Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What's my grade?

"Grades are due before you leave today" was the final announcement during morning meeting.

The dirtiest word in education is "grades." I say dirtiest because it is the messiest part of teaching. Do we give grades or are grades earned. That depends. This morning an angry teacher and angry student were in my room discussing that student's need to do CyberSchool because the grade the teacher gave the student was a 64% The student needs a 65% to pass. This teacher then went over to another student, also in CyberSchool, and commented on the grade the student was earning in hir class. Grading depends on so many variables that they can't be valid for anything. I am lucky to say, I don't do grades anymore. Well not the way they are still done.

Teachers need to submit a piece of paper at the end of semesters and school years to their schools that contain numbers/letters assigned to each student that represents some form of assessment of that student in that class for that given period of time. This is where it gets real messy. In many cases the grades are no surprise as many teachers conference with their scholars on a regular basis. But still, there is still something about this ritual that is such an unnatural act to what has preceded this ritual. It is the worst time of the year when it should be the grandest as we celebrate the accomplishments of our scholars.

I wanted to speak about something I tried a number of years ago with a ninth grade class and liked the results. In my first NYC school, the English Advanced Placement teacher selected scholars for the class based on the GPA of 88 or higher. All scholars were guaranteed no grade lower than their GPA for the course. They could earn a higher grade, of course. This encouraged the scholars to take the class. Immediately, I saw this took the fear of failure away from the scholars. I discovered this allowed them the freedom to take chances and to actually engage in scholarship. I wondered if this would work in a non AP class? I had been including the scholars in the grade process already. I was asking them to email me what grade they believed they deserved and why they deserved that grade. 95% of the time the grade they felt they deserved was a grade, I too had arrived at. In the other 5%, we had useful conversations.

At the end of the school year, I was given The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander with the suggestion to read Chapter Three. In this chapter, Benjamin Zander is relating the crisis we teachers face when grades step in to muddle our scholars' thinking. He was teaching a graduate music class of excellent musicians, but the problem was their fear of hurting their GPA by taking chances and possibly failing. He decided to guarantee everyone an A. The results were similar to what my AP English colleague had found. They took chances, they discovered something about themselves, and they all did more than the A.

I was now involved with the creation of a new school in NYC. I was convinced I could do this with my ninth grade class, the first class in a new school. We wanted to establish a culture of scholarship, not one of the pursuit of the grade, so I decided to guarantee all of my scholars a 90 as an experiment. Only one student out of nearly 100, did nothing. He spent the next three years trying to make up for that loss and admitted he had made a mistake in not taking on the challenge. Other teachers have adopted parts of the idea.

I'm no longer teaching in a traditional classroom. I administer the CyberSchool in my third school in NYC now. Our school is a transfer school. That means our students come from other schools where they have not made it. Other students may be returning from previously dropping out, maternity leave, recently released from jail, and any number of reasons for not being in a school. Too many of our students do not live at home with their parents, they live on their own or even in shelters. Our school is a last chance school. They choose to return and complete what little of high school they have left. Many scholars in this school need partial credits in any number of the disciplines. I give the credit for the time they spend in my computer lab completing projects. I review their work and I am impressed with what they produce. When their teachers come to review the folders, they too express admiration. In CyberSchool they have some choice, they produce products, and they know they will pass. They take chances, they explore the material, they ask "can I do this" and "can I do that?" "Of course." I respond in the affirmative.

Grades are an unnecessary roadblock in scholarship. I think they send the wrong message and create a negative culture. I have seen the highly competitive schools and have seen situations revolving around grades that is ugly. I've read stories about how parents get too involved with grades that some schools have eliminated the Valedictorian. The question is how do we satisfy the needs of administrators, government officials, and others that the scholars are producing in the schools. The word "accountability" is bandied about too much by politicians. It is a word used by accountants, not educators. It's the wrong word. "Assessment" is the word most appropriate for educators. We have many good methods using technology to demonstrate scholarly learning on the part of our scholars in our schools. CyberEnglish was such a model and CyberSchool is another. We are seeing a successful use of web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis too, to display the scholars' products. I think the publishing corporations have the ear and pockets of the politicians, so we have the NCLB tests as the tool of accountability in America instead of common sense tools of assessment.

I had planned on writing this entry today, because grades are due in our school today and was reminded about it on another blog, Beyond School, where I'm involved in that conversation.


Clay Burell said...

Nice post, Ted, full of interesting anecdotes. Do you think initiatives like Fair Test have a chance of reforming the grading system nationally and more?

Busy with Wimbledon, but just wanted to drop in, and add that it's wild to be reading you on a blog instead of that old listserv of years gone by.

Ted Nellen said...

It would be great to think that an organization like Fair Test could have an effect on educational policy. Problem is it doesn't. Sure the public and teachers know about it, listen to it, and subscribe to it. They buy Alfie's books, fill his sessions at conferences, but little is accomplished. Educational policy makers pay little attention to Monty and Alfie and the others, they do what they want; or rather should I say they do what the educational lobbyists (McGraw-Hill, Harcourt-Brace...) want. Fair Test has been around for more than a decade and still they are in the closet, no one knows about them. They are a well kept secret and at best an extreme view. Mainstream has yet to speak about them, report about them, use them. Too bad, too.