Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Road Less Traveled - Standards-based Grading in Secondary Schools

On April 20, 2006, I heard Tom Guskey speak at a conference in St. Louis. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be a turning point in my career. As I think back on it now, I’m reminded of the poem by Robert Frost that says,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

At that time, I was struggling with supporting, and even defending, current practices in relation to assessment and grading. Some extreme examples included late work that wasn’t accepted in one instance if the work wasn’t turned in within the first five minutes of a class period. This of course resulted in a death penalty (aka a 0) grade. Or, one of my favorites, awarding extra credit for students if they brought in boxes of tissues.  Talk about seriously diluting a student’s grade with non-academic criteria!

I’m proud to say that we have come a long way in the last six years. We began studying Dr. Guskey’s journal articles and books in small groups of interested teachers. Rethinking some of these practices was hard. Perhaps the hardest in the beginning was changing the way we honor graduates. What? No more valedictorian? Dr. Guskey taught us that “valedictorian” has nothing to do with academic achievement, but instead means “to say farewell.” So, we said “farewell” to the idea that we were capable of separating one student from another by as little as a tenth of a decimal point. (or even less in some cases) We now honor multiple students who meet specific criteria.  It’s probably familiar from your college days - Cum laude (with honor), Magna cum laude (with great honor), and Summa cum laude (with highest honor).

We also participate in a grading and assessment consortium of other area schools with the leadership and research of Bob Marzano. Bea McGarvey and Deb Pickering led us down the path of action research with experimenting in various aspects of improving grading practice. We started small through separating out academic and non-academic factors, helping students track their own progress on specific learning goals, and even experimenting with a whole new grading scale. Yes, we did all of this at a high school, where grades are the most sacred of all traditions.

Although we have not fully implemented standards-based grading in the entire school, I believe we have reached a tipping point. Asking teachers to change from using a traditional system (100 point scale) that was designed during World War I to sort and rank military recruits might seem daunting. But, if I ask them about choosing a doctor who is using practices from the World War I era versus one who is on the cutting edge of research and new practices, it seems amazingly clear. It’s a harsh reminder that we already know what is needed to improve the education for our kids. The question is, will we do it?

If you’re interested in taking the road less traveled, I’d love to be a part of your professional learning network. Follow me @MulveyBeth on Twitter.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Setting Sail in the Sea of Social Media

Today is the day I take yet another risk by getting out of my “technology comfort zone.” This will be my first entry and effort in writing a blog post. I have to thank my 15-year old daughter, Annie, who now teases me relentlessly about my addiction to technology. It’s her fault, however, that I’m now swimming with my head above water (barely) in the sea of social media. She forced me to jump in the water when she begged to open a FaceBook account first. And, then Twitter. As a high school principal, I was overly aware of the dangers of social media and teens. So, I got in on the action first by monitoring her activity online.

At first, I followed a few professional-related organizations on FaceBook, but mostly used it to connect and reconnect with old friends, classmates, and far-away family. I bored quickly by the various rants and random posts of my “friend” base. Although I keep a presence on Facebook now, it remains more of a personal than professional platform.

On October 22, 2011, I posted my first tweet. This was shortly after I acquired the iPad2 and downloaded the FlipBoard app. FlipBoard was my first breakthrough. As a periodic reader of People magazine, this app made Twitter and Facebook more flashy and inviting to read. I started following more and more people and eventually began “retweeting” the wings off the Twitter bird! Since I had less than 25 followers at the time, I started emailing links teachers in our school and administrator colleagues. I told everyone I knew about Twitter and FlipBoard and started asking others to follow me.

In February of 2012, I begged our district administration to open access to social media for teachers. (Students will be next) I’ve seen it said many times already, but Twitter really is my new “go to” form of professional development and collaboration with not only colleagues in my own district, but around the world.

After watching a video tutorial by Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher), I concluded that I am comfortable with the consuming (reading) and sharing (retweeting) aspects of Twitter. Now it’s time to see if I’ve got what it takes to begin creating my own content for sharing. Admittedly, I’m a little nervous about how this is going to play out. I’m not sure of a lot of things, but if nothing else, I think the power of reflection through writing makes this worth the effort.

For the five years I have been a high school principal, I write a weekly newsletter for our staff called “The Mulvey Minute.” Originally inspired by Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker), it is a short document highlighting things going on with our staff in the school. I keep it to one page and feature teachers and staff members who go the extra mile or try new strategies, celebrations, and important upcoming events and dates. I conclude each edition with an inspirational quote of the week. If I’m late sending it out, I usually get at least a couple of reminders from various staff members, so I know there are at least a few devoted readers.

And, so I begin. “The Mulvey Principle” will be an online variation of the “The Mulvey Minute.” My goals will be to highlight great things teachers are doing for students, share our school’s goals with obstacles and victories in achieving them, to promote professional development, and finally as a personal and professional reflection tool. I look forward to sailing the seas of social media on a bigger (blogger) ship!