What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part 3 Reflection

Below is a reflection on part 3 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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In section 3 of McLaughlin’s book, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the importance of making educational decisions based upon sound research and empirical data. This desired state is in stark contrast to the current reality of educational decision-making found in many of our school systems today.

Given the sheer volume of decisions that educators make on a daily basis, collecting data prior to every decision would be time-consuming and inefficient. Instead, systemic constraints force us to rely on our intuition and previous experiences to make quick decisions best serve the interests of our students and stakeholders. As we gain experience, we are able to more capably make these decisions. This is why experience is so invaluable in education, whether it is in the classroom working with students or in leading and managing a system of education as an administrator.

However, we must not completely abdicate our responsibilities as educators. Some decisions are simply more important than others. These critical decisions ultimately shape the course of our entire system; therefore, they must be made on the basis of sound science as opposed anecdotal hunches and best guesses. The loudest voice in the room should come from the data, not the person.

Often, our data tell a story and reveal a path forward we hadn’t considered. However, discovering this path requires discipline and a refusal to let emotion and ego be the sole drivers our decision-making. By remaining unbiased, objective, and open-minded, we empower our data to inform and drive our decisions. In doing so, we can identify areas of leverage that act as key drivers in our system. If we can improve in these leverage areas, our entire system will become stronger.

Making sense of our data is also important. Too many people receive too little training on how to properly analyze and interpret empirical data. In addition,  often fail to consider how reliable the data really are. There are so many factors that influence the legitimacy of the data. For example, to what extent are the sample data representative of the entire population? Were the samples randomized? Were the proper variables controlled? Was the sample size large enough? Are the differences statistically significant? Are the data repeatable? Were the researchers unbiased in their data collection? How variable are the data?

It can be easy to be data-rich, but we must not overlook the value of quality over quantity. It’s not about how much data are collected. Instead, it is really about how well the data can be used to inform our decisions. Decisions based on invalid data are just as bad as ones made with no data at all.

Lastly, assuming we have reliable and valid data, what then will we do with it? The decision may be obvious at times; however; sound decisions made on the basis of quality data often suffer from poor implementation. Leaders cannot overlook that value of building consensus and engaging diverse stakeholder in collective decision-making. No one person can do it alone and often more voices can shape better ideas. When people are a part of an objective decision-making process that happens with them instead of to them, they are much more likely to share a collective commitment and sense of urgency regarding the decision itself. This will ensure that the implementation of the decision is just as great as the decision itself.


  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.



Iowa Special Education Court Case Review: Special Education Identification and Compliance with Iowa Code



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The following is a review of actual court cases and decisions from the State of Iowa, as prepared for my EDL 277 (Issues in Special Education Administration) course at Drake University. The names of the districts and persons involved have been changed to maintain their anonymity, as the purpose of this post is for education and awareness of issues related to special education identification and compliance with Iowa Code. 

Summary of Cases:

School District A 

In the District A’s case, a complaint was filed by the parents alleging that their student was eligible for special education under the provisions of IDEA. In the case, the student’s parents were seeking reimbursement for independent tutoring services provided to their student by Sylvan prior to filing their complaint. Ultimately, it was determine that these costs were ineligible due to falling outside the statute of limitations at the time of the filing.

In the initial findings of the report, it became clear that District A had collected and documented a great deal of data regarding various interventions that were received by the student. These Title 1 interventions included support in handwriting, reading, fluency, and reading comprehension. In addition, the school district had collected a great deal of data regarding the student’s performance on standards-based grade reports, ITBS tests, and various other school-related intervention supports.

In addition, the student was evaluated diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and this diagnoses was substantiated and validated by several medical professionals. Based upon this diagnoses, the district staff met with the student’s parents and together they met to discuss the differences between an IEP and 504 plans. Based on this meeting, it was decided to pursue a 504 plan for the student, as the student was not suspected to have a disability, which is required for an IEP plan. Therefore, as a result of this meeting, the IEP team provided a prior written notice denying the student’s parents their request for an IDEA evaluation.

A few weeks later, the student’s parents requested the IEP team reconsider its decision and a disability suspect meeting was scheduled promptly. The student was then evaluated for special education and it was again determined that the student was not eligible for special education as he did not have a specific learning disability or dyslexia.

The judge ruling in the case provided a substantial legal framework that was used to inform the legal decision that was made in this case. I found this to be both thorough and helpful to understand the rationale for the ultimate decision made. Specifically, the following points really helped provide a solid legal foundation for the decision:

  • If a child has a physical or mental condition, that does not cause a need for special education, the child is not eligible for special education
  • If a child has educational needs, but those needs are not caused by a disability, the child is not eligible for special education.
  • A diagnosis of a physical or mental condition, standing alone, does not make a child eligible for special education
  • In Iowa, special education is defined as “specially designed instruction” as well as support services. To this end, not every instance of different or extra help is special education. Furthermore, response to intervention is general education, not special education or a special education eligibility process.
  • If a child is attaining standards applicable to all children and has access to the general curriculum, modifications to that child’s instruction cannot be considered special education
  • No state or federal law provides that mere participation in supplemental interventions creates a suspicion that a child may be eligible for special education.
  • There is not a maximum period that a child may receive interventions from the public agencies before the agencies must seek consent for an initial evaluation.
  • The fact that a child is not proficient on statewide assessments does not automatically mean that a child needs special education.
  • Not every child with a mental health diagnosis or a behavioral concern will be eligible for special education.

On the basis of the evidence and legal precedent, it was concluded by the judge that the student did not have a learning disability or dyslexia, but that the student’s learning difficulties were due to the student’s anxiety. Additionally, the judge determined that the student met the standards applicable to all children and did not require additional support outside the general educational curriculum. The decision was also informed by the substantial data and documentation the school district provided regarding the student’s performance during interventions, which are not the same as special education. Crucially, the school was also found to have followed protocol regarding the 504 plan that they implemented for the student as it did not circumvent legal protocol by substituting a 504 plan for an IEP plan.

The one area in which the school district was found to be at fault regarding special education eligibility for the student, it was ruled that the district was in violation of IDEA and Iowa state law in relation to their process for concluding that the student was not suspected of a disability. Even though the student was not ultimately suspected of having a disability, the judged maintained that the student’s performance was such that it could, at that time, have been explained by the need for special education.

As a consequence, it was ruled that the staff in the district receive formal training regarding the standard for suspicion of disability in order to ensure that all staff gather sufficient evidence before making conclusions regarding suspicion of disability.


School District B

In the District B case, the parent filed a complaint on behalf of their student. In the initial findings of the report, the Administrative Law Judge established the following facts that were known prior to the case:

  • The student has a specific learning disability in the area of reading comprehension. The disability affected the student’s education, and by reason of that disability,the student had a need for specialized instruction
  • The school district and the AEA had reason to suspect disability in need of special education from and after October 15, 2007.
  • The district had additional reason to suspect disability after they were presented evaluations from Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe that presented diagnoses of both dysnomia and dyslexia and a need for specialized instruction and related services.
  • Provided this evidence, according to the legal findings, the school district and the AEA did not conduct a full and initial evaluation of the student until January 27, 2009.
  • The school district did and the AEA did not provide written notice to the parent. of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation. The judge found this to be prejudicial to the parent and the student because they were not aware that the screening conducted by the AEA was not a full and individual evaluation and because they were not aware of their right to secure such an evaluation within sixty calendar days.
  • On December 21, 2007, when they received the independent evaluation report of the student by Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe, the district and the AEA resolved to do more testing on the student. Formal testing instruments were administered to the student in January 2008; however, these tests were done without the informed consent of the parent prior to their administration. Furthermore, it was ruled that the purpose of the tests was to refute the evaluations and conclusions of Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe.
  • From and after November 26, 2007 through July 21, 2009, it was ruled that the district and the AEA did not make a sufficient individualized determination of need and that too much weight was placed on the student’s advancement from grade to grade and the student’s test scores being above the tenth percentile.
  • An educational evaluation report dated July 21, 2009 contained numerous prejudicial statements and conclusions that were not part of the independent evaluation, as well as statements and conclusions that were not approved or considered by the IEP team.
  • The district and the AEA did not document whether or not the student had a specific learning disability.
  • The judge found that the interventions the district used in November 2007, February 2008, and January 2009 were not designed in accord with sound scientific principles. Furthermore, the judge ruled that these general education interventions served to delay a full and individual evaluation of the student’s disability and educational needs, and that these interventions were done without advising the parent of the parent’s right to trigger a full and individual evaluation within sixty calendar days of consenting to such an evaluation.

As a result of these findings, the district was found to be in violation of numerous provisions of state and federal special education law due to their delay in initiating a full and individual evaluation after they had reason to suspect disability and need for specialized instruction.

Additionally, the failure of the respondents to provide written notice of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation was also a violation. Additionally, the failure of the respondent’s to make an individualized determination of need was found to be contrary to the Eighth Circuits rule as set forth in Yankton vs. Schramm, 93 F.3d 1369 (8th Cir. 1996) as well as to the long-standing position of the U.S. Department of Education.

Additional rulings also called into question the district’s failure to present the Educational Evaluation Report dated July 21, 2009 to the parent on or before the eligibility determination meeting held on July 21, 2009. It was ruled that this presented a prejudicial violation of IDEA and that this was inconsistent with the basic principle that a parent is a full partner in making eligibility determinations. Furthermore, the assessments given to the student were found to be a violation of various standards set forth because the assessments were not used for purposes for which the assessments or measures could be considered reliable and valid.

Concluding rulings called into question the district’s violation of their duty to use information provided by the parent, the district’s use of objective and consistently measured tests to monitor the effectiveness of designated interventions, and failure to obtain informed consent from the parent prior to administering the assessments.

On the basis of these findings and rulings, the judge awarded the Complainant reimbursement relief for the costs of securing a tutor, compensatory education for past denials of eligibility and appropriate services, and attorney fees. In addition, the school district was ordered to conduct an IEP team meeting as soon as possible in order to develop an IEP for the student under that legal directive that the school district focuses the IEP on the student’s deficits in reading comprehension. The Administrative Law Judge retained jurisdiction of this matter to insure good faith compliance with this order.

Common Problems

In both cases, it would appear that both districts had a motivation to not suspect disability or eligibility for special education, at least initially. Perhaps this motivation was financial; however, both cases serve as cautionary tales for school leaders. It cannot be ignored that the final rulings in the District A case were much more favorable for the district than in the District B case. I have to believe that this was due, at least in part, to the substantial data collection and documentation procedure that District A appeared to have in place.

However, a key take-away from both cases appears to be to that school leaders should take the disability suspicion process very seriously and that documentation and timely communication are essential for proper legal compliance. Perhaps it would be prudent for the school leader to proceed with the assumption that every disability suspicion process could become a court case at some point and therefore, to follow all the proper channels and legal requirements and to ensure that all staff are properly trained on the disability suspicion process.

Finally, it appears essential that school leaders navigate and lead a special education identification process that values the input of all stakeholders, including parents, staff, and trained professionals. All must remember that they have a moral imperative to do what is best for the child and to work together in the child’s best interest.


Why Great Ideas Fail: The Importance of Building Consensus and Infrastructure


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As an aspiring administrator, it will be vitally important for me to develop a process for managing the system I will be leading. Too often, leaders of educational systems rush to implement the shiny new initiative or next great thing, believing it will lead to dramatic improvements to their system. However, the actual results are frequently underwhelming

Why do so many of our well-intentioned ideas go awry? Why have too many of our veteran teachers adopted a “wait and see” approach in regard to anything new? Surely, they didn’t always hold this opinion. I would like to believe that when they began their careers, they were eager and willing to invest a great deal in new and innovative ideas. However, something must have happened to them along the way, perhaps several times, to disappoint them and create this more pessimistic mindset. What have they learned that the rest of us haven’t?

As administrators, it would be very easy, and completely unproductive, to blame our teachers when initiatives A, B, or C fail to produce the results we intended. A more constructive approach would require us to first look inward at ourselves and critically examine how our own leadership may have caused the idea to underperform or even fail in its implementation.

When the problems emerge, leaders must seek to understand and identify the weaknesses and flaws embedded within the system. In regard to implementing innovative ideas and approaches, this often begins with careful reflection about how well the original idea was communicated our stakeholders. Did the change happen to them or with them? This is a clear line of distinction. How much time, effort, and resources did we invest in education and in taking the time to build understanding and consensus among our stakeholders?

As a future administrator, I realize I will need to be mindful of being both efficient and timely, and at the same time, inclusive of the voices of diverse stakeholders. Clearly, ideas that are steamrolled over people rarely generate anything more than mild compliance. No initiative can take root and grow under such conditions.

Therefore, true success is only possible when a critical majority of the stakeholders in a system are genuinely committed and determined to ensure that a particular idea becomes successful. This will only happen when the people believe in and trust one another. Trust comes from inclusion and mutual respect between the leader and their followers.

Even after doing the hard work to engage critical stakeholders and enable them to take ownership over an idea and make it their own, it still becomes incumbent upon the leader to carefully manage the system to ensure that good ideas can take hold and prosper. It also requires that a system that is built with the right infrastructure in place.

