Assessment as Learning

December 17, 2019 no comments S

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Assessment as Learning

Authentic assessments are a key tenet of EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials, the guiding principles that undergird their work with schools. EdVisions defines authentic assessments as those that assess cognitive and career skills and knowledge in comprehensive and formative ways. They are performance-based in nature. What sets them apart from traditional assessment measures is that they require inquiry, analysis, and self-reflection. The teacher’s role is to provide guidance and feedback throughout the process. 

Authentic assessments have been a topic of conversation among educators for over thirty years. In 1990, Grant Wiggins posed the following: 

“Do we want to evaluate student problem-posing and problem-solving in mathematics? experimental research in science? speaking, listening, and facilitating a discussion? doing document-based historical inquiry? thoroughly revising a piece of imaginative writing until it ‘works’ for the reader? Then let our assessment be built out of such exemplary intellectual challenges.”¹

Exemplary indeed. How often are today’s students engaged in these kinds of challenging tasks? 

Not enough. Traditional assessment measures, whether teacher-made, curriculum-based, or standardized continue to be the norm. One can understand why. Traditional assessments are efficient and easy to use. But they don’t tell us much about what a student knows. They may indicate what a student has memorized, but there is little way to know whether students can transfer their learning to new situations. If we want to determine if students have mastered content and can apply their learning to a variety of contexts, authentic assessments are the preferred measure. But as long as we keep separating assessment from learning and treating it as the final step in the learning process, “after the fact,” as Wiggens says, authentic measures will continue to be the proverbial square peg we try to fit into the round hole. Continuing down this path will not foster the kind of critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills students will need to thrive in the 21st century. 

Seeking to offer their students an alternative, partner schools in the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) plan to embed authentic assessment into their practice in ways that assess academic and social/emotional learning as part of the learning process. Their action steps range from incorporating competency-based models, using student reflection as part of their assessments, and students sharing their learnings with audiences as authentic as their projects. 

To guide their journey, EdVisions has developed an Authentic Assessment Continuum. The continuum charts the pathway from assessment as a measure of learning, e.g. standardized, multiple-choice, and other traditional measures to thinking of assessment as learning. When assessments are part of the learning process, students engage in deep, self-designed investigations of content over a period of time, as compared to a single event at the end of a lesson or unit of study. Schools are also encouraged to assess social and emotional learning using tools like the Hope Survey.  

Why add social and emotional learning to the list of things to assess in schools? In its 2019 report titled From A Nation At Risk To A Nation At Hope, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development stated that social/emotional learning is the real work of schools. It always has been, and it always will be. The report further noted that over ninety percent of teachers and at least two-thirds of recent high school graduates believe SEL is important.² When schools develop students’ social and emotional skills along with their academic skills, not only does students’ overall well-being improve; so does their academic performance.³ Students don’t learn in a vacuum. They are impacted by what happens in and outside the school setting, by whom they learn with, and by the values and norms of a school – written and unwritten. Part of creating a supportive space for learning includes having reliable measures in place to gain insight into how to support students’ social and emotional development. 

As the MSTP partner schools widen their use of authentic assessments and build greater levels of efficacy into their practice, teachers will need to develop new skills to make the shift, and so will students. According to Nora Whalen, a coach for the MSTP, authentic assessments require much more effort by the student, and more patience by the teacher. Whalen should know. A high school advisor and founding member at Avalon, a charter school in Minneapolis that enrolls approximately 250 students in grades 6-12, Whelan has been a proponent of authentic learning since Avalon opened 11 years ago. To her, how teachers assess learning is one of the most important things teachers do. “There is a place for traditional measures,” says Whalen, “but when only using traditional measures, the teachers work harder than the students. That shouldn’t be the case. Your assessment model needs to be balanced with measures that show a level of synthesis.”

Which is difficult to do, Whalen admits. “It’s hard for kids to translate all of what they know. But when given the opportunity to develop their own projects, they stop talking about subjects and start talking about meaningful topics.” Their motivation to learn is no longer driven by external expectations or coercion; it becomes intrinsic.

But shifting to more authentic measures takes time. “Kids aren’t always ready to show what they know,” continues Whalen. Authentic assessments require more effort from students; they need support in developing the skills to initiate, design, analyze, revise, and present their work. In a way, they may even need to be unschooled if they come from traditional settings. 

In project-based learning, students begin to see why something is important to know, versus what they need to know to get a grade or pass a class. “Kids have deep questions,” says Whalen. When given the chance to explore them, she sees the excitement and sheer delight in their work. And students become eager to share their learnings with others, which is why having an authentic audience to present their work to is so important. A lot of teaching goes on, she points out, when students share their work. For some teachers, it can be hard to let go of control when the teacher is no longer the gatekeeper to knowledge and students become teachers.  

Whalen urges patience and persistence in bringing authentic measure into one’s practice, as well as an open mind. “Authentic assessment is where the learning takes place. It doesn’t always look like an assessment, and it doesn’t always transfer to an easy way to award a grade. But it’s so much more powerful.” 

Bridges, an area learning center in Prior Lake, Minnesota, hopes to foster the kind of student passion Whalen describes. Bridges is a partner school in the MSTP. It serves approximately 100 students in grades 9-12 and 18 to 21-year-olds working on their diploma. Staff signed on to the MSTP because they want to expand their use of project-based learning and authentic assessments. Their initial work in this area demonstrated how students come to life when given the opportunity to share their learning in ways that are relevant and personally meaningful. Dave Brown, the coordinator at the school, is excited about what lies ahead for his school. “When students are in charge, you see some spectacular displays of learning. Giving them agency is a game-changer.” He goes on to say that not only does what students learn change; the “how” changes as well. He and his staff have observed increased levels of excellence and confidence in students when allowed to showcase their accomplishments in open-ended, non-traditional ways. Students are simultaneously learning and learning how to learn, setting them up with skills for a lifetime of personal growth and skill development.

Signing on to the Midwest School Transformation Project was a natural next step for Bridges. “The [professional development] support offered from EdVisions is right in line with where we are at as a school,” notes Brown. But there are challenges. One of the biggest barriers to achieving their goal to be more student-driven is the master schedule. Still operating on a seven-period day, Brown and his staff are determined to change that. Their transition will be incremental. For example, during the upcoming second semester, teachers ready to take the next step in project-based learning will offer blocks of time for students to work on projects of their own design based on their individual interests and passions. 

Traditional schedules are a common barrier to school transformation. They are rigid and prevent the integration of content. Built around short blocks of time that section learning into discrete subjects, it is difficult for both teachers and students to approach learning in ways that are more holistic rather than bound by time or content. School space is often a barrier as well. Most schools were designed to facilitate the factory-like educational model that evolved over the course of the 20th century. In it, students shuffle from one class to the next. 

But fortunately for Bridges, their physical space is designed for the kind of learning they seek to foster. In the fall of 2019 they moved into a new building constructed specifically with their program goals in mind. “Our new space,” says Brown, “is designed to do things differently.” Hopes are it will enable the kind of opportunities for longer, deeper investigations initiated by students that move assessment from being a measure of learning to one of assessment as learning. 

Assessment is just one of many things to consider when seeking to transform schools. But it is often the last thing schools consider when taking steps to create a different learning program. Perhaps it should be among the first. Stephen Covey once said, “begin with the end in mind.”⁴ Though he was talking about personal management, his words of advice ring true for organizations as well. Structure matters. Curriculum choices and how time and space are allocated help or hinder a desired outcome. All need to lead to an assessment model that is balanced and makes sense. Being clear early on about how you want students to show what they have learned will save time and effort when making these and other important program decisions.  

Are you ready to make authentic assessments part of your classroom? Is your school on the road to a systematic approach, one in which all students benefit from assessments that are part of the process of learning? Are you ready to let schools have more flexibility in how learning is measured? Here are some questions to ask as you consider the possibilities:

  • Where would you place your school on EdVisions’ Authentic Assessment Continuum? Do you use assessments of, for, or as learning?
  • Does your school have a clear vision for how assessments are used? Does each assessment have a clear purpose? 
  • How do assessments inform instruction? How do they inform learning?
  • Do assessments only focus on academic performance? Or do they also assess students’ social and emotional learning?


1. Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2). Retrieved from

2. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. (2019). From A Nation At Risk to A Nation At Hope. Retrieved from

3. Greenberg, M. & Weissberg, R. (2018). Social and Emotional Development Matters: Taking Action Now for Future Generations. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved at

4. Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.

What Makes Learning Relevant?

November 21, 2019 no comments S

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

What Makes Learning Relevant?

Have you ever wanted to learn something new that required you to find your own path forward? What do you remember about it? Did learning seem like a chore, or were you on a mission of prime importance?   

All of us like exploring a topic of personal interest. Depending on how we learn, we steer ourselves towards experiences or facts and particulars that promise to create new skills or insights that will enable us to apply our new-found knowledge in an action of some sort or reach a new understanding. Through a series of fits and starts, trial and error, and incremental successes, we reach our target. 

EdVisions would call this relevant connected learning‒learning that matters to the individual and occurs in the current context of one’s life. The reward for learning springs from within, driven by the learner’s want or need to know or do something of personal value. The learner accesses the resources at one’s disposal and relies on the community that surrounds him or her for support. We do this all the time as adults. Why would we not promote this kind of learner-driven approach with our students? 

