The Response from Parents in October

This photo shows where this group of Graded parents stands on university for their children. As you can see, the standards are high.

This photo shows where this group of Graded parents stands on university for their children. As you can see, the standards are high.

School started at the end of July and by October students and parents were questioning our implementation of the new changes. A group of parents presented us with the following list of questions.

Questions from Parents

  • Why the implementation did not consider a pilot to test and debug the system before implementing it to the whole high-school?
  • Which are the reasons to change a grade system in the middle of the high school (changing rules in the middle of the game)?
  • One of the consequences of the new system is a considerable increase in workload for teachers. What is the approach used in the new system to overcome this challenge? How was the training process for the teachers with regard to the new system? How long were they trained?
  • Is the system fully implemented according to the original plan? Has anything gone wrong with the implementation? What are the difficulties encountered in the implementation process?
  • Does the school have any plans to approach colleges aiming to explain the system so the students have the same opportunities in the application when compared with other students with a different grading system?
  • Does the school have any plans to approach colleges aiming to explain the system so the students have the same opportunities in the application when compared with other students with a different grading system?
  • The general perception is that the new system will result in lower grades for students. While this issue can be adjusted over time it is not clear how long this will take and more than one class may be severely impacted by its adoption in the way it was implemented.

Our team quickly moved to meet with parents and I still remember facing a somewhat hostile audience of parents. While we humbly defended our work, we knew that there was a sense of urgency to improve.

HS Parent Meeting Grading.100614

Out of this experience I learned the following:

  • This was the first time that we had standardized grading and reporting practices throughout the high school and this was not an easy task. In the past each department has a certain level of autonomy which meant that we were frequently on different pages. Making this change was easier said then done. We had to constantly define our policy language and unpack the details. We encouraged everyone to ask questions so that we could find out what was not understood. We were revisiting policy at every faculty meeting.
  • Making these changes put all of us under the microscope. I realized that poor practices that went unnoticed in the past were now being commented on by students and parents. For example, if the formative assessments did not align with the summative assessments, students noticed. If the classroom activities did not align, the students noticed.
  • While we had piloted certain aspects, it may have helped to do more prior to the full rollout.
  • The parents were right, these changes did mean much more work for teachers. Our teachers were having to work much harder and the pressure was on for them to improve their assessment practices.

Stay tuned for what we learned at the end of the first semester.

Did we really expect to escape the critics?

By October, we started hearing grumblings from students and parents. Below is a copy of the petition from some members of the Class of 2015. In the midst of the college application season, our seniors were nervous.

2014 Senior Petition

We immediately shared this information with our faculty and scheduled meetings with the seniors and then grade level groups with the 9 – 11th graders. We also surveyed the entire student body to find out more about their understanding of the new policies and how the implementation was going.

We had a tremendous amount of faith in the students’ abilities to adapt and be successful under these new conditions. While some students were signing the petition, there was a large group of seniors who saw the value of the changes. Unfortunately these students were less vocal than their peers. We had also solicited information from university admission representatives and we believed that our students would not be negatively affected during the college admission process.

We explained to the students that we would continue working with them on their adjustment and that we believed that, in the long run, they would benefit. We were determine to move forward and find ways to improve the implementation and on our grading practices.

Wait until you see what we learned after semester 1.

 

People Get Emotional When you Talk about Changing Grading Practices

Over the years I have followed newspaper articles from communities where grading and reporting changes have taken place and quite often the conversations lead to heated arguments, animosity, teachers getting suspended and/or fired, principals getting losing their jobs and court cases.

Possibly the most controversial change that really gets tempers flaring is when schools decide to not assign zeros to missing student work. While the two sides don’t usually get physical, the battle can be nasty.

"Untitled" by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

“Untitled” by RyanMcGuire is licensed under CC0 Public Domain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under these circumstances it’s very difficult to change overall practices. Instead of the focus being on changing assessment practices to improve learning, individuals take a myopic approach and the two sides get bogged down in the single issue. The fear of having to face upset parents, students and teachers typically leads to continuing the status quo. The status quo, even though flawed, is just easier to continue.

Fortunately, the Graded community was appreciative to discuss assessment practices that improves learning. Our teachers, parents and students saw the value of being able to give feedback to students on academic performance and separate feedback on learning habits. There wasn’t a battle around the typical divisive issues (i.e. zeros, extra credit, participation, group grades, homework grades). The only issue that created a stir throughout the year was reassessments (more on this in another post).

