Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Grading Reform: Part 2

After we established our common beliefs about homework we moved on to our next challenge, should behavior be included in a grade? If we want accurate grades then shouldn't behaviors be removed from them? Based on our research review we found that there are several behaviors or academic enablers that have historically impacted a grade. Currently, academic enablers may impact a grade in a positive or a negative way. If we are going to have more accurate grades then we need to find a way to report these behaviors separately. I want to be clear that we believe that behaviors are important, but they shouldn't inflate or deflate a student's grade.

Some of our elementary teachers are already reporting behaviors separately:

Grade 2 example:
  • I am organized and responsible for my belongings
  • I can complete work neatly and carefully
  • I can listen and follow directions
  • I can use my time wisely
  • I can work independently
  • I can seek help when I need it
  • I participate in class discussions
  • I can work quietly without disrupting others
  • I can show self-control
  • I am respectful to others
The following two questions and the research articles below guided our discussions. What should go into a grade? What inhibits the accuracy of the grade? 

Here are some excellent research articles that helped us with this topic:

Effective Grading Practices in the Middle School and High School Environments - Hanover Research 

How Grading Reform Changed Our School - Jeffrey Erickson

A Century of Grading Research - Thomas Guskey


Here is what we came up with regarding separating behavior from the grade:

Reporting academics and behaviors separately

Grades are accurate when they include only the current or most recent performance on a skill or a standard or on multiple skills and standards.

Grades are inaccurate when they include the following:

  • Effort 
  • Work habits
  • Attention
  • Participation (unless participation is a part of the skill/standard being assessed)
  • Behavior infractions (e.g. removal from class; plagiarism; cheating; defiance)
  • Bonus points
  • Attendance
  • Averaging 
  • Other methods that include points/marks that are not directly tied to the performance on a skill or a standard or on multiple skills and standards.    

The above mentioned behaviors are important academic enablers and should be assessed and reported separately from the academic grade.

More to come.

Friday, March 17, 2017

3rd Annual STEM Camp this summer!

We are pleased to inform you about the third annual summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) camp offered in Rugby! The STEM camp is open to students enrolling in 3rd – 5th grades for the 2017 – 2018 school year in Rugby Public School. The camp will run Monday, July 31st  – Friday, August 4th from 8 AM to noon each day at the Rugby High School in the commons area. Enrollment will begin in May 2017. Stop by either the Ely Elementary office or the Rugby High School office to pick up a registration form. Enrollment is $40 per student and checks should be made to Rugby Public School. Payment needs to be submitted prior to Monday, July 31st.

Students will be grouped together and will work together with peers to complete investigations of various topics. Students should arrive promptly so they can have optimal educational opportunities. Students will be served a small snack mid-morning. Below you will find the schedule of events. We hope your students will be a part of this exciting summer program!

Monday, July 31
8:00 AM - Noon
Outer Space
Tuesday, August 1
8:00 AM - Noon
Under the Ocean
Wednesday, Aug. 2
8:00 AM - Noon
Rumbling Volcanoes
Thursday, Aug. 3
8:00 AM - Noon
Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter)
Friday, Aug. 4
8:00 AM - Noon
Engineering Challenge

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Grading Reform: Part 1

Like many school districts we have been talking about grading reform for many years. We recently created a committee that consists of stakeholders between both of our schools to develop common beliefs about grading and reporting. I believe strongly in the PLC model and I feel that our most effective PLCs report out on the standard (standard-based grading). We broke our work into four segments: Homework, Separating behaviors from the grade, Curricular alignment, and Multiple opportunities to show mastery. The goal of the committee for all of these areas will be to review research, have dialogue, compromise, and produce belief statements about grading and reporting in our district. I think it is important that we are informed by the research while embedding our own experiences and ideas into our shared beliefs. I think we can find a balance between best practice and what we are doing now.

We reviewed the following research in preparation of our first meeting: 


Books: (We read these books a few years ago)

Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades: By Ken O'Connor 

Rethinking Homework: By Cathy Vatterott 


We also surveyed our staff and parents to gather feedback to give us an idea on how far apart our grading practices were from the research. This was helpful and I think it gives us an idea of what areas we need to really pay attention to. 

This survey was sent out to all staff to start the process. This allowed us to identify our focus areas. 

This survey helped us understand what parents thought about our homework practices. I think we were most concerned about about the amount of time spent on homework per grade level. In the end we were fairly comfortable with the current amount of homework our teachers are providing. It seemed to match the suggestions from the research. 

We used this survey to gather input from the committee. We broke our homework discussion into three areas: 1) Develop a definition, 2) Develop a purpose, 3) Develop guidelines. 

We then developed our committee's definition of homework, purposes of homework, and guidelines from the survey data. We created a definition of homework, purpose of homework, and guidelines from the research. During our meeting we merged our current practices with best practices and created a definition, a purpose, and guidelines for homework.

Our next step is to bring this to our full faculty for further adjustment.


Here is what we came up with regarding our homework practices: 


Homework is meaningful work that may include practicing concepts, reinforcing or reviewing classroom instruction, and/or studying for tests.


The purpose of homework is to
  • Reinforce or practice what is taught. 
  • Give feedback.
  • Extend learning. 
  • Review material. 
  • Master specific skills and standards.
  • Promote high-level thinking.
  • Guide instruction.


Homework is:
  1. Intended to provide feedback.
  2. Used to communicate progress to students and parents.
  3. Differentiated or modified based upon an individual student’s needs and/or socioeconomic factors.
  4. Developmentally or age appropriate.
  5. Grade level appropriate (10 minutes per grade).
  6. Tied to standards or driven by standards.
Homework is not
  1. Intended to be a significant portion of the final grade.
  2. To be used as a punishment.
  3. Busywork.
Our next focus area will be on separating behavior from the grade. We plan on doing a similar process of gathering feedback from stakeholders and using research to inform our decisions.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Let's Put the Learning Back into PLCs

I'm pretty excited. This article will be published in the April 2017 edition of The Learning Professional (Bimonthly education magazine) from Learning Forward.

First, I would like to admit that I have arranged bad professional learning for teachers in the past. Unfortunately, school leaders often look for presenters and initiatives that fill the time allotted. Most school districts have set aside days that are assigned to professional learning. Many administrators struggle developing a professional learning program that is individualized and meaningful for all teachers.

The easiest and least effective way to address professional development is to provide one-size-fits-all professional learning opportunities, which means only a portion of attendees finds it valuable. How many of us have sat through hours of professional development and, within the first five minutes, realized, “None of this applies to my subject area or grade level”?

This is the struggle for school leaders who plan professional learning opportunities for teachers. The goal of professional learning should be to change practice for the better. If the learning does not apply, then how will teachers change their practices for the better?

According to Jim Knight (2011), professional learning for teachers should provide opportunities to “explore, prod, stretch, and re-create whatever it is they are studying — to roll up their sleeves, really consider how they teach, really learn a new approach, and then reconsider their teacher practices and reshape the new approach, if necessary, until it can work in their classroom” (p. 43).

I doubt that we can meet the recommendations from Knight through a one-size-fits-all approach. Professional learning needs to occur throughout the school week and school year. There is a disconnect for the teacher when the learning is not part of the school day. Traditional “sit-and-get” professional development days are often held outside a school calendar. This structure rarely impacts instruction because it is not connected to a classroom and is not occurring throughout a school year.

Learning Forward has recommended that professional learning occur “several times per week among established teams of teachers, principals, and other instructional staff members where the teams of educators engage in a continuous cycle of improvement” (NSDC, 2009, p. 2).

Providing time for teacher collaboration and learning is one of the most powerful things schools can do to improve learning, but collaboration that lacks a focus will do nothing to improve schools (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006). We should start by critically examining the structure of a school day.

There is some belief that the school day needs to be lengthened to improve student achievement. We seem to think that if we have more time in front of kids, they will learn more. What if we reduce the amount of instructional time and build in teacher collaboration that is focused on improving instruction? Instead of focusing on quantity of instruction, we focus on quality of instruction.

