When I began my work at Wornick Jewish Day School, I was charged with assuring academic excellence. That year, 2010, we convened focus groups to establish clarity around the concept of academic excellence. We ultimately based our understanding on the most current and most compelling education research. Our curriculum decisions have remained rooted in current research. Among the theorists that we have turned to are Tony Wagner (Harvard), Carol Dweck (Stanford), Ron Berger (Author of An Ethic of Excellence), and Alan November (Thought leader in Education Technology). During the summer of 2011 our staff read An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, and we further refined our understandings about excellence.
Here are the standards of excellence we committed to in 2011:
- explicit standards in all work (exemplars of excellence)
- recognition that excellent work requires continuous improvement
- knowledge that continuous improvement requires frequent feedback (formative assessment)
- understanding that feedback must be specific and supportive
- use of tools for self-critiquing and for peer critiquing
- exploration of and the solving of authentic problems
- summative authentic assessments that include performance assessment
Since developing those standards, our staff has developed clear rubrics to assess student work. We know that children need frequent feedback and that they should have the opportunity to rework their products until they achieve excellence. We’ve agreed that all feedback needs to be specific. For example, in place of weak terms like “well-written”, the child will see notes on their work that specifically explain what is well written and what specifically could improve the work. We’ve agreed to separate executive function from the attainment of academic standards; thus, a child will not lose points on an essay for turning work in late. If indeed the work is of superior quality it will be so noted, and if it were late, that will be noted in a separate grade. In 2012, we introduced new standards-based progress reports. These progress reports represented the above thinking about specific feedback.
Three years ago we agreed to abandon the classic standardized tests that do not accurately assess the complexity of the education that we promote in our school, and we piloted in the middle school new standardized tests that measure what we do teach – critical and creative thinking. Traditional standardized tests call for quick factual recall. Our new assessments ask students to use facts in the service of higher order thinking.
As we are embarking now on our re-accreditation where we take stock of our progress over the past six years and we engage in strategic planning for the next five to six years, we’ve begun to look at where we may have fallen short. We also look to other models of excellence that we want to emulate.
One area that we will be addressing more comprehensively in the coming years is “excellence” with respect to the social-emotional climate of the school. Somehow this whole category was missed in our initial thinking about excellence. We did introduce important schoolwide values, and conflict resolution protocols, but we have not shone a bright enough light on this area of the school. Somehow we missed the point that academic excellence cannot be separated from social emotional excellence. Indeed research claims that the latter actually drives the former.
We’ve come a long way in a couple of years – and have a distance yet to go. There are several ways that you can partner with us to encourage the excellence that we are promoting at school.
- Share with your children things that you observe that reflect excellence – an outstanding ball game, a beautifully crafted sweater, an elegant science experiment, a well-written story – help them know in specific terms why the item you selected is excellent.
- Talk to your children about the ways in which you must constantly edit or rework something at work or at home until you perfect it.
- Support your children by encouraging them to take risks, to fail and to learn from their failures.