Collaboration or Confrontation

As we discussed a while ago (see, recognizing the value of teachers will lead to everyone’s working together to make schools better.  With the daily barrage of negative educational stories like the repeal of tenure in California (with New York on deck) and Time magazine’s rotten apple analogies, the public is led to question whether or not teachers have the abilities to take on the challenges of the classroom.  That will only lead to teachers’ having a diminished role in their schools which will also negatively impact their effectiveness.  As that effectiveness is impaired by those who know little about what it takes to run a classroom, the public sees teachers in an ever-increasing downward spiral.  In contrast, the best schools have highly respected teachers with healthy egos who own their hallways and feel they can handle almost any challenge.  A confident teacher is one who won’t back down from a classroom of disinterested students, will deal with discipline problems firmly, and will show such command of material that students will want to emulate the mastery they see on display every period.

This is learned skill, by the way, as I had no such presence when I started teaching eighth grade at Peacock Junior High School in Itasca, Illinois, back in 1979.  Every day was a struggle, especially my average class of 34 angels I had the privilege of teaching not one, but two periods a day.  Oh, and of course they were the last two periods of the day.  The less said about this trial by fire the better, but the dread and terror I experienced daily during that endless year would shock the ninth graders who had the good fortune of being in my freshman honors classes for over twenty years at Hinsdale South.  I developed from a cringing neophyte to a demanding dojo leader, and trust me; the students at South were loath to incur my wrath.  I was rarely the smartest or most gifted person in the room with these talented students, but they definitely knew who was in charge.  And that was to their benefit as the focus never wavered from the learning which I had determined they needed to have.

The reason I’m bragging about what an awesome teacher I was isn’t because I was, but that the general environment in which I worked fostered my confidence and allowed me to make classroom decisions without fear of being second-guessed by those who weren’t even in my school, much less my room.  Unfortunately, as illustrated before, that has changed for the worse.  And one of the unrecognized contributors to this “teacher malaise” is a supposed technological advancement that teachers, unfortunately, have been quick to embrace:  the grade program.

For those of you unaware of them, grade programs are basically spreadsheets with all the assignments a teacher has given, the points possible on each assignment, and how many points the student has earned.  All those points are then converted to the percentage/grade the kid has in that class.  If that were all grade programs did, they would be little more than an electronic version of the good old grade book teachers had been using ever since an innovative caveperson teacher switched from chipping grades onto stone tablets to the more portable green graph paper.

The problem with grade programs is what happens next:  After the teacher has recorded the grades for her classes, the results for each individual student are made available to his/her parents, posted online.  And this has contributed to changing the collaborative relationship of the past to the more confrontational teacher/parent wrangling currently in vogue.  One wouldn’t automatically assume this based on the seemingly innocent nature of simply doing online what teachers had been doing forever in their brown, multi-ringed notebooks, but human history is littered with the unintended consequences of touted improvements.  How many of our country’s health issues can be attributed to televisions, the internet, and farmers’ improved corn yields leading to the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup?  Certainly nobody had any idea how much inactivity those TVs/computers would lead to, and few realized that demonizing fat combined with government subsidies for corn would lead to food manufacturers putting corn syrup (sugar) in all those supposedly “healthier” processed foods. But with obesity rates in America rising every year, that’s what has happened.

Grade programs have changed the fundamental relationship between parents and teachers.  Before, teachers would notify parents when there was a problem, the parent would punish the child and/or supervise him more carefully to make sure all his assignments were completed and completed well, and the student would see a unified monolith intent on making his life hell if he didn’t comply with the reasonable requests of the all-knowing teacher.  Now, helicopter parents hover over their computers to check out the latest grade quote for their educational investments, call their “brokers” to question any results they don’t like, and argue about various grading policies that don’t work well with their portfolio.

Teachers are much more defensive about evaluating students, make questionable choices (like giving a student 100% of participation points just because the kid was in class), and have (unconsciously in most cases) allowed their standards to be lowered in order to avoid confrontations that will only make their bosses less likely to keep them past their fourth year, when they achieve tenure in Illinois.  Older teachers can ramp those standards up again, but it’s much easier just to keep them relatively lax in order to prevent problems with parents and students.  Way too many teacher-parent/student interactions now revolve around points or percentages as that is the main aspect of student learning the schools display for all to see.  In short, priorities have shifted away from learning and more towards the arbitrary way we have chosen to measure that learning.  Grade programs push everyone to statistics rather than education.

