Thrilled to see online today that School Retool is promoting what I hope will be a new annual event, Shadow a Student Day.   They’re asking and encouraging school-leaders– though I know not why they are limiting their invite to school-leaders: why not all educators?– to commit to a full day of student shadowing during the week of February 29-March 4.

Commit to rethinking the student experience-starting by walking in the shoes of a student.

Some of my readers know how enthusiastic I am about student shadowing as a form of professional learning, empathy strengthening, and pedagogical inspiration.   I recommend this practice in nearly every presentation I make, but when I ask for a show of hands of whom in the audience has ever done it, it’s rare to see more than two or three arms go up.

Student shadowing, simply put, changed my life.  In 2008, during a sabbatical year, I visited 21 21st century high schools, shadowing students, usually 11th graders, for entire school days at each site.   At each, I made every effort to sit in the student seat, experience the class as a student would, partake of most the tasks students were performing, while also (furiously) keyboarding on my Macbook, writing for my blog.   Over the course of these several months, I immersed myself in both traditional and innovative curriculum and instruction, and came away with a newfound and deeply help appreciation for the true potential of secondary learning and a pained sense of how frequently we fall far short.

As a result, my work in school leadership changed dramatically, and not too long thereafter, my career course changed, to work trying to support all, not just one, school in shifting in the directions identified from my shadowing observations.

Each day visiting resulted in blog posts of 1000-3000 words; I recapped my experience in a post called “lessons learned,” available here. 

But that post contains the lessons learned about schooling– not about shadowing.   Here let me draw upon those 21 days, and subsequent reflection and discovery, to offer suggestions for those embarking on student shadowing.

  1.  Consider reading or reviewing some of the excellent writing that exists about the experience of shadowing students.   I’d direct people to one of the following three resources (in addition to my own, of course): Michael Thompson’s book, The Pressured Child; Denise Pope’s book, Doing School; and Alexis Wiggins’ reflection on Grant Wiggins’ blog.
  2. Take your reflections further by writing, and not just writing afterwards, and not just writing for yourself.  Make the commitment to make the most of your time by writing during the day, sneaking in a few moments as you are able, and then returning to write more at the end of the day- not the next.  And post, publish, distribute, make transparent your observations and learning.
  3. Select several, but not too many, questions you wish to pursue over the course of the day– and own them as close to your vest as you can.   “Am I learning?  Do I feel engaged/motivated/respected/encouraged in this context? Is what we’re doing here meaningful/preparatory/significant to my life and to how I can partially perceive a student’s life?”  Of course you can and will make observations and find answers to questions above and beyond the original set of questions you ask, (and of course there are real limits to how fully you can inhabit the worldview and life experience of your students), but clarifying for yourself what you are looking for, what you seek to understand better, will help make more meaning of the experience.
  4. Do the work.  I noted this above, but I want to reiterate.  Be more than an observer.  If asked to do a quiz, or write an essay, or work in groups, or listen to the lecture, do so: do what the students are asked to do.
  5. Shadow a second time.   Comparison is critical to insight: without it, it is so much harder to make judgment.   Try wine tasting, for instance, without multiple wines: there is so much more to infer, more to learn, more to comprehend when comparing two or more samples.    It is more time and maybe that makes it impossible, but seek to shadow two students on two days: a boy and a girl; a student from a relatively more advantaged background and one from a less advantaged circumstance; a student at your school and one at a school you know to be very different from your own.

Take the initiative, commit the time, and invest your all: student shadowing provides insights which will inspire and inform your leadership for months or years to come.






(Disclosure: I wrote this following piece for new client ProExam, on whose blog it originally appeared.  People often inquire what I’m up; this is one of my newer and larger projects, consulting to ProExam on the development and promotion of their forthcoming tool.  

This– better school and individual level assessment and measurement, primarily for formative purposes, of noncognitive skill and character development — is something I’ve been enthusiastic about for years, of course.   Readers here may remember my enthusiasm dating back to 2013 for the Mission Skills Assessment, built by ETS for INDEX; I wrote the MSA user’s guide and toolkit in 2014.   Rich Roberts, Ph.D. and Jeremy Burrus, Ph.D., the two ETS scientist-researchers who originally designed the MSA, are now at ProExam, and have recently developed the next-generation tool described below.  Some of the evidence basis and research underpinning this new product can be found in a paper I co-authored with Dr. Roberts for the Asia Society, “A Rosetta Stone for NonCognitive Skills.”)

I’m assisting with recruiting schools interested, at no expense, in piloting the tool this winter/spring; contact me if you are interested at

Understanding the Big 5 Factors of Noncognitive Skills

Social Emotional Learning and Noncognitive Character Strengths Matter…and How We Measure Them is the Key to Their Improvement

Perhaps the greatest consensus in K-12 learning today centers upon the critical importance of student social and emotional learning and the development of their noncognitive character strengths—their skills for success in school and life.

This is not news to teachers.  Ask a preschool assistant teacher or ask an AP Physics teacher and you’ll find resounding, even impassioned agreement: dependability, persistence, ambition, curiosity, and getting along with others matter as much, or very often much more, than cognitive ability.  Education leaders have similarly embraced this understanding, with ASCD making the “whole child” its signature slogan and state and district leaders shifting the emphasis of schooling to skills and life success.

