Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Two of the deepest shifts we are going to make in the Proficiency Based world are going to be in the areas of assessment and feedback.

In a recent discussion with teachers in a workshop the question of how to give feedback came up. It was not so much about "how do I tell my student what they need to work on" but more of "if you want me giving feedback all the time where am I going to find the time?" This is an important question and one we are going to have to figure out. Giving feedback does take time. If you have nine students the time is manageable, if you have 60 you can quickly get buried.

Try to link your feedback to your scoring criteria or work expectations. Students can be pragmatic about their work so they are looking on how to improve their work on the assignment.

Effective Feedback;

  • takes the long view,
  • does not try to "fix", 
  • is selective and focused,
  • says  both what is going well and what needs to be worked on.

Taking the long view means looking feedback as a growth model for learners not a one off event connected to a specific assignment. You may to choose to come back to broader issues students are working on as opposed to something you want them to fix right now. For me it was often issues of organization, clarity or focus. They were always my first gate. I decided that those areas were the most important in my social studies class so not only did I do direct instruction and spell them out in my scoring criterial I also targeted my feedback on them. Once I knew who my learners were I knew generally who was going to get feedback on one of those areas. We often link feedback to formative assessment but I think it has its place in summative assessment. I would usually focus on one or two areas that I knew I would come back to and phrase my feedback as "The next time you site sources I want you to try..." This kind of feedback often helped me plan future mini lessons if I found myself writing the same thing over and over again.

Do not confuse feedback with editing or fixing. For some students it is easy to make their papers bleed with revisions. When teachers try to fix student work is when they start feeling overwhelmed by the amount of feedback they need to give. Fixing also makes students passive learners. Pose questions or suggest directions. Some students might need more pointed direction and others may need to think more. Plan the areas you want to work on and then stick to it. For me topic sentences were a reoccurring nightmare. I often wrote this feedback "Topic sentences tell the reader what your paragraph is going to be about. Read your paragraph. Does your topic sentence match what you wrote about? What needs to change?" For a student like that I might only make one other recommendation for change.

Choose your work. On any given piece of student work your could give plenty of advice. Think longterm. What do I want this student to really improve on. Select only 2-3 areas and comment only on them. Actively note other areas but leave them alone. Maybe you can get at these in other ways. If enough students are struggling with the same thing then consider planning a mini lesson and then not write it out as feedback. Remember feedback works on a growth model. No one can grow everywhere at the same time. Students need to work on a few discrete skills or approaches.

We all need to know what is working. So much of the feedback advice I read says give positive feedback to sugar coat the negative. If you think about feedback as a growth model then positives tell the learner what to keep or what they are making progress on. "This topic sentence much clearer now. I can see the link between it an what is in your paragraph. Keep doing that!" Some colleagues use the "two stars and a wish" guideline. Whichever way you choose to balance your feedback keep in mind the first 3 principles and do not over do it.

To put a finer point on my 4 principles effective feedback shares come characteristics.

I have worked with a number of different groups of teachers over the years. We always spend time talking about feedback. What works and is effective and what is not. The lists these groups have come up with are remarkably stable.

  • Specific
  • Useful
  • Informative
  • Timely
  • Solicited
  • Focused
  • Honest
  • Actionable 
  • Well intentioned
A simple Google search gives you plenty of tips 
  • Be specific
  • Be timely
  • Address the learner's advancement toward a goal
  • Give it carefully
  • Involve the learner

I like how these folks from New Zealand describe Effective Feedback in schools.

  • initiated by the student, in conjunction with self and/or peer assessment
  • teachers carefully gauge when feedback is needed to promote learning
  • teachers use the kind of feedback prompt that best meets the need of the students, at the level of support they need
  • teachers provide strategies to help the student to improve
  • teachers allow time for, and students can independently act on, feedback to improve their learning
  • feedback takes place as a conversation
  • teachers check the adequacy of the feedback with the students.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


I have begun collecting the questions that come up around our transition to Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements. I will up date this list periodically.

