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CPR, So Far: Collaborative Peer Review Update

Unleashing the Power of Partnerships for Learning

Winter 2015 Newsletter (PDF)

Collaborative-Peer-ReviewAll for one and one for all! Three Vermont school principals who got together last spring didn’t chant the adventurers’ rallying cry—but their intention was in the same spirit. The three leaders made a unique commitment: they would work as partners to assess teaching and learning at their schools, creating the state's first collaborative peer review with youth-adult teams.

They already had data from sources such as YATST surveys and the Global Best Practices framework, but they wanted more evidence. To get a full picture of teaching and learning, they felt, there’s nothing like actually watching students and teachers at work. Inspired by Margery Ginsberg’s Data-in-a-Day model, they decided to collect observation data from every classroom. To do that, they would need each other’s help. In a series of reciprocal site visits, each school would host an observation team and send its own team to the other two schools. There would be no need to bring in an outside accreditation group (such as NEASC); they could rely on each other, as Vermont school peers.

The principals—Dorinne Dorfman at Leland & Gray, Jim Avery at Otter Valley, and Andy Pomeroy at Mill River—also made another important commitment. Believing that all members of their school communities should share responsibility for assessment and improvement, they wanted to ground their project in youth-adult partnership from the beginning. They turned to UP for Learning for assistance, and by late August, each school had students and adults enrolled in a project-based course for credit through Castleton State College. They chose the title “Collaborative Peer Review: Reflection through Youth-Adult Partnership and Dialogue” —CPR for short!

The first phase was preparation for site visits, using the Four Rs (rigor, relevance, relationship, and shared responsibility) as a lens for looking at teaching and learning:. By mid-September, the plans were set. Sixteen visitors—students, teachers, administrators, and community members—would spend two days at each host school. In teams of four, they would do “classroom walkthroughs,” making short visits to every classroom; each observer would concentrate on a single R in twelve classes, recording both descriptive evidence and questions. Later, groups would review the findings for each R element and look for themes in a “Wows and Wonders” format. In addition, the visitors would analyze key documents at each school—the parent-student handbook and the program of studies—through the same Four Rs lens. The two-day visit would conclude with a presentation to the full faculty of the host school, sharing a summary of the findings and providing a chance for them to respond in small group discussions.

After those discussions at the first site visit, a teacher said, “It’s amazing how well you saw us! You just nailed it.” Although some faculty embraced the findings right away, others wanted more time to consider the questions visiting teams raised. That’s appropriate, as the next phase of the Collaborative Peer Review process is to follow up with dialogue in each school, engaging students, teachers, and community members in exploring paths to improvement.   Now that all three site visits are complete, the CPR teams are working to synthesize data and plan for those conversations in their local school communities. As one participant noted, “This is a process that builds on strengths...If the school mission has the students at its center, then evidence of rigor, shared responsibility, relevance and relationships will be there. If evidence is weak, we ‘wonder’ rather than criticize. It is up to the school's members to answer the question [posed by the visiting team] or ponder its origins.” Facilitating that kind of reflection will be the next challenge for CPR teams.

Teamwork has been critical to the CPR experience so far, particularly the emphasis on youth-adult partnership. In a mid-fall survey* [see sidebar], both youth and adult members reported strong appreciation for sharing responsibility in this pilot project. One student put it this way: “I used to think that most teachers were against student opinion and only pretended to listen. Now I think my opinion matters.”   Another expanded on this point: “I am glad all of my ideas are valued. I feel open to share all thoughts.” An adult reported seeing “tremendous blossoming in terms of the amount of verbal expression, depth of concept and leadership among our students.”   Another adult said, “I enjoy sitting back and letting students lead..this is new for me.”

The Collaborative Peer Review teams will continue to share responsibility as they carry out their next steps: identifying strengths and concerns that emerge from all data sources, including observation findings; refining key topics for school-wide discussion; and planning ways to structure that dialogue for students, faculty, and the larger community.   “We have a lot of work to do beyond observation,” wrote one team member. Another reflected on the path ahead this way: “I used to think that this could be a long process that might last a few years. Now I think… the same thing.”   In fact, the long-term goal of the Collaborative Peer Review process is to establish an ongoing cycle of observation, reflection, and action planning. As schools develop these habits, their capacity for substantive, continuous improvement will grow. Even at this early stage, though, the three pilot schools have some immediate rewards from their new connection, a “bond” they value and hope to maintain, recognizing that “future consultation with the other…schools holds promise for accelerating our path towards excellence.”