (details will be listed in handbooks given to students/families in the fall) - it would then be the class of 2019 or the class of 2020 (depending upon which extension the Board wishes to request) that will need to meet new requirements associated with a PBE diploma.  These new requirements state that students must demonstrate proficiency at the Measurement Topic Level for each of the 8 core content areas (Math, ELA, Science & Technology, Social Studies, Health/PE, World Languages, and Visual and Performing Arts) and for each of the 5 guiding principles (Clear and effective communicator, self-directed and lifelong learner, creative and analytical problem solver, responsible and involved citizen, and integrative and informed thinker).

The specifics on how this will take place will be the content for another blog post coming later this summer, but for now, please know that it looks like we will be given a 1 or 2 year "extension" by the MDOE so that we can work to ensure student success in the transition!

*  Over the course of the summer two important committees will be meeting to help define the specifics of what we will require for graduation.  The first is our vertical team meetings.  These are content area teams representing grades K-12 will work to define specifically to what level we will be expecting ALL STUDENTS to demonstrate proficiency at which Measurement Topics.  The second is our High School Grading Committee.  This team will be comprised of a high school staff whose job it will be to create recommendations about how to deal with "traditions" such as honor roll, class rank, co and extra-curricular eligibility (within MPA guidelines), weighting of grades, etc - all things that will be very important to keep moving forward, but things that we will need to re-think in a PBE system.  The recommendations made by both of these working groups will be brought to the high school staff in the fall and then to the School Board for final decision making.  Again, I plan a separate blog post on just this information for later on this summer - so please stay tuned!

*  Student Achievement/grades will be reported out using EDUCATE software starting in the fall of 2014.  Student work will be graded on a 1-4 scale, then grades will be reported out in a 100 point scale to parents.  Parents will have login information in order to access their child's learning at anytime just like Infinite Campus currently allows.

*  Early release workshop days will be spent providing individual training to teachers focused on creating student-centered classrooms, using a balanced instructional model, and maintaining rigor in the learning environment.

At the District Level:

*  Continue to work on finalizing Strategic Plan - should be completed by fall 2014.

*  Continue to provide training to teachers across RSU 3 on Complex Reasoning Skills, Educate, Utilizing Balanced Instructional Approaches, and creating student centered classrooms and schools.

*  Finalize revisions to Graduation Policies and athletic eligibility policies.

*  Board will decide whether or not to complete work required for a 1 year extension from MDOE to meet PBE diploma requirements or a 2 year extension.

*  Decide how to move forward with "traditions" such as honor roll, class rank, etc.

*  Decide what transcripts/profiles will look like.

*  Continue to provide multiple opportunities for parent/student/community feedback and building understanding.

Well that's about it for this blog post - long enough already!  I hope this has helped to outline for all of you some of what you can expect for changes next year understanding that we're still working on many of the details.  Future blog posts will focus on laying out recent policy changes, more specific changes to high school grading and reporting practices, and ways in which we are encouraging students to think differently about navigating their own learning using pathways.  I hope you stay tuned!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Overall Grading Practices In A PBE System & RSU 3's Plans Regarding Transitioning Forward

First, let me take a minute to personally thank one of our parents, Whitney Aitken, for posting a comment on my last post regarding the importance of Transparency in a PBE system.  Her questions centered primarily on grading practices, especially at the high school which I thought made for an excellent foundation for an entirely new post centered on making sure to answer Whitney's questions as well as the questions of many other parents on what grading might look like, especially at the high school level, in RSU 3's PBE system.

Before I get to the specific answers to the high school question, however, I think its important to start with what we already know, our "traditional grading system".  You and I all experienced the traditional grading system as students, and our children have as well.  Typically the traditional grading system was based on a 100 point scale.  Even A's, B's, and C's were based on the 100 point scale with 93's and above being considered an A, 85 to 92 was a B, 76 to 84 was a C and 70-75 was a D and anything below a 70 was considered an F, or something very similar.

