Learn, Lead, Serve, Blog

A blog by Dr. Brian Bullis. Committed to students through lifelong learning, leading, and serving.

Farm to Table in SBG: Growing, Gathering, Preparing, and Reporting Student Performance

So, you are feeling good about the philosophy of standards-based grading and you understand the big picture.  It is time to start implementing and you come to the realization that a philosophy only gets you so far. You need to transfer the student learning that is taking place in your classroom into meaningful and accurate measures of student achievement that you can report out on.  

The questions start spinning in your head.  What constitutes evidence of attainment? How much evidence do you need to gather?  How do you calculate it? How does all of this translate into strands and get reported out?  How do you take this process from farm to table? Help!

The good news is that there are many exceptional minds out there who have already thought this through and can provide the guidance that you need.  

Let’s start at the farm with how to generate evidence of standard attainment.  The clear consensus is that summative assessments (assessments of learning) should qualify as evidence and formative assessments (assessments for learning) should not. (Schimmer, et.al., 2018; Vatterott, 2015, Marzano, 2010)  As Cathy Vatterott points out, “In a purely standards-based grading system, only summative assessment ‘counts’ in the final grade.”  Think of formative assessment as planting the seeds and helping them grow versus summative assessment being the fully grown plants that are ready for harvest.

If you are wondering what may suffice as a summative assessment it may be easier to ask what would not suffice.  As Ken O’Connor (2018) shares there are multiple methods and sources in which students can be summatively assessed, including oral, written, visual, or any combination of two or three of these methods (i.e. essays, posters, interviews, murals, demonstrations, brochures, simulations, performances, and much more). Essentially, anything that the teacher deems as communicating attainment of the standard could be considered; we should not feel bound to only traditional methods of assessment.

I do think it is important to note that all of the cautions related to not using formative assessment to determine grades are based on the premise that we do not want to penalize students for early attempts in learning.  If we grade these early attempts they have the potential to skew overall grades farther down the road. However, looking at this topic through a different lens, if a student is showing clear evidence of mastering standards through their performance on formative assessments this could possibly be considered evidence of meeting the standard(s) assessed.

One example to illustrate this point is provided by Vatterott who describes a class using a checklist/rubric over time that formatively assessed several reading learning targets.  She points out that this same information could eventually be used summatively as the student progresses and eventually meets the expectations. She shares that a “formative assessment may also be the first attempt at what will eventually be a summative assessment.”

Ok, but how much evidence do you need to gather?  When it comes time to harvest the evidence it is important to understand that there is no magic number.  This applies both to any standard you may be measuring or even how much evidence is needed from one student to the next for the same standard.

Schimmer, et. al. observe that teacher practices for data collection range from two to three indicators all the way up to fifteen or sixteen.  As O’Connor points out, the experts usually suggest a minimum of three and “Ultimately, appropriate sampling for grading is about having enough of varied types of assessment information to make high-quality decisions when summarizing student achievement.”

When a student is consistent in their performance it makes it easy for us to measure that performance, but we know that is often not the case.  Marzano advises that “the teacher has little option but to collect more information from the student when uneven patterns of scores occur.” O’Connor shares similar guidance with his rule of thumb, “if in doubt, you need another piece of evidence.”

O’Connor also promotes the idea of triangulating the evidence whenever possible.  The idea here is to collect evidence from observing students, from student products, and from conversations with students.  This will not always be possible if the standard is explicitly asking for a specific method, but the approach can generally be used to move us past relying on one type of evidence.

Ok, but how do you accurately calculate the student learning?  It is time to take that harvest and prep the meal.  There is no magical formula here that will save the day, but there are best practices to help guide you.  In the end you are the expert regarding the growth of your specific students. No one else has the same level of understanding regarding the growth and achievement of your students and your professional judgment carries a lot of weight.  That being said, you want to be as objective as possible and you want to make sure that the grading decisions you make are accurate and defensible.

One of the primary challenges in calculating grades is to abandon most traditional forms of grading that rely on percentages and arbitrary scales to determine student success.  Schimmer, et. al. stress that teachers “should avoid at all costs” calculations that take into account how many questions a student incorrectly answered, as grading based on errors alone is not standards-based.  Instead these authors promote the idea that “Professional judgment trumps numerical calculations when determining proficiency levels. Always go back to the question, has the student met the standard?” Guskey shares that “The most recent evidence should always be given priority or greater weight…the most accurate evidence is generally the evidence collected most recently.”

