The Principal's Office - Caruso Middle School

A blog by Dr. Brian Bullis, the principal of Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, Illinois. Upholding the CMS mission to Engage, Inspire, Empower, and Grow.

The SBL Journey Continues – Model Scholars

[This blog is the last part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The stakes have been raised when it comes to honor roll recognition in our District 109 middle schools.

As principal, I am often conflicted when it comes to honor roll.  We always need to be careful of motivating students extrinsically as the behavior can be superficial.  One can easily counter that argument with the importance of a system which celebrates behaviors that we value, such as significant achievement in relation to academics and habits of success.  

Our standards-based learning committee made the decision to roll out two levels of honor roll in our new system – Model Scholar and Distinguished Model Scholar.

Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have demonstrated all “3s” (or “consistently demonstrates”) on their habits of success.  

Attaining Model Scholar status is no easy task as most students have eight classes, all of which report out on the same four habits of success standards.  That equals thirty-two marks that need to consistently demonstrate that they:

  • Respect others’ rights, feelings, and property
  • Follow directions
  • Complete assignments with attention to quality and punctuality
  • Exhibit effort, commitment, and perseverance

If a student turns in a “2” or a “1” on any of these thirty-two marks it precludes them from receiving honor roll recognition.

What I adore about the Model Scholar criteria is that we, for the first time in this way, are celebrating students who are doing all that we expect of them as students even if they cannot attain all of our high academic standards.  This should absolutely be celebrated and these behaviors will translate into invaluable life skills as they move forward.


Distinguished Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have met the criteria for Model Scholar and also have a letter grade of “A” in each of their courses for that semester.  Meeting these high standards certainly merits the descriptor of “distinguished” for a student who attains them any specific term.

If honor roll is something that is valued in a family it is important to remember that it all starts with a stellar performance on our habits of success criteria.  

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.


The SBL Journey Continues – Personalized Comments

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The primary function of a report card is to serve as a communication device.  

Personalized comments on the report cards are one small, but important piece of this process.  We have specific expectations when it comes to the comments section of our report cards and we want these expectations to contribute to the communication occurring throughout the rest of the term.

Our semester report cards at the end of second and fourth quarter contain course summaries and personalized comments.  These personalized comments should include at least a couple of sentences that highlight a strength and an area for growth for each student.  The goal is to make these personalized comments unique to each student and provide meaningful feedback as they continue to grow.  Meanwhile, the course summary comments are similar or identical for all job-alike teachers at both middle schools and do not have any personalization (these are the only comments shared on first and third quarter progress reports).

Reports cards and progress reports should not stand alone in conveying information about the learning and growth of each student.  We want individualized communication to take place in multiple ways throughout the year so the teacher, student, and family can effectively partner together to promote student growth.   

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

The SBL Journey Continues – Meeting Expectations Over Time

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

Picture a standard that is taught throughout the year.

In October, should a student earn a “3” for meeting expectations if they are progressing successfully towards that end of the year standard even if they have not yet attained it?  Should the student only receive a “1” or “2” (for not meeting expectations or approaching expectations) throughout the year until they show complete mastery of that standard in May?  

There is no perfectly correct answer here, but our district has chosen the former option and we report out on standards based upon where we believe students should be at different points in time.  Does this introduce the opportunity for more subjectivity?  Perhaps.  Does this do more to recognize and celebrate student growth and progress?  Yes.

This asks our teachers to constantly calibrate and recalibrate, but this was also happening in our traditional system, just with less visibility.  

One of our teachers suggested an intelligent way to approach this concept.  In our former traditional system and in our current standards-based systems we often use “I Can” statements, or some close equivalent, which identify objectives we expect students to learn during the class.  These statements are often benchmarks that progress students towards the ultimate standard we are trying to reach.  If they achieve the “I Can” expectation they are meeting growth expectations at that point in time.

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

The SBL Journey Continues – Opportunities to Exceed

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

We have a high-achieving student body and there should be an observable correlation between the number of students that exceed expectations on our PARCC and MAP assessments and the number of students that achieve “4s” in their classroom performance.