Maybe if I am lucky and persuasive I will get some guest bloggers to take a stab at some of these answers.

  1. What does Proficiency Based Grading look like for special education? Everywhere?
  2. How is proficiency based learning going to impact progress on yearly standards and goals?
  3. What are the PBGR's?
  4. How will they change the classroom?
  5. How long will this shift take?
  6. What do students and the community know and think?
  7. How does this translate for college?
  8. How do we set the bar for proficient?
  9. How will parents react?
  10. What is this going to look like for report cards?
  11. What safety nets will we put in place for students?
  12. How do we measure progress?
  13. Who might impede progress?
  14. How are other states doing this?
  15. How will this change the traditional 7-12 grade model?
  16. Are there examples out there?
  17. Am I capable of being this kind of teacher?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Backwards Bike and Remodeling Houses

My favorite metaphors for the development of a Proficiency Based Education model are the backwards bike and house remodeling. In the video the bike is the same in every respect to the bikes we grew up riding except for one key difference, the steering mechanism is "backwards".  It still looks like and rides like a bike, but learning how to use the new steering is going to take some deliberate practice. 
When you set out to remodel a house it does not mean you are going to gut it. Some rooms will need only a coat of paint, some might need new fixtures and others you may need to go right down to the studs. Some rooms you work on on the weekends  when you have time and other rooms will take much more time and disrupt your life a bit.
In PBE what we do as teachers will look and feel the same in most respects. We are still going to work from the standards, develop lessons, give feedback, assess learning, and report the outcomes.  However, the key change for work is evidence. They way we define, elicit, evaluate and report on that evidence may be where we focus our remodeling efforts.

I want to start out trying to get to the big picture with this graphic. This simplifies a complex and at this point very messy system. The three components in bold down the middle of the triangle are key to understanding how PBE is an evolution from standards based education.

The easiest place to start is in the middle of the graphic at the level of the Performance Indicator (PI). The Performance Indicators are derived from the standards. The derivation can take on several forms; some PI's are simply the anchor standards (math), some are closely aligned to the standards and the anchor standard (ELA), some are just the standards (science). The reasons for this are that when the AOE put the PBGR's together they allowed each content team to work independently and gave them very little guidance. Hence we have differing interpretations of what a performance indicator is. If you want to take a closer look at the performance indicators for your content area you can download them here.

This is a sample from the ELA document from the state. You can see the performance indicators for research writing spelled out for three distinct points; end of 5th, end of 8th and end of 12th. In PBE we, as a system are going to be much more intentional about defining what it means to be successful on any one indicator and much more consistent in developing assessments that elicit evidence of success.  So the way the bike looks the same is that teachers will still develop and give students assessments. We will still score those assessments. The steering mechanism will look different in how we determine what is in those assessments and the criteria we use for success.

The Graduation Proficiencies are something like a box students will put evidence in. If we stick with this ELA Research Writing Proficiency a student would have to have at least one opportunity to gather evidence that they are proficient in research writing. For students they know that they have four boxes to fill with evidence of proficiency in ELA, one in reading, two kinds in writing and one in speaking an listening. Some of the opportunities are designed by the teacher, but some could be selected or designed by the student. The bike looks the same in that most of the opportunities students will have to provide evidence will come through their classes some might come from independent studies or internships.

This room may take the most remodeling.  Our grading will look different in that classes are going to move away from a single comprehensive grade. We are going to need to decide how much evidence is enough and how many opportunities students can have. I expect that this will be one of the hardest adjustments to make and it is going to take time and patients to come to some agreements on how to remodel this room.

This is why the AOE is suggesting that we do all of our work in pencil, because our understanding of this system going to evolve. 

