Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growth Grading

 Imagine a typical student who is failing a class.  This student is earning low scores on his quizzes, exams, papers, and projects.  For the sake of this thought experiment, I’m going to stick to several imaginary assignments that each have 100 points possible as a perfect score.  In the real world, teachers know that all assignments are not equally weighted, but the concept works with any assignment, and I want to keep the math easy for this article.

In this scenario, the student earns 20, 22, 28, 35, 45, and 60 on each of the assignments.  In this imaginary class, the scores break down along the traditional 90-100=A, 80-89=B, 70-79=C, 60-69=D, and <60=F.  So this student has earned an F on each first five assignments and then a D on the sixth. 

In a traditional grading system, I can imagine this student giving up on this class.  As you can see, even though the student has improved on each and every assignment, he sees very little benefit from his increased efforts.  I can imagine many of my students ever even completing the forth, fifth, and sixth assignments at all, because they have given up hope.  I can hear the child say, “Why should I even bother!  No matter how hard I try, I’m still failing!  I give up!  I hate school!”  With this imaginary student, and hundreds like him at my school, I can see a dropout in the making.

With a growth model for grading, this child can find reward in his increased efforts and hard work, and his improved performance.

Under a growth model, after the first assignment earning a 20 the teacher would have a conversation like this.  “You earned only a 20/100 on this assignment.  Now, you and I both know that this is an F.  What I would like us to agree to is this: you come in for extra help, and make some commitments to work harder.  Our goal is a 10% increase on your next assignment.  So you’re shooting for at least a 22 on the next assignment.”  The child asks, with typical teen hope, “Will a 22 get me an A, then?”

The answer is, “no.”  Here is how growth grading works.  On the next assignment, the student earns the 22.  A 22/100 is still and F on content.  But the student hit is growth target perfectly.  On his growth goal, he has earned an “A.”  I the growth model, these grades have equal weight, so the total grade for assignment two is a C.  Then the teacher and student set the next growth target, another 10% or a 24. 

On the third assignment, the student exceeds his growth target, earning a 28 instead of the hoped-for 24.  His growth grade on assignment 3 is an A+, but his content is still an F.  This averages to a C+ on the third assignment.  Because the student’s growth was so impressive, he and the teacher set the growth bar a little higher, say 20% growth this time, or a 34. 

On the forth assignment, he does well again.  Exceeding his target slightly with the 35.  Again, this is an F for content, but another A for growth, averaging to another C for the assignment.  Together, they set the bar higher, hoping for 25% improvement on the next assignment. 

Again, the student hits his target with a 45.  Again the content and growth grades average to a C.  Again they set a growth target, 30% this time, aiming for a 60

On his sixth assignment, he does it again.  This time, while his growth grade is another A, his content grade has increased to a D.  The average of this assignment is a B, perhaps the first B this child has earned in this class all year.

Can you see the reward for perseverance?  Can you see the child realizing that hard work and study pays off over the long haul?

With this student, once his content grades have climbed to a C or a B, the growth grading ends.

I know this model flies in the face of some practitioners who are strong advocates for strict standards.  They may argue that the content grade is too important to dilute with a growth grade and that an F is an F. 

I know this model also flies in the face of fairness.  If this student can earn a C for only 45/10 correct, what does that say about the student who is earning a 75/100 and earning the same letter?

I also know that this model of grading will hurt my school’s score on the high-stakes tests in May.  This is because this child is not learning the material well enough to do a great job on that test, and the State of California is far less concern with a single child’s growth than they are about being able to rank my school based on a singe test score.  Additionally, growth grading will hurt my school because, rather than abandoning hope and dropping out in the fall, this student will still be with us in May, along with his lousy test score.

I know all of this, and I don’t care.  I don’t care because I also know that this child is learning more of my class content earning a 22, 28, or 45 than he would have had he dropped out.  I don’t care because I would rather have this student in my school dragging down our test scores than on the streets dragging down his future.  I don’t care because I care more about learning and hope than strict standards and fairness.

The trick is to see every child as an individual and find a way for each child to learn as much as she or he can every hour they spend with me.  Growth grading is not for every student, but for those students who may lose hope, who may drop out, it can be a great tool to keep them connected to school and teach them that hard work and effort really can pay off.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zombie Horde of Bad Teachers

I disagree that there are hordes of "bad" teachers who, like zombies, are after our children's brains.

I work with a bad teacher.  Everyone at our school knows this teacher.  Most all of us agree that this teacher should not be in the classroom.  We talk about this teacher among ourselves, and to our non-teacher friends and families.  I know that kids are talking about this teacher too.