Every student learns in differents ways and there will never be a perfect alignment between our assessment scores and classroom production.  That being said, we know our students can do remarkable things and we need to be sure to provide the opportunities for them to blow the ceiling off their grade level expectations.

After operating in a standards-based learning environment for several months I believe there are three primary ways that students can exceed expectations and earn a four.

Going Above and Beyond – going further than what the standard is asking a student to do.  This may be a student explaining, evaluating, synthesizing, or applying a standard in order to exceed the original expectation.  Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels are two frameworks that can help identify how learning may be extended.

Acceleration – moving to the next level of the standard.  This can more realistically be accomplished when the standards are linear in nature and may be more achievable in some courses compared to others.  For example, if a student masters a 6th-grade math standard and then works to master a 7th-grade standard that aligns with it.  The idea is that the standard should be the floor for all, but the ceiling for none.

Student input – teachers can listen to student input on how to exceed a standard.  Students may generate ideas that show how they can exceed the standard while also integrating their own passions, interests, and strengths.  This option should probably not be done in isolation, but instead paired with one or both of the above options as some students need more direction and guidance.

Should every single task, assignment, project, and assessment for every standard throughout the year have an opportunity for a “4?”  The answer is no; that would not necessarily be reasonable or achievable.  Should every strand in every course have multiple opportunities during the term to exceed expectations and provide the chance for a “4?”  Absolutely!  Our teachers are working hard on this as they learn how to further integrate opportunities to exceed expectations into their respective courses.  

The SBL Journey Continues – The Urgency of Two

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]  

When our task as educators is stripped down to its most simple form it is to get every student to meet or exceed expectations.  When a student is not on pace to achieve a “3” or a “4” on their strands for each class there should be a sense of urgency for the student, parent, and teacher.

As teachers, we want to be sure to communicate as soon as we believe a student is showing longitudinal evidence of earning a “2,” or a “1,” on their learning for a strand within a course.  This does not mean we hit the panic button if something below a “3” emerges on an assignment, formative assessment, or other worthwhile task.  A “2” represents “approaching expectations” and all of our students will live in that zone at some point in almost all of their learning.  

Time and frequency become important factors in determining when a “2” is significant.  If a student has worked on a strand over time and is consistently demonstrating learning that falls below the “3” range this communicates something important.

The next critical step is to identify what else can be done in order to get a student to meet expectations.  We encourage retakes and redos as one valuable step.  This does not mean to do the same thing over again and expect different results.  Instead, we want to engage in a process with the student where they are able to develop a plan with the teacher.  This plan should include the opportunity to engage in reflection, additional learning, and reassessment in order to launch them to that next level.

If anyone is communicating the message that “2s” are OK, that can be a true or a false statement.  It is certainly false when it becomes a representation of the body of work for any strand within a course.  We want every student to meet expectations and a sense of urgency should be triggered for all involved when that is not the case.

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

The SBL Journey Continues – High Levels of Exposure

There is nowhere to hide with standards-based grading and reporting!

My biggest “a-ha” from our first semester of standards-based learning, grading, and reporting is that our teachers’ grading practices are exposed at a level that we have never experienced before.  I did not anticipate this, but I do welcome it as it challenges our entire organization to effectively communicate student learning to the absolute best of our ability.  

In our traditional grading system our teachers would deliver the same high level of instruction, however, the grading feedback given to the students for multiple standards would be consolidated into one overall score.  In our standards-based system we are communicating feedback with specificity to each strand or standards that have been covered; our new system provides more information and a deeper dive into each student’s performance and growth.

Some parents, teachers, and students interpret this high level of exposure as increasingly subjective grading practices.  It is fair to think that, but I would argue the opposite.  Everything our teachers do is more visible and any subjectivity is now placed under a microscope that did not exist before.  This is a good thing as we want to be as transparent and communicative as possible when it comes to our students’ learning.  

The reality is that subjectivity in grading is inescapable.  This is true of any grading and reporting system under the sun.  Our goal is to do all that we can to minimize subjectivity in order to best identify and communicate student learning.  A standards-based system reduces subjectivity; meeting or not meeting expectations are far clearer targets than assigning a letter grade.  The fact that we can continue to discuss over the course of months whether an A, a B, or some line in between, reflects meeting expectations in a traditional system demonstrates just that point.