We cannot expect collaboration to occur during teacher prep time, after school, during lunch, before school, etc. I believe we must embed a specific time for collaboration consistently across a district. This will help administrators support each professional learning community (PLC). This will also help with vertical meetings that will need to occur to address gaps and overlaps with curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Meetings should occur at minimum once a week. If we aren’t meeting weekly, we forget about our focus, and it’s harder to get back on track and use time efficiently. We need to ensure that collaboration time is protected and considered sacred. People will try to consume this newly found collaboration time with meetings that do not matter. Administrators need to protect this time. That means no practices, activity meetings, or advisor meetings during collaboration. The only activities that occur during collaboration are those associated with a PLC.

We have targeted Wednesday morning for the day to implement PLCs. Wednesdays work well because there are typically fewer events and vacation days on Wednesday. We start school late on Wednesdays to avoid scheduled extracurricular and co-curricular activities. This allows coaches and advisors to take part in collaboration.

Starting school late has not been an issue for students and parents. We still allow students to be dropped off at their regular times. In elementary school, we have about 100 students that go to the library to read silently, read with a friend, or be read to. This has positively affected kids. Paraprofessionals supervise the remainder of our students.

During this time, our collaborative efforts focus on these key areas: unpacking standards, developing formative and summative assessments, defining mastery, scope, and sequence, intervention and enrichment, and a focus on data. One key area that is often overlooked is embedding learning within a PLC model. How are teachers seeking out best practices to support key areas mentioned above?

Put Learning Back into PLCs
Over the past three years, our professional learning committee has revamped our professional learning practices. It has been trial and error. Our professional learning committee meets monthly to discuss the following goals: How do we make professional learning more individualized? How do we make professional learning more meaningful for all?

Before these discussions, our learning was separate from our PLC work. We began to realize that our professional learning goals should be part of our PLC work. We believe high-quality professional learning practices merge our goals together.
During our work session in June 2014, our committee had a collective epiphany. To make professional learning more individualized and more meaningful, we needed to turn learning over to our teachers. Teachers needed to plan their learning for each year. This was an exciting breakthrough for us.

We decided to use our traditional professional development days in the following ways: Each individual PLC would develop its professional learning plan focused on improving student engagement. The professional learning plan consists of four parts: goal setting, research, observation and integrating of learning, and reflection.

Goal Setting
The PLC meets during its collaboration time early in the year to establish a learning goal for the school. One of our school improvement goals focuses on improving student engagement. So the PLC learning goal is centered on improving student engagement.

All PLCs are required to select at least one research-based book to study or at least three peer-reviewed recent research articles from academic journals. Journal articles are subject to approval by a professional development committee. We need to interweave research exploration into the daily practices of our teachers.

There are times when our own anecdotes override effective research-based practices because the research did not involve “my school” or “my kids,” or the teacher was not aware that there was a better, more proven way to do things. Analyzing effective research-based practices is one key to effective instruction.

Observation and Integration of Learning
The best professional development is focused, timely, and job-embedded. We wanted to make sure these ideas were entrenched throughout our plan. We provided two options for teachers to choose from: They could decide between a school visitation or take part in our peer observation program.
For a school visitation, teachers select a school within our state they would like to visit based on what they learned from research. We provide teacher substitutes, and the teachers travel as a team to a school and observe a teacher for a day using an instructional technique.

It is important to note that a research-based book or journal article needs to be aligned with a school visit. We want our teachers to see effective strategies live and bring those strategies back to our school for implementation. After a school visit is complete and research-based practices are implemented, teachers record themselves for a minimum of 15 minutes using the new strategy.

We added the peer observation program for those who didn’t want to do a school visitation. Instructional coaches lead the program. When PLC teams select this option, they work with an instructional coach to identify a problem of practice. The problem of practice should tie back to the team’s selected research-based book or journal articles. The instructional coach figures out the logistics to make sure that each teacher receives and gives feedback. The feedback needs to be descriptive and related to what teachers are implementing and cannot be ego-building feedback.

Reflective Practice
Learning requires reflection. We felt that we needed teachers to reflect on their new learning near the end of the year. Last year, we added an opportunity for all teachers to receive a credit through one of our research institutions in North Dakota when they completed their professional learning plan. I believe strongly in written reflection. When we write down our thoughts, it deepens our understanding.

Freedom plus accountability
Teachers need autonomy and personalized learning to grow. We believe we have found the right combination of freedom and accountability within our professional learning plan. The plan makes professional learning more individualized and meaningful for a teacher.