If schools were more learner-driven, we would see students as designers of their academic journey. Students’ passions, strengths, and needs would be woven into a tapestry-like path, a map, if you will, that reflects their culture and their community. Rather than directing the process, teachers would serve as guides, much like a coach leads a team.

What would an E-12 learning environment such as this look like compared to traditional models for schooling? Would we see an increase in student motivation and ownership in a learner-driven environment? Would students become critical thinkers? Problem solvers? Collaborators? Do students have what it takes to set goals and manage their time if given more say in what and how they study? Do they have the kind of drive and discipline in and outside of the school walls that it would take to self-direct their learning? A growing number of educators believe that with the right kind of support, students can, even at a young age. 

It makes sense when you think about it. The traditional school model is designed for compliance, built around a set of external rewards for mastering academic content prescribed by textbook companies, policymakers, and teachers. Relevant connected learning, on the other hand, is built around intrinsic rewards and motivation. The premise is simple. The more schools empower students to see themselves as creators and caretakers of their intellectual and social development, the more students will develop essential competencies and skills they can take with them when they graduate. Inherent qualities of mind will evolve, the kind that sets students up for a life of self-directed learning for work, personal pleasure, and for helping to make the world a better place for themselves and others.    

Relevant connected learning can start in small ways in elementary school and gradually extend and expand in middle and high school until students are the prime drivers. Giving students guided choices, promoting exploration, and allowing flexibility can go a long way in making students feel empowered rather than striving for mere compliance in order to please the teacher and their parents. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, and theme-based learning offer a few ways to think about organizing learning to make it more organic, more fluid, and thus, more personal.

So how does a school start to make learning more relevant and connected for students when so much of what we know and understand about formal education is bound by tradition, feels prescribed by others, and in many cases, seems dictated by sheer functionality? 

One way is to have a clear action plan, a strategy for how to start small and build upward and outward over time. In the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), EdVisions is supporting schools on the journey to transform traditional models to those that are more learner-driven and has designed a continuum for Relevant Connected Learning. The continuum shows how schools can progress from organizations being the masters of learning to students driving their own learning. It requires a process, and it takes time. Years, in fact. MTSP Coaches are working with each school to develop and refine action plans that will support their vision. A few schools are getting out ahead, making good use of the support afforded them, and several stand out.

At Riverview Elementary in Farmington, Minnesota, a P-5 school of 800 students, the staff has set their sights on empowering students more. According to Kim Grengs, principal at Riverview, at present, they see themselves as more teacher-centered on the relevant and connected learning continuum. One of the many questions they keep asking themselves is, “How can we take what we do as teachers and make it more learner-centered?” Professional development is helping them answer this question. 

Riverview Elementary students

“We have had to ask, what does learner-centred really look like at different levels?” says Grengs. “Kindergartners can manage choice, but it looks different than it does for a fifth-grader.” In their work, it has become apparent that focusing on the whole child is a critical part of the process. For years they have monitored academic data, but now they are taking a broader view. A key component to becoming more learner-centered is making sure the learner’s social and emotional needs are met. So while the staff is constructing a competency-based model through which students will eventually demonstrate mastery of certain academic skills, they’re articulating social and emotional competencies as well. Once competencies are fully identified, benchmarks will be determined, along with matching assessments. The end goal is for students to eventually progress at their own pace. 

But there are several challenges, one being doing less. “There is a temptation,” says Grengs, “to try to do too much.” They’ve had to ask, does everything a child needs to know be measured? A second challenge is the traditional graded structure that runs through most of the school. “The traditional graded structure doesn’t lend itself to the continuum as much,” admits Grengs. “When you think about how a child develops, competencies are not grade-dependent. So we are having to decide when to assess and when to report out the competencies.” 

However, a portion of Riverview is organized in multi-age classrooms. Roughly 120 students learn in a separate community of a 1-2 grade, a 3-4 grade, and a grade 5 classroom. There, says, Grengs, students progress more along the lines of a true continuum. The multi-age classrooms also incorporate project-based learning in a grade 1-5 structure in which students at any age learn the same standards but at different developmental levels. 

As Riverview changes, they have committed to bringing their community along. “As we think about the whole child, we think about the relationship, not just with the student but with the parents, too,” states Grengs. “We want to connect more parents with our school. We revamped our mission, and we want parents to know why we are making the changes.” A newly-formed parent ambassador group is helping them get the word out.     

The Rochester Area Learning Center in Rochester, Minnesota is approaching relevant, connected learning a bit differently. As an alternative high school with about 400 students in their day school, recovery school, and night school overall, they too are seeking to empower students more. They are starting with their day school, in which approximately 150 students are enrolled. There the staff is moving away from learning being time-bound and limited to the classroom environment to creating a setting in which learning starts with “big questions” created by the students themselves. From there the goal is for the teacher to support students on their individual paths. 

Rochester ALC students

According to principal Tim Limberg, their process has begun with identifying learning targets for students. From there the intention is for students to create individual learning plans around the targets. Already two days a week students have a “choice day” where they decide where’ll they’ll work and what they’ll work on. This gradual release of autonomy is working for many students for whom the traditional setting was not a good match.

Participation in the MSTP has meant changes for staff as well. “Staff,” says Limberg, “have really been open to the changes required to create pathways for more personalized learning.” They’ve put structures in place to support students in a more flexible environment. Eventually, they’d like to offer an array of classes for students to select from based on their interests and learning styles. A pilot effort will occur this year, much like a J-term. If it goes well, they’d like to see the model repeated multiple times a year. 

Their work with EdVisions, says Limberg, has been transformative for their school, including the professional development it has afforded. “It has allowed us to go places we always wanted to go but never thought we could do it. Now we are.” The coaching model employed by EdVisions has been instrumental. “It’s great to have a different set of eyes and ears come into your program. We’re still pretty early in the journey, still learning, but we are really pleased with our progress thus far.” Though the project has been underway for only a short time, Limberg says, “You can create barriers if you overthink it [transformation]. You have to be willing to make it up as you go. It’s hard work. Sooner or later you’ve just got to jump and know a net will appear while you figure it out as you build trust and community.”  

Another school in the beginning stages of creating more relevant connected learning by participating the MSTP is Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which specializes in experiential education from an indigenous perspective for grades 7-12. Approximately 45 students are enrolled. Nawayee Center School seeks to use project-based learning to connect students to their world. 

Nawayee Center School students and staff

According to Joe Rice, the school’s Executive Director, project-based learning is the ideal vessel for student-centered learning. “It provides lots of encouragement and support around discovery. Students aren’t just learning about a thing; they are learning about themselves, how to access their own power, and how to use it.” When asked about what they hope to achieve being part of the MSTP, he notes, “We want to build a curriculum rooted in ancient culture. Ancient wisdom shows us how to live on this planet. It has been perfected, has been made more complete through trial and error. Things that work were kept and refined as other things were discarded. Using ancient wisdom as the basis for the curriculum offers a way to get kids thinking at a deeper level in regard to indigenous life and how they see the world.” 

The vision at Nawayee Center School is for kids to create and dream in concert with problem-solving and the curriculum. As in any school, Rice and his staff want kids to know there’s nothing they can’t do, that they can survive and thrive in any situation they find themselves in on the road to becoming a productive member of a family and a community. “It’s about kids learning to be adaptable,” he says. “Kids will remember the things that are important to them. Using their brain in a way that honors their heart multiplies the learning experience in endless ways. The result is students using their minds in the most effective, most coherent ways possible.”

With nearly 90 percent of their students being from Native American cultures, Nawayee has a special curricular emphasis on native culture. The program has used theme-based learning with success and hopes to build upon it and expand its use. For example, the school just finished a round of visiting seven sacred sites over a five-day period over multiple weeks. Fridays are used by Nawayee as a day for experiential learning, usually outside of the school, making such experiential learning possible. Several other recent themes used art as the vehicle to deepening cultural connections, one being a “water is life” theme that centered around using artwork to connect students with the indigenous view of the sacred nature of water. The purpose of the theme was to teach students how to live in a way that ensures every living creature has access to safe, clean water. Another recent excursion included a trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) where students spent the day on a scavenger hunt, locating various artifacts and visual representations in MIAs vast collection that depict an indigenous world view. 

Learning goals in the theme-based Friday excursions also include relationship and community building, all part of a healthy initiative at Nawayee which seeks to attend to four key parts of a student’s life – the mind, spirit, body, and soul. Relationship building is an overriding element in their professional development for staff along with this emphasis on the whole student. “Focusing only on the mind,” says Rice, “creates imbalance. We need to feed all four – mind, spirit, body, and soul – to ensure good health.” Rice emphasized his point by sharing a quote from Albert Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Nawayee wants to focus on the gift. 

Some key take-aways from these three schools engaged in a transformation come to mind.

  1. It’s not just about academics. Meeting the social and emotional needs of students must be part of the school equation. Relationships need to be cultivated and protected – between students, between staff and students, and between parents and the school. Schools need to be prepared to support students who may need additional help in forming a healthy understanding of self and the ability to interact successfully with others. 
  1. Being self-directed is a learned skill. We can’t assume students come to school ready to create and master their own learning plan. As with developing expertise in any area, managing one’s personal affairs is learned over time. A scaffolded approach is needed to build individual capacity over time.
  1. Structure matters. How we allocate time and organize space in schools can make or break efforts to put students in the driver’s seat. Traditional structures like schedules, grades, and course requirements inhibit innovative approaches. Schools that want to transformation themselves have to create ways to break out of those structures. It pays to start small.
  1. Mindset is critical. If we want learning to be relevant and connected, teachers’, students’, and parents’ mindsets need to shift. Teachers shouldn’t work harder than students. Traditional models program teachers to feel they need to be in charge, which inadvertently discourages, even disables students from taking responsibility. Teachers need to provide students with a framework for learning that positions students to embrace a different way of doing school and navigate their own path forward.   