In this grading system, averaging is prevalent.  In my own personal experienced as a student averaging was probably the only thing that allowed me to get through Freshman English!  If you can't tell. .. I'm not thoroughly skilled in grammar.  I never learned exactly where all those commas, semicolons, and periods should go.  I never really learned why you couldn't start a sentence with "And" or when a quotation mark was or wasn't supposed to be used, and I've always been what I refer to as a "site speller". .. therefore I have difficulty with spelling as well.  Most of my problems with English Grammar actually stem back to when I was in the 6th grade.  Up until that point I had considered myself a pretty good writer.  I loved to write.  I wrote stories and poetry and even lyrics to songs but then my 6th grade grammar teacher "broke me" of my poor grammatical ways and said that my writing was meaningless if I couldn't spell correctly or put punctuation in the right place, or understand what a Gerund was (what the heck is a Gerund anyway? - I still don't know).  End result was that I lost all confidence in my writing and I began to "hide" from my teachers in this area.  I would do just the bare minimum required to practice my spelling.  I would fail my spelling tests.  I would fail my grammar tests, but I was a hard worker - so I'd always pick my grades up by doing my homework religiously and by participating in class discussions.

Long story short, all through Elementary School and High School I never learned the importance of spelling or grammar and I was allowed not to learn because I did my homework and because I was talented in other ways like in the interpretation of literature and reading comprehension.  It all "averaged out", which made me feel just fine. .. but then came this little thing called COLLEGE! I went to college still not having a good grasp of spelling or grammar.  Can you imagine that?  I was a reader (thank goodness) but I was still afraid of technical writing and I wanted to be a History Major.  Again. .. can you imagine that?  It would have been one thing maybe if I had wanted to be an engineer where everything was math and computations, but no. .. I wanted to be a History Teacher.  You know, someone who could write essays and research papers and yet my entire school experience had not prepared me to do this.  I went to college my freshman year and I have to be honest - I almost gave up!  It it weren't for a history professor who took me under his wing - I probably would have.  I struggled and worked my tail off - learning all of what I had to learn in History and other subjects while at the same time re-learning what I should have learned in Elementary and High School.  As you can tell, I did pretty well for myself, but more because of who I was as a learner than because of how my K-12 years prepared me for success.  My personality didn't let me quit, even when my skill set should have told me to do so.

To me, this is the part of our traditional grading system that bothers me.  Students can simply say "I choose not to learn this essential skill" and fail entire tests and projects and yet make it up in the average, unknowingly setting themselves up for either failure or some very difficult times in their learning futures.  And maybe that won't negatively impact every student.  Maybe students learned the skill of perseverance and can find a way to muscle through - but my 18 years of experience in public education has taught me that that is often not the case and more often then not we set our students up for failure by inadvertently telling them it is "ok" to not learn essential skills.  In a PBE system, we aren't asking students to learn everything, but we have identified what we believe are "essential skills" that every child should know and be able to demonstrate their knowledge of and I believe that if we can ensure that every child meets these essential skills, we will have set our children up for future success in their learning vs. the harsh realities I faced as a young college student.  These essential skills, if taught well, through the passions and interests of students can build the foundations for student success in learning and in life!

Sorry, I digressed, but I believe its important to contextualize these conversations and I'm a story teller so telling stories helps me to do that - now on to Whitney's specific questions:

Whitney's first question is around not understanding the 1-4 grading system and how a student who challenges themselves can work at a level 4 and get the "same grade" as his peers working on level 3.  She asks how he (her son) is to be recognized (for lack of a better word) as a high achieving student?

GREAT QUESTION WHITNEY!  So, the first thing to understand Whitney is that the High School, is still very much using a traditional grading structure, although some teachers are experimenting with 1-4 scale, they are "translating" that score to 100 point scale for the purposes of reporting in Infinite Campus.  When you see 1,2,3,and 4 language right now, that language is around a level 1 learning level (basic knowledge), a level 2 learning level (foundational knowledge), a level 3 learning level (proficient) and a level 4 learning level (Advanced).  It is the expectation that ALL students meet the level 3 learning level goals and can demonstrate their understanding of these level 3 learning goals.  That is a "minimum standard" - kinda like its always been the expectation of most parents that their child "pass" a class with at least a 70.  Some parents expect more, but the 70 has always been treated as a "minimum standard" because anything under that was considered "failing".

