Figure: Kindness and Caring Bell  Thoughts & Notes ... by Paul Smith Photo of Superintendent Paul Smith

March 19th, 2018

“A one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail…”

If you didn’t get to read last week’s Update, don’t forget to include the “Thoughts” section in your reading. One of the most profound statements from last week was based on the research of Cozolino who studies the social neuroscience of schooling. It truly left with me a profound sense of how important teachers are!

A teacher functions much like a parent in building a young person's brain. A caring teacher who shows positive regard for a learner, demonstrates optimism, is encouraging, and minimizes classroom conflict positively impacts student achievement (Cozolino, 2013). In addition, Carol Dweck's work (2006) makes a compelling case for the importance of teachers working from a growth mindset about their students so those students can develop a growth mindset about themselves and others.

Every teacher is a “parent” to every student with whom they come in contact! That article led me to do a little research on Louis Cozolino’s studies – and while it is heavy reading, an essay he wrote based on the book is very accessible. It should make you stop and think for just a moment on the magnitude of the role you play in the lives of children. A second article is also included based on Cozolino’s ideas.

Stop for 5 minutes and read about the nine things you should know about the brain!

Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain

The Social Neuroscience of Education Book Cover In an excerpt from his new book, psychologist Louis Cozolino applies the lessons of social neuroscience to the classroom.


This essay is excerpted from The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom

The human brain wasn’t designed for industrial education.

It was shaped over millions of years of sequential adaptation in response to ever-changing environmental demands. Over time, brains grew in size and complexity; old structures were conserved and new structures emerged. As we evolved into social beings, our brains became incredibly sensitive to our social worlds.

This mixture of conservation, adaptation, and innovation has resulted in an amazingly complex brain, capable of everything from monitoring respiration to creating culture. This added complexity came with a cost. Not only do all of these systems have to develop and interconnect, but they also have to stay balanced and properly integrated for optimal performance.

This evolutionary history poses a challenge for educators. While findings from social neuroscience can provide some welcome guideposts for teachers, they cannot substitute for the flexibility needed in the classroom to accommodate a range of students. Students and teachers are not uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers, but a diverse collection of living, breathing human beings with complex evolutionary histories, cultural backgrounds, and life stories.

If we are going to move forward, we will have to admit that a one-size-fits-all model of education is doomed to fail the majority of students and teachers.

And through understanding how students’ brains actually work and using that knowledge to benefit classroom learning, we may be able to positively influence classroom education and prepare students to better face unknowable futures. Here are nine scientific insights that educators might want to keep in mind.

1. The brain is a social organ.

Our brains require stimulation and connection to survive and thrive. A brain without connection to other brains and without sufficient challenge will shrink and eventually die—moreover, the modern human brain’s primary environment is our matrix of social relationships. As a result, close supportive relationships stimulate positive emotions, neuroplasticity, and learning.

That’s why it pays for teachers to create positive social experiences in the classroom. From a neurobiological perspective, the position of the teacher is very similar to that of the parent in building the child’s brain. Optimism, encouragement, and giving someone the benefit of the doubt have been shown to positively impact performance—and so does a caring and positive regard for students. Promoting social-emotional learning programs that decrease student conflict and create positive social climates in the classroom are invaluable to learning.

2. We have two brains.

The cerebral hemispheres have differentiated from one another and developed specialized functions and skills. In general, the left hemisphere has taken the lead on language processing, linear thinking, and pro-social functioning while the right hemisphere specializes in visual-spatial processing, strong emotions, and private experience.

Most tasks, though, involve contributions from both hemispheres. So, it is important to understand how to engage both in the classroom context.

Good teachers intuitively grasp this in their students, and they will seek to balance the expression of emotion and cognition, encouraging overly rational students to be aware of and explore their feelings while helping anxious students develop the cognitive capabilities of their left hemispheres to regulate their emotions.

Storytelling can help here, as stories can serve as powerful organizing tools for neural network integration. A story that is well told, containing conflicts and resolutions and thoughts flavored with emotions, will shape brains and connect people.

3. Early learning is powerful.

Much of our most important emotional and interpersonal learning occurs during our first few years of life, when our more primitive neural networks are in control. Early experiences shape structures in ways that have a lifelong impact on three of our most vital areas of learning: attachment, emotional regulation, and self-esteem. These three spheres of learning establish our abilities to connect with others, cope with stress, and feel that we have value.

Every time children behave in a way they (or we) don’t understand, a teacher has the opportunity to engage in an exploration of their inner world. When painful experiences can be consciously thought about, named, and placed into a coherent narrative, children gain the ability to reintegrate dissociated neural networks of affect, cognition, and bodily awareness.

Encouraging students to write about their experiences in diaries and journals can help, as it lets students become the masters of their experience and reducing anxiety and stress. Research has shown that writing about your experiences can increase well-being and help with emotional regulation, which may have been impaired through early traumatic experiences.

4. Conscious awareness and unconscious processing occur at different speeds, often simultaneously.

Conscious awareness and explicit memory are but a small fraction of the vast amount of neural processing that occurs each millisecond.

Think of how many things you do without having to think about them: breathing, walking, balancing, even constructing the syntax of a sentence, is handled automatically. The brain is able to process incoming information, analyze it based on a lifetime of experience, and present it to us in half a second. The brain then creates the illusion that what we are experiencing is happening right now and that we are making decisions based on our conscious thought processes.

Because of this, it is especially important to teach students to question their assumptions and the possible influences of past experiences and unconscious biases on their feelings and beliefs.

This is especially true when thinking about prejudice. Because fear conditioning does not require conscious awareness, the brain’s knee-jerk reaction to individuals of other races is unrelated to our conscious attitudes. Open discussion and increased interracial exposure can work against prejudice being turned into conscious beliefs and negative behaviors.

5. The mind, brain, and body are interwoven.

Physical activity exerts a stimulating influence on the entire brain that keeps it functioning at an optimal level. Exercise has been shown to stimulate the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus and to pump more oxygen through the brain, stimulating capillary growth and frontal-lobe plasticity.

Proper nutrition and adequate sleep are also essential to learning. Although the brain is only a fraction of our body’s weight, it consumes approximately 20 percent of our energy, which makes good nutrition a critical component of learning. Sleep boosts cognitive performance and augments learning while sleep deprivation limits our ability to sustain vigilance and attention. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to impair flexible thinking and decision-making.

