Fresh from training in assessment, Principal Toomey has a vision of student success driven by academic achievement. When he observes reading instruction in a fifth-grade classroom, he is puzzled by what he observes. A post-observation conference between teacher and principal reveals profound differences of opinion about children's needs. How can Toomey promote a vision of learning while also nurturing the professional development of this young teacher?

Mary Anne meets with Principal Toomey for a pre-observation conference.

Mary Anne dug yesterday’s spelling quizzes out of her bag as she waited for her pre-observation conference with Mr. Toomey. She had signed up early for observations in the hope that Mr. Toomey might have more time this year to give her the structured feedback she needed. Last year’s observations had been far from stellar, but she had little sense of what, exactly, Mr. Toomey wanted her to do differently. He always seemed too busy to provide anything more than scattered bursts of focused attention.

She began grading the quizzes and tried to suppress her disappointment in her students’ performance. It made her feel awful, dealing out F after F. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of all these low grades. She wanted her students to be successful, and she firmly believed that if they couldn’t be successful on right-or-wrong tests like this, then there was no point in giving them. Too bad the state tested students in just the format they were least likely to do well in.

See spelling tests from Mary Anne’s struggling writers below:

See a spelling analysis chart that Mary Anne could use below:

Mary Anne in Class

Mary Anne had made her way through 17 of the 29 quizzes when Paul Toomey appeared. “Another fight in the cafeteria!” he boomed as he burst through the door and took his seat behind a neatly arranged green, metal desk. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Mary Anne.”

“It’s okay. I got some grading done.” She returned the stack of papers to her folder and pulled out her lesson plan book. “And I had a chance to think some more about the lesson you’ll observe today. I’m going to be leading a workshop on—”

“Hold on, Mary Anne,” Paul laughed, still out of breath. “I want to look at your lesson, but first I’d really like to hear how things are going for you.”

“It sounds like you really enjoy your work, Mary Anne. That’s good to see—and I’m sure your students appreciate your dedication!” Paul beamed. “So, today you’re doing a workshop?”

“A reading-writing workshop,” she began, opening her manila folder with the lesson objectives outline. “We do this once a week to give everyone a chance to read and—” Mary Anne cringed as her voice was drowned out by the bell.

“I’ll take a look,” Paul nodded reassuringly as he took the folder from her.

“Well, okay then. See you atÂ…” she paused, looking at the schedule pressed neatly under the glass of his desk.

“Nine-eighteen,” Paul offered, tapping the second block outlined in green on the schedule.

“Right.” Mary Anne stood up. “If you come a few minutes early, you could catch the end of my meeting with Justine. We’re working on the Home-School Initiative.”

Paul had struggled to find a faculty leader for the Home-School project until Mary Anne came on board last year. Despite her enthusiasm, the project had limped along until money from a grant she’d co-written with a parent came through over the summer.

“We’ve got results from the family surveys and while the kids are in P.E. we want to finish revising the draft of the objectives. If you’re there, we could get your approval in time for the October newsletter,” Mary Anne finished up. “It wouldn’t take too long.”

“Okay, let’s say 9:00 then,” Paul replied, embarrassed that he had not devoted more time to this initiative. With everyone’s attention on the school’s sagging test scores, he really had no time for anything that wasn’t related directly to standards and instruction. He’d even spent the weekend at a conference on classroom assessment, which had proved more inspirational than the title suggested.

Before observing her class, Mr. Toomey meets with Mary Anne and Justine Carter, one of the most active parents in the school.

Mary Anne’s and Justine’s voices carried down the hall as Paul headed to the classroom at the end of Wing B. He sensed their excitement and was eager to hear their ideas about new ways to get the parents and community involved with the school. He glanced at the black-and-white clock on the far wall as he entered the classroom: 9:07. He struggled to find time for everything, and today was no exception.

“Sounds like you’re off and running!” His voice echoed against the cinder block walls.

“Oh, yes. Glad you could make it, Paul,” Justine’s smile belied the edge Paul detected. Justine had sent three kids through Lakedale and had aimed some pointed words Paul’s way over the years. But their relationship was shifting. Last year, Mary Anne had taught Scott, Justine’s middle child, and had connected with him in ways no other teacher had. Scott actually enjoyed school now, and Justine had insisted that her youngest, Jeremy, be placed with Mary Anne this year. Justine even volunteered as an aide in Mary Anne’s class once a week. Paul resisted thinking of her as a thorn in his side and tried to appreciate her tenacity and interest—not something many parents at Lakedale demonstrated. Her energy was just what the Home-School Initiative needed.

Paul smiled, making sure there was solid eye contact. He wanted Justine Carter on his side.

“Well, this survey was a great idea, Mr. Toomey!” Mary Anne appeared unaware of any tension. “You were right—the parents really do have ideas about how they’d like to get involved. There is so much interest in reading and literacy that we’re going to adjust some of our goals,” she continued as she pulled an orange formica chair around the table for Paul.