So in a PBE system, what we have done is identified these essential skills and we've identified what it would look like if a student understood those essential skills and we call that a "score 3" - or Proficient.  Now, what we always want to honor is a student's willingness to challenge themselves and push themselves further so a student who has met proficiency will be encouraged to go "deeper" in their skill set to get the score 4 on their learning target and be rewarded for doing so.  In the traditional model, we used "honor roll" or "high honors" and we "weighted grades" that were earned by students in more complex courses like AP courses, etc.  In our PBE model we intend upon doing the same or similar things, but before we can go too far in that direction, we are trying to work as a high school staff in creating some common grading practices so that everyone is working across a common foundational system.  Once we get those common grading practices in place, we will then make decisions regarding things like "weighting" and athletic eligibility, and honor roll, etc..  Ultimately, we will take our scoring scales and report those out at the Measurement Topic (Standards) level and then convert each of these to an overall  GPA (like we do now) and it will be those Standards level scores and the overall GPA that will be reported on a transcript given to colleges.

What we are seeing other PBE High Schools in Maine do is to develop a system where instead of "honor roll" or High honors" we create a system where we designate students as "Cum laude" or
Suma Cum Laude" like colleges do using our scoring scale system.  This is done by expecting that every student meet a 3 at the Measurement Topic or Standards level , but then giving "weights" to students who choose to challenge themselves by going above and beyond the minimum learning standards.  Again, all of this could be translated very easily into a 1-4 GPA that colleges and universities understand - making sure we DO NOT put our students at risk of getting into the schools of their choice.  Additionally, by working to create a series of "weights" for students that choose to challenge themselves we can make sure that is reflected in the student's overall GPA which will also make sure we are NOT disadvantaging students in scholarship applications, etc.  We can even go so far as to still calculate "class rank" using these same metrics if we choose to do so.  Those details, however have not been worked out YET.  We are still very much in the process of creating a basic foundation for HS students grading systems with teachers at the High School level.  Once that work is complete we will then move on to some of these other issues.  Still much work to do - but while we're doing it - please know that we aren't changing the overall structure of grades for students yet.  Currently we are translating between the new system to the old system so we don't do any harm to students as we move forward.

Whitney's Second Question is this:  Will there be concessions made to account for the lack of consistency between teachers and a general lack of understanding of how to grade during the implementation process?

Whitney, another GREAT QUESTION.  First, let me say that ultimately one of the big benefits of a   PBE system is that we get rid of many of the "unknowns" of the old traditional model where a grade of a 90 in one teachers' English I class could mean a very different thing than that same grade in another English I teacher's class!  In a PBE system, the key is students demonstrating skills at the proficient level and it is very clearly articulated to students, parents, and teachers what that means - thereby reducing much of the discrepancies in the old traditional system where grades were much more subjective.  So, overall, in a PBE system this issue of consistency should be removed.  Now, there is a second question in there which I think I addressed earlier, but let me reiterate.  The second question is around whether or not we will be careful not to "harm" students while teachers are learning about this system.  Again, right now we haven't changed the overall structure of our grades.  Teachers are still using 100 point scales and reporting based upon that, in an effort to make sure we have our collective "ducks in a row" before we make sweeping changes to how we grade.  We have spent the past year or so learning about the system.  We are spending the remainder of this year working with staff to create a common grading structure and then we will work over the course of next year to figure out things like athletic eligibility, honor roll, transcripts, etc.

Now, I've spent a lot of time talking about HS here.  Please know that our students in grades K-5 are currently using a 1-4 scale, and HAVE BEEN FOR MANY YEARS.  Our Middle School students have gone through a transition year this year where teachers were converting from a 1-4 scale to report out on 100 point scale and next year they will move to reporting out solely on the 1-4 scale.  High School is spending this year creating common grading practices and then next year they'll begin to tackle the difficult questions of athletic eligibility, honor roll, transcripts, etc.  In the meantime, our Board of Directors is working with administration and staff to pass policies that help to define the direction our district is moving towards and communicating that to parents.  Overall, we are trying to take these changes relatively slow so as to make sure we are providing the needed professional development and time to teachers to create the foundations for success in this new system, and to ensure we are working to communicate these changes effectively to students and parents as we move along.