Finally, how do you clearly report out student learning?  You are ready to put the meal on the table and you want to do it in a way that everyone can appreciate and hopefully enjoy.  When it comes to report cards the idea of reporting out on strands that encapsulate multiple standards, instead of reporting one overall grade, is the best approach.  Schimmer, et. al. share that “the information conveyed should be powerful and meaningful. Because of this, many schools choose to report on strands or domains instead of standards.”  

Strands prevent students and parents from having to navigate a fifteen page report card of individual standards, but also provide more information than one overall grade provides.  As Guskey (2015) points out “The information should be specific enough to communicate the knowledge and skills students were expected to gain but not so detailed that it overwhelms parents and others with data they do not understand or know how to use.  Parents want to know how well their child is doing and whether or not that level of performance is in line with the teacher’s and school’s expectations.”

When it comes to the number of strands per subject area, Tom Guskey recommends four to six while Ken O’Connor suggests three to ten as being acceptable.  The idea of reporting out on this range of strands complements most subject area curriculum standards quite nicely as most state and national standards have a similar number of themes that run throughout the various grade levels.  These curricular standards may not always be a perfect fit, but they are a great place to start when identifying your own strands. As Guskey, et. al, (2011) pointed out “Using the broad strands…also meant that minor revisions in particular curriculum standards would not necessitate significant changes in the content or format of the report card.”

Worried that the the multiple strands creating more work?  Guskey (2015) says not to fear as this procedure actually makes grading easier as teacher “no longer worry about how to weigh or combine that evidence in calculating an overall grade.  As a result, they avoid irresolvable arguments about the appropriateness or fairness of various weighting strategies.”

There you have it, the farm to table approach for taking student performance from the classroom to the report card in a standards-based grading system.  In the same way that every harvested plant will not be perfect you should not expect your grading system to be either. However, following these steps will increase objectivity and bring you closer to grading excellence.


Works Cited

Guskey, T. On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting. Solution Tree, 2015.

Guskey, T., Swan, G., and Jung, L. Grades That Mean Something, Phi Delta Kappan Magazine, October, 2011.

Marzano, R. Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading. Marzano Research, 2010.

O’Connor, K. How to Grade for Learning: Linking Grades to Standards, 4th ed. Corwin, 2018.

Schimmer, T., Hillman, G., and Stalets, M.  Standards-Based Learning in Action: Moving From Theory to Practice. Solution Tree, 2018.

Vatterott, C. Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning. ASCD, 2015.


Flashlight Conversations

Like most school districts, we are data rich and we work hard not to be information poor.  Enter flashlight conversations.

Over the past couple of months we have integrated an approach focused on flashlight conversations to provide further depth and context to our data.  These flashlight conversations were inspired by Dr. Eleni Speron of ECRA Group who challenged us to use a flashlight, not a hammer, to investigate further regarding what these data are telling us and how we should respond to it.  This seemed like a productive approach so we tried it on for size. What we found were some telling themes regarding high growth attributes, as well as growth opportunities, both of which could positively impact our organization.

Our Structure

We did not conduct flashlight conversations with every team across the district.  Instead, we focused on about a dozen relative outliers whose students either demonstrated higher than expected growth or lower than expected growth.  These groups ranged from grade level content area teams to intervention teams to levelled/tracked courses. We looked at a variety of data points, but also used our ECRISS school intelligence platform provided by ECRA, to ultimately hone in on where we were seeing significant growth trends.

We structured each conversation around a set of questions that we hoped would provide meaningful context to our data:

  1. What do we see when we shine a flashlight on our data?
  2. What do we believe explains our data?
  3. What should we consider changing or replicating based on our results?
  4. What successes can we point to that provides evidence of our collective efficacy (i.e. we believe we cause learning)?

We then launched into the flashlight conversations, acknowledging the fact that there are a multitude of variables that impact student learning and growth.  The teams reflected, analyzed and hypothesized. I could not have been more impressed and proud with how each team approached these conversations – professional, student-centered, and focused on growth.  It may have been due to how the conversations were structured, but I think it was largely due to the quality of educators that were engaged in the conversations.

