Like the title of this post, we had many of the puzzle pieces, but they weren’t quite fitting together.  

We were searching for ‘alignment’ in our teaching… what Richard Ellmore refers to as “internal accountability”.  And we were coming up short.  Not for a lack of effort or expertise. 

We know that our tipping point as an organization lies in the quality of our teaching.  (I suspect it is your tipping point too and if you haven’t discovered that yet, you inevitably will!)  We are a very innovative charter school that has implemented multiple initiatives and creative programs over the past decade. Collectively, those initiatives have driven huge academic gains– but we were so low ten year ago those gains were inevitable.  Now we know with certainty that continuous growth for our students will not be forthcoming unless we significantly improve our TEACHING–  every teacher, every classroom, every day.

So this past week I met with each teacher to talk about their professional goals for the year.  (We do not use a traditional evaluation system– our teachers develop their own growth plan and then tell me how I can help them achieve it.)  During one of those meetings Ms. Michele shared a conversation she had had earlier in the week with her 3rd grade students.  She has a wall display that depicts each child’s academic growth according to MAPS– our formative assessments.  Each student has a flower on the wall chart that grows toward a line, and the line represents being “at grade level”.  The promised land.

“What does this line represent?” Ms. Michele had asked her class.
“It means we are at grade level,” they replied.
“And what does being ‘at grade level’ mean?” she asked.
“It means we were Proficient on the test,” offered Angelica– because no one else could quite articulate it.
“And how do you score Proficient on the test?” Ms. Michele asked no one in particular.
“You color in the dots,” said Isaiah at long last.

You color in the dots.  Bingo.

Ms. Michel and I had a simultaneous epiphany in our meeting that was transforming into MY goals meeting right before our very eyes:  “Our students have no idea what it means to be ‘at grade level’… do they?” No…they don’t. Neither our 3rd graders or our 8th graders, neither our parents nor even all of our teachers can really define what it means or what you NEED to be ‘at grade level.’  They cannot tell you what knowledge, skills or competencies must be mastered in order to consistently color in the right dots! 

It was as if someone had just knocked over a table bearing all of the pieces of a very stubborn puzzle, and when they hit the ground, they somehow fell into place.  We had been talking to kids for years about the importance of getting “to grade level”. Many had routinely formulated annual learning goals:  

1) make new friends 
2) get perfect attendance 
3) be an honor student at least five times 
4) be at grade level  

But “being at grade level” is an abstract goal at best.  We could measure whether they achieved their goal or not– but it is a relatively meaningless measure if students don’t really understand HOW you achieve it.  

So Internal accountability, at least for my school, requires this:

• Virtually every student, every teacher, every parent must be able to articulate the essential, non-negotiable  standards and competencies that must be mastered in order to perform ‘at grade level’ in May;
• The formative data from MAPS must be clearly understood by each student so that they know exactly where they are along the continuum of mastery as the year goes on– and even more importantly– so that they know what they need from their teacher ( the very definition of engaged, independent, self-reflective students!)
• Every lesson must be tightly designed so that children always know the purpose and learning goals for that lesson;
• Every lesson must feature research-based instructional strategies that simultaneously target and differentiate for every learner… at whatever level they may be along the continuum (see: Gradual Release of Responsibility!!!);
• Teachers must be able to use all evidence available– MAPS data, student work samples, etc. — to make strategic and on-going adjustments for each child. 

There are other elements too that produce the “alignment” we are searching for.  But you get the picture when: The Pieces of the Puzzle Fit Together.

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