That’s not to say the old method wasn’t flawed, too.  Communication between schools and homes was often sporadic, and parents could be blindsided when a student hadn’t been turning in work regularly only to find out when the final lousy grades were issued.  Grade programs do ensure that every parent can see the point total/grade with relative ease and choose to get involved sooner rather than later.  That involvement, however, is still after problems have arisen, and entails a negative approach:  Either the student is punished for a grade about which nothing more can be done or teachers are harassed to offer extra credit or re-dos that aren’t necessarily merited.  But there is a better way.

Schools and teachers need to let parents in on what’s happening BEFORE the assessments take place.  When I was teaching, I would create two documents for each unit.  The first would be a list of the assignments we would be doing.  In English, which is what I taught, that might be the novel we would be reading, vocabulary work, study guides/learning logs, short writing assignments, essays, small-group projects, and final tests.  Those assignments, along with a brief explanation of each, would be gone over with the students on the first day of the unit.  In addition, I would make a calendar with estimated due dates for all the assignments.  How much reading was to be completed each day and when the various other assignments would be collected got plotted on the calendar, so everybody could see when things need to get completed.  On that first day, we would also review turn-in dates for the major assignments and encourage a gradual approach to completing the work rather than the night-before-it’s-due “method” so many students seem to favor.

Finally, all this information (the assignments and the calendar) would be posted on my school website that anyone could access, including parents, without needing any codes, passwords, or skills to access.  That way, students could be more closely monitored about completing their work instead of waiting until the grades were posted that resulted in the afore-mentioned negative consequences.  This more proactive approach would permit parents to use their knowledge of their children’s past in other classes to make sure that the typical procrastination didn’t become as big a problem as it had in previous years.  And if students had a history of responsibility, parents could supervise gently, unobtrusively, to make sure their child was making progress on larger assignments well before any issues could arise.  Parents would additionally have a much better understanding of what was being done in class well before any assessments took place.  That’s not to say that I never had any conflicts with parents, but given the demanding standards for which I was notorious, I believe this approach did help parents to stay focused on the work rather than the teacher.

The genie’s definitely out of the bottle now with grade programs ubiquitous throughout school systems, so I’m not advocating they be eliminated.  (I do think it would be better if schools would at least stop posting them, but I’m realistic enough to understand that probably won’t happen any time soon.)  What I would advocate, however, is for teachers to begin reclaiming their positions as top dogs by clearly spelling out what will be going on in class in ways that make grade programs less important.

Of course, many parents would still focus only on the end result, but at least with a more robust calendar/assignment approach, they would have the opportunity to shift their attention to the process necessary to achieve the desired end.  One of the timeless criticisms of many school subjects is the “I’m never gonna need this in the ‘real’ world” whine.  Grade programs only exacerbate this by trivializing all subject matter into a video arcade mentality of point accumulation.  What the student is learning is mostly subjugated to how many points any one assignment is worth.  In some of my high school daughter’s classes, her faithful completion of homework assignments has little impact on her overall grade as tests and quizzes (which have always been tough for her) make up over 90% of her grade.  If we could get everyone’s focus more on the work rather than the assessments, we could go a long way toward helping kids to recognize that task completion, organization, self-discipline, and participation in a common goal are valuable skills regardless of the material used to achieve them.

As Silicon Valley billionaires and Wall Street zillionaires choose to involve themselves more and more in public education with all their marvelous insights into how technology and business practices could revolutionize our schools, they would do well to learn how little they actually understand how humans will interact with all those changes by looking at how grade programs have impacted teacher authority.  A basic law for all humanity—which has been proved over and over throughout our existence—is that just because we CAN do something doesn’t really mean that we SHOULD.  Grade programs have made life easier for many with their number crunching ability and have lessened the need for parent contacts (hardly any schools send out report cards, much less progress reports any more), but they have also weakened the team approach teachers and parents should have in getting reluctant learners to cooperate.  While the elimination of grade programs probably won’t happen, teachers might be able to bring more of that parent/teacher collaboration back with something as simple as the Assignment/Calendar method.



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  1. Pingback: Who’s Really in Charge? |

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