I suppose it is a bit of a cliche to make a New Year’s Resolution that is unattainable, and I want to make it clear that this is not my intent. I have spent my eight-year teaching career migrating across the spectrum from an ultra-easygoing “friend to every student” to a “sage on the stage” to where I am today. As I look at what I teach and how I teach it, I am left feeling inadequate.
Partly, this depressing assessment comes from the many competing interests that drive my teaching style and my personal philosophy. First, I am a scientist. I believe that every single American child needs to leave our public school system with the fundamental scientific literacy necessary to be a thoughtful and independent citizen. Specifically, I find myself more and more frustrated with the growing tide of anti-vaccination efforts and “teach the controversy” movements that are based on pseudo-science and fueled by the ignorance of many Americans. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s shockingly true. I’m not an activist teacher, but I do make a concerted effort to dispel misconceptions and make it clear that science is just a very powerful problem-solving technique.
But, I am also a teacher and father who knows that children learn in different ways and at different paces. Is it really productive to set absