Demonstrating Mastery While Measuring Impact on Student Learning? It's Possible!

When I was teaching high school, we had an open culture of adults popping into classrooms -- for evaluations, certainly, but also to hang out and observe what was going on, to interact with students about their learning, to "get a pulse" on the kind of teaching and learning that was happening. But I cannot remember a single time when a colleague visited my classroom to help me solve a problem of practice I was working on.

In our Teacher Leadership Initiative, we help teachers learn to do just that: assist colleagues solving their own problems of practice. By guiding teachers to narrow in on an area of interest, choose a question they want to answer and develop or select a data collection tool and invite a colleague in to collect that specific data about student learning, we accomplish several goals: 1) We establish a shared definition of what "powerful student learning" is; 2) We build and deepen a culture of trust -- one where colleagues visit not to judge or suggest or tell us what to do next, but rather where teachers engage in reflection about specific instances of student learning driven by data they want to understand; and 3) We highlight and support teachers' curiosity about their own students' learning. All protocols for being in peer classrooms focus exclusively on student learning – what students are saying and doing. Teachers are not the focus.

And it is, quite simply, transformational.

But it is not simple. That is why we built in the quality assurances of micro-credentials. It takes time and practice to build the new habits and skills needed to conduct this kind of cycle of inquiry and reflection. So it's great that participating teacher leaders love this practice and it's important that they demonstrate competency in those necessary skills, but in the end, what matters is the impact on student learning.

Michael B. Horn and Thomas Arnett wrote recently in EducationNext: "It’s important to establish and hold programs to a high bar for quality, rooted in competency. Done right, micro-credentials can help make PD more meaningful for teachers by focusing on skill mastery instead of coursework completion...But until micro-credentials are road-tested for student-learning gains, they will remain a hyped-up experimental vehicle for improving education."

We couldn't agree more. That's why our micro-credentials measure not only skill mastery but also impact on student learning.

One example:

In order to earn a micro-credential, teachers have to show evidence of sustained improvement in their classrooms around an area of interest. This comes from a sixth grade math teacher who wants to advance powerful student learning by helping her students routinely make their thinking visible.

She introduces an exploratory math talk routine and tracks the progress of her students using these four prompts:
The run charts below show her students’ improvement in three different sixth-grade math classes.

run chart 1

run chart 2

run chart 3

Key to the data collection is the ability to discern the difference between a change (something happened) and an improvement (there were better results that were sustained over time). Run charts help teachers identify those changes that result in sustained improvement.

And now this teacher knows that she has met competency standards in the skills she learned AND that her growth has positively impacted student learning.

As I think back about my years teaching high school, I would have been excited to earn a micro-credential that showed mastery in new skills. Being asked to demonstrate skills is a huge leap forward from the practice of earning certificates for simply sitting through a professional learning session. But had I been asked to demonstrate mastery AND measure impact on my students' learning, I would have been a much better teacher much earlier in my career. I would have asked better questions about what was happening in my classroom. I would have tried to understand what was working, for which students and under what conditions. I would have been more equipped to advance powerful student learning. And isn't that what teaching is all about?

Sofi Frankowski
Chief Learning Officer, Schools That Lead