In the past decade or so, the common sense point of view of teachers in the field and educational leaders has been emphatically endorsed by researchers, social scientists, and think tanks, including Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, New York Times journalist Paul Tough, MacArthur “genius” prize winner Angela Duckworth, the Hewlett Foundation, the RAND Corporation, the National Research Council, the Brookings Institute, and the New America Foundation, just to name a few.

As the educational field works to strengthen its effectiveness in developing and implementing social and emotional curricula, in planning and guiding ongoing improvement in this arena and holding themselves accountable therein, and in providing meaningful feedback to students in their growth and proficiency, an enormous gap is being increasingly perceived by nearly all involved.  We lack effective assessment and measurement of social and emotional learning and noncognitive character strengths: the skills of success.

Nearly every individual and organization listed above can be cited to this effect: We lack the assessments we need.   (more…)

Perhaps this is a bit too much inside baseball, (and I know it makes me out to be a test-geek), but I want to write briefly today to cheer the news that the OECD Test for Schools (based on PISA), abbreviated to TFS, has been taken up by NorthWest Evaluation Association, coming over from its previous administrator, CTB-McGraw Hill.

(Note: I have no current or past affiliation with NWEA nor with OECD).

NWEA is best know for its MAP testing, the Measures of Academic Progress computer adaptive test.  More about MAP below (after jump):

An Implementation Toolkit for the OECD Test for Schools  Based on PISA    21k12Regular readers know of my enthusiasm for PISA testing in schools; in 2013-14 I researched and wrote a 64 page user’s guide and toolkit on the PISA TFS, (for EdLeader21 funded by the Hewlett Foundation) sharing how it is being and how it can be valuably used at the school level.
It was fascinating to observe and learn how unique and exciting this tool is: PISA questions are richer, more challenging, more open-ended, far more demanding of higher order thinking than those of most other tests. (Sample questions can be seen in slides above or in this excellent compendium)

The TFS 160 page school results report is a thing of beauty: colorful, studded with scores of charts and tables, enabling comparison of your students to norms globally and US.  There’s information about your school’s performance compared to like-socioeconomic schools as well. pisa aboutpisa Golden_e book_1_example.pdf There’s also a bunch of data about how students perceptions of their schooling– reading practices, teacher relations, instrumental motivation– can be mapped onto their performance, giving schools far more insight into opportunities for improving student performance than most other tests or tools.

The report is also studded with great little nuggets about evidence-based educational practices from around the world.  Disappointed by your school’s reading results?  Read about how reading is taught in Finland.  And so on.  Administering the TFS is an awesome window into comparative educational practice research and opens up perspective and understanding for school-leaders brilliantly.

I often tell people the story of Fairfax County (VA), which enrolled ten of its high schools in the PISA TFS pilot, at no cost, and was so delighted by the value of the reports they received that they then expanded their involvement, enrolling 27 high schools in the test at $12,000 each!

But, as successful as the TFS has been to date, it has been limited a bit by its previous high price point (about $12K) and its less-than-terrific management by the for-profit corporate behemoth that is CTB-McGraw Hill.

So how great it is to learn that its being taken up by the not-for-profit (501(c)3) NWEA, which is well regarded nationally (and in my own personal experience as a school-leader) for its skillful management of the MAP (more about below).   MAP has long been administered online, and now TFS will also be administered.  Because of the greater economic efficiency of online testing, NWEA will be slashing the price point for the TFS, down to about $6500 (and only $5000 this pilot year though June), and it is my recommendation that every high school strongly consider adding the PISA TFS on an annual basis– or perhaps every other year or third year.  Do it every three years and your amortized price is about $2k a year– worth it.  (more…)

Lead by Example Cover

Think Through Math, an online math support, personalized learning, and tutoring platform, commissioned this ebook, Lead by Example,  for their audience of district and school leaders and administrators.    You can find it here for free download.

The book’s core argument is that we are all 21st century learners, (or we all need to be), and that we can most effectively lead our schools through the necessary transformation our fast-changing times demand by better practicing what we preach to our students.

When we ask our students to show their work, to learn from their mistakes, to state their thesis, to play well with others, to share, to ask more questions, to be creative, and to revise their work,  do we stop to ask ourselves how well we are doing the same?  Do we consider the example we are setting?  How might we better lead by example?

In the eb0ok, each short lesson is illustrated with concrete examples of educational leaders “leading by example” in their everyday practice.  I’ve also tried to connect each practice to Marzano’s meta-analysis of evidence-based leadership strategies, explained in his book, School Leadership that Works.

Some of the leaders referenced in this e-book are Pam Moran, Eric Sheninger, Chris Lehmann, Eric Juli, Brett Jacobsen, Mark Crotty, and Sue Szachowicz.   I thank them for the many ways they inspire me and exemplify leadership by example.








grading assessing online student work

Pleased to share this recent project, commissioned by Blackbaud and Whipple Hill.