From design and delivery to purpose and context, learning that is relevant and connected has many facets. It is going to look different for each student. A good entry point is project-based or problem-based learning as well as competency-based learning.  All foster the kinds of skills that require design and analysis while students develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions in a way that works for them. Pace and location must be allowed to be variables, serving as the true test as to whether students really are picking up the mantle to their learning.  

Where would you place your practice or your school on EdVisions’ Relevant Connected Learning Continuum? Here are some key questions to consider: What purpose drives your school curriculum? And who designs learning? Such questions may not have an easy answer, or the answers may be cloudy. But to move from an organization driven by external demands to one that is more learner-driven, educators must be honest about who orchestrates learning. Is it strictly the teacher, or do students have a role in the design process? 

Having a Real Say

October 30, 2019 no comments S

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


In the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), EdVisions is supporting their partner schools in changing how school looks, feels, and functions for students and teachers. One way they are doing this is by fostering student agency and empowerment.  

What is student agency?

Though definitions may vary, at its core student agency is about giving students a voice in their learning, a chance for them to take full ownership of their educational journey. The desired outcome is a self-directed life-long learner with a strong sense of self-efficacy. There are a variety of ways to give students voice, but an important one is giving them the opportunity to make choices regarding their learning. When students’ interests, talents, and passions are allowed to help steer the curriculum, students are more likely to engage in learning that is personally meaningful. 

EdVisions has developed a useful roadmap for promoting Student Agency and Empowerment. In most schools, learning is driven by the organization. Student agency and empowerment shifts control to the learner. In a learner-driven model, students find purpose in school through increased autonomy. When students have a real say in what they learn and how they learn, they are more likely to acquire a love for learning. They become inspired to find solutions to challenging problems and begin to have a sense of how they can make a difference in the world.

Unfortunately, this type of student empowerment is rare in most schools. Yet autonomy, a sense of personal independence, is exactly what students need at this time in their life if they are to experience healthy development. According to the late psychosocial theorist Erik Erikson, children and adolescents’ school years coincide with a period when they naturally want to feel a sense of accomplishment and industry. They seek to exert control and have a strong desire to make their own decisions. If not allowed to do so, they may develop feelings of inadequacy and or inferiority as they naturally struggle to fit in and discover their own identity. This can lead to academic, behavioral, and social difficulties, making the case that paying attention to and support students’ social-emotional learning is as important as their academic development.¹ In fact, one cannot happen without the other. In January 2019 the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Achievement stated in their report that, “the promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is…the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the ‘real work’ of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed” (p.6).²

What would it take to make student agency and empowerment the norm rather than the exception, especially now when education in America has become so regulated? Good intentions have driven legislative efforts since the 1980s, but many teachers feel a focus on the whole child has been lost. Long lists of required standards consume much of the school day, making covering content the primary objective. Teachers intuitively know this comes at the expense of supporting the social-emotional needs of their students, yet often feel a lack of autonomy to refocus the learning environment to be grounded in the students’ needs and passion for learning.

According to Paul Tweed, a coach for the MSTP, external control runs counter to human nature – for teachers and for students. Tweed, who is also a teacher at Wildlands Charter School in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, and co-author of An Improbable School argues that the current education system is programmed for compliance when the reality is human beings are programmed to think. In his view, the reason student agency and empowerment is not more common in schools goes back a long way.  “We have a cultural hangover,” he says. “We haven’t shifted out of the industrial revolution that began when we started mass public education in the late 1800s.”   

Tweed has a point. Traditional models for learning in the first quarter of the 21st century more closely resemble that which you would expect to find in any community at the turn of the 20th century. Extricating ourselves from the industrial model could be simple, says Tweed. He learned early on his career that schools underestimate kids. That needs to change, but not in the way we may think. “We don’t need to empower students as much as we need to remove control by adults. The current [traditional] system isn’t designed to allow kids to think for themselves and teachers are programmed to think their job is to control students. If we want to promote student agency, we need to be willing to trust students. When we trust students, it completely changes the relationship between the teacher and the student to one in which learning is the basis for the relationship, not compliance.”

In a learner-driven model, there is still a focus, Tweed insists, on developing skills and content knowledge required by policymakers and other forms of external control. But the focus is on individual students’ plans, which are driven by students’ interests and passions. Tweed acknowledges entering a different mindset about what students are able to accomplish if given more control is hard. “Teachers haven’t really seen what empowerment looks like. They’ve only seen how traditional systems work.” 

But at schools like Wildlands, educators have found a way to upend the status quo and release the driving force for learning to the students. “We want to help kids find their niche, their core,” says Tweed, “then build a space for them to own their learning within that. But first, you have to trust students. When you do, a different kind of relationship is formed.”  

While Wildlands is a charter school, there are also good examples of schools in traditional systems that have escaped the cultural hangover to which Tweed so aptly referred. Impact Academy in Lakeville, Minnesota is an elementary school that successfully operates outside of but within the traditional district model. According to Michelle Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Impact Academy since its inception and a coach with the MSTP, the transformation began with empowering teacher voice. To her and a handful of other teachers, state and district mandates felt stifling. These teachers wanted more say in shaping their practice. “If teachers don’t feel empowered,” she says, “they can’t empower students.” 

Impact Academy’s journey began by giving teachers space to redesign and rethink systems around learning. They created a common understanding around student agency and articulated shared beliefs about student voice, then identified what they wanted it to look like in their school. Personalized learning emerged as the primary vehicle by which they wanted to empower students along with service-learning as a way for students to connect their passions with real community needs. 

Student voice, Johnson stresses, makes kids feel like they matter. “It motivates them to take ownership of their learning; they see more value, more purpose in school.” What teachers have noticed is that students’ entire mindset shifts. “Kids set even higher expectations for themselves than when teachers were setting the expectations,” she points out. In addition, the adults have seen students’ self-confidence flourish, which carries into other parts of their life, not just academics. According to Johnson, “They [students] don’t feel like school is being done to them. They are better at advocating for their personal needs too.” Johnson notes that parents also observe changes at home, indicating they no longer feel like they have to push their kids to do homework or attend to other school matters. Instead, kids take it upon themselves to be responsible stewards of their learning. That sounds pretty exciting!

Any transformation begins with creating a shared vision. MTSP coaches like Tweed and Johnson will guide partner schools in obtaining a collective commitment to making student agency and empowerment a reality by first creating clarity around purpose, then articulating a compelling why around their efforts. A plan for sustaining the effort over time will follow. 

Partner schools in the MSTP have said they plan to cultivate and stimulate student agency by empowering students in ways that are new and different from their current practice. One obvious way is by giving students greater voice in making decisions that impact them. School governance is one area where this will occur. The other is regarding the curriculum. Teachers intend to tap into students’ strengths and interests. Some plan to make more direct connections to career readiness and post-secondary planning. Goal setting will also get considerable attention, as will project-based and problem-based learning.  Many plan to link with community resources in more intentional ways than before. Changes are planned for adults too. Professional development will help staff see how to shift the focus from the organization’s agenda to the students’ personal agendas. Helping parents understand the shift will be key. As these changes unfold, school won’t look like it did when they attended. 

If you’re not a partner school, both Tweed and Johnson offer good advice for those wishing to do more to empower students and promote student agency:

  • Don’t over-rely on what you know. Avoid structuring learning around boxes (i.e., schedules and rigid periods). Set aside your current mindset and be open to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning.
  • Identify where teachers and students currently have autonomy. Start there. Engage in deep dialogue around student agency and expand outward.
  • Start small. Pick one or two elements from which to begin, then move forward one step at a time. Keep challenging your practice and consistently ask, “Is this best for kids? Where can I empower students more?” 
  • Listen to the child. Have a way to invite him or her into a dialogue about learning. Ask about his or her goals, passions, and interests.
  • Embrace failure – yours and your students. Teach resilience. Be resilient.  

It can seem overwhelming to try to reverse the educational tide in America that is over a century old and was founded on educational practices that existed for centuries before that in Europe. But it is not impossible. Transformation is happening at Wildlands and Impact Academy, and now the partner schools in the MSTP, as well as thousands of other schools across the country, proving a different kind of school is within reach. 

Where would you place your school on the Student Agency and Empowerment Continuum? Is learning driven by the organization, or is it driven by the learner? Are your students fully engaged in their learning? Are they motivated? Do they own their learning? How do your students contribute to school governance? 


  1.  Erikson’s Stages of Development. (n.d.) Retrieved from
  2.  From A Nation at Risk to A Nation at Hope. (January 2019). Retrieved from

Teacher Empowerment: Shared Accountability Comes from Teachers Having True Autonomy

September 26, 2019 no comments S

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

TEACHER EMPOWERMENT: Shared Accountability Comes from Teachers Having True Autonomy

Teacher empowerment is a cornerstone of EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials model for supporting school transformation. Empowerment can occur in a number of ways, but at its core is the democratic governance of a school community with teachers as the primary decision-makers. This goes beyond teachers having input regarding educational programming and can extend as far as budgeting, staffing, and overall school management.

