When teachers return to their classrooms in fall, one question at the top of their minds is this: How do I know where my students’ skills are, and how can I adjust my instructional practice to meet their needs?
Setting professional goals anchored to the needs of students — what we call "finding an area of focus" — is a difficult task. As we work with districts on establishing professional goal-setting processes, we often hear from teachers and principals that they are unsure about what kinds of formative assessments of students’ learning they should use to set and assess their professional goals related to instructional practice.
“This is about our practice, this is about better serving our students through [focusing] our instructional practice.”
Teacher participant in Area of Focus pilot
Many ask us, “How can I set a goal in September when I don’t know my students yet?” We argue that it is critical to start setting instructional goals early in the school year — as early as September — and that the assessment process begins right away. We can get to know our students quickly and use that information to guide teacher goal setting and the ongoing formative assessment process.
In this post, we have put together a set of recommendations and an example that can help teachers and principals decide what kinds of information about students will be helpful to ground goal-setting and how to get it.
Defining "Area of Focus"
First, let’s clarify the terminology. We define an area of focus or professional goal as “what a teacher chooses to work on based on the learning strengths and challenges of students in relationship to his or her instructional practice.” Typically, an area of focus is something a teacher can productively work on for three to four months.
To clearly state a goal and make the link between student learning and teacher practice, we recommend using this sentence framework:
If my area of focus is ______________ (instructional practice), the result will be _______________ (in student learning).
If my area of focus is to develop my ability to facilitate whole-class mathematical discussion that includes student justification of their thinking, the result will be that students will be able to explain the strategy they used to solve a problem and describe why it works
In order to complete this sentence and articulate a goal, we take teachers through a series of steps. In this blog post, I will focus on the first step: what information about students is helpful to ground goal setting and how teachers and principals can get it.
Finding and Collecting the Right Data
Starting out, teachers should gather baseline formative assessment data in an area that is important in their grade levels and subject areas. This may mean, for example, reading comprehension of grade-level text, standards of mathematical practices, scientific inquiry processes, historical reasoning or academic discussion techniques aligned with speaking and listening standards.
But how do teachers collect this data? In addition to alignment with important grade-level content, we recommend that teachers design assessment tasks to administer during the first two weeks of school that will do the following:
- Provide many possible entry points for students
- Allow students to demonstrate complex understanding of content
- Provide a window into student thinking
- Provide useful information to inform planning
- May ask students to combine skills
- On-demand writing samples
- Conferring notes or anecdotal notes
- Transcripts from (or videos of) classroom discussions
- Student notebooks full of their thoughts about an article or beginning thinking for a piece of writing
- Student lab notebooks with prompts asking students to design, record data and/or analyze results of an experiment
- Student notes in response to an important question about a time period and accompanying annotated primary sources
- Exit tickets with student reflections on the learning targets for the day
- Student solutions to a complex mathematical task and their written (or oral) explanations of how they reached those solutions
Teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel here; in many cases, these can be assessment strategies they are already using. The box on the right lists some examples.
With all this theory in mind, let’s look at an example of how one teacher we work with conducts formative assessment early in the year that helps shape her professional goal setting.
How It Works in Practice
Marlene is an eighth-grade social studies teacher. Her team is working to implement Common Core standards with a special focus on helping students read and comprehend grade-level social studies texts about American history (CCSS.RH.6-8.10) and to make sense of both primary and secondary sources on a topic (CCSS.RH.6-8.9).
Marlene wants her students to be able to read both primary and secondary sources about an important event in U.S. history — in this case, the "Trail of Tears," — and use both kinds of sources to develop understanding of what happened and how historians construct understanding from different perspectives. She ultimately wants her students to understand that historians use primary sources to interpret what happened in the past. She also wants to know if students know how to make their own graphic organizers to organize their thinking when they read several texts on a topic.
Monday (day 1)
Marlene tells her students that on Wednesday they will be having a class discussion about what happened during the Trail of Tears and how different texts describe the event. On Monday, she distributes to students a short excerpt from the district’s textbook describing the Trail of Tears. She asks students to independently read and take notes on the important ideas in the text. She asks them to write a brief summary of what they read. During this time, Marlene talks to individual students about what they are learning about the Trail of Tears and what they have decided to put in their summaries.
Tuesday (day 2):
Marlene reminds the students about their task on Wednesday. She asks them to take out their notes from Monday and review what they wrote. She tells the students she will be giving them two primary sources today: two eyewitness accounts of the Trail of Tears. She asks them to design their own graphic organizers to organize their thinking and take notes. She asks students to read the two eyewitness accounts with the following questions in mind: What happened during the Trail of Tears? How do different texts describe the event? What similarities and differences do they notice? They are also expected to summarize each text and respond to the questions. During this time, Marlene confers with individual students about the three texts and what they are learning about the Trail of Tears from these different perspectives.
Wednesday (day 3)
Marlene informs her students they will now have a discussion about the different accounts of the Trail of Tears. She asks them to get out their notes and start their class discussion. Marlene asks a colleague to video the discussion, and she takes notes while students discuss. At the end of the discussion, she asks students to write a short reflection on how their ideas about the Trail of Tears changed as a result of the conversation. She then collects all the student notes, texts and graphic organizers.
Marlene now has the following sources of information:
- Student notes on one secondary source (textbook) and two primary sources on the same topic
- Student summaries of each text
- Student comparisons of the texts in their self-created graphic organizers
- A transcript and video of students discussing all three texts as a class
- Conferring notes and anecdotal notes
She can now analyze this data — alone or with a colleague or team — and then reflect on what she might be able to work on in her instructional practice to support her students, building on their strengths and developing an area of focus tied to the whole class or a subgroup.
Collecting Student Data Pays Off
Collecting student data to inform professional goal setting and yearlong planning is easier than it may seem. While Marlene took three days to conduct her formative assessment, teachers can also collect relevant and robust data in a single day. Teachers may also use assessments that are already created and available in their districts or schools — provided that the information will be descriptive enough to inform goal setting. The time spent early in the year will pay off as teachers focus their professional goal setting and launch their professional learning with a laser-like focus on students.