School Improvement in Maryland

A Principal's Role in Structuring Regular Examinations of Student Work

Principals play a critical role in setting the expectation that planning and examining student work and performance data should be an ongoing, collaborative process. Principals need to provide time for this to happen. They need to consider how they could use staff meetings or other meeting times to build capacity and set expectations for how teams or departments will examine student work as a regular activity at their team meetings. Principals must also monitor the process and products and recognize it when it is successful.

Principals need to

  • Set expectations
  • Find and structure time
  • Model engagement in the process
  • Monitor process and end products
  • Recognize / showcase

They must address the following questions:

  • How and how often do you expect these teams of teachers to collaboratively plan and examine evidence of student learning?
  • How can you communicate these expectations and the high priority you place on it?
  • What do you want the end product(s) to look like?
  • How can teachers demonstrate that they have used this information to make the kinds of instructional decisions that would result in improved student achievement?

Why do we need to collaboratively examine student work?

It stands to reason that if we need to take all our students to proficiency on content standards, then we will need all of our teachers working toward this goal. It will no longer be enough for individual teachers to know what they are teaching and what students are learning. It becomes critical that teachers on the same grade level or teaching the same course reach consensus on how they are defining proficiency on assignments assessing indicators. Teaching is no longer a solitary act. If a school is going to move all students to proficiency on reading and mathematics indicators, then all teachers must be on the same page in terms of defining proficiency and interpreting student performance. It is also important that teachers articulate vertically to make sure their instructional program is aligned and increases rigor as the students advance grades. Teams of teachers must regularly meet to examine student work and reach consensus on what proficient performance looks like at their grade level. Having these discussions takes time and must be built into the school day as frequently as possible. Teachers who think they do not need to regularly collaborate with their colleagues will limit their ability to help their school reach the target.

The Aspen Workshop on High Schools recommended in its summary report of the Transforming High Schools Task Force that the continuous and collaborative examination of student work along with the personalization of schooling are the two critical strategies for transforming high schools at the local level. The Aspen Report goes on to say that the principal as instructional leader and manager must:

  • Understand the power and necessity of using student work as the lens for conversations among students, teachers and other adults
  • Recruit, retain and support teachers who share this perspective
  • Provide and protect time for teachers to meet with other teachers, students and other adults to discuss student work
  • Drastically reduce the routine of meetings, reports and other administrative activities that take time and energy away from these essential dialogues
  • Align resources (internal and external partnerships, district networks, professional development) to this strategy

Kate Nolan, Director of Re-Thinking Accountability for the Annenberg Institute of School Reform, believes "The process of studying student work is a meaningful and challenging way to be data-driven, to reflect critically on our instructional practices, and to identify the research we might study to help us think more deeply and carefully about the challenges our students provide us. Rich, complex work samples show us how students are thinking, the fullness of their factual knowledge, the connections they are making. Talking about them together in an accountable way helps us to learn how to adjust instruction to meet the needs of our students."

Joan Richardson, editor of NSDC Results asserts, "The practice of having teachers work together to study student work is one of the most promising professional development strategies in recent years. Examining student work helps teachers intimately understand how state and local standards apply to their teaching practice and to student work. Teachers are able to think more deeply about their teaching and what students are learning. As they see what students produce in response to their assignments, they can see the successes as well as the situations where there are gaps. In exploring those gaps, they can improve their practice in order to reach all students."

Though teachers have always examined student work as part of their grading process, the new focus on accountability and standards has driven a more structured and collaborative examination of student work. The focus of the examination has shifted from a summative evaluation of student performance to a diagnostic evaluation of student performance, teacher assignment, and implications for instruction.