George Lucas Educational Foundation

School of the Future: Q&A with the Principals

Stacy Goldstein and John Fanning share insights on how you can implement an “authentic” assessment strategy at your school.

January 14, 2011
Credit: Tom LeGoff
Stacy Goldstein and John Fanning (image below), who lead SoF’s middle and high schools, respectively, collaborate closely on assessment strategies and practice, as well as school culture and management.

On November 8, 2010, we sat down with John Fanning and Stacy Goldstein to learn how they make things work. Their titles are actually Director of High School and Director of Middle School within the School of the Future in New York City, and although both were quick to say they inherited a great school, it was clear to us that they are putting their stamps on a unique place.

Click on any of the questions listed below to skip down to the answer. Scroll down past the list of questions to read the interview in its entirety.

Q: Could you introduce our readers to the School of the Future and its history?

Stacy Goldstein: The School of the Future is a grades 6-12 public school in District 2 in New York City. It's located on 22nd Street on the corner of Lexington Avenue. Our kids come from every borough of Manhattan. The school was started 20 years ago with an Apple grant to be a school of technology. That's how we got the funky name, School of the Future.

Former principal Kathy Pelles got us involved with the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of hundreds of schools that encourage students to demonstrate what they have learned. So that relationship further solidified us as a progressive school in New York City that's dedicated to personalized, real-world learning and performance-based assessments. And we're continuing to be a progressive school, but we are also figuring out how to fold in assessment and accountability within a progressive school culture.

Q: What do you think makes authentic assessment authentic? What do those words even mean?

Stacy Goldstein: I think what makes authentic assessment authentic is that it's actually the kind of work that a person would do in a particular discipline. So an authentic assessment in math should challenge students to bring their A game to the table in a way mathematicians or people who use math in their jobs would. A science-authentic assessment would challenge the kids to do the same kind of task that a scientist would actually do. An authentic history assessment would require deep research and analysis.

Scientists do not answer questions about the features of rocks simply by reading a table at the back of a book. They observe the features of rocks and use known criteria to categorize samples. All of these examples are obviously relative to our kids' developmental level and are within the four walls of this school. But a major goal at this school is to challenge them to do the kind of work that people in these careers actually do.

Q: Do you know that authentic assessments are having a positive impact on student achievement and, if so, how?

Credit: Tom LeGoff
Director of High School, John Fanning.

John Fanning: Yes, we feel that authentic assessment is having a positive impact on the students for the simple reason that they know where they are in their learning at any given time. We set up different structures within this school so that students can know their grades. Not only that, but they know where they are in their class in relation to a national percentile rank in their reading assessment.

For instance, we use the Teachers College reading assessment with our middle school kids and ninth graders. It uses letters to indicate progress, with Z being the highest level. So kids are starting to say, "I am at a U but working towards a Z by the end of the year." To have the kids understand who they are as learners and where they are is really powerful, and we can see them speaking a different language now, which is great.

Stacy Goldstein: Yes, we definitely know that authentic assessment is having a positive impact on students. It comes back to the questions, How do we know that they're getting it and how do we understand that without allowing ourselves to make any assumptions about what they are getting. So even just yesterday, one of my sixth-grade humanities teachers came in and said, "We gave our task on demand for this new unit in personal essays, and I realized that 15 of my kids are already performing higher than the kids did last year at the end of the year."

Three years ago, we would have just enacted the curriculum map as is, without first assessing how our kids are doing, and we would have really missed the opportunity to push a lot of our kids. That to me is a great example of how assessment is affecting students. It is giving your teachers the information they need to take things in a different, more personalized direction.

John Fanning: I just wanted to add that over the last two to three years, we've been very supportive of goal setting with our students and that is where assessments come in. Through the use of transparent, formative assessments, students know where they are in relation to class objectives or their own goal setting. We find that they buy into it more, especially in the high school, when they know what their goal is based on assessments and information they have access to.

Q: How do you know that what you're doing here is preparing kids for more learning?

John Fanning: The most concrete example is that when our kids come back from their first year of college, they thank us and say, "I can write a 20-page research paper and my roommate can't." It's an amazing skill. Also, they feel more comfortable talking. They report they are participating in class discussions and backing up what they say with evidence and that they feel very comfortable in their first year of college.