When teams of teachers are given time to research best practices, observe other teachers, and reflect on what they’ve learned, they grow professionally. Changes we have made impacted our school culture in a very positive way. Our teachers feel empowered and trusted to do this very difficult work.

Dufour, R., Dufour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Knight, J. (2011). Unmistakable impact: A partnership approach for dramatically improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
National Staff Development Council. (2009, April). Ensure great teaching for every student. NSDC Policy Points, 1(2), 1.

Michael McNeff ( is superintendent of Rugby Public Schools in North Dakota.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Different Approach to Story Time

I have four children under the age of 9 and both my wife and I work full time. I understand the “busyness” associated with raising children. There are only so many remaining hours left in the day to spend time with our children after work and school. These limited hours are often consumed by making dinner, helping our school-aged children with homework, and completing other odds and ends to prepare for the next day. Most parents like me hastily try to get through books like Pinkalicious or Llama Llama Misses Mama before we get our preschooler into bed. By the end of the night we are exhausted. The research is clear, I know it is important to read to my children, but I often wonder if my focus on “getting it done” due to lack of time actually develops a love of reading within them.

I read a recent research article from the Peabody Reflector at Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that if parents used a simple technique called dialogic questioning while reading, they would improve their children’s developing language and literacy skills at a much higher rate. Instead of reading the story straight through, the parent paused occasionally to ask their children open ended questions. Here are some examples provided by the researchers, “What’s going to happen next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” When we pause and ask them these types of questions we encourage a deeper understanding and mastery of language that may not have happened if we read straight through. This research has shifted how I read to my children and I feel like they appreciate the conversations that we have while we read. The researchers suggest that the primary goal is not to get to the end of the book, it is the about the engagement between the parent and the child. It’s not just about exposing children to a number of words, it’s more about engaging with them. Asking what happens next, and listening to their answers – that’s what brings about language development.

The researchers also studied the effects of shows like Baby Einstein, Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues, on preschoolers’ learning and found that parents were an important part to their success as well. Each of the above mentioned shows have an element of dialogic questioning embedded within the program. Characters within each of these shows pause and ask children questions like, “where is the blue house?” During the study, children rarely engaged with the question being asked on the television unless a parent helped them. The researchers explained, “For preschoolers, it isn’t natural or easy for them to learn from screens. They’re going to learn a lot more if an adult is there with them, engaging them, just like you would with a book. A TV character or avatar may engage a child, but for learning purposes, nothing is as effective as a parent or caregiver.” When parents watched the show with them, their child’s vocabulary and comprehension were significantly higher than those who watched the show by themselves. Dialogic questioning is effective in developing early language and literacy skills in both reading and educational programming on television. It really comes down to engagement, how engaged are we in developing our child’s early literacy skills?

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rugby Early Learning Center is now accepting applications.

This preschool program is for everyone. We plan to provide 40 preschool slots for ages 3-5 beginning next school year.  There will be free slots for families that qualify and a small fee for families that exceed that income level.  We will have a screening process for all students in case we exceed the slots that are available.

Applications can be picked up at Rugby High School, Ely Elementary, and Headstart.  They also can be found online at our district’s website.  The deadline for applications for the 2017-2018 school year is on April 7, 2017. The preschool will consist of four full days Monday through Thursday.  The hours of operation will be 8:30AM to 3:00PM and the duration of the program will be from September to May.  Please call Mike McNeff at (701) 776-5201 for more information.  We are excited to provide this excellent opportunity for preschool age children and parents!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

You should read: Fierce Conversations

I am reading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This is an excellent read even for those that are able to have crucial conversations with ease. The ability to have quality conversations plays a large part in being an effective leader. Without positive conversations we cannot get our points across and move the organization forward. A fierce conversation seems like it would involve a lot of yelling and quite uncomfortable. According to Susan Scott, “a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real." How often do we have real conversations? I always feel better about our direction when I can get in and talk about what really matters. Many of our conversations only scratch the surface.

