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Volume V Issue V

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Are You Making Progress?

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


A tagline from a 1950’s television show sponsored by General Electric recently popped into my head. The company’s motto during the fifties was Progress is our most important product. I then started thinking about how schools, and more specifically, how individuals within schools, measure their progress. An obvious gauge of progress is the results from the standardized tests that schools across the country administer to their students on an annual basis. In addition, other schools use the scores from quarterly tests prescribed by the school district to determine if students are making progress. As I thought about these indicators of progress, I concluded that they are rather myopic and limited. We shouldn’t be waiting for quarterly or annual test scores to determine whether or not we (and more specifically, our students) are making progress. We are surrounded by evidence of progress every day. We simply need to ask the right questions and gather the right data. We should be asking ourselves two important questions on a routine basis: Are we making progress? and How do we know?

My thoughts about progress then moved to educators with whom I had spoken in recent weeks. Their stories of real progress rang true as they talked with specificity about the work they had done and the results they had seen. I was inspired by their stories and felt they deserved to be told.

Jessica teaches eleventh grade American history. Her classes are extremely heterogeneous and multicultural. As she talked about the content of her course, she noted how overwhelmed her students were by the sheer volume of knowledge they had to learn.  She knew that if her students were to truly succeed, she had to provide considerable additional support for them. One day she came upon a picture of a blank scroll on the Internet; she downloaded the scroll and distributed copies to her students. She explained to them that they could place any information they were learning on the scroll and use the scroll as a study tool as well as a support when they were taking their formative assessments. She said that her ultimate goal was to have the students take their assessments without the use of the scroll but that they could use the scroll as long as they needed it. As she told her story, she excitedly explained that her students have grown in knowledge, skills and confidence and almost none of her students rely on their scrolls anymore. Clearly, Jessica and her students are making progress.

Andrea is an elementary principal in a school with 700 students. She believes strongly in the importance of her high visibility throughout the school. Not only does Andrea visit classrooms but she interacts with students during class visits. She expressed frustration recently when she explained that the students, almost universally, did not know why they were learning the content they were studying or how the current lesson fit into the overall unit on which they were working. Typically when she asked students why it was important to learn the information they were learning, the answer was to prepare for the next test, or even more frequently, to get ready for the standardized test in the spring. Furthermore, it was clear to her that the students could not connect individual lessons to an overall bigger concept. She decided that she needed to address her concern at a faculty meeting. Using an issue of Just for the ASKing! titled Framing the Learning, as a vehicle to emphasize the importance of providing students with the big picture for the instruction they received, she asked her staff to emphasize with their students the why behind the instruction they were delivering. As a result of her efforts, the learning in her school has been dramatically transformed. During her interactions with students, they are now much more aware of the purpose behind their learning. Andrea, her teachers, and her students are making progress.

Some schools measure their progress based on the results of their annual standardized tests. When they achieve their Adequate Yearly Progress, it is a reason to celebrate. Other schools, however, strive for more rigorous indicators of progress by placing an emphasis on the number of students who perform at the pass advanced level. Carlos is a middle school principal who realizes that the passing level on his state’s annual tests represents a minimum level of achievement. He has motivated teachers and students to stretch themselves to achieve at higher levels and to not be satisfied with simply passing the tests. For the past three years, students have shown an increase in the number of students in the pass advanced category.  Because of the efforts of Carols, the teachers and the students, they are continuing to make progress.

Craig is mentoring a second year teacher named Adam. During his first year as a teacher, Adam was very ambivalent about his career choice. Although Craig provided lots of support, Adam was unsure about whether or not teaching was his true calling. Craig searched for ways to inspire and encourage Adam because he knew in his heart that Adam had the makings of a great teacher. Craig continued to serve as a mentor during Adam’s second year as a teacher, and during this time, he visited Adam’s classes whenever possible. Craig started to not only give Adam feedback on the teaching practices he observed, he also shared the feedback on learning he received from Adam’s students. When Adam heard the words the students had shared with Craig, he became inspired. Craig had finally discovered the key to help Adam believe in himself. It is now near the end of Adam’s second year as a teacher and he is more committed than ever to the profession. There is no doubt that Craig and Adam are making progress.

Alison has been teaching for seven years. The teachers in her middle school have participated in a series of long-term and multifaceted staff development opportunities throughout the current school year. One area of the emphasis in the training has been on reexamining assessment practices with an emphasis on true learning and not simply grading. Alison recently told me that the “new approach toward assessment has revolutionized my teaching. Giving students certain tests in advance and letting them look through them, along with having them review their answers in pairs/groups has created a freedom and an atmosphere for learning I’ve never felt before in the class. It’s like the kids really see that you want them to be successful- that it’s not just talk. I have seen so many light bulbs go on in doing this! I hope other teachers have had the same experience.” By expanding her thinking to include new approaches to learning, Alison is making progress.

Tim had been a successful high school physics teacher for over 20 years. In recent years, he concluded that he could not rest on his laurels. He was restless to make a greater difference in the lives of the students in his large, diverse, suburban school. He felt that far too many students were shunning physics because the course had a reputation for being too hard. He wanted to make physics approachable for a wider audience of students. He began visiting the classes of potential students and doing practical demonstrations of the type of learning that they could experience in a physics class. In a short period of time, the number of students enrolling in physics increased dramatically. When Tim first began promoting the accessibility of physics, he had no idea where his actions would lead. Four years later, his school added an additional physics teacher to the staff. Not only are more students enrolling in physics, there is also an increase in enrollment in AP physics. The students who had not previously viewed themselves as college bound and are now attending college, receiving scholarships, and experiencing success in higher education are Tim’s greatest point of pride. It all began with an idea, a possibility, and taking action. Proudly, Tim, his students, his fellow teacher, and his school are making progress.

Each of the stories is absolutely true. They represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the true progress that is occurring in schools across the country. Far too often we get caught up in the outcomes of schoolwide data and we forget to examine the progress that is right before our eyes. When we only look at one source of progress, we can become discouraged. Leaders as well as individual teachers should take the time to reflect on their practice and to literally make a list of the examples of progress that has been made during the school year. Only then can we feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of renewal, and a belief that each of us can truly make progress.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Are You Making Progress?.” Just for the ASKing! May 2008. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2008 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.