Balancing two worlds

An interesting situation has developed this year…I seem to be living in two worlds with regard to grading and assessment in schools.

World number 1 – my professional domain

I have the honor and privilege of working in the business of education. I am blessed to work with teachers to grow their instructional practices, provide professional development on a number of important issues facing educators, and have been given the space and support to promote healthy grading practices. Learning always seems to be this chaotic process no matter whether it is for adults or kids, but I get to be a part of that wonderful experience for both.

I work within my district as well as with other districts to change how we look at assessment and grading. We discuss the purpose of grading and work to make it meaningful, accurate, and non-threatening for students. It is a huge shift in paradigm for most, but really important for kids and how they view school.

World number 2 – my parental domain

I have two children, one in elementary school and the other in junior high. Let’s just put this out there…it is virtually impossible to walk the fine line between parent and teacher when we consider our children’s education. I do my best to find that line, yet there always seems to be a gray area. At times I feel like I know too much with my background, but I refuse to discontinue my pursuit of better practices to grow and cultivate student learning.

Here’s the juxtaposition…my children are being graded for compliance, and it seems to be across the board with regard to content areas. Points are lost for missing signatures…deducted for lack of color on a math assignment where all problems are completed…gained for binder organization…the list goes on. They are developing a fear of bad grades and missing and/or late assignments (even a small one) for the repercussion that follows. They feel the high stakes of testing and assessment when reassessment is not an option. Anxiety has crept into their educational experience. As a parent, I work diligently every evening to refocus my kids back to the importance of learning. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to reinforce the natural progression of learning when a school culture is grade and compliance focused.

I have nothing against their teachers. They are wonderful people who truly care about the students in their classrooms. This is how they were instructed and how they are expected to teach kids lessons of responsibility, effort, and accountability. Don’t get me wrong, these are important lessons for all students…I simply disagree with including them in a letter grade. I worry that students’ academic achievement is not accurately communicated and no one knows how much of the grade is behavior, growth, or proficiency levels with the standards.

Moving forward I feel I need to ask some questions to best help my children. Are there any standards that are below proficient and need additional practice? Are there behavioral concerns that I can help to improve at home? Is my child growing and improving throughout the year? I also want to let the teachers know how thankful I am for their care and the positive relationships they have developed with my kids.

How can I separate my roles as a parent and educator? The truth is, I can’t. Together they are who I am as a person and deeply intertwined. I will continue to reflect and attempt to walk that fine line. I will search for ways to ensure my kids focus on learning while respecting the values and culture of their school. Living in two worlds is an interesting and challenging situation. I hope in the future the two will merge and become one.

The fear factor of accountability

The right thing to do and the hard thing to do are usually the same. -Steve Maraboli

Do teachers fear holding students accountable for their learning? What about students holding themselves accountable? Teachers holding themselves accountable?

True analysis of proficiency levels at the beginning of the school year or throughout a unit can make us feel vulnerable as teachers. Do I really want to know where my students are starting? Or would I prefer to start where I always do with the first unit and proceed according to the curriculum guide as the year progresses? I was asked at one point in my teaching career if I would actually use pre-assessment results for something…I was shocked to be asked this. If I were going to take the time to give a pre-assessment, I had better do something with it! I had never thought of not analyzing the data or results to inform my instruction. But I suppose in communities of compliance, for some teachers giving a pre-assessment was just checking off another box on the form of good teaching. ‘No one told me that I have to USE it for anything’…sigh.

Another concern with accountability is communication, and at times tough conversations. We open ourselves up to a different type of exchange with kids, parents, and colleagues when kids are not achieving at a high level even at the beginning of a unit.  Students feel pressure and don’t necessarily want to bear the burden of accountability, yet this is a shared responsibility. Parents are such a critical support in their children’s learning, but sometimes would rather give sole liability for success to the school or the teachers. We risk pushback from teachers who feel kids have the right to fail, not complete formative practice, and even refuse to assess.

I believe this stems from a few factors. Our students are overly concerned with grades and perfection. They pass the accountability of failure along to the teacher especially when put on the spot about a low grade. Students must be held accountable to a high standard learning and know that apathy is not an option. Help them understand nothing will be perfect and the learning process is a series of steps forward and backward. Hold them to the fact that learning never stops, and they are never finished with it. Assure them that you are working with them, not against them. Giving students ownership of learning and accountability for it is not easy or comfortable for them, but it’s the right thing to do. Letting them off the hook by allowing a zero or time to sit idle because their work is ‘done’ does them no favors in the future.

Teachers are also accountable in the learning process for addressing students’ varied needs, maintaining and delivering high quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment, creating a culture of learning, and supporting students in failure and success. Teachers need to make learning experiences meaningful, relevant, and respectful to the student. Grading practices that support learning lead back to student accountability. Instructors provide and are responsible for the support, but learning is for the students. For many of us, student growth is or is becoming a part of our evaluations. This can be a scary new world of accountability, but when the learning happens, the growth will follow. Providing high quality instruction and assessment in a culture of caring and trust will produce the gains we are looking for.

Are you ready to be vulnerable and guide your students to share accountability with you? It may not be easy, but it is the right thing to do.