Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Dangers of Grading Our Schools

On March 22, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed legislation “aimed at ensuring all students in Virginia have the best opportunity to learn and that students, regardless of their zip code, receive a world class education.”
Included in McDonnell’s All Students initiative was the creation of an A-F School Report Card. According to his press release, the new performance ratings will simplify the current system of accountability to help parents fully understand the performance of their child’s school. It continues by stating, “the new report cards will recognize schools for challenging all students to reach high levels of achievement. They will also give schools a tool to encourage more parental and community involvement.”

Sounds good, right?  We can’t argue against high achievement, parental involvement and accountability. All are extremely important to effective schools and student achievement.

But let’s peel away the layers and ask ourselves, “Does grading our schools benefit our students?”


Instead, school report cards may actually cause more damage. School-wide grades are notoriously inaccurate. They do not increase parental involvement and they can ruin teacher morale. This clearly is not a recipe for school improvement.

Question 1: Are School Grades Reliable and Accurate?

Accountability systems are only useful if their measures are reliable and clear. Creating such a system is a monumental—perhaps impossible—task. Ask 100 people to define a high quality or A school and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Of course, Virginia will rely primarily on SOL tests and other data such as graduation rates, but disagreements over what specific measures to include and how to include them are inevitable. Virginia hopes to use a balance of both absolute performance factors such as student SOL test scores and growth measures that encompass changes in SOL scores over time.

Both measures present their own unique set of problems. Absolute performance factors vary little from year-to-year, but they are also highly correlated with student characteristics such as socio-economic status. Conversely, growth measures, which the Board of Education will have two years to develop and add to the grading system, fluctuate greatly.  Accurate and credible growth measures require multiple years of data.

One grade cannot tell the whole story. What do I mean? A good school, let’s say one earning a B, may not be serving the needs of ALL of it’s students very well.  For example, the overall student population may meet the math benchmarks, but a subgroup/gap group (Hispanics, Blacks, or students with disabilities or economically disadvantaged) may not meet the necessary requirements. One grade cannot portray this; a narrative is needed.

A narrative would also be necessary to differentiate between schools. In a fictitious example, only 5% of Millard Fillmore High School students receive free/reduced lunches, but at Andrew Johnson High School 95% of students qualify for reduced lunches. We cannot expect these schools to earn similar SOL scores or have comparable graduation rates. Similarly, we must address the difference between low-performing schools and schools serving lower-performing students.

McDonnell claims that Virginia’s current system lacks clarity. Oversimplifying the process by assigning one grade actually undermines his goal of clarity. A-F grades fail to explain how or why a school earned such a grade, nor do they tell you much about a school’s true effectiveness. 

Question 2: Do School Grades Increase Parental Involvement?

Governor McDonnell suggests that creating a school report card will increase parental and community involvement. In the March/April issue of Education Policy Rebecca Jacobsen of Michigan State warns against presenting unclear or misleading information because it can ultimately erode parental support for the schools. As part of her research, Jacobsen examined New York City Schools, each of which is assigned a simple letter grade. As a result of a policy of capping the number of schools that can receive an A grade, many schools grades fell. As  a result, parent satisfaction declined—despite the fact that student performance didn’t drop. Her research also concluded that parent satisfaction did not increase when school grades increased.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

Jacobsen’s research highlights two important facets of school grades. First, the effect of declining grades has a larger effect than seeing a school maintaining or improving its performance.  Declining grades erode trust and can lead to declining community and parental support. Secondly, she states, “In our rush to produce data of all shapes and sizes and then reshape these data for policy or political purposes, we cannot forget how the public is interpreting these data.”

Like Jacobsen, I do believe in high student expectations and accountability. We should strive for transparency and accountability. But, in our haste to create such a system Virginia has ignored too many variables (socio-economic status, percentage of special education students, percentage of English language learners, etc). Despite good intentions, Oklahoma, Florida, New York City and others rushed to implement school grades. Flaws in their grading systems were soon discovered and changes were made. The unfortunate byproduct of such haste: erosion of the public’s trust in schools, ineffective and harmful education policy, and plummeting teacher morale. Of course, who suffered the most: students. 

As McDonnell suggests, parents understand A-F grades, why not eliminate a single grade in favor of multiple school indicators that accurately reflect a school’s performance? Creating a balanced grading system would enable each school to be accurately measured in regards to student achievement, student progress and other strategic goals established by each school. 

Question 3: How Will School Report Cards Affect Teacher Morale

Because of the newness of school grades, I found little no research indicating how school grading systems impact teacher morale. But I can speak from both personal experience and other research.  Goals that others choose for us seldom motivate us to change. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us Daniel Pink concluded, “Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others—sales targets, quarterly reports, standardized test scores, and so on—can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”

Pink suggests that teachers are motivated by mastery, autonomy and purpose. As teachers we want to know we are doing our jobs well; we don’t need a standardized test or a school grade to tell us this. We desire to have freedom to choose our own goals and how to achieve them. Finally, wanting to make a difference in the lives of our students motivates us. In the last twenty years, flexibility, autonomy and creativity have eroded. Instead, we’ve been besieged by federal, state, and district compliance checklists.