See a draft of Home-School Initiative objectives below:

Paul warmed to the idea. “I like the notion of starting with a focus on reading. And with the funding we have now, maybe we can provide a workshop or two to teach parents strategies for reading with their children.” His unspoken thoughts were less optimistic. He knew it was important to reach out to parents, but he wondered how much difference the program would make. More and more his only benchmark of success was his school’s scores, and these had been dismal for years.

“Why don’t we work out the budget details next week and then we can decide how to move ahead,” suggested Mary Anne. “I will bring a tentative schedule of events and projected costs.”

“Okay, same time next week, then?” Mr. Toomey asked.

Mary Anne was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm. “We’ll be here!”

After Mary Anne provides a quick overview of the reading-writing workshop she will be leading, Mr. Toomey settles into the corner of the room to observe a lesson with three students.

As the students filed into the classroom, still beaded with sweat from their basketball game in P.E., a few of the boys slapped Paul’s outstretched hand. Paul moved to a seat on the edge of the room and settled in with his pad of yellow-lined paper and sharp pencil. He liked to take detailed notes when he observed so that he could give helpful feedback. Justine Carter busied herself with the distribution of writing folders, making her way around the room as if it were her own.

Mary Anne wrote a journal prompt on the board: WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID?

Students show Mary Anne their stories

“And get out your reading books,” she instructed over the noise of rustling papers. “If you forgot your book, please visit our classroom library and sign out a new one.” She reminded herself to state her expectations, something she’d been working on articulating clearly to her students since she’d received low marks on this during last year’s evaluations. “This hour will be a reading-writing workshop. You will work quietly on your reading and free writes and I will meet with each one of the groups scheduled for today. Please bring your writing folders and reading books to our meeting.”

Mary Anne took another few minutes to settle everyone and to help find lost books and folders. She called the first group to the meeting table and asked them to take out the stories they had written the previous week. Mrs. Carter marched up and down the rows of desks tapping the heads and shoulders of students who wriggled in their seats. It was her responsibility to help students fill in their reading logs and to encourage those who finished their books to pick out new ones. She took meticulous notes on student progress, but sometimes created more noise and commotion than Mary Anne would have liked, although Mary Anne had never dared mention this.

Paul was not quite sure how to observe this class or what to focus on. Five minutes into the lesson, he decided to concentrate on a group of students working with Mary Anne, rather than watch the students near him who were supposed to be reading quietly at their desks. Unable to hear what students in Mary Anne’s group were saying, he abandoned his back corner seat. At six-foot-two he could not slip around the room unnoticed, but he needed to get a better sense of what was going on. As Paul moved around the classroom, he noticed a few students writing in response to the prompt on the board; several other students were squirming in their seats or flipping listlessly through their books.

Students were distracted by Paul’s movements

Although one or two students in her group were distracted momentarily by Paul’s movements, Mary Anne refocused them with questions about their folders. When she finished with the first group, she visited several students who looked off-task despite Mrs. Carter’s best efforts, and asked the second group to gather at the meeting table.

Paul returned to his seat, jotted down a few notes, and stood up again. He nodded at Mary Anne on his way out the door and mouthed, “Let’s talk later,” across the heads of her students.

After school, Mary Anne and Paul talk briefly about the small-group lesson.

Paul stared blankly at Mary Anne’s evaluation form on his computer monitor. He liked to look over past records to help him focus his thinking before conferencing with teachers, but he was getting little help from this. The issues documented last year remained.

Mary Anne’s plan listed objectives such as “building confidence” and “promoting trust,” and he could see reflecting these in the learning environment section of the form. But what about academics? Paul wondered if those boys got anything out of the small group meeting with Mary Anne besides a good laugh. He sighed and checked the language arts curriculum to see if there was a connection there that he was missing.

See Mary Anne’s evaluation form below:

See the 5th grade language arts curriculum below:

Paul knew Mary Anne related very well to her students, but how much help was that? He regretted not reading her lesson plan and asking more questions earlier. He wondered how free writes and those stories about video games could help prepare students for the fifth-grade language arts assessments they would face this spring. There were quite a few students who had just barely missed passing last year. Shouldn’t teachers be targeting instruction to students like those? That would really give the school’s scores a boost. Paul pulled out last year’s reading scores, wondering how his staff could have better prepared students for the tests. Maybe Mary Anne could benefit from the new Education Decision Support Library (EDSL), Paul thought. He’d send her there for additional support.

See last year’s reading scores below:

Click here to see sample questions for the fifth-grade writing test.

Paul looked at his notes yet again, shook his head, and consulted a question sheet he liked for ideas on how to approach his discussion with Mary Anne. He looked up just as she entered.

See a lesson evaluation resource below:

“Hi there, Mary Anne. Have a seat.” He glanced down at her lesson plans once again. “I was just reviewing your lesson objectives,” he said, pushing the papers aside.

“Oh, I’m glad that you had a chance to look at them. I’m still writing lesson plans for every class, and I’m not always sure how many objectives to include,” she replied.

“Hmmm…” Paul paused, searching for his next words. “So, talk to me about that lesson, Mary Anne,” he said, resting his chin squarely on his fingertips.