Working down the triangle Learning Targets are the specific skills, knowledge and understandings that teachers need their students to have to work independently on the summative assessments. Much of this work is done through formative assessment, which means looking closely at the student work and giving them feedback that will hopefully move them towards being able to complete a summative assessment. Under PBE formative assessment will take a more central and visible role in classroom instruction. I imagine this looks and rides very much like the bike you are used to. The use of single point rubrics is more like switching to a new kind of bike than changing the way it steers. 

If much of this feels like stuff you already do then good, because this is just an evolution of the work we have been engaged in for over a decade and you may only have to put a coat of paint on most of your walls. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

How PBE is Different Revision 1

In an earlier post I tried to explain how a PBE classroom would look different. It was not a very good explanation. So I turned to some truly brilliant educators at the Q.E.D. Foundation in Amherst, NH. They have been working on a transformational educational model for maybe over a decade. Kim Carter the director of Q.E.D. first shared this graphic with me at conference maybe as many years ago. It has been hanging over my various desks ever since she gave it to me. At the time the concepts were way above my head, but now I am beginning to understand it and I think it is a useful way of looking how a truly proficiency based system is different from where we are now.

For me the 22 indicators in the graphic describe a transformation system that looks very much like what Vermont is calling for in act 77 and the Educational Quality Standards.

This from Q.E.D. explains how to read the graphic.
As  change progresses from left to right (from traditional to transformational), the depth of the color blue increases accordingly, indicating the depth (and fidelity) of implementation required. For some indicators the progression from one degree of change to another is not a smooth or natural one; these are illustrated by a white gap in the row. The white gaps indicate the need for the educational system to break with one practice – and often a corresponding set of beliefs and assumptions – in order to embrace the next. The two practices cannot exist side-by-side in any meaningful way. (Q.E.D. Foundation).
This of course is a model for a Transformational School System. Models guide practice, but they are not practice. The graphic hopefully gives us something to think about, for example in the indicator School Wide Learning Goals a transformational system would set goals according to learner aspirations and life options. That leads us to implementation questions; how do we do that? what does it look and sound like? There is where our work lies. This transformation will not happen overnight nor in a handful of professional learning days. It is going to take steady forward pressure for years until these practices become our new "culture".

Friday, June 5, 2015

Vermont's Plans for Transferrable Skiils

With the move toward Proficiency Based Education the Agency of Education in collaboration with educators around the state has been developing a number of support materials. Perhaps the most impactful work they are doing is in the area of assessment. The folks at the agency are particularly focused on developing assessments for the transferrable skills. They intend to begin piloting those assessments next year. I am still trying to wrap my head around it all but here is I think I understand.

To put this all in perspective I want to give you some sense of the scope of assessments. We have experienced the SBAC now and we have a clearer idea of what assessment entails. The work the AOE is focused on is in the area of "moderated tasks". The work we have been engaged in during inservice has been around "benchmark tasks".

First I will start with the state's intent and vision for these moderated tasks and then I will get into how they were developed.

The broad goal of this Vermont Transferrable Skills Assessment System (VTSAS) is to create a common set of scoring criteria for each Performance Indicator in the Transferrable Skills. With that common criteria Vermont schools could not only assess proficiency on set teacher developed tasks, but also in student submitted work (a negotiated selection of work that demonstrates proficiency)from internships, work study or independent projects.

The Agency is currently drafting a set of "moderated tasks" to help educators learn how to create their own tasks and to help calibrate the scoring of Transferrable Skill Indicators. For those of you who have been around for a while this sounds very much like the writing and math network work.

The process sounds like it has evolved from the portfolio days.  The State's intent is to train teachers on these Moderated Tasks (not sure what that entails yet) and calibrate scoring. They are building an online platform/database where teachers can submit student work from both Moderated and Teacher Developed tasks and have the work scored online by teachers from around the state.

So I can sense some anxiety building here. This is not a mandate to return to some kind of statewide portfolio system. This looks like it is going to be a support system for schools to help with the assessment of Transferrable Skills.

