Although it seems like that first day just happened, the school year is already a quarter complete. This paradox, that time can feel simultaneously sluggish and speedy, reminds me that education is contradictory, too.
Education’s contradiction rests in the difference between teaching and learning. We all know that what we are taught we don’t always learn just as we understand that much of what we do learn we were never taught. It would seem then that education is more mercurial than time since a parent can look at the calendar and see that time has passed, but they can’t know by simply looking at their child that they have learned at least a fourth of all they will be taught this academic year.
One could argue that a report card filled with grades reveals academic growth in the same way that a clock’s hand movements show the passage of time, but I’m not one to take that stance. My recent involvement in parent-teacher conferences, as a parent at Riverview Elementary and Miller Middle School and as a teacher at Escalante Middle School, surfaced this for me. If my wife and I were unable to attend either of those conferences then our only window into our children’s growth would be a grade on a progress report. A letter like “A” or “F” at the middle school or an “E” or “S” at the elementary lacks the explanatory power that our conferences offered.
A grade may feel familiar because we have all been measured with them, but their true meaning is nebulous. After nine weeks of instruction, a single letter like “B” does as little in explaining what was taught in a science class as it does in revealing how your child is developing as a scientist. At their best grades on their own indicate effort and compliance.
As a teacher, I am constantly learning, and this round of conferences was a reflective moment for improving my craft. As my wife and I discussed our children’s growth with their teachers, it became apparent that Durango School District 9-R is improving. The teachers did talk about grades but in a context of goals based on standards and our kids’ development in accomplishing those goals.
One teacher discussed a pre-assessment that had been given in writing a five paragraph nonfiction essay, the ensuing strategies they used in instruction, and the post-assessment that was given at the end of the unit that demonstrated our daughter’s growth from start to finish. The letter on the progress report had meaning then because we knew where our daughter was going, where she started, how she was helped to get there and how close she came to the destination. Our son’s conferences were similar.
The challenge then is to bring a clarity to my instruction that provides unambiguous objectives and locates where students are in relation to those objectives before we begin.
This knowledge of the student must inform the shape my instruction takes to move them to mastery.
Finally, students must be able to see for themselves how they have moved along this continuum of accomplishment so their grade has personal meaning. As it is with all worthy aspirations, it sounds easy because it makes sense but it is hard work.
My children’s conferences proffered a first glimpse at one goal our superintendent has set for the district. Teachers are now working together as Data Teams, organizing standards into common instructional units that are pre- and post-assessed so instruction can be tailored to the needs of students. Tailoring instruction requires both flexibility and creativity on the part of teachers because a favorite unit might still fit in the new curricular landscape but the students’ needs might require different instructional strategies than those used previously.
Ironically, as teachers design instruction together, using common assessments for learning, it should logically lead to greater differentiation in teaching because no two kids are alike and no two classes are either. One class may have a majority of students already close to the goal so the teacher will choose different strategies to stretch those students while another class, further from the goal, will begin their work in mastering foundational skills and concepts. The process renders two different lessons where only one existed before.
This is how we begin the journey toward relevant feedback for students, parents, administrators, and teachers, but eventually we will need to confront the form that information takes.
Grades will be replaced with descriptions of what students will know and be able to do when they have reached a target. Grades will become conferences. We have a long way to go, but you can see us taking those first steps. But, just like this school year, it will take awhile, and it will seem like time is flying.
John Hise is an instructional coach at Escalante Middle School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.