Paul listened closely to Mary Anne. “I think you are doing a heck of a job with these kids, Mary Anne,” he smiled. “They come to you with a lot of needs, and we can’t ignore them. I have to be honest, though. I really don’t know how to give you feedback on that lesson. I suppose I was expecting to see you stand up and teach a lesson. Tell me, how do you track these kids’ progress? How do you know they are learning anything?”

Mary Anne’s class

“Honestly, I’ve struggled with that so much,” she replied as she moved to the edge of the chair. “But their writing folders and reading logs help me to see their writing development and track how many pages they are reading during each workshop. Listening to their reading also reveals a lot, like you saw today.”

“But how do you keep track of their achievement?” he asked, wondering what he was expecting to see.

Mary Anne pulled out the old-fashioned maroon grade book that every teacher still got the first day of school, despite the adoption of a schoolwide computerized grading program. She leafed through several pages. “Here is the reading-writing workshop section.”

See an excerpt from Mary Anne’s grade book below:

Paul looked on as Mary Anne explained the assignments and grading methods in more detail. “My students are not used to being held accountable for anything, so I give them a lot of credit when they do their work and pass it in on time,” she explained. “It gives them a chance to experience success.”

Paul scanned the rows of checks and plusses and became a little dizzy. It did look impressive in terms of completion; what in the world did those checks mean?

“Not too many blank squares here,” he mumbled. “Let’s come at this from a different angle, Mary Anne. This book tells me something about what your students are doing, I know. But, take a look at these scores from last year. This is the kind of detailed record I want you to keep.”

See one of Mary Anne’s student’s oral reading fluency scores from last year below:

See a chart explaining these scores below:

Paul continued, “Let me ask you this: What are your students learning? Or maybe I should ask, ‘Are they becoming better readers and writers?’ How can you tell?”

Mary Anne felt frustrated by his line of questioning. She sat back in her chair. Of course they were learning and progressing as readers and writers, she thought, beginning to regret asking him to observe on workshop day. “Well,” she hesitated. “They’re able to read longer. Lots of kids tell me that this is the first time they’ve ever read a book from start to finish. And that’s important.”

“That’s great,” Paul said. “But that doesn’t really tell us what they’ve learned, does it?”

Mary Anne shrugged noncommittally.

Remembering the material from the assessment workshop he had attended, Paul pulled out his notebook and began flipping through his notes. “Take a look at this,” he said, propping the binder on his desk excitedly. “Believe me, Mary Anne, I am the last person to claim to be an expert in assessment, but we need to be collecting more substantial information on these kids and figuring out how and when they are progressing.”

Mary Anne sat quietly as Paul showed her descriptions of curriculum-based measures for reading, spelling, and written expression. “We need some hard data,” he said. “I appreciate your efforts to encourage accountability, but we have got to teach these kids to read, spell, and write. Our scores on the state tests are miserable!”

See the information on curriculum-based measures for reading and written expression below:

See the Instructional Reader Lesson Plan for the Summer Workshop in Literacy below:

Mary Anne’s stomach tightened. The scores. She had meant to look back over the scores from last year more carefully but didn’t really believe that they could tell her any more than she had already learned about her students. She knew that her scores were not good, but she had so many kids living in poverty or with limited English proficiency or IEPs or both that she worried about meeting basic needs before focusing on improving test scores or pushing them too hard.

At the first faculty meeting this year, Paul had expressed some concern about student performance, but he had also been very positive about teachers and instruction at Lakedale. He had promised he would not allow the scores to discourage him and emphasized the importance of nurturing the whole student. He had applauded the diligence of the teachers and the supportive culture of the school and stressed that he would not implement any programs that might jeopardize this environment. What had happened to those ideas, Mary Anne wondered, as she scanned Paul’s hand-outs.

“These might be useful, but not for my kids,” Mary Anne murmured in a composed voice, despite her disappointment. “I can barely get my kids to pick up their books, or read their stories without grumbling. How will they feel if I start counting every word they say wrong and giving them rigid timelines for their writing?”

“I hear what you’re saying, Mary Anne, but what good is it if you can’t be sure they are learning anything?” Paul pleaded, clearly moved by her concern.

“Paul, why don’t you come back to my class tomorrow? I don’t think you understand what we are really facing here—or what I’m doing to help these kids,” Mary Anne held his gaze and waited for a reply.

“That’s a great idea, Mary Anne,” Paul replied, wondering where he was going to find the time to fit another thing into his packed schedule. “And this time, I want you to use some of the district’s lesson planning tools. They can really help you tighten things up.”

Click here to see the LEARN lesson description.

Click here to see the LEARN example lesson.

Click here to see the LEARN lesson template.

Mary Anne felt sick inside. She put in more hours than most people at Lakewood and cared deeply about the children in her charge, yet Paul seemed to think she wasn’t doing a thing to help them. Had he heard a word she’d said about her goals and objectives? She excused herself, slung her canvas bag over each shoulder, and headed home.

Watch Critical Perspectives from:

 Dr. Barbara Dezmon, Assistant to the Superintendent on Equity and Assurance, Baltimore County Public Schools 

 Debbie Drown, Nationally Distinguished Principal

 Dr. Daniel Duke, Professor of Education, University of Virginia