Spending a short time more on letter grades, it is important to note that there simply is no perfect formula to translate or equivocate standards-based reporting to a letter grade system.  Respecting the opinions of all of the stakeholders on this topic, I would personally do away with letter grades altogether if I could change one thing about our current system.  One teacher anecdote that struck me was from 6th grade where the students spent the first semester focused on whether or not they met or exceeded standards.  Once the first report card was released they completely shifted their language to whether or not were earning an “A.”  The focus in this particular class shifted away from growth towards standards to the attainment of a letter that could have multiple meanings.  Moving forward, I anticipate the integration of letter grades will remain a significant point of conversation and reflection, as it should.

Our teachers are working hard, they are working smart, they are working to master the intricacies of a new system, and they are embracing feedback in order to improve our practices and best promote student growth.  They truly get the philosophy of standards-based learning, grading, and reporting.  That does not negate the reality that change is a process and time is needed in order to masterfully implement what we know to be best practice.

As a staff at Caruso Middle School, we have spent the past couple of weeks discussing several trends that have emerged from survey feedback.  We continue to reflect, refine, and revise to uphold best practices in standards-based learning, grading, and reporting.  These feedback trends include the below areas which will be explored in greater detail in a short series of posts that will follow this one:

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

Deconstructing What We Know About Learning and the Brain


Reflections from the opening day of The Science of How We Learn winter conference.

Deconstructing what we know about education is not easy.  Education, like any field, continues to evolve and it is critical that we allow ourselves the opportunity to challenge our current understandings and be malleable as this evolution occurs.  Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak call this idea “unlearning” in their soon to be released book titled The Unlearning Leader.  Some of the major takeaways from the opening keynotes presented by John Hattie, Daniel Schwartz, and Daniel Ansari were focused around what is wrong with our current understandings related to learning.  These researchers and educational leaders all stressed the same thing – it is just as important to unlearn in education as it is to learn.

Within the span of one hour John Hattie, author of the international groundbreaking Visible Learning research, pointed to major critiques in the works of some of the biggest names and trends in education.  He identified Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy as “one of the greatest inflictions on education” and the “most untested model in our business” where there is no true hierarchy and no scientific basis.  He took a crack at Carol Dweck’s growth mindset by identifying it’s small effect size, which is below 0.20.  He noted that “problem-based learning is one of the biggest failures out there” with an effect size of 0.15.  He identified the impact of health and physical fitness on learning as having an effect size close to zero.

Daniel Schwartz, dean at the Stanford School of Education, also pushed the idea of deconstruction and unlearning.  One major focus was on “telling” students during the learning process.  He noted that telling students what they need to know has the reverse effect on them actually learning something.  When students invent and discover on their own they learn more than students that are told how to do something.  Telling, or lecturing, that takes place after students have been given the opportunity to analyze leads students to the highest levels of learning.  

Speaking more globally, Schwartz claimed that if the justification for any teaching and learning strategy relies on the premise that “it is fast” there is a high potential it will backfire.  He also touched on the topic of growth mindset, citing research that higher achieving students do not need it as they already embrace it while it has some impact on lower/average students.  Another caution was related to rewards, where he cited research that highlighted the fact that students become less creative when a reward is attached.

Daniel Ansari, neuroscience professor at the University of Western Ontario, also rejected several commonly held beliefs about learning and the brain.  One is the notion that we only use 10% of our brain when in actuality we engage the entire brain.  He also shared that there is no evidence to support that people are left-brained or right-brained as our brains demonstrate major interconnectivity.  Lastly, he shared that neuroscience strongly rejects the concept of learning styles (i.e. a student is inclined to learn through a specific mode such as visual, musical, verbal, kinesthetic, logical, social, solitary).  

There were important disclaimers throughout the presentations cautioning educators not to take any research as absolute truth.  The clear message for educators was that some of our traditionally held beliefs of what is considered to be best practice in learning need to be rejected.  Although these findings were highly informative and important, here is to hoping that the next two days of learning offer far more constructions of how students learn as opposed to deconstructions.

