Taking Control: Defining Academic Excellence

Barbara Gereboff

When I began my work at my school, I was charged with assuring academic excellence. My first reaction was, “Sure, that’s what I’m all about.” My next thought was, “What exactly is academic excellence? Is it about ‘best practices,’ or is it code for grades and test scores?” Is my definition the same as that of the teachers, the staff and the families who make up my school? The term “academic excellence” is ubiquitous, yet it is used in so many different ways that it can be meaningless. It can also be dangerous if used to evaluate a school or an educator when the meaning is confused. As we started to define the term for our school, we understood that academic excellence is a term that needs to be defined and implemented locally. Any school can replicate the process we used, and the outcomes will likely vary.

Google “academic excellence” and a long list of universities with “centers for academic excellence” pop up. If you dig deeper, academic excellence centers are places for underperforming students, or they are particular academic disciplinary centers like a writing center, or they are leadership development programs. If you refine your search and add academic excellence in Jewish education, you’ll find day schools, like mine, claiming to support academic excellence. But here too, there are many different understandings of what academic excellence is and how to achieve it.

The literature about organizational excellence in general, and academic excellence in particular, is equally daunting with conflicting visions. But here one can find a sense that excellence is far more than a particular program or center. A seminal work in the business world, Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, looks at every aspect of an organization and posits eight core principles of excellent organizations. They claim that organizations with high productivity and a vibrant, loyal workforce are differentiated along these eight principles. Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence similarly thinks about excellence in terms of the school culture—teaching of excellence and work of excellence.

When we began the work of defining academic excellence for our setting, our leadership group began by reading about and discussing different meanings of the term. At that point, we had decided that academic excellence had to be systemic. Next we convened focus groups of parents, teachers and community supporters to establish clarity around the concept of academic excellence. Defining the term academic excellence became a central piece in our strategic planning retreat before the school year commenced.

Our definition was that an academically excellent learning environment is one signified by engaged learning and deep reflection. It is driven by 21st century skills and honors student agency. Once we had established what we understood academic excellence to mean, we created teacher in-service components so that everyone would have shared language around this concept. The clarity of the concept meant that staffing decisions too were based on potential and current staff members’ understanding of the established definition. As the years have progressed, we frequently communicate to our different stakeholders about various outcomes that we consider exemplars of excellence.

We ultimately based our understanding on current and compelling education research that made sense for our community. Our curriculum decisions have remained rooted in current research. Among the thought leaders who have inspired us are Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap), Carol Dweck (Mindset), Ron Berger (An Ethic of Excellence), David Kelley (IDEO) and Alan November (Who Owns the Learning?). Our entire staff and some board members and parents have read the work of these thinkers, and some of us follow them online to consider their latest insights.

When we convened the focus groups, our intent was both to understand how different constituencies thought about the education at our school and to hear their definitions of academic excellence. We held only three focus groups, and they were critical to the success of our work. We gave the groups the chance to talk about what they thought was already “excellent” at the school and what they thought wasn’t. We asked them for examples of what they thought academic excellence should look like at our school. While all voices were heard, not all perspectives found their way into our final understanding of academic excellence. But the information that we gleaned even from those who may have held outlier positions became valuable in thinking about how to “message” what we ultimately understood excellence to look like to our stakeholders.

During the strategic planning retreat that included our entire board of trustees, some administrators and a couple of teachers, we explored “academic excellence” in terms of potential costs and timelines for achievable goals. We made sure we were all in agreement about the standards of excellence that we were establishing.

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

When we established these standards, our staff developed clear rubrics to assess student work. We know that learners 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 hear feedback that specifically explains 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, turning in late work will not affect the assessment of the quality of a child’s work. If indeed the work is of superior quality, it will be so noted, and if it is late, that will be noted in a separate grade. In 2012, we introduced new standards-based progress reports, which represented this thinking about specific feedback. Similarly, we made sure that all of our staff are on board about how to teach children to critique their own work and that of their peers in kind and helpful ways, and our middle school students lead the conversation with their parents at parent-teacher conferences in the spring. There are similar standards for evaluating our work as educators.

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 the CWRA standardized tests that measure what we do teach: critical and creative thinking. Whereas traditional standardized tests call for quick factual recall, our new assessments ask students to use facts in the service of higher order thinking. We are in the process of creating an 8th grade capstone performance assessment for the coming academic year.

There were people in the community who were ready to say, and did say, that the school was less than excellent because it “doesn’t believe” in standardized testing. We were able to turn that conversation around by saying that because we believed in excellence and because within that definition critical thinking was valued above quick factual recall, the other testing was inappropriate. With CWRA, we were able to say that we had located a standardized test that matched our definition. In the end, our clearly considered response resonated with our population.

As we are working now on our next accreditation report for a 2016 re-accreditation, we’ve used our own standards of excellence to assess where we are and where we need to go. Once again, we are opening up the process with focus-group work first, strategic planning next, and in-service work to follow.

Defining and living academic excellence is a continuous process. By proactively engaging stakeholders in defining excellence and in implementing standards, school leaders can create a clear and compelling school vision.

Barbara Gereboff is the head of school at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. [email protected]

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015