Yesterday schools in our state (Maine) were given their grades by our department of education. Under our current governor’s administration, a brilliant idea was cooked up to grade our schools on an A to F system. According to our DOE website. “All parents and community members deserve to understand how well their children’s schools are performing and what is being done to improve them.” So all of the intense work, strategic planning, collaboration, intervention and effort of a school gets boiled down to one alphabetic symbol to represent some of the most complex work you can imagine. For most parents and community members their understanding of grades will overshadow any and all explanations of the process or analysis of the data. A=good, everything else =not good enough. For the staff who dedicate their lives to the children in their buildings, it minimizes and devalues effort, persistence, and commitment and instead values a tidy packaged report card.
As you might guess, I am not a fan of this system. I am 100% for reflection, analysis, evaluation and accountability, in education. I just don’t think an incredibly complex system with an infinitely diverse population of individuals can be neatly deduced to such a simplified reporting system. Rather than creating transparency, it creates confusion and frustration. Here are my biggest concerns…
Who defines “performing”?
If you are in education this won’t come as a surprise to you, but “performing” in grades 3-8 is defined by a single test. ONE TEST. Oh sure, the test is given over several days and it does cover ALL the important areas of education (sarcasm alert) Math and Reading. So basically what you do every single day for over 175 days can be accurately captured by the bubbles a child fills in (or doesn’t) on one test. That report card grade on a an entire school is really just a report on how well the 3rd-8th grade students in Maine did on their NECAP tests. If parents think that report card is a reflection of the quality of their schools they are being seriously misled. Education wonks rally behind claims of supporting multiple intelligences, differentiation, standards based education, social responsibility, arts and creativity, flexible thinkers, 21st century skills, etc and yet they narrowly reflect a schools’ approach to all of these with a snapshot of one test on one particular day in a child’s life.
Grades are outdated
It is incredibly ironic that our state has mandated standards based instruction and assessment for all students because grades do not accurately tell us what a child knows and can do. We are teasing out the skills required to meet dozens of standards that will reflect what our students should be able to understand and how they can demonstrate that understanding in multiple ways. So we need to move away from simplistic grades for our students because we understand how complex and multi-layered learning truly is, and yet we assess schools on the most rudimentary system available to us. To most teachers this is a mockery of the hard work and initiatives being implemented to meet students needs. The fact that this paradox isn’t obvious to our education department is very telling of their grasp of understanding.
Simplicity Isn’t Transparency
Most parents and community members lead very busy lives. They trust that what gets reported to them is accurate and informative. Though the state has posted a page explaining the methodology for the grading system, it is not realistic to think that everyone who reads these report cards will seek out that information. Even those who try and can actually find the website would benefit from a degree in education (or at least Jargonese) to decipher the process.
When the purpose of grading is explained as “All parents and community members deserve to understand how well their children’s schools are performing and what is being done to improve them.” and you don’t accurately portray what it means to ‘perform’ in a school and you in no way share what is being done to improve’ you are paying lip service to the concerns of a community who wants to support education and you are providing fodder for those who want to jump onto a teacher-bashing bandwagon.
Simplicity Trumps Accuracy
In it’s first year of implementation, many schools reported that the information the state used to calculate its grade were inaccurate. Some schools received an “F” because they didn’t have enough students take that one test. How reliable is the information those parents and community members receive about the performance of their school? Others were knocked down a grade because literally one or two students did not take the test. How does that honor the work of all of the other students or their teachers -even if you did believe that one test is an accurate reflection of a school’s performance. Some schools actually have higher test scores but are graded lower than others!
3/4 of Maine’s schools received a C or lower. As a parent we would be extremely concerned if our child came home with C, D or F grades. We would think something is seriously wrong. And yet Maine students consistently score ABOVE the national average on math and reading according to the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). In fact Maine’s scores have continued to show improvement. So when our governor says “My mission is to make sure our education system gets the visibility that it needs to get throughout the state,” I have to ask, “WHAT are you trying to make visible?” I believe his lens is so narrow that what he chooses to make visible does not create an accurate picture for parents and communities, and that serves no one.
Schools Do Not Exist in a Vacuum
One of my biggest issues with grading schools is that it assumes that schools are 100% responsible for student performance and pretends that there are no other factors which can influence the education of a child. When policy makers treat education like a business, it ignores the basic philosophy of education-that we take individuals wherever they are and move them forward to the best of their abilities. It assumes our raw materials‘ condition or history is irrelevant to its outcome. They are so far removed from the reality of our classrooms. They disregard the effects of poverty, abuse, neglect, hunger, depression, mental illness, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, or trauma on our students’ abilities to not only cope, but thrive and learn. If only we made our lessons more entertaining, or we tested more, or we increase our expectations they would be just fine. Now, I have no problem with reflecting on what we do and strategically planning for improvement-but I also KNOW that making sure children are well-nourished, safe, cared for, healthy and loved is equally if not MORE important to their cognitive growth. And sadly, so many of these issues are beyond the control of the school and it is no wonder that the grades schools received last year aligned perfectly with their poverty levels!
Even this approach however, is laying all of our chips n the cognitive development “pot” and disregarding what employer are telling us are the skills they are looking for in today’s workplace. Scoring well on a test in reading or math is not the only indicator of success or the only attribute that all of those “job creators” want from their employees. According to Forbes, employers found critical thinking, complex problem solving, judgement and decision making, active listening, and computer/electronic to be the top 5 skills they are looking for. Does our simple grading system help parents and community to know how ready their child is for life beyond school?
Grades are Punitive
No one from the Department of Education has provided any evidence of how slapping a grade on a school directly enhances performance. If shaming is confused with motivating I am even more discouraged by the decisions of our leaders. There is a wide body of research on grades and their effectiveness (or lack of it). One of the biggest arguments for our state’s grading system came from our governor “I want the good schools to be rewarded and those that aren’t doing as well, to be able to help them. That’s really the agenda.” The research just doesn’t support this goal. When students receive high grades they see it as a recognition of their success and they no longer reflect on that learning. Students who receive low grades often disengage from their learning or rationalize the scores to preserve their self-image or feel helpless in the situation. The research does not support the notion that low grades motivate students to work harder. Why don’t our leaders reflect on the research of the effectiveness of these proposals before adopting them as policies?? This reinforces my belief that grades are meant to embarrass and punish schools and not support them. It shows an incredible lack of leadership.
Tomorrow the grades will be released to the public. Many communities will congratulate themselves on their excellent schools, most will not. They will either rally around their schools and their teachers or vilify the teachers and their unions depending on their preconceived notions of education. They will use this information to confirm their beliefs and bolster their arguments. The best that I can hope for is that once the shock and awe wears off, we can begin a conversation about what our schools and our children REALLY need. In the meantime, I will encourage my colleagues and try to reassure them that this grade in no way reflects them as teachers. We cannot allow ourselves to be defined by those with such little understanding of education and what it means to be a teacher in today’s classrooms. Let’s reflect and grow together based upon the REAL information we have, let us focus on what our real mission is- nurturing this generation of children to be the best they can be in school and in life. We got this!
What’s on My Book Radar
The most fitting book I can think of for this week comes from one of my favorite authors. Andrew Clements cleverly reveals how grades are not an accurate indicator of intelligence or ability. His main character Nora is easily able to disguise her genius when grades seem to be the only indicator that many teachers are willing to look at. This tale reveals that perception is not necessarily reality. Timely for teachers in Maine this week!