In a school system, this means creating a learner-focused curriculum, instruction, and assessment experience for our students that is aligned, data-informed, built on best practices, and inclusive of all learners. As administrators, building this requires us to wisely invest our resources and time to best support the needs of the teachers and staff in our buildings.

It is only after taking adequate time to build consensus and create the infrastructure to enable success, that we can than begin lead our systems and have committed followers. In doing so, we also ensure that the good ideas of those we lead, as well as our own, are implemented with greater fidelity.

In closing, if we can commit to do the hard work in the beginning, innovative ideas can truly take hold and be sustained, creating the necessary momentum for the innovation needed to best meet the needs of our learners in the 21st century.

~Brad Hurst



What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part 2 Reflection

Below is a reflection on part 2 of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as an assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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Reading over section 2 of McLaughlin’s book, several key themes emerged. First, McLaughlin begins by reminding the reader about the historical model of isolating special education students away from general education students. The unintended consequence of this isolation was the creation of two separate learning systems for students with and without disabilities. In essence, students were theoretically learning the same guaranteed and viable curriculum. However, McLaughlin indirectly asserts that the systems were far from being in alignment.

Within the current reality of recent educational legislation, specifically the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, and the more recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), such systems of isolation are no longer permitted to be in operation. Instead, this new legislation has created a dramatic shift in both the philosophy and approach regarding special education in our school systems.

Gone are the days of creating segregated systems of learning for special education students. Instead, the legal expectation and requirement has shifted to one where all students are, first and foremost, general education students. Therefore, the more modern approach of special education is to create the conditions and supports necessary to enable special education students to learn and be successful in general education classrooms and within the general education curriculum.

McLaughlin aptly notes that while special education students are general education students first, they also may need additional supports and skill building in areas not served in the general education curriculum. Therefore, our schools have a moral imperative and legal responsibility to prepare every students for success beyond high school. While students with mild or more severe disabilities may have some limitations in their abilities to perform specific tasks, all students are capable of success. Therefore, it becomes imperative that our school systems work to ensure that all students have the skills necessary for their future success, whatever that may look like.

Another key topic in this section was the difference between accommodations and modifications. Often, even among educators working in the field, these words are used interchangeably and there appears to be some general confusion regarding the distinction between the two terms.

According to McLaughlin, the intent of accommodations is to offset the impact of a student’s disability so he/she can learn the same content as his/her peers w/o disabilities. Accommodations do not change the content or performance expectations, but may change the sequence in which information is presented, or may entail differentiated instruction. When creating learning accommodations, it is important for the content-area and special education teacher to have opportunities to collaborate to ensure that the accommodations do not alter the major learning outcomes expected of students in the curriculum. This will ensure the maintenance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students. McLaughlin stressed that the principal also has a crucial oversight role to ensure that the accommodations being made are best practice and align with and reflect the needs of the individual student, not what is convenient or readily available.

Modifications, on the other hand, involve changes to the performance expectations, topics taught, curriculum sequences, or the type of instruction being delivered. McLaughlin asks educators to exercise great caution in creating modified learning experiences for special education students, as they often reduce a student’s opportunity to learn the critical knowledge, skills, and concepts needed for long-term success. She also notes that modifications can reduce the rigor of the curriculum to the extent that a student no longer has access to the general education curriculum, which is a legal requirement.

Another idea that really connected with me was the idea of creating standards-based IEP’s. More and more educators are implementing standards-based or standards-referenced learning practices in the general education curriculum. In such a system, learning expectations are clearly communicated with students, enabling them to continually assess their level of learning in reference to a particular learning standard. Systems like this enable students to use performance data to self-diagnose areas of learning deficiency. Students are able demonstrate learning on a timeline that is more individualized for their ability level. Students can accelerate, participate in remediation, and gain a deeper understanding of course content through receiving more targeted feedback and practice opportunities.

If this is educational best practice in the general education curriculum and if all students are general education students, why not utilize such approaches in all facets of the educational system? For example, could such practices be implemented be when writing and monitoring Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students? McLaughlin suggested that such a process was attainable when content-area and special education teachers are given opportunities by principals to engage in collaboration centered on the identification of priority learning standards, differentiated learning opportunities, and the creation of a system of supports to ensure the success of students with disabilities in the general education classroom.

The last part of this focused on the need for principals to cultivate relationships and build partnerships with parents. As educators, we must remain mindful that we are entrusted with that which is the most sacred to our parents: their children. McLaughlin reminds us that our parents have a personal relationship with their child that starts at birth and spans a lifetime. Our parents knew our students first and they know them best. Therefore, they represent a crucial component to the learning success of our students. We must therefore seek to leverage their expertise and unique insights about their child to create more personalized learning experiences for every student.

Furthermore, McLaughlin notes that our parents of students with disabilities often have unique anxieties about their child in school, including fears about their student’s safety, acceptance by their peers, teasing, bullying, and fears their student is not learning or making enough progress. Sometimes, the only interaction these parents have with the school system is in IEP meetings, which for the parents can serve as a constant reminder of their student’s disability. In such meetings, McLaughlin notes that parents often do not feel competent to make critical decisions, relying on experts and professionals to explain to them what their child needs. This requires a great deal of trust in people that are often strangers or mere acquaintances to the parents.

Our parents of students with disabilities deserve better. They deserve to be genuinely heard and listened to. They deserve more opportunities to engage in and provide insight on their children’s education and the education of all students with disabilities. Therefore, McLaughlin advocates that educators, especially principals, work to create ongoing partnerships with parents based upon open communication, trust, respect, and time on the part of the staff and the building leader.

From such experiences, parents will build trust in the people working with their child. As an ancillary benefit, they will also gain a better understanding of the system their child is learning in and develop a broader perspective of where the system is moving, why it is moving there, and how special education and the educational needs of their child fit into this system.



  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Defragmenting our System: Thoughts on Special Education and Cross-Curricular Collaboration

Below is my reflection from the first weekend of my Drake University graduate class, entitled “Current Issues in Special Education Administration.” 



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From my perspective, our first weekend of class garnered much discussion and new learning.

Among the items that really connected with me was the concept of how special education fits within the larger scope of the educational system as a whole. Specifically, how well is special education programming aligned with the philosophy that all students are first and foremost general education students?

Historically, special education programming, classes, and services have been separated from general education. Consequently, many schools created and operated separate systems of learning for general education and special education students.

Often in education, philosophies evolve much more rapidly than practices. Innovation is challenging because our system of education is so complex, often burdened with many fragmented constraints placed upon the system by those not working within the system. Therefore, it becomes crucial for school leaders to critically examine and manage the system to ensure that its practices closely align with its philosophies.

When I think about alignment, I think about the minimization of redundancy and the maximization of efficiency. For example, why create separate courses for special education students to learn science, math, English, and social studies? Is there empirical evidence that the separate courses support better learning outcomes for special education students? Furthermore, why create separate courses for students to learn the same material? Why not leverage the unique talents and expertise of both the special education and content teacher in order to maximize learning outcomes for all students?


By creating a co-taught classes, students can learn from both a content-area expert and a teacher specialized in individualization, personalization, and differentiation strategies. In such an environment, learning becomes much more engaging, meaningful, and authentic for all students. Students would also benefit from inclusion with their general education peers by building social and other non-cognitive skills. It would also be very easy to measure achievement data of all students in such courses and compare these to achievement data of the same students learning in the previously separated courses.

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Another area that resonated with me is the idea of of all educators taking ownership for the learning of all of the students in our buildings, not just the ones in our classes, content area, or grade level.

Too often in schools, educators are quick to play the blame game. At the secondary level, if scores in reading, math, or science decline, the blame often falls on the corresponding content-area teachers. At the elementary level, if kids can’t read in 3rd grade, the 2nd grade teachers are blamed. If special education students score low, the blame falls on the special education teachers.

Where is the collective ownership for the learning of all of our students? Don’t we have a moral imperative to ensure all of the students in our building are maximizing their learning along all dimensions and to do everything we can to support their learning? Additionally, the isolated accountability view places too much focus on teaching in isolation. To what extent does isolated teaching lead to deep and meaningful learning for our students?


Consider for a moment what it must be like for our students to learn in such a fragmented system. Over the course of their day, a student may have to acclimate to 8 or more different teacher personalities, expectations, performance criterion, grading scales, etc. Is it any wonder that they often struggle to apply and connect learning from one course to another?

If the purpose of education to create a well-informed, skilled, and collaborative citizenry, capable of creating collective solutions to diverse, multifaceted problems and functioning appropriately in a rapidly evolving global society, how well are we hitting that mark? 

Do we even know how to measure if we are hitting that mark? Are we just hoping that it will just magically happen? And if this is our goal, or if we have other goals like this for our students beyond merely learning content, how explicitly have we communicated these to each other as educators? More importantly, how well have we communicated these to our students? Have we provided them with targeted learning opportunities to grow in their capacities to meet these goals?

As educators, we must no longer enable our systems to perpetuate the perception that we do not care about what our students learn outside of our individual classrooms. We care deeply. 

Therefore, our actions must reflect our words. We must take more ownership in teaching the whole child. We must seek to learn from colleagues outside our departments and grade levels. So many great ideas are being implemented in our buildings and we must all seek to discover them to build the collective capacity as educators in our system. We must visit each other’s classrooms and open our doors to welcome others to visit and learn from us.


The students cannot be the only learners in our buildings. To maximize learning outcomes, we must model the mindset we hope for our students to capture.


By doing so, we would learn more about what our students are learning, enabling us to implement new and better strategies in our own classrooms more closely aligned to those of our colleagues. We would also discover connections between our content areas and grade levels that we could communicate to our students in order to deepen their understanding of what they are learning about.

Ultimately, if we could design a system where teachers were invited and encouraged to visit classrooms outside their content area or grade level, I believe a dramatic cultural shift would occur in our schools. We’d feel more connected to our colleagues and more ownership over our entire learning system. I predict students would achieve at much higher levels and this performance could easily be measured before and after such a system was implemented.




What Every Principal Needs to Know About Special Education: Part I Reflection

Below is a reflection on part I of Margaret J. McLaughlin’s book called, What Every Principal Needs to Know about Special Education as a pre-class assignment for my EDL 277 course, Current Issues in Special Education Administration, at Drake University.

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As I read section I of McLaughlin’s (2009) book, several themes and ideas emerged that I really connected with. First and foremost on this list is the nature of the students’ learning needs being served by special education services. McLaughlin (2009) makes a key point that, stating that, “Students who receive special education are a diverse group” (p. 5).

As teachers, we must take caution to avoid over-generalization of any of our students. Each and every student in our classroom has a unique set of abilities, interests, learning needs, and life experiences. Therefore, we have a moral imperative to get to know every one of our students on an individual level, cultivating relationships in order to create differentiated learning opportunities for our students aligned with their interests and learning needs.

McLaughlin also reminds us of the many legal requirements regarding special education services. Driving many of these requirements is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), a federal law governing special education services. Perhaps the most important component of this law is ensuring that all students are provided “a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).” The focus on the word ‘appropriate’ has driven many court cases over the years; therefore, administrators and teachers must maintain the utmost diligence in adherence to ensure the educational services provided to the special education student are continually monitored and adjusted when needed. McLaughlin (2009) also cautions the reader “what is ‘appropriate’ for one student with a disability may not be appropriate for another. The core principle of FAPE is individualization” (p. 6).

IDEA also established the expectation that all special education students learn in the “least restrictive environment (LRE) possible.” Therefore, if a special education student is able to effectively learn in a general education classroom with other general education students, it is a legal expectation that they have access to this learning environment. Schools; therefore, must make every effort to ensure inclusion of special education students in classes with general education students to the “greatest extent possible.” A key consideration and rationale for inclusion among general education students is the goal of building the independence of the special education student so they are more prepared for success after high school.

Changing gears a little, as a high school science teacher entering my 11th year of classroom teaching, I have a fair level of experience in working with students with IEP’s and 504 plans. However, I have always felt my level of learning about special education was more of a surface level understanding of IEP’s and 504’s. I attend the meetings, read the plans, and am sure to follow them for my students. Occasionally, I have worked with a co-teacher, as I am this year in my environmental ecology course. Still, I can’t help feeling there is so much more to I need to learn.

In terms of my education preparation, I have only taken one course in special education, and that was all the way back in 2003. This course helped to familiarize me with many of the basics regarding what IEP and 504 plans were, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the classroom teacher as it related to adherence and compliance with the language in the plans as a general education teacher.

As an aspiring administrator, I need to grow in my learning in the area of understanding the process of how students with IEPs and 504’s are identified, monitored, and built towards independence over time. Clearly, I also have a limited understanding of the role of the school administrator in ensuring compliance and working with the special education teachers to develop strategies for effective implementation of IEP and 504 plans.

One thing that McLaughlin (2009) made very clear was that the IEP document “represents a contract between the school district and the parent or guardian, so failure to follow procedures means that a student has been denied FAPE” (p. 6). It is important for all educators to abide by all the components of this contract with fidelity and it is important for administrators to work with the all of the student’s teachers to ensure this compliance with the student’s IEP components.

