Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

“First, Do No Harm”

The title of this post will ring familiar to many as an oath or statement associated with those dedicated individuals who enter the medical profession. While I would not want to minimize the impact or intent of the statement, I believe in the education profession we need to do much more.

The idea that educators should, as a starting point, not harm their students is an appealing one. But doesn’t that set the bar rather low? No educator should set out to do something that will only be accompanied by predictable and preventable harm. My colleague Chris Weber and I have shared in our RTI books the notion that “if you can predict it, you can prevent it.” How then do we move beyond the minimum and towards the belief that not only can ALL students learn, they can learn at high levels?

The answer, also similar to the medical profession, lays in the tools we use and the monitoring of the success of those tools. Good assessment design and practice provides the evidence educators need to diagnose, prescribe, and monitor. As educators, one of the key questions we must confront is this: “Are we evidence gathering or number chasing?” The power of formative assessment—using assessment design to monitor student understanding and instructional effectiveness—is lost if the goal is calculating a number or letter. In fact, I would further suggest that if the objective is a number or letter, most educators will have gathered enough data in the first month to accurately predict the final standing of each student. If, instead, the goal is ensuring all students learn at high levels, then formative practice should be the desired route. To be clear, formative assessment as described by Dylan Wiliam “leaves no trace in the grade book.”

It’s critical that there is monitoring of instructional strategies based on evidence as opposed to instructional design that is based on one-size fits all—“I taught, they didn’t learn.” The mythical average student really does not exist in any classroom I have been in. We have ample evidence before a students’ arrival in any classroom. Most educators would agree that in a typical classroom, the range of ability, prior knowledge, external support, and output runs the full range. Why then would a “middle of the academic spectrum” instructional and assessment approach result in anything different than the grouping a teacher began the year with?

So beyond “do no harm,” I believe as educators we must “add more value.” It’s not enough to say that, figuratively, no one died at the end of my instruction. After ten months with a brilliant educator like you, it’s reasonable to expect the student to be in a better place academically, behaviourally, and social-emotionally than before they had ten months with you. Assessment and instruction are two sides of the same coin with each driving the other. Knowing and accepting this is the added value every student should receive.

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