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Monday, 19 January 2015

Stop SHOULD-ING On Others: Three Actions Successful Leaders Take

Too often in our work we have seen leaders, with the best of intentions, tell others what they should do. Yet, successful and systemic implementation of assessment for learning eludes many schools and systems. Telling is just not enough.

In our work with positional leaders and leadership teams over the past 15 years, we have deliberately gathered research evidence regarding the effectiveness of using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process. After analyzing the findings of this study, it was clear that there were three actions that the successful leaders employed:
  1. Leaders must take action and move beyond words to deeds.
  2. Leaders evaluate what they value and move beyond numbers to include triangulated evidence of learning.
  3. Leaders find ways to collect ongoing information and use frequent feedback loops.
1. Taking Action - Beyond words to deeds

The leaders in this study didn’t just tell others what to do. The positional leaders interviewed gave examples of deliberately involving school leaders and adult learners in doing assessment for learning. They showed samples, co-constructed criteria, and worked to arrive at agreement around quality. They actually used assessment in the service of learning both with school and professional development leaders. And, they expected school leaders to use these same principles, structures, and strategies with their faculty members and others in similar ways.  Professional learning opportunities also used assessment for learning principles, structures, and strategies.

For the leaders in this study, taking ACTION by modeling assessment for learning was a key aspect of success. It appears these leadership actions helped to bring alignment throughout the system. In fact, the leaders studied indicated that the more they used assessment for learning themselves, the more they saw it being used by others. This deliberate process of aligning ‘word and deed’ further embedded assessment for learning into the culture of the system. One example of taking action is leaders co-constructing criteria with adult learners (see Figure 1.0).

Figure 1.0*
2. Evaluate what you value - Beyond numbers to triangulated evidence of learning

It is often said that we evaluate that which we value. Without exception, the positional leaders in this study work in an environment where educational systems are ‘judged’ by external data. Yet, the shift to using more assessment for learning in classrooms is often accompanied by the valuing of student voices and students’ ways of knowing.

Classroom assessment values both qualitative and quantitative data that are collected over time in relation to that which must be learned. These positional leaders, as evidenced in the data, balanced external, lagging data about student achievement, with classroom-based evidence gathered through triangulation: products students create, observations of students engaged in process, and conversations with students about their understandings.

Leaders deliberately modeled alignment, demonstrating that teachers were not the only ones being expected to value qualitative data and triangulate evidence of learning over time. Figure 1.0 includes an example of evidence being from multiple sources - triangulated - and collected over time. The leaders interviewed explained that as alignment, in terms of triangulation, increased, the need to rely solely or heavily on external data diminished; data were being collected and valued from multiple sources and from all layers and parts of the system - from classrooms, to schools, and to the larger system level with multiple schools.

3. Leaders find ways to collect ongoing information and use frequent feedback loops.

Leadership literature has long promoted feedback loops as being incredibly important to system change and learning. Yet, in education, the search for effective feedback loops has resulted, in many jurisdictions, in more external testing. Researchers have documented the negative impact of increased external testing on learning and teaching.

In this study, the positional leaders described how they were able to gather frequent feedback from multiple perspectives and at different levels – students, teachers, parents, schools, systems, trustees, and community partners. Leaders also explained how they used the data to make adjustments.  These included revisiting policy, regulations, protocols, and procedures and were based on the analysis of the evidence of learning – ongoing assessment information – in relation to the system initiative. 
You can read the full report in the Curriculum Journal (DOI: 10.1080/09585176.2014.964276). 
It is posted on our members site in the leadership section here along with an extensive collection of materials to support you in your work. You can also download a pre-publication version right here.

Anne and Sandra


1. Figure 1.0 is from Transforming Schools and Systems Using Assessment: A Practical Guide by Anne Davies, Sandra Herbst, and Beth Parrott Reynolds (2012).

2. This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in [CURRICULUM JOURNAL] on [October 30, 2014], available online: http://wwww.tandfonline.com/[DOI: 10.1080/09585176.2014.964276].

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