In relation to the IEP responsibilities of the administrator, the administrator must embrace their role as a vital and crucial member of the IEP team, taking steps to provide adequate time and resources to the IEP team to ensure compliance with the IEP contract. McLaughlin (2009) also reminds the reader about the inequity and disproportionate placement of ethnic minority students in special classes, noting that “In 2005, nearly one fourth of Black students with disabilities and one fifth of Hispanic students were educated outside the regular classroom more than 60% of the time compared to 13% of White students” (p. 11).

Ensuring equity and proportionality of placement requires the administrator to proactively work with teachers to ensure the inclusion of all special education students in the least restrictive learning environments possible. The practice of creating special classes containing only special education students should be avoided or minimized at all costs in order to ensure LRE compliance to the greatest extent possible.

Instead, administrators must work with special and general education teachers to create more opportunities for co-taught courses where the general and special education teacher can team together in a classroom to effectively implement differentiation strategies that can benefit all students, not just special education students. Furthermore, McLaughlin (2009) advocates that such courses ensure that all students “receive meaningful opportunities to learn in the classroom” (p. 13).

Administrators must also think and work systemically. A student’s inability to learn may not be due to any specific learning disability, but rather a systemic flaw that inhibits the student’s ability to learn. Administrators must lead an ongoing examination of the system that students are learning in. To what extent do students view the system as a learning system? To what extent is the system designed to ensure learning retention? To what extent is the system aligned to ensure clarity of learning goals and expectations for students? To what extent is the system designed to provide students that learn differently with opportunities to demonstrate learning differently? To what extent is the system designed to enable students to receive remediation and re-teaching when needed? To what extent is the system aligned with educational best practices and managed successfully when challenges emerge?

These are not easy questions to answer or address, or ones that can be adequately answered by the efforts of any one individual, and at the same time, they are the important ones. Administrators must work with teachers to create, lead, and manage a system of learning that enables all students to achieve their maximum learning growth.



  1. McLaughlin, M.J. (2009). What every principal needs to know about special education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.




The “Hard Work” Narrative

The people of the United States are known to say that if you just work hard enough, you can be successful in anything. I don’t disagree with this sentiment; however, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Where you start from matters a great deal. If we are all running a race and the first to finish wins, we cannot ignore the fact that some of us are given tremendous head starts in this race that others are not.

I am not sure how much of a head start I had growing up. I attended Head Start for preschool if that counts for anything. We lived in various apartments, trailers, and houses over 18 years. We didn’t have a telephone. We never had cable television. Almost all my clothes were hand-me-downs from the thrift shop. We didn’t go on many vacations. We didn’t have gas heat and we had to cut, split, and stack our own wood constantly in the summer in order to have enough to get through the cold northeast Iowa winters. We had a garden and raised chickens because it was cheaper (and more work) than buying the same food at a grocery store. My parent’s cars were constantly breaking down. Everything was constantly breaking down and we were constantly working on, fixing, and repairing multiple things simultaneously.

What some people born into privilege forget is how much work it is just to live like that. My parents worked very hard. They took on all the overtime they could. When they came home, they had even more work to do. They were working all the time. I also worked hard and sacrificed a great deal growing up, as did my siblings. In fact, work was all we ever knew on the weekends. Simply gathering, cutting down, splitting, and stacking enough firewood to get through the winter took up the majority of the weekends we had. Between that, gardening, mowing our large yard with many trees, repairing equipment, repairing cars, fixing things around the house, and helping my Dad with various odd jobs he took on for more money, there was little time for anything else.

Investing all this time on work, combined with there being little money available for anything beyond the bare necessities meant that growing up, I went to only a handful of movies, never got braces, never had swimming lessons, never participated in youth sports, never went roller skating, and never stayed over at a friend’s house.

I share all of this not to generate empathy, but to make a point. I’ve had to work very hard for everything I have, which isn’t much. I believe the greatest gifts my parents bestowed on me was is raising me to have a strong work ethic and little expectation for anything to be handed to me in this world. I worked extremely hard in school, knowing I had no safety net and that my only ticket to a better life was a good education. I studied relentlessly and listened intently in my classes. I gave everything I had.

In sports, I did not have the benefit of years of youth sports experience prior to seventh grade. I wasn’t terribly talented, but I worked hard. Before I had my driver’s license, my Mom used to drop me off every morning in town with my bike so I could lift weights at the high school. Then, I would bike over an hour back to our house in the country. Needless to say, my level of fitness dramatically improved that summer!

I wasn’t handed the keys to a new car when I turned 16. Instead, in the two years prior to turning 16,  I helped my uncle and relatives in their roofing company, working long hours on hot summer days tearing off old shingles and carrying heavy bundles of new shingles up steep ladders and roof pitches for $15 a day. Eventually, I was able to save up enough to buy a cheap used car when I got my license. The car had constant problems and I had to work with my Dad to repair it on a regular basis.

When I graduated high school, I earned scholarships, but not enough to pay for all my expenses. My parents helped out the best they could, but they couldn’t just cut a check for my tuition and housing. During the majority of my time in college, I worked. This helped me pay for my housing and living expenses, but was not enough to cover to pay for the all the costs. Therefore, like so many others, I had to take out student loans to cover the difference in order to get through college. I graduated in 2001 and I am still paying these back and likely will continue to do so for several years into the future.

I mention all of this because often the people who were born into middle or upper middle class families, attended the best schools, and were given a great deal of resources and support along the way are often the ones most opposed to providing support or “handouts” for our nation’s most needy citizens. Some of these people steadfastly believe that the vast majority of our nation’s poor people are simply lazy and if they, or their parents, had just worked harder, they would be successful.

My story is not unique. In fact, I had many privileges I did not realize at the time that others did not. My parents were still together and not separated. We always had electricity, running water, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.

I wonder how successful I would have been if  I had been born into extreme poverty and occasional homelessness, attended schools with minimal resources and crumbling infrastructure, lived in neighborhoods of perpetual crime, been a descendant of non-native English speakers, been a racial or ethnic minority, etc. Would I actually have just worked that much harder to get where I am now? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Considering how hard I had to work just to get to where I am now, I am not so sure I could have worked much harder. How about you? How much of what you have did you have to personally work for? How much did you inherit? Did you work harder than I have from the time you were born? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Perhaps the point of this post is that we should all work hard, but also be willing to help others. We should be thankful for any privileges we inherited that made our journey any easier and try to pay it forward as best we can.

Reflections on #DrakeEDL visit to Toronto DSB Schools


In June 2016, I was fortunate enough to participate in Drake University’s annual visit to schools in Toronto, Ontario. The tour was led by 2 professors in the Drake University School of Education‘s Education Leadership program: Dr. Tom Buckmiller and Dr. Doug Stilwell. Our tour group also included a superintendent, a building administrator, and several graduate students in the Educational Leadership Program at Drake University.


Our tour guide for much of the tour was Cloyce Weaver, Student Achievement Officer for the Ontario Ministry of Education.


On our first night in Toronto, Cloyce explained to us that Canada is organized as a centralized education system, whereby each province sets its own educational system that each province’s Ministry of Education oversees it.

Something rather unique about the system of education in Ontario is that it includes both public and private primary and secondary schools, as well as post-secondary institutions. By right of the constitution of Canada, Roman Catholics are entitled to their own separate school system that is publicly funded by taxpayers. This right is protected by constitutional status in three provinces (Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan) and statutory status in three territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut). In these Canadian jurisdictions, a separate school is one operated by a civil authority, including a separate school board,  with a mandate enshrined in the Canadian Constitution (for the three provinces) or in federal statutes (for the three territories).

I did a little research and discovered that the Ontario Ministry of Education has the following philosophy and goals: (source: Who We Are)

  • Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
  • Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
  • Promoting Well-Being: All children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
  • Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.

The structure of the school system in Ontario varies in a few significant ways from school systems in the United States. First, the school system in Ontario consists of the entire province, whereas school systems in the USA are more regionally organized into city, community, or rural regional districts.

At first glance, the provincial system appeared to have several advantages. Primarily, the funding base consists of taxes collected from citizens across the entire province rather than local taxes specific communities. With such a system in place, it was much easier to ensure a more even and equitable distribution of resources and funding across every school in Ontario.


Cloyce further explained that the Ontario Ministry of Education had three main focus areas: language, mathematics, and well-being. The student well-being area really connected with me and was a very obvious and visible component in all the schools we visited. Cloyce explained that with so many students immigrating from areas of the world in conflict, as well as serving many native First Nations students, the primary need is to serve the basic needs of the child and infuse those experiences with academic learning to foster a sense of connection to the school and the community.

I believe this is an area for possible leverage and systemic improvement in our schools in the United States and a primary reason why students in Canada consistently scores well on international assessments, including the PISA. Students in Canada feel a strong sense of connection and belonging to their schools and country; therefore, they are driven to consistently perform at their peak levels out of a sense of pride and responsibility to their school, community, and country.

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Beyond merely scoring well on international assessments, the more primary goals of the Ontario Ministry of Education involve students performing at established standards of proficiency, called levels. (Note: A more detailed description of the levels and the process used to establish and measure them can be found in the Ontario “Growing Success” document.)

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Cloyce told us that the Ontario Ministry of Education has established a goal that 75% of all students score at Level 3 or higher across multiple measures of learning. A special note is that this goal is that it is inclusive of special education students with IEP accommodations in place.

Toronto District School Board:

Unfortunately, we did not have the time or resources to visit schools all across Canada or even Ontario. Instead, all the schools we visited were in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

Why TDSB? According to Dr. Buckmiller, “Along with Finland, Toronto is consistently recognized as one of the highest performing education systems in the world.”

In addition to being a high-performing district, the TDSB is also one of the largest and most ethnically diverse school districts in North America, serving approximately 245,000 students in 588 schools throughout the Toronto area. Here is a picture of a map of the various neighborhoods in Toronto that I took at one of the schools we visited.



Toronto DSB Educational Structure

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Demographics of TDSB Students

  • 170,000 elementary students
  • 75,000 high school students
  • 1,400 international students  
  • 27,150 students are enrolled in immersion and extended French programs 
  • 22% were born outside of Canada 
  • There are over 120 languages spoken by TDSB students and their families.

Cloyce explained that neighborhoods, and therefore schools, in Toronto are often very ethnically clustered. Many of the incoming students and families are displaced Muslims and Hindus from across the world. Many incoming students and families were not native English or French speakers.

Demographics of TDSB Staff  

  • 16,500 permanent teachers (11,100 Elementary, 5,400 Secondary)
  • 6,400 occasional teachers (4,600 Elementary, 1,900 Secondary)
  • 13,000 permanent support staff and 5,000 supply/casual employees (including Designated Early Childhood Educators, professional support workers, caretakers, maintenance staff, IT support, administrators, etc.).

The Federations (Associations or Unions in the USA) are very strong in Canada. The Ontario Teacher’s Federation (OTF) was established by the Teaching Profession Act of 1944, is the professional organization for Ontario’s teachers.

All teachers are required by law to belong to OTF as a condition of teaching in the publicly funded schools of Ontario.

Branches of the OTF include the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association, and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

At various times over the last few years, the OTF has launched a Work to Rule (strike) on behalf of its various employee groups. Last summer, the public schools were on Work to Rule so the Drake students visited the Catholic schools instead of the public schools. This summer, the Catholic Schools were on Work to Rule, so we visited the public schools instead.

Something else of note that I learned was that in Canada, coaches are volunteers and do not receive additional stipends for their work as coaches, unlike in the United States. Also, there are apparently no marching bands in Canada. I guess this makes sense, as American football isn’t really that big in Canada. This is a hockey country and I would imagine marching on ice while playing an instrument would be rather difficult. 

Demographics of TDSB Schools

  • 588 schools in total
  • 472 Elementary Schools (including 7 Junior High Schools and 18 Elementary Alternative Schools)
  • 116 Secondary Schools (including 1 Elementary/Secondary Alternative School, 20 Secondary Alternative Schools, 4 Caring and Safe Schools Programs and 5 EdVance Programs)

Becoming a principal in Canada

Becoming a school principal in Ontario is a much different process than it is in the United States. In the United States, interested teachers must first teach for 3-5 years before they are able to apply for a Master’s program in educational leadership. Once admitted, they must successfully complete 12-15 graduate courses, accumulate hundreds of clinical and job shadowing hours, and complete a comprehensive portfolio demonstrating proficiency in their state’s administrative leadership standards. Only after all of this has been completed can one apply for their administrative license to become a principal.
After acquiring an administrative license, aspiring new administrators can then begin the process applying for open administrative positions. Persistence and patience are paramount when engaging in this often arduous process, as it is common for well over 50 people to complete applications for one administrative position. Therefore, simply being invited to interview is commonly viewed as a respectable accomplishment and a great learning opportunity among those entering to the field. Further complicating the process for prospective first-year administrators is the tremendous priority districts frequently place upon hiring candidates with previous administrative experience.

In Ontario, the a teacher must teach for 5 years, then apply to get on the list to become a vice-principal. No formal graduate-level education or Master’s Degree is required to become a school administrator. The hiring of new vice principals involves a formal interview process as well, but less emphasis is placed on the actual interview than on the body of work of the candidate prior to the interview. Cloyce summarized this philosophy succinctly by saying,

“Some people talk better in interviews. Some people just do the work.”