School report cards, especially in schools with lower-performing students, will further diminish our sense of accomplishment and purpose.

What Should Be Done

We all stand together for raising student expectations, even if mandated by state or federal governments. Instead of rushing to provide parents with a singular letter grade, we should proceed deliberately and cautiously by implementing the following.
1.     Eliminate the single grade and replace it with multiple school measurements that accurately portray a school’s performance.
2.     To ensure accuracy and balance, combine both absolute and growth-based data. Effective growth models use multiple years of data to measure the school’s effect on student performance.
3.     Data should not be used for high-stakes decisions, such as school takeovers or closures.
4.     Use compiled data to develop school-based improvement plans that focus on incremental and continuous improvement. Plans should be locally generated with teachers and administrators collaborating, Struggling schools should receive additional resources such as instructional and assessment experts.
5.     Schools should be measured on the progress they make in achieving their goals.

Government attempts to grade schools will backfire if done for political purposes. We must take the appropriate steps to depoliticize education and empower our educators to make the necessary changes.

What are your thoughts?

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2009. 

Michigan State University (2013, March 25). How school report cards can backfire. Science Daily. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Empowering Students to Make Powerful Presentations

As a novice teacher, I frequently created assignments that included student presentations. A few of the presentations were phenomenal, many were nice, and some were downright painful to watch. On top of that, some students refused to present. For all but the best presentations, the non-presenters clock watched, bored out of their minds.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but for the next several years, I “solved” the problem by removing student presentations from my curricula.

Then, I began teaching a new class—freshman seminar—in which public speaking and presentations were part of the curriculum. I needed a new approach.

My first realization: it’s unfair to throw students to the wolves (their classmates) by requiring them to present without giving them tools, practice and feedback to be successful.

How I prepared the students:
1.     Preparation. I began by teaching public speaking basics (voice, diction, eye-contact, emotion, don’t just read from your notes or the PowerPoint, etc.). I required students to present to family members or to record their presentations. We used class time to individually practice and to receive feedback from either a classmate or me. Public speaking is no different than any other skill in that it requires instruction, practice and feedback. While most subject matter teachers don’t have the time to spend on public speaking, if you’re going to grade students on their presentation, you must teach the skill first.

2.     For the initial presentation, instead of presenting in front of the entire class, I broke the class into several groups. Students were strategically placed in groups where they would be most comfortable. Instead of standing in front of a class full of strangers, students “presented” while seated in a less-threatening environment. Yet, I still had some students who didn’t want to present, so I allowed them to present to the me during their lunch period. Another positive byproduct of this was increased student engagement and less class time spent listening to other student presentations.

3.     I incorporated opportunities to hone public speaking skills into our lessons. By including Socratic Seminars, debates, and discussions, students learned public speaking skills without actually presenting.  

4.     Because students had to make several presentations throughout the year, I slowly added a minute to the required length of each presentation. In addition to becoming longer, the presentation topics became gradually more complex.

5.     Add requirements. Require visuals, graphs or props. Ask students to include at least one story in their presentation.

6.     Students who were not presenting have to be required to listen. Originally, I started off by requiring students to grade their classmates. But, I realized this only made the anxious presenters even more nervous. I shifted strategies; requiring students to either write or ask one question of the presenter.

What are some of your strategies to improve students public speaking?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Adminstrators Role in Encouraging Teacher Risk-Taking

In previous posts I discussed the need for risk-taking and how teachers can inspire risk-taking in students. Today, I’m going to focus on how administrators can encourage risk-taking in the their teachers.

One of the biggest impediments for teacher risk-taking is that so much is at stake. Our best teachers realize that every minute of every class matters. Hard-pressed to effectively teach the curriculum in the allotted time, teachers stick to their tried and true lessons. If a lesson bombs, conscientious teachers feel immense pressure to make-up for lost time. For these reasons, teachers often stick with what’s comfortable, not wanting to leave their comfort zone. In these days of high-stakes testing, I can’t blame them.

To encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zones, school leaders must be trusted.  The relationship between trust and risk is paradoxical. There is no trust without risk. There is no risk without trust. Risk-taking requires everyone to go outside their comfort zones. Taking risks will increase trust and allowing teachers to take more risks, they’ll become better at taking future risks.

How can administrators create a risk-taking and trusting environment?