That's nearly 100 adults at my school talking about this 1 teacher.

That's over 1500 teenagers at my school talking about this 1 teacher.

In our stories, this teacher is no longer just one teacher, this person is now 1600+ lead characters in 1600+ stories.

This is how a small number of bad teachers can seem to grow to a horde.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What Coaching Should Look Like

It seems to me that teacher evaluations are personality driven. 

I’ve known administrators who were fully bought into the adversarial relationship between teachers and principals.  These administrators seemed to relish taking a “tough stand” on “bad teachers.”  The teacher evaluations were an elaborate game of cat-n-mouse.  I saw teachers, whom I had never seen with a lesson plan, busy copying materials and checking in with colleagues do see if they had differentiation, multiple learning styles, and other key buzz words, “covered” in their lesson.  Conversely, I’ve seen good teachers dinged over trivial issues, such as the daily learning target stated in the old-fashioned “Students will be able to…” rather than using the students voice by writing, “I will…” that is currently in vogue.

The arrival of these “gotcha” evaluation signals the opening of the second round of the fight.  Not a year goes by without one of my colleagues coming to my door to ask, “Can you believe this?   He gave me a ‘2’ on this!  I got a ‘1’ on that!  (We use a 1-4 point scale at my school, with 4 being excellent.)  He was only in my room for ten minutes!”  Trying to take advantage of a potential learning opportunity, I always ask, “Are any of the remarks things you think you should work on?”  Typically the answer is a colorful version of, “No.”

I myself was the victim of a different form of bad evaluation.  It was my first year at my new high school, even though I walked through the door with twelve years of experience teaching history, as far as my new placement was concerned, I was a new teacher.  It took three meetings for my evaluator and I to settle on my goals and objectives for the year.  Silly me; I thought they were my goals and objectives, but clearly I has misunderstood.  The vice-principal couldn’t just tell me which criteria that I would be measured by, because technically they still were my goals and objectives for the year.  Instead, like a good teacher with an unruly child, she would guide me to the correct goals that would be mine that year.  After three meetings, I had her signature on my pre-observation form, but it had cost me my enthusiasm for having a second set of eyes looking at my craft and offering me insights.

The scheduled observation never happened.  Month after month passed.  Three times I scheduled opportunities for her to visit my class.  Eventually, I stopped rescheduling, telling myself that the responsibility now rested with her.  I finished out that year never seeing receiving any feedback.
It doesn’t have to be this way

This year I’ve seen an administrator who is personally invested in coaching.  He sees his role as being an extra set of eyes for his teachers. 

Yet again, a teacher came to my door to talk about her observation, but this time the conversation looked different.  The teacher still received some 2’s on her evaluation, but they were in the areas that she was asking for help in.  She and the administrator had talked about those areas.  The amazing thing for her was this, instead of going over what went wrong or how to fix it, the administrator asked “What do you think you need this year in order to work on this?  How do you think I can help you?”  These were two questions she had never heard before.

As cool as that experience was; as invested in teacher coaching as this vice-principal is, it is still a symptom of the problem I’m laying out here.  Teacher evaluations are personality driven.  One principal sees himself as the new sheriff in town running the “bad” teachers out on a rail.  A vice-principal is too overwhelmed to find the time to even visit the classroom of the teacher she is supposed to be observing.  The third administrator does a great job, but only because he sees himself as a coach.

Formative Teacher Evaluations

Instead of paying “gotcha,” every teacher observation should be a partnership between the teacher and her/his observer.  There needs to be enough trust to have hard conversations if necessary.  Both the teacher and the observer have to be allies in the goal of helping the teacher be even better than s/he was the year before.

I can envision a future where the observer could be an administrator or a teacher-leader who spend a part of her job mentoring and coaching her colleagues.  I use the term “teacher leader” because in my mind’s eye, the people who are observing, evaluating, and coaching teachers are teachers themselves.  Gone will be the days when a teacher might push-back on a observation saying, “It’s been x years since the VP have taught kids, he doesn’t know what I am dealing with.”

In my fantasy world, every observer would behave like the “coach” vice principal at my school.  The observer would have conversations with the teacher being observed.  Together they would identify areas where the teacher thinks s/he is struggling, or additionally, areas where s/he is good and interested on getting better.  I envision post-observation sessions where both the teacher and the observed can evaluate the teacher’s performance together.  They can look at what’s good and what needs improving.  Them together, they can create a plan by which the teacher gets the support and time s/he needs to make the improvements s/he wants.