After a few years as a Vice-Principal in Ontario, one can then become a school Principal. The role of building Principal in Ontario is philosophically divergent from the often more managerial role common in the United States. In Ontario,  the building principal is expected to serve as the primary instructional leader of the building. They are the curriculum leads and are pulled 4 days per year to lead staff in their buildings in curriculum work.

Another unique component in the Ontario system is the 5-year evaluation cycle for principals and vice-principals. Within this system, it appeared to be very common in the Toronto DSB for principals to be transferred to new schools every 5 years to ensure a continuous infusion of fresh ideas and new perspectives in all Toronto DSB schools.

School Visit Reflections

During our time in Toronto, we visited six different Toronto DSB schools. Below, I have posted my thoughts and reflections from each school visit. However, thinking systemically about my observations collectively, there were a couple of common themes I wanted to make special note of.

First, while the student population of Toronto DSB schools is very culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse, I had little sense that any of the teachers or administrators viewed this as an excuse for underperformance. In fact, many of the schools we visited were Model Schools, meaning their student demographics included many students living in poverty and with language barriers. Yet, the performance of students in many of these schools on the Ontario EQAO Provincial Tests is consistently above the average, despite these barriers. It really spoke to the power of maintaining an unwavering culture of high expectations for all.

Second, each school appeared to have its own sense of identity and purpose that best served its student population. Within this system of high expectations, administrators were endowed with a great deal of autonomy for how to meet these expectations, taking into account the unique challenges and opportunities within each building. School improvement efforts and initiatives were targeted and strategic. This was visible at multiple levels of each building we visited, but most apparent in the physical environment of each classroom and hallway. In each building, there was a strong sense collective ownership of the building’s unique identity and approach and the sense of school pride among staff and students was palpable.


George B Little Public School (Grades JK-08)

The first school we visited was George B Little Public School (Grades JK-08), led by principal David Ragoonath and vice-principal Farzana Abdulla. We began our tour with a presentation from both of them.

The story of George B Little Public School was like so many others we visited. George B Little is a school composed primarily of first generation Canadians and 55% of students came from families where English was not the primary language spoken at their home; however, learning and instruction in the school occurred in English. This meant that the majority of the students were learning two different languages simultaneously.

George B Little was also a Model School, meaning the school had many students from lower socioeconomic families. The top 150 most needy schools receive additional funding from the Toronto DSB in order to “level the playing field” and make learning experiences more equitable for all students in the district. I found this to be a very powerful example of thinking systemically, as it brought a system that otherwise provides a lot of success to the successful and redistributed its financial resources to bring the entire system of instruction into closer alignment.

This focus on equity through redistribution of resources does not happen to the same to degree in the United States. Some many suggest it’s only possible within a socialist economy. Yet, it’s notable that in the United States, revenue sharing systems already exist among the athletic programs of many major college conferences, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball.

What if we extended the same courtesy of equity to our most needy students that we extend to our most needy billionaires? I mention this to demonstrate that we have found ways to ensure equity and a level playing field among the sports we are so passionate about in the United States. If only we were so passionate about establishing equity of educational opportunities and a level playing field for our nation’s youngest citizens.

That’s just some food for thought. I realize the idea presents many logistical and political challenges and constraints, not the least of which is sense of collective ownership for the success and opportunity of all students in our country, regardless of their zip code or circumstances they were born into.

What made George B Little unique, in my opinion, was their approach for their administrators to be true instructional leaders in the building. As part of our visit, vice-principal Farzana Abdulla took us on a tour of several classrooms in the building. In each classroom we visited, Farzana led the students in the classroom in a lesson. She explained that her role was to provide support for all teachers and help co-teach lessons with the teachers she led. The lessons were great, but what really struck me was how normal it appeared to be for the teachers and students to have her come in.

Sometimes we take normal for granted. Normal only comes from constant practice. Things appear seamless only because they are practiced constantly. At George B Little, there was a readily apparent culture where classrooms are not isolated, protected islands. Rather, they are open, inclusive, learning environments. Student, teachers, and administrators were comfortable and willing to learn from one another. This created a community of learners where the lines of distinction between leading, teaching, and learning were all intentionally blurred.

Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School (Grades JK-06)

Hunter’s Glen is led by Principal Aldo Petrucci and Vice-Principal Angela MacMillan-Suzuki.


We began our visit with a presentation from Principal Aldo Petrucci. Even though we only spent a short amount of time with him, his passion for his work was very apparent and he was a very inspiring and motivational leader. It was easy to understand how he was able to lead such transformational change at his building.

If there was ever school that was a model of being a turn-around school, it is Hunter’s Glen. Their EQAO scores speak volumes about what has happened here over the last few years.

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A trajectory of learning growth such as this is not accidental and is a reflection on the strong leadership that Aldo has provided over the last several years. Aldo admitted that when he took over in 2011, “There was nowhere to go, but up.” To achieve such results, he first sought to understand the system that was creating such results. From this, he used data to inform and forge a path forward toward improved results.

Most importantly, the change didn’t happen to his staff, but with them. He realized that any changes in approach needed to first begin with establishing a collective commitment to those changes and with modeling the mindset needed to ensure any newly implemented changes led to meaningful results. To accomplish this, the building’s culture and approach needed to shift. They needed to create and build a new shared vision and establish a sense of collective ownership among all staff members to transform that vision into a reality.

This didn’t happen overnight. Aldo shared that often, an organization has to have the systemic discipline and patience to “stay the course” for many years in order to build and sustain a systemic vision. This is not easy in our short-term results-driven educational systems. There are many pressures and expectations that come from outside the system that impact the system in profound ways.

However, truly producing meaningful, long-term, sustainable growth in learning requires not just a temporary increase in achievement scores in isolated areas, but rather a fundamental understanding of the root causes for the current level of systemic performance, shared vision, and strategic plans to improve performance. This requires those in the system to identify areas of maximum leverage in order to ensure that all the hard work being done is the right work to be doing. Perhaps most importantly, the work of the system must be brought into alignment to ensure congruence and continuity.

Building and sustaining a culture of growth and continuous improvement is also largely about mindset. Aldo shared that, “What you permit is what you promote.” He believed that establishing a culture of high expectations was crucial to the success of Hunter’s Glen. He believed that past performance need not dictate future levels of success. Furthermore, while failure was previously tolerated and expected, Aldo believed that there was real leverage in changing the narrative about failure to one where “failure is not an option.”

Really, the turnaround appeared to largely be about changing the learning outcomes for students. This meant that instruction needed to change. Administrators needed to change and embrace their primary roles as leaders of learning. At Hunter’s Glen, the administrators are instructional leaders first and foremost. There is a real effort by Aldo and Angela to minimize the completion of managerial tasks during time when students are in the building.

Instead, they spend the majority of their time during the school day focused on learning. They do this by developing and leading professional learning opportunities for staff and working in classrooms directly with students. They focus on providing descriptive feedback and inviting staff to meetings to discuss learning. They facilitated a movement away from simply having demonstration classrooms to having a demonstration school. All teachers and all classrooms are expected to have an open door policy, creating a community of learning where teachers can visit one another’s classrooms and where learning can happen anywhere with anyone.

In addition, to gauge how well the system was performing, Aldo had his staff identify several “marker students.” These students were some of  their average “C” students. The goal was for the principals and teachers to track the performance of these students in the system to maintain some sense about how the system as a whole was performing. They did this by checking in with the marker students frequently about how they were doing, identifying the areas where they were succeeding and develop better strategies to help them improve in the areas where they were struggling. The idea was that if they could fine tune the system to best meet the needs of these students, the effects would generalize across all students in the system, and the system as a whole would improve.

For all students, teachers and principals intentionally strived to cultivate a shift in mindset among students from being mere participants in the system to taking ownership to become more active, independent learners and leaders of the system. Doing this required the staff to create experiences and opportunities for the students to become more reflective about their own learning and engage more in metacognition. The desire is to create more learning experiences where students are forced to “comfortably struggle” in order to create a cognitive shift from learning outside their comfort zone. Staff take the time to debrief with students after tests. When students do not perform well, they comes to see their mistakes not as moments of failure, but rather necessary and valuable learning opportunities.

Creating the systemic conditions necessary to ensure such a shift in the students’ learning experiences and mindset did not happen spontaneously. Rather, it only happened as a direct corollary of strategic planning. Notably, the entire staff at Hunter’s Glen invests a great deal of time in proactively planing the next year’s learning for students and staff  during much of the Spring of the previous year.

By taking such a proactive approach, more voices are able to participate in the process, shaping better ideas, as well as a stronger commitment and sense of ownership of those ideas. In addition, by engaging directly in the planning process, all staff at Hunter’s Glen have a deeper understanding about why various approaches or initiatives are being implemented. Aldo stressed that he wanted the change to happen with the staff, not to them. They also have a stronger sense of purpose and personal responsibility to ensure that what is planned aligns with what is implemented and that the next year’s implementation is ongoing and with great fidelity.

As part of this planning process, emphasis is placed on creating a focus on that which is within their realm of influence and locus of control, as these represent actual areas of possible leverage where the staff are able to exert positive influence on the system. One key area of leverage the staff have chosen to prioritize is in creating a more intentional focus on building positive relationships and cultivating a stronger sense of trust between students, staff, and administration.

Part of this focus has been to embrace the value of technology in the learning experience of the students at Hunter’s Glen. A century ago, a pencil was considered an innovative technology. A lot has changed in 100 years, yet our schools have struggled to keep pace with the rate of technological innovation happening all around us. Aldo, wanted the students’ learning in the classrooms to more closely align with their learning outside the classroom. Today’s students are digital natives and expect to be able to use technology to supplement their learning.

To this end, using what limited financial resources he had at his disposal, he worked to ensure that chalkboards in every room were replaced with Smart Board projectors. As finances were tight, Aldo personally worked with the maintenance and custodial staff to help install these in every room. They also purchased iPads that students are able to take home, called “traveling iPads.” Doing so builds a community of learning that extends beyond the classrooms and is more inclusive of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that comprise the student body at Hunter’s Glen.


Park Lawn Junior Middle School (Grades JK-08)

Park Lawn is led by Principal Erin Altosaar and Vice-Principal Heather Overland. As we didn’t have a formal presentation first, I didn’t have as many written notes from this visit; however, I did take several pictures that will help me tell the story of my experiences and learning from this school.


The first classroom visited was a kindergarten classroom that was engaged in a very engaging and hands-on project to try to learn and understand more about how to “Catch a Capybara.” As a person with a much stronger level of comfort and familiarity with learning in the secondary classroom, it was great for me to visit an early elementary classroom. Once there, I was very impressed by all the different types of learning happening simultaneously within one project. It occurred to me that many secondary teachers could learn a great deal from visiting the classrooms of our elementary colleagues more frequently.

In this one project, students were working in collaborative groups to learn more about the life of the capybara. In the context of doing so, they built skills creativity, problem solving, inquiry, critical thinking, reflection, collaboration, communication, and metacognition. In so doing, they also became stronger in mathematics, science, engineering,

We then visited a few other classrooms and it occurred to me that in every room, the evidence of learning was all around us. The walls of every room included artifacts of learning conversations, providing a constant reminder of where they had been, where they were, and where they were going. It also became clear that teachers were serving not as gatekeepers of learning, but active participators in and facilitators of the learning. Too often, teachers take the learning for granted. However, when teachers actively engage in and become passionate about the learning they are expecting from their students, it becomes contagious. The learning becomes less an exercise in compliance and more of a collective commitment with purpose.

As an example, here are some pictures of a third grade classroom we visited. These pictures demonstrated so many different levels of learning, collective commitments for how learning will occur, evidence of classroom conversations and shared decision-making involving students.

The last classroom we visited was an 8th grade  classroom. Here we were able to talk with a teacher that was finishing up a seemingly powerful project that blended learning from literature, health, art, and media.  The project explored the impact of relationships, dominant social norms, popularity, social privilege, identity, social barriers and how these coalesce to create pressure to conform to acceptable or idealized norms, behaviors, physical attributes, etc.. It appeared to be a powerful, relevant, interesting, and transformational learning for the students.

For their part, the students really embraced the ability to explore such relevant topics, sometimes ignored in more traditional classrooms due to their controversial nature. To facilitate such learning, the instructor did a masterful job of keeping the learning both relevant, interesting, and school appropriate, walking a delicate line masterfully. I believe the students understood the unique opportunity they had been given to express and explore their interests and questions related to topics often overlooked in the more traditional curriculum and did not want to waste or ruin such an opportunity or responsibility to move the learning of their peers and future peers forward.

Rose Avenue Junior Public School (Grades JK-06)

Rose Avenue Public School is and Art Magnet School led by Principal David Crichton and Vice Principal Sandra Li.

Rose Avenue is located in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in all of North America. The community is often the first place new immigrant and refugee families will live upon immigrating to Toronto. According to their website,

“Our diverse student population is drawn from the 22 apartment towers, housing over 27,000 people in one of the most densely populated and multicultural communities in North America. The school has a student population of over 650. More than 85% of the students have English as their second language, representing about 50 language groups.”

With so many non-native English-speaking students and families served by Rose Avenue, developing English speaking and writing fluency is high priority at Rose Avenue. They employ three full-time ESL teachers. One of the primary student goals at Rose Avenue is for all students to read at grade level by the end of first grade and read above grade level by grade six.

Rose Avenue is another Model School enjoys a great deal of parental and community support for the school. The playground of the school is used frequently for various community events and functions. That said, it is not seen as a destination community for many new the area, but rather a first stop on the journey to a better life. Many successful families move out of the neighborhood and into better housing. Therefore, the student population is highly transient.

Even with such challenges, the mindset of the staff and leaders was largely about “teaching the students in front of you.” There was really a priority about making the most of the time the teachers have with the students and making every effort to ensure their future success. I found this very powerful. Rather than making excuses, they saw a small, but significant, window of opportunity to have a positive impact on their students. The goal was to use that limited time to forge positive relationships, as well as build trust, hope, and empowerment that would serve the students well for the rest of their life’s journey.

As a science teacher, a primary component that I observed in this school, as well as several others I visited, was a strong emphasis on environmental education, sustainability, and literacy across every grade level. Perhaps this focus is a natural extension of Canada’s much more explicit embrace and focus on preserving the culture and teachings of its indigenous First Nation citizens. (Note: “First Nation” is the Canadian term for the group of indigenous people called “Native Americans” the United States.) I will talk more about this in my discussion of the First Nations School we visited.

In Ontario, this program is called EcoSchools. Rose Avenue had achieved special designation of being classified as a Platinum Eco School for its strong emphasis and sustained commitment to environmental education. During our visit, we were able to tour a classroom where students groups were doing presentations of their engineering design ideas to reduce the size of the Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of floating trash and marine debris (mostly plastic) that is about the size of the state of Texas, perhaps even larger, located in the Pacific Ocean.

I came away from this very impressed, as this is a topic many students in the United States only hear about as juniors and seniors in high school, and only if they elect to take environmental science. These students were in middle school and had already began collaborating and designing possible solutions to help alleviate the problem. Unfortunately, due to the optional nature of environmental science courses in many school districts in the United States, a great majority of students may go through high school and college and never hear about so many of the environmental challenges facing our world.

Another focus area of Rose Avenue is arts integration. The philosophy behind this was pretty clear. By promoting and exploring the diverse forms of art, music, dance, etc. of students represented in the school, the Rose can build a culturally inclusive community of learners and create a stronger sense of belonging and connection to Rose by students in the school.

The walls of the hallways provided a clear examples of this learning, as every wall in every hallway was decorated with some sort of mural or montage. It was really pretty amazing to see in person and I really came to appreciate how it could have a truly uplifting and inviting impact on students and families that were beginning a new life, full of uncertainty, in a new country, city, neighborhood. As I walked the halls of Rose Avenue, I began to really appreciate the transformative, anxiety-calming effect that art could have on visitors. A picture is worth a thousand words, and art speaks a language that everyone can understand.

Queen Alexandra Middle School (Grades 06-08)

Queen Alexandra Middle School is led by Principal Emma Nichols and Vice-Principal Kristin McDonald. It is another of Toronto’s Model Schools.

At Queen Alexandra, the focus is about creating student learning experiences that are engaging and sustainable. This is achieved largely through incorporating project-based learning (PBL) opportunities in which students are given a great deal of autonomy they elect to demonstrate mastery of established learning standards.

If we are honest, much of what we “learn” is ultimately forgotten. If you disagree, think back to your time in high school or college. What percentage of all that you were “taught” do you still remember? Why is this percentage so low? Perhaps it is because there is often little opportunity to create our own context, relevance, and purpose for the learning. Little interest can be drummed up from a test, quiz, or worksheet. These are so routine that they don’t stand out and much of the material is easily forgotten.

Furthermore, as students progress through middle and high school, as well as college, the learning becomes more and more compartmentalized and specialized. As they progress, students are less frequently asked or expected make connections between different courses they are taking. This has created a mindset among many students that the learning starts when they enter the classroom and stops when they leave it. The broader scope of why the learning is important or how it connects to other topics they are learning about or their life in general becomes less and less apparent over time.

Queen Alexandra’s approach is to tackle this reality directly. They starting by determining which learning outcomes were most important or universal to the future success of all students. From these conversations, they settled on what they call “The 6 C’s.” These are: citizenship, critical thinking, communication, character, creativity, and collaboration.

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These are similar to Iowa’s Universal Constructs and I believe our students could really benefit from a stronger focus on developing these skills in our schools. It can be easy for educators to become so consumed with new curriculum adoptions, and content standards that they overlook how their students will unpack that learning or create meaning from the learning so that it is more likely to be retained.

Using their project-based approach, Queen Alexandra has created a learning process that expects students to apply their learning across multiple disciplines in order to create authentic learning artifacts that demonstrate evidence of learning that goes beyond course-specific standards. By giving the students a great deal of choice and voice in shaping how they create their projects, the learning is more engaging; therefore more likely to be retained. By clearly communicating the success criteria to students when the project is announced, students have clarity and trust in the system and work to hit the learning targets. By holding a public showcase at the end of the term, the learning has more authenticity and accountability, as students know the teacher will not be the only one evaluating them. This ensures all students perform to their maximum potential, often exceeding the expectations of the teachers.


First Nations Junior and Senior School of Toronto (Grades JK-06)

The First Nations Junior And Senior School of Toronto is led by Principal Lisa Zwicker. Of all the schools we visited, this one was the one that stood out the most for me, as it was the most uniquely different from any of the others we visited or of any other school I have ever experienced.

First, I believe it is appropriate to provide a little context on why this school stood out so much for me. In every school we visited in Toronto, there were examples of an embrace of First Nation people, their teachings, and their beliefs.

I believe one of the reasons that so many people choose to immigrate to Canada  is that Canadians appear to have a much more welcoming mindset about immigration than we do in the United States. I believe this welcoming nature derives partially from that reality that Canadians are more honest about the fact that so many of them are descendants of immigrants as well.

What made this school so unique was that 100% of its student population were of First Nation Aboriginal ancestry. The school specializes in presenting the curriculum of Ontario from a First Nation perspective. The school was considered a Cultural Survival school, meaning it is inclusive of the culture of First Nations’ people.

The teachers and leaders of the school shared several lessons they have learned from working with First Nations students. First, the only real currency for so many of these students is respect. It means everything to them. Respect means viewing the students as people of value. For teachers to gain the students’ respect, they need to appear human, be willing to be open about who they are, make mistakes, and admit them.

Furthermore, the teachers need to invest and take an interest in the First Nations culture and teachings. They have to view the work as not just a job, but a community. They need to attend community events and be seen outside the school. They need to invest in the First Nation way of life, yet understand that they are still outsiders. Therefore, the need to show reverence for cultural traditions without expecting to directly participate (unless specifically requested to do so) in ceremonies or customs.

To be accepted by the students, you have to be accepted by the community. To accomplish this takes time and effort. People need to see that you genuinely care for and look out for them, respecting their way of life and system of beliefs. In addition, the teachers must learn that there are clear differences between different First Nations groups. They need to seek to learn about these differences and respect these differences. Just because 100% of the students are of Aboriginal heritage doesn’t mean it is a strict monolithic culture.

In the First Nations culture, well-being is often considered much more important than academics, so the school makes real efforts to ensure it is meeting the needs of whole child. Doing this takes a village, and healers and elders from the community are often brought in to help develop and support the well-being of the whole child.


Overall, it was a great trip, and one I would highly recommend for all educators and all current and aspiring administrators. I feel very fortunate that my first excursion outside the United States was such powerful and transformative learning experience, with lessons I will use and reflect upon for the rest of my career!


~Brad Hurst



Reflections on the 2016 Drake University Educational Leadership Symposium

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The Drake University School of Education hosted their annual Educational Leadership Symposium, entitled: Standard Based Grading: From the Front Lineson Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

As more schools in Iowa continue to transition to standards based or referenced grading (SBG) principles, each district may encounter unique challenges.  This symposium brought together four leaders who have been successful in implementing SBG in their districts. 

The following speakers shared their insights at the Symposium:

  • Garnet Hilman, Instructional Coach, Caruso Middle School
    Why Should I Change How I Grade?
  • Matthew Smith, Chief Schools Officer, Des Moines Public Schools
    Leadership Interrupted: What It Truly Means to be a SBG Leader
  • Matt Townsley, Central Office Administrator, Solon Community Schools
    SBG Snags and Solutions
  • Jill Urich, Chief Academic Officer, Ankeny Public Schools
    Standards-Based Learning: I Used to Think…Now I Know…

Our first presenter was Matthew Smith of the Des Moines Public Schools. He started the conference by creating the context for why our schools needed to make the transition to aligning assessment to standards of performance, citing Ken O’Connor (a.k.a. “The Grade Doctor”) who said,

“We need to transition our schools from a culture of grading to a culture of learning.”

To accomplish this, Matt maintained that our classrooms needed to shift from being teacher-centered to being a rigorous student-centered environment. He argued that learning in a teacher-centered classroom is often passive and minimally engaging for the student; whereas, learning in a student-centered classroom is much more active, engaging, and motivating. Learning in such environments, if facilitated appropriately by the teacher, is more challenging and meaningful. He used the graphic below to illustrate how such a shift could occur and how it would work.


Within the context of our prevailing letter grade system, students have been ranked and sorted into categories of performance based on the average of their numerical percentages across multiple assessments. This grading system, on the surface, appears relatively fair, simple, and easy to comprehend. It also carries the advantage of being the system so many people grew up with and as we all know, innovation in education moves at a snail’s pace.

Why is this system flawed? Matt offered several examples; however, perhaps the best way to truly understand the flaws is to imagine learning in such a system from the perspective of the student. In such a system, Matt asked us to consider whether students are more likely to ask the teacher for help in improving their level of learning or improving their grade. The answer is obvious.

We can’t fault our students for being so grade-driven. So many important areas of their lives are impacted by the grades they earn in school: college admissions, scholarships, internship opportunities, career opportunities, parental and peer approval and praise, etc. The list continues ad nauseum. We can’t fundamentally change this reality. Instead, we must more carefully examine the root causes that led to such a strong fixation on grades over learning. Matt referenced Rick Wormeli who said,

“Examine your pedagogy. What we are doing is less effective than we think it is.”

Therefore, until we change our instructional practices as educators, we will not create the change necessary to build a culture of learning instead of one of grading. The leverage in such a shift appears to lie in viewing learning as a process of continual improvement, where mistakes are expected and even encouraged. As educators, we need to focus more on the process than the results. If the process works, the results will follow. The process is working when our students are able to safely “fail forward” and learn from one another.

According to Matt, “What we lead in our buildings is a manifestation of who we are and what we believe.” He used the slide below to really encourage us to critically examine our belief system regarding the purpose of education and learning.


What do we believe about the learning of our students? Do we believe all students can learn and achieve success? If so, does our grading system align with this belief or does it leave some students behind? Where are the gaps between our beliefs and our practices? How can we close these gaps?

An unspoken reality our schools must also confront is that a good grade doesn’t always equate to high-level learning. The pathways that students must take to arrive at an “A” in one course often diverge greatly from those that must be taken in another course. How much time do our students spend trying to learn the “rules of the game” in order to earn an “A” in course 1 and then learning different rules for courses 2-8? Of course they will be more grade-focused when so much time must be spent trying to gain clarity and understanding within such a fragmented system.

What is really needed is to bring our grading systems into alignment. Our schools need to de-emphasize point accumulation in favor of mastery of learning targets and standards. Otherwise, a student may earn a certain grade but be unable to communicate what they learned or failed to learn that led to their earning a particular grade, or more importantly,  why the learning is important in the first place.

Matt argued that what was really needed was “standards-based leadership that connects the why to a trajectory of success for all students.” He made a compelling argument that education needed to shift to become more student-centered, ensuring that all students clearly understand what learning targets and standards they will be expected to demonstrate in the course, how they will be expected to demonstrate their learning, and why the learning is important within the broader context of the course and society as a whole.

Most of all, Matt drove home the point that a broken grading system is really an issue of equity and social injustice. Paraphrasing, he described how standards-based education is less about changing an “A” to a “2” and more about “righting the ship of social injustice that has pervaded our society for decades.”

According to Matt, by its very grading practices, our  system of education is broken. It is broken because it permits those most at risk to slip through the cracks and fail courses or move on to future courses without adequately learning the material. It is broken because it reinforces point accumulation over passion for learning. It is broken because it ranks and sorts students, creating winners and losers based on random grading algorithms that vary by course. Within such a system, success mostly goes to the successful. Those that earn good grades continue to earn good grades. Those that struggle continue to struggle, and the system leaves many students behind.

Next up was Garnet Hillman, an Instructional Coach at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, IL. Her presentation focused on how to actually change our grading systems. She began her presentation very powerfully by noting, “Change evokes fear and heightens anxiety. People are inclined to ask, ‘Is it going to be worth it?'”

To counter this, Garnet asked us to consider the need for change within the broader scope of why we are educators. What is our aim? However, to Garnet, more important than our “what” is our “why.” Quoting Simon Sinek, she noted,

“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

According to Garnet, our “why’s should be showing all the time.”

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This really made me think. Why am I an educator? Do my students know why I am an educator? Do my colleagues? Do my administrators? Do I? That last question is a doozy. I believe sometimes we can become so consumed by getting through the mundane tasks of each day or each class period, we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture of why we became educators in the first place.

By this reasoning, everyone should know why we do what we do. We should also seek to understand the “why’s” of those around us. To what extent are our “why’s” congruent? How do they diverge? By seeking to better understand those around us, we create connections with one another. The roots of the trees of our belief systems begin to fuse together. A forest emerges from the trees. A path forward presents itself as we then begin to assess the degree to which our beliefs align with our actions. The change is less scary because there is a more clear understanding about why the change is needed and how the change will serve to improve the forest as a whole.

Make no mistake, change is needed. Our current grading system isn’t working and doesn’t align with what we know to be educational best practice. According to Garnet, we see this very clearly every time we announce an assignment in class. Among the first questions students will ask is, “Is this graded? If so, the next question is “How many points is this worth?”

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While our first inclination may be to become frustrated when our students continually ask these questions, we must instead look inward. When our students ask the same questions over and over, the blame lies in the system of learning we have created in our classroom, not on our students. Somehow, our classroom has established a focus on grades over learning.

To shift the focus, Garnet provided several strategies, including:

  1. Create and communicate a clear purpose for grading. Students should clearly understand how the learning is reflected within the grade.
  2. Ensure classroom grades are accurate by clearly aligning them with desired learning targets and standards. To ensure alignment, clear criteria for learning must be communicated to students and referenced as evidence when assigning a particular grade.
  3. The process of assigning grades must be meaningful. Grades are communication, not compensation. Students should be able to communicate why they earned a particular grade in terms of specific learning targets and standards they have demonstrated, not points they have been awarded.
  4. Grades should empower students. When students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of a particular learning standard and criteria to meet the standard are clearly communicated, students begin to see grading as a way to diagnose their level of learning, make adjustments, and ultimately, increase their level of learning. They come to understand that learning growth, not point accumulation, is the only true pathway to a better grade.

In fact, Garnet made a convincing argument that we should quit using the word points in education. Such terminology only reinforces the perception that school is a game that students either win or lose. Such dichotomous thinking creates a systemic barrier to nurturing a growth mindset within our students. Instead, Garnet advocates for using the word levels to create a perception that learning is ongoing and there is always room for growth and continual improvement.

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Garnet concluded with a discussion about what learning outcomes we really want for our students and what our role as educators should be to ensure those outcomes become reality. Ultimately, the true leverage lies in seeing ourselves more as learning facilitators as opposed to teachers of content. The word teacher has an embedded, historical connotation of learning happening to students, rather than with students.

We can achieve such a shift through simple changes in our practices. Instead of grading every assignment, we can instead resolve to give students quality feedback on every assignment. When a grade is given, students often see the learning as complete. When feedback is given in the absence of a grade, students begin to think of learning as more of an ongoing process of continual improvement, without a final destination. Change the process, change the result.

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Our third presenter was Jill Urich, Chief Academic Officer for the Ankeny School District. Jill’s approach was to really view standards-based learning from the perspective of being a leader. She shared several examples of this using the approach of “I used to think…Now I know…”

For example, implementing a standards-based learning approach is not always easy. Various stakeholder groups may express strong opposition to such a change. From the point of view of school leader, the fear of opposition can present a real challenge to making any change in education. Jill shared that she used to think about “getting over the hump” in the standards-based implementation. However, now, she is more focused on “leading through standards-based experiences and finding ways for her learning to create meaning for others.”

This pivot required a different approach, one that embraced the responsibility of modeling the mindset and being a part of the change process. Jill began to understand that, rather than simply talking about moving to a standards-based approach, she needed to become standards-based. She immersed herself in the process so others could see the value of the approach, not as some abstract idea, but as a real process of being, doing, thinking, and learning.

From this perspective, Jill began to appreciate the need to think systemically to create the leverage necessary to motivate and sustain the change over time. Within this framework, she identified four elements that provided the best leverage to improve the system.

Mindset / Purpose

Jill shared that before she really got into the work, she used to think that everyone would just support the move to a standards-based grading system. She believed this because she herself could see how much it could benefit students. The reality was very different. There was pushback. Not everyone was supportive of the change. Not everyone assumed good intentions. Not everyone trusted those leading the change. Not everyone had a growth mindset.

What she learned from this experience was that it is important to ask stakeholders questions and learn more about what is important to them prior to rolling out a new initiative. By doing this, they can work together to bridge gaps between divergent opinions, allowing more voices to shape better ideas. Change is best embraced when stakeholders have some level of voice in the change process and when people believe the change is happening with them, not just to them.

With regards to standards-based grading, Jill has learned to embrace the messiness that came with implementing it. She realized that learning would continue after the system was implemented. Mistakes would be made. Adjustments would occur, allowing the system to improve. In addition, even as a primary leader of the change, Jill realized she was not an expert and never pretended to be. Leaders are often most effective operating within the system, making mistakes along with everyone else. It is in this humility and willingness to “get messy” that followers emerge.


Jill shared that she once assumed that as a leader, others would automatically follow her lead. The reality; however, is that not everyone is eager follower. There are so many pathways for people to become better, more capable leaders. However, most people aren’t trained how to become better followers. This is unfortunate. Without followers, a leader will find it nearly impossible to be a leader.

Jill also noted that informal culture is much more important than formal culture. In essence, the degree of followership in any organization is reflection of the culture and climate of the system as whole. Within this context, it becomes crucial for leaders to understand that not all followers in a system operate the same way. Only a select few are your “first followers.” These are the ones that believe in you and eagerly follow what you are doing as a leader without needing much prompting or reassurance. Others require a little more convincing before they will follow. They want to see the evidence and research that supports the change. Given sufficient supportive evidence, they also will become followers.

Organizations would operate somewhat smoothly if these were the only types of people a leader were to encounter. However, we all know other types of people exist, and in some organizations, prevail. These people are often toxic and bring negativity into the system, impeding progress.

The real leverage, Jill suggests, lies with those in another group: those that haven’t made up their mind…yet. These people will create the critical mass of that will either move the system forward or cause it to stagnate or even regress. These are the people the leaders and positive followers must engage in order to move the system forward.

To do this, it becomes crucial to not view people in this group as being interchangeable. All have different reasons for their indecision. It is crucial then for the leader to seek to understand why these people are hesitant to embrace the change and follow the leader. This requires the leader to seek out opportunities to engage these people in genuine conversation and dialogue. People appreciate being heard and asked for their ideas and opinions. Cultivating positive relationships with these people should help the leader sustain change and keep the system moving forward.

Jill stressed that it is also important to provide people with multiple entrance ramps for people to implement new change. Too often, people believe implementing change is “all or nothing.” The reality is that implementing second order change, such as moving to a standards-based grading system, takes time. People have different levels of comfort with such large-scale change. Some are comfortable diving in head first while others are only want to dip their toes in the water. To give these people the courage to test the waters, Jill suggests encouraging them to consider trying “one new thing.” This could be to quit grading homework, or stop offering extra credit, or start allowing reassessments. Any step forward is a step in the right direction.

Process and Structures

Jill talked at great length about how systems thinking was a vital component for implementing any change, including a move to standards-based grading. Too often, whether as district administrators, building principals, or classroom teachers, we limit our thinking to the comfort of the walls of our offices or classrooms. This type of isolationist thinking has a minimal impact improving the learning conditions for the students in our system. 

In relation to standards-based grading, Jill believes it’s important for leaders need to get out of their offices and for teachers to visit other classrooms. Once we begin to think about learning systemically, we begin to understand why change is needed.

For example, what is it like to be a learner in our system? What does a “typical day” look like for a student? Are we creating opportunities for students to make connections between learning in different classes? How aligned are the learning conditions, assessment practices, and instructional approaches across all their classes?

For administrators, are there clearly established expectations for teachers? Do they know what is “tight” and what is “loose?” Jill maintained that it was crucial that administrators clearly define the expected learning cycle for students in order to bring the system into alignment. She believed it was just as important for teachers to engage in conversations about the learning process as it was to process data and analyze results.

She also shared that meaningful changes starts from a shared vision and is only achieved once all components within the system are aligned to ensure the change becomes reality. An oversight in just one area may cause the change to fail to come to fruition.

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Research, Data, and Third Points

Jill shared that a common critique of implementing standards-based grading is the perception that there is no research to support it. The reality is that there is much research to support the move to standards based grading.

Jill  recommended several resources for administrators to engage in this work, including Learning by Doing (Du Four et al) , School Systems That Learn (Ash & D’Auria), Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (Danielson), Implementing Change Through Learning (Hord & Roussin), Visible Learning (Hattie), Focus: Elevating the Essentials (Schmoker), Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning (Chappuis), Grading From the Inside Out (Schimmer), and A School Leader’s Guide To Standards-Based Grading (Heflebower, Hoegh, & Warrick).

She also mentioned there are many great books by: Thomas Guskey, Ken O’Connor, and Rick Wormeli on the topic of standards-based grading.

Jill finished her presentation be appealing to why the need for standards-based learning is so vitally important. It’s an issue of equity. Not all student arrive in our classrooms with the same advantages, prior experiences, and learning abilities. We must respect each student as a unique learner, meet them where they are at, and provide appropriate scaffolds and supports in order to help them achieve learning growth and mastery.

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In the midst of all this work, Jill stressed the importance of maintaining perspective and a focus on other passions beyond the workplace. The best leaders are able to look outside the system they work within and see a bigger picture. Healthy work-life balance is crucial to sustaining oneself as a leader over the long-term.

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Our last presented of the day way Matt Townsley, Central Office Administrator for the Solon Community School District in Solon, IA. Matt began his presentation by advocating that we begin to give our students the same level of feedback about their performance relative to a standard in our core academic courses as they receive in athletics, music, art, jobs, etc. How can we expect our students to view learning as relevant when it operates on a different system of feedback and evaluation than world outside the classroom? Do our students know our standards for performance? Do they understand the learning targets?

The Solon CSD is very unique. While other districts have piloted or implemented standards-based grading in a few classrooms, buildings, or grade levels, few have adopted the approach systemically across the entire district. The Solon CSD is 100% standards-based.

This movement was led primarily by Matt. He cited a great deal of research and literature that supported moving to becoming a standards-based district.  Solon also dared to be different. An elementary principal was moved to become their high school principal. They approached the change systemically as opposed to a more fragmented approach of piloting SBG in pockets of isolation across the district. This ensured better alignment of work based around a shared vision. Standards-based grading was implemented from the mindset of aligning the learning journey of a student over time, across all buildings.

Why make the change? For one, the way in which points equate to learning is very arbitrary. Teachers are given a great deal of autonomy to design their system of grading. This keeps teachers happy, but creates confusion for students. In such a system, students spend a great deal of time trying to understand and achieve success (by point accumulation) in possibly 8 or more different grading systems over the course of the day. Each system operates with different rules and expectations. Grades are weighted differently in each class. Some classes award points for daily work while others do not. Some courses offer extra credit while others do not. Some courses allow late work with or without various penalties, while others do not allow late work. Some courses permit reassessment, under various rules, while others do not.

Imagine this experience from the perspective of the student. They know that an “A” doesn’t mean the same thing in every class, yet our society still views grades as reliable indicators of a student’s learning ability and potential. With such an emphasis on grades, how can we expect our students to understand their level of learning, diagnose learning gaps, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure maximal learning growth?

Matt advocated that teachers must think differently about grading. In his opinion, the only think that should factor into a student’s grade is their performance relative to a learning standard. Other variables, such as behavior, attendance, participation, etc. must be eliminated from factoring into a student’s grade. Matt argued that when these variables are included, students are rewarded for non-academic behaviors, and the purpose of the learning is watered down.

He also encouraged teachers to view their grade books as not written in stone, but rather as thermometers communicating a student’s current level of understanding. Therefore, grades are not a final destination, nor a signal for the learning to cease. He believed this was not so much about offering “retakes” as it was about providing students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Furthermore, a standards-based grading system does not permit students to “opt-out” of learning by failure to turn in work, make up assignments, etc. Instead the grading system is built around learning standards as opposed to chasing points and students are expected to demonstrate mastery of learning for all standards. Time is flexible, but the learning is not.

Lastly, high schools are often the most resistant to implement standards-based grading out of fear of what it would mean to abandon traditional letter grades in terms preparing students for the collegiate experience. While these concerns are somewhat legitimate, Matt also appealed to our sense of doing right by our students in terms of educational best practices in this slide:


Overall, I learned a great deal about standards-based grading and I am very thankful to the Drake University School of Education faculty for hosting this symposium and to the presenters for sharing their learning and experiences with those in attendance.

~Brad Hurst






Rethinking Science Education Using the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Process

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Note: This is my Field-Based Learing Assignment (FBLA) for my Organizational Systems Behavior Course (EDL 272) in the Drake Univeristy Educational Leadership Program. We were assigned to conduct a “systems analysis” of an educational setting, program, or experience. We had to identify and define the system, purpose, boundaries, parts, and functions. We also had to look for and identify “systems archetypes” and “learning disabilities” and develop a leadership plan that could lead to the improvement of the system, based on the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) model. 