It’s not like teachers aren’t busy enough. Why would they want to take on one more thing when their day is already full with a wide range of responsibilities? The answer is simple. Being engaged in making decisions that matter means investment; having a final say means ownership. Many teachers complain they don’t have a say in what is taught and how schools are organized. If they did, things would be different.  

As teachers are asked to do more to meet a broader array of student needs, many are asking for the opportunity to be part of creating from the ground level new learning environments that meet the needs of all children. When teachers are involved, they are more willing to be accountable not only to themselves but their peers as well. This type of collective decision-making can be and often is transformational. According to Julene Oxton, Director of School Transformation and Development at EdVisions and Lead Coach for the Midwest School Transformation Project, “As autonomy increases, so does true accountability. When a collective decision at the teacher level is made, they take responsibility for the outcome of that decision. The blame game is no longer in play.” 

Teacher empowerment isn’t a new concept. Schools have been working around its edges for decades. In any given school one could expect to find the typical committee structure that is used to engage teachers in planning and problem-solving. Curriculum committees, program advisory panels, behavior management teams, budget task forces – the list is endless.  While this structure of collecting input works well for informing a process, it doesn’t go far enough to fully explore an issue from all angles and ensure commitment to the final outcome and position implementation for a high degree of fidelity. 

EdVisions has created a Teacher Empowerment and Leadership Continuum, one that is being used in the MSTP. The purpose of the continuum is to help schools recognize and identify current practice, then take steps to move towards higher and higher degrees of teacher empowerment over time.

To move from the Directive to the Transformational level on the continuum requires several conditions. The first among them is establishing a high level of trust, and trust we know is developed over time. Positive relationships and trust grow stronger from collectively arriving at a decision that aligns to the common beliefs and vision of the group. Teams should expect and even invite conflict, as it can be a useful lever if handled well. To build trust during conflict requires people to respectfully challenge each other and have productive ways to deal with conflict. This is where good facilitation becomes key, as it allows for a wide range of ideas to be considered before landing on a path forward and gives time for ideas to germinate and be tested. 

Ways schools in the MSTP plan to incorporate teacher empowerment into their programs center heavily on creating a staff culture that is conducive to rethinking how decisions are made. Time for teachers to collaborate, having meeting norms, creating clarity around roles and responsibilities, and building trusting relationships are planned. The role of the school administrator will also be reimagined. The traditional hierarchy is likely to shift dramatically as decision-making protocols are developed and more decisions are left to teachers. The MSTP schools recognize a shift in how decisions are made requires new skills and have also identified a number of areas for staff learning.  

Not all decisions need to be made by all teachers. In The Art of Coaching Teams, Elena Aguilar offers insight into how to determine which decisions should be made by whom and under what conditions. Aguilar also identifies habits and behaviors that lead to a culture of trust and effective decision making.

Watertown-Mayer High School in Watertown, Minnesota, situated 30 minutes west of Minneapolis, is an example of a traditional high school seeking to create a more student-centered learning environment. As an MSTP project school, one of its commitments is empowering its teachers. According to Ron Wilkie, superintendent at Watertown-Mayer, the groundwork began to be laid four years ago when the district set a new strategic direction. They knew they needed to prepare the culture to manage change over time. Now in their fifth year of a comprehensive planning process, changes envisioned back then are becoming visible. 

One of the ways Watertown-Mayer began to empower teachers was in creating a professional development model where learning is personalized for each individual teacher. Several years ago, they also created a teacher leadership framework. Last year they developed a profile of a graduate from Watertown-Mayer and identified local standards, both of which have helped to solidify the district’s vision for how it plans to transform itself.

So what’s different for teachers? Bob Hennen, principal at Watertown-Mayer High School says, “We have always tried to involve teachers in decision-making, but now we’re formalizing that.” In terms of operational matters (budgeting, hiring, etc.) he seeks input but still makes the final decisions. But when it comes to teacher practices, teachers have extensive autonomy. In addition to teachers driving their own professional development, there are a number of teacher-led groups that shape staff culture and the curriculum. Each has the autonomy to make decisions without gaining his final approval. “I want all teachers part of the decision making,” he says. Teachers can choose and be involved in the areas that match their interests or forte. 

When asked if conflict occurs and how it is handled, Hennen is honest. “It’s a maturing process…it’s hard for some teachers to have those hard conversations with their peers.” Giving constructive feedback is difficult, he notes, pointing out that collegial relationships are different than supervisory relationships. It requires a continual effort to build trust.

Watertown-Mayer High School is a good example of how changes to empower teachers in traditional structures can be made gradually with the right kind of support and a sustained commitment over time. We can compare their journey to that of Sage Academy, another MSTP project school not far away in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. As a charter school, teacher empowerment has been a focus since its inception in 2002. According to Cari-Ana Garcia Luna, interim director at Sage, “We already have a strong culture of including all teachers in the decision-making process. We are trying to move towards the teachers making more decisions/actions without direction from admin.” She adds they are doing more staff development around what it means to be a teacher leader, and because new staff come and go, as in any school, ongoing professional development is needed to support new teachers who may not be familiar with teacher empowerment. This year Sage plans to visit some teacher-powered schools to observe first hand how teacher empowerment occurs.  

Where can you find out more about teacher empowerment? The Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative launched in 2014 was created to support teachers in having the autonomy to design and run schools. It provides a wealth of resources and hosts a national network of teacher-powered schools so teachers can share best practices and learn from each other. You can learn more by going to For a broader look, another resource is David Osbourne’s book Reinventing America’s Schools. Osbourne’s book focuses primarily on the charter school movement but drives home the point that true accountability comes from autonomy to make decisions. 

None of us can always get exactly what we want. Life is, after all, filled with compromises and concessions when we work with others. We have other points of view to consider. More than one solution is possible, and everyone may not be on the same page. Sometimes we just disagree. But in schools where teachers are empowered to collaborate and make real decisions, we move closer to a place where everyone can not only live with the outcome but feel committed to moving forward with confidence and a sense of unity. 

Where would your school fall on the Teacher Empowerment and Leadership Continuum? How would it rank in regard to the conditions and behaviors needed for effective decision making?

Here are some questions to ask yourself and your teammates: 

  • How are decisions in your school made?
  • How is your staff empowered?
  • To empower staff more, what would need to be different?
  • Is trust present?
  • Is there clarity around roles and responsibilities?
  • Is accountability shared? 

Is it time for a conversation in your school around teacher empowerment and leadership?

Hope + Inspiration = Transformation

August 30, 2019 no comments S

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Hope + Inspiration = Transformation

Transforming schools as we know them is hard work. But at a time when traditional systems often fall short of meeting the needs of today’s students’, it’s hard to ignore calls for new ways to inspire learning and engage kids in meaningful ways. And the clock is ticking. The world students will grow up in is projected to change much faster than ours did. How are schools adapting in order to stay relevant to the times?

In EdVision’s Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), 11 schools in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have accepted the challenge to become something different. Driven by a desire to accommodate the way students learn in the context of their immediate lives, these educators are willing to put much of what they know and understand about teaching and learning into question and open themselves to new strategies. 

At a minimum, participation in the MSTP, like all innovative endeavors, will require changes in practice. It’s important to note, however, the MSTP is not about school change, nor is it about school improvement. As the name indicates, it’s about transformation – remodelling and reshaping schools, in this case from being mostly teacher-centered to being learner-centered. 

On the agenda: Empower student and teacher voice to motivate and inspire. Remove rigid structures to open up new avenues for teaching and learning. Develop shared vision, plan well, and create systems to facilitate the work at hand. Build trust. 

So begins the journey. 

But first things first. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are starting. At the onset of the project, which occurred this past spring, EdVisions asked the MSTP schools to identify the root causes that make them more teacher-centered than learner-centered. The results were surprising. More than any other factor, participants listed the school’s vision and the beliefs and values of the staff, students, and community as the reason these schools said they are not more learner-centered. It wasn’t money; it wasn’t for lack of resources. Although participants mentioned these and various structural aspects, people’s way of thinking about school and their perceptions regarding the ability of students and staff came up most often. 

Looking forward, when asking participants what the main inhibitors are to their school becoming more learner-centered, vision, values, and beliefs surfaced again. They view the mindsets of students and staff as being in their way. Sure, they mentioned curriculum and instruction and tangibles like space, time, and regulations but far less so. 

Though a small sample, the MSTP schools’ responses to the important questions surrounding barriers to school transformation suggest something important that can serve as a lesson for any school seeking to transform itself. When asked what prevents them from being more innovative, schools often point the finger at external factors, but more substantial barriers may, in fact, stem from within.  

This should not surprise us. We humans are wired to stick to what we know. In evolutionary terms, if you were a hunter or a gatherer on the plains during the Paleolithic period, you stayed close to camp and hightailed it back to safety in the presence of threat. This is how you survived. Even in our more advanced intellectual state (think 2019), we typically play it safe. If new information doesn’t jive with what we know, we view it as a possible threat. It’s called confirmation bias, the tendency to favor information that aligns with our beliefs. Even data that can be verified may seem like fiction to us if we don’t agree with its overall premise. 

