In my first year as an assistant principal, I evaluated some 25 non-tenured teachers. One math instructor in particular was struggling. I monitored her classroom closely as I began to hear complaints from students, then other teachers, and finally from parents. The problem seemed to lie with her methodology. She typically spent 40 minutes of the 54-minute period lecturing about a new algebraic concept, then assigned homework. The next day the homework was collected, she lectured again, and assigned more homework. Clearly, the students had little opportunity to practice the concepts with teacher supervision.
By the end of the first quarter, I was in full intervention mode. I addressed the issue with her and helped her write plans of action. As a math teacher myself, I taught her classes one full day as she observed. A substitute was hired one day so she could observe other math teachers. Students continued to flounder. She just didn’t seem to “get it.” Finally, I had an epiphany moment with her that forever changed the way I viewed my role as an administrator. In yet another conference with her, I made the comment, “Teachers, especially math teachers, should have a pretty good idea at the end of the period whether students learned the concepts.” She looked at me with a totally blank expression and replied, “How in the world would I know that? I don’t know if they’ve learned the concepts until I give the test at the end of the unit.”
How did I respond? What would you have said to her? Not long after that I posed the question to the department heads of the high school, “how do you know if students are learning in your classroom?” There was a long period of silence as they glanced around the room. Finally one replied, “by the look in their eyes.” Another said, “by the questions they ask,” and one said, “whether they ask any questions at all.” One teacher noted, “I can tell by the level of discussion that goes on.” The math department head said, “I walk around the room as they work the problems, and I can quickly determine if they understand.”
Principals play many roles, but one of the most important is modeling good instruction. The effective principal continually asks the question, “are the kids learning?” along with the follow-up questions, “how do we know if they are learning?” and “what are we going to do if they don’t learn?”
In the rush toward making decisions based on data, I fear that we may define formative assessments as being only tests. The formative-assessment process can greatly improve student learning if schools clearly understand it, but testing is only one part of the process. Decisions should be made on how and what to test and whether adjustments to the curriculum should be made based on the findings. But by misconstruing formative assessments as tests or even a particular type of test, we may diminish the potential impact of the process.
Borrowing from the world of business, Nonaka and Takeuchi in their ground-breaking book The Knowledge-Creating Company point out that there are two types of knowledge: explicit knowledge contained in manuals and procedures, and tacit knowledge learned only by experience and communicated indirectly. How many times have you walked into a classroom and thought, “I can feel the learning taking place?” Great teaching is very much an example of tacit knowledge, and an effective principal transforms that tacit experience into explicit words and actions that model good instruction, especially to those teachers who may have not yet mastered the process. Understanding that teaching and learning is a tacit experience, effective principals also empower teachers as the true experts to share in making important curriculum, testing, and program decisions.
What happened to the math teacher, you ask? Unfortunately, in spite of interventions on the part of several people, she did not make sufficient improvement for the school to hire her back for another year. That is another important role that principals play, one that is left for another blog post.