After meeting with all of the teams and synthesizing several hours of reflections and feedback some themes emerged that could be further broken down by high growth attributes and growth opportunities.  These themes included the rigor, high expectations, and responsive feedback and assessment.

Importance of Rigor – Depth over Breadth

High Growth Attributes – Our teams that were seeing higher than expected growth all identified different ways that they were promoting high levels of rigor with their students.  This included pushing students to select challenging texts, providing more opportunities for application, and giving students the independence to integrate their voice and interests in going deeper with a topic.  Also cited were assessments, where students were being asked to go beyond basic recall levels to further apply what they learned.

Growth Opportunities – Our teams that were seeing lower than expected growth identified some critical areas in regards to rigor and openly questioned the current levels of rigor in their instruction.  Important conversations were had in regards to going beyond speedily “covering the book” to prioritizing standards and focusing further on deeper levels of application. Some teams also discussed the impact of tracking students.  These tracking conversations included questions regarding whether or not we ‘hand-hold’ lower tracked students too much, the difficulty for students to move levels once identified for a track, whether or not we are we appropriately placing students, if we are tracking too early, and if we have too many levels.  

High Expectations – Floor for All and Ceiling for None

High Growth Attributes – Takeaways here included the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum which has helped to identify and eliminate gaps, promote a standards-based environment, and define consistent curriculum and resources across grade levels.  Student ownership of the standards was another theme and when students had structures that personalized their learning paths they could get the learning that they individually needed to progress to higher levels.

Growth Opportunities – Some teams acknowledged they needed to focus more on standard attainment as opposed to just forging ahead.  As we emphasize personalized learning in the district there was also a realization that this does not mean allowing students fall behind, but to provide a floor that they are expected to have their footing on through more structure (i.e. due dates and individualized instruction) when needed.  

Responsive Feedback and Assessment – Constant Recalibration

High Growth Attributes – Teams seeing high growth credited practices such as increasing formative assessments, more 1:1 conferencing with students, goal setting with students, and tracking homework instead of grading for completion.  They also shifted practices when it came to summative assessment scores doing more to drive grades as well as requiring reassessment for low scores, and only on the standards missed.

Growth Opportunities – Teams looking for higher growth acknowledged they needed to shift more to targeted instruction opportunities with students who most need it as opposed to whole group instruction.  The conversations also steered towards how we could better serve our students receiving intervention with a faster response time in identifying eligible students and reviewing our entrance and exit criteria to best serve those students that would benefit.

In Conclusion

These conversations have shown that our teams are asking all the right questions and are focusing their energy in the right places.  It is not hard to find the research to back them up.  Some of the following research snapshots reinforce their thinking in our identified areas and this list could be exponentially longer:

  • Importance of Rigor – The thoughts shared by our teams on tracking are further reinforced, in math specifically, by Jo Boaler in Mathematical Mindsets where she states that “the most successful countries are those that track by ability the latest and the least.”
  • High Expectations – In Visible Learning, John Hattie speaks to the importance of high teacher expectations (with a notable 0.43 effect size) and to “make them challenging, appropriate, and checkable such that all students are achieving what is deemed valuable.  To this we can add the potentially negative effects of students setting their own low expectations …and not being provided with high levels of confidence that they can exceed these expectations…”
  • Responsive Feedback and Assessment – Some of the biggest names in formative assessment, including Carol Ann Tomlinson and Larry Ainsworth point to Hattie’s research on the power of feedback and formative assessment on student growth with highly impressive effect sizes of 0.79 and 0.90, respectively.

This process has left us with a lot of important information to make us more information rich, not just data rich.  As we move forward we will keep best practices on the front burners in regards to rigor, expectations, feedback and assessment.  We will continue to look for opportunities to find evidence of our impact and collective teacher efficacy and look for ways to replicate those successes.  I encourage you to get out your flashlights and engage in these important conversations and I hope they are as productive, engaging, and meaningful as our conversations were.



Boaler, Jo.  Mathematical Mindsets. Jossey-Bass, 2016

Hattie, John. Visible Learning.  Routledge, 2009.

