The case against grades

Grades lower self-esteem, discourage creativity, and reinforce the class divide, argues Michael Thomsen on Slate.

. . .  the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.

In Ed Week’s Teacher, Kimber Larson, a sixth-grade teacher, advocates grading students on what they’ve learned, not on their behavior.

She doesn’t deduct points for late work or assign zeroes. However, “every assignment must be turned in, even if that means sacrificing their recess, special event, or class party until it’s completed.”

Instead of giving extra-credit points, she lets students redo assignments to show what they’ve learned, belatedly.

She grades only end-of-unit assessments.

It is a wonderful thing to see that my students feel safe to make mistakes as they discover, create, and grow throughout the learning process. Because I provide feedback instead of grades on their practice work and formative assessments, they aren’t focused on a score that will haunt them on their report card. The comments and corrections on practice work are much more meaningful than a grade, so they focus more on learning and appreciate the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite their stories, two or three times if necessary, to raise their grades. It was more work for the teacher, of course.

Broward County, Florida is considering eliminating the zero, making 50 the minimum grade for an uncompleted assignment.

Should grades be abolished? Based on learning rather than behavior?

Mao (and Confucius) in the Kids’ Zone

“Our attitude towards ourselves should be ‘to be satiable in learning’ and towards others ‘to be tireless in teaching’,” wrote Mao Zedong (Tse-tung to us oldsters), according to the U.S. Education Department’s Kids’ Zone web site. Actually, Mao wrote “insatiable,” which makes more sense.

When someone objected to giving the “quote of the day” to a Commie mass murderer, it was replaced with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, reports Buzzfeed. That didn’t stop the mockery.

The department apparently takes random education-related quotes from a database and puts them up without proofreading or thinking.

Mao was exhorting fellow revolutionaries to study and promote the Communist movement, writes Robert Upshaw on The Ponds of Happenstance. He found the original in The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War.

 Very clearly, the quote in context is about studying for the sake of propelling the movement, not for the sake of knowledge in its own right. And the teaching bit is about teaching others in order to bring them into the same movement. It’s cult-speak, plain and simple.

“Insatiable in learning” and “tireless in teaching” are Confucian phrases found in The Book of Mencius, writes Upshaw.

Study: Sorting students boosts scores

Sorting students by performance “significantly improves” reading and math scores, concludes a study that analyzed  data linked to a cohort of elementary students in Dallas. Sorting helps both high- and low-performing students, though the high achievers showed larger gains.

Tracking went out of fashion a generation ago. Teachers are supposed to “differentiate” instruction for students with varying levels of achievement, English fluency, ability or disability and “learning styles.”

“A wise wonk once wrote that the biggest challenge facing America’s schools is the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom,” notes Education Gadfly.

Analysts attempt to account for unobservable ways that schools might sort (say, by student behavior) and ultimately find that three-quarters of the schools organize students along at least one dimension: Nineteen percent by prior math scores, 24 percent by prior reading scores, 28 percent by “gifted” status, 57 percent by LEP (limited English proficiency) status, and 13 percent by special-education status (further, around 40 percent sort by at least two dimensions).

Grouping all students by prior performance would produce a significant gain in reading and math achievement, researchers concluded. However, school leaders also must consider “the impact of homogeneous classes on classroom culture and the importance of flexible grouping (so that students move out of low-level classes after they demonstrate mastery).”

Slow learning

Jen Li, who grew up in China during the violently anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, has spent her academic career in the U.S. “trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Learning Virtues.

Westerners see learning as “something people do in order to understand and master the external world,” Li believes. “Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

Westerners stress the “aha moment of sudden insight,” while Chinese respect “the arduous accumulation of understanding.” (It reminds me of the “slow food” movement.) Of course, Chinese wouldn’t think of teasing nerds, if they had such a concept. “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination,” Brooks writes.

Brooks wonders if the U.S. can find “moral/academic codes” to motivate our students. Could we add a dash of Confucianism (he also likes Jewish Torah study) to our culture?

Digital immigrants, unite!

Students are supposed to be “digital natives,” while teachers over the age of 35 are “digital immigrants.” That implies teachers’ expertise is obsolete. That’s just not so, writes Bill Ferriter, a sixth-grade English teacher, on The Tempered Radical.

Sure, today’s kids CAN play video games and surf YouTube videos and send text messages and check their Facebook profiles without any help.

And YES, they have Pinterest pages long before their parents figure out that Pinterest isn’t some clever marketing campaign for newfangled online savings accounts.

They ARE successfully liking and poking and friending their way through life without our help.

But is that REALLY something to celebrate?

Aren’t those entertainment-fueled behaviors nothing more than concrete evidence of a troubling disconnect between what kids CAN do and ARE doing with technology?

Ferriter’s digital friend, Brad Ovenell-Carter, asked high school students in Vancouver what they’d do with two hours in a tech-loaded room and no assignments to tackle.

While some of Brad’s kids planned to spend their time making videos for the greater good or creating digital art, most figured that Instagramming it, editing themselves into Justin Beiber’s videos or printing 3D images of Harry Styles to take home would be more fun.

