Friday, March 28, 2008

What Do Grades Really Measure?

When I feel my ideas growing and changing, it almost always hurts, like someone turning a great big crank in my head that doesn’t get used often enough. I’ve been thinking about grades and grading lately, and I’m not sure which way is up anymore.

As a student, I enjoyed a positive relationship with grades. I honestly believed that grades measured my mastery of content, my learning. If I earned a 93% on a test, I believed that I had demonstrated comprehension and retention of 93% of the expected material. If I earned a 93% on an essay, I believed that I successfully expressed my points in written form. It felt clean and straight-forward to me, and I enjoyed the extrinsic measure of my intrinsically motivated hard work and intelligence. It seemed to me that American society rewards extrinsic measures, and I didn’t do well in most of them. We didn’t have a lot of money, I wasn’t the prettiest girl, and I didn’t possess athletic ability. I was smart, and my grades proved it. Like the season records of sporting teams I didn’t make, my grades showed that I did something well.

When I first started teaching, I used a grade formula that gave almost all the weight to tests and essays. When report card time came around, it distressed me to see that students who took two tests and wrote one essay could score a B in my class despite missing lots and lots of homework and class assignments while kids who really worked hard but had trouble testing nearly failed. I restructured my grade formula to give more weight to homework and class assignments. I didn’t teach honors kids like I had been; I taught students who sometimes struggled to learn or struggled to prioritize learning, and I felt that I needed to let all the practice and effort count.

Currently, I teach in an English department that requires a certain number of essays to pass the course. If students skip or fail even one of the essays, they do not pass the course. We call them Core Assignments. In a composition class, my assignments tend to build in difficulty: the first essay can be first person with no quotations; the second essay requires quotations and third person voice, and the third essay is a big research project. If students skip the research essay, for example, they wouldn’t have demonstrated the mastery of writing that students who struggle through it will demonstrate.

Recently, I’ve started reading Bill Ferriter over at The Tempered Radical. He’s a middle school teacher who doesn’t give zeros anymore. Now, he’s in a school system that supports his efforts with scheduling and duty assignments. I’m not teaching twelve year olds; in high school and beyond, the GPA becomes a nationwide phenomena that’s difficult to duck. However, the concept that I’m using grades to reflect punishment and reward rather than to measure learning took my breath. I’ve spent some time asking my colleagues: Does a student’s grade measure what he or she has learned or reflect how much he or she has turned in?

What should a grade measure? One colleague said that bosses don’t want employees who do one or two jobs brilliantly but skip everything else assigned to them. Grades, she reasoned, reflect a mixture of content and skill mastery along with work behaviors. If parents or students want to break out learning mastery from work behavior issues, that can be done by looking at the exact numbers contributing to the student’s grade. Ferriter argues that grades should measure purely learning, and he assesses work behaviors separately on a rubric that is not numerically represented in the grade. Should single assessments like tests and essays measure learning as opposed to quarter grades? Are grades really a measure of cooperation as much as learning? Is that okay?

Years ago, a close teaching friend and I argued over the concept of a school without grades. At that time, I wanted to know if all the sports teams at such a school would also forgo scoring, based upon my own relationship with grades as a student. Yet whenever I’ve defended grades, I’ve done so because I believed they measured something more worthwhile than obedience. I’ve always taken late work because I agree that work worth doing is worth doing late, but I’ve always taken some points off. I don’t think I’ve asked myself if the grades I give as a teacher measure what I believed the grades I received as a student did. Sigh. I’ve got more thinking to do on this one…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Teacher, What's my Grade?"

Ten years ago, this question played a normal part of my teaching life. Occasionally, I printed out grades (names obscured by a code, of course) and taped them to the door, so students could see where they stood. A few kids might keep track of their grades in the back of their notebooks, but essentially, if they wanted to know the real numbers, they had to ask me.

As we rolled into the twenty-first century, however, school districts and technology made some changes. For about the past five years, I’ve been logging student grades into a Learning Management System that makes those grades available through the Internet. If the assessment isn’t an essay, I often have the grade posted by the end of the day; it just helps me keep track if I don’t let entering the grades pile up. Students’ averages are calculated by the minute, for them to stare at and for their parents to critique.

So now when a student strolls into class and says, “What’s my grade?” my chest clutches a little, and I hear, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Unlike the old days, this student has access to all his or her grades. The question has come to mean, “What the hell are you doing to my grade?” Getting defensive isn’t helpful. I try to remember that despite the consumer/product nature of LMS grading systems, it is just a tool, and I am still the teacher. I try to smile and say, “Why, let’s look at it together, okay?” I know that this is Stage 1)—the stage where the student and I look at the potential problem. Stage 2) brings in the cavalry, and that can be exhausting…

Most of the time, the student has turned in make-up work that I have not graded and entered yet. LMS grading systems obscure the fact that I, a human being, am doing the grading and entering the data. Its instantaneous automation creates a false sense of “real time” for students. If they turn something in at 2 p.m., they expect to see it on the grading system by 6 p.m. While I do accept late work, I don’t usually grade it right away. Once students are sure I have their late work, they usually leave our meeting satisfied.

Sometimes, the problem rests with user error. Some students may be able to access their grades, but they don’t really understand how to read an incomplete course average, which can also be assuaged with two or three minutes of help from me. It is true that every so often, “What’s my grade?” leads to a testy confrontation, but really, that happened when I taped grades to the door, too. Something about the LMS grading system makes me feel more vulnerable. I guess because I used to decide when grades would receive the most scrutiny. I didn’t tape the grades up unless all the make-up work was entered or before I’d nagged students to make up missing tests. Now the grades are available for scrutiny 100% of the time. I’m organized—I’m smart—I can handle it! However, I am sorry that “What’s my grade?” now makes my back stiffen…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How About a $75,000 Raise?