I think that addresses your overall questions Whitney.  If not - PLEASE add comments below, and encourage other parents to do the same and I will attempt to answer them.  I'm also trying to find better ways to communicate with parents regarding questions - so if parents have any ideas on how to do this more effectively I'd like to hear your ideas!  So far, we've tried public meetings, surveys, creation of parent advisory groups, website postings, open houses, this blog, and other communications methods (newsletters, etc) all with pockets of success, but we need more.  There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I'd like to do a better job at getting out the accurate information so any help on that front would be greatly appreciated!  THANK YOU!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Transparency Is Just One Key To A Successful PBE System

Our Mission/Vision says that:  "Our Proficiency-based system makes clear what students must demonstrate to show mastery.  Learning targets are clear, easily accessible and diversely assessed." (you can see the whole mission/vision by going to our website at:  www.rsu3.org)

One of the key components of our PBE system then, is transparency or the ability to make learning targets and overall learning expectations clear to all stakeholders.  To RSU 3 - Transparency means that we think of our learners as partners in their own education.  Our system is created to make sure students know exactly what is expected of them and why.  We believe that by including our learners in the process of developing and understanding their own learning, they are naturally more engaged in the process, more engaged in their learning tasks and more successful as learners.

In the traditional model of education (the one you and I participated in) learners were thought of as "empty vessels" that needed to be "filled" by the knowledge of the adults in charge.  In the past, this system served the purpose of creating knowledgeable individuals who followed orders and looked to their leaders for answers to the "big problems".  Our industrial, manufacturing based society didn't need a lot of creative thinkers and problem solvers.  It needed a few, but it needed more "skilled workers" who were highly skilled at one thing, listened to the directions of their bosses, and followed them.  This wasn't "bad" or "good" - it was what was needed at the time.

Today's needed 21st Century skills are the opposite.  In today's workforce we need many more creative and innovative thinkers who work together to solve complex problems.  Today's workforce must have solid "soft skills" such as an effective communicators, creative problem solvers, and abilities to collaborate with other members of their team (sound familiar - it should - its the Guiding Principles of Maine's Learning Results).  In a world where you can "google" anything. .. having factual knowledge stored in your head isn't as important as it once was.  Instead, being able to filter through massive amounts of information, identify problems, and work collaboratively with others to solve them are the skills that our students need in order to be successful.

Understanding this new reality then, we must re-think our educational paradigms.  Where students once were "empty vessels" to be filled with factual knowledge and sent on their way - now students must learn how to learn, how to change, how to identify problems and how to work with others to solve them.  They must learn to identify the resources at their disposal quickly and then figure out ways to use those resources to meet their needs.  The 21st Century is no longer the world for the complacent learner, who sits quietly in their seats, does their homework, and never questions their teachers.  The 21st Century is a place where our students must learn to learn quickly, to adapt, and to change.  They must be a part of the conversation about their own learning vs. the object of it.

RSU 3's PBE system is built in such a way as to involve the learner in their learning.  It is built to be transparent and clear to the students and to their parents.  We aren't keeping any secrets.  There is no longer just "one answer" to any problem and it is no longer "found in the back of the book."  As we all know from experience, life just doesn't work that way, especially now.  Students need to understand how their learning progresses building upon foundational skills to more complex skills.  Students need to understand how these skills can translate from one content area to another and how they are related to developing problem solving skills, communication skills, and collaboration skills.  Students must be brought into the secret that learning doesn't occur in isolation, one content area never interacting with another.  Math is no longer to be learned only during "math class".  It can be learned during English, or during Music, or while at home helping one's parents with their food shopping budget!

Our EDUCATE software system is currently in its infancy of use here in RSU 3.  We have just begun to unlock its potential, but the ultimate goal is that this software system will become one tool for transparency.  Students will be able to log in and see their learning progressions and to work with their teachers to map out their own best learning pathways.  Teachers will be able to log in and see each student's learning progressions and use that information to coach, advise, and challenge them to meet their maximum learning potential.  Parents will be able to log in and see exactly what their students are learning in real time and communicate with their children's teachers with questions they might have.  All stakeholders will know what was learned, what is being learned, and what comes next all while understanding why they are learning it!

