Just like any other principal, I’m constantly talking to my staff about how to better meet the needs of our students. In trying to meet those needs, we’re fighting an uphill battle for their time. Our students are busier than ever after school, which often detracts from their ability to dedicate time to studies outside the school day.

Being a Title I campus, we often deal with the issue of lack of parental support at home. Many of our low socioeconomic parents have multiple jobs and are not able to be home in the evenings, and some don’t share all of our education values.

So, as other principals might do, I ask myself: How can we better deal with these issues which are out of our control? Are we incorporating the best practices for our students, or are we incorporating the instructional practices that we are comfortable with? That’s why I decided to have the staff focus on “Our 45,” the 45 minutes we are guaranteed with our students during the instructional period. If teachers have the highest impact on student achievement, how can we optimize that time?

In my supervisory and leadership capacity as principal, I challenged my staff to focus on three points:

  • Knowing what you are doing.
  • Knowing how to measure your success.
  • Knowing what the data is saying.

Our Back Story

Our campus is a Title I junior high school. We have a Hispanic population between 30-35 percent. On the prior state assessment, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), the school usually performed well. I became the principal the year the state moved to a more rigorous assessment, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR), and the campus, although it did not perform poorly, did not perform where we knew our students could. The issue our campus dealt with was figuring out what we needed to do differently to get the results we needed. What had come relatively easy with TAKS was not the case with the new STAAR. I related this to a video I recently saw in which two people were stuck on an escalator-yes, an escalator-not an elevator. We were stuck using the same approach we were comfortable with-the escalator-but the path to success was still ahead of us, and we were just going to have to do something less comfortable and take the stairs to get there. Two years later, we have jumped 10-20 points on each STAAR test (math, reading, writing, history, and science) with five of our nine exams being 90 percent or higher.

Knowing What You Are Doing

The first area of focus I discussed with the teachers was making sure we had a plan for instruction. It wasn’t like our teachers were without a plan, but I wanted more than just traditional lesson plans. We became a backward design campus, looking first at how our students would be assessed at the end of a unit, and then planning our instruction to match the level of the assessment. With the backward design approach, our teachers were able to plan with the end result in mind, as opposed to planning for coverage of curriculum. This made it possible to determine the level of rigor each lesson would need to match the level of assessment. The biggest hurdle to accomplishing this was stressing the importance in differentiating between setting instructional expectations, focusing on academic vocabulary and rigor, versus teaching to a test.

The other key component to focus on in “knowing what you are doing” was centered on the routine practice of posted student objectives. There is power in the practice. When students know what they are learning, they can gain up to 27 percentile points more than students who do not know what they are learning.

Knowing How to Measure Your Effectiveness

With “Our 45,” our main focus was on quality assessment. To maximize the time we have with our students, we needed to know where they are in their learning at all times. We had to evaluate our formative and summative assessment practices.

When gauging our formative assessment needs, we looked at redefining what a formative assessment was on our campus. We realized that formative assessments too often simply meant quizzes.

As a campus, we outlined four “non-negotiables” about formative assessments. They:

  • Would be a daily part of our instruction.
  • Would be intentional.
  • Could be informal (not have to be taken for a grade).
  • Must guide instruction.

We had to find ways to have targeted, focused, formative assessment every day throughout every lesson. One way we accomplished this was through our use of Essential Questions. The Essential Question is a question created to reflect that day’s level of instruction, and if an appropriate number of students in each class cannot answer correctly, the teacher knows they cannot move on.

Another simple formative assessment method we use for quick targeted assessment is through the use of our “No Hands Policy.” Our No Hands Policy allows teachers to purposefully call on students, as opposed to assessing a class’s competency by how many students have their hands raised, often allowing reluctant students to opt out of learning.

No Match for STAAR

When evaluating our summative assessment practices, we looked at why our local summative exam results were not matching our results on our STAAR exam, a summative exam. To do this, I had to gain the trust of my teachers that the data we acquired from summative exams were just that, data. I stress that we can always adjust instruction based on summative data and improve areas of need.

Change Your Mindset

In focusing on “Our 45,” we had to change mindsets, and that is not always easy. When allowing formative assessment to drive instruction, sometimes you do not get to move as fast as you are accustomed. Sometimes you realize that lesson you have taught for the last decade did not get the results you thought it always did. We have seen that our students can be pushed, and be successful doing it. We also saw the same can be said of us as educators. We realized that the data is not always pretty, but we can use it to get us where we need to be.

Josh Martin is the principal at Farmersville Junior High in Farmersville, TX.