Guest Post: What Do We Tell Students When They See What’s Behind The Curtain?

Pat Larkin’s children not only go to school with my children, but he was my son’s first basketball coach.  Yet, he and I really did get to know one another until about a year ago when he reached out to me via twitter.  Two weeks later we met for coffee with our respective families at our favorite breakfast place in Exeter, Me & Ollies.  Since then, Patrick and I have not only cultivated a valued professional relationship, but also a terrific friendship.  He and I traveled to Educon together (along with Eric Conti), organized the first Northern New England Tweetup (#nnetweetup) in Newburyport, MA, and correspond nearly daily.  To say that he has become one of the most valued members of my PLN would be a massive understatement.  I respect his leadership immensely, and truly value his friendship.  So when I first thought of this idea to have a guest blog series, Patrick was the first person I asked.  I am honored to host his post below:

I am constantly amazed at the free-ride we get in public schools in regards to some of our traditional practices.  With this in mind, we have been having a lot of discussions here at Burlington High lately about student voice and encouraging students to ask questions about some of the practices that they feel need to be revised in our school.  Having said this, you can imagine my excitement when I got the following e-mail from one of my students:

Dear Mr. Larkin
I’m unsure as to whether this is the right place to talk to you about my concern about how each class works with the student GPAs, but I’m going to give it a shot. As a student, I study hard and I suppose I’m a competitive student. What I find ridiculous is how some students have it easier than others. For example: If a group of students are taking an honors class and there are two teachers who teach it, one teacher may be more lenient than the other. So while the students with the more difficult teacher work harder for the A, the students in the other may not have to work as hard to receive that A. I’ve seen this with an Alegbra II class and I’m filled with discontent that while my classmates and I work hard to get a decent grade (some who are brilliant, hard-working students that receive a B), the students in the other class hardly have to work hard, and almost all of them receive A’s when I know that a majority don’t work hard. I know that it’s impossible to have all students be taught under one teacher to make things fair, but the situation I just described sort of throws the class ranking off, as students are receiving A’s when they don’t deserve it.

All I can say is wow! This student has his eyes wide-open and he has nailed one of the biggest issues we have in our schools.  Grades, grade point averages, class rank, etc. really don’t have any validity.  On another note, kudos to this student for articulating this issue so clearly and so respectfully.  Part of our mission is to teach responsible citizenship to our students so that they will ask tough questions. At least in the case of this student, our mission has been accomplished.

So while I have grown quite fond of saying, “This is not a Burlington High School problem, this is a public education problem,” my intention is not to utter a disclaimer that takes us off the hook and implies that there is nothing we can do.  But having been in three high schools that have all had the same issue described by this student, I don’t have a quick and tidy answer.

How do we resolve this issue?  Or is it one that we can only minimize and not resolve completely?

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5 Responses to Guest Post: What Do We Tell Students When They See What’s Behind The Curtain?

  1. A comment like that can elicit many thoughts and I have lots but I’ll share a couple.

    One one hand part of the issue comes as we still have many people thinking norm referenced grading as opposed to outcome based. Having these two competing ideas isn’t great for kids. The closer we can get to a standard or outcome based system the less discrepancies we’d have.

    And yet embracing subjectivity and appreciating the diversity among teachers is critical to preserve. Asking for uniformity in all areas will lead to a stale, factory like model, the very model many of us are trying to reform.

    Finally, the continued focus on grades, particularly in elementary and early high school years seems to directly combat our efforts to instill life long learning and curiosity. We’d do well to consider assessment FOR learning rather than evaluation. There’s a big difference. As a coach, you know that you rarely rank your players in development stages but rather provide specific feedback for them in order for them to improve. While we may use a variety of measurements, some quantifiable, others much more descriptive, it’s not intended as a comparison against one another but rather as data and information that’s useful to your player. Ultimately they’ll decide whether they will improve. You’re just providing the conditions under which that can happen.

    A very complex, controversial issue but those are a few of my thoughts.

  2. plarkin says:

    Dean,

    Thanks for the concrete response to what can be a very gray issue. I agree with whole-heartedly with your thoughts on norm-referenced grades vs. outcome-based grades. Maybe I shouldn’t even be talking about grades. The bigger question is what did the students actually learn?

    Your second point is very much at the heart of the issue. I know that we need to appreciate the diversity among teachers, but I almost feel that this is the company line that we throw out when questions come up that stops us from having the conversations necessary to get better in this area. Believe me, the ideas of uniformity makes me cringe. That is definitely not the direction to move in!

    Why does this have to be a controversial topic? I agree that it is, but when we are talking about providing classrooms where students can find their passion and make relevant connections, why does it have to be this way?

    Is it because we are too teacher-centered and not truly student-centered?

    • T.Calvin says:

      If grades are to provide data for the sake of students, why do we assign values that are the smallest possible amount of data? There’s literally nothing smaller we could record.
      Given cheap and plentiful digital storage, why don’t we create portable digital portfolios of student’s work? That would create not only a record of how well students completed work, but also what work the teacher assigned. This might foster an atmosphere of transparency and allow teachers to at least be aware of the differences between classes.

      A thought.

  3. Chris LaRocque says:

    I’m a big fan of what Mr. Calvin had to say. It’s a great notion to apply technology’s transparency to assess both students and teachers. I have absolutely seen the issue of disproportional grading taking place in B.H.S. Each teacher has their own style and twist when it comes to delivering the curriculum, both of which pull the grading style and difficulty in a different direction from one teacher to the next.

    The only solution I could think of would be to standardize a testing cycle. Tell teachers that every four weeks, or any amount of time, there will be a standardized test covering specific material that their students should have learned during that amount of time. The student’s grades on that test can not only tell us where each individual student lies within a class rank, but it will also give a clear indication of whether or not the teacher in question is doing their job correctly.

    While that’s a bold solution, the problem itself is a daunting task to tackle, and is one that seems to haunt every school. I’m extremely interested to see how B.H.S can approach this issue in the future.

  4. Cesa Perde says:

    very thanks beautiful

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