Q: Talk about how you support teachers working together.

John Fanning: Teacher support is really strong at our school. It has to be because of what we're trying to do here with such a diverse population and our use of the exhibition process to assess high school students. It's a time-consuming process for both kids and teachers. So Stacy and I try to set up time within the school week when teachers can meet.

For example, each grade-level team has a day when they eat lunch together so they can discuss teaching across the grade. They also use the time to discuss individual students so they can develop group responses to the students' needs. We also have department meetings at the end of the day after students have left. That's when a lot of the design-your-own assessment work is done with the common rubrics for English or math across the grades. So all of this fosters a collegiality, and I think teachers come here because of that. The rumor is that we offer a real support system here for teachers, both new and old. (Talk to others who care about assessment in Edutopia's Assessment Group.)

Stacy Goldstein: We build in some really purposeful structures to ensure that teachers have common planning times. For instance, middle school humanities teachers have between two and five common preps throughout the week during which they can meet together and meet with their special ed teacher or literacy coach. The special ed teachers create their own schedule around the teacher's schedule, which always has collaborative planning time in it. We play around with the schedule sometimes to shave off time on different days so we can give our teachers some longer department time together, which allows them to have the vertical planning sessions.

Q: What types of professional development do you offer the teachers and how often do you offer it?

John Fanning: We do a lot of in-house professional development; it's another form of collaboration. We want teachers to be able to hold workshops at different times during the year on what they're doing in their classrooms. If they happen to be strong in a certain teaching craft, we want them to share that. We also use programs such as the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, from Columbia University, and the program's staff comes in to look at the alignment of our assessments and the common core standards and to make suggestions for improvement.

Q: Do you see yourselves as instructional resources for your staff?

John Fanning: Absolutely. As a high school director, I feel I am an instructional leader and resource for my teachers. I was a teacher here myself for two years in ninth- and tenth-grade humanities. In fact, just yesterday, a ninth-grade teacher brought a student to me who was interested in doing one of her exhibitions on Greek mythology, and she needed some ideas to get going. I did teach ninth grade, and I had kids who wrote exhibitions on ancient Greece, so I was able to give her some guidance and information. I enjoy going into classrooms a lot and being able to give quick-turnaround feedback or have longer conversations with teachers who are stuck.

Stacy Goldstein: As director of the middle school, I definitely see myself as an instructional leader and instructional resource. That's my most important job, and everything else has to support that. I was a teacher and literacy coach here, so I do understand the challenges. I try to go into two to three classes every day and talk to the teachers and then follow up with feedback via email.

When I'm talking to teachers, I feel like I'm able to get them to think differently about what's going on in their classrooms, whether it's the way that they're holding kids accountable for thinking, the way that they're asking questions to produce the thinking, or the way that they're giving people time to process the thinking across the curriculum.

Q: What are you most proud of at the school?

Stacy Goldstein: I'm definitely proud of the learning community of the adults in the building. I think we hire well, but then I think that we sustain this dynamic level of wondering and questioning and experimentation among our staff. I'm also proud that we're a staff that constantly takes risks. Even in administration, we're constantly thinking about what we could do better and what's not working and how we can pull in something else to solve problems. We're constant problem solvers.

John Fanning: I am most proud of our diverse student population and the teachers who want to work with them. Our kids come from very different educational, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. This diversity is a big challenge for our teachers because it takes more work to help them all to succeed. Most of our teachers come here knowing that and relish the challenge.

Q: What are your goals for future improvements in the way you conduct assessment at the school?

John Fanning: I think that the teachers at the middle school are doing a great job, and we need to learn from their successes and adopt some of their strategies. For high school, we are starting to establish more frequent times to conduct interim assessments to understand how our kids are doing. That information can be so useful to the departments as they make decisions about curriculum and about individual student's needs.

Stacy Goldstein: I think a goal for us, as we continue with the interim assessment work that we've been doing, is to make it a more regular event. We give interim assessments to students throughout the year to gauge progress toward year-end goals. I would like to see assessments happen at least five times a year so that we can look at the data together and figure out what it tells us. So yes, we’ve done a good job of writing curriculum that spirals skills by articulating what should be mastered in each grade and how concepts should deepen, but I think that if our teachers really have time to look at the assessments they give, then they'll make even better decisions about what the benchmarks should be in different grades.

