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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

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?

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ellie Hallquist's picture
Ellie Hallquist
Kindergarten Teacher from Otsego, Minnesota

Wow! I have to say that it would take a LOT to get teachers in my school to open their classrooms to the public or even to other teachers at times to come and observe them and their students. So many teachers seem to be 'scared' when the principal has to come observe them formally every 3 years and formally 3x/year for the first three years until tenure. I have been observed several times and admit I would get nervous when the principal would come in, but mostly it was in the anticipation of her coming. If she just showed up, I should be doing the same thing whether she is there or not. I think this attitude is what is needed throughout the schools. I also think it is helpful if teachers are open to suggestions instead of feeling like they know everything and shouldn't have anyone else telling them how to teach or what to change. We need to change, that is part of education! The formal observations are how teachers are held accountable.
As far as how our school holds students accountable, it seems to be through standardized testing. I do not think it is working since so many parents and students do not care about the tests and some students don't even read the questions before answering. I think a lot of the attitude comes from home. If the parents care about their students score or grades, then the student is more likely to care. If the parents don't care, neither does the parent. How do we get parents attitudes to change along with students? How do we get teachers to want to learn more and be excited about changing things or trying new things in their classrooms to teach the students instead of sticking to the things they've been doing for 30 years whether they work or not?

Lucas VL's picture
Lucas VL
High School English Teacher

I really like your concept of the performance assessment here where students summarize and present their learning for a more public audience, not just of their peers, but of parents, siblings, grandparents, other parents, and administration. I think knowing that they will be showing off their learning to others in a non-traditional classroom setting really does encourage them to go the extra mile to make sure their learning is "good" and authentic. Students (and their teachers) don't want to appear unprepared in front of others, especially since this type of assessment is public and would be very clear in displaying their amount of effort.

Just out of curiosity, how well attended are the open-house nights for these presentations? I think they are a great idea, but wonder if it is difficult in our busy lives to get parents to come in.

Shawn Krinke's picture
Shawn Krinke
Junior and Senior Language arts Teacher, North Dakota

I enjoyed your ideas on how to make assessment authentic. Public exhibitions and instructional rounds are two interesting ideas. I have utilized public exhibitions in my classroom before, going to far as having community members come in to interview and view the students' work; however, I have not heard of instructional rounds before. I like the idea of opening the classroom to the public as it would give non-teachers a real glimpse of what teaching entails. It would also motivate teachers to be at their best.

I would be interested to know how this process begins.

Justin Banitt's picture
Justin Banitt
High School Math Teacher from Minneapolis, MN

I've taught in two different schools with two different views on the matter. One school was very open to having the public come in and see what your classroom is like. It took a while for the students (and myself) to get used to strangers walking in during class. After a while, it was almost expected and the students were no longer distracted. As a teacher, that was the hardest part to get used to. How will this affect my ability to maintain my students' attention? The more it happened, the easier it got. As for the second school, there really isn't any school or district accountability. It's almost like a "no news is good news" philosophy. I think they would be open to allowing the public in for visits, but it isn't encouraged as much as the first school.
I love the idea of the public exhibitions! What a great way to hold everyone accountable.

Sonja's picture

I am really impressed with the stats from Envision Academy. I too teach students with low income and many of them will be the frist to graduate from high school or college in their families. It is exciting to see how well the students do in college. I have not used a public performance in my classroom, but I can see how it would motivate both the students and the teachers to be prepared and successful. I have not heard of instructional rounds before. I feel that they could be beneficial to schools because the school woudl gain feedback from others outside of the system. Does the school invite certain people to come and visit, or is it more of an open invitation to be a part of this process?

Kelsey's picture

I love the idea having the students present their own work in front of an audience. I believe that would keep them accountable for their work and make them want to do their very best. It is also a good way to show their peers what they have learned and to learn from each other.
I taught 4th grade last year, and in an effort to mix it up, I broke up my classroom into groups of 4. I then made them accountable for reading a section of their Social Studies book on the different regions of the US. They then made a billboard trying to persuade new settlers to come to their region giving examples from the text. They then presented their billboard to the rest of the class. I really felt that giving them ownership of a section of material made them more accountable for their learning and the teaching of their peers.
It is awesome to give students a voice!

Fabio's picture

We have the International Baccalaureate Program in our school and therefore, teachers and students are extremely accountable. For instance,50% the course I teach is graded externally. I grade the rest of the course, however, it is moderated externally. Having this system holds us all accountable and most certainly raises the level of student learning.

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