School Accountability – a New Way

Charter Schools were designed so that they would meet the same end goal as a traditional school but get there along a different path. This seemed reasonable to me for a number of years, until I really started to think about the student experience.

A student, who for any number of reasons was drawn to the design model of the charter school, had adapted to learning in a different way than traditional schooling and testing tend to look.

Why then, after engaging a student in a way of learning that is meaningful to them, do we ask them to revert back to a system that was essentially broken to them in the first place?

So, I propose that we consider what the next generation of charter schools (or whatever we decide to call them) will look like. Why keep returning to a system of accountability simply because it’s a system we know? When we find better ways to engage and educate, then let’s stay there and find better ways to be accountable rather than going backwards.

One way I propose is an “assessment ecosystem”, wherein all types of assessments are collected for each individual student and viewed holistically in order to gauge next steps for learning. And I do mean “all types”. I’m talking about traditional test scores like state tests, also MAP (NWEA), ACT, STAR, in addition to online alternative survey-type assessments such as Grit, Hope, citizenship surveys, and Myers Briggs, and finally the most important piece of the puzzle, the artifacts such as portfolio pieces, conversations, self-reflections, and documentation of goals.

Critically, all of these pieces must be used in a formative way, to guide the learner’s pathway, as opposed to any sort of punitive way for the student or teacher.

I Don’t Want to Help Engage Your Students in School

I don’t want to help engage your students in school. The traditional school structure is not conducive to unlocking the full potential of most kids. Instead, I want to help you rethink and redesign your school structure so that engagement in learning is natural.

I have followed the Grit work of Angela Duckworth for a long time, and while I see great value in measuring students and adults along measures other than strictly academic outcomes (in fact, I am currently hinging my whole career on this concept), I diverge from Duckworth when she starts to talk about how to gauge students’ engagement in school and holding in high esteem the concept of being gritty towards what I would call “doing school”.

My experiences as a classroom teacher opened me up to a new level of empathy in which I more fully understood how much life can get in the way of the standard expectations of school attendance and engagement. Rather than documenting students’ lack of grit in school engagement, perhaps we could support them more, meet them where they are at, and celebrate and repurpose what they can bring to the table. For instance, if a student needs to care for a younger sibling to ensure that the sibling gets to school on time and fed, which delays their own arrival at school, couldn’t we as educators utilize this as a learning experience and turn the otherwise life nuisance into a project about school start times in the district, healthy breakfast options, or creating community supports in the neighborhood.

Peter Gray, founder of the Unschooling and Sudbury School movement, talks about how life is learning and learning is life, with no separation. Likewise, Huizinga, a Dutch cultural theorist from the early 20th century, and scholar of games and play in society writes about how all of life is play and it just takes various forms. If we could start to think about life and learning as forms of play, I think we could restructure schools around meaningful and relevant learning rather than how well our students do at “doing school”.


Peter Gray – Free to Learn
Johan Huizinga – Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture
Angela Duckworth – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Innovation: The Middle Ground Between Choice and Tradition

It is frustrating to be an advocate for both public schools and innovative school design. In the media, we hear about the champions of traditional public schools, who vocally view elements of innovation or choice to be the enemy of their work. The nation’s leading innovators we hear about often view the traditional model as stifling and unyielding to their philosophies.

These opposing perspectives create a rift that disallows all schools to thrive. The innovative folks run into walls with the public system and so they feel forced out if they wish to exercise their philosophies. The traditional folks see the innovators as bailing on public education and invest more deeply in the traditional model to protect and defend their threatened system.

As the rift continues to grow, I see an opportunity for innovative public school people such as myself to thrive. Yet, I’m finding the opposite to be true in practice.

Traditional public schools need to appear as unwavering to their stakeholders, which translates to focusing on increasing traditional test scores (on measures that most teachers and families would identify as only tangentially important to their students’ success), reducing discipline referrals through new programs (which often simply means redefining what counts as a discipline referral), and maintaining a one-size-fits-all curriculum (according to the student’s age) in order to maintain universal accountability.