Looking back, I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to survive my first few years of teaching. This is not an indictment the districts I worked in, but rather of our educational system as a whole. For centuries, teachers worked mostly in isolation from one another and few people really questioned whether that was what was best system for student learning to occur. If they did question it, little was done at the systems level to implement a better system to enable teacher collaboration to occur.

Therefore, while the PLC model has been implemented in nearly every school district in the country, they are still a relatively new arrival to the educational scene. I still remember how innovative it seemed in the spring of 2009 when we learned we would have a 1-hour late start every Wednesday to meet as a team and collaborate together. Sure there were curriculum maps and a few other collaborative documents in place prior to the implementation of PLC’s, but the reality was that many classrooms across the country still operated independently from one another.

In the pre-PLC system, a student’s educational experience in a specific course was often heavily dependent upon the specific teacher that was assigned to them. While the same content was generally taught, the learning process, pedagogy, assessment, and grading practices varied, sometimes wildly. It was a fragmented system of survival for teachers and students. As the system did not build in time for teachers to calibrate and align the learning process for students, the system was fundamentally flawed.

Starting in the fall of 2009, our PLC radically redesigned and calibrated the learning process for students. We created common semester tests and ensured common pacing and learning activities were happening across all classes. Eventually, we developed and adopted common unit tests, labs and activities, grading scales, policies, calendars, Moodle® pages, and much more. It was great work and it was work I was and am still proud of. It created a much better, clearer, more understandable, and more consistent educational experience for our students. Our system was dramatically altered and improved as a direct result of our hard work.

While this work was valuable, it did not create a perfect system of learning for our students. Our conversations remained primarily focused on what we were teaching and how we would teach it. We had become a great teaching organization; however, the verdict was still out on whether we were also an effective learning organization. Our system had an embedded assumption that if you taught it, all students learned it. We were too close to the system to realize this and continued for several years operating our system with this hidden assumption just waiting for us to discover it.

It took me several years before I really began to consider the extent to which the learning process for my students was largely teacher-directed and teacher-centric. I was a great “sage on the stage.” I lectured and lectured. I assigned countless problems and homework. I graded homework. I did not accept late work. I did not allow reassessments. The list goes on and on.

Anecdotally, the system functioned better than before, but the system still needed a lot of work. Were my students really learning better and more engaged with our systemic improvements in place? Over and over, I’d be surprised by the performance of some of my students on unit tests. They were actively participating in class, completing the homework, earning their homework points, seeming to understand the concepts we were teaching, but were not always performing to the same level on the tests. There were still many cracks in the new system we had in place.

Something had to change. Ultimately, our team began to realize the flaws in our approach. We quit grading homework, choosing instead to view it as practice. I equated it to athletics. Students needed to “get their reps in.” They should not be evaluated on their practice, but rather their performance when it counts. For us, that was on unit quizzes and tests.

I still mostly taught in the traditional way with lectures and PowerPoint’s, but this one change dramatically changed how students learned in our system. Gone were the temptations to chase points by copying homework without understanding it. However, this did create a few new problems. Without the reward for compliance with completing the homework, homework completion dropped off substantially. Several different fixes were tried. For example, I gave homework quizzes, which I later came to realize was basically was the same thing as reverting back to grading homework in another way. Rarely did I stop to consider and reflect upon what purpose the homework was really serving or how well it was supporting the learning needs of my students. This was a huge oversight and missed opportunity on my part.

Eventually, our team came to realize that it was our teacher-centric approach to learning that needed to change. In essence, the learning model in our classroom had encouraged students to develop learning algorithms without truly needing to understand or defend these algorithms, how they worked, or where they were flawed. As teachers, we told them all they needed to learn, how everything worked, and expected them to remember that for a test. The student investment in the learning was minimal as our students were largely enabled to be learning spectators rather than actively participating in the learning process in the classroom.


In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge notes that many of the problems that exist in the world today are the direct result of our inability to “see the world as a whole.” Senge advocates for a “shift of mind” where we apply systems thinking to all aspects of our life. Senge defines system thinking as:

“System thinking is a discipline of seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’ It is a set of general principles – distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management (Senge, p. 68).”

Traditionally, and even in its current reality, public education reform efforts have often arisen from reductionist thinking in which so-called educational “experts” have separated or identified smaller and smaller individual pieces that make up our complex system and designed “fixes” to make those small pieces work better. In such methodology, the underlying assumption has been that by ensuring that one small part works better, the whole system will work better.

If one were to track the various educational initiatives enacted historically in any school system, they would find that much training and valuable time has been devoted to the adoption of these piecemeal approaches to educational improvement. When we separate out elements and ignore how these elements interact with one another, we are engaging in reductionist thinking. We assume the etiology of an educational challenge is derived from one small problem that we need to fix.

Our thinking rarely is outside the box as we work within such confined parameters. As a result, our solutions are often too simplistic and unlikely to yield meaningful results. In other words, the reductionist structure we have been using for so long has limited our capacity for developing more transformative solutions.

Ultimately, we must try to shift our approach to be less reflexive and more intentional and forward thinking. We must seek ways to optimize the relationships and interactions among all the elements that influence the system, but also between the system and the environment within which it functions in.

We must seek ways to allow multiple elements within our system to evolve and improve simultaneously and be always mindful of how changes to one element in the system will impact other elements in the system and the system as a whole. Engineered most effectively, our system will be able to creatively address and adapt to constant changes. It will embrace new challenges and opportunities and be being solutions-focused. Such a structure will enable the system to build upon its capacity and dynamic complexity over time.

 The Planning Phase:  

In chapter four of The Fifth Discipline, Senge suggests that many learning organizations have fundamental learning disabilities embedded deeply within their system that often go largely undetected (Senge, p. 18). Senge believes these learning organizations pervade all learning organizations to some degree, “despite the best efforts of bright, committed people.” (Senge, p. 18).

One such example of an organizational learning disability is “I am my position (Senge, p. 18).” Senge describes this disability as being a byproduct of how we are trained to be loyal to our jobs – so much so that we confuse them with our own identities.

“When asked what they do for a living, people describe tasks they perform over the purpose or enterprise under which they work. Most people see themselves within a system over which they have little or no influence. They do their job, put in their time, and try to cope with the forces outside their control. Consequently, people tend to see their responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of their position (Senge, p. 18).”

Considering the previous system we had in place. There is no doubt that our team of teachers possessed the requisite content knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective teachers. However the possession of strong content knowledge and great pedagogy does not always correlate to increased student achievement. Our systemic problems did not lie in our collegiate preparation or training. We all possessed the mental capacities to be excellent teachers. However, our team struggled to imagine new possibilities for learning and our teaching approaches beyond our previous experiences in teaching and learning.

In the mind of many teachers, especially historically, the definition of educational excellence involves the teacher leading the classroom in the front of the room, acting as a gatekeeper of learning, carefully dispensing new content to their students. Quality classroom management is defined as being a system where the teacher is prepared and focused, students are quiet and taking notes, and there is a clear delineation of roles between teacher and student, between those that are learning and the one that is leading the learning.

The opportunities for innovation were all around us, but we struggled to see past our own mental models and ideas about what it meant to be a teacher and struggled to perceive these opportunities and take the risks necessary to adopt a newer, better approaches to learning science. We also may have been unsure and lacked confidence about whether we could proceed with such radical shifts to our approaches. Could we really just stop lecturing? How could we could we call ourselves teachers if we did things differently? Would the system permit this? Would we get in trouble?

In many systems, there is a collective sense among people within a system that they have little leverage over how the system as a whole is operating. Historically, many education systems have operated with rigid leadership hierarchies and chains of command. The system reinforced a mindset of being obedient, staying in your own lane, being compliant, following directions, and asking few questions of those above you. Over the years, this system functioned moderately well and was also easy to understand. However, it was far from a perfect system. When people are separated into fragmented areas, they rarely are able to “see the forest for the trees” or understand how the whole system operates. Their perceived locus of control shrinks and they begin to lose interest in the system as whole, as they feel powerless to change any part of it. This is another example of Senge’s organizational learning disability, “I am my position.”

“When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume ‘someone screwed up’ (Senge, p. 19).”

As I read that, it really resonated with me. How often do teams that operate in various systems really function as a team as opposed to an assemblage of individuals forced together by circumstances beyond their control? How well do all the parts of the team fit together as a meaningful whole? Do all members of the team share a collective commitment one another and the success of the team? Do all members of the team take ownership for the team’s performance or do they point fingers when one member of the team struggles to be successful? Do team members support and help one another to imagine and implement better solutions or do they just identify problems? On a larger scale, do the team members understand how their work complements and adds value to the system as a whole or how the system as a whole is designed to function?

Building a team of teachers that has established shared commitment and accountability for the success and achievement for every student, not just the students in the specific teacher’s classroom, takes time. Our chemistry team was no different. It took some time for us to move from being individuals focused primarily on our own students, classroom, and workloads. Implementing PLC’s helped us work within a structure where we could collaborate to create common units, pacing, activities, and assessments. Even so, we mostly implemented individually and rarely engaged in reflective conversations about how our system as a whole was working. Therefore, one could reasonably question whether were engaged in collaborative team learning or merely task design and creation

The system had its problems and we mostly worked as individuals to implement various solutions to these problems. For example, a student’s performance on tests didn’t always correlate to the student’s performance in class. We each individually imagined possible explanations for this problem, and implemented the random acts of improvement that we thought would fix this fundamental systemic flaw. Some assigned more homework. Some assigned less homework. Some gave random homework quizzes. Some let students retake tests if homework was completed.

All of us experience some level of failure with all of our approaches. Our solutions usually worked, but only temporarily. Eventually, the problem resurfaced again and again because we weren’t thinking systematically, across all classrooms, teachers, and most importantly, all students. We did not know what we did not know, or we were choosing to ignore the obvious, that our system was flawed and we should rethink our system on the whole.

We also needed to engage in real and honest conversations about many issues surrounding our common system of instruction. How well did our in-class learning align with our tests? Did we have clear expectations and standards for performance that our students understood and could communicate to one another and us? How confident could we be in the abilities of our students if they were not doing the work in front of us? Many systemic blind spots persisted.

However, we believed we were in control. Senge would describe this as “the illusion of taking charge (Senge, p. 20).” We believed that we were being proactive or preventing a problem from getting worse, but the reality is that we were simply delaying the inevitable or reacting to previous events with a new interventions instead of really trying to understand the root causes of the original event in the first place or how that event was interconnected to many other events as whole.

In chapter four of his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge identifies eleven laws of systems thinking. In the scenario I’ve described above, I was breaking several of the laws of systems thinking. Upon careful reflection, some of my crimes were quite egregious.

For example, I was breaking Senge’s first law of systems thinking, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions (Senge, p. 57). ” Senge describes this law by noting that the causes of our problems often arise from our own solutions of the past (Senge, p. 57) and that solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected (Senge, p. 57).

When I started to give homework quizzes, allowing students to use their homework on the quizzes, I thought I’d fixed the problem of homework completion. I didn’t. Sure, homework completion dramatically increased after the first few quizzes, and students generally started to perform well on the quizzes. However, test performance didn’t dramatically improve. In essence, I just put more pressure on the system. Now students felt more compelled to complete the homework, perhaps by copying another’s or getting help from others. Rather than struggle to try to understand and therefore learn, there was now a penalty for not completing the homework. I never really stopped to consider whether fixing the homework problem was the really right work to be engaging in.

Prior to implementing homework quizzes, students may have seen homework as having a purpose of helping them build a better understanding of the content. They may have even seen the struggle and difficulty to be necessary for their learning growth and may have embraced that. Others may have seen the homework as only necessary if they didn’t already understand the content. However, now all students began to see homework as a systemic punishment, a purposeless compliance task they had to complete, a hoop they had to jump through to succeed in the “game of school.”

Senge’s second law states that “The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back (Senge, p. 58).” In essence, Senge is describing a positive feedback loop in which A produces more of B, which results in the need for more of A, which results in more B. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required (Senge, p. 58).

One can clearly see how I kept pushing back on a flawed system by trying to fix the systemic problems with temporary solutions. When students adapted to the homework quizzes, but didn’t really deepen their learning, I unknowingly created a positive feedback loop. Now some students had learned that they could earn points to pad their grade by doing well on the (relatively easy) homework quizzes. In essence, I had implemented a temporary fix that rewarded students for their “teacher pleasing behavior.” Instead of replacing the tire, I put a piece of bubble gum on the leak and hoped for the best.

Looking back, it is also amazing to me how many times I violated Senge’s fourth law, which states that “The easy way out usually leads back in (Senge, p. 60).” Senge admits that we all find comfort in applying familiar solutions to problems, sticking to what we know best; however, if the solution were easy to see or obvious to everyone, it probably would already have been found (Senge, p. 61). Therefore, pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking (Senge, p 61).

When student homework dropped again, I brought back the homework quizzes, students complied, made the adjustment, and life when on. However, now I also had to grade all the homework quizzes, which took a lot of time. Once I had the sense that students had learned the lessson of completing their homework, the quizzes went away, homework completion dropped, and I was right back where I was before. I never considered another approach, as that approach had worked before. Why “reinvent the wheel?”

I also heavily connect with Senge’s fifth law “The cure can be worse than the disease (Senge, p. 61).” This law maintains that the long-term consequence of applying non-systemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution, creating a phenomenon of short-term interventions leading to long-term dependency, shifting the burden to the intervener (Senge, p. 61).

