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The Dilemmas of Change in Assessment Culture

Gradeless practice.pngGuest blog by Azima Thakor

When administrators make changes that affect culture, they need and should weigh all factors related to and affecting culture and current working conditions, such as readiness of staff, needs of staff, resources available, professional development opportunities, goals for student learning, students' needs, stakeholder effects (i.e. community, parents etc.), classrooms, the school climate, student outcomes, experiences of different groups, etc.

Levinson & Fay (2016) state: "Treat ethical administrative decision-making in a different way than most moral and political philosophers so, as a debate among first principles." Instead, we should try to "find common ground among diverse constituencies, that balance multiple competing priorities in a way that is attentive both to principle and practice and that looks beyond individual decisions to the health of the system as a whole" (Page 18).

Decision-making for the purpose of having or making change can result in improved culture or can negatively affect culture.

According to Bascia (2004), school culture can be determined by four categories: The classroom, teacher communities, the school, and the external environment. My current school climate/culture balances the four categories very well.

In the classroom, "using formative and summative assessments in a systematic manner provides valuable information to students and significantly improves learning and achievement; setting objectives and providing regular feedback (including praise) on student progress toward achieving those objectives helps to keep students motivated and on track" (Pages 6-7). My principal, who I will call "Jim" throughout this paper, is working on improving school-wide assessment practices with the implementation of Overarching Learning Goals, gradeless practices, google classroom etc.

In terms of teacher communities, "teacher communities have a strongly positive impact on student outcomes when teachers participate in PLCs. The norms and practices within a given professional community with dictate teachers' opportunities to brainstorm teaching solutions with other teachers, to share teaching strategies and thus to broaden their pedagogical repertoires. PLCs are based on the assumption that the day-to-day experiences of teachers generate rich knowledge about student learning, and that knowledge is best understood through critical reflection with others who share the same experiences" (Page 7).

Using teacher experience and knowledge, critical reflection and collaboration, my school has now started mandatory department PLCs where we target an area of improvement, set a hypothesis and goal, and track it during the year in order to improve student learning.

In terms of the whole school, "school leaders contribute to positive school environments in two main fashions: by identifying and articulating a vision that inspires staff and students to reach for ambitious goals and continually pursue new learning; and by ensuring that teachers have the resources they need to teach well" (Page 8).

Jim is very clear on his school expectations--best interests of students always; and they are realistic because he understands the strengths of the staff. Also, whenever I have asked him for tools/resources to assist students, he has always delivered. Furthermore, he practices distributive leadership by respecting teacher professionalism letting teachers lead and to help others.

Lastly, "The external environment can contribute to successful student outcomes and build resilience among students by improving the community's economic and employment opportunities, through caring and supportive adult relationships, opportunities for meaningful student participation in their communities and high parents expectations regarding student learning...Parental engagement in their children's education can also contribute to successful student outcomes. Students with parents who have high expectations and express support for the schools their children attend and the teachers working those schools tend to: earn higher grades, enroll in more difficult courses, maintain regular attendance, have better social and emotional skills, adapt well to school, complete high school and pursue post-secondary studies" (Page 10).

Jim holds regular parent council meetings to update parents on school logistics. He also has a close relationship with the community, which has facilitated successful community support in our events.

Bascia (2004) mentions that school environment is shaped by several factors: inclusivity, restorative justice practices, positive mental health, relationships, community ties, physical environment, etc. (Page 1), which I feel my school encompasses. Several ideas from Bascia (2004) that contribute to my positive school climate and that Jim has been caught demonstrating and/or saying from time-to-time are: "Successful school leaders--based on measures of higher student engagement and attainment--prioritized staff motivation and commitment, teaching and learning practices and developing teachers' capacities for leadership" (Page 5).

Jim is constantly on the look-out for potential leaders that he can help polish and prepare. He usually speaks to them privately and recommends different projects or ventures they can undertake for their benefit: "Teachers' professional learning that is embedded in professional work has a positive influence on classroom practices and student learning" (Page 5). Jim is innovative and wants us to take risks in the classroom because he sees the results of innovative teachers leading to innovative students.