Innovators have all but given up on implementing anything they deem interesting or good for students in a public school setting. You see more and more innovators either leaving public education for independent, non-district charters, or non-school education settings, or perhaps more commonly, considerably scaling back their original innovative ideas in order to fit within the structures of a traditional district.

So what about everyone else? The space in the middle? The space where I and the majority of our students and teachers exist? We want to implement technology, personalized learning, place-based learning, multi-age collaboration; we value non-cognitive skills and whole child development; we want to provide more opportunities for autonomy and responsibility for our students; we reward growth over fitting in with age-level peers; AND we want our students to attend free, local public schools, enrolling and engaging students from all backgrounds.

Where do we fit in? Major innovation within public schools has begun, and I feel will very quickly catch momentum in the coming years. Offering choice of learning style within a school district is attainable without major disruption; as is implementing integrated technology, regrouping students into learning communities, and changing the conversation to things that matter to students. With a few critical conversations and consideration for local needs, schools can (and do!) shift seamlessly to provide the kind of learning that lives between highly traditional and non-public alternative.

Formative Assessment Ecosystems in Personalized Learning Classrooms

Abstract I describe a phenomenon from the twelve schools of my study wherein personalized learning classroom teachers couple explicitly formative assessment data with repurposed traditional summative assessment data to create a formative assessment ecosystem, based on Halverson, Prichett, and Watson’s (2007) interpretation of a socio-technical ecosystem (Halverson, Prichett, Watson, 2007, p. 1). This model enables teachers at the personalized learning schools of my study to place equal emphasis on a student’s outcome on a standardized assessment as they do a weekly conference between the teacher and student, in an effort to comprehensively analyze and personalize a student’s learning goals. Through a compilation of measures, including a number of activities unique to personalized learning, teachers can holistically gauge a student’s learning needs.


This paper describes the implementation of assessment tools and activities observed in twelve distinctly different personalized learning schools, and seeks to create a formative assessment ecosystem model, based on Halverson, Prichett, and Watson’s (2007) socio-technical ecosystem model (Halverson, 2007, p. 1). A formative assessment ecosystem is a comprehensive collection of formative and summative assessments, with the purpose of determining the learning goals of an individual student.

My work is part of a larger group research study, which seeks to document all aspects of personalized learning in practice. My research focuses on the description of practice and the design principles of a formative assessment ecosystem, based on the practices of personalized learning classroom teachers in an effort to validate student growth. Broadly, my current and future work lead me to a deeper description, including tools and activities used not only by teachers, but also by students, parents, and leaders as well as an exploration of the design of an assessment ecosystem, including the creation of these components, training, accountability, and technology use.


George and Cowan (1999) “describe evaluation as formative when the intention is to identify scope and potential for improvement” (George and Cowan, p. 1). In the personalized learning schools of my study, the teachers re-appropriate summative assessments as part of a formative assessment ecosystem, wherein the summative test results serve alongside formative tools and activities as means of identifying a student’s potential for improvement.

Derek Rowntree (2015) defines six purposes of assessment as: 1. Selection by Assessment, 2. Maintaining Standards, 3. Motivation of Students, 4. Feedback to Students, 5. Feedback to the Teacher, and 6. Preparation for Life (Rowntree, p. 16-30). These purposes meet the needs of a number of stakeholders. Nancy Falchikov (2005) identifies the key stakeholders of summative assessments as the education system, universities, policy-makers, and administrators; while the stakeholders of formative assessments are the students and teachers (and parents) (Falchikov, p. 4-5). I believe that policy and accountability pressures have led many schools to focus narrowly on purpose 2: Maintaining the Standards, whereas I see signs of all six purposes being addressed in the personalized learning schools of my study.

The Institute for Personalized Learning (2016) defines personalized learning as, “an approach to learning and instruction that is designed around individual learner readiness, strengths, needs and interests,” ( Oftentimes students at the schools of my study will remain with a teacher or a common learning portfolio over the course of a number of years, making tracking progress more seamless than in many traditional schools.

I seek to reinterpret Rowntree’s (2015) six purposes of assessment in terms of the formative activities and tools of the personalized learning schools. The tools and activities I have documented include but are not limited to: student grouping (selection), portfolios (standards), conferring (motivation), online conversations (student feedback), pre-testing (teacher feedback), and mentorship (life preparation), all of which are components of a formative assessment ecosystem.


My research team has visited twelve schools, four days at each, to conduct interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations, and artifact collection over the course of two years. Our participant schools were selected through a two-fold discussion: diversity of school demographics, and participation with a partnered professional development organization.

Below are the schools of our study:

School Pseudonym Level School Type
Edison ES Instrumentality Public Charter
Franklin ES Public school
Grant ES Instrumentality Public Charter
Hillside ES Public school
Irving Elementary School ES Two classrooms within school
Kingston MS-HS Public school
Anderson HS Instrumentality Public Charter
Balsam HS School within school
Jackson HS Instrumentality Public Charter
Delaney MS Instrumentality Public Charter
Carson MS School within school
Irving Middle School MS Public school

Within the schools, our participants were selected in a number of ways. We sought out a point-of-contact at each school and then we interviewed a selection of teachers, students, administrators, board members, parents, and students at each school. Our samples were determined by willingness, availability, and recommendation, with an effort to capture multiple perspectives and experience levels.

Our coding system includes subtopics framed around students, teachers, schools, and community interactions.

In analyzing the data, I found that schools in my study all spoke frequently about assessment, specifically the ways in which they have adapted assessment activities in their schools to better serve the students in a personalized way. I conducted a lexical search of the data around key terms: assessment, formative, and summative, in order to focus in on the specific conversations on this topic.


The schools of my study use comprehensive collections of tools and activities in their attempt to determine student growth. In addition to formative tools and activities, teachers in the schools of my study often take mandated summative assessment tools and activities and re-appropriate them into formative tools and activities that work for their philosophies.

The goal of these teachers is not to cherry-pick certain assessments on which the students performed highly, nor to place emphasis on one assessment that has been pre-determined by an outside entity. Rather, the schools involve all learning representations in order to provide a wide-ranging look at student achievements. This model of accountability is more comprehensive than traditional forms of assessment in test-based, grades-based schools.

Below is a table with a full menu of tools and activities comprising a formative assessment ecosystem based on the practices of the schools of my study, followed by brief descriptive examples of each component from my data. The table is distributed into three categories: people, activities, and tools, based on Erica Halverson’s (2015) distributed instruction model (Halverson, 2015, p. 1).

Divisions of an Assessment Ecosystem

Those players involved in the production, assessment, or analysis of student learning

Classroom Staff Teaching staff (advisors)
Non-teaching staff
Students Elementary School Students
Middle School Students
High School Students
Collaborators Parents
School and district leaders
District School board
Charter governance council
Community Supporters
School Volunteers

Formative assessment activities observed in the schools of our study

Conversations Weekly Student-Advisor Meetings
Student-Led Conferences
Advisory Circle/Groupings
Student Mentorship Program
Conversations Between Student and Advisor (with written notes)
Conversations Between Student and Advisor (without written notes)
Benchmarks Bi-Quarterly Family Reports
Personal Growth
School Reporting/Charter Contract
Behavior Observation Student groups
Independent work
Live Demonstration Project presentation
Informal check-ins of learning

Formative assessment tools observed in the schools of our study

Written Assessments Pre-tests
MAP assessment
ACT Series
WKCE/Badger/Forward (state standardized test)
Virtual Communication Learning Targets Database
Time Logs
Project Checklists and rubrics
Virtual messaging systems
Online Software ALEKS math (Pie chart, time logs)
Personalized Learning Plan website
Google documents
Learning Relationship Management System

Classroom Staff

The staff at the personalized learning schools of my study ultimately oversee and compile the assessment activities and tools into a translatable portfolio for stakeholders.


The students at the personalized learning schools of my study are the performers and creators or representations, which will most accurately provide insight into the quality of the functions of the students themselves and ultimately of the school system.


The outside collaborators of the personalized learning schools of my study provide authentic feedback to the students and accountability to the staff.


Teachers in all schools of my study rely partially on both formally recorded and informal conversations with students as a means of tracking learning. A teacher at Balsam explains how these conversations work: (On a typical day,) “I’m going around talking to the kids, making sure they understand, so the formative assessment is taking place in these conversations but I don’t formally track it, right. If for some reason they still don’t understand it, they get a second chance to do it over. Like a follow-up assessment if they want to.”


All schools in my study rely on certain benchmarks, such as report cards and graduation dates.

Behavior Observations

Some schools, especially in elementary schools, rely partially on observing student behaviors in relation to a presented task. Delaney staff groups students based primarily on how well they performed on a unit assessment, and some based on behavior. They might shift kids a bit in the first week or two of a unit, because their real performance or ability may not have been accurately reflected on the assessments. Edison staff explains the practice further: “We individualize for students and confer one-on-one, to make sure that they are where they should be otherwise you can miss their needs.”

Live Demonstrations

Students at the schools of our study are accustomed to demonstrating their learning through presentation and conversation on a routine basis. Oftentimes teachers use everyday check-ins on learning as a tool, such as at Edison: (The students) “need to show me at least five examples of how they did that, and then when we confer I can say whether this is correct or not and whether we need to continue.”

Written Assessments

Some schools, especially elementary schools, rely partially on pre-testing students on specific skill-sets. As the staff at Edison explains, the teachers often use pre-tests as a means of formative evaluation: “We evaluate their skills at the beginning of the year based on test scores and then look at them and group them. “

Virtual Communication

All schools of our study relied in part on virtual communication as a means of student-to-teacher feedback. Productive conversations can occur virtually, such as at Balsam, as one teacher explains: (If the students are) “typing something formally on Google docs, I’m commenting and sending it back for revisions.”

Online Software

Online software tools tend to provide students and teachers one of two services: a communication and information tracking platform or an artificial intelligence feedback tool.


Teachers are rethinking what it means to summatively assess a student: no longer do they place the weight on a single assessment. Formative measures and interpretations have taken over in the schools of my study. When you ask someone at the personalized learning schools of my study, “How is Eva doing in school?”, you will not hear an answer of, “B-average”. Rather, teachers will answer this question with a description of Eva’s formative assessment ecosystem, such as: “She is really improving her spoken communication skills, while her math lessons take her longer to tackle. She is responsive to revision requests, and is a strong group project leader.”

Teachers’ understanding of student success at the schools of my study stems from a whole collection of resources that they collect in partnership with other players. As a teacher at Franklin expressed, “We don’t get too freaked out if a low test score comes in. We know they need to work on communication.” Summative assessments are simply one piece of the puzzle, while a meeting earlier that day with the student serves as an equivalent tool of understanding student progress. A teacher at Edison explained their school’s assessment activities similarly: “Sometimes it’s just listening to them answer questions … and you know that they understand, and sometimes it’s paper and pencil.” Carson teachers speak about how they need to acclimate their students to this new system of assessment wherein everything “counts”, in juxtaposition with a traditional classroom’s graded and practice divisions of homework. Their students enter Carson, “trying to appease the system of grading as opposed to what we’re trying to do here, which is just learning.” Learning is a holistic process and needs to be documented holistically.

Scholarly significance

Rowntree’s (2015) six purposes of assessment guide my work in thinking holistically about the purposes and players in classroom assessment. The assessment practices described in this paper can be, and are being, used by the critical stakeholders Falchikov (2015) identified, but not always along the traditional divisions she laid out (Falchikov, p. 5).

I found that classroom teachers in the personalized learning schools of my study are reassessing the types of data they use locally in making decisions around a student’s individual learning path. Rather than relying on a single source, they create a formative assessment ecosystem and use a full menu of tools and activities in order to more fully understand their learner’s trajectory.


Falchikov, N. (2013). Improving assessment through student involvement: Practical solutions for

                  aiding learning in higher and further education. Routledge.

George, J. W., & Cowan, J. (1999). A handbook of techniques for formative evaluation: Mapping the

                  student’s learning experience. Psychology Press.

Halverson, E.R., Lowenhaupt, R. & Kalaitzidis, T. (2015). Towards a Theory of Distributed

Instruction in Creative Arts Education. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 23(3),    357-385. Chesapeake, VA: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education.

Halverson, R., Prichett, R. B., & Watson, J. G. (2007). Formative Feedback Systems and the New

Instructional Leadership (No. 2007-3). Madison: WCER. Retrieved from

Institute for Personalized Learning: A Division of CESA 1. Retrieved July 19, 2016.

Rowntree, D. (2015). Assessing students: How shall we know them?. Routledge.

Counts – Dare Schools Build a New Social Order

Reflection on: George Counts, Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? (1932)


In reading the Counts (1932) text, Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? I was drawn to Counts’s discussion of issues such as: schools being disconnected from adult society, the need for community’s integration into schools and addressing the individual needs of students while not losing sight of the larger social fabric, as these are common issues with which I have wrestled as a modern and innovative educator.

Having worked in what I would categorize as the modern field of Progressive Education, I wish to discuss the following position of Counts (1932):

“If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all of its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened than it is today at the bogies of imposition and indoctrination,” (Counts, p. 7)

I study modern personalized learning and community schools, which I consider to be forms of Progressive Education with a few key differences. I propose that these differences work to address some of the major issues Counts raised about the philosophy.

Firstly, I consider the issue of schools needing a more organic relationship with the community. Counts (1932) declares, “Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of contemporary society lies in the fact that the child is becoming increasingly isolated from the serious activities of adults,” (Counts, p. 15). I argue that today’s community schools are working to address this divide through their integration of social services, health care, and recreation into the school space. Meanwhile, schools with personalized and project-based curriculum are striving to utilize community experts in their place-based projects.

Secondly, I would like to suggest that community schools are working to change the vision of human wellbeing through the services they provide families and communities. Counts (1932) suggests, “If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centers for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilization,” (Counts, p. 34). Many schools have begun to utilize their physical space for community meetings, recreation, and services to the community. Opening the doors of the building is the first step into creating an organic relationship.

Finally, I would like to advocate that more and more teachers and school leaders are accepting that it is, indeed, the role of schools and teachers (along with the government in a large way) to select curriculum for the learners. Even in schools that are modern versions of Progressive Education, such as personalized learning schools, there is still a strong element of imposition on the students through the national academic standards. In most of these schools, students have some academic freedom to learn as they choose, given that they learn everything within the larger framework of a standard set of curriculum.

In a discussion of ownership and freedom dating back the closing of the American frontier, Counts (1932) raised the issue of technology and requested that, “technology be released from the fetters and domination of every type of special privilege,” (Counts, p. 42). I would argue that classroom technology today, such as YouTube, Google Docs, and Citizen Science, actually gives ownership back to the common user, allowing them to both produce and distribute knowledge and content freely among the masses, as Counts (1932) also argues for (Counts, p. 42).

Overall I found Dare the Schools to be a crucial piece to my education of progressivism in American schools. 

Burning Question:

If Counts were writing about public personalized and community schools today, I wonder which of his criticisms would be satisfied and which would be perpetuated.


Counts, G. (1932/1978). Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? Carbondale, IL:

Southern Illinois University Press.

Personalized Learning – Learning Feedback System

I’m considering an exploration of how students learn in a personalized learning environment and how teachers know students are learning. 

One possible model is to examine the feedback process of  learning progression.

It might look like this:

  1. Teacher provides an assessment structure / expectations
  2. Student produces evidence of their learning
  3. Teacher and student confer and repeat cycle until consensus is reached

Non-Traditionally-Assessed Academic Skills

I’ve combined a list of skills I found being assessed in personalized learning skills with Jim Gee’s (2015) pre-requisite literacy toolkit (PRK). Below is a list of skills that could be used in schools to measure students’ non-traditionally-assessed academic skills.

