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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Authentic Assessment Heightens Accountability in Our Schools

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

How do we foster intrinsic motivation, for both teachers and students, to work towards high performance? Can we create a system of accountability that will drive this performance? At Envision Education, we answer with a resounding, yes. However, our accountability is not driven by a system of rewards and punishments; it is driven by an authentic system of accountability driven by making the work of students, teachers, and the school public.

Envision uses several strategies systematically to open the learning to the broader community which drive more rigorous outcomes at every level of our school system.

Over the last few weeks I have observed some of these strategies at work at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology High School (EA) in Oakland, CA. Here is a little background data on EA:

  • More than 70 percent of the students qualify as low income and will be the first in their family to graduate from college
  • 100 percent of the students in the class of 2012 graduated with all courses required for California public university system entrance, compared with 40 percent of students statewide
  • 95 percent of students in the class of 2012 were accepted to a four year or two year college, compared to 48 percent of students statewide
  • For EA's first two graduating classes (2010 and 2011), the college persistence rate from the first to second year of college is 72 percent (compared to the national average of 55 percent)

How do we use authentic accountability to drive this high performance at Envision Academy?

Public Exhibition of Work

At least twice a year, Envision students and teachers present their learning to the broader community. At Envision Academy, I had a chance to listen to ninth and tenth grade students debrief their fall exhibition. The ninth graders presented their learning through digital media telling their own story as learners and as people. They presented in semi-formal attire at an evening performance at school. They shared their poems and artwork -- not just to their teachers but also to their parents, siblings, grandparents, and other guests. During the class reflections, a teacher shared a story of one parent's tears of joy as she watched her son present his project.

The tenth graders were celebrating with "Academy Awards" for their performance of short, theatrical public service announcements on social and medical issues from their biology classes. The principal shared with me that two of the winners for best male actor were students who came to EA struggling with skill gaps and low motivation. Clearly, they had become motivated by the project and the public performance.

How does this type of public performance drive authentic teacher accountability? If the students are not prepared or they produce low quality work, it is not hidden in this type of system. Not only do your teaching colleagues and school leader witness the quality and rigor of the student work product, the entire school community including the students' parents see the work. There is no place to hide. As a teacher, you become committed to the success of all your students because you do not want to see them publicly fail or falter.

Instructional Rounds

A couple weeks later, I spent a day as part of our Envision Professional Learning Community conducting "Instructional Rounds." Based on the work of Dick Elmore from Harvard and the medical school concept of rounds, Envision teachers, school leaders, network leaders, board members, and community members from other schools and organizations gather at each school in the Envision network twice a year to help each school investigate a "problem of practice." The school opens all of its classroom doors for observation from the group assembled in the morning. In the afternoon, the group works with the school to move from observations to action -- concrete next steps. Envision Academy asked the question, "How are teachers moving students towards more independent learning?"

Using the evidence gathered by their "critical friends," Envision Academy gained insights into where they were using strategies that led to greater student independence and places where there is room for growth. The school leadership team used this data to create an immediate plan of action to begin improving their collective practice. Imagine the level of commitment towards high performance it requires as a school principal and as teachers to open up every classroom in your school for observation when no outside authority is driving you to do so (e.g. accreditation visits). Like the students in the exhibition, the public nature of this practice drives the leader and teachers towards improvement intrinsically and not with an external reward or punishment based solely on a standardized test score.

In my next post, I will describe how Envision Learning Partners uses a process called Design Studios to open up our schools as a place for colleagues from other schools, districts, and networks to learn and plan the redesign of learning at their own schools.

Let's start a conversation through the comments: How does your school hold you and students accountable? How does your district or charter management organization hold your school accountable? Is it working? How do you know?

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