The Dog and Pony show

I’ve got my classroom observation coming up soon.  We only do them every three years for veteran teachers, so it’s been awhile for me.  I serve on the evaluation committee and have long been interested in teacher evaluation because it is a process fraught with errors and has potential to really harm a school’s culture and its teachers.  That being said, something that comes up all the time in regards to observations is the so-called “dog and pony show.”  There is such concern among school leaders that their evaluations are marred by these dog and pony shows rather than seeing the real thing.

Here’s the thing about these dog and pony shows.  If an observer watches a teacher put on a show and perform some excellent teaching, why is that a problem?  Doesn’t that indicate that the teacher can fulfill the expectations of the observer/leadership team?  If the school is pushing for student centered learning, and the produces a student centered lesson, bravo!  What that really means is that the teachers is capable of doing what is asked.

Of course the argument is that they aren’t doing this all the time.  To which I say, shouldn’t we ask why?  If teachers aren’t dong it all the time, doesn’t that indicate that they teacher does not feel that it is the right thing to do all the time for whatever reason?  Sounds to me like that is a leadership issue.  Instead of trying to subvert the observation system and “catch” teachers teaching improperly, leaders should be working on convincing teachers to do this all the time.  Fear of being caught is going to make this happen.

If in your observations you are seeing a lot of “dog and pony shows,” maybe you should reconsider how you are selling your product.

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Educational Jargon and our students

Something I hear fairly often this year is kids saying things like: “hey, how’d you do on the formative in math?”  Or, “Wait, the summative in Chem is today?” or other such things throwing around educational jargon.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of most jargon to begin with, but there is something about students using it that makes me feel uneasy.

You might say that it is a good thing that kids use these terms because it suggests that students understand the purpose of their assignments.  Perhaps if we tell kids that there is a summative assessment coming up, they will know to take it seriously and understand that this assessment concludes the unit.  Yes, students should understand why we are giving assessments, and we have a responsibility to our students to explain our rationale in most scenarios (I do believe there are some scenarios where this is not the case).  But I do not use jargon with my students to explain this.  I often say to my students something like “tomorrow’s quiz (a term they are all familiar with) will help me to see where you are in this unit”  That express the purpose clearly without clouding the issue.

You see, my problem with the jargon is that it does not clarify much for our students and, quite frankly we are not all using the terms correctly.  The fact that we attempt to classify all types of assignments as either formative or summative in our grade book is really quite silly.  We say that quizzes are formative so instead of saying quiz we tell our students it’s “a formative.”  Except, in talking with teachers in all different departments, that quiz is not used formatively.  No  assessment is formative or summative in its nature.  It is what the teacher does with the information that makes the assessment formative or summative.  What may be formative in one class is summative in another (whether it was meant to be or not).

The result of this is that students have a faulty definition of these terms which change from one class period to the next.  I’ve asked my students what they think those terms mean.  “formatives” are shorter and count for less.  “Summatives” are longer and count for more.  That’s what I was told universally when I asked my class.  If we think that by using these terms were are clarifying things to our students, we are wrong.

Stop saying a C is “average”

Today is a day of grading for me.  All of my classes today are taking assessments which affords me the opportunity to get a lot of grading done.  In fact, I have one set of essays down for the day!  Of course, since they are assessing I’ll be grading more in the future.  I, like most teachers, grade A LOT.  We talk about grades and assessments all the time in schools among teachers and with students.  Like it or not, grades are a tremendously influential piece of the educational system for us.  And as we talk about grades, I constantly hear teachers saying that C is “average.”  It is well past time to change that mindset.  We need to stop saying that to ourselves, among our colleagues and to our students.

I teach upper level students who are used to getting good grades.  In fact many of them are upset at even getting a B.  A C is unfathomable to many, if not most, of them.  I am constantly trying to get them to stop worrying so much about their grades and recognize that the B on their essay is not a bad grade.  It is an uphill battle, but I am very conscientious to make sure that I don’t tell them that a B is “Above average” because that solidifies the idea that C is average.

You see, a C is not the average anymore. I just did some data checking of my grades-and remember I have a reputation for being a hard grader-and both the mean and mode in almost all my classes for the last few years is a B.  And I am willing to bet the same is true for most teachers.  The stereotypical bell curve no longer peaks at a C; the peak is at a B.  There is an argument to be made about grade inflation here, sure, but a C isn’t average anymore.