The problem, according to Dr. Shahram Heshmat at Psychology Today is that “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus we may become prisoners of our assumptions.”¹ Perhaps this is why schools have changed so little in the last century. Certain assumptions about what schools should look and feel like as well as what should be taught and how prevails in the minds and attitudes of the public as well as educators, making us blind to possibility.

Confirmation bias makes it hard to change individually and even harder as an organization. How many times is someone with a good idea told all the reasons why it can’t be done? “We’ve always done it this way…” seems to be the prevailing mantra, yet there are plenty of others. Or how about our current state of political affairs in America? How many people dial in to news channels that tell them what they want to hear versus what may be factual?   

The good news is that the people in the MSTP also listed a set of assets to counter the inhibitors. Any guesses as to what was most often cited? Human capital. Yes. The same people who may possess limiting beliefs are the ones whom they believe will carry the work forward. This notion that the same people perceived as barriers will provide the solution signifies hope. Again, a small sample, but the responses of the MSTP schools suggests people can be inspired to challenge their assumptions and step into a space where it may not feel safe at first. They are willing to let transformation become personal.   

At the heart of the MSTP is the need to anchor the work in matters of substance. Planning will center on four themes developed by EdVisions, serving as the basis for the project’s theory of action. Articulated in the form of continuums, each will guide schools in understanding their current state and charting a path forward. 

On the Teacher Empowerment and Leadership continuum, schools will focus on moving from traditional decision-making approaches that tend to be more directive (e.g., principal or single administrator making decisions) to a model where staff make collective decisions and hold themselves accountable. The Student Agency and Empowerment continuum focuses on students developing self-efficacy, purpose, ownership, motivation, engagement, choice, and voice – all key components to building a truly learner-driven school environment. A third continuum concentrates on the learning program itself. Relevant Connected Learning asks schools to think about where learning occurs and at what pace, which is not uncommon for schools to talk about, but extends the dialogue much further into purpose and delivery, as well as who designs learning. In a learner-centered approach, all of these things change. Of course, how learning is measured must adjust to the changes put forth by the other three continuums. Authentic Assessment is about changing how we measure students’ progress. Through all of history, assessment has been limited to measure what students have learned. But in a learner-centered school, assessment is learning, something that is part of the overall experience for a student rather than an exercise tacked on at the end.  

As schools embark on new initiatives, tradition tends to collide with even the best of intentions. Skeptics come out of the woodwork and cast doubt in the minds of those who’ve stepped forward to make changes. Even the most committed pioneers may be tempted to retreat. But this need not be the case. Schools can prevent the past from eclipsing ambition by looking for ways to say yes to new ideas and making sure everyone has a voice right from the start. And they can travel with an experienced guide.   

There to help participants in the MSTP are 16 coaches, people who’ve been leading school transformation, in some cases for decades. Coaching isn’t about telling. It’s about facilitating conversation so that practice evolves in a way that doesn’t become so overwhelming people throw up their hands and revert to old behaviors. The MSTP coaches have identified six components to guide their work (briefly summarized below) that will resonate with any school seeking to transform itself: 

  • Vision – creating a bold, collective commitment
  • Purpose – identifying a compelling why and articulating a common purpose
  • Action Plan – embedding new strategies and building capacity 
  • Resources – connecting experiences and adapting to student needs
  • Skills – embracing a growth-mindset and taking risks
  • Trust – empowerment, collaboration, and shared accountability   

Now that the coaching team is more deeply engaged with the educators within these unique schools, according to Julene Oxton, Director of School Transformation and Development at EdVisions, “evidence of ownership in their learning journey as adults, is popping up out of the ‘top-down’ managerial system. This shift in teachers owning their school’s transformation to student-centered environments is refreshing! I’m noticing people working collaboratively and voicing their ideas and perspectives. As this culture of collective efficacy, courage, and common focus is fostered, great things will start to happen with and for the kids in these schools!”

Are you satisfied with your learning program, or is your school ready for transformation? There are some simple ways to start the conversation. Here are some questions to ask your team members:

  • Is your school more teacher-centered or student-centered? 
  • If it’s more teacher-centered, why? What are the root causes?
  • What are your school’s inhibitors in transforming itself?
  • What are your school’s assets?

If you’re on the path to something new and different but it has stalled, maybe the conversation starts with your school’s vision: 

  • Is your school’s vision one of change or transformation? 
  • Is it clear? Does anyone care about it?
  • Is it time for a refresh? Who should be involved?

No matter how you entertain the notion of school transformation, don’t let your beliefs limit your practice. Find out more about confirmation bias in this article. Also, consider how EdVisions can support you and your school in the important conversation that lies ahead.


  1. Retrieved at

Is Coaching for Your School or Program?

May 23, 2019 no comments S

This blog is the final in a four-part series on EdVision’s coaching model in the Midwest School Transformation Project.  Click here to start with part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Is Coaching for Your School or Program?

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

In the first post in this series from EdVisions on coaching, we looked at the research around coaching.  In the second post, we heard about the way in which the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) seeks to use coaching to harvest lessons about school transformation from charter schools by linking charter school leaders with district schools.  In the third post, we heard from some of the coaches and people in the districts who’ve signed on to the project.  I hope you have enjoyed all three posts.

I also hope you are thinking about how you can begin to incorporate coaching into your own school.  Perhaps you already do and are looking for ways to expand the role. Wherever you find yourself, coaching can help launch an innovation as well as help peel back the layers of change when seeking to transform an existing program.  

The question you might be asking is whether coaching is feasible financially.  The answer is yes. Sure, coaching, like all forms of professional development, costs money.  On the surface, it seems like it would cost a lot more than traditional approaches, especially if you don’t have a grant to assist in start-up costs.  But what if we viewed coaching as an opportunity to think differently about how to support teachers and principals rather than a zero-sum budget proposition?   

No one would argue that schools are cash-strapped.  There are never enough resources to go around. It’s frustrating, to say the least.  But when budgets are tight, there’s only one way to go, and that’s to look inward. If you want to embed coaching into your professional development model, there are several ways this might occur.  

First, are there existing positions you can revamp?  Granted, no one is sitting around doing nothing. People in schools are busy people!  But ask yourself, is what people in various positions currently do more impactful than what a coach might accomplish?  If not, this might be a place to start.

Second, are there ways to redistribute your current expenditures to support a coaching model?  In my last district, before I retired, we shifted roughly one million dollars of state, local, and federal funding in our existing budget to staff one instructional coach in each of our five elementary schools and two coaches in each of our three secondary schools.  This was accomplished through a collaborative planning process that took an entire year. The total shift was nearly one percent of our operating budget; everyone had to have skin in the game. But we were successful, providing evidence that major shifts are possible.

Third, if necessary, start small.  Instead of dedicating an entire full-time equivalent to a coaching role, what if you did so in small increments?  For example, at the elementary level, is there a way for two teachers to job share, enabling one person to serve as a coach on a part-time basis?  At the secondary level, can a teacher be released for one or two periods to serve as a coach? I’ve seen this work well also. This approach can be done at a minimal cost.     

It’s worth noting that coaching need not be the only kind of professional development offered.  According to Kraft, Blazer, and Hogan (in press)¹, the effect size for coaching is larger by .31 on instruction and by .12 on achievement when it follows group training on things like content knowledge.  A second consideration these researchers point out is the added benefit when coaching is offered in conjunction with instructional resources and materials.  And the third bit of good news from these researchers is that they found no evidence that coaching needed to be delivered in high amounts in order to have an impact.  In other words, when coaching is combined with other measures, a little can go a long way.

That all said, coaching for innovation is different than coaching for literacy, math, or technology, areas in which coaching is becoming more common.  This important reminder comes from Julene Oxton, the director at EdVisions for the Midwest School Transformation Project, who states, “Coaching for innovation encourages people to dream of something different for students to the degree that it transforms a system, not merely improves it.  That means redefining the roles of teachers and students and creating new models around the use of resources such as time, technology, personnel, space, assessments, and how students are grouped, to name a few.”

If there is anything we’ve learned from our coaches in the last two blog posts, it’s that solutions will come in many forms.  Your local context, the resources you have at hand, the needs of your students and staff, and the unique opportunities that your situation presents will drive much of what you do.  But beyond the more tangible elements are those that are intangible: vision, passion, determination – these will be of far greater importance.

Gone are the days when we can throw up our hands and say it can’t be done.  Imperfect as things are, educators are proving more can be done. Don’t be shy in stepping out into uncharted territory.  It might take multiple iterations, and things will shift along the way. But that’s the work of transformation. As we’ve heard, it’s messy.  Expect it, plan for it, and embrace it. If you do, good ideas will flourish and innovation will prevail.

For inspiration and ideas for your program, stay tuned as we journey along with the schools in the Midwest School Transformation Project in future blog posts.      


  1. Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved at

The Makings of a Coach: A Passion for Student Learning

May 16, 2019 no comments S

This blog is part 3 in a four-part series on EdVision’s coaching model in the Midwest School Transformation Project. Click here to start with part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

In the first post in this series from EdVisions on coaching, we looked at the research around coaching.  In the second post, we heard about the way in which the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) seeks to use coaching to harvest lessons about school transformation from charter schools by linking charter school leaders with district schools.  In this post, we hear from some of the coaches and people in the districts who’ve signed on to the project.

It is not a surprise that many, though not all, of the coaches EdVisions has chosen for the MSTP come from charters.  The rest come from school districts that have demonstrated success in designing and implementing innovative learning programs, proving innovation can occur in and outside of traditional structures.  In total, 15 educators have signed on to share their knowledge and expertise.