Results of Congruence of Competing Values found in Cameron & Quinn (2011) for my department culture demonstrate that we have a good balance of values that contribute to our positive department culture. Based on the (pretty accurate) results, we (my department) scored highest in:

  • First place: Clan/collaborative culture at 57.5%. Our Moderns/Family Studies department focuses on team accomplishments, and providing an empowering environment for the teacher as well as working on teacher development (page 35);
  • Second place: Hierarchy/control culture with 25.8%. We have a controlled culture in that "procedure governs what we do" (Page 35); however, this does not have a negative connotation, we just prefer order and things to run smoothly based on collective benefit;
  • Third place: 13.3% for Adhocracy/creative culture. We are adaptable, flexible, and creative with uncertainty as well as dynamic in our approaches (Page 49); Fourth place: 3.3% for Market/ competing culture. We do not emphasize conducting transactions in order to create competitive advantages (44) - we are not cut-throat - ask any other department how welcoming and kind we are! Other staff members come to our office to unwind and chat.

Overall, I feel that the congruence of these values (hence the name) would create a relatively positive organizational culture. My department and school come pretty close to harmony.

Process of Change

I began teaching at my school last September, the same time as Jim who came from a school in the south. Being a fairly new and, in my opinion, a tech-savvy teacher, I'm versed in Twitter and other online platforms where online collaboration and ideas are exchanged between 21st-century learners. I noticed as I started at my school that Jim was too. We both engaged in online dialogues, through book chats on twitter exchanging effective assessment ideas with other colleagues from across the board. We shared ideas and elaborated on new initiatives and practices.

One thing that I found intriguing and eventually learned more about due to these book chats, is the idea of forming a gradeless classroom. Speaking and working closely with my Resource Teacher, I found out that Jim was also very interested in this concept and that I should become more knowledgeable of it since it was inevitable that it would enter our PD discussions. I decided to pilot gradeless practices into my courses and received total support from Jim. Apparently, gradeless practice would become the norm as Jim was working closely with the board to have it approved and fully implemented for future cohorts.

To preface this organizational culture change, changing and improving teaching/assessment practices (essentially changing working conditions), I will explain what gradeless means. Gradeless practice is the idea that the process of learning drives and promotes the goal of mastery, not marks. The focus is on the feedback and delivery of how to improve skills rather than the end goal of a grade.

More emphasis is placed on giving constructive criticism and providing multiple ways to demonstrate learning, based on the individual learners and the strengths they bring. More leadership and professional judgment are placed on the teacher to determine how a student is performing based on meeting the learning goals provided for the task.

In piloting this approach, I find that my own assessment practices have greatly improved and I have created a growth mindset culture in my students. My students are less stressed about the French classroom--they enter the class knowing that this is a fun, risk-free environment where the teacher supports them because the goal is to show your learning based on fair and co-constructed standards determined together.

Essentially, Jim strived and succeeded in getting board approval to implement this approach to all incoming grade nines in 2018, with tens following in 2019, and elevens in 2020. He is currently working with Humber College (who also favors this approach) to set up an easy-transition system for grade 12s into their school.

Ultimately, (and unfortunately), a grade is still ministry-mandated in Ontario for report cards (hence not exactly a "gradeless" classroom), so we engage in conferences with students during report card time to negotiate a grade based on reviewing the evidence produced all year.

How are you currently assessing students and how's that working for you? Please share.

Works Cited

Bascia, N. (2014). "Quality Learning Environments". Toronto: People for Education

Cameron, K.S. & Quinn, R.E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework (3d ed.). p.27-72.

Levinson, M., & Jacob Fay. (2016). Dilemmas of Educational Ethics. Boston: Harvard Education Publishing Group. "Introduction" and "Promotion or Retention" (pp.1-34)

Azima Thakor teaches Secondary French at the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario. She is currently working on her Master of Education to pursue her leadership interests. She is an energetic French teacher who loves languages, dessert, EDM, traveling, volleyball, inspiring and being inspired.

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