Student Engagement in an SBGR Environment

“Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Our district recently received the results from our second administration of the Humanex Student Engagement Survey.  As is true of any comprehensive survey, we found a multitude of areas to celebrate as well as a multitude of areas to grow at Caruso Middle School.  Some encouraging themes emerged in regards to how our newly implemented standards-based grading and reporting (SBGR) environment has impacted student learning and engagement.  Specifically, CMS experienced statistically significant gains in specific areas of related to feedback, choice, and a focus on results.  


One cornerstone of an effective SBGR learning environment is a focus on formative feedback, as opposed to final/summative grades.  Our students reported a significant increase in teachers returning assignments with useful comments to support improvement.  This is a great trend to see as researchers have repeatedly shown that accurate, specific, and timely feedback is a key to effective grading.  Specifically, Robert Marzano (2000) shared that “A single letter grade or a percentage score is not a good way to report student achievement in any subject area because it simply cannot present the level of detailed feedback necessary for effective learning.”  We are shifting our focus on what makes feedback effective and our students are recognizing that progress.


Another important component of SBGR is choice; students should be given multiple opportunities to learn and show their learning in multiple ways.  We saw significant gains in regards to students reporting they get to choose how they do their assignments and projects, how they get to show their learning on some tests, and in choosing the activities they work on during class.  It is important that student choice is balanced appropriately as a 2008 meta-analysis (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson) found that intrinsic motivation increased along with overall performance when given choice.  However, diminishing returns emerged when too many choices are given and the researchers recommended giving five or less options.

Focus on Results

Lastly, students reported strong gains under a “results focus” in regards to teachers showing students how to track their own progress.  This is another critical component of effective learning and grading practices.  Ken O’Connor (2011) shared in his 15th of 15 Fixes for Broken Grades to not “leave students out of the grading process. Involve students – they can – and should – play key roles in assessment and grading that promote achievement.”  We want our students to be able to consistently understand how they are growing and achieving so they can help guide their own learning process.

As we continue to navigate our first year of our standards-based grading and reporting environment we know we still have much to learn and room for significant growth.  It is also important to find our early moments of celebration and we have identified three in feedback, choice, and a focus on results.


Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

O’Connor, Ken (2011).  A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, Second Edition, Pearson ATI, Boston, MA.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270–300.

Educating Under a Trump Presidency

(Author’s note – this post is not about party affiliation, but instead about our educational climate.  I am an educational leader who respects and holds dear the concept of democracy and political freedom.)

As an educator, there have been a handful of times in my career where I have had to dig deep and ask myself how I would discuss challenging, controversial, difficult, and historic events to my students. There is no handbook written for these instances.  These events were not covered in our methodology classes during our professional preparation.  They happen and we respond.  This historic election is another one of those moments.

How can I explain to a student that calling a female classmate a “big, fat pig” is inappropriate, hurtful, and indecent when the next leader of our United States unapologetically is on tape as having done so?  How can we as educators address topics such as sexual assault when the President-elect has made comments on tape that many believe encourage or accept such actions?  How do we promote the respect, inclusion, and equal rights of our students with disabilities when the President-elect openly mocked a reporter with a disability?  How do we explain to our students in the LGBTQ community that their rights matter and will be maintained when the President-elect pledges to support anti-LGBTQ legislation?  How do I look in the eyes of my students of varying ethnicities, including the many undocumented students I have served, and assure them that they are valued and should look forward to their future?  How do we address fears of deportation?

These are the questions that all educators, parents, coaches, and mentors of our youth must be prepared to address after the actions (and perhaps inactions) of our nation on Election Day 2016.

As educators, we cannot tell people how to vote or what values or politics to believe in.  We educate; we do not indoctrinate.  Our own social studies department and our school as a whole have done a phenomenal job of educating our students about this election without exposing biases or presenting any sort of favoritism.  This was no easy task given the juxtaposing realities we have encountered as educators of valuing and embracing all people while the political backdrop seemed to promote the devaluing of some people.  Instead, our teachers focused on the facts, the process, and the policies and allowed our students to think for themselves.  Even today, as I visited all of our social studies classrooms post-election, their discussions were guided by impartiality and fairness and I am proud of them for that.