But these people don’t just think of coaching in terms of sharing what they know.  They expect to learn too. I spoke with Peter Weiczorek, the Director at Northwest Passage Charter High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota and Liz Seubert, a founding teacher of Wildlands Science Research School in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, also a charter school.  In separate conversations, the two shared similar sentiments about their upcoming role. A set of themes became apparent that describe the kind of coaching we can expect to hear more about over the course of the project.

1.  A sense of mission.

Both Liz and Peter spoke about how the MSTP aligns to their own personal mission as an educator, and it is a mission they pursue with passion.  As Peter stated, “The neat thing about the way that this project is shaping up is that there are so many experienced people in the room with a number of different perspectives who share a common language and a shared mission.”  He sees coaching as creating yet another avenue for those already collaborating around creating learner-centered schools to connect, adding more layers and bringing in more people to what he calls “the ecosystem.”

Liz expressed a similar view.  “For a number of years, I’ve been incredibly passionate about advancing student-centered learning.”  She is involved with the Teacher Powered Schools network and actively engaged in the Innovative Schools Network, which started in Wisconsin before expanding nationwide.  Wildlands was her first job out of college. “Student-centered learning is so ingrained in me. I love helping people discover more about it.”

2.  Coaching is part of their professional DNA.

Coaching others is deeply rooted in the way they think, talk, and interact with their peers in and outside of their school.  The role comes naturally to them because they practice it every day.

For example, Liz’s coaching philosophy permeates her work at Wildlands.  In 2015, she authored a book with her colleague, Paul Tweed (also an MSTP coach) called An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach & Students Learn.  “That’s when my coaching journey really started,” she said, when she began talking with teachers in Wisconsin about the book.  Using their Seven Essentials, she and Paul helped teachers and principals work together to redesign schools.

Peter also honed his coaching skills at his school, whether working with students, staff, or visitors to Northwest Passage.  “I find my energy and passion supporting other people and helping them reach their goals and seeing them flourish. It’s not about me, it’s about helping them be better at what they do, especially when it is serving the greater good for working with young people.”  

3.  Inquiry:  Creating, not replicating, designs for learning.

For these coaches, conversations are driven by a spirit of inquiry that has been at the center of their practice since day one, and over time, they’ve learned how to help others think outside the proverbial box.  Both Northwest Passage and Wildlands get a lot of visitors who want to see their innovative programming.  But both stress the goal should not be to replicate what visitors see at either school. “You can’t just look at one model and say you’re going to do that,” Peter points out.  “What we do at Northwest Passage has worked for us, but it has taken us a long time to get here.” He tells visitors to figure out who they want to be, really think about who their students are, consider their resources, and be honest about their challenges.  Then, he tells them to explore and define their opportunities. He plans to do this in his coaching role in the MSTP as well.

Liz echoed the wisdom of this approach.  “I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of helping a school discover their dream for their students and helping that come to fruition.  It’s like being a catalyst.” But, she cautions, it is up to those whom she will be coaching to figure out what they want to do.  

4.  The importance of teacher voice.

Inquiry leads to generating ideas, lots of them, but eventually a vision and a mission need to emerge along with a path for moving forward.  A goal of the MSTP is to give educators a primary role in determining what that path entails. Liz and Peter have seen firsthand what happens when teachers are truly freed to chart their own course.

Empowering teachers to lead the way creates a different kind of dynamic.  As Liz sees it, it’s the difference between “here’s what you get to do instead of what you have to do with students.”  That’s a game changer for teachers.  Suddenly, they feel a renewed sense of purpose.  Liz thrives in providing teachers the opportunity to reimagine their day and their school and give them voice and choice in the process.  “I can ask the right questions and help them decide what they want their school to look and be like.” But, she stresses, “I have a lot of questions, not answers.  I want to help them find their own answers. That’s very teacher powered in perspective.”

Peter embraces a similar approach.  The questions he intends to use to guide the project schools to which he is assigned are straightforward:  

  • What do you want your school to look like?
  • What do your kids need?
  • What do you think school should be for them?

He also plans to ask, “What are the parts you really like about what others are doing?  Let’s frame that in your context,” he says. He is realistic about the constraints schools face.  After he finds out what they want to do, he plans to ask, “How you can do that within your boundaries?”  

5.  Trust and collaboration.

Teacher buy-in is a key factor in determining whether coaching will be successful.¹  If teachers aren’t invested, the road ahead will be difficult.  It is critical to establish a trusting relationship early in the process so teachers realize nothing will be done to them that they themselves don’t elect to do on their own.  Liz intends to address this by creating authentic relationships with her mentees. “I see my [coaching] role much like I see my role in the classroom – a guide on the side. I am there as a mentor and a resource.  But I don’t see myself implementing things for them; that will be their responsibility.”

Peter also knows he will need to foster trust.  “Trust doesn’t happen overnight,” he admits. He, too, plans to take time to get to know his colleagues and establish open lines of communication.  “Trust also comes from this place where both sides can recognize the value that each brings to the conversation. I don’t think of myself as the expert that has the definitive answer,” he said.  “I like to spend time asking questions.”

6.  Coaching enriches everyone’s practice.

Coaches will gain too.  Peter made it clear that while he has things he is eager to share, he hopes to learn from others as well, signaling that coaching is a two-way street.   “I’m a junkie on seeing what other schools are doing,” he said.  “The best thing is to get out of your environment. You always see how you can do better.”  

Both referenced that fact that for the past 10-15 years, the work of many of the other coaches and people in the project schools has overlapped in various ways.  Both he and Liz have been collaborating with others formally and informally through projects, picking each other’s brains at conferences, and talking shop at meetings.  The fact that both know a lot of the people in the project makes them very excited. As Peter pointed out, “There is such a high-quality set of people who share the same mission, the same drive for helping students.”  

7.  Creating a sustainable path forward.

Educators like Liz and Peter have been innovating for some time, and both shared their enthusiasm over how the MSTP will pave the way for school transformation across the country. Liz stated she looks forward to helping schools be different.  “In this project, it will be amazing to see the different levels of collaboration that will take place. Not just with the schools that are participating, but with all of the coaches that are involved.” She points to a huge store of resources just waiting for more people to leverage towards creating more learner-center schools.

Peter is equally optimistic and hopes the project is the sign of a new era to come.  “It’s the way we start to move the arrow back to where students and learning are at the center,” he said.  “We are looking at schools through a newer lens, one that some of us have been using; now it’s broadening.”

So what do those who will be on the receiving end of the coaching think?  They’re excited too. Just ask Heather Fitzloff, interim Program Director at Bridges Prior-Lake Savage Area School Alternative Learning Center in Prior Lake, Minnesota.  Though still learning about what the coaching model will entail, of her staff, she said, “They are super excited about working with their partner school through a transformation, doing more things that give students voice and choice, and understanding project-based learning.  It’s going to be a game changer.” She is enthusiastic about the collaboration that is promised and believes the structure is set up to provide just the right kind of support they need. “The coaches,” she said, “have been through it.”

Project-based learning is a growing trend, and without coaches and exposure to other models, she fears any attempt at transformation would take a lot longer, be more difficult, and much more challenging to secure staff support.  With expert help, she believes she and her team will be better situated to take on the barriers and challenges that lie ahead.

When asked if her staff was on board, Heather admits there was some hesitation at first.  “But now that they know more about the project, they are really excited.” She notes her district is also on board.  Visiting some of the other schools in the project has added to her own excitement, and she is ready to get started. One of the things she hopes to take away from the experience is becoming part of the network of people and schools that will continue the work after the grant is over.   “It is going to be a really tough shift; we went to and taught in a traditional system. To change from that – the paradigm shift to a different role – will be hard. It’s a big step. That’s why this partnership and the coaching is going to be so important.”

Joe Rice, Executive Director at The Center School in Minneapolis, Minnesota is hopeful as well.  When asked what he is looking for in the coaching model, he said, “I hope they are willing to really personalize it.  That will be the best way to succeed. Staff need to have someone available in real time.” They, too, have questions about project-based learning.  “Some teachers are a little hesitant as to how it will translate into what they teach and how they teach,” he pointed out. The Center School is unique in that it operates as a contract school that serves Native American students using indigenous pedagogy.  “Their pedagogy,” he said, “is very old. Experiential learning, problem-based learning, and place-based learning are all approaches that have elements of indigenous practice in them.” But it remains to be seen, he said, how non-Native teachers will work with the Center School’s practices.  

Looking ahead, Joe said, “I expect at the start, the coaching will be more intensive,” then went on to say he wants the coaches to develop his and his staff’s confidence then step back a bit.  “Let us make mistakes.” He wants his staff to own their work, and coaching, he believes, should be used to help them figure it out their own solutions.  

According to Oxton, the whole coaching team will meet with each other once a month to discuss needs at their schools and draw from all the coaches’ experience to find solutions, tools, and practices to support the various needs of school they serve.

To meet all the coaches in the project, click here.  For a list of partner schools, click here.

After talking with these educators, it’s hard not to imagine the MSTP isn’t poised to make a significant impact on schooling in America.  By empowering teachers and applying lessons learned in programs that have grown over time and continue to iterate, our hopes for success can and should be high.  In the fourth and final post in this series on coaching, I will talk about the road ahead.