The way the state leadership developed these Moderated Tasks is impressive and well worth learning from. They began with the Performance Indicators and decided on a traditional 4 point scale (my only quibble with this proces -- see Single Point Rubrics). From there they used Bloom's Taxonomy (ok I have an issue with this too -- see Marzano's Taxonomy) to write scoring criteria.

They only completed two of the PBGR's for transferrable skills and are in the process of completing the third, but the work they have done is exciting -- well exciting if you are a curriculum geek. Unlike the scoring criteria of far too many rubrics the language for each level is crisp, discrete and tied tightly to Bloom's language. The work you see here is written for 11th and 12th grade. Overtime this language will need to be refined and cascaded down to earlier grades, however as a starting point it is great.

Once the scoring criteria was complete the development teams began developing "Task Models" or descriptions of what a quality and targeted assessments would need. They first asked "What features does a Performance Task have to have to really assess transferrable skills" They selected one PBGR "Clear and Effective Communication" and identified the Indicators they thought most important.

From there they wrote a series of "elements" or objectives for the task. These elements became the non-negotiattbles for any task developed from this model. So here is the beauty of it, regardless of your content area you could now develop a performance task from this task model. Regardless of your content area all students would have the same scoring criteria for these Transferrable skills. Just so you do not get confused this is just one task model. It is an example. Any teachers looking to develop a common assessment could develop their own task model.

In the long run we (or someone) will also develop scoring criteria in the content areas but work has yet to be done. However if you think about the impact of developing LDC modules we will begin to collect content specific scoring criteria.

There is still plenty to unpack about this assessment design process and perhaps the pilot assessments will make that work easier.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Classrooms in the Age of Proficiency

My colleague Tom Ferenc asked me the other day what a proficiency based classroom looked like. The question had come from one of his teachers who raised it in a slightly different form. She stated that it seemed like the teachers were already doing proficiency based education so what would they actually have to change. The dilemma had been keeping him up at night. How do you paint a picture of what PBE looks like? It is a real dilemma I think because PBE is an evolution not a revolution. In many ways we have been evolving to a proficiency based system for years. That evolution really started with the standards movement in the 80's. Teachers have been identifying standards, and developing rubrics for years now. So what is the difference.
I am going to switch metaphors now and talk about PBE as an iceberg. Most of what we know and can see in proficiency based system is above the water. It is the stuff we have been doing in some form or another for years. Teachers have been thinking about standards and assessment. They develop rubrics and give feedback. The changes in this work above the water line is evolutionary not revolutionary. It is a good thing that teachers feel like they are already doing Proficiency Based Education because they are using the elements, the change will be in the ways they pull those elements together.
There is a greater emphasis on teachers knowing the standards. This emphasis is largely necessitated by a change in assessment and reporting of proficiency (grading). The shift is away from giving students grades based on meeting the requirements of the class and towards them demonstrating what they can do. That means that in PBE classrooms the indicators (all of which come from the standards) are explicitly and clearly tied to both formative and summative assessment. In terms of grading, currently we mash work habits up with content knowledge. We often create single grade for a student that includes work habits like how many homeworks they turned, how well the participated in class or how hard we thought they tried on a particular assignment. We end up with kids passing classes but not really knowing the content. In a PBE a teacher will assess and report on work habits separately from proficiency. 

      Image credit Liz Mirra

In PBE classrooms teachers are using common assessment criteria more often than not. This is going to be particularly true not only in broad areas like communication or research, but also in more specific areas like "using evidence" "revising based on feedback".  There will be greater emphasis on connecting skills common across disciplines. Teachers may be building rubrics tailored to specific assignments from a common assessment criteria bank. PBE classrooms will focus more on the iterative process.There will be considerably more emphasis on the formative assessment -- feedback loop. Students will expect to have more iterations and feedback through formative assessment. Students may come back to the same piece of work several times over a time period to refine it. 