The problem with formative assessments is this: they are hard.  It is easy for a school administrator to identify shortcomings of a teacher, but it is hard to imagine the kind of professional development that the teacher may need to improve.  It is really hard to find the resources to provide extra professional development.  It is far too easy to point fingers and say, “Look at those test scores.  Shape up or ship out!”

Differentiated Professional Development Could Help

Professional development (PD) at my school has been a mess.  At the best of times, we gather all of the teachers into the library to hear a day-long speech from the guru that some one in the principal’s office or downtown had met at a conference and felt, “This will be the game changer at our school!”  In the library, some of the teachers agree.  They also think that the guru is the bee’s knees.  For them, the lessons and ideas of the workshop will live in their classrooms, for a while.  For most of the converts, the lack of on-going discussion, collaboration and support will result in a gradual fading of the new ideas and a return to business as usual.

Unfortunately, most teachers wont connect with the workshop.  They wont see the relevance, or it will look like the reform idea they saw tried-and-died years ago.  These teachers may try to make the most out of the professional development day by grading papers, but some may form affinity groups to chat among themselves or snark at the guru.

At their worst, PD at my school devolves into administrative meetings.  Last year, I was the one responsible for this disappointment.  Lat year, my school engaged in our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) self-study.  This huge undertaking ate up nearly all of our so-called PD time.  Speaking for myself, I learned a lot from this process.  Being one of the people responsible for writing the report allowed me to take a glimpse at everyone else’s classrooms and pedagogy.  I saw some great things that I then wanted to implement in my classroom.  I saw some of my own mistakes mirrored by my colleague, making it easier for me to see them.

While I was leading our “PD” about our WASC self-study, I couldn’t help but think of all of the first-year teachers in the audience.  I was asking for their help in evaluating the school when many of them needed to know where the photocopier was.  They were helping us create a five-year plan for improvement when they didn’t yet have a handle on their own classroom management.  I kept thinking to myself, “They should be in these meetings.  They have entirely different needs!”

What if our school had several “Master Teachers”?  These would be the veterans who are widely viewed as having great lesson planning skills, great instruction, great classroom management, and so on.  What is the school designed a Beginners Teacher Institute where 1st – 3rd year teachers held their PD sessions with those Master Teachers.  For example, I’m widely seen as having good skills in conducting a parent-teacher conference, getting even angry parents to see the value of joining forces with their child’s teachers to form a success-team dedicated to getting improvements done. 

After their third year, new teachers could be designated as “Professional Teachers.”  Professional teachers could form their own Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) around themes that are relevant to them.  One PLC could self-organize a year-long professional development series about integrating more Web 2.0 technology into their classes to enable students to collaborate on their projects.  Another PLC could form to further their work on classroom management because they see themselves as struggling in this aspect of their teaching.  An administrator, using formative evaluations, could help a teacher identify this need and connect with other teachers in the school who share this concern.  A third PLC could spend a year doing action-research about their new project-based learning unit.  The ideas just go on and on. 

Master teachers would lead hybrid professional lives.  In my mind’s eye, I see these great teachers having a foot in two worlds.  They spend a part of their day in the classroom teaching a reduced load of children.  In an elementary school, this could be accomplished by having Master teachers share a class, one teaching Monday through Wednesday, the other taking over Thursday and Friday.  In a secondary school,  I see Master teachers in front of children for two or three periods a day, having the other two or three periods for research.

Some master teachers would be paid by their school districts to create professional development lessons and then facilitate beginning or professional teachers who want or need that PD.  Other master teachers could work one-on-one with new hires, mentoring and training them, ensuring that fewer new teachers leave the profession before they have taught for five years. 

The money to do this is already in the system.  Every year, I hear once again how our states are facing a teacher shortage.  Policy makers look for creative ways to fast-track new recruits into the classroom.  This is a false crisis.  The reality is, we have a teacher-retention problem.  Over ½ of all new teachers are out of the classroom before their fifth year.  Thinking about a teacher-recruitment crisis is like thinking about filling a bathtub that has a hole in the bottom.  Some folks are trying to get more water into that tub faster and faster.  All we really need to do is fix the leak.

Huge sums of money are spent recruiting, training and placing new teachers into our schools.  That money would be better spent supporting and mentoring the new teachers who are already there. 

The personnel are already in the system.  In California, over ½ of people who are paid with educational dollars are NOT in front of children.  They are site administrators, professional development coaches, trainers, curriculum writers, managers, and policy wonks.  Many of these positions could be converted into hybrid roles.  Classroom teachers could spend a part of their day being local and state educational leaders.  Conversely, educational leaders would see their standing with teachers skyrocket if they could tell stories about their own, recent, successes and struggles in their own classrooms.

Teacher leaders.  It’s a radical idea whose time has come.