For more information, you may contact any of the following people involved in the MSTP:

Julene Oxton is at EdVisions and can be reached at or by calling 612-601-1043

Liz Seubert is at Wildlands Science Research School and can be reached at or by calling 715-286-2291, ext. 4401

Peter Weiczorek is at Northwest Passage High School and can be reached at or by calling 763-862-9223

Joe Rice is at Nawayee Center School and can be reached at or by calling 612-721-1655

Heather Fitzloff is at Bridges Prior-Lake Savage Area Learning Center and can be reached at or by calling 952-226-0846


1.  Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence.  Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved at

Lessons for Learning: A Foundation for Coaching

May 8, 2019 no comments S

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on coaching that will be published over the next several months.  Click here to read Part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

LESSONS FOR LEARNING:  A Foundation for Coaching

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

Transforming an entire school is no easy task.  Experience tells us it is an arduous process that few can claim to have accomplished.  When asked to change all or most of what we know about teaching and learning, we find ourselves on unstable ground.  And it’s not like we have an abundance of time to process new learning. Students show up every day whether we are ready or not.  When we aren’t sure of our next step, or when the transformation process requires a substantial effort that feels beyond our capacity, it is tempting to fall back on what we know.

Fortunately, there are people who can help show the way.  EdVisions has created a unique coaching model on which to position its Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), an ambitious undertaking that seeks to embed the following learner-centered practices and pedagogy in existing schools versus launching new ones:

  • Student agency and empowerment
  • Relevant connected learning
  • Authentic assessment
  • Teacher empowerment and leadership

Choosing a coaching model to usher in new and sustainable ways to reshape schools makes sense.  In the first post in this series on coaching, I shared some of the research around coaching that allows us to posit that supporting teachers and administrators with personalized support can make a dramatic difference in developing new skills and attitudes toward what works for students and incorporating them into practice.    

For the MSTP, EdVisions selected a cadre of coaches to provide in-depth support to their project schools.  According to Julene Oxton, the project’s director at EdVisions, “A larger coaching team allows for a broad base of experience to support the variety of schools within this project.”  But it takes matching people with the right expertise to create new designs for learning that are truly transformative. Where better to find them than in schools that are already incorporating the desired skills and strategies with success?

EdVisions reached out to leaders in the field who are embedding EdVision’s Ed°Essentials in their practice and found many in charter schools.  Charter schools, by design, embrace the opportunity to create a different school experience for students.  In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation in the country, and many states soon followed suit.  Freed from the stranglehold of restrictions and bureaucratic barriers that plague reform efforts in traditional school districts, charter schools broke new ground.  

Most will tell you it was messy at first, and resentments on a variety of fronts were not uncommon.  The playing field, it seemed, had shifted for some, but not for everyone. Despite opposition, mostly from within educator ranks, charter schools forged on ahead, launching a class of entirely new schools.  Now, a generation later, we have reached a point in time where traditional school districts can learn from charter schools. A proof of concept exists that we can harvest to gain insight and apply important lessons learned.  By the same token, charter schools can learn from districts.

I spoke with Julene Oxton, EdVision’s project director for the MSTP and Carrie Bakken, Program Coordinator and teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I wanted to find out more about how the project will accomplish the goal to bridge communication between charters and districts and advance the goal to create learner-centered schools.   

When charter schools first opened, many viewed them as being in direct competition with traditional school districts.  Now, decades later, has that sentiment changed?

Carrie Bakken:  I feel like it has gotten more positive in Minnesota.  We host a lot of district school visitors at Avalon; visitors also come from charters.  Nationally, though, the conversation around charters is more contentious. Minnesota charter schools are smaller, and organizations don’t take them over like they do in other states.  

Julene Oxton:  I come primarily from a district background.  The original intent of the charter law in Minnesota is starting to be realized in and around Minnesota.  We are finally getting to the point where collaboration between districts and charters is real. People in innovative schools are starting to talk to district schools and are willing to support them in a real way.  Instead of working alongside each other, this project creates the potential for charters and districts to work together through the coaching model we’ve developed. We’re excited about that.

What have we learned from the charter movement?  How have they contributed to the dialogue around school reform?

Julene Oxton:  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was authorized shortly after Minnesota and Iowa passed their charter school laws.  NCLB’s emphasis on math and literacy accountability from the top down really hindered what the laws intended the charter sector to do.  Now the pendulum is shifting back to the whole child and issues around equity, broadening the space for innovation to occur. We think the timing is excellent for collaboration between districts and charters to occur – school to school, teacher to teacher.

Carrie Bakken:  I agree. What I’ve learned being part of the charter movement is that if you create an innovative program, and if you have a broad enough base, you have more freedom in a charter school to create a sustainable program.   Some charters have been open over 20 years. Charters within districts don’t seem to fare as well. In a district school, you might have things in place with a core of enthusiastic people, but a new administrator or a new direction can wipe that out.   

Julene Oxton:  Right. When I look at successful charter schools in Minnesota that have stood the test of time, I see they have had full autonomy.  To me, that’s the biggest difference. Those schools have had the ability to make decisions at the school level. Sometimes they are totally teacher-led; sometimes there’s a principal.  But the teachers drive the programming. This has been especially true in Minnesota, where charters tend to be small. Fewer people are trying to make decisions, thus there are fewer people to answer to, making teacher autonomy more possible.  The funny thing is, as much as NCLB and now ESSA seeks to make schools accountable, true teacher autonomy leads to the highest level of accountability possible, versus accountability being mandated by the state or federal government. This is an important lesson charters have taught us.  Autonomy matters greatly. When we think of school reform, it’s not a problem with people; it’s the system. Districts still adhere to a top-down managerial structure. A second important lesson is that most charters are small, especially those in Minnesota. This adds to their ability to create new systems and different environments for learning.

What specific lessons would you like to see districts learn from charter schools?

Carrie Bakken:  More autonomy for teachers, for one.  And the importance of sustaining support for an innovative program is also important.  It has to go beyond a pilot for a year. New programs need time for sustained practice.  Second, make something new. There are really good charters and district programs to visit that can provide you with foundational ideas.  But don’t just replicate them; use them as a springboard for ideas. From there, be clear about what innovation you are seeking. It’s not easy.  Even charters struggle with being new. It takes time. The key is to harness teachers’ power. Make sure there is teacher buy-in and leadership, whatever leadership structure you decide, then support the journey.  There can still be a principal, but you need to capitalize on the energy of the teachers.

Julene Oxton:  Following that same thought, when I think about student-centeredness and what it means to most people in this movement is that decisions are made based on students’ needs, and students are part of the decision making.  That’s a very different structure than you find in most schools. Teachers are making most of the decisions about the learning environment and what kids are doing. My hope is we can help districts learn how to transfer the decision-making filter to the student, even allowing the students to make some decisions by giving them authentic voice and choice so they own their own learning.  Charters can help districts flip the decision-making model and flop the administrative hierarchy – and also flip the classroom hierarchy. We have proof that students can and will make great decisions about their own learning if you create a structure in which to help them do that. Through our coaching model, the schools in our project will walk away with a sense of how that’s done and the enthusiasm and capacity to make it happen.

How will you build capacity to help launch new practices and build capacity for those new practices to flourish after the coaching relationship is over?

Carrie Bakken:  As coaches, we need to help our partner schools stay with it when there are bumps in the road.  Bumps are inevitable. When they occur, there is a natural tendency to go back to what they know.  I want us to help them stay the course and be patient. Everyone wants that quick fix, but this is not a quick fix.  Quick fixes don’t exist. If we can help our project schools know and manage through the normal ups and downs, I think that will be helpful.   

Julene Oxton:  Our project schools have just started action planning.  What we are discovering is what a breath of fresh air it is for schools to be able to step back and think about where they are and where they want to go.  They’re realizing their current vision isn’t very clear or inclusive. We want to help them create a set of commitments – common beliefs about learning, their values, and the behaviors that adults in a learner-centered environment would display and students would portray.  And they need to be specific. This is what they will use to hold each other accountable. Then we talk about how to keep track of students and learning once the new vision is in place. We anticipate they will keep revising their vision; that’s normal. Over time, the vision will come alive with short-term goals measured by their own indicators.  This is how they will know they are moving forward. We’ve created a set of continuums of progress that will help them do that.

When all is said and done, what will most define the success of the coaching model you’ve developed?  

Julene Oxton:  A trusting relationship will have been created between the coaches, the schools, and the practitioners.  Trust, we know, is the foundation of any effective collaboration. We want our coaches to be authentic, transparent, and real with our project schools.  Our coaches are on a journey too. They will provide less “how to” and more “how can you?” We want to establish an environment where schools try something new.  If it doesn’t work, we want them to know that it’s okay. The key is to move forward and figure out the next step.

Carrie Bakken:  Another thing is that in the end, through our coaching model, we hope we will have created a wider network of schools and practitioners who are focusing on creating student-centered schools.  Right now, all the coaches in the project are connected to each other and other schools and organizations supporting innovation. We want to see those connections grow.

Julene Oxton:  Right. We won’t necessarily go away at the end of the project.  We’re aware that a network of schools is critical to sustainability.  We intend for a broader network of schools and practitioners to be in place to support innovation, we hope, for years to come.

It’s exciting to consider the possibilities that Julene and Carrie talk about.  In our next post, you will meet several of the coaches and hear what practitioners in the project schools hope to gain from the coaching experience EdVisions has planned.  

