I haven’t written often here about Douglass Reeves, but he really is a great resource about leadership and learning (his catchphrase).   In an undated piece on ASCD Express (Hey ASCD Express: Date your pieces!), Reeves poses three challenges to educational leaders like myself seeking to foster vigorously in our schools a “genuine commitment to 21st century learning”: these three challenges he calls the Assessment Gap, the Teaching Gap, and the Leadership Gap.

Reeves is right to begin with the Assessment Gap.  He explains the problem that very few states measure 21st century skills– either in the way of higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking and innovative thinking, and also key personal and social skills, such as collaboration and communication.   If we are to be driven by state standardized testing, and those tests do none of this, then how can we drive learning toward this?

I am far from alone in recognizing that the proper backwards design to reform begins with the end in mind: that we declare clearly and loudly what are our goals, what will be measuring, and what will we report.   We do so, we take careful note (over time) of where we are succeeding and where we are doing less well, and then we correct course.

My thinking about assessmenthas been primarily about the school-wide, macro and End-Game assessments, rather than the also incredibly important in-course, small to mid-size, classroom based,  formative assessments; this latter area is something I need to spend more time thinking about and developing.   We are going to ask our department chairs to begin collaborative work reviewing student assessments, and we are beginning to explore NWEA’s MAP (Measurements of Academic Progress; computer based adapative assessments).

But the Macro is my focus, and recently I have begun to recognize that to best connect with our audiences, we need to lead the charge for 21k12 ed. with an emphasis on 21st century measurements first!     Again and again skeptical audiences seem to retreat when I or we advocate for our students vigorously learning critical skills in addition to knowledge, and when we call for authentic engagement and project and problem based learning– because they wonder whether these things will diminish ultimately student mastery and proficiency.   I am sure they will not, but just saying so isn’t enough.    We need to declare what we are measuring, we need to measure it, we need to report it, and we need to drive our teaching and learning backwards from there.  This is why my very first initiatives as newly appointed Head of School were to implement the HSSSE and CWRA, and why we are now working on Dashboards of academic measurements.

Reeves next discusses the Teaching Gap, and I don’t find this discussion very effective at all. “Which approach is most rewarded in your school—great challenges and high expectations, or patronizing praise of inadequate performance?”  I don’t find this sentence very compelling– it strikes me as a bit of shallow rhetoric, and not very actionable.

In contrast, the third challenge is an excellent brief, on the Leadership Gap, and it speaks directly to me, someone with great aspirations to be both a 21st century educator and an effective educational leader:

If we aspire to have 21st century teaching and learning, then we must demand 21st century leaders. Specifically, if we require critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, then leaders must assess now—today, this very hour—the instances in which you can observe these characteristics in classrooms.

Just visit 10 classrooms right now and count the instances in which you observe these skills. Then do the same next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. If 8 of those 10 classrooms show evidence of isolation rather than collaboration, recitation rather than problem solving, regurgitation rather than creativity, and memorization rather than critical analysis, then don’t blame the teachers. That condition stems from leaders who will spend $100,000 and 100 hours to attend a conference about 21st century learning, but who will not devote a 50-cent cup of coffee and five minutes to engage a teacher in a challenging conversation about effective classroom practice.

This passage is greatly resonant with the call by Tony Wagner for “learning walks;” indeed his walks are exactly this, a project to interpret a school’s commitment to this kind of higher order thinking and learning from the evidence acquired by first hand classroom observation.  Do I do this now?  Some, but not nearly enough.    My intent or ambition: to work with faculty members this spring to determine what 2, 3, or 4 of these things (collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, critical analysis, etc.) we most want to work together to grow upon next fall, and then, having established and promulgated that, to do exactly this– to visit ten (or more) classrooms every week, and count, track, and report the instances.   Thank you Doug Reeves for this fine, succinct, action-able advice.

He ends his piece too on a fine note, and I will end mine on the same:

If we aspire to seize the opportunities 21st century learning presents, then we must first make the shift from blame to responsibility. When our students confront difficulty and failure, we expect them to respect our feedback, change their learning strategies, and try again. That is the essence of the resilience, self-discipline, and work ethic that are essential for successful students in every century. Therefore, education professionals must embrace feedback, seize personal responsibility, and model the changes required to close the gaps in assessment, teaching, and leadership.