02 December 2010

Island Hopping

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that West Potomac High was scrapping its new grading practices initiative. The policy was "mastery-based," or to use the vernacular around here: standards-based. But teachers, parents, and students upset by the change have forced the school to go back to its former grading policy.
Parents and teachers had complained in recent weeks about the new policies, implemented this school year, that largely replaced F's on first-quarter report cards and gave teachers the option of allowing students to retake tests when they were caught cheating. Friday's reversal surprised many of those who had raised objections.

"People were shocked, elated - hopeful that finally their concerns were being addressed," said Kate Van Dyck, a leader of Real World, Real Grades, which formed in opposition to the policies. "We're pleased that there've been some changes made, but we will continue to monitor this very closely in the future and expect to see opportunities for real community input prior to the implementation of policies."


I can only armchair quarterback here, but my hunch is that this policy, while well-intentioned, was top-down. There are few---and perhaps no---topics more taboo in a school than grading. These things must be done delicately, as Oz's Wicked Witch pointed out.

I don't know that wholesale change at a school or district level is possible with grading---or, if it is, the process is something that evolves and becomes a norm over many years. In between, I think you get a lot of lip service to one while the old practices stay on in an underground sort of way.

What I am finding is that there are lots of highly passionate islands of practice out there. Every week, I learn about a few more teachers who are at least interested in exploring different possibilities with grading and dipping a toe in the waters of change. And as glacial as this process may be, I have decided that I'm okay with that. I think this sort of change needs to be infectious. One enthusiastic teacher in a school will no doubt find another. Again, this isn't speedy...but it is a more sustainable option than mandates.

The longer I have a balcony view of things from a state-level job, the more and more convinced I am that change is really about personal relationships...and all the better if they are one to one and face to face. And the edubeast is so large that it really prohibits these sorts of interactions---except at the teacher-to-teacher level. As much as I would love to sit down and have a beverage with every teacher in the state and kick around topics, it's unlikely that will happen. But, I can support a few who then connect with others. Maybe that's all we need.


Jason Buell said...

Agreed with everything. I'm one of those islands and you've helped me a lot. However... at what point do we go from building up momentum to forcing the last stragglers on board? That's my struggle. It's SBG year 3 now for me and I've converted the low hanging fruit already (at least for certain practices). But it would take a sustained schoolwide effort at this point for the rest. Perhaps not as top-down as the level you're at but from our teacher's views, anything from the principal is seen as top-down and certainly anything from the district level. So what's the proper balance?

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Hey SG, according to that article, the policies were very narrow and targeted at specific grading issues. That's the same problem the Texas districts ran into when they tried to institute a floor of 50% in their grading scale. Do that and you're cannon fodder for the folks who don't have a clue.

I don't think it's time to sit back and enjoy the view from 50,000 feet or let the poorly implemented initiatives of poorly informed administrators dampen our enthusiasm for getting the standards-based evaluation, grading, and reporting thing done.

I'm not gonna take the time right now to get into specifics, but the most valuable thing I was able to accomplish in Oregon's fourth largest district was to get school board members to the Pearson/ATI international conference on Sound Grading Practices. (For you local Hillsboro union leaders, my advice is to get yourselves to the conference and get informed.)

Jason, keep on keeping on. SBG makes too much sense to knuckle under to uniformed political pressure. Back in 2000, when I published my first set of SBG classroom guidelines, I began to explain them to parents on back-to-school night. Without the flack of bad media reporting (and admin support) I had 100% buy-in from parents because they could see how their kids could become more enthused about learning and achievement.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

"...knuckle under to uniformed political pressure."

That should be uninformed.

Unknown said...

As someone in the same district as West Potomac, I'd like to add that (at least at my school) we've been asked to keep our grading poilicies consistent with everyone else teaching the same course. So, while I was all set to give SBG a try this year, I was not able to. I am pretty sure that about 1/2 the other teachers of my content area would give it a go, but never, never would the other half.

The Science Goddess said...

Jason---I think that when an initiative becomes the primary culture of a school (passes the "tipping point"), then it definitely becomes an administrative issue as far as "clean up." For those who aren't on board, the principal can offer them some additional support or a letter of recommendation to go elsewhere. They just have to be clear that the building is doing x and you will be expected to fully engage with that, too.

Hugh---I agree that now is not the time to sit back, but as you point out, it's been a 10-year journey for you in your district...and it ain't over yet. This sort of change is s-l-o-w.

Christina---I would encourage you to lead a rebellion, but I also understand that there are department politics that you have to navigate. It's easy for me to say from here that you should ignore the naysayers and just go for it with your grading...and another for you to have to walk it. Perhaps your admins would let you "pilot" something?

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Good advice to Christina, SG. Pilot.

Re my district...I've noticed that each time we have a significant personnel change at the District admin level we hit the %@$%*&^ reset button. And the union wants to exaggerate and magnify every procedural change into an "initiative" that requires something else be taken off the certified plate.

In the meantime, hundreds more kids get thrown under the bus because administrators seem to think they have all the time in the world.

Stand by for fireworks.

Unknown said...

I like the idea of a rebellion, but I'm pretty sure it would get squashed in the first week of school: common syllabi and grading policies are the focus of early meetings!

Maybe not during an evaluation year( or the my first year at a this school).