What Netflix Can Learn From SBG

Hey Netflix and the rest of the internet, pull up a chair, you have so much to learn from standards-based grading practices.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article “When 4.3 Stars is Average: The Internet’s Grade-Inflation Problem” which highlighted the move Netflix made in April of 2017 to shift from a five-star feedback rating system to a binary thumbs up and thumbs down model.  “You get more ratings when you have fewer decision points,” was the logic provided by Netflix’s vice president of productive innovation, Todd Yellin.  

The idea of having fewer levels of measurement to more objectively and accurately measure performance is a critical component of an SBG model.  In fact, this is a rallying cry of SBG advocates who rightly argue that moving from a 100 point percentage system to a 3 or 4 level standards-based system, for example, can do far more to provide specific and meaningful feedback.

However, over a year later, Netflix is still struggling to get it right and critics are voicing their concerns.  These thumb ratings feed into a “Percent Match Score” system that some feel are equally hard to understand and derive meaning.

So what are Netflix and these other internet companies missing and how can we as educators learn from this lesson?  They are certainly using a scale of levels that would align with best practices in SBG. But having a limited number of levels, be it two, four, or six, is not enough.  The Wall Street Journal article’s author, Geoffrey A. Fowler, cited a PowerReviews report that found that online product ratings average about 4.3 stars all together from over 1000 products that they measured.  There really is not much of a range to speak of as this graphic shows. Is everything online really that good or is or there something else missing from the equation?  

As educators, we need to be sure not to fall into this trap and provide levels which communicate nothing to the learner.  Best practices in standards based grading can help provide a meaningful roadmap.

Let’s start with further consideration of the number of levels used.  In On Your Mark (2015) Tom Guskey points out that educators commonly and erroneously believe that additional levels are needed to accurately classify performance.  Dr. Guskey asserts that, “As the number of levels or categories increases, so do the number of classification errors.” As we increase the number of performance categories, we lower our chances of reliability.  In other words, as we add more levels it decreases the likelihood that two teachers will arrive upon the same level of performance when measuring student achievement. Netflix started low and went lower with their number of levels so it appears there is no problem there. So is there a perfect number of levels to provide meaningful and accurate feedback?

Between two and six levels seems to be the most commonly noted ranges to measure performance according to professional literature.  Ken O’Connor shares in How to Grade for Learning (2018) that “in a pure standards-based system, there would only be two levels – Proficient and Not (yet) Proficient.”  This would give credence to the Netflix approach. However, O’Connor goes on to note that it is beneficial to distinguish in some way how close a student may be to proficient and also to acknowledge excellence beyond proficiency which provides rationale for going beyond the binary system.

This is where the importance of criteria and descriptors comes in. What do the stars mean?  What do the thumbs represent? What are the levels of performance communicating? According to Netflix, the thumbs up and thumbs down model did lead to an increase of user ratings by 200%.  The question then becomes what meaningful feedback did Netflix receive from that information versus their previous model?

There need to be clear values assigned to the levels that are used.  In Standards-Based Learning in Action (2018), Schimmer, Hillman, and Stalets point out that in order for performance levels to be meaningful “They must tie language that describe a natural progression of quality from the simplest to the most sophisticated.”  Schimmer, et. al., assert that “teachers must be able to describe (not just label) the differences between each level.”  This language is what Netflix and other internet ratings are missing and what effective teachers and schools in an SBG environment are able to accomplish.

So Netflix and the rest of the internet, you have your guidance from the field of education and the SBG community.  Educators, reflect as well and ensure that you are all following these best practices in regards to levels of performance.  Learn from standards-based grading and slap some clear criteria and descriptors on your rating systems. You will get more meaningful feedback and we will have more success picking which show is really worth watching tonight.


Works Cited

Basperyras, Pascal, Netflix Recommendations are Broken…There’s an Alternative. Medium (June 26, 2018)

Fowler, Geoffrey A., When 4.3 Stars is Average: The Internet’s Grade-Inflation Problem, The Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2017)

Guskey, Thomas. On Your Mark (2015)

O’Connor, Ken. How to Grade for Learning (2018)

Schimmer, Tom, et al. Standards-Based Learning in Action (2018)

Image retrieved from https://www.digitaltrends.com/movies/netflix-ditches-star-ratings/

One Thing Remains The Same…Let’s Make Sure To Keep It That Way

This academic year I had the opportunity to start serving the third school district of my educational career and I am excited to report that one thing remains the same…the field of education is rich with excellent educators.  