An awareness of these biological realities can lead to changes in school start times, lunch programs, and recess schedules. Teachers can teach students about the importance of sleep and make suggestions for better sleep habits, such as how to create a good sleep environment and promote relaxation. Good nutrition and regular exercise can be incorporated into the school environment. Teaching about the interconnections among the brain, the body, and how we learn will provide students with important scientific knowledge, which could improve their academic performance and physical health.

In addition, learning can be enhanced by certain environmental conditions and hampered by others. Inadequate school facilities, poor acoustics, outside noise, and inadequate classroom lighting all correlate with poorer academic performance. Chairs with poor support hamper blood supply to the brain and impede cognition while temperatures above 74–77 degrees Fahrenheit have been shown to correlate with lower reading comprehension and math scores. A more hospitable climate for learning can help performance by providing for the physical needs of the body.

6. The brain has a short attention span and needs repetition and multiple-channel processing for deeper learning to occur.

Curiosity, the urge to explore and the impulse to seek novelty, plays an important role in survival. We are rewarded for curiosity by dopamine and opioids (feel-good chemicals in the brain), which are stimulated in the face of something new. Because our brains evolved to remain vigilant to a constantly changing environment, we learn better in brief intervals.

This is likely one reason why variation in materials, breaks, and even intermittent naps facilitate learning. It is probably important for teachers to reestablish attention in their students every five to 10 minutes and continue to shift the focus of attention to new topics.

Learning also involves the strengthening of connections between neurons. “What fires together wires together,” say neuroscientists, which is why repetition supports learning while the absence of repetition and exposure results in its decay. Teachers would do well to make sure they repeat important points in their lessons to deepen learning.

Given that visual, semantic, sensory, motor, and emotional neural networks all contain their own memory systems, multichannel learning engaging each of these networks increases the likelihood of both storage and recall. We have an amazing capacity for visual memory, and written or spoken information paired with visual information results in better recall. There is a greater likelihood that learning will generalize outside the classroom if it is organized across sensory, physical, emotional and cognitive networks.

7. Fear and stress impair learning.

Evolution has shaped our brains to err on the side of caution and to trigger fear whenever it might be remotely useful. Fear makes us less intelligent because amygdala activation—which occurs as part of the fear response—interferes with prefrontal functioning. Fear also shuts down exploration, makes our thinking more rigid, and drives “neophobia,” the fear of anything new.

Stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth. Prolonged stress impairs our ability to learn and maintain physical health.

Success in school depends upon a student’s ability to somehow decrease their stress. The inclusion of stress-management techniques into the curriculum is an obvious application of neuroscience to education that can improve learning, emotional well-being, and physical health. Teachers can use their warmth, empathic caring, and positive regard to create a state of mind that decreases fear and increases neuroplasticity and learning.

8. We analyze others but not ourselves: the primacy of projection.

Our brains have evolved to pay attention to the behaviors and emotions of other people. Not only is this processing complex, but it is lightning fast, shaping our experience of others milliseconds before we even become consciously aware of their presence. We automatically generate a theory of what is on their mind—our ideas about what they know, what their motivations may be, and what they might do next. As a result, we are as quick to think we know others as we are slow to become aware of our own motives and faults.

Taking our thoughts about others and trying them on for size has the potential to teach us about ourselves and increase our empathic abilities. Simple exercises that guide students to examine what and how what they think and feel about others may be true for themselves can open a window of self-awareness, empathy, and insight. Teachers can ask students to examine the lives of historical figures and characters from books and movies to help them gain a third-eye perspective on their own strengths, motivations, and flaws.

9. Learning is enhanced by emphasizing the big picture—and then allowing students to discover the details for themselves.

When problems are represented at higher levels of abstraction, learning can be integrated into larger schemas that enhance memory, learning, and cognitive flexibility. Starting with major concepts and repeatedly returning to them during a lecture enhances understanding and memory, a phenomenon that increases when students create their own categories and strategies of organizing information. Chunking material into meaningful segments makes it easier to remember, and improves test performance while increasing prefrontal activity during encoding.

When it comes to discovering the details, bear in mind that our brains evolved to learn is through trial-and-error exploration. This is true of learning and adapting to both our social and physical environments. Therefore, using what we learn to attempt to solve real-world problems and adjusting our behaviors or ideas based on the results augments the retention of skills and information. We are born to explore, and teachers who make use of that will probably find more success in the classroom.

YES, IT’S IMPORTANT THAT YOUR STUDENTS LIKE YOU From https://www.learningandthebrain.com/

It’s an age old debate. Does it matter if your students like you? Ask any teacher, anywhere, and you will most likely get answers split down the middle. In Aaron Podolner’s book, “How Would You Handle It: Hundreds of Answers for Classroom Teachers”, this very question was asked. One teacher responded with the following:

“Do you want your students to like you? The answer is yes, but with a qualifier. It matters why you want your students to like you… If they like you because you genuinely like them and show a real interest in their growth, then they will also respect you and work hard for you. Students do not learn because of teachers, they learn for teachers.”1

While it’s been viewed as mostly a personal choice, research seems to suggest that it is important that students like their teachers. The teacher in Mr. Podolner’s book may have been onto something with her statement that students don’t learn because of teachers, but rather for them. Improving students’ relationships with their teachers have not only academic implications, but social implications as well.

Why it Matters that Your Students Like You: The Research

The brain is a social organ and close relationships, such as a positive student-teacher relationship, encourage learning, in part, because they promote a positive learning environment2. From birth, we learn from our interactions with other people; this includes, family, friends and yes, teachers. Positive teacher-student relationships in the school setting have positive implications not only for students, but for teachers and the school climate as a whole.7

For this reason, students who are in classrooms with teachers that they like and have a close relationship with may learn more. For teachers, teaching students who like you makes their job easier. Teachers who experience close relationships with students report that their students have better attendance, cooperate more, are more engaged and are more self-directed3.

These little things can make a big difference.

In a recent study done in Germany4, kindergartners were shown a picture of different teachers before solving a problem. Students performed faster when they were shown a picture of a teacher they had a close relationship with before solving the problem versus a teacher they didn’t have a relationship with. While this study shows the direct effect of students thinking about teachers that they are close to prior to solving a problem, it also gets at a deeper message.

When students have positive relationships with their teachers, it affects how they view school and how engaged they are. Students who have these kind of relationships have more positive feelings about school, are more engaged, and in turn, are often higher achievers5. Think for a minute about any high achieving student you know. More than likely, this student enjoys school, or at least likes it. Now, think about that students’ relationship with his/her teachers. I’m sure at least one teacher that student has a positive relationship with will come to mind. While positive student teacher relationships can result in more engagement, and higher grades among students, negative relationships can have the opposite effect6.

