Sunday, April 29, 2012

Assess and Coach NOT Test and Judge

Over the last several weeks, in light of all the standardized testing taking place in the state of New York, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ideas of assessment and testing and how important they are in the world of public education. In New York State we have reached a point where our children are sitting for at least 6 days of standardized testing in grades 3, 4 and 5 in the areas of English Language Arts and Mathematics. As if that weren't enough, the results from these tests will serve as the proverbial rock thrown into the middle of a placid lake on a beautiful spring day. We all know what happens next because we've seen it - the pond fills with ripples and the rock disappears. These ripples represent our children, their families, our classroom teachers, fellow building principals, schools as a whole and our communities at large. Everyone, at least in the state of New York, will be impacted and judged based on the results of these various standardized tests.

Well, I say the time has come to stand up and say NO to testing for the purposes of passing judgement! Say NO to being judged by non-educators who are taking the results of a test, which only represent one moment time, to make sweeping statements about our schools, teachers and children. A recent study (Moon, Brighton, Jarvis and Hall in 2007) found that standardized tests led to teachers and students feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to perform well. Additionally, teachers felt a significant amount of pressure to rely on drill and practice instruction techniques as opposed to maintaining a child centered classroom where children are encouraged to create, construct and apply understandings. Although it will be difficult, we must find ways to protect our children and instruction so that we do not succumb to these pressures and compromise the quality of our daily instruction and leadership.

One way I think we can make this happen is by shifting the focus from testing and judging to assessing and coaching (a special thank you to the amazing #educoach chat on Twitter on Wednesdays that reminds me on a weekly basis how important it is for me, as an instructional leader, to continuously be coaching). As a building principal one of my favorite parts of the job is spending time in the classrooms where I get a better sense of my teachers and children. By visiting the classrooms, and spending time watching, doing and listening, I am able to informally assess the staff and students to get a sense of what is currently happening and what we should be planning for in the future. I always remember how important it is to use these informal assessment opportunities (quasi-formative assessment) not for the purposes of judgement but instead, as an opportunity to develop collective goals for the building and to begin thinking about ways to coach the staff, and children, in their efforts to enhance their craft and skills and move the building forward at the same time.

The idea of coaching is one that is very near and dear to my heart because as a fourth grade teacher, I will never forget the year where I had a coach pushing into my classroom on a weekly basis. I grew so much that year because of the coach and his ability to see things in me that I never knew possible. He would watch me teach (another type of formative assessment) and then would offer me feedback and suggestions on ways that I could do things differently (he never said BETTER just DIFFERENTLY but in the end, his suggestions were always better). There were also times when I would get to watch him teach, which also helped me grow exponentially because I got to see the subtle things he did that made a tremendous difference in the levels of student engagement and performance. Working with the coach also challenged me to think about how I could change my approach to teaching so that I served more as a coach to the children and not just a source of information (sage on the stage versus guide on the side).

As educators I think it is imperative that we view ourselves as coaches (instructional leaders coaching staff and teachers coaching children) who could work collaboratively to enhance practice, assess skills and establish goals for growth and development. Being a successful coach is not easy to accomplish but it is definitely worth the effort if we remember a few important ideas...

1. A successful coach spends a tremendous amount of time observing, listening, supporting and building trust; without trust, there will be no risk taking, honestly or growth; without trust there can be no meaningful coaching;

2. A successful coach spends time getting to know the readiness levels of those around them so that a plan of action can be developed; this allows the coach an opportunity to build on the expertise that already exists; (I am fortunate enough to work with an amazing literacy coach at our school who has really been able to accomplish this goal; connect with Lisa on Twitter - @LeedeeLitCoach)

3. A successful coach is able to serve as a model teacher who can show others how to assess the strengths and needs of their students and thoroughly plan with that data to effectively reach every learner and push them to the next level;

4. A successful coach is able to coach from the side when someone is willing to take a risk or needs a gentle push; the "side-by coach" doesn't sit back and judge; instead, the "side-by coach" takes notes, reflects, offers suggestions and presents a different perspective to the teacher when a lesson or activity is completed;

5. A successful coach is a fountain of knowledge and information for any staff member or student seeking it; the coach is a resource so that when a staff member has an idea for a lesson or unit of study but is having difficulty executing, the coach is there to offer support, to share ideas and to suggest materials that might help the lesson/activity come to fruition; the coach also helps the children realize their ideas and plans during a project or activity;

6. A successful coach is always using opportunities in the classroom with teachers and students to formatively assess the activities, decisions, performance and outcomes; using formative assessment allows the coach an opportunity to offer constructive feedback, inform instruction and help staff members or children change things in the moment or near future;

7. A successful coach works with the staff or children either one-on-one, in small "guided" groups or as a whole group to further build capacity, help foster a Professional Learning Community (among the staff) and nurture a free flowing share of information, ideas and resources;

8. A successful coach plans with the staff and students on a regular basis; the coach will listen to what units of study the teachers want to implement and helps the teachers see how they can align their units and individual lessons to the standards and district curricular expectations; or the coach will listen to what the children want to accomplish during a unit and will help scaffold them to attain that goal;

9. A successful coach helps move the staff or children beyond their comfort zone; the successful coach knows just how far to push the staff or children so that they meet with some amount of success because a feeling of success will be empowering and encourage people to go a step further the next time;

10. A successful coach exudes passion, confidence and never makes anyone feel like they are going to be judged based on their actions! A successful coach never uses a test to measure someone's growth, knowledge or abilities!

If you are passionate about coaching or interested in learning more about how you can be a coach to your children or staff, check out these sites...

Although there are many more characteristics, qualities and traits of a successful coach (whether coaching students or teachers), the basic idea is that a successful coach is someone who can assess the current state of things and collaborate with key players to problem solve, execute and grow. Coaching staff members and students, based on data amassed from various formative assessments, encourages risk taking, collaboration and growth, which are the things we should be concerned about when evaluating teachers and students. The scores from standardized tests will not show us if our children can collaborate to work through a problem and apply various skills across content areas. Pencil and paper standardized tests will not allow us to formatively assess our students and immediately use the data to guide instruction and help our children grow. Instead, the tests are more about judging than they are about informing teaching and learning. So, lets say NO to testing and judging and YES to assessing and coaching!            

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