He asked if they agreed there’s “a gap between what you CAN and ARE doing.”

One student responded: ”Maybe there is a gap, but perhaps only because we don’t exactly know what is all possible.”

Another said: “I would try and change the world… but I’m not sure how yet.”

Teachers can build start “a bridge between what THEY know about technology and what YOU know about efficient and effective learning,” Ferriter concludes.

Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: ”I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

Mishmash museum

The new National Children’s Museum in Washington D.C. is a “lame” and “boring,”, according to the Washington Post reviewer’s sons, six and eight years old.

There was a giant crane, which they could crank to lift baskets of stuff. It commanded their attention for a couple of minutes. They liked the textured ramps that they could send cars racing, bumping or crawling down. And the exhibit designed to explain politics and campaigning offered them an opportunity to make campaign buttons. They drew goblins with butts (which some folks may agree is an accurate depiction of much of Congress).

I tried hard to get them excited about the play kitchen or the African marketplace.

Not even the fire engine held their attention.

A Yelp reviewer, Stacy A. from Arlington, wrote,  “This isn’t a children’s museum, it’s a mid-sized playzone.”

On Education Gadfly, another parent blames the blah on “the sad outworking of too many years of mushy social-studies standards.”

No structured content, just a mishmash of world culture with clothing and food prep, etc.,  focusing on their place in the world, neighborhoods, even a bunk bed to understand . . . not sure what.”

Few states have good social studies standards, though South Carolina and Ohio are exceptions, writes Checker Finn. “The effort now underway to develop some version of national standards for social studies is off to a dreadful start.”

I recently took the grandkids to the Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview, Illinois, which is designed for little kids. It’s a “playzone.” The girls enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s any more educational than playing at home.

Discipline: Playing the numbers game

If black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, is that discrimination? The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a Florida school district on charges its discipline policies have a “disparate impact” on black students.

Black students made up 16 percent of Flagler students but accounted for 31 percent of the in- and out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-11 school year, the complaint states. Black students accounted for 69 percent of those expelled.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on School Discipline and Disparate Impact. “Most, but not all of the teachers reported no effort by school administrators to interfere with classroom discipline, but some reported onerous procedural and paperwork burdens before any disruptive student could be removed from class,” according to the executive summary.

School administrators said it’s important to tell students “what the rules are; why the school has those rules, what the consequences are for violating those rules, and being consistent in applying the rules.” (No kidding!)

Jamie Frank, a teacher who’s taught in a variety of schools, said pressure to meet accountability targets affected discipline policies.

. . .  in some school districts teachers were ordered to reduce racially-disparate suspensions in spite of threatening behaviors toward teachers involving weapons. For example, in her school teachers were ordered to substitute a day of “exclusion” at home for what otherwise would have been a suspension. Her view was that the schools felt pressured to pass some minority students through high school regardless of how many days they did not appear for classes to keep graduation numbers high for each racial group.

. . . Ms. Frank said that in her school the administrators were told to reduce their suspension numbers. As a result, they developed a euphemism –“in-school exclusion or intervention” — which allowed the school to avoid reporting the data as suspensions. In addition, the teachers had to fill out a form that required contacting a parent three times before disciplinary action was possible, and that usually a minority student simply reappeared in school even if parents did not respond.

Commissioner Kirsanow asked about the effect of retaining disruptive students on the learning experience.

“Horrible,” said Frank.

Carnegie eyes replacing Carnegie unit

The Carnegie Unit, which measures learning based on time in class rather than actual learning, may be on the way out. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which developed the measure in 1906, will study ways to measure competency.

New ‘core’ test will be (a bit) shorter, simpler

One group developing tests aligned to new standards will make exams shorter and simpler — but less capable of providing detailed feedback on students’ performance, reports Ed Week.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups crafting tests for the Common Core State Standards, will include only one lengthy “performance task” in each subject—mathematics and English/language arts. The test will include multiple choice, short response and “technology-enhanced” questions. But it won’t be all that quick: SBAC estimate seven hours of testing in grades 3-5, 7½ hours in grades 6-8, and 8½ hours in grade 11.

A performance item might ask students to “tackle longer, more complex math problems and write essays based on reading multiple texts,” reports Ed Week.

In this version, students will evaluated on  math concepts and procedures, communicating reasoning, and problem-solving/modeling/data analysis and on reading, writing, listening, and research.

“Is it about getting data for instruction? Or is it about measuring the results of instruction? In a nutshell, that’s what this is all about,” said Douglas J. McRae, a retired test designer who helped shape California’s assessment system. “You cannot adequately serve both purposes with one test.”

That’s because the more-complex, nuanced items and tasks that make assessment a more valuable educational experience for students, and yield information detailed and meaningful enough to help educators adjust instruction to students’ needs, also make tests longer and more expensive, Mr. McRae and other experts said.

Separate formative and interim tests can help teachers figure out what students need to learn, while the end-of-the-year test is used for accountability, say SBAC designers. Teachers will be able to use an online bank of test questions and tasks and a bank of “formative” tools to judge students’ learning.