Positive student-teacher relationships also have the power to positively improve school climate, something that can affect everyone involved in a school. School is, in a very general way, student and staff perception of their school. We can think of it this way: Students who have positive relationships with their teachers tend to be more engaged. Students who are more engaged typically are more likely to succeed. Being successful in school leads to positive educational experiences which in turn, creates a positive perception of school. Of course there are exceptions and limitations to this logic and not all students, teachers, and schools are the same – but the research suggests it’s worth paying attention to. Teachers play a huge role because they can very well shift the climate of their school by building stronger relationships with their students.

What Do Positive Student-Teacher Relationships Look Like? And How Can You Build Them?

Positive student-teacher relationships are characterized by low-conflict, feelings of closeness and support and independence2. Positive student teacher relationships benefit both the students and the teachers. Students feel safe, supported and cared for, while teachers feel competent and important. Here are a few more examples of what positive student teacher relationships look like:

“A high school student chooses to share the news that he recently got a part in a community play with his teacher because he knows that his teacher will show genuine interest in his success.

A fourth grade boy who is struggling in math shows comfort in admitting to his teacher that he needs help with multiplying and dividing fractions even if most of the students in the class have moved beyond this work.

A middle school girl experiences bullying from other students and approaches her social studies teacher to discuss it because she trusts that the teacher will listen and help without making her feel socially inept.”3

While the importance of student teacher relationships seems rather straight forward, building relationships with students isn’t always so easy. In most cases, our students who could benefit from these relationships the most are the hardest students to deal with. Below you’ll find a few tips I’ve found helpful in building relationships with my students.

Note: These tips are rooted in my personal experiences, not peer-reviewed research.

1. Sincerity

When building a relationship with your students it’s important to be sincere. Ask yourself why you want to have a better relationship with the student. If your reason is simply because you have him/her in your class and you don’t want it to be a miserable experience for both of you all year, be honest about that. In my experience, students have an amazing ability to detect when someone is not genuine. Keep in mind that even if you are approaching a student with sincerity, he/she may have his/her defenses up, especially if he/she has not had many positive relationships with adults. Keeping your intentions pure and being honest with the student about why you want to get to know him/her and conveying that you truly care are important first steps.

2. Consistency

This may be the most important factor. In any relationship, consistency is key. Showing your students that you are going to show up and be there for them every day by actually doing it says a lot. Conveying the message that you care over and over again may eventually reach even the most stubborn students.

3. High Expectations

A hard lesson I learned in my early years of teaching is the importance of having and keeping high expectations. If you truly care about your students, you hold them to a high standard because anything less would be a disservice to them. I used to think that taking it easy on my students by accepting excuses when they didn’t do their homework, or turning a blind eye when they occasionally misbehaved, was showing that I cared. I’ve learned that in holding high expectations of my students I’m conveying the message that I believe you are capable of doing something great and so, I’m not going to accept anything less than greatness from you.

Where to Go from Here

While there are great implications for having a positive relationship with your students, the fact of the matter is that it’s not possible to have a great relationship with every student. As teachers, what’s most important is that we hold every student to high expectations and put forth an honest effort to show support and genuine interest in as many of our students as we can. While we may not have amazing relationships with every student, the ones we really take the time to nurture can make all the difference in the world.

References & Further Reading

1. Podolner, A. S., Matuch, J. B., Nemeth , M. M., Royston, L. S., …Shah, N. (2014). How We Handle It: Hundreds of Answers from Classroom Teachers. [Book]
2. Cozolino, L. (2013). Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain. [Book Excerpt]
3. Riff-Kaufman, S. & Sandilos, L. (n.d.). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. [Guide]
4. Ahnert L,Milatz A, Kappler G, Schneiderwind J, and Fischer R. (2013). The impact of teacher-child relationships on child cognitive performance as explored by a priming paradigm. Dev Psychol. 49(3):554-67. (Paper)
5. Van Maele, D., & Van Houtte, M. (2011). The quality of school life: Teacher-student trust relationships and the organizational school context.Social Indicators Research, 100, 85–100. (Paper)
6. Pianta, R., Hamre, B., & Allen, J. (2012). Teacher-student relationships and engagement: Conceptualizing, measuring, and improving the capacity of classroom interactions. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.),Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 365–386). New York: Springer. (Book Chapter)
7. Larson, A. (2014). How Student-Teacher Relationships Influence School Climate: A Literature Review. (Review)

March 12, 2018

Empathy "A Teacher functions much like a parent in building a young person's brain.”

I love the article included below from the March 2018 edition of Educational Leadership. As we look closely at ways to make our new Profile of the Graduate come alive, this article is a great place to start. Looking at our matrix of development in the Profile, we hope that our students grow in their ability to demonstrate “Caring” at the youngest grades, followed by “Empathy,” then “Responsibility,” and finally, “Compassion.” Our ongoing conversations will be about how we measure these traits in our students over their K-12 years.

Our challenge will be knowing that our students cannot grow as learners who display empathy unless they are truly in an environment where empathy exists. They must experience empathy when needed in order to share it when appropriate. The article below speaks to the necessity of creating environments of empathy for students as a prerequisite for them to be able to demonstrate empathy and compassion in school and in life.

Even though this article refers to developing “empathetic schools” or “compassionate schools” – (both terms that I love), if we want our students to demonstrate compassion and empathy, we must create homes, schools, and a community where empathy and compassion are so apparent that our students learn directly from us as we model that behavior.

Kindness and Caring Bell

There has never been a more important time 
and there has never been a more important cause than our efforts to make kindness and caring common in the East Hampton Public Schools.

From The Empathetic School by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy in Educational Leadership

When we set our compass "due north" to empathy, we humanize our work in schools.

Schools, not unlike hospital emergency rooms, are incessantly busy places. Those in charge must make complex decisions at wearying speed, knowing that those decisions bear strongly on the welfare of others, and yet finding sparse opportunity to reflect on their actions in the press of the day. The question of what internal or external compass guides educators' decision making is complex as well, and in many instances, there is no evident answer.

School leaders seek to do well for the adults whose work they guide. Teachers seek to do well for the young people they teach. And yet, there are few sustained conversations in many schools about a compass we agree to use that points us to "due north"—to the direction most likely to lead us to a good place.


So, here's a question worthy of our consideration: What if our compass—our "due north" for decision making—was creating an "empathetic school"? What if we set our sights on creating an environment where our central and shared goal, as we teach and lead, is to understand the experiences and perspectives of those who share our space and to make decisions based on what would serve them best? What promise might accrue in a school where leaders, faculty, and staff aspire to practice empathy and to support students in doing that as well? There's reason to conclude that such an approach would result in a school that extends the potential of both the adults who work there and the students who attend—energizing a community in far-reaching ways.