  1. Ability to access resources
  2. Ability to engage
  3. Ability to communicate
  4. Knowledge of ways to use digital media tools
  5. Ability to apply learning to personal experience and passion
  6. Motivation to learn
  7. Ability to participate like a learner
  8. Ability to think critically
  9. Desire to learn or do something valuable or good
  10. Ability to focus
  11. Ability to persevere
  12. Interest in risk-taking
  13. Ability to meet academic goals
  14. Comfort with presenting information publicly
  15. Comfort with social interactions
  16. Adaptability to change

Gee, J. P. (2015). Prerequisites, Domains, and Resources: Teaching, Learning, and             Assessment for the Current World. Publication for Gordon Fellows Meeting, Oct 15, 2015.

Mindset of Adaptation

I’m considering a Technology Mindset or a Digital Mindset as something that schools ought to teach and possible measure as a non-cognitive growth of their students. It doesn’t simply go with technology though, in fact, it doesn’t need to go with technology at all.

I’m thinking more about a mindset that allows for adaptability to change and embracing the new.

Students not only need to be prepared to work in an ever-changing world, but they also ought to be the ones creating the changes. So it goes beyond adaptability to actually being the one instigating the adapting.

Thoughts based on Gee and Grit.

Apple – Can Education Change Society?


Throughout this book, I can’t help but think about rural communities. Having grown up on 30 acres in the country outside of a small town, having taught in multiple rural communities, and having been a part of community political action in rural Wisconsin, this mindset is my reality in many ways. Now that I have lived in and studied more urban settings, I have been able to start to compare my lived experiences with those of other places. I can now reflect back and see the power players in the rural communities, how the schools made choices, and why some of the struggles and privileges existed in my communities. As a now outsider, I can more clearly see these issues than when I was a member of those communities.

In education research, so often we focus on issues of equity and access for students (mostly of color) in urban areas. Though I feel more and more that the issues of rural America are oftentimes quite severe and get ignored. Of my 30 students at the time I left teaching, one third were on-and-off homeless, many had parents who were frequently or habitually unemployed, many missed school due to family health issues and transportation, not to mention issues of drugs, abuse, poverty, hunger, and access to support.

In addition to the struggles of the people in my community, they often were not walking alongside the school system, but rather, saw education and the structure of school to be an enemy and inconvenience. Many parents wanted their students working instead of at school. Leaving the house to attend college was seen as a threat to the family’s income and functioning (many relied on the kids to drive the parents around or babysit). Education of these students is seen as a danger, not by outsiders, but by the insiders themselves. (Apple, p. 76)

In order to bring the parents in as partners, firstly, the schools had to, as Apple (2013) (citing Souza, et. al) explains from the Porto Alegre school experience, “adapt to the students and not the opposite, which has been historically the case,” (Apple, p. 109). Not only do we need to get to the heart of the needs and place of the student, but we also need to engage the parents more meaningfully in the process, as Apple continues to explain in his conversation, “participation is a process that had to be constructed,” (Apple, p. 116).

When you engage in a family-centered conversation about a new, localized school design, the process is one that can be sustained and supported. As Apple (2013) explains, “(The Citizen School) altered the politics of official knowledge and gave legitimacy to real people‘s understanding of the world and their places in it,” (Apple, p. 159). In an economy and society where not only is the rural voice not being heard and respected, but the opportunities for the poor rural people is so limited, the act of explicitly valuing this group and their perspective and needs brings new hope to an ignored community.

Burning Question:

I recognize that the rural white working class families at my school are not necessarily the people who Apple and others recognize as the “other,” as they were not directly the people who enabled the dominant groups to rise and sustain power over them. I can’t help but wonder though, do they see themselves in a similar way and face similar challenges to those who were directly classified in this way? (Apple, p. 137)


Apple, M. W. (2013). Can Education Change Society? New York, NY: Routledge.