These excellent educators transcend demographics and make a difference regardless of the variables.  I have seen this while serving in a variety of environments from diverse to relatively homogeneous, rural to suburban, elementary to secondary, and from the building to district levels.  Although the profile has changed over time what has not changed is that great educators are great educators, great leaders are great leaders, and we are fortunate to have every one of them.  

Given the landscape in which we operate this is nothing short of remarkable.  The existence of these amazing educators gives us so much to be thankful for, but this is also something we should never take for granted.

We need to pause and ask ourselves a simple question – will it always be this way?  We then need to ask a more productive and important question – how can we keep it this way and also continue to improve?

When I was in my undergraduate teacher prep program I naively held the belief that by simply becoming an educator I would be appreciated and revered by all that I served – students, parents, and community alike.  Who could possibly hold any other perspective towards a young adult who chose this noble profession over all other careers – many of which were better paying, required less hours, and held more prestige. I was sure that what I may have sacrificed would be recouped tenfold in respect, admiration, and the ability to make a positive impact on those around me.

Up-and-coming educators need to be prepared for the fact that this is not always our reality.  

The climate in which we operate makes it all the more impressive that our excellent educators have achieved excellence and have maintained excellence over time.  We can easily be consumed by the demands, perceptions, and politics of education. Variables such as pay, stress, hours, wearing multiple hats, triage, burnout, and demanding constituents are pushing many teachers out of the profession.  Meanwhile, we have rocket scientists telling us that teaching is a more difficult profession than their own…no seriously, you can read about it here.  

This challenging narrative is no doubt countered by all of the positive outcomes that do result from serving as an educator.  Among those notable factors are an unparalleled sense of purpose, a wide-reaching impact, the ability to influence future generations, and the opportunity to serve others and promote the common good.  There are also some recent signs that the narrative on teacher public perception may be changing in a positive way.

The fear is that a tipping point exists and we want to keep our excellent educators far away from that point.

How do we keep these excellent educators in the field while also developing more of them?  There is actually a lot that we can do as educational leaders. The University Council for Educational Administration released a report in January of 2018 which identified four primary areas where principal effectiveness can positively impact working conditions that promote teacher retention.  Those impacts included a strong mission and vision, professional support, clear communication, and consistent feedback.  

The report went on to highlight the following list of more specific behaviors found in effective principals:

This report continues with other worthwhile recommendations for district and state level leaders as well.  Some of those district level recommendations include:

I know I want my educational career to continue with as many, if not far more, excellent educators.  I want the same for everyone else’s school systems as well. Being intentional in creating the environments for this to occur is of paramount importance.  I believe it is attainable if we give it the priority it deserves. Let’s work together to keep this one thing the same..the field of education being rich with excellent educators.


Works Cited

Fuller, Edward, Pendola, Andrew, and Young, Michelle D.  UCEA Policy Brief 2018-2: The Role of Principals in  Reducing Teacher Turnover and the Shortage of Teachers

Fuller, Ryan.  Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science.  It’s Harder.

Strauss, Valerie. Why It’s a Big Problem That So Many Teachers Quit – and What To Do About It.  

Will, Madeline.  From ‘Rotten Apples’ to Martyrs: America Has Changed Its Tune on Teachers.

What Are You Learning?

My cover has been blown.

I recently received an email from one of our teachers that read:

“Did you notice how strangely silent they were? They were trying to hear how many times you asked what they were learning. They caught on to the fact that you do that when you come in. We had a big discussion about it a while back. I think they were disappointed that you only asked once. Next time, you’ll have to step up your game!!”

I was doing some classroom walk-throughs and I entered this class.  I noticed that something was off, but I could not quite pinpoint it.  This specific classroom is usually rich with noisy, engaged, collaborative learning.  This day it was eerily quiet.

I cannot take the credit, nor can I remember who deserves the credit (shoot me a message if you know!).  The idea is to ask students what they are learning, not what are they doing.  Asking what students are learning gets to the deeper meaning of their engagement and what they hope to gain through their classroom experiences.  

Here is the beautiful thing about students being aware of this approach.  Once students catch on, like this class has done, we now have a classroom of students thinking to themselves, “what am I learning right now?” when I enter the room.  They were likely doing this already in most classrooms due to the great work of our teachers and now we have one more opportunity to engage in this powerful, important, and necessary exercise.

Looking at John Hattie’s Visible Learning Research there are arguably at least four areas with significant effect sizes that this walk-through questioning strategy could relate to and promote when corresponding with the powerful efforts going on inside the classroom:

  • Teacher clarity – 0.75
  • Summarization – 0.73
  • Goal intentions – 0.48
  • Task value – 0.46

My challenge to all teachers and administrators is to extend beyond asking students “what are you doing” and often ask your students “what are you learning.”  You get some great responses and promote important student thinking in the process.

Empowerment, Empathy, and Entertainment, Oh My!

Every week at Caruso Middle School is special, but this past week was truly remarkable.  

Students asked for and were given a voice and they used this empowerment to stage a school sit-in and community town hall meeting to promote school safety.  Students demonstrated empathy and understanding through our inaugural Disabilities Awareness Week. Then our students used their voices, literally, to cap off the week with a performance of Shrek, Jr. The Musical that brought the house down.  


Our students asked for the opportunity to participate in a walk-out to promote school safety.  We said no, but challenged them to collaborate to achieve their same goals in another way  They did not disappoint.

A large group of students organized a sit-in for seventeen minutes on March 14 at 10:00 a.m. to honor the victims of the Parkland school shootings.  Hundreds of students prepared messages to express their sentiments and calls for action. At 10:00 a.m. they quietly proceeded to the hallways around the building and took turns reading their statements and sharing with one another.  

During the same week, students from Caruso and Shepard Middle schools collaborated to facilitate a community town hall meeting – Students Stand for Safety.  The students identified what they wanted to accomplish and divided up into committees to make it happen.  They reached out to local officials and leaders. They generated an agenda. They prepared speeches. They created videos.  They invited the community.

The end product was something special.  Hundreds of students, parents, staff, and community members descended upon Caruso Middle School on the evening of March 14 for an evening event.  Students led from start to finish and used their platform to communicate their concerns, their realities, and their desires for the future. They were able to incorporate local leaders into the evening, including Mayor Harriet Rosenthal, U.S. Representative Brad Schneider, Superintendent Mike Lubelfeld, and many others.


As if the student activism was not enough to productively fill a week, our Caruso Middle School students also participated in our inaugural Disability Awareness week.  Inspired by Caruso parent, Patty O’Machel, our students were able to participate in several fantastic learning opportunities. We kicked the week off with keynote speaker Ahalya Lettenberger, decorated paratriathlete and area high school junior.  She shared with our students the power of perseverance and passion, regardless of the obstacles that may be faced.

Throughout the week each grade level had a different theme.  6th grade students focused on accessibility and technology. They participated in a design challenge in science classes and were joined by prosthetic designer, Kimmy Champion.

7th grade students focused on hidden disabilities.  Their experience included a panel of current Deerfield High School students joining them to speak about their experiences with hidden disabilities.

8th grade students participated in Wheelchair for a Day activities.  Throughout the week students and staff checked out wheelchairs for the day and navigated the building, reflecting on their experiences at the end.  Sport wheelchairs were also integrated into P.E. classes.


How do you cap off such a powerful week?  With a powerhouse performance by our music department.  Led by director Kara Vombrack, Shrek, Jr., The Musical, was a smashing success!  The cast and crew entertained the 6th graders and incoming 5th graders from Wilmot and South Park schools during the day and followed that matinee with three weekend performances.  Months of preparation paid off as the crowds were entertained by the multitude of talent displayed by our student performers.


What a great week to be a Caruso Middle School Bluejay!!  


Stop the Shootings – I Don’t Want Us To Be Next

I am a public school principal, a father, and the husband of a school teacher.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.  I don’t want you to be next.

As we are nearly a week removed from another horrific school shooting my wife had the idea of hosting a postcard writing party at our home to generate messages to send to our elected officials.  As we prepared for this event it provided an important opportunity for me to pause and collect my own thoughts as a principal, father, and spouse.  

As a defense mechanism, we often become numb to the atrocities of Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, etc..  Numbness begets complacency, complacency begets inaction, inaction begets history repeating itself again and again.  It is time to break this cycle.


