Karen Sanzo joins Justin Baeder to discuss her book Formative Assessment Leadership.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
About Karen Sanzo
Dr. Sanzo is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and the Program Coordinator for the Educational Leadership Services program at Old Dominion University.
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Justin Baeder: Welcome to Principal Center Radio. I’m thrilled that my guest today is Dr. Karen Sanzo.
Dr. Sanzo is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and the program coordinator for Educational Leadership Services Program, which is a principal certification program at Old Dominion University, and the author of Formative Assessment Leadership, a new book that I’m very excited to speak with her about, today.
Announcer: Now, our feature presentation.
Justin: Dr. Sanzo, welcome to Principal Center Radio.
Dr. Karen Sanzo: Hi, thank you for the opportunity to come and talk about the work. I’m very excited to share about this.
Justin: Tell us, what the origin of this work was? What have you been doing in your professional work that led you to the point where you thought, “I have to write a book on Formative Assessment Leadership.”
Dr. Sanzo: Sure, I’m a 17 year veteran of the public school setting having spent eight years, both as a mathematics teacher and an elementary school administrator in the first part of my career. Then, I transitioned to the higher education level nine years ago.
I began working in depth with principals, training principals around effective use of data, around instructional supervision, instructional leadership, and I had the good fortune about six years ago to receive a grant from the Department of Education.
It was a five year grant, I had a one year no cost extension designed to prepare aspiring school leaders and to develop current school leaders with a strong focus around database decision making and effective use of formative assessments in their work along with the other components of effective leadership.
As a part of that work, my colleagues and I were also fortunate to receive several other grants, which essentially duck tailed into the work around effective use of data.
What we were finding was, within the class room, of course, we know that’s where the action happens, teachers were struggling with how to formatively assess their students and to make real time instructional changes based upon those assessment measures.
Steve Myran, John Caggiano, and I were doing a lot of work around this, both separately and collaboratively. We discussed and created this framework, which we based our book upon with Formative Assessment Leadership as a way to help leaders begin a formative assessment process and help their staff members to effectively use formative assessments.
Justin: Karen, in your book “Formative Assessment Leadership,” you offer a five part cycle for formative assessment? For school leaders, what does that process look like of getting started with formative assessment at the school level?
Dr. Sanzo: That’s a great question because each school comes to this process at a different readiness level. As a principal, assistant principal, with your leadership team, you have to determine the level of readiness of your teaching staff to begin this process.
Often times we recommend that when we work with teachers that we start at that identify level, that we work primarily with that leadership team, and we take a macro look at our school level data. We find those major target points that we want to address.
As a leadership team, then we would bring it to the planning level. That really is more the school level strategic planning process activities. Once we get to the teacher level, we can drill down to the specific student learning outcomes, or your learning intentions and how we will utilize formative assessment.
As a principal coming to this process, if you have already been entrenched in professional learning communities, that your teachers really feel comfortable with dialogue, about student learning, student engagement, then this could be more of a whole school process from the beginning.
However, if I’m a principal new to this process, I think being strategically thinking intentionally about who are those key people that I can bring on board immediately that we’re not going to be overwhelmed and washed with data, that we’re really going to be able to identify their specific learning intentions and engagement strategies, we want to then take your teaching staff to begin explaining this process.
Justin: In the identify phase of the cycle, you talk about developing a problem statement to kind of orient the rest of the cycle. What does it mean to develop a problem statement? How does that relate to all of the data that we currently have to work with and the data sources that we might want to consider in the future?
Why do you recommend that schools or teacher teams start with a problem statement?
Dr. Sanzo: I think a problem statement however you want to write it helps catalyze the initiative around a central focus point or focal points, if you have a couple different concerns you want to target. It helps to crystallize the issue, which is based upon data. This is where, it’s very important to understand the readiness level of your staff.
If you want to have more than just your leadership team involved in the initial problem statement development or if it’s better to start with a smaller group of people and then bring forward to your staff that problem statement, you’re going to need to really conduct a deep dive into your data. It’s not enough to say that we have a math problem with patterns functions, and so on.
You really have to gather multiple measures of data, you have to target what the learning issue is, and you have to go through whatever inquiry process you want to understand, what the learning concern is. For example, this certain group of students isn’t doing well in this, well, why?
It’s not enough just to look at your benchmark assessments.
You’re going to need to look at lesson plans, you’re going to need to pull out multiple measures of data in order to support that overarching problem statement because that is what you’re going to commit to as a school that you want to work on, so you want to ensure that you’ve examined enough data sources to support the development of that problem statement.
Justin: I think that clarity right at the beginning is so critical because I think so often we allow the availability of certain data sources to steer the ship a little bit more than perhaps it should.
I think often we have multiple influences on the direction that we’re going with any particular team, any particular process, the use of particular assessments, or the implementation of a curriculum.
In every school, we have a lot going on at once. If we’re going to see big improvements, if we’re going to see big change, it has to start with focus. I think that leads very well into the second phase of the process. What does the planning look like when teams are implementing the cycle for formative assessment leadership?
Dr. Sanzo: We discussed that again. The planning level, at this point, can be done more at the macro level with your leadership team. It could either be a whole school planning process or it might be a tiered process where you better articulate that problem statement once your school staff understands what it is that you’re going to be working towards.
Then, again, you can continue to have the school level goals and objectives you want to work towards and then you come to your content levels, your grade levels, whatever it is that your structure is within your school, then you go through and articulate a planning process as to how you’re going to specifically target those areas for improvement.
Part of this then is you’re going to need to understand what those formative assessment tools are that you can use in the classroom with students. We talk a lot about in the book the importance of forward feedback.
I would say, at this stage, as a principal, if your teachers are not well versed in the notion of forward feedback of providing feedback to students that are meaningful and helpful, that you take a good amount of time to work with your staff about this.
Even down to the nuanced level of role playing, going in and doing collaborative observation activities, coming back and debriefing, and talking about how that worked, what could be done better, and how to fully engage students in this process of formative assessment used within the classroom too.
Justin: Let’s talk about that idea of forward feedback because often students primary experience with getting feedback from teachers is the kind of classic red ink on the page and then we move on to something else. What does forward feedback mean?
Dr. Sanzo: Sure. It’s very interesting when we go out and work with teachers because we will challenge them to not put grades on papers.
Unfortunately, we’re in a system where we have to have grades associated with their work at some point. However, research has shown that once we put a grade associated with an assignment or an activity, the level of ability for a student to take that and apply that to future learning decreases.
Forward feedback really is providing meaningful summative feedback to students about their learning. I think one of the worst things we can do for kids in class is to tell them, “Good job,” and to not say anything else because if I say, “Justin, you did a really good job on that assignment.”
I have told you nothing about your performance, you don’t know what happened, you don’t know how you could improve, you just go, “Oh, that’s fine.” The same thing if I tell a student, “You know you didn’t really do good, no.” If I don’t tell you why and give you that opportunity to improve, I haven’t done my job as a teacher.
Justin: Once we’ve gotten a plan together in terms of what we need to assess and the overall process that we’re going to go through, I think it’s really easy to jump into using specific strategies and kind of overemphasizing just those strategies.
We’ve all heard of things like using exit slips, quick rights, quizzes, and things like that. What is it that we have to do to make sure that not only are we using the right strategies, but that we’re making the right decisions based on the evidence and the information that we collect using those formative assessment strategies?
Dr. Sanzo: I think the first thing is to understand the bulk of strategies that are available and how to match the level of rigor with those formative assessment strategies with the instructional activities you’re conducting in class. First, it’s a knowledge process. We need to research, read, collaborate with our colleagues and understand the types of assessments that we can use in a formative manner within our instructional day.
The power with formative assessments comes not from what the students put on the paper or what they act out in class or how they utilize a formative assessment. It’s what you do with that formative assessment. It’s that forward feedback. But more importantly, making students actively engaged in that feedback process. I’m going to use, Justin, your example of that exit ticket.
As a former math teacher, if I taught fractions and I gave an exit ticket to my students, they left. I collected the exit ticket. I read the exit tickets. I go, “Oh, OK, they understand multiplying fractions.” I throw those exit tickets away. The power that formative assessment has been complete diminished. Because one, I’ve not told the students what I found on those exit tickets. Two, I haven’t really done anything to adjust my instruction based upon those exit tickets.
The power comes in, in letting students understand what the themes were on those exit tickets. What’s even stronger is helping our students thematically understand those exit tickets. Then let the students know what their learning errors were and what their learning understandings where. For me, to tell the students how I’m adjusting my instruction in different ways based upon those exit tickets.
Additionally, in a goal setting process, we would then help students based upon those exit tickets. Set new goals. Readjust their goals so that they can better understand the next steps and the instruction.
Justin: I think that involvement of students throughout the process is so powerful. Because typically, I think in the traditional kind of exit ticket or quiz model, we look at students as a source of information, but not necessarily as recipients and beneficiaries of that formative assessment information. We typically just look at it as, “Well, do I need to teach a little bit more on this before we move on?”
I love that perspective of actually sharing that feedback with students. Saying, “Here are the themes that I saw in your answers. Here’s where I think your understanding currently is.” Just involving them throughout that process and really, letting them take ownership of their learning because I think that’s something that really gives them so much more power to succeed. That’s wonderful.
Dr. Sanzo: Thanks. That to me is the biggest part of what we’re trying to get across is that we can have a cycle. We can have a process. We can have the ideas. But if we do not involve our students and in an intentional way, this isn’t going to be successful. We can no longer view students as passive recipients of knowledge. They have to be active agents in their own learning. We have to help them throughout this entire process.
Justin: Karen, based on the work that you’ve done in schools and the model that you’ve put together in your book, “Formative Assessment Leadership,” what’s one thing that you would like to see every school and every school leadership team do?
Dr. Sanzo: I think it is incumbent upon us to work with teachers and then to work with students to engage in a process of goal setting and to help people understand how to set realistic goals. How to measure against those goals and how to understand what we need to do to obtain those goals. Through that, we can effectively use a formative assessment process and formative assessments, in general, to help us reach those goals.
Justin: The book is “Formative Assessment Leadership” by Karen Sanzo, Steve Myran and John Caggiano. Karen, thanks so much for joining us on Principal Center Radio.
Dr. Sanzo: Great. Thank you for the opportunity.
Announcer: Now, Justin Baeder on “High Performance Instructional Leadership.”
Justin: High performance instructional leaders, what did you take away from my conversation with Karen Sanzo about Formative Assessment Leadership?
One big idea that I think is worth emphasizing is the idea of readiness that not everyone in your school is at the same place in terms of understanding what needs to happen next for making good use of formative assessments, for making changes in the way that we assess. If we try to treat everyone as if they’re in the same place, we’re going to be frustrated.
My friend, Steve Peha, introduced me to a model by Everett Rogers, which is decades old, and based in the technology industry called “The Diffusion of Innovations” model. In Rogers’ model, he talks about the idea that we have early adapters, who are a pretty small percentage of any given group of people.
When you are looking at implementing a new process, such as developing formative assessments or using formative assessments in some new way, you want to think about the people who are going to be the most ready, the most positive, the most well equipped to succeed with what they’re doing. Because you have lots of other people who are not in that place yet, who are not ready.
If you’re going to get everyone on board eventually, the first people to embark on something new need to be successful.
Justin: Everyone else needs to see a working model of success if they’re going to follow in their footsteps. If you’re going to break new ground, if you’re going to enter territory, you want to do so with the people on your staff who are the most ready.
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