These are the responses from the high school faculty at our opening faculty meeting for the 2014 – 15 school year.

From the start of the year we were continuously learning in these four areas (and others).

What did I learn?

  • That it is never too soon to prepare for rolling out these changes. Ask teachers to respond to these prompts as early as possible.
  • Having a community that supports the concepts and initiative makes the rollout easier.
  • Even when you have the support of the community, there will be disagreements and critics.

What’s it like to change grading and reporting practices that have been around for over 100 years?

1923 Gradebook Page 1

At Graded, In 2012 we started working on plans to redesign our assessment practices to better meet the needs of our students. The most difficult work happened during the 2014 – 15 school year and everyone in our community was on a steep learning journey.I am so proud of our faculty for taking the risks by stepping out of their comfort zones by trying something new. For me, it was probably the most challenging year of my career. I have been wanting to document this journey since last August and with so many educators embarking on these types of changes, now is the time to share. My story of our work is probably much like that of others who have decided to break the cycle of the use of grading practices that don’t promote learning and a growth mindset. Jeff Lippman shared the story of our middle school in this November post, Gathering Feedback For Growth: Grading and Reporting Changes.

Teachers have been assigning grades to students, based on averages, since at least 1870 (Guskey) and most of us have only experienced a system where final grades determined by averaging all marks. We attended school where teachers used this system and then, as educators, we adopted these practices when we started teaching. And, most of us have been in systems where the grades included scores that reflect learning habits. This means that the final grade is not truly indicative of the student’s knowledge and skills.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

This is an example of how we used to handle students turning in work late. This practice factors learning habits into the grade.

So, after two years of prep work we decided on the following.

Purpose

All grading and reporting, as part of the school’s overarching assessment philosophy, strives to be comprehensive, equitable, and transparent in the spirit of continuous improvement. The purpose of grading is to communicate achievement of academic standards and habits of learning to all stakeholders.

The impetus for change:

  • In the 2012-13 school year we adopted new Achievement Descriptors. It is impossible to fully implement those descriptors without separating academic achievement from learning habits.

  • The schoolwide focus on assessment over the last three years has led us to question the current Grading and Reporting paradigm.  In order to align our work with our philosophy, changes are necessary.

  • Feedback from teachers, parents and students in addition to Challenge Success data in both the MS and HS suggest that the focus of our students is often on the “grade” rather than on the “learning”.

  • Our current system of grading does not encourage a growth mindset amongst our students as it punishes risk taking and failure.

  • Our current system of grading does not clearly help students gather information about their strengths, weaknesses and areas of potential growth.

Academic achievement grades will not include:

  1. Grade penalties for late work.  Teachers do not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence.  Instead, there will be a non-academic consequence which will be reported in the learning habits assessment and supported by the procedure described below.

  2. Group scores: While teachers are encouraged to design tasks that involve collaboration, those projects should be assessed individually for each student.

  3. Grade penalties for academic dishonesty: This will be treated as a disciplinary matter. Teachers will not reduce grades or give zeroes as a consequence. Graded’s policy is designed to ensure that academic work is completed with integrity.  When students do not demonstrate academic integrity, the Policy on Academic Dishonesty will be applied.

  4. Extra credit or bonus points: There will be no “enrichment assignments” that are meant only as a means to “raise the grade”.

  5. Overall participation grades: Unless participation is a part of the academic standard that is being measured, students should not be given a “catch all” participation grade.  Examples of appropriate participation grades: Oral participation in a socratic seminar in relation to a reading (speaking and listening standards). Oral Participation in a science debate.

  6. Homework grades where the purpose is practice or reinforcement, should not be included in the academic achievement grade.  Teachers should keep a record of these formative assessments and provide feedback on progress in Veracross.

  7. Zeroes when evidence is missing or as consequence;  teachers will use IE for Insufficient Evidence and students will be subject to the late work policy as described below.

As a faculty, we struggled with really difficult decisions and the we were learning throughout the experience. While there were times when the work was difficult and challenging, I always believed that it was the best for our students. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing more of the story, including a post entitled “Revolt and Regroup” and information on how grades will be determined by teachers this coming year without using an average.

Embarking on a New Adventure

I officially became the Head of the Upper School at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School on July 1. It seems like ages ago since I accepted the position in November. After five enriching and rewarding years as the High School Principal at Graded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I have moved on to a new adventure. Mount Vernon’s Mission and Vision certainly appeal to me because the school community is creating a culture of innovation for all of its members. 

