All Articles Education Voice of the Educator Extraordinary schooling begins, ends with student work

Extraordinary schooling begins, ends with student work

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

Content series: Making the extraordinary ordinary

This SmartBlog on Education content series written by education change-maker Josh Thomases will explore the possibilities and challenges of making the extraordinary ordinary. It will tell stories of hope and possibility, of teachers, principals, schools and districts doing extraordinary things with increased regularity, creating a different kind of momentum in public education.

What do students know and what are they able to do? Underneath all of the drama of the education debates lies this foundational question. And by focusing on it, teachers, as well as school and district leaders, have found ways to think about what needs to shift in the practices of the adults. An ongoing, disciplined look at student work grounds the public debates — whether celebrating exemplary practice or raising key concerns.

In every role I have had, I have sought ways to keep student work at the center of the conversation. It helps move substantive and powerful change in student and teacher practice, first by establishing a standard of quality for students, and second, by gauging the impact of teaching with a relentless focus on what students are actually learning.

Two examples from my experience as a teacher made this crystal clear for me.

A colleague and I led an interdisciplinary project in mathematics and government for our 12th-grade students. Our students studied housing policy and the lending practices at the banks in our communities to understand the impact of government policy. They analyzed reams of census data looking for evidence of ongoing discrimination. The resulting report was submitted to our local Congresswoman. It established, for us, our students, and our community, the seriousness of effort and effectiveness of output that set a new standard for us. Both students and teachers got a much clearer picture of individual strengths and challenges.

Through looking at student work protocol, I shared with colleagues the essays that students wrote while studying the American Revolutionary War. I had posed a question, “Who really won independence?” I presumed that through the essay my students were demonstrating their understanding of crucial facts about the Revolutionary War era as well as effective argument writing. I remember my surprise as my colleagues looked at the work with me. The essays clearly demonstrated my students’ ability to make an argument, gather evidence and consider opposing viewpoints, but gave us a very limited picture of their content knowledge. My students and I had only half the story: My teaching and assessment practice needed to shift.

For teachers, leaders and those who prepare them for their roles, keeping our students’ actual work at the center of the conversation can have significant transformative effects across classrooms, schools and districts. There are six core principles to do this well, whether you have in mind a small team in one school, a whole school or a whole district. The leadership challenges are distinct, but the underlying themes are similar:

  1. Ensure it is substantial work worthy of investigation. The work may be essays, tests, presentations or projects. Looking at it must result in learning for everyone — the people who created the work and the people doing the looking.
  2. Make and protect the time to do this. Many will say there isn’t the time. Strong schools find as much as 3 to 5 hours weekly. Help, push, encourage, cajole and convince people to find an hour a week at a minimum and then protect it. Don’t let any crisis or administrative need distract.
  3. Use the time well. Find a process that reflects your values. There are strengths to many different approaches. Use one and stick to it. Get practiced at that one for some time before making changes.
  4. Make sure educators feel valued for participating. You cannot evaluate teachers for their participation. These meetings need to be a place where mistakes surface in healthy ways and do not become “gotcha” moments. Ensure that teachers or schools get recognized and rewarded for this work.
  5. Attend to the power and challenges of teams. By asking a group of educators to dig into this work together, you are making a team. That team will have predictable dynamics. Take care of the human element so that it supports the approach, and pay attention to the moments of resistance. They can be important learning opportunities when handled well. Effective facilitative leadership is absolutely critical — whether from teacher leaders, school or district administrators. Where those skills are weak, they can and must be explicitly taught and actively modeled.
  6. Create room for local autonomy. Effective educators adopt good ideas by adapting them so plan for and leverage that as part of the implementation process. It isn’t resistance; it is adult learning.

In my experience in schools or at the district level, the extent of the successes and challenges depended on the degree to which we managed to follow these principles.  When we did it well, school communities became joyful, extraordinary places of learning for children and adults.

Josh Thomases is dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street College of Education.

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