They will also be able to even out the curriculum and insure rigor even more by going back to the assessments and ramping them up. Beyond putting results on spreadsheets five times a year, we want teachers to use results to set goals for whole-class instruction, small-group instruction, and department-wide reflection on curriculum alignment.

Q: I can imagine that people looking at the school on a very superficial level might say, "Wait a second. Are the kids getting an easier ride because you use a different kind of assessment?"

John Fanning: No. In fact, I think we feel like tests would be the easy way out. Standardized tests are not realistic. They're not authentic. The kids don't even know who's grading them so they have no buy-in. The actual structure of the test is not the way that you're going to show that task independently in your life. So our kids, whether they are doing a project-based assessment or a performance-based assessment, find the authentic tasks much more difficult because we're asking them to not learn a procedure and spit it back out again but to understand the concept behind the process that the procedure represents.

Students are thinking more critically during these authentic assessments. They definitely have to use real-life skills such as preparing, working with a team, and communicating. It's just so much more than a standardized test could give. Exhibitions are performance-based assessments in the form of a thesis research paper that assesses students' ability to use the five habits of mind -- their ability to see significance, make connections, show evidence, recognize alternatives, and possess a point of view. Students focus on the skills of research and nonfiction writing, but it is around these five habits of mind that we created all of our rubrics to assess students.

Stacy Goldstein: I think that there is a potential for authentic assessment or performance-based assessment to become easier than a test if you don't hold your staff and yourself to high standards. I think the high school has done an amazing job with exhibitions and making them harder, much harder than the Regents Exam. They've been able to do that by constantly refining the rubrics to make sure that they're rigorous in reflecting the real work that should be done, not just by designing them to ensure success. Also, I think that because we've held students to really high standards, we recognize that not all students are going to achieve mastery with distinction. It is a legitimate concern that these projects could become fluffy, and I think without good assessment, they would become fluffy.

Q: Administrators and teachers in other schools might worry that the creation of all these assessments, capturing and analyzing all this data, and creating skill spirals is too time consuming to be practical. What would you say to that?

John Fanning: It's a legitimate worry. I think teachers don't come into this profession to assess. Stacy and I have had to plan very hard and take a very slow approach to introducing assessment-driven instruction to teachers, whom we value as instructors first. However, the aha moments that are continuously happening here are not just with students; they are with the teachers too. Once they understand how relevant their teaching is and how powerful it can be, they can become more targeted in their instruction. So the idea is to present formative assessment not as something that teachers are going to be spending hours and hours doing but as something that they should be able to do as they teach.

Stacy Goldstein: I won't lie and say that the concern about these assessments taking a lot of time is not a reality. We dealt with that concern when we rolled this out, and we continue to have conversations about it. But our approach to assessment does end up saving a lot of time and makes teachers much more efficient and effective because they're able to come back to the evidence of whether or not their students are getting it, and they're able to make a lot more responsive decisions about what's working for their kids.

Q: Can you offer some advice to other administrators around the country who might want to make the shift to a more authentic environment and who need some ways to get started?

John Fanning: Make sure your teachers know that you understand this is difficult and that you're struggling with it as much as they are. Being transparent has also been effective for Stacy and me. It also helps to realize that all the changes do not have to happen at once. It is a slow, step-by-step process.

Stacy Goldstein: When you're rolling it out, it is a great idea to have a heart-to-heart conversation with your staff. Explain your philosophical stance on the issues. For me, it is all about social justice. We cannot blindly leave our students behind and hide behind sacred cows of curriculum that are actually not serving students well. I think the social justice aspect is important to our teachers, and so when we approached our teachers about assessment in that context, it sort of reinvigorated them to do the work.

School Snapshot

School Of The Future

Grades 6-8 | New York City, NY
689 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$5000 per general ed student per the Fair Student Funding formula.
Free / Reduced Lunch
34% White
26% Hispanic
20% Black
18% Asian

2% English-language learners
17% Individualized education programs

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