I am not anti-gun.  I am a history major and I understand the intent of the Second Amendment which states “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  I know from my many school law classes that “shall” means “must” and that word carries significant weight while leaving little to interpretation.

I also know that our twenty-seven Amendments to the Constitution acknowledge that our country progresses over time and corrects its course as We the People evolve and our nation grows.  We have used these Amendments to abolish slavery (13th), to provide women the right to vote (19th), and to put term limits on our presidents (22nd).  Amendments have also come and gone, such as prohibition which was introduced with the Eighteenth Amendment and was soon after expunged with the Twenty-First Amendment.  We have the capacity and precedent to change.

Our Second Amendment was established in a time when our weaponry was in its relative infancy (as a point of reference is this video enactment of an office shooting using a weapon from when the Second Amendment was written).  I will make the bold assertion that our founding fathers could not have envisioned the level of destruction these arms could create today, paired with the mental health crises that we now face.  They were visionaries, but they were not time travelers.  

I am not naive and I understand that measures to further define and limit our rights under the Second Amendment will not eliminate violence and shootings in our schools or violence and shootings across our nation.  In my time as a teacher and school administrator I have searched lockers for guns with reasonable suspicion (thankfully never found one), I have pulled knives off of students at school, I have endured student suicide at the hand of a gun, and I have had a former student found guilty of murder.  However, a ban on assault rifles, an increased rigor for gun ownership, and a greater focus on mental health would be gargantuan steps in the right direction and could serve to reduce the casualties associated with these actions.  

It is not a question of gun control or mental health or thoughts and prayers.  It is a three-pronged approach in which the advancement of the first two will diminish the need for the third.  

We cannot continue to sit back and watch the carnage continue.  Reach out to your elected officials or find another way to act.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.  I don’t want you to be next.


What do my postcards say?  

Our world has nearly 200 constitutions.  Only three include a right to bear arms (Mexico, Guatemala, and U.S.).  Only the U.S. does not have restrictive conditions on this right.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


To get a gun in Japan:

Attend all-day class, pass written test, pass shooting range class, pass mental and drug test, file test with police, pass rigorous background check, own shotgun.  Provide police with location of gun and ammo at home which must be locked and stored separately.  Police inspect gun once per year.  Retake class and exam every three years.  

Japan had 6 gun deaths in 2014, the U.S. had 33,599.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


Why is the right to own an AR-15 more important than our students’ right to feel safe and be safe?  

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


The Constitution is a living document that has been amended 27 times in our history.  

An amendment to the right to bear arms must be number 28.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


The right to keep and bear arms was predicated on the intent of using them for self-defense.  Assault rifles carry the name ‘assault’ which is a physical attack, not self-defense.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


5 Things That Are More Complicated Than Buying a Gun in Florida:

  1. Cold medicine
  2. Marriage license
  3. Fertilizer
  4. Anti-diarrhea medication
  5. Medical marijuana

How is this ok?  

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


I am a public school principal, a father, and the husband of a school teacher.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


Image retrieved from: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/democrats-call-for-gun-control-in-wake-of-florida-shooting-as-ryan-backs-owners-rights-2018-02-15

Video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LORVfnFtcH0

Caruso Middle School Honored

On November 6 and 7 in Washington D.C., Charles J. Caruso Middle School was officially honored with the 2017 National Blue Ribbon School designation.  Mrs. Suzanne Molloy, veteran Caruso teacher and instructional coach, joined me to represent CMS for this special award.  We were also joined by Kipling Elementary and Drs. Lubelfeld and McConnell.

How prestigious is this honor?  As Jason Botel, Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education pointed out, it is more difficult to earn this status than it is for a college athlete in almost any sport to turn professional.  Far less than 1% of schools across the nation are recognized each year.  It is not a perfect analogy, but it does communicate how special this honor is for a school community.

What comes next?  To continue our relentless pursuit to the meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of all of our students.  We are humbled by this honor but we do not rest on our laurels.  At most, a school can only receive this recognition once every five years, however, we aim to be blue ribbon-worthy each and every year!  Thank you to all of our staff members, parents, students, and community members for promoting educational excellence at Charles J. Caruso Middle School!