Secondly, society’s attitude towards grades have changed.  A C was once acceptable for many.  Now it’s not; and it’s not because of this shift.  Ask just about any parent (and there is research available for this): B’s are OK; C’s are not.

Finally, the term average doesn’t belong in our grading vocabulary if we want to call ourselves standards based.  Average is, by definition, a term to be used in a norm referenced model.  Average is about comparing one student to the rest of the class.  If we are attempting to grade based on level of proficiency towards a standard, then average is irrelevant.

Let’s shift our mindset and our vocabulary.  A C isn’t average.

What does “exceeds standard” means

Grades are one area of education that has always intrigued me.  I’ve always felt that grades were about much more than just what a student knows or is able to do.  The latest research in education continues to confirm this.  But even with the push into standards based grading, there is room for a great deal of inaccuracies and subjectivity, and grades are still, at least partially, related to how well the student can “play school.”

I preface this all by saying I am a strong supporter of standards based grading; I believe it is more accurate by far and a better means of communication to the student.  I also strongly believe that grading is not something that can be changed quickly and overnight.  Ideas about grades are simply too deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.  That being said, I come to today’s post from two distinctly different pieces of information.  One is a grading directive here at my school with which I vehemently disagree; the other is an article I read about a school in Maryland reverting back to an A-F scale from what they call “standards based.”  (I question their use of the term standards based here).

In short I am bothered by how we are defining (or not defining) the highest grade.  In the Maryland school district it was called “ES” for “Exceptional.”   (Why ES is beyond me).  In my school a 4 is our top grade and is defined as “exceeding expectations.”  In some way many schools are defining their top grade as such.  But what does exceeding expectations mean?  If meeting our expectations isn’t the top grade, shouldn’t we change what our expectations are?

And there are some standards that are impossible to exceed.  I like Tom Guskey’s analogy about archery.  If the standard is to hit the target from 20 feet, that cannot be exceed.  Moving the archer further away is changing the standard all told.

What makes it even worse is when we can’t even define exceeding expectations on our rubrics.  How am I, as a teacher, supposed to accurately grade a student when the best definition I can give for a grade is, “I’ll know it when I see it”?

“Exceeding expectations” or anything similar is a nonsense term that should be removed from our educational lexicon.

Our students aren’t open for experimentation

One of the first things drilled into me in my psychology class in High School was experimental ethics.  Ethics is one of those concepts that has always intrigued me and experimental ethics is part of that.  The reality is that it is wrong to experiment on people unwillingly (a sole example).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of educational shifts.  As educators we should be trying new approaches to our curriculum, our pedagogy, and our practices.  I am all for trying out new ideas and have been constantly revising things throughout my career.  But we have to be thoughtful and judicious as we do so.  We must remember that our students are not open for experimentation.

When we are experimenting with new ideas, we have to remember that we are potentially sabotaging our students learning and grades.   Like it or not, we live in a society in which grades still matter.  They matter not just because they determine credit for a class or because parents say so.  They matter for college acceptance.  They matter for students perception of their own self-worth (unfortunately).  They matter for teachers and peers preconceived notions.  I’d love to get rid of grades all together, but as of right now, grades matter.  A lot.  And this matters to us as educators because when we are talking about experimenting with our students’ grades, we have to be very wary and very thoughtful.  Our experimentation (piloting, testing it out, or whatever you want to call it) has potential for serious consequences.  I have both both the #1 student and #2 student in the junior class this year.  If I experiment and fail with their grades and drop them from those spots, that’s a big deal.  Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is.  I have an ethical responsibility to my students here.

I’m talking grades now, but this is also about their learning.  I have been entrusted to help my students learn.  If my experimentation fails, am I consequentially harming my students?  Again, I have an ethical responsibility here.

This is a short post today, just to get some thoughts down.  I believe in moderation in most areas of my life including education.  Yes, let’s try out new things, but let’s remember the potential ramifications.  Our students are not willing subjects in our educational experiments.

Why am I emailing parents all the time?

I don’t think parents want to know nearly as much as we seem to think they want to know.  Parents claim they want to know everything happening in their child’s school day, and we try to make that happen.  We post our curriculum so parents can see it; we post our weekly lesson plans so parents can see exactly what we are teaching their children.  We post grades in real time so parents can see exactly what is completed and how their children did on it.  Many of my colleagues are constantly sending email updates to their students’ parents.  One of my colleagues even makes this a weekly routine.