Transparency in RSU 3 is making clear that students are not the blueberries to be processed in our system, or the peg to be sanded and moved on.  Students in RSU 3 are to be real partners in their learning, supported by caring adults who embrace and encourage students and work to ensure each student is learning to their fullest potential and able to ultimately meet whatever goals they make for themselves moving forward.  In RSU 3, Transparency is partnership - at least that's the vision we are moving towards!

Monday, December 16, 2013

An Outline of How Our Curriculum Model Works . . .

So I thought it might be helpful to try to build a better understanding among parents and community members about how our model of curriculum works, and how it is different from the "old way".  First, let's explain what the different components of our curriculum are called, what each part contains, and how it is related to the other parts. . .

First, our overall PBE curriculum centers around THREE key areas.  In our traditional system, curriculum was solely centered around content area learning.  If you did well in math, you got a good grade.  If you did well in History, you got a good grade, etc. etc. for all content areas.  In our PBE curriculum, there are THREE key areas:  Content, Habits of Mind, and Complex Reasoning Skills.  The content is the same content areas outlined in Maine's Learning Results and very similar to the same content we spent our time with as students in the "old" system:  Math, ELA, Science, Social Studies, Foreign Language, Performing Arts, CTE, etc.  Habits of Mind refers to things like getting work turned in on time, doing complete work, giving things your best effort, etc.  These are a lot like many of the things your teachers probably asked of you when you were a student, only you were "graded" on them as part of your content knowledge.  In our curriculum, the same expectations exist, we're just assessing them for what they are - Habits of Mind and NOT content understanding.  In other words - we figured out that just because you can write neatly and turn papers in on time, doesn't mean you understand the Bill of Rights! Finally, the last component is Complex Reasoning Skills.  Again, in the past these were part of your overall grade in the content area.  In our PBE curriculum we believe these skills are important enough to assess separately.  Skills like Decision making, problem solving, deduction, persevering, goal setting, etc. can all be found under the category of "Complex Reasoning Skills".

Each of these three key components is then broken down further.  At the largest level, we have what are called "Strands".  These are mostly organizational in nature to help us understand where students are.  The next largest level of learning is called a "Measurement Topic".  Then, each Measurement Topic is broken down into Learning Progressions (or scopes) which are further broken down into Learning Targets.  Each Learning target has a "scale" that defines the level of learning required to demonstrate proficiency (otherwise known as taxonomy) at each Learning Target.  If I were to create an organizational chart for each of these components it would look like this:

Content Area (example:  Reading)


Strand (example:  Informational)


Measurement Topic (example:  Text Structures and Features)


Learning Progressions (7 learning levels)


Learning Targets


Scales that outline what specific skills at what levels of learning must be demonstrated to meet proficiency.

Students are expected to demonstrate proficiency (a score of a three) for each Learning Target.  Once they have completed all the learning targets in each progression, they will have demonstrated proficiency at the Measurement Topic Level, which is required by law.

Now, does this mean that students go along their Learning Target progressions in lock step order, checking things off as they go, mindlessly moving from one to the next to the next until they've checked them all off?  NO.  Let's see if I can clarify. . .

First, part of the teacher's job is to understand where each student is at in their learning and then build each student up in their learning from where they are to where they need to be.  The intent is NOT to force students to mindlessly start at level 1 and then move from one item to the next, either re-learning materials they already know, or being asked to learn materials they aren't ready for.  The teacher uses multiple methods to determine where a child is at in their learning and they enter the learning progressions at the levels they are at.

Secondly,  students do not have to work solely on one Measurement Topic (MT) at a time.  Lessons are created that allow multiple MT's to be worked on simultaneously, even across content areas so that students can "mix it up" and not feel as though they are marching along one path of learning.

Overall, this system has been created so that the focus of learning is NOT about identifying who is going to teach what, when "it" is going to be taught, where "it" is going to be taught, or even how "it" is going to be taught!  The students get to drive the answers to these questions!  Instead, this system was created to identify what the essential knowledge is, what the progression of this learning is, what it looks like to be proficient at this learning, and what are the various ways students could demonstrate their understanding of this knowledge.  The system is created to make the student the "driver" and while the teacher still teaches. .. they are doing so with the individual student's learning needs at the center of all that they do!

Long enough post for now. .. more later! :)