1.     Communicate. Make it clear that you want teachers to try new lessons, knowing that the outcomes are not sure. Clarify the degree of risk that is acceptable. Teachers need to know that it’s more than okay to diverge from the district prescribed pacing guide, for example. Once trust has been established, ask teachers to invite you into their classes when they’re trying a brand new lesson. Make it a school-wide goal that each teacher will create at least one brand new lesson.
2.     Collaborate. As administrators, we must find time to allow teachers to work together. Providing teachers time to brainstorm, share and discuss is vital. To become the best, teachers must communicate and collaborate side-by-side. A team approach lessens the apprehension associated with taking risks. Risk-takers need support, creative license and encouragement to try new things, to occasionally fail and to recover.
3.     Professional development. As teachers we often revert to the safety of lectures or what we’re most comfortable with. At our school's edcamp earlier in the year, two teachers presented on how they used games and high-energy activities in their classes. While they presented, an excellent veteran teacher turned to me and said, “I’ve always wanted to try things like this, but was never sure of myself.” For the next 30 minutes she scribbled notes and asked questions of the presenters. Armed with new strategies, she tried several of them out over the next few days with great success.
5.     Recognize behaviors as much as outcomes. Last year, a non-tenured teacher tried something new for her formal observation. Her lesson bombed. In all fairness much of what happened was beyond her control: the Internet went down and several students were absent due to testing. The lesson, of course, was contingent on having access to the Internet while students worked in groups. Because it was a new lesson, the teacher didn’t have a bunch of tricks up her sleeve to deal with these problems, so the class slowed spiraled out of control. It would have been easy to give the teacher a scathing observation.  Instead, I focused on the teacher’s positives. Her lesson was well designed. She remained calm and collected (tougher said than done as the Internet periodically came and went, teasing her and her students). Never punish a teacher for a well-thought out risk.
As administrators, we must encourage risk-taking. Risk-takers are more likely to feel trustworthy and accepted. Teachers should be encouraged to try something new, so they can prove themselves and learn from their experiences.

We owe it to our students to encourage risks. 

How do you encourage risk-taking behavior?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Creating a Risk-Taking Classroom Environment

As teachers, we know the importance of investing our time and energies into building trust and relationships with our students.

But just because your students trust you, doesn’t mean they’re ready to take risks. For true risk-taking to occur, students need to trust their classmates too.

Think about it. Who do most students want approval from? Their peers.

Are students in your classroom willing to take risks in front of their classmates?

The other day, a student, who is well respected by her peers and her teachers, told me she intentionally minimizes her class participation in several classes because she doesn’t want to be seen in a negative light by her peers.

Hearing this, I sat down at lunch with a group of our high-achieving seniors and asked, “Are there times where you censor yourself in class because you don’t want to be perceived negatively by your peers?” Almost universally, they answered, “Yes.”

One expanded on her answer, “In some classes I don’t even like it when a teacher calls on me to share an answer or my thoughts.”

Ouch!  Here were some of our best and brightest saying that they’re not comfortable answering or asking questions. They held back during class discussions. They intentionally minimized their risk-taking at the expense of educational exploration. 

So how can you encourage risk-taking in your classroom?

1.     Demonstrate and Model Risk Taking
This can be as simple as stating at the beginning of a new lesson, “I’m trying something new today with this lesson. It’s been a pretty good lesson in the past, but it wasn’t one of my best. I worked hard to create an engaging lesson. Let’s see how it goes.”

2.     Model Failure
I’m a horrible artist. I know it and as soon as I complete my first drawing, my students know it. One of my first lessons of the year requires me to draw a prehistoric scene.  After completing the drawing, I tell the students, “You have 30 seconds to laugh and make comments about my drawing.”

During the 30 seconds, one student—either an immense suck-up, someone who is equally inept at drawing or one of the kindest people on Earth—complements my drawing.

After the laughter subsides, I build upon the kind comment. “Thanks for the kind words. Simple complements like that can inspire. Most of you laughed or made snide comments; I’m fine with them because I know I’m an awful artist, and I think it’s important to be able to laugh at myself. But, lets always be mindful of others as we move forwards. We’re going to be with each other for another 80-plus days for 90 minutes each day; we want to be positive with each other.”

3.     Provide risk-taking opportunities
As teachers, we must give up some control. Students need autonomy. The learning needs to be real, relevant, interesting and meaningful. As teachers we must make learning possible. We cannot learn for the students.

One of the simplest means of providing risk-taking and authentic learning opportunities is to share your learning objective/target with the students and tell the students, “How can you show me that you [insert learning target]?”

Allow the students to brainstorm and collaborate. Initially it may be awkward for you as a teacher to relinquish some control (students also may be uncomfortable at first), but the end reward of authentic learning will be immense.

This philosophy, of course, is at the heart of project-based learning, but is just as effective with a simple daily assignment. Engaging assignments stimulate curiosity and creativity. As Daniel Pink stated in an interview with Scholastic, “Science shows us the better way to motivation is to build more on autonomy, our desire to be self-directed; on mastery, which is our desire to get better and better at something that matters; and on purpose, which is our desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.”

4.     Minimize the pain of making an error
In providing student with choices, many students will choose a safe, time-tested approach. Students—often it’s the ones with the highest GPA’s—are afraid to take risks because it can negatively impact their grades. Learning is a process that shouldn’t be graded. Errors and mistakes should be embraced as part of the learning process. If the project or assignment is being used for assessment, allow students the opportunity to demonstrate mastery in another way or extend the due date.

As teachers, it’s our job to instill in students the realization that effort will lead to improvement and learning. In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmonson says, we must highlight failures as learning opportunities “by avoiding punishing others for having taken well-intentioned risks that backfired, leaders inspire people to embrace error and failure and deal with them in a productive manner.”

Students who trust their teachers believe that teachers will turn their failures into learning opportunities. They know their efforts will be valued and rewarded by their teachers and peers. Only in such environments, will students be willing to take risks.