Defining Empathy

At its core, the term empathy suggests an ability to understand and share another person's feelings and emotions—to see things from the perspective of another and understand another's point of view. Bob and Megan Tschannen-Moran (2010) describe empathy as a "respectful, no-fault understanding and appreciation of someone's experience; as such, it is an orientation and practice that fosters radically new change possibilities" (p. 21).

Language is tricky, however, and subtle distinctions can be important. Some experts worry that empathy can lead people to feel so deeply with others that they themselves literally share the fear, pain, anxiety, or self-doubt of the person or group with whom they are empathetic. As a result, empathy can become exhausting and disabling rather than energizing. These experts (such as Bloom & Davidson, 2015) prefer compassion to empathy. Although there is overlap in the terms, there is an important distinction. Compassion suggests we understand and care about what another person feels, but do not attempt to feel it ourselves. In that way, compassion, these experts say, is more likely to lead to action on behalf of another because it calls on us to be kind and to see the need for action rather than simply to experience the feelings of another.

On the other hand, the term compassion may be more deeply associated with the suffering of another person, while the term empathy may suggest being attuned to positive feelings as well. It seems wise to seek to recognize and act on feelings like joy, satisfaction, success, and engagement, as well as feelings like distress, fear, isolation, anger, loneliness, and hopelessness.

With these semantics in mind, we offer the idea of an "empathetic school." We choose to define empathy as seeking to both understand a person's condition from their perspective and understand the needs of others, with the aim of acting to make a difference in responding to those needs or building on the positives. If you prefer the idea of a "compassionate school," that phrase works, too. In either case, the goal is to humanize the work we do by understanding and learning from one another in ways that lift our work.

The Merits

Grounding our work in empathy (or compassion) is a theme in numerous, enduring bodies of work in education, psychology, and neuroscience. Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (1943) indicates that learning follows satisfaction of more fundamental needs, such as those related to physiology, safety and security, belonging, and love—suggesting that teachers' attention to the status of those needs in students is central in grasping a young person's readiness to learn. In addition, self-actualization, the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy, implies a sense of purpose, morality, and fulfillment to which a person's work should certainly contribute.

Similarly, key theories of moral development (such as Gilligan, 1982; Kohlberg, 1969) suggest a progression from focus on self and personal preference through a series of stages that increasingly value relationships and the perspectives of others, and ultimately employ universal and comprehensive principles of morality, such as mutual respect, justice, and kindness, as guiding principles for one's life.

Finally, emerging insights from neuroscience tell us that:

Stress and negative classroom associations impair learning.

Emotion surpasses cognition, so that when a learner feels threatened, it is unlikely that the part of the brain in which cognition occurs will function as it should.

The brain is quick to tune in to threat and slow to forget it (see the work of Sousa, 2011; Sousa & Tomlinson, 2017; Willis, 2007).

The brain is a social organ and so close, supportive relationships enhance learning (Cozolino, 2013).

A teacher functions much like a parent in building a young person's brain. A caring teacher who shows positive regard for a learner, demonstrates optimism, is encouraging, and minimizes classroom conflict positively impacts student achievement (Cozolino, 2013). In addition, Carol Dweck's work (2006) makes a compelling case for the importance of teachers working from a growth mindset about their students so those students can develop a growth mindset about themselves and others.

Findings from all these disciplines call on a teacher to understand students' classroom experiences and to orchestrate positive classroom experiences—to see school through the students' eyes and to respond in ways that minimize negative experiences and maximize positive ones. It is not a great leap to translate the conclusions to adults in the school as well, so that decision making seeks to foster positive working conditions for and build supportive relationships among adults in the building as well as students. Paul Zak's recent work (2017) suggests that a more intentional investment in people and their growth encourages "whole people development." This investment has the potential to lead to "a culture of trust and purpose, [which] resonates with the social nature of human beings and creates engagement, joy, and profits" (p. 208). Therefore, an empathetic school would place the highest value on not only caring about those who spend much of their lives in schools, but also caring for them. In other words, making decisions that go beyond an interest in students and teachers to doing whatever is necessary to promote their growth and welfare (Gay, 2010).

What an Empathetic School Asks

An empathetic school asks everyone in it—teachers, leaders, staff, and students—to diminish some of their self-focus and respond in a fuller and more informed way to those around them. It guides us to develop an inclusive place where the highest aspirations of democracy are consistently at work, where community functions as it should, and where the best of human behavior is evident every day. It asks us to invest both our cognitive and affective energies toward those ends.

With that focus, we would seek to know those around us beyond the surface. We would pause often to listen. We would frame teaching and leadership around significant issues and ideas that can infuse lives with meaning and purpose. We would create classrooms, meetings, and informal spaces characterized by dialogue rather than monologue. In those places, we would express gratitude when that is called for, generosity always, and forgiveness when it is needed.

Teachers in such places would consistently give students voice in what they learn, how they learn, and how they might best show what they know. They would look for the problem behind misbehavior rather than seeing the child as a problem—and find solutions to the problem rather than punishments. Principals in these contexts would join with teachers to craft spaces and schedules that invite learning, account for human variance, and anticipate the need for flexibility. Teachers and principals alike would focus on assets rather than deficits, helping others identify their strengths and use those strengths as launching pads for further growth.

These things are often neither intuitive nor easy to achieve. They are aspirational. Nonetheless, pursuing the aspiration makes us more attuned to one another, to the world around us, and to ourselves. It makes us better people and better educators.

Leading the Empathetic School

In the empathetic school as we envision it, the principal would play a crucial role. The principal would have to work with others to envision and institute a critical vision of mutual support. He or she would do this by seeking to understand and respond more effectively to the needs of all members of the school community and to expand the reach of that community by learning from its diverse perspectives. It is the principal who must develop, observe, and share "purpose narratives"—examples, illustrations, and stories that reinforce the reason for and meaning of the work of empathy (Zak 2017, p. 177). It is also the principal who must guide the school community's recognition of the power of what Fullan (2007) calls a purposeful school—a place where people understand and reach for a moral calling. This provides a reason for their work that extends beyond and strengthens each person in the community and the community itself.