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.
"Are my truths in the way?"
Scott suggests that we need the courage to interrogate reality. This reminds me of Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins used the analogy of looking under the rocks for squiggly things which is similar to what Scott suggests. We cannot be afraid of what we uncover and we have to actively seek out reality. Reality is constantly changing and is often different from person to person. If we have a better idea of our reality it is much easier to make decisions that will move the organization forward.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.
"What are we pretending not to know?"
How do we get the unfiltered story? I think the challenge for me is finding the time and the space to have these types of conversations. In my role I find this difficult, because I am often only getting to surface conversations due to the busyness of the school day. I have found that I have to schedule these types of conversations to make them happen. I also believe being visible in both of my schools is extremely important. If I am out of the office I am more approachable, which may provide an opportunity to have a fierce conversation.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.
"While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life – Any single conversation can."
"The conversation is the relationship. One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships."
It is flat out easier to connect with certain people. How do we connect with those that are wrapped in Teflon and carrying a shield? Connecting with all employees is difficult and takes constant work. We need to have a quality relationship with all coworkers and employees. Obviously it is much easier to connect with those that share the same views, but that will only take your school or organization so far.

Scott recommends the following:

  • Start with this question, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?”
  • Listen and don’t do most of the talking. 
  • Don’t take the problem from them. 
  • Inquire about feelings. 
  • Be clear.
  • No cancellations, unless someone dies. 
  • Don’t allow interruptions (eye contact and disconnect from technology). 
  • Don’t run out of time, establish next steps.
  • Don’t assume the conversation went well. 

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today.
"Make it your job as a leader to give up mole whacking and take up grub hunting." 
I have a quote taped to my monitor that reads, “no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no blaming others, no I’ll do tomorrows, and no excuses.” Time is of the essence when issues arise. I find that I am less stressed when I have a fierce conversation as soon as possible. The conversation never goes as bad as you think it will go.

Common errors according to Scott:

  • Avoid starting with “So, How’s it going” this is an age-old lead-in to bad news. Get to the point quickly. 
  • Don’t use praise as a lead-in to a confrontation. 
  • Don’t put too many pillows around a message. Be clear and concise.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts
"All conversations are with myself and sometimes I involve others."
"The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said."
"A careful conversation is a failed conversation."
Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake
"Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative."  
"Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us in the organization. It’s the story that’s told when we’re not in the room."
Hard feelings often remain after difficult conversations. It really comes down to how clear and compassionate we are in the moment. We all have to gauge the emotional wake that we have left behind, because that will impact our relationships down the road.
"The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship." 
Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting.
"Silence makes us nervous. So do innovation, change, and genius."
"The more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required."
It is difficult to include silence into conversations. We often want to fill that space between our words with talk, because silence is often uncomfortable. Silence is often one of the best techniques when having a difficult conversation. It allows both people to slow the conversation down and think about what needs to be said. 

Any insight on how you handle difficult conversations? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Quality professional learning comes in all shapes and sizes.

For the past four years we have used late-start Wednesdays, early outs, and full days for professional development. These various formats of professional development may be inconvenient for working families, but these days are imperative to the success of our teachers. During this time our teachers have worked hard to develop their craft within their subject areas and grade levels.

Teaching is a profession. All professionals need time and opportunities to update, to train, to interact with other professionals, to hone their craft, to reflect on their work, to get better. Effective professional development is distributed over time and not jammed into a single day. We offer a variety of learning opportunities for teachers. These opportunities range from full days, to early outs, and to our weekly late starts. These various structures provide opportunities to differentiate our professional development for teachers.

Professionals need opportunities to: become aware of best practices, observe others modeling new or different practices, have opportunities to practice, receive feedback, reflect and interact with others. Professional learning communities which meet on late-start Wednesday and at other times are opportunities for teachers to engage with one another to focus on each of these questions:

What do our students need to know and be able to do?

How will we know if they can do it? (How will we evaluate student work to measure their mastery?)

What we will we do for students who already can do what is expected?

What will we do to support and help students who have not achieved the standards?

When teachers are able to meet regularly to reflect on practice, examine student work, agree on
common outcomes, research best practice, observe others, share effective practices, everyone benefits. The traditional structure of the school day has not allowed for this type of practice. At RPS we have intentionally built time for teachers to improve their craft. Sometimes the lumberjack has to stop sawing to sharpen his blade to improve production. This is no different than the teaching profession, sometimes we need time away from teaching to improve teaching.

We are proud of the work of our teachers at Rugby Public School District!