Coaching for Transformation: A Model for Professional Development in Today’s Schools

April 25, 2019 no comments S

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on coaching that will be published over the next several months.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Coaching for Transformation: A Model for Professional Development in Today’s Schools

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

If you ask teachers what they love most about their job, rarely do they say professional development.  They are likely to say they enjoy learning new ways to teach and like being exposed to different methods, but you won’t often hear them attributing their best learning to workshops and other traditional ways school seek to help teachers expand their repertoire of instructional strategies.  

The exception, however, might be coaching.  In recent decades, coaching has evolved as a preferred model for professional development, and for good reason.  According to Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching:  Effective Strategies for School Transformation, “The traditional notion of teachers as passive recipients has been largely rejected for a more active conception of teachers as co-constructors and contributors to the pedagogical knowledge base.”¹  As adult learners, teachers possess knowledge, skill, and insight that, when valued and respected, can make the difference between a teacher being open to trying new approaches or counting the hours until a workshop they are required to attend is over.    

In February 2019, EdVisions announced a grant award from the Bush Foundation to help schools redesign themselves.  The Midwest School Transformation Project will work with its partner schools to embed EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials framework into their program.  Key features of the framework will include student agency and ownership, relevant project-based learning, authentic assessment, and teacher empowerment.  The primary vehicle for collaborating around this shared endeavor is a coaching team model.

EdVisions is onto something good.  Just as we want to personalize learning for students, coaching personalizes learning for teachers.  To further quote Elena Aguilar, “Coaching can build will, skill, knowledge, and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator.”²  That’s saying a lot.  At a time when new demands on teachers outstrip most schools’ capacity to keep pace with the rate of change we find in today’s classrooms, high-impact approaches that leverage meaningful results are critical.       

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers were the first to recognize coaching as a viable model for professional development as far back as 1988. In their research, they found that when coached by peers or experts, teachers were more likely to be open to and adopt new strategies (as cited in Galey, 2016).³ Scant information was available at the time regarding the efficacy of coaching.  But that didn’t keep educators from trying it on for size, and coaching began to surface as a potential means to a better end for students.

Three decades later we know more about what kind of professional development works best.  In 2017, Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner identified seven characteristics of effective professional development.⁴  In their meta-analysis of 35 different studies that showed a positive link between professional development and teaching and learning, professional development is deemed effective when it:

  1. Is content focused
  2. Incorporates active learning utilizing adult learning theory
  3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  5. Provides coaching and expert support
  6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
  7. Is of sustained duration

It’s easy to see why EdVisions elected to utilize a coaching model for the Midwest School Transformation Project  Coaching arguably hits all seven points identified by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner. The coaching model EdVisions has devised is straightforward.  Through coaching, they intend to:

  • Provide real time, on-going support;
  • Adapt to individual school and teacher needs;
  • Personalize professional development; and
  • Create space for practitioners to reflect on their own practice and drive their own learning

EdVisions plans to go a step further by leveraging the experience and expertise of practitioners that currently serve students in the kind of learner-centered environments the project is seeking to create as their coaches.  The coaching team includes K-12 teachers and administrators who have charter and/or district experience. They represent a broad geographical area and work in schools that serve different student demographics, all of which bring a level of credibility to the conversation between a coach and his or her mentees.  When EdVisions’ coaches work with teachers in the project, teachers will know the coaches have been in their shoes and understand the unique challenges and opportunities they face.

Will coaching make a difference in transforming schools?

If done well, we have reason to be hopeful.  In a recent meta-analysis by Kraft, Blazar, and Hogan that included 60 studies on coaching, researchers were able to identify an effect size of 0.49 for instruction and .18 for student achievement.⁵  Those effect sizes grew by .31 and .12 respectively when coaching was combined with group training.  In short, what the researchers found was when coaching followed learning a new skill in a group setting, the new skill was more likely to be applied and more likely to have an effect on instruction and achievement.  The other good news in this study is that it didn’t take a lot of coaching to have an impact. In their analysis, however, the authors found that the effect size went down the larger the group being coached. In other words, working in small contexts appeared to be advantageous.  

Which is exactly EdVision’s plan.

So what can traditional schools learn from charters?  Conversely, what can charters learn from traditional schools?  And how will EdVision’s cadre of coaches build the capacity in their partner schools to sustain the work that will extend beyond the life of the project?  I’ll talk more about this in the second post in this series.


1. Galey, S. (2016). “The Evolving Role of Instructional Coaches in U.S.Policy Contexts. The William & Mary Review: Vol.4 : Iss. 2, Article 11.  Retrieved at

2. Edutopia. (2013, March 25). How coaching can impact teachers, principals, and students [Blog post]. Retrieved from

3. Galey, S. (2016).

4. Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M.E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

5. Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research. Retrieved from

EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

April 11, 2019 no comments S

A new blog post from EdVisions’ own Dr. Ron Newell! Dr. Newell describes the way EdVisions is approaching school transformation, what changes schools can make, and these changes will benefit students and bring the outside world in to prepare them better for life after graduation.

Dr. Ron Newell

Dr. Newell is presently the Director of Assessment for EdVisions, and has served as the Director of Learning Programs for the Gates/EdVisions replication efforts. Dr. Newell was a founder of the Minnesota New Country School and EdVisions Cooperative. He has published four books that explain the rationale and practices behind the learning program and governance of the EdVisions Schools. His work with development of coaches training, staff development and evaluation has lead to creation of processes and materials that enhance the development and sustainability of newly created charter schools. His work with Mark Van Ryzin in development of the Hope Study has lead to an assessment of school culture that is becoming nationally recognized.

Dr. Newell was a high school history teacher and coach, a mentor teacher, a college professor, a Director of Clinical Experiences at two universities, and is a founding member of the EdVisions Leaders Center. His interests are learning theory, adolescent development, alternative assessment, decentralized distributive education, use of technology in education, and development of new curriculum for the development of Life-long Learning Skills.

Dr. Newell graduated with a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.S. from Minnesota State University – Mankato, and an Ed.D. from the University of South Dakota.

EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

Merriam-Webster defines transformation as a “thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” Although many of the illustrations of transformation are scientific, biological or related to physics, it is still possible to apply the word to organizations and to people. To transform is defined as “a) to change in composition or structure; b) to change the outward form or appearance of; and c) to change in character or condition.”

One of the missions of EdVisions is to transform existing schools, primarily by adding two major characteristics: teacher-powered schools, meaning teachers have the most say in how a school is run; and to personalize education, so that students have an equal say in what and how they learn necessary skills. Both of these transformative outcomes require changes in composition or structure of a school, so that it’s appearance (at least from within) will change, but mostly to change the character and condition of the school.

Why is this mission important? Why not leave schools as they are? For years the educational system has proclaimed their goal as transforming society. But does the system provide the necessary skills and dispositions for the young to transform society? It appears the primary purpose of schools is to equip students for the status quo. Curriculum and tests are designed to learn about what was and what is – not to utilize the outside world nor the inquisitive nature of the student to discover and create a new world.

This idea of involving the young in creating new worlds can be very scary for adults. Yet young people are doing so all the time, without our control or despite our censure. The world changes, transforms itself, goes through metamorphosis – we can be part of it, or be overwhelmed by it. But most young people have to skirt around school to become part of the world’s changes. One transformation needed is to involve more of the world into schools via problem-based or project-based learning. If it is to be done well, this involves restructuring the school day, possibly changes in the interior structure, the concept of “seat time”, and the relationship between student and teacher. Very scary, indeed!

So, why transform schools? What is it that present-day schools are not doing for students? The first answer would be that the seat-time, curriculum-based, teacher-directed school does not engage nor motivate, and that passing courses and tests does not necessarily prepare young people for thinking and creating. What does a transformed school deliver? There is enough evidence available (although ignored) that project-based schools, ones that are teacher-powered, do deliver problem solving, communication skills, creativity, responsibility, self-direction, time management, collaboration, presentation skills, and a work ethic.

This transformation in development of life skills is the outer layer of an inner transformation – one of dispositional hope, the development of agency and persistence, of developing pathways around obstacles, that develops an expectation of success. It is this transformational learning that delivers the skills to transform people and society. When learners can see themselves actually making a difference, by making a commitment to transform their own attitudes and beliefs, and aspire to higher expectations for themselves and society, then they can change the world.

Examples of a innovative schools within traditional districts – Impact Academy in Lakeville MN and Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen MN

Why transform schools? To transform students into discoverers and creators – to motivate the young to transform themselves and their world. As EdVisions works with schools, or school creators, we envision this primary outcome – to help transform students from passive recipients of knowledge to knowledge creators and world changers. When you see it happen, the re-structured school is not so scary. It is instead inspiring!

EdVisions is taking the lead in school transformation regionally through the Midwest School Transformation Project, thanks to the generous support of the Bush Foundation. Schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in the project will design by rethinking how to use the resources of space, time, personnel, technology and standards to better meet the needs of their students. Unique plans from all eleven schools will lead to student centered environments of relevant connected learning for all children. A strong EdVisions coaching team of fifteen are ready to support the teachers in shifting practices, skills, dispositions and mindsets as the school implements their plan to transform. The coaching focus is to build capacity and ownership within the staff and students, so when the three year project is complete the changes made are irreversible and sustainable, as schools continue on the journey toward more student centered learning.

To stay up to date on the project, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see all the news as it unfolds!