The principal would strive to ensure that faculty and staff learn to trust him or her, trust the work they are doing, and trust one another to be allies in that work. To that end, the principal would seek alignment between the way the school functions and what teachers seek to implement in their classrooms. The principal would also aim to be a model of empathy in all its aspects, including in what it means to translate growing understanding and insight into action. Further, the principal must help sustain the energy and productivity of faculty and staff over time, including helping colleagues derive satisfaction and joy from working with others whom they trust and with whom they share a purpose (Zak, 2017).

Central to the leadership role of the principal in the empathetic school would be working to clear the way through the incessant external demands so teachers can find time to focus and act on empathy. Leaders must resist pressures to standardize young humans and to measure the effectiveness of students, teachers, and schools with instruments that are too often shallow, restrictive, and draining. Further, the principal would play a key role in seeking out and providing, over the long term, the kind of support teachers must have to understand and develop comfort in working from a point of empathy.

In all these arenas, the principal would take care to seek the counsel of colleagues, empower other leaders to contribute to decision making that facilitates empathetic practice, and ensure consistent examination of ways in which emergent practices affect the development and achievement of students, the lives and work of teachers, and the functioning of the school as a whole.

The Payoff

There is no paint-by-number approach to developing and practicing empathy as a basis for living, working, and decision making in our varied schools. Still, there are outcomes that we might expect as focus shifts. Among other expectations, it is reasonable to assume that understanding, appreciating, and addressing people's feelings, needs, and perspectives could lead to more opportunities for teachers to share successes and concerns with colleagues and leaders; more collaborative relationships between teachers and parents; greater student voice; fewer incidences of bullying; and a curriculum and instructional style that foster a love for learning.

In a high-empathy middle school we visited, students ran a multifaceted anti-bullying initiative, which provided safe spaces where students who were bullied could find support. Students also participated in challenging conversations that examined the dynamics of bullying, specified negative outcomes, and encouraged peers to step up to the challenge of being a positive force in the lives of others.

In a high-empathy, high-poverty K–8 school we visited, there were greeters at the entrance to the school every day to speak with each student personally. In that school, older students served as "Way Finders," mentoring younger students in the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for success. The halls were canopied with banners that pointed the way to productive thoughts and actions.

Both schools held high expectations for students and faculty alike and provided support for both. The schools offered lively and engaging classes that connected students with the world outside of school and made learning feel like a worthy investment.

Learning through Understanding

Human beings are born with the capacity for kindness and compassion; however, that capacity has to be nurtured to be fully realized. People in whom it is nurtured are better equipped to live meaningful and productive lives. Empathy is a link between self and others—a channel for experiencing and expressing kindness and compassion. Working together as teachers, leaders, and students to build an environment that embodies compassion and empathy stretches all of us. It extends our possibilities. It satisfies a profoundly fundamental need.

In a recent (2012) essay, Art Costa, Robert Garmston, and Diane Zimmerman reflected on "the deeply flawed belief"—often exhibited in the way we do school—"that teachers and students are interchangeable parts, rather than thoughtful, unique, caring, experienced, and often passionate human beings" (para. 12). The essay counseled that "we should be supporting systems that develop the essence of teachers who inspire a love of learning" in contrast to those whose aim is predominately "to get students to demonstrate mastery on achievement tests."

In a democracy, education should be "precisely concerned with equity, access, and recognition of the full humanity of everyone" (Ayres, 2010, p. 152). An empathetic school would focus on the full humanity of each member of the community. It would be energizing to work there, and it would enable educators to teach, learn, and make choices as acts of caring. It would nurture in students the desire to understand and the capacity to reach out to others with acceptance and trust.

In the end, that's much of what a life in school should do for us, individually and collectively.


Ayres, W. (2010). To teach: The journey of a teacher (3rd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Bloom, P., & Davidson, R. (2015). Empathy: Is it all it's cracked up to be. A dialogue from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Retrieved from www.aspenideas.org/session/empathy-it-all-its-cracked-be

Costa, A., Garmston, R., & Zimmerman, D. (2012, November 13). Teacher quality: Investing in what matters. Education Week. Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/11/14/12zimmerman_ep.h32.html

Cozolino, L. (2013, March 19). Nine things educators need to know about the brain. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/nine_things_educators_need_to_know_about_the_brain

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Fullan, M. (2007). Leading in a culture of change (revised edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive development approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research, pp. 347–480. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Sousa, D. (2011). How the brain learns (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sousa, D., & Tomlinson, C. (2017). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports a learner-friendly classroom (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Tschannen-Moran, B., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2010). Evocative coaching: Transforming schools one conversation at a time. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Willis, J. (2007). Brain-friendly strategies for the inclusion classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Zak, P. (2017). Trust factor: The science of creating high-performance companies. New York: American Management Association.

March 5, 2018

The Power of Calm    Helping our students Deal with stress.

“Stress is the single most potent risk factor for mental health problems in children and adolescents, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, eating disorders and substance use,”

As a team of teachers, parents, mentors, coaches, and administrators, we must find a way to help our children deal with stress.

While we cannot make the stress in our students’ lives (and our own!) go away, we must help them find effective ways to manage their stress.

There are many things that are adding to the stress our children feel – and make no mistake, they are feeling stress whether they show it or not.

An event such as Parkland, Florida can bring stress to the forefront. A school shooting may not be the sole cause of stress, but it may be the trigger that releases feelings that even a student can’t quite understand.

I encourage all teachers to speak to our students. I encourage all parents to speak to your children.

And for our teachers and parents, seek advice from our very capable school counselors for any help you may need!

New research identifies best coping strategies for kids by Joan Brasher in Early Childhood Ideas in Action

Parents (and teachers) can play an important role in helping children and teens dealing with stress.

From acting out to reaching out, children and teens cope with stress in a variety of ways with varying results. A comprehensive Vanderbilt University study published in the high-impact journal Psychological Bulletin outlines which coping strategies work best.

Bruce Compas is lead author of the landmark research, a meta-analysis of more than 200 coping and emotion regulation studies that included more than 80,000 young people. He says learning effective ways to manage stress is especially important for children. Compas is a Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

“Chronic stress is bad for adults, but it is particularly troublesome for children, because among many other effects, it can disrupt still-developing white matter in the brain, causing long-term problems with complex thinking and memory skills, attention, learning and behavior,” Compas said. “We found that the ways children cope are highly personal, and the strategies they choose do not always lead to ameliorating the negative affects of stress.”

For the purposes of the study, common coping strategies were divided into five categories: problem solving; emotional suppression; cognitive reappraisal; distraction, and avoidance. Compas and his team measured the affect of these strategies on the subjects’ internalized symptoms like depression, anxiety and loneliness, and external manifestations of stress like antisocial behavior and aggression.