In the New York Times, Elissa Gootman’s “At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay” has me thinking. The first principal and school founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, plans to pay his teachers a starting salary of $125,000 year. As principal, he will earn $90,000. He is 31 years old, and he taught middle school for three years through Teach for America after graduating from Yale himself. His teachers will put in a longer work day and school year than traditional teachers and will have additional administrative responsibilities. “The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. At full capacity, it will have 28 teachers and 480 students. It will have no assistant principals, and only one or two social workers. Its classes will have 30 students.” Getting a job won’t be easy for interested teachers: “There will be telephone and in-person interviews, and applicants will have to submit multiple forms of evidence attesting to their students’ achievement and their own prowess; only those scoring at the 90th percentile in the verbal section of the GRE, GMAT or similar tests need apply. The process will culminate in three live teaching auditions.”

Okay, so the first thing I did was look up my GRE scores. I consider myself a good teacher, and for all that additional money, I suppose I’m willing to brush up and take the test again to lift my lazy 89th percentile up a notch. To be completely candid, that percentile qualification rubbed me a little wrong. While I think test scores matter, I’m not certain they reflect everything my students have learned, and I’m not convinced my GRE verbal score reflects my capacity to teach language. I suppose GRE scores reflect some level of intellect, however, and the cutoff has to be somewhere, right?

Next, I wondered about working for a 31 year old principal without school management experience who earns less money than the teachers. Won’t the fact that the collective experience of Vanderhoek’s teachers greatly outweighs his own be a problem? I’ve never held a position of authority over my fellow teachers, but my experiences running the occasional workshop (as well as the behavior I’ve observed during faculty meetings) leads me to believe that we teachers can be a tough crowd. Would an additional $75,000 each make us more cooperative or attract people who do what’s best for the school without ego? If the principal is the only administrator in the school, and he is not the highest paid executive officer, will the leadership role still work? Perhaps the entire power structure would be different. As principal, does Vanderhoek still fire teachers or determine class loads and room assignments?

Some of my other considerations are more personal than professional. Would earning $125,000 for my teaching (assuming I could make the cut, of course) give me the same martyr satisfaction that I get from earning $50,000 at the master’s level after thirteen years of experience? (Oh, I’m sorry, is my Catholic showing?) Does the same kind of teacher seek out the big salary? I’d get public school kids with a private school paycheck. In truth, I’ve never dreamed that I could earn that much money without sacrificing my democratic ideal that strong teachers should remain with higher need students in the public school system. If I could afford to truly travel or pay someone else to clean my home, would I have better energy for my students? How much longer is the workday and work year? If someone else cleaned my house but I had to be at school until 6 p.m., would my energy level end up being the same? Would I feel more patient and less frustrated if I could buy better shoes and afford to have my hair professionally highlighted? Would I have to dress better and start getting real haircuts? Am I even motivated by more money?

Maybe the thought of earning over a 100K for my work is so completely unfathomable to me that I can’t properly think about it any more than I can imagine sprouting wings and flying to work. With that pay scale, I start to think that teaching would require the kind of “on-site” time dedication other jobs that pay 100K require. Currently, I do lots of my work from home; I grade essays at 5 a.m. or on Saturday afternoons while I watch my son play in the yard, and I email reminders to students on Sunday evenings while watching television. I work many hours “off site,” planning lessons in my head while I drive or browsing for articles and topics on the Internet. If the 100K requires more hours in the school building, I’m not sure teaching would permit me to be the kind of parent I’m striving to be. Then again, who knows? Maybe I could work part-time for more than my current full-time salary. (I have to say, I find that much more tempting. If I had fewer students and more time, I dream I could fix the world, one five paragraph essay and close critical reading assignment at a time.) As the old joke goes, “They say money won’t fix education. I say, ‘Let’s try it once!’” Good luck, Principal Vanderhoek. I’m very interested to see what this experience yields. May it benefit both students and teachers…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Soon It will be Morning in my Classroom...

Well, my weekend of revitalization paid off. I can now see past the state testing to the new horizon: my classes after Spring Break. The state testing will be over, yet it won’t be the tougher, keep ‘em in their seats weeks of late May and June. There will be a few, short, sweet weeks when the content of the curriculum can be more fully mine. I can indulge the kinds of lessons that made me want to be a teacher and quite frankly, those lessons will work because my students will have some writing competency built up from the institutional rigor I’ve used up to this point.

In some ways, the freedom makes me dizzy. Since April is National Poetry Month, I’m leaning towards a poetry unit. I discovered the Poem in Your Pocket movement, and it dovetails nicely with my latest thrilling book discovery: How to Make Books: Fold, Cut & Stitch Your Way to a One-of-a-Kind Book, by Esther K. Smith. This book would have changed my life when I sponsored the school literary magazine; it still may change my life. Smith calls the first book an instant book, and to me, it is a paper folding miracle. Using an 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of white paper, Smith shows readers how to make eight folds and one cut to have a six page miniature “zine.” No glue. No stitching. The best part? It uses images from only one side of the piece of paper, so feel free to Xerox the content and fold away for cheap and darling mass production. Amazing. One of the big components of teaching writing pedagogy is publication, and this technique makes it easy and satisfying to reach that point.

The state objective, “Students will gain an appreciation for literature,” graces many of my lesson plans, but rarely do I get to make it the main thrust of my content. I know that some of my students will groan and that they may not react with the same energy and enthusiasm for a poetry unit and pocket poem mini-books that I have, but at the very least, units like the one I’m planning offer me a chance to be excited about reading and writing in front of them. I can hardly wait…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher