Accountability in Schools: Purpose Driven or Fear Driven?


I often wonder if we changed our thinking about accountability in schools, if we’d get a better result in the classrooms?

Here’s what I’m thinking:  Instead of focusing on ACCOUNTABILITY (of tests, of standards, of evaluations, of observations) we should focus on RESPONSIBILITY and create PURPOSE.

In fact, accountability in schools can just feel like “big brother’s watching over my shoulder” when it’s not attached to RESPONSIBILITY AND PURPOSE.  Think about it, when we just go about our business and we’re focused on “meeting the expectations of ‘the district'”, there is little oomph (or joy!) in the work.  But when I’m really super excited and invested in a particular subject area or technique I’m using with my kids, I’m teaching like my hair’s on fire – accountability or no accountability!

Here’s the deal, accountability in schools is a given – we don’t have a choice.  BUT purpose?  Well, we have a BIG OPPORTUNITY TO create, recreate and be motivated by purpose everyday.  And that’s no one’s job but our own!

Let’s look at a good working definition of accountability: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.

Now let’s take a look at a definition of purpose:

1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
2. an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.
3. determination; resoluteness.


Here’s what popped out to me as I read those definitions: Purpose is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea or thought – it’s built upon action and RESULTS.  And accountability is RESULTS driven, too!

Soooo….without purpose, then accountability is ALWAYS going to feel like “the district” or “the man” is breathing down our necks!

Let me tell you a little story that just happened THIS MORNING! 

We work with some larger school districts with the goal of helping them implement their reading programs and get organized on their Common Core implementations.  One of our districts has 19 elementary schools – they’re all trying to accomplish the SAME THING and they are held accountable for the same levels of performance: implement their reading programs so expertfully that they get 80%+ kids on benchmark just with their Tier I instruction!  (By the way, it IS possible…email me if you want to know how!)

I had two emails from this particular client in my inbox this morning: 1 email from what I consider to be an “on fire” principal – SHE ISN’T MESSING AROUND! (My kind of gal!)  She was asking for some feedback on a letter that she was sending her staff, motivating them to really power through until the holidays, rather than limp into the holidays – she was having them choose 2 kids in their classrooms that are not currently benchmark, but would be by December 15th!

And then 1 email from a very nice, kind principal complaining that he just “doesn’t have any time to get into classrooms because he spends his time putting out fires all day” and he’s behind on his observations and hasn’t met with his leadership team lately.

Well, I have news for ya: both principals have the same size schools, the same highly impacted, low poverty clientele and are held to the same standards…as they should be!  One is getting it done and ASKING THE DISTRICT TO COME WALK THROUGH THE CLASSROOMS and the other is mulling over the same stuff as last year and is bemoaning why “the district” always shows up unannounced to walk through classrooms.

What’s the difference?  Not accountability!  They both have visits from the district!

The difference is PURPOSE LINKED TO ACCOUNTABILITY.  The principal who asked for feedback from me on her mission for her teachers is doing what she’s doing because she’s passionate about the “doing” for their students…she’s not worrying at ALL about “the district” or “the test”.  The other principal?  He’s so focused on “the district” and “the test” that he’s, AT BEST, trying to meet the minimum requirement. 

Doesn’t sound very inspiring to me…what do YOU think?

BUT HERE’S THE DEAL!  Accountability is what “they” put into place to monitor school improvement, but meaning and purpose is what “we” put into place to drive us each day – – especially on those days when we don’t have accountability checks!

It’s like exercise, guys…do I get up and do my exercising when my exercising partner is sick and doesn’t show up on my back door at 5:30 a.m. or do I snooze and decide to sleep in?  If I snooze and sleep in then I’m accountability driven – motivated only by my friend showing up on my back doorstep!  If I get my tired and lazy behind up, then I’m purpose driven – I know that I am committed to improving my health even on those days I don’t feel like it!

So, you know I have to ask…in your work in your schools…are you accountability crabby or purposely going about your business?

Teaching National Standards: Are They Dangerous?


I’ve been talking about teaching national standards and whether we’re heading down a slippery slope or whether we’re amidst the great hope of the future of education.

