Professional Development for Encouraging Next Generation Assessments
BY TODD H. GAZDA/School Administrator, May 2019


Todd Gazda (standing), superintendent in Ludlow, Mass., is committed to project-based learning experiences that allow students to pursue their passions.
It was a sunny winter afternoon in January 2018 when Mrs. Brown’s 5th-grade class gathered in the cafeteria of the Veterans Park Elementary School in Ludlow, Mass. They came to showcase their “Genius Hour” projects in front of their peers and parents.

This authentic publication of the students’ work was the culmination of a weeks-long, project-based learning experience. Each student began by developing a guiding question to examine a real-world problem that was important to them. Guiding questions for the project included, “How might I learn to create a website for my Dad’s business?” “How might I learn about how animals become endangered?” and “How do you become a marine biologist?”

Structured learning activities, such as the Genius Hour, tied to the Massachusetts Learning Standards, engage students by allowing them to explore their passions while enabling teachers to cover the content material required by the state. Such strategies leverage the power of technology, as well as the access students now have to information, to build the critical thinking and collaboration skills employers are demanding.

Risk-Taking Culture
These changes cannot happen without resources, support and professional development for our teachers. Districts must commit to a thoughtful process if lasting systemic change is the end goal.

To set a coordinated and forward-thinking vision for education within our districts, the first step is to create a trusting environment where teachers may take risks and even fail when doing so. We must identify members of our teaching staff who are willing and open to new ideas. Ludlow sent four teachers to a four-day summer training focused on project-based learning and performance assessment. These teachers then shared strategies with their colleagues and served as pioneers for pursuing new assessment strategies.

Principals devoted time during faculty meetings, common planning time and professional development days for collaboration. This reinforced and maintained the focus while enabling teachers to discuss best practices and jointly view teacher lessons and student work.

We then decided to go “all in” and develop outside partnerships so we could offer further substantive training for our teachers. This year, Ludlow partnered with the Center for Collaborative Education and Southern New Hampshire University to develop and implement a three-credit graduate-level course offered in our district on project-based learning and performance assessment. This high-quality, embedded professional development, open to all teachers K-12, supports and encourages the necessary pedagogical transition.

Clearing Obstacles
The process was not flawless, and we hit some roadblocks that had to be cleared. Initially, we scheduled the course during our spring break, which did not generate much enthusiasm from staff or participation. We then tried to schedule it the week after school dismissed in June with similar results.

Therefore, we decided if we were truly committed to this effort we would have to make time during the work day with a combination of release time and existing professional development hours for teaching staff. This proved to be the solution we were looking for. In its first year, more than 15 percent of our teachers have availed themselves of this training. We hope to build on their knowledge and grow this program in subsequent years.

Change is difficult. Excuses and obstacles are easy to imagine. However, we have reached a point where we must be more afraid of maintaining our current assessment practices than we are of taking a chance and changing our system.

TODD GAZDA is superintendent in Ludlow, Mass. Twitter: @thgaz