Our task as educators is monumental.  There has never been a more important time for character education, an emphasis on social-emotional learning, and equity.

What we can do and what we must do is promote equity.  This umbrella of equity envelopes gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, disability, and human rights.  This is a leg we can stand on regardless of who leads this country.  We are educators and we have a moral imperative and shared responsibility to constantly pursue this virtue.  We believe that all students can and should learn and we do not waiver in that pursuit.  All means all.

For the good of the nation and for the good of education, we must move forward, united, endorsing democracy.  However, we must not compromise guiding our nation’s youth and supporting the rights they all have to education in an environment that supports respect and understanding.  As educators, what we ignore in the behaviors of others become what we endorse.  Now is the time, more than ever before, to focus on the promotion of equity in education with our head, hands, and heart.  


Image retrieved from

How We Talk About Learning – SBG and PLCs

There is something exciting going on right now in our DPS109 middle schools in regard to how we talk about learning.

We have always had incredible educators that embrace a student-centered mentality. Our current efforts to implement standards-based grading and reporting and professional learning communities have upped the stakes to a whole new level.  As is often human nature, we get so mired in the details that it is crucial to take a step back and celebrate our progress.  Our conversations and practices related to how we talk about learning have risen to a whole new level and the journey has been an impressive one.


Our SBG Journey

I cannot even tell you one time this year when I have heard the word percentage used in regard to learning and grading. The same is true of incorporating late work or behavior into the academic grades.  Those indefensible practices have been expunged from our vernacular.  They have been replaced with intelligent and focused conversations about what we want students to learn and where each individual student is related to specific learning outcomes. This is what is best for students. This brings clarity to our teaching in the student learning. This is inspiring work that is taking place.

Our staff has collectively done so much to embrace the philosophy behind SBG. Our newest challenges are to have systems in place to support the shift and also to convey the necessary communications in order to make sure that students and parents understand why this is best practice. It is taking us time to learn the nuances of inputting our grades effectively and likewise it is taking time to get those we serve to fully understand the reasons we are moving away from the traditional system that has been used for several decades. Perseverance is the name of the game and as we continue to hold steadfast. Progress will continue to be made in these areas and we will be able to further clear the plate to focus on student learning

Our PLC Journey

Our efforts to become PLCs, in the true sense of the term, have prompted us to shift from excellent conversations about what we are teaching and how we are teaching it to what students are learning, how will we know it, what will we do about it, and how will it better inform our teaching.  These foundational PLC principles already existed to varying degree in our practices, but now our conversations, goal setting, and data analysis have a greater focus on what students have learned and achieved versus what we have taught.


PLCs are forcing us to have frank conversations about the consistency and integrity of our curriculum and instruction. Looking at data from common assessments creates an instant environment of vulnerability. It takes courage to stack up our students’ performance data alongside those of our peers. If one outperforms their peers they are now in the spotlight, hopefully for all the right reasons, and they will be asked to identify what they did to produce the results. If an individual’s scores fall below their peers they are compelled to have difficult internal and external conversations and about why this reality exists. Do we make excuses or do we tap into our learning community to identify ways to grow?  The best educators gravitate to the latter.

PLCs have also forced us to shift our conversations from how we teach to how students learn. It is much easier to set a goal around what we will teach, what units we will create, and how we will skillfully assess students. It is much harder, but far more important, to set explicit goals around what students will learn and hold the team accountable to pursuing, analyzing, and acting upon the results of student achievement.

The Journeys Continue

Our middle school staff should be proud of the shifts we are making to the betterment of all of our students.  

Has it been easy? No.

Will there be more challenges as we continue on these trajectories? Absolutely!

Have we mastered PLCs? No

Have we mastered SBG? No

Are we making incredible gains towards mastering these two concepts? Yes!  I am proud and honored to be part of this journey with so many insightful, innovative, reflective, driven, and visionary educators who continue to evolve and forge ahead doing what is best for our students.

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