Check out just some of the MVPS initiatives.

The MV Continuum shows the Mission, Principles and Practice, Norms and Mindsets.

Those of you who know me will understand why this is the perfect fit for me at this point in my career. It’s also an amazing opportunity for my children.

I look forward the the challenge and then sharing my learning with colleagues. Stay tuned for more details in the coming weeks.

Habit and Mindsets are Difficult to Change

In March, after attending a workshop by Gary Stager at ASB Unplugged I posted The Future of Math Education and two recent articles on math education have me thinking about this topic again. The New York Time article, Why do Americans Stink at Math, by Elizabeth Green and Jessica Lahey’s article, Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate it from The Atlantic should be the sources for a professional learning community (PLC) study. The purpose of this post is not to fully analyze these two articles. The purpose is to share a few of the main ideas in hopes that they will stimulate thinking and a dialogue.

The main idea behind Green’s article is that:

“The new math of the ’60s, the new, new math of the ’80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work.”

And even though these curricular initiatives were designed to transform math education, little has actually changed. Green presents one major reason for this inertia.

“Consequently, the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.”

The “apprenticeship of observation phenomenon” is something that all educators face when it comes to changing practices in their subject matter. We’ve seen over the years that educators have a difficult time changing their mindsets. To add to the problem, parents have a view of how education should be based on their experiences. When educators actually do change practices, parents can be critical because the changes don’t match their vision (frustrated parent’s rant on Common Core math practices).

Lahey profiles the work of Steve Strogatz from Cornell University. Strogatz is teaching an introductory math course for non-math majors. “The curriculum he teaches is called Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Mathematical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts (DAoM); it was developed at Westfield State University byJulian Fleron and three colleagues and funded by a grant by the National Science Foundation.” The learning focuses on using “student-led investigations into problems, experiments, and prompts.” The curriculum looks promising and they are already sharing the results through student quotes, videos, other data.

I’d love to dive deeper into these ideas even though I’m one of those individuals who thinks he hates math.

Best Practices Just Aren’t Enough These Days

Best Practices – Aren’t. Mike Myatt. Forbes Magazine. 15 Aug. 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/08/15/best-practices-arent/

Just over a year ago I read George Couros’s post, Ignoring the Status Quo and after this I have been campaigning against best practices. I was in search of alternatives to looking at “best practices”. Unfortunately I’ve been doing a poor job of communicating the concept that best practices keep up the status quo without taking us to a new level. Thanks to Brett Jacobsen at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School I started reading Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. They clearly explain the benefits of best practices mixed with “bright spots”.

“They’ve long since learned to “benchmark” competitors and absorb industry “best practices.” While these habits are useful, they are rarely transformative. Good ideas are often adopted quickly.”

In Decisive, they give the example of how Sam Walton replicated practice that Ben Franklin was using where customers paid for their items at one location at the front of the store. In the past customers would pay separately in the respective departments. As more stores starting adopting this strategy it became common practice. Walton would frequently ask, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?” I find that we do this all the time in schools. In the international school community, The Principal’s Training Center listserv is buzzing with colleagues who are gathering information on what others are doing (“best practices”). This type of sharing is necessary and very helpful. For example, about a year ago we asked schools (see The Best Time – Design Thinking Part 2) how they were organizing their classroom without walls trips. We received some excellent ideas and ended up piloting trips based on the best models that we found.

The Heath Brothers present a case for a combination of best practices and “bright spots.” The bright spots are solutions that come from alternative thinking within the organization. Thinking that is tailored to meet your needs and takes the solution to the next level. This type of thinking can lead to mash-ups or innovative practices.

“The search for options might lead the manager to search first for best practices. In a world with thousands of other organizations, someone has surely faced this problem before. Next, she might look for bright spots within her own organization, …”

Using the classroom without walls trip example. We’re basically at a point now where we need to develop brights spots that will improve our school trips. Based on the feedback that we received from teachers and students, the pilot trips were excellent, but they weren’t innovative and we didn’t quite accomplish our objectives. We’re now in the process of developing a new iteration for next year’s learning experiences and we plan to take them to another level. A level that better meets are needs and will hopefully be seen as a “next practice”. Notice that I said “learning experiences”. We’re realizing that the activities for the week don’t have to be trips.

I’m changing my campaign in support of best practices and bright spots.