“In this new work, we found that when the subjects used adaptive strategies, like looking at a problem in a different way, engaging in problem solving or pursuing constructive communication, they were better able to manage the adverse effects of stress,” Compas said. “Those who used maladaptive strategies like suppressing, avoiding or denying their feelings, had higher levels of problems associated with stress.”

“We have found the most effective strategies … are ones that involve adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.” (Quote by Bruce Compas)

These findings echo what Compas has learned through his longitudinal studies of children coping with cancer and other chronic pediatric conditions.

“Most or all of the stressful aspects of cancer are uncontrollable, from the diagnosis itself, to the treatments, to the side effects of treatments, and the uncertainty about the future,” he said. “We have found time and again that the most effective strategies for coping with these types of uncontrollable stress are ones that involve adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.”

Whether a child or teen’s stress is triggered by anxiety about a new school or something far more serious, Compas says parents can play a key role in helping them manage their stress successfully.

He offers these tips:

  • Make time to listen to your child and let them share with you the stresses and challenges they are facing. No need to give any advice at first, just listen and let them share what they are struggling with.
  • Remind yourself and your child of the first rule of coping with stress: “Try to change the things you can change, and accept the things you cannot change.”
  • Think out loud with your child about how you have coped with similar situations in the past or how you might cope with the situation if you haven’t faced a similar stressor in the past.
  • Encourage your child to make a plan and then follow up in a day or two. If the first plan doesn’t seem to help, think it through together and try another plan until either the problem has changed or your child has been able to accept the problem and adapt to it.

“Stress is the single most potent risk factor for mental health problems in children and adolescents, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, eating disorders and substance use,” Compas said. “But the good news is the brain is malleable. Once positive coping skills are learned and put into practice, especially as a family, they can be used to manage stress for a lifetime.”

You can purchase a PDF of the research by Bruce Compas. “Coping, Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-Analysis and Narrative Review,” in Psychological Bulletin. The research is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

February 26, 2018

  • NEASC LogoNext week is a big week for East Hampton High School

From Sunday, March 4 through Wednesday, March 7 East Hampton High School will be visited by 12 Administrators and Teachers from several New England states as part of the school’s decennial accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). According to NEASC, accreditation and the accreditation process is a system of accountability that is ongoing and comprehensive in scope:

“Accreditation respects differences in institutional populations, missions, and cultures, and fosters institutional change grounded in the expertise of practicing educators. It is based on standards which are developed and regularly reviewed by the members and which define the characteristics of good schools and colleges.”

NEASC accreditation is structured in a ten-year cycle that includes the following:

  • Self-study prepared by the school’s staff, which engages the entire educational community in structured analysis, self-reflection, and planning in response to the standards of accreditation.
  • Peer review which brings multiple perspective to the process through the observations and judgments of a visiting committee of peers from other schools and colleges, informed by the school’s self-study and based on adherence to the standards of accreditation.
  • Follow-up which is monitored by a commission of elected peers and overseen by a professional staff to ensure that planned and prescribed recommendations and changes are accomplished as a follow up to the accreditation visit.

The High School looks forward to welcoming the NEASC Visiting Team to share the work of our teachers, staff, and students. We continue to focus on Safety!

Security Update

We continue to focus on Safety!

Update on Interior Locking Mechanisms: The East Hampton Capital Committee took no action on approving $150,000 for the purchase of the interior locking mechanisms for Memorial School, Center School, and Middle School requested by the Superintendent of Schools at last week’s Capital meeting. They will continue to consider the request as part of the 2018-19 Budget Process. We will continue to keep the school community informed as to this important security upgrade.

Do you have questions about school security: Instead of trying to figure out if information on Facebook is accurate, why not go right to the source? You are always welcome to contact the Superintendent of Schools, Paul K. Smith @ 860-365-4000. Or better yet, come for a cup of coffee with Mr. Smith and join the discussion. The last two Friday coffees have focused on the security of our schools! Next chance for coffee is Friday, March 9 from 7:30-9:00 AM at 94 Main Street.

Thank you East Hampton Police Department: You will begin to notice an increased presence of police officers in our school parking lots and in our buildings. Thank you to the East Hampton Police Department for your commitment to the safety of the children, teachers, and staff members of the East Hampton Public Schools! Please thank our Police Officers for all they do!

Thank you to East Hampton PD

February 19, 2018

It’s possible – and crucial – to measure the most important skills we have defined for our graduates.

In the near future as we discuss ways to have our students master the matrix of skills outlined on as essential to the East Hampton Graduate, it is crucial for us to identify experiences that will act as indicators of development or success along the developmental levels of the Profile. These skills are not attained or measured as by-products of experiences in the classroom, they are worthy of their own assessments across multiple disciplines. While it is entirely possible that they are embedded in assessments in subject area content, they must have their own performance standard and an ability to be measured. Ultimately, this may be accomplished with an included “rubric line” or other measurable criteria of their own in a project-based experience, but we must be sure as we consider the best ways to identify mastery, that we target experiences in the classroom that promote and archive our students’ achievement of these survival skills.

Figure A: Profile of the GraduateRecent advice in Edutopia encourages schools to add “assessment vehicles such as student portfolios and presentations as additional measures of student understanding. These rigorous, multiple forms of assessment require students to apply what they're learning to real world tasks. These include standards based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills; clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work; and opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.”

Edutopia goes on and identifies the advantage of such assessments. “With these formative and summative types of assessment come the ability to give students immediate feedback. They also allow a teacher to immediately intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill.”

It’s not just having a Profile of the Graduate that is important. It’s assessing the skills of the Profile of the Graduate that will be of value.

As we begin to transition to the 2020 New England Association of Schools and Colleges Standards, NEASC clearly supports the work we have begun. One of their foundations is based on the development of a Profile of the Graduate.

The school has a vision of the graduate that includes the attainment of transferable skills, disciplinary/interdisciplinary knowledge, understandings, and dispositions necessary to prepare learners for their future. Students are assured consistent learning outcomes through a defined curricular experience and have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in a variety of creative ways. Students actively participate in authentic learning experiences while practicing the skills and habits of mind to regularly reflect upon, and take ownership of their learning.

Our work will be to develop common and authentic experiences in which students have the opportunity to practice these skills. But, another challenge is how we report out the results of these experiences.

It’s not just assessing the skills of the Profile of the Graduate that is important. It’s providing feedback to learners and their families on each student’s progress in achieving this vision for them that will be of value.