These are just few familiar areas where PBE will look different. However it is below the waterline that PBE looks much different from business as usual.

Starting with planning and the use of common planning templates. This planning begins with a common question, How can I...? How can I design assessments that take into account both content and transferrable skills? How can I tasks that are both rigorous and authentic? How can create an instructional ladder that is challenging, allows students to practice and get feedback on specific skills.
I have written about the LDC in an earlier post but I want to again emphasize the need for common touch stones for teachers. Using a common planning template does not mean everyone teaches the same thing nor does it mean writing a curriculum. It is simply a focused way thinking about assessment and instruction. The framework would allow for teachers to more clearly articulate what the skills and outcomes are for their courses. It allows for more targeted cross curricular planning. It could even be used in collaboration with student to develop their own independent pathway.

Focused planning is necessary in PBE but it is not sufficient. Creating time and space for teachers to learn in community will be essential. Standing dedicated time for Critical Friends Groups will be essential. The biggest and most important part of a PBE classroom does not actually happen in the classroom. It happens when teacher meet each week for at least two hours and look at student work, look at the assignments they create and grapple together with the dilemmas they face with their changing practice. So in a PBE classroom deprivatization of practice is the norm. Teachers look carefully at each others work and give specific, credible, actionable and audible feedback.

So while above the water line the changes are evolutionary, below the water line the changes are going to feel revolutionary.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Transferrable Skills Conundrum

Growing up in Pennsylvania keystones were part of my life. In my home town there were several beautiful stone bridges crossing the Brandywine Creek. I learned that the keystone was the load bearing point of the bridge. The uniquely shaped stone is were the two halves came together.

In Proficiency Based Education you can think of the Transferrable Skills as the keystone that bears the weight of a student's academic life and their career life. These skills are not the content skills like being able to calculate the area of a circle or being able to apply a particular technique in drawing. They are a mixture of hard and soft skills that tend to make students and adults successful and productive.

That is the simple version. From here on out it gets confusing. Unfortunately in order for us to implement a Proficiency Based Education System we are going to have clear up that confusion, at least for ourselves. In a proficiency based system students would have to demonstrate that could do the content and the transferrable skill. It will no longer suffice to just know how to calculate the area of a circle, student will have to do more with skill. This is where it gets complicated.

Vermont has developed a set of transferrable skills to give us a starting point. These skills are derived from a skill set that has been around for some time, 21st Century Skills. The indicators below range from "Use evidence and reasoning to justify claims" (hard skill) to "Demonstrate ethical behavior and the moral courage to sustain it." soft skill.

This following synopsis from Ed Glossary sums the problem up fairly well.

While there is broad agreement that today’s students need different skills than were perhaps taught to previous generations, and that cross-disciplinary skills such as writing, critical thinking, self-initiative, group collaboration, and technological literacy are essential to success in higher education, modern workplaces, and adult life, there is still a great deal of debate about 21st century skills—from what skills are most important to how such skills should be taught to their appropriate role in public education. Given that there is no clear consensus on what skills specifically constitute “21st century skills,” the concept tends to be interpreted and applied in different ways from state to state or school to school, which can lead to ambiguity, confusion, and inconsistency. 

Vermont has tried to clear things up with their list and it does help. If you look at just the Framework for 21st Century Skills you can get quickly overwhelmed by the stuff of being a 21st century citizen. However in PBE we need to be able to separate out our more measurable skills from our habits of work. As a teacher it is easier for me design an assessment and measure a science student's proficiency in "Developing and using models to explain phenomena" than it is to measure "perseveres in challenging situations". I a may know it when I see it, but seeing it may take more of knowing the kid than knowing the content.

So this is the work we need to do. Both the transferrable skills and the habits of work need to remain the keystone between our students' academic lives and their career lives. Vermont's list of Transferrable Skills is going to need some delineation between what are skills we measure and what are habits we observe. We will still report out to families and students on both of these, but the skills we identify will be tied to content assessments.