To increase student learning, start with grading.
The conversation about grading has many entry points, but get the conversation going. What does an A in World History represent? What does a D represent? Have those discussions and DO NOT take them lightly. Too much depends on it.
We're both applying for admission to Stanford. Nearly EVERYTHING about our applications are identical: good grades, extracurricular activities, obstacles overcome, leadership demonstrated. But I got a C+ in Calculus and you got a B+. You get accepted. But why?
Turns out your Calculus teacher incorporated things like classroom participation and homework completion into his grading policies. You barely had a "basic" understanding of the concepts within the Calculus curriculum. But you turned in every homework assignment, went in for extra tutoring, always raised your hand in class. I, on the other hand, had a teacher who utilized Standards Based Grading. My grade was (as close as possible to) 100% indicative of my mastery of the concepts. Homework completion and classroom participation had no bearing whatsoever on my grade. Simply what I learned and did not learn. My C+ had me on the borderline between a basic understanding and a proficient one. But you got accepted because some admissions counselor at Stanford had to trust your teacher over mine.
So grades matter a lot. But more importantly they drive what we teach and how we teach it. If we value the effort our students are making to learn we choose to assess them based strictly on whether or not they have demonstrated their knowledge and skills. We take the time to create grading procedures that are a clear indication and reflection of knowledge and ability. We are concerned about the students not only in our classroom but those in the classroom next to us, and in the classroom in the state next to ours. Because we want all students to have a fair chance to compete for the college/career of their choice. So we sit with colleagues and ask them about their grading policies, and what concepts they are going to teach this year, and how they will teach those concepts so that the kids will learn, and how they will assess that learning.
Then we create assessments that enable and empower and inform our students. We see them not just as potential receivers of knowledge but as co-creators of their education. We know that our assessments must provide them with information about where they are weak and where they are strong. We allow for multiple avenues of assessment because we understand that different people learn (and demonstrate that learning) in very different ways. And this leads us to talk more; to our students, to our colleagues, to our coaches. We want to do better for our kids. They become our partners in this journey. We become dedicated to doing better for them.
Slowly our pacing becomes common with others in our department, in our district, and in our state. We see that it would be a disservice to give any less to our students than what they deserve. We start to blog and tweet and share best practices for instruction, collaborative learning, formative assessments. Our students begin to recognize how much we care. Our dedication to their progress increases exponentially, and we do things like give them our cell phone number and tell them that they can text us when they are confused about a homework assignment. Never...never...NEVER is a grade punitive. Instead of coming to us and saying, "What can I do to raise my grade?" they are now coming to us and stating, "I need help understanding the causes and consequences of The American Revolution." And we are inspired when we hear this!
This happens because we started talking about grading.