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Exploring School Quality Measures at Winchester Public Schools

Winchester Public Schools, in Winchester MA, has been convening a School Quality Measures study group since 2017, gathering teachers, principles, and administrators, and the MCIEA SQM Project Director to discuss SQM data and discover ways in which this research can help Winchester schools improve their classroom and assessment practices.

Social Studies teacher Scott Spencer, a member of the study group since its beginnings, spoke to cceschool about some of the data the group was able to collect and what they did with it. He also shares his own aspirations for using the SQM data and how he's trying to implement performance assessments in his classroom in small, manageable ways.

Could you tell me about how you got involved with the SQM study group?

In September 2017, the assistant superintendent Jennifer Elenema asked a number of teachers throughout the district if they wanted to be in some sort of group that collected data and analyzed it. I came back to her saying, "Well, as we can collect data on nearly any process we do, I think the first thing we should do is go ahead and discover which questions we want to ask, and then find the data to go ahead and answer those questions.

So I did a qualitative research project last year where I interviewed 70 people total—administrators, faculty, students, and parents all involved at the high school—on how they felt that the high school functioned to see where we're strong, where we're weak, and where we could go ahead and use additional resources to analyze data. I wrote a report last spring, and I submitted it to the assistant superintendent's office. I learned a lot about the school, how it functioned, and met a lot of interesting people.

Did you find that there was a need that was unique to Winchester High School in particular?

What we have the most concern about as a faculty revolves around how we deal with special education. As that takes up a larger and larger portion of the budget every single year, the main finding was that that's something we should look into. However, that's not my purview as a general ed teacher, so I passed on that information to someone else.

Also, one of the lesser findings was there wasn't enough cross-department conversation within the building. As a teacher, I facilitated that myself this year, making sure there are more forums for department members to meet outside of just departments.

How are you trying to break into more cross-department collaboration?

It's less collaboration, honestly. It's pretty much something that once a month we have a meeting for a half-hour. It's open to any topic, and teachers from any department can come and join the meeting, and it's not a place for venting. It's a place where we can discuss best practices. How do you deal with students who don't turn in their homework? What do you do? How do you deal with talking about a challenging topic in front of students? How do you deal with a fellow staff member who is maybe having some issues? It's organic. I don't go there with a set agenda. Another teacher in another department runs it with me, and we've had probably consistently between 15 and 20 teachers show up [each time]. Overall, probably 40 teachers have showed up. We've run about 5 of them so far.

Have you seen any impact?

I've seen teachers reaching out to each other more, talking about things that we've learned from each other's classrooms and how we do things. In one sense, we have changed some of our practices within class based on hearing more about what teachers in other departments do. So it's a small scale change that's happening.

Moving back to the SQM group, what has been something valuable you've learned from being with that group of educators, or something that surprised you?

One thing that surprised me, and perhaps I was just a bit naive, was that a lot of change has to come from above. We need to change the way we teach, we need to change the way we do things in the classroom. We need to be much more interactive. That change does come from below, but you have to convince a teacher one at a time. For whatever reason, I wasn't really thinking about how much it came from above. Seeing it in a meeting with teachers from other buildings, and also with the superintendent and assistant superintendent, where their thoughts lie on pedagogy, surprised me in a positive way.

What are you hoping to receive from the group? How are you hoping it will influence your practice or the district in general?

What I'm hoping comes out of this group—it's two things combined:

A.) What can we actually do to change the way we teach? What sort of big goals can we set? What sort of smaller goals can we use to reach those bigger goals?
B.) How do we implement that change?

One of the reasons why I'm attracted to the group and the people in it is that their philosophy of pedagogy already matches what I'm doing in the classroom. Having a mostly project-based classroom, having a collaborative classroom where students work together nearly every day, that the way we assess is less through recitation of information and more of practices to build deeper thinking—that's something I've already tried doing in my own classroom for several years.

For you personally, what are some school quality measures that you would particularly like to see more of?

If you want to have an engaged student—a student who is actually here, and depending upon the time of the year and the age of the student, relatively enthused about coming to a class—that's one of the more important qualities - that there's high student engagement in coming to a classroom.

The second quality, which I think only comes out if you have an engaged student, is deeper thinking. Then it comes into question how you actually measure that. We've lived in a generation in the last 25 years with the amount of available information that school is no longer a place to gather information. School is a place to manipulate information and bring out new narratives based upon it. So that necessitates deeper thinking. If students like the class, like the teacher, like their peers, feel safe and comfortable, even on those days where the material or the activities may not be as exciting as other days because they've grown to respect class, they come engaged and they're open to trying new things.

How do you envision this work moving forward, and what are some challenges we need to overcome before this can be implemented?

That's sort of the conundrum here. I'm also lucky that in the four major subjects we have here at the high school—science, social studies, English, and math—I'm in the department that doesn't do a standardized test, in the sense that we have no MCAS in this department. But we do want to measure somehow what students have learned.The thing is, the ultimate goal, is very hard for a public school to reach.

If you have some sort of final project, some sort of oral interview, something where students have to demonstrate learning in something they create that deals with some sort of real-world circumstances, right now, that seems very challenging to reach because you almost have to redesign the entire curriculum. That sort of outcome seems very challenging within the system limitations you have in a public school. Your ideas may not match the reality, and that almost becomes the bigger challenge of how you implement change that's actually recognizable and doable.

One small thing that I do—I teach 10th-grade history—to show growth over the year, is that I have the same assessment with different content. In September, in January, and in June. Here's a path, here's a way to assess an unknown piece of information out of context. Write a short essay about it and show me your deeper thinking. This is history, so we read a primary source from the 18th century in September, the 19th century in January, and the 20th century in June. Different content, but the assessment is the same. So by challenging students with the same sort of thing, but with different context over the year, this is a way to demonstrate deeper learning growth, and being less concerned about what specific information can you put down in a bubble test. For me, that's an easier way to do it.

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