I am always drawn to the thoughts of Elliot Eisner at crossroads like this. He acknowledges that many skills in education are not easy to assess, but just because it is difficult does not mean that we should not try.

With that said, we have many authentic assessments in our schools that already exist – and with tweaking could be used to demonstrate mastery of a portion of the matrix of skills that we have adopted.

The article below indicates how the city of Virginia Beach with 10,000 students is tackling this challenge. They have adopted a Profile of the Graduate for the entire city and are now working to develop common assessments for every child. The state of Virginia now requires all cities and towns to develop a diploma standards in line with the state’s Profile of a Virginia Graduate.

We only have to worry about East Hampton children – a task I know we can handle.

Mission Possible: Measuring Critical Thinking and Problem Solving by Doug Wren and Amy Cashwell in Educational Leadership

To gauge complex skills, a Virginia district has worked to hone a series of performance assessments.

In 2009—the same year articles in an Educational Leadership issue on "Teaching for the 21st Century" recommended that schools assess key 21st century skills—our school district in southeastern Virginia began creating a large-scale performance assessment to gauge students' critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The following year, nearly 10,000 students in Virginia Beach City Public Schools took the Integrated Performance Task we developed, and hundreds of teachers throughout the district began scoring students' open-ended responses. This was the beginning of a long-running "performance" of our district's performance assessment system—one that continues to this day.

Why did our school system boldly go where few districts had gone before? Because our strategic plan focused on "teaching and assessing those skills our students need to thrive as 21st century learners, workers, and citizens" (Virginia Beach City Public Schools, 2008). And, although we'd created instructional opportunities for students to acquire 21st century skills, we had no way to measure students' performance on these skills districtwide.

We discovered that, although educators have taught critical thinking and problem solving for centuries, assessing these skills en masse was more difficult than we anticipated. But we also discovered that developing instruments to measure such skills is possible—and can inform instruction in ways that enhance our ability to teach these skills.

Setting the Stage

While we were developing our new strategic plan in Virginia Beach in 2008, Harvard scholar Tony Wagner told us about an innovative performance assessment for high school students called the College and Work Readiness Assessment (Council for Aid to Education, 2007). After field-testing this assessment, we adopted it as an annual measure of our high school students' critical-thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills. We also decided to create similar performance tasks to administer to all Virginia Beach students in grades 4 and 7. These became our Integrated Performance Task (IPT). Our district was determined to move away from multiple-choice testing and the "deliver and recall" teaching methods it tends to foster.

Act I: Developing Rubrics

To define what critical-thinking, problem-solving, and written communication skills would look like, we developed a rubric spelling out what these skills should involve at the 4th and 7th grade levels. Our rubric employed a 4-point scale (novice, emerging, proficient, and advanced), with 3 defined as meeting the standard and 4 as exceeding the standard (Arter & McTighe, 2001).

We reviewed literature and other rubrics aligned with each skill, and then sat down to operationally define critical thinking (CT), problem solving (PS), and written communication (WC). We learned from our mistakes in this process. On an early draft, each skill was subdivided into two or three components—for example, critical thinking was made up of CT1, CT2, and CT3. We soon realized that with this arrangement, test responses would have to be scored seven times! The simpler one-page rubric we ended up with included only CT, PS, and WC.

Figure 1 shows the general operational definition we identified for each skill. As we created specific performance tasks for the Integrated Performance Task, we further defined what the performance of each skill at different levels of this rubric would look like for each task. For instance, Figure 2 spells out what students should be able to do at different levels of critical thinking for one of the 4th grade performance tasks, which involved evaluating an advertisement.

Figure 1 Sample Rubric

Figure 2 sample rubric

Act II: Creating Engaging Tasks

One reason we chose the College and Work Readiness Assessment as the basis for our performance tasks for elementary and middle learners is that it's an engaging test. Students have said they like the scenarios involving challenging, real-life problems that this assessment includes (Wagner, 2008). For each task, the assessment provides students with documents—like news stories, editorials, research briefs, and email threads—that give them context for each scenario. Students have authentic-feeling information to consider before they develop a solution to the problem within the task. We emulated these features in our Integrated Performance Task.

We generated age-appropriate scenarios to use as performance tasks, using the GRASPS framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005). GRASPS stands for goal, role, audience, situation, product, and standards for success. Figure 3 shows how we defined each element on the GRASPS framework for a grade 4 performance task.

Figure 3  Sample Rubric

Students executing this performance task first see this passage outlining the situation:

You are a 4th grade student at Smith Elementary School. A local business wants to give your school money to help improve health for all of the students. The money will be used to pay for only one of these projects: An outdoor fitness course at the school or a fruit and salad bar for the lunchroom. Some students want a fitness course and some want a fruit and salad bar. … The school cannot have both. Your principal, Mr. Beach, wants you to help him make a choice.

With this task, test takers receive a fact sheet outlining children's playground injuries, a news story on the benefits of fruit and salad bars, and an advertisement exalting outdoor fitness courses. They receive these prompts:

1. Look at the advertisement on page 5. Find all the information that is incorrect, unbelievable, or misleading. Explain why you think the information is incorrect, unbelievable, or misleading. … Give reasons why the information is incorrect, unbelievable, or misleading.

2. Write a persuasive letter to Mr. Beach explaining your choice for improving health for all students at Smith Elementary School … Use information from this booklet to help you write your letter. [The prompt goes on to list specific elements to include in the letter.]

Again, we learned as we went. Early drafts of our performance tasks were long and wordy and included five open-ended prompts. Realizing that a test's content validity can be compromised if extraneous variables such as excessive length and readability are added to the mix (Benson, 1981), we reduced the number of prompts along with the length and reading level of material accompanying each task. We further reduced the possibility that reading ability would affect the results by instructing 4th grade teachers to read the directions, scenario, documents, and prompts aloud at the start of the testing period while students followed along in their booklets.

The Virginia Beach district has administered the IPT to our 4th and 7th graders twice a year for more than seven years. Every different performance task has undergone numerous revisions based on reviews and feedback from students, teachers, and assessment experts (including Marc Chun, formerly of the Council for Aid to Education, creators of the CWRA). For instance, when we piloted the Improving Health performance task, a few students said they didn't pick the salad bar because they hated salad. We changed "salad bar" to "fruit and salad bar" and added a photo to show the many food choices a fruit and salad bar offers.