We Believe We Can Cause Learning

There is a new number one in town – teacher collective efficacy.  According to John Hattie, in his most recent iteration of his massive meta-analyses synthesis, this category has a whopping effect size of 1.57 and tops the list of over 250 influences.   

What does teacher collective efficacy mean?  It means we believe we can cause learning.  It means a team of teachers believes that they add value through their actions by working together effectively.  More officially it means, “collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, p. 190)This idea seems simple at the surface level.  If you ask almost any teacher or team of teachers,  they would tell you that they make a positive impact on student learning.  But what about when the door closes?  What does a teacher tell themselves?  What does a team truly believe?  If the answer remains the same then a team is on the path to true teacher collective efficacy….and the learners reap the rewards.

Note that this is not a discussion about whether or not our students can attain achievement through our collective teacher efficacy.  Our job is to add value, add growth.  Many students have attained achievement standards for a grade level before they even walk into our classrooms on the first day while other students can get there not long after.  Other students may need more than one year’s time to reach grade level 


Identifying and replicating teacher teams with high collective efficacy is compounded by the fact that they are often humble in identifying themselves.  Ask a master teacher or team why they think their kids did so well.  The answers will include hard-working students, great parents, helpful resources, etc.  The question Hattie poses is “how often do teachers say the kids did well because of them?”  Answer: not often.  Teachers will increase their impact by owning their successes.  Educational leaders can also serve a role in curbing this humility and attributing success to teachers.  Let’s scale up these successes and promote the growth of an even larger number of teacher teams.

This area of research and many of the other top items in Hattie’s research are dominated by teacher expertise.  Hattie argues, rightfully so, that school systems do not do enough to prioritize this reality and put the spotlight on the teachers with the right expertise.  The reality is that we cannot choose the students we have, but we can select and/or develop the best teachers and teacher teams.  As teachers, we can aspire to maximize our time and functionality in professional learning communities and professional development and growth experiences.  As school leaders, we need to have the courage to identify teachers of expertise and build a coalition around them.

National Blue Ribbon Award Winner!

We are so excited to be recognized today as a National Blue Ribbon School Award recipient for 2017!  Below is our parent communication regarding this special honor.  Go CMS!!!  Also, a big thank you to our Blue Ribbon application authors:

Dear Caruso Families:

I’m excited to announce that your child attends a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School!  

It is with great pride that I share with you that in a ceremony today, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will name Charles J. Caruso Middle School a National Blue Ribbon School. If you are interested, you may watch the live stream of the announcement on the Department of Education’s youtube page – https://www2.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/index.html.  The announcement will occur this afternoon at 1pm EST (noon our time).

We were first nominated by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to be considered for this national award. The ISBE’s nomination of Caruso as an “exemplary high performing school”  was based on measures of our student achievement. Next, we submitted an incredibly detailed application to the U.S. Department of Education that provided information about Caruso’s climate and culture, instruction and curriculum, assessments, professional development, leadership, and parent and community support.

Of the nearly 4,500 public schools in Illinois, we are 1 of 16 public schools to receive this prestigious honor in 2017. This is the second time Caruso Middle School has received this award; the first time was 33 years ago in 1984 when the school was called Wilmot Junior High.

I would like to thank the staff who served on the application team. It was an arduous process, and their hard work to tell the story of our school and our students was outstanding. Caruso Middle School would not have earned this award without their leadership.  Team members included:

  • Adriane Reisman
  • Anna Riddle
  • Barb Mastin
  • Carrie Schrader
  • Casey Wolfer
  • Dana Spies
  • Jana Wagner
  • Jenna Weiner
  • Jenn Gold
  • Jessica Jaksich
  • Julie Witczak
  • Kirk Humphreys
  • Matt Milazzo
  • Sarah Hogan
  • Sharron Richardson
  • Suzanne Molloy
  • Taryn Lehman
  • Tracy Markin

In November, Suzanne Molloy will join me in Washington D.C. to accept this award on behalf of our entire school community.

I also want to thank you, our Caruso families, for your key role in this honor.  You represent a long line of Caruso families that makes high quality education and engaging learning environments a priority.  We would not be a Blue Ribbon school if we didn’t have such caring and committed families.  Thank you for sharing your time, talents, and values with us to make Caruso Middle School one of the best in nation!



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