Assessment has long been a focal point for me and my work, but in the last two years, I’ve also been increasingly engaged with questions of how schools and educators can strengthen grading as a key component of a broader assessment philosophy and strategy.  It’s been a pleasure to present and consult to several faculties and schools on this topic recently, and I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to write up some of my thoughts in this new short publication.

Although this free 36 page illustrated ebook, which can be downloaded over at Blackbaud K-12, is written particularly for educators in online learning environments, many of the concepts and strategies are nevertheless pertinent and applicable to conventional classrooms as well.

Many thanks to the many online learning experts who provided very valuable input to this project:

  • Corinne Dedini, Online School for Girls
  • Mike Gwaltney, Oregon Episcopal School, (and formerly Online School for Girls)
  • Elizabeth Helfant, Mary Institute and Country Day School (MO) & Global Online Academy
  • Amy Hollinger, Global Online Academy
  • Eric Hudson, Global Online Academy
  • Brad Rathgeber, Online School for Girls
  • Connie White, Woodward Academy (GA)


SSATB just posted this new “special report,” which I researched and wrote most of this past spring.   It profiles new (and relatively new) innovative educational models which are becoming more significant alternatives in the landscape of educational choice, and includes interviews with leaders of these alternative models.



As I do every June on the blog here, it is my pleasure to offer a suggested summer reading list for educators.   This annual list also doubles as my top ten list of best book titles from the previous (school) year, in this case, 2014-15.

(For the past years’ recommendations, you can click the following for

It’s never easy making this list, reducing a year’s worth of reading to only ten titles.   I’ve added a few honorable mentions to round things out.   Nor is it easy, as I do ever year, to name a book of the year, the singular standout, and this year saw  a very tight competition between the number one and number two titles.

Unlike in some previous lists, this year’s top ten exclusively come from books published in the last sixteen months or so, all of them 2014 or 2015 titles.  As I did last year, I’ve also added toward the bottom some recommended free reports which can be found online in pdf, and some recommended fiction reading.

I should make note that  I can’t claim this list to be entirely free from bias.   As I’ve become a bit of a writer myself in the past seven years, I’ve come to know many others writers in education—and it’s become impossible to stand entirely apart from those relationships as I prepare my recommendations. Counting the honorable mention titles, five books here are authored by people I know well and/or have worked with in various capacities, and one other, the top title, is by someone I’ve met a few times.   Full disclosure.

Note: After the first two titles, the remaining are listed in no particular order.

#1 (Book of the Year): Transforming Schools: Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessments, and Common Core Standards, by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston.

Bob Lenz has long been a leader in both thought and action for Project-Based learning and for transformative educational program design in the Bay Area, and it’s terrific to get this book from him now, which should expand his voice nationally and internationally.  His network of Envision schools in San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward, at one of which I visited and shadowed a student at in 2008, are places which live up to the two-fold promise of the book’s title: they transform the lives of students, and in their example, show the way on how to transform schools.

The book speaks effectively to both classroom teachers and school/district leaders, more so than many other books of this type. The chapter on PBL, the book’s longest, stands out as one of the best succinct explanations of best practice. Particularly for teachers in more traditional schools, the section which promises that yes indeed, “PBL can start in your classroom” offers plenty of actionable, bite-size practical steps. The chapter also effectively empowers educators to respond to PBL skeptics, and addresses the coverage, rigor, and demographic fallacies—all of which I encounter frequently in my own work.

One of the most frequent debates I’ve had in the past half-decade about PBL is whether it can be effectively implemented incrementally. Some representatives of deeper learning argue, in my experience, vigorously that it can’t—it is an all or nothing proposition. Lenz, however, will have none of that—he sees it as the work of our entire century, not something that should or can be done overnight. And he offers useful advice on how to take first steps for principals and district leaders: ensuring “at least one deep learning experience per year; developing a graduate profile for your school; spearheading one structural change.”

Helpfully, because let’s not ever underestimate how hard it is to execute on the promise of deeper learning, Lenz ends his inspirational call for school transformation with a note of humility and frank acknowledgement of the challenge. “Don’t mistake our passion for overconfidence. Our failures have been many. Our vision is still evolving. Our schools are works in progress.   The successes we’ve had can be frustratingly impermanent.   The quality of our PBL ebbs and flows.   School culture can feel healthy, and then you turn to the next thing and it falters.   The work is hard, and it’s never done.”

#2: (Runner Up, Book of the Year).   Learning To Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk with Louis Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Pal LeMahieu.

It was tough deciding whether it should replace the Lenz as number one, but that the Lenz speaks a bit more widely to educators of all stripes helped it to its first position.   But for school leaders (at all levels), strategic planners, and consultants who work on helping schools get better, this may become a bible of sorts for a long time to come.

Bryk, who is President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, launches the inquiry by pointing out that despite tremendous initiative, our schools aren’t actually doing a good job of improvement.   But instead of jumping to the offering of solutions—so tempting!— by suggesting that what we really need is more (or less testing), or more, or less, pedagogical innovation, he turns his attention instead to the growing (but to me, previously largely unfamiliar) field of improvement science.   What we need as educational transformers to become better at is not what is needed for improvement, but how improvement actually can be brought to life.



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