Act III: Finding the Right Scoring System

Two concerns that many districts may have about performance assessments are the potential cost (Picus et al., 2010) and fears that the scoring process might be so subjective that the results will be neither reliable nor valid (Lane & Iwatani, 2016). Our district shared these concerns. As we developed our scoring process, we paid attention to these questions:

What will the scoring system cost us—in terms of time and money? How can we make it cost less? How can we make the scores we assign student responses as accurate as possible—including ensuring that different scorers give the same student response a similar score (interrater reliability) and that any scorer would give the same student response the same score on a different day (intrarater reliability)?

Until recently, we used one method to score student responses on the IPT administered in fall and another to score the spring assessment. Teachers at each individual school scored the fall responses (after some minimal training) and spring responses were scored centrally by a more thoroughly trained cadre of teachers. Employing different methods was appropriate because each assessment served a different purpose: The fall IPT is meant to introduce students to a lowstakes performance task and give teachers formative data they can use to shape instruction. The spring assessment is used more summatively; students and parents see their individual scores, and the district uses the aggregate results to measure its progress on strategic goals.

As with developing the performance tasks, we improved our scoring methods as we went. We realized quickly that, because there wasn't much time during the fall to conduct training sessions at schools, inconsistent scoring between teachers was inevitable. We believed using a centralized scoring plan for the spring IPT would increase interrater reliability on that assessment. But our first effort at centralized scoring showed we had a lot to learn.

One good decision we made was to have each response scored independently by two teachers, with a third teacher breaking the tie if the scores didn't match. Other parts of our initial attempt failed miserably. Our first scoring cadre met in summer 2011 to score the IPT assessment given that spring, and nearly 200 teacher-scorers came and went for four weeks. Bringing in a different group every week and training each scorer to evaluate all three IPT skills was a mistake.

The next summer, we conducted training on the first day of a three-week session. Teachers were required to come on that first day and attend for at least two weeks. Although these requirements reduced the number of scorers, they improved interrater agreement. It also helped that we began training each scorer to focus on only one skill for a single grade level. Scorers never had to shift their mindsets from critical thinking to problem solving to writing skills while scoring a response.

Data and personnel management were also problematic during our first centralized scoring adventure. The following year, we promoted key individuals to manage the training and the data, and assigned one teacher as a supervisor to guide a group of teachers in each of six scoring rooms. Training became more consistent, data was entered accurately, and teacher scorers preferred being supervised by responsible peers. Except for the first summer scoring cadre, interrater agreement between our teacher scorers has ranged from 66 to 82 percent across the three skills at different grade levels.

Recently, after six years of using trained teachers to score responses, we began using computerized scoring for the fall and spring IPT through a vendor. The Turnitin Scoring Engine uses multiple algorithms to replicate the scoring patterns of our most experienced teacher scorers after the engine has been "trained" by having 500 scored student responses fed through the system. This process now makes possible computerized scoring for each performance task scenario. When we develop new scenarios (as we did with one grade 7 task in fall 2017), our teacher scorers start from scratch to "retrain" the system, resulting in new scoring algorithms.

Computerized scoring has demonstrated reliability comparable to what we achieved using human scorers (and above the minimum acceptable value for low-stakes tests) and has cut costs for our spring scoring sessions. Releasing teachers from fall IPT scoring obligations has given them more time to look at their students' responses on the assessment and use what they learn to modify their instruction. However, we realize that scores from any one test seldom tell the whole story. As teachers review their students' IPT results and responses, we suggest they take the advice of Guskey and Jung (2016) and "trust your mind instead of your machine" (p. 54).

Encore: One More "C"

In 2016, Virginia enacted legislation calling for diploma standards aligned with the Profile of a Virginia Graduate.1 The legislation directed the state board of education to give "due consideration to critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship in the profile" (Virginia General Assembly, 2016). Our IPT was already measuring critical thinking and communication, and we began planning to assess citizenship skills as well. To provide an indicator of these skills, we created new scenarios involving ethical dilemmas that elementary and middle school students commonly face (such as bullying and cheating). We're administering these new performance tasks over the next eight months.

Driving Better Instruction

When we introduced our stakeholders to the idea of the IPT in 2010, it was interesting to see how different individuals and groups perceived it. Some students, parents, and educators saw it as just another test, but others recognized the value of this new type of assessment. After the initial rollout of the IPT, its value became clearer as we noticed that this performance assessment helped our teachers improve teaching and learning—bearing out what education researchers have found for decades. Many teachers started—or put stronger emphasis on—teaching students to process information, solve real-life problems, and express their thoughts in writing. For example, during the past seven years, social studies teachers have made the shift toward teaching analysis and interpretation of information in document-based performance tasks instead of teaching facts in isolation.

As educators at Virginia Beach schools try to live out the district's mission to prepare all students for college and careers, they now embed authentic tasks and performance-based assessments within every area of the curriculum. While classroom teachers use these smaller assessments to gauge students' acquisition of content as well as 21st century skills, the IPT offers a common, district-level view of our progress at teaching skills deemed essential by our strategic plan. Our teachers continue to use the IPT to gain a better understanding of how their students think and write. There are probably other good ways to assess hard-to-measure skills like problem solving on a large scale. But we think the IPT is a hard act to follow.


Atkinson, D. (2017). Virginia rethinks high school in its profile of a graduate. State Education Standard, 17(2), 28–33. Retrieved from www.nasbe.org/wpcontent/uploads/Virginia-Rethinks-...
Arter, J., & McTighe, J. (2001). Scoring rubrics in the classroom: Using performance criteria for assessing and improving student performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Benson, J. (1981). A redefinition of content validity. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 41(3), 793–802.
Council for Aid to Education. (2007). College and Work Readiness Assessment [Measurement instrument].
Guskey, T. R., & Jung, L. A. (2016). Grading: Why you should trust your judgment. Educational Leadership, 73(7), 50–54.
Lane, S., & Iwatani, E. (2016). Design of performance assessments in education. In S. Lane, M.R. Raymond, & T.M. Haladyna (Eds.), Handbook of Test Development (2nd ed., pp. 274–293). New York: Routledge.
Picus, L. O., Adamson, F., Montague, W., & Owens, M. (2010). A new conceptual framework for analyzing the costs of performance assessment.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Retrieved from https://scale.stanford.edu/system/files/new-concep...
Virginia Beach City Public Schools. (2008). Compass to 2015: A Strategic Plan for Student Success. Retrieved from www.vbschools.com/compass/2015
Virginia General Assembly. (2016). Code of Virginia § 22.1-253.13:4. Retrieved from http://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/22.1-253.13:4
Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don't teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York: Basic Books.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. End note 1 This student profile is the foundation of the Virginia Board of Education's redesign efforts to better prepare our students to participate in the global economy (Atkinson, 2017).