And yet, I would bet most (and by most, I mean an extremely high percentage) parents barely even look at any of this.  Maybe it’s cynical of me, but in my experience most parents become interested when their child is doing poorly or something goes wrong.  Do we really believe many parents are carefully reading our class policies when we make them sign it?  Think about it.  A parent with 2 kids in high school would have about 15 different sets of policies to read if we all did this.  My son’s kindergarten teacher kept a blog last year updating parents on what is happening in class.  To be honest, I looked at it maybe 4 times all year.

This is all to say, we bend over backwards to inform parents, but it isn’t really worth all the effort.  Please know that I think the home-school connection is vital; I just don’t think we are going about it the right way.  I don’t have the answer, but I’m trying something new with my summer school students.  I haven’t decided if it works quite yet, though.

Instead of emailing their parents myself, I made my students email their own parents and CC me on it.  The summer session is only 3 weeks long, so on Friday of each week, students have to email their parents telling them what they did this week, any grades they got, and upcoming due dates.   This keeps parents posted, forces communication between the student and his/her parents, makes the practice writing a bit, and saves me the time.

Does it work?  I don’t know yet.  A few students are super resistant to it.  I’m pretty sure one of my students doesn’t actually email his parents-just some sort of dummy account.  Students don’t know how to write appropriate and effective emails either.  In fairness, this is a skill I should probably be teaching them, but summer school doesn’t allow enough time for that really.

I’ll obviously contact parents if I have concerns as the summer session rounds out, but I like the premise of having students send the email instead of me.  I think this is an idea I’ll toy with a bit more during the actual school year.

Warning: Deadlines are closer than they appear

Today is the last day of April break.  Tomorrow starts the down hill slide to graduation and summer break.  This means my juniors have their major essays due in a few weeks, and my seniors are fighting (not hard enough) lustily against senior-itis.  Thinking about the end of the year has me thinking about deadlines and holding students accountable.

There is a general consensus in education circles today that students should not have their grades punished for missing deadlines-that leniency is necessary since it is more important that students complete the work and it doesn’t matter so much when they complete their work.  This has led to much frustration as the theory and practice aren’t aligning nearly as nicely as people would like.  Teachers lament that students believe deadlines don’t mean anything and we aren’t teaching them any sort of accountability.  Isn’t part of our job to teach them responsibility?  Sure, if I don’t turn something into my boss on time, I don’t immediately lose my job, but if I consistently don’t do stuff on time, I do risk losing my job.

These are all very legitimate arguments, but punishing students’ grades is not the answer.  In reflecting on my practice when listening to other teachers, it occurred to me that I don’t have nearly as many issues with students taking advantage of me regarding deadlines.  Part of that is that I teach some A level classes, which are students who are generally responsible and motivated by grades.  But I also have a reputation for being a bit of a hard ass; my students-in pretty much all my classes-will tell you that my workload and expectations put them under a great deal of stress.  And yet, very few issues regarding deadlines.

To that end, I’m going to throw out some different strategies I use for managing student deadlines:

  1.  provide sliding deadlines.  I sometimes provide a range for a due date: essays are due Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.  You choose.  When I do this, even my most habitual malingerers give me an essay by Friday.
  2. indicate a time when the essay is due and provide a justification.  Somethings are due at the start of class since we will be using them in class.  Some things are due by the end of the day (2:30 to be precise)
  3. let the class decide on a  due date.  I give them a time frame (1 week), lay out what we are doing in class each day that they may have to prepare for, and then the class decides as a whole when they want the thing due.  I find providing this control for them really helps.
  4. let them decide individually.  I generally only due this for my smallest classes, but sometimes when I hand by essay drafts, I ask each kid when conferencing: when can you get me the final draft?  They’re generally pretty reasonable and then they can pace themselves accordingly.  Is it more work to keep track of each kid’s individual due date?  Not really-I just keep a little log going for each day.
  5. remind them that they can turn stuff in early.  I find this helps them pace themselves better and avoid procrastinating.
  6. sometimes I keep a countdown on the board for major assignments.  This keeps it a little fresher in their heads.
  7. move pre-established due dates.  It demonstrates flexibility and kindness on my part.  I often have essays due on Fridays, but then change it to Monday when I realize there is no way I will start grading them over the weekend.
  8. work with kids individually on their time management and deadlines.  This should be a no brainer, but it bears repeating.  If I notice a kid is way behind in major project, I’ll usually sit down with him and set new due dates and goals for him to get caught up.  Letting him sink further into a hole helps no one.

I’m sure there are plenty more great ideas out there.  This is just a quick list to get started.  God speed to all teachers as we head toward the end of the school year.