What I really should have done is to have an honest conversation with my students to try to figure out the root causes for why the homework wasn’t getting done and why their tests weren’t always correlating to their homework performance. They probably would have given me a lot of great feedback about the flaws of the system I had put into place. Looking back, I can’t even imagine what my students must have thought of all the constant changes I was making. In not doing this, I also reinforced a strict hierarchy in my own classroom. The changes were happening to the students and not with the students. I felt I needed to feel like I was in control. In reality, I missed so many opportunities to build trust and relationships with my students by not including them in my instructional decision-making processes. After all, I was there to serve them. It was never the other way around.

The final and most obvious of Senge’s laws that I violated was Senge’ eighth law “Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.” (Senge, p. 63). Senge notes that most obvious solutions don’t work – at best they improve matters in the short run, only to make things worse in the long run (Senge, p. 63-64). Therefore, Senge argues that small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements if they are in the right place. (Senge, p. 64).

To achieve such results, the principle of leverage is crucial. We must see where the high leverage lies; a change that – with minimum effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement. According to Senge, high-leverage changes are usually highly nonobvious to most participants in the system until we understand the forces at play in those systems (Senge, p. 64).

What if I had asked my students what they needed to be more successful? What if I had more trust in my students? What if my students had more trust in me? It is often said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Did my students really know how much I cared? Did they know how much time I thought about them, how they were learning, and what I could be doing better? How could they know? Did I provide any opportunities for them to observe that?

Clearly, we must strive to learn as much as we can about the structures that drive our systems. In chapter 5 of The Fifth Discipline, Senge succinctly states, “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner (Senge, p. 93).” Senge believes that “learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them (Senge, p. 93).”

How then can we identify these structures? Senge suggests that fixing this problem lies in identifying a fundamental solution to the problem, which may involve really diving into the root causes that created the problem in the first place. To assist with this process, Senge has identified several “systems archetypes” that exhibit “patterns of structure that recur over and over again (Senge, p. 93).”

Among the archetypes present in the current system is the archetype “shifting the burden (Senge, p. 391).” Shifting the burden is described below:

“A short term ‘solution’ is used to correct a problem, with seemingly positive immediate results. As this correction is used more and more, fundamental long-term corrective measures are used less and less. Over time, the capabilities for the fundamental solution may atrophy or become disabled, leading to even greater reliance on the symptomatic solution.” (Senge, p. 391)

My homework quizzes were my short-term solution. They worked for a while and eventually, they stopped working to achieve the desired change in behavior that I was striving for. It got to a point where the only way students would reliably complete the homework was if I pre-announced there was going to be a quiz over the homework the next day. Eventually, even that didn’t matter, as there were enough points in the grade book that an individual homework quiz had minimal impact on their grade. Unintentionally, my new system rewarded and reinforced a mindset of point accumulation as opposed to deep, meaningful learning of the content.

Senge would describe this dilemma as a perfect example of the archetype “Fixes that Fail” (Senge, p, 399). The homework quizzes were a short-term, effective fix that had unforeseen, negative long-term consequences, requiring more and more of the same fix. Worse yet, one could argue that implementing the homework quizzes only made the problem worsen over time.

The reality was the homework quizzes really only benefitted the students that were already doing well in the course. These were the students that always did the homework, tried their best, not due to any great teaching on my part, but more because they were disciplined, intrinsically motivated, and driven students that complied with every request from all their teachers, no matter how pointless. They knew how to “play the game of school” and understood the rewards for playing the game well. These students were already going to be successful on the test. However, one could also argue that this did not even help those students, as they may have engaged in the homework out of compliance, not due to committment or any need for additional practice. For them, the homework and extra practice was unnecessary busy work.

For the students that most needed the additional practice, the homework became a rushed, high-pressure, exercise in task compliance. Minimal learning likely occurred under such conditions. They may not have felt that they could risk failure or afford to make mistakes, which is really the process of how new learning and growth actually occurs. They may have done well enough on the homework quizzes, but they did not retain the learning at a deep and meaningful level needed for success on the tests. The homework did not help them to better connect ideas and concepts, identify gaps in their learning, and make adjustments for improvement in their learning.

Senge would classify this as a classic example of his “Success to the Successful” archetype. The rewards of the success go to those that are already successful. Those that most need additional support in their learning suffer under a flawed process where they had less freedom to make mistakes, learn, and grow. As a result, they did not do any better on the tests, even though they had complied with completing the homework.


The Doing Phase:

This phase involves really narrowing the focus and developing a shared vision among team members in the system about how to proceed. Developing consensus on the direction forward is crucial to the long-term success and sustainability of the systemic improvements. Paramount to this success is the need to remain mindful about the purpose of the changes. In our case, it was about creating a better system of learning chemistry for our students.

In our case, we had a member of our team that had been teaching physics using the modeling approach, with great success. Over the three years prior that the modeling approach had been used in our physics classes, ACT scores among students that had taken the modeling physics course rose from what they were previously (admittedly with a different cohort of students). Parents also had anecdotally reported better college readiness from their students had taken physics using the modeling approach.

Based on these results and given our stagnant results with two different chemistry curricula over the previous six years, we made a collective commitment to make the change to implement the modeling approach to our chemistry instruction.


The Study Phase:

To really understand the modeling approach, one must understand how science instruction has historically occurred in many classrooms. Traditional science instruction has reinforced and constructed two main types of learning modalities. First, it has created the perception that science is a collection of already established facts and ideas to be learned or memorized by the student. Second, the rules and procedures that govern a specific science discipline must be explained to the student in order for the student to build the requisite skills to develop an understanding of that science discipline. Such a system of learning presupposes that students will magically see the underlying structure in the content and draw meaningful connections between the various science disciplines without explicitly providing them opportunities to make these connections.

How does modeling differ from traditional science instruction? According to Larry Dukerich (2015), modeling instruction’s goals are to guide students to:

  • Construct and use scientific models to describe, to explain, to predict and to control physical phenomena
  • Model physical objects and processes using diagrammatic, graphical and algebraic representations recognize a small set of particle models as the content core of chemistry
  • Evaluate scientific models through comparison with empirical data
  • View modeling as the procedural core of scientific knowledge.

Why was this approach better than our previous approaches? First, as Dukerich (2015) describes, this approach as entirely consistent with the Science and Engineering Practices found in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) specifically:

  • I construct mental and conceptual models to represent and understand phenomena.
  • I use models to explain and predict behaviors of systems, or test a design.
  • I refine my models in light of new empirical evidence.

Modeling also aligned more clearly with our district’s instructional model, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s (2008) Gradual Release of Responsibility model. Specifically, it provided a structure to shift from the teacher-centered “I do it” approach to the more student-centered “We do it together” method. Modeling is geared much more toward shifting the responsibility for cognitive work to from the teacher to the students, enabling deeper and more meaningful learning opportunities for the students. This ensures that students see science as a way of viewing the world, rather than a series of facts to be memorized.

In the modeling approach, chemistry content is organized differently than in a more traditional chemistry classroom. Dukerich (2015) describes organization very well:

“Modeling Chemistry is organized around a series of models rather than a collection of topics. In this approach, students begin with phenomena they can readily observe and are guided to develop the simplest model of matter that helps them make sense of their observations. In each subsequent unit, students encounter phenomena that require them to modify the existing model or replace it with a more robust model. This constructivist approach mirrors how early scientists developed understanding of chemistry concepts.”

Embedded within this organization are some very distinct differences in the approach to learning. Specific emphasis is placed on using the chemistry content to build skills in problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. The teacher pushes the student’s thinking by asking “why?” several times, forcing students to really dive deep into their learning, defend their ideas and mental models, and examine the root causes of why they believe what they believe to be true.

Therefore, students are expected to think, work, and learn like a scientist. Students start with a mental model, test it, collect data, analyze the data, draw appropriate conclusions, collaborate, communicate their results, defend their ideas, listen to others, and assimilate the new learning to build better, stronger mental models. The learning becomes less passive and more active, moving the classroom away from a one-size-fits-all factory model of education. Therefore, learning moves from transmissionist to constructivist, from teacher-centered to student-centered.


The Acting Phase:

We just finished our second year of using the modeling approach in chemistry and there are several lessons I have learned in this time.

First, for the modeling approach to work, the teacher must facilitate the creation of an inclusive classroom culture of collaboration. Any teacher adopting the modeling approach must keep in mind the students’ prior experience of learning science, which is well-described by Dukerich (2015),

“In traditional classrooms, instructors present the information they feel is important for their students to know and demonstrate the skills they want their students to master. Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that teaching by telling is ineffective. Hestenes writes, “ Coherent understanding cannot be transferred from teacher to student by lucid explanations or brilliant demonstrations. Students systematically misunderstand much of what we tell them because they do not have the same ‘schema’ that we teachers do. To a teacher, the phrase ‘conservation of energy’ conjures up the image of an energy accountant, who understands the importance of keeping track of the way energy is stored in a system and exchanged with the surroundings. To students, it is simply a definition to memorize and regurgitate on a test. Likewise, students do not learn to become effective problem-solvers by watching the teacher solve problems at the board any more than one could become physically fit by sitting on the couch and watching a workout video.”

The modeling approach to learning science is much different. Dukerich (2015) draws this distinction this way:

“By contrast, in a Modeling classroom, the teacher provides direction for investigation and model building while the students work together to represent and understand the phenomenon. They also work together to define key concepts (such as conservation of mass) from their evidence before the related scientific terminology is introduced. Problem solving evolves from applying the representational tools developed to describe the model to a new situation rather than learning to use a list of steps provided by a textbook or teacher. Throughout this process, the teacher’ s role is to listen to the students’ discourse and use questioning strategies to deepen the students’ thinking or elicit stronger explanations for their reasoning and conclusions.”

When the teacher transitions from “sage on the stage” to a facilitator of learning, the students gain greater control and responsibility over their own learning experiences. I still remember in my first year of modeling, one of our instructional coaches came in for a classroom visit.

“What am I going to see today?” she asked.

“That’s a great question.” I answered. “I think they will be … however, they could … If they … we will… If they … we will… By the end of the class, I hope we get to …”

It wasn’t exactly the answer she was expecting, but looking back, it was the perfect answer. It was not prescriptive. There was a general plan, but the plan was flexible and it was the students’ level of learning and understanding that would drive the agenda, not my own “one size fits all” teacher-driven approach.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight. Last August, during the first few days of my second year of this approach, I asked my students to whiteboard and talk about their results and they all looked at me with the classic “deer in the headlights” look. I had just assumed my students would be at a place where this was all second nature. In my mind, was where my previous students had finished in May, not where my new students were at in August. I had forgotten about the process and time it took me to build that culture again. Prepare to build the culture from scratch every year and prepare for that to take some time.

Second, learning must be assessed very differently. First and foremost, the teacher should adopt the philosophy that assessment for learning is an ongoing process. With the modeling approach, students are actively engaged in the learning process every day. Students white board nearly every day, providing me ample opportunity to assess the level of learning of every student as I circulate around the room. I never knew how little I knew about each student’s level of understanding until I started having students white board in class every day. This turned out to be a huge area of leverage for me, as it required my students to talk, collaborate, and communicate their level of understanding every day.

To accomplish this, I needed to free up time for students to engage in the white boarding. This was the area that was the hardest for me. My leverage lied in abandoning my PowerPoint’s. This required me to break from a deeply engrained mental model I had created about what teaching was. I had spent countless hours creating elegant PowerPoints. At the same time, I never realized how dependent I had become on them or how much they had kept me from interacting with and creating relationships with my students. They created an unnecessary barrier between my students and I.

My role in the system is now much more challenging. I am a facilitator of learning. I have the crucial role of asking the right questions and keeping the learning going forward, differentiating for diverse learning needs of students throughout the class. However, now my student’s minds and brains are just as fatigued as mine at the end of every class. Everyone in the room shares in the mental workout. Students can’t take a problem off. A blank whiteboard either means students need support and intervention, or they are disengaged. Both will result me having a conversation with the students to help support the correct path forward.  The daydreaming, texting, and other disruptions are at a minimum. There is not much of an opportunity to “opt out” of the learning happening in the class.

The system is still far from perfect. There are many opportunities for improvement. There is still a need to unpack the NGSS standards and identify priority standards. The instruction then needs to be closely aligned with the priority standards. Second, while students are allowed to reassess, the reassessment process is not standardized across all teachers. Third, we still give tests and use a system of percentages and points to calculate a letter grade. There is a need to move to different model that creates more focus on the learning than the grade. Some students

On the postive side, the students are learning better in the new system than the old. I had no student failures this semester, the first time ever in my career. In fact, in the most difficult part of chemistry during second semester, almost every student was fully able to write chemical formulas, balance chemical equations, perform dimensional analysis to convert units, apply mole ratios to convert between substances, and round to the correct significant problems. Test performance was strong all semester.

Our system has dramatically improved, yet is far from perfect.



  1. Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
  2. Dukerich, L. (2015). Applying modeling instruction to high school chemistry to improve students’ conceptual understanding. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(8), 1315-1319.
  3. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for the Supervision of Curriculum Development.