Here’s where I am the whole Common Core/national standards discussion…

  • National standards are leveling the playing field for ALL kids, which means we can’t play the “data dance” and shift kids around and use different standards from different districts/states as the reason why they haven’t excelled.
  • Implementing national standards means that we’ll be able to measure our teaching against those of our peers – – and I believe it’s about time that we do this so that we can raise the overall quality of our teaching.  We can’t raise the overall level unless we have a baseline – the standards will help us determine this baseline.
  • Those who feel as though “they’re always told what to do” will feel like they’re being told what to do by having to implement the common core national standards.  For those reflective, interested-in-refinement educators, the national standards will give them the push to adjust, alter, reflect, refine and teach like their hair’s on fire!
  • The Common Core Standards will support leadership in getting very clear on what they should be seeing in the classroom.  Having common expectations not only with “what” is taught, but  “how” it is delivered will mean that teacher observations, evaluations and walk-throughs by principals will be based on more than what the leader “likes” or “thinks is good practice”.
  • We will FINALLY have a detailed outline of what we consider “best practices” – in fact, I’m sick of folks using that term as a catch-all phrase to cover for every type of best practice/non-best-practice around! Whew!

The best part is, the Common Core will help move us from “what SHOULD a 5th grader really know????” to “Let’s get STARTED!”

So to answer the question: Is teaching national standards dangerous?  I don’t think so.  Certainly not any more dangerous than what we have been engaging in!

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment below now!

Cool Apps for Teaching Reading


My awesome colleague, Linda Farrell (check her out at www.readsters.com!), shared this information from a conference that she attended…and I wanted to share these cool apps for teaching reading with YOU!

First of all, I must admit – I AM BEHIND on getting on the education app train.  I have apps for everything instead of education!  DUH!

So, I’m getting myself in order…and thought you might want to join me!

Here are some apps and their reviews that Linda picked up for us as she attended a session at a recent conference:
LetterSchool lite – free
LetterSchool – $2.99

  • Writing the letters.
  • A good app.  Very engaging for students

Problems are:

  • The sound for the letter x is /z/ as in zylophone
  • Students do not have to name the letter as they trace it.

Sound Sorting by Lakeshore
Beginning Sounds Interactive Game – $0.99

  • Cute graphics.
  • Worth $0.99

Sound Literacy – $24.99

  • Has letters, graphemes, prefixes, suffixes, roots, and bases for spelling words
  • Can be used with virtually any phonics program
  • User-friendly

Spelling City – Free

  • Has a link to the web so you can make your own lists.
  • Has homophones, vocabulary, sentence scrambles, handwriting practice.

Bob Books have two apps:

  • Bob Books #1 – Reading Magic – $2.99
  • Bob Books #2 – Reading Magic – $2.99

Interactive books by Loud Crow:

  • Pop Out! The Tale of Peter Rabbit – $4.99
  • Others by Loud Crow may be good, too, but they weren’t reviewed in the presentation.

Vocab Rootology HD – Greek and Latin Roots and Etymology – $2.99

  • An excellent app for older students.

Have you guys tried any apps that you’d recommend? 

Fighting…and WINNING…the Common Core Implementation Game

In last week’s article, I walked you through where we’re getting teachers started with Step 1 of Implementing the Common Core Standards – we started with a big picture plan for the year – one domain at a time!

We received a slew of responses to that blog straight to my inbox – – and here was the gist of most of them: “But Jill, I like what you wrote, but we have SO MANY STANDARDS to implement – – how can you guide us to just start with one domain?”

Well guys, I have news for you.  Just because you HAVE to implement all of the standards, doesn’t mean that by biting off a HUGE chunk right away, you’ll have success with it.

In fact, our schools and teachers tend to have the best success with the “go slow to go fast” mentality.  Here’s what that sounds like. “Hmmm….I’m totally overwhelmed with all of the things I need to be doing right now with the Common Core, but I know that if I’m trying to manage too many brand new pieces and parts each day/week/month, I’m going to burn out super quickly and I can’t afford to do that.  So, I’m going to push aside my Common Core-frenzied thoughts and I’m going to focus on getting really good at a couple of standards.  This way, I’ll not only be great at implementing these particular standards, I’ll also build my confidence to bite off the next chunk that I need to.  Slow and steady and well-done wins the race with a massive implementation like the Common Core.”

If you have to re-read and repeat that conversation to yourself 10,000xs a day, do it.

You won’t get farther by going faster when so much is new.  You’ll only be racing toward overwhelm.  Fight it.

So, onto our task at hand…planning lessons to align your current curriculum to the Common Core.

Here’s where I’d like you to start: Create a very simple 4 question assessment.

This will make it easier to organize the lessons that you need to.  Starting with the end in mind means we end up where we want to because we’re NOT taking a shot in the dark!

Here’s where you’ll start:

  1. The assessment should incorporate the language/academic vocabulary from the Standards – this is critical.  For example if the standard that you’re assessing uses the term “describe in detail”, then your assessment should do the same.  (This is important because we will write this into our lessons, which is our next step)
  2. The assessment should incorporate written response and extended response questions – remember the Standards are focused on depth, not just breadth, and you want your assessment to represent this.  Design open-ended questions where students have to explain and give specific connection back to the text along with their ideas.  How you craft the question is critical in getting the right responses/information from your kids.
  3. The assessment should incorporate some sort of discussion and perhaps a rubric that you develop and use to gauge that discussion this is a new concept for some – we need to get familiar with it!
  4. The assessment should take 15 minutes or less – we need a good measure of what our kids know – BUT we shouldn’t have to put ourselves into assessment purgatory to do so!

Warning: DON’T DO THIS ON YOUR OWN!  Make it part of the work that you do weekly as you meet with your team!  It’s these common assessments that will drive the success in your grade level/department!

Five Sure-fire Steps to Implementing the Common Core Without Losing Your Marbles!

The Common Core Standards are freaking me out.

There.  I said it!

What I really mean is that I’m slightly freaking out over the fact that the Common Core Standards conversation is happening…in all the wrong places.

What do I mean?

Well, I hear Superintendents talking about ‘em.  I hear Curriculum Directors talking about ‘em.  I hear principals talking about ‘em.  I hear instructional coaches talking about ‘em.

But I don’t hear an overwhelming number of teachers (the ones who actually DELIVER THE DANG THINGS!) talking about them!!!  And I don’t think not talking about the Common Core is the teachers’ fault!

Side note: It’s common that, given a new, fandangled implementation of something in education, we forget to bring the teachers into it.  And this fact is the very reason we get frustrated about money spent on reform – we forget to bring the teachers and their practice into the discussion so there’s not much change in the classrooms.  It’s the bane of existence in public education.  I mean….DUH!

We have a chance to transform our collective instruction in ways that we never have before so that we can catapult our students to success in ways we never have before!  Or we can choose to just do business as usual while we wait for the pendulum to swing the other way.  Take one guess as to which I’M going to do!

Here’s where we’re starting the Common Core conversation with the TEACHERS WHO WILL ACTUALLY ADJUST, CHANGE AND DELIVER THE INSTRUCTION TO THE KIDS!

Step 1: Read the standards from the top to the bottom and back up again.  Sounds super simple, I know.  But just do it.  They’re awesomely set up.

Step 2: Focus on ONE CHUNK of the Standards.  No – not two.  Not all of them.  Just one.  I like to focus on the one domain that we’re closest to implementing – something about being “almost there” makes me feel accomplished!

Step 3: Comb through – okay, who am I kidding…SCOUR, OBSESS OVER, LIST, DISCUSS AND FUSS ABOUT – your current curriculum.  Figure out where you’re directly teaching that domain.  Figure out where you’re indirectly teaching it.  Write all of these things down somewhere and guard it with your life.

Step 4: Analyze where you are teaching the domain well, where you’re kind of teaching it and where you need some major additions.  Write this down and guard it with your life.

Step 5: Then start to plot a big picture plan for the school year of where you’ll continue doing what’s already in your curriculum for that domain.  The focus on where you’ll need to make some adjustments for the weaker standards in that domain.  And finally plot where you’ll add opportunities to teach, model, practice and apply that domain through the year so that you’re geared to end-of-year mastery.

Then come back and read next week’s article
where I’ll lay out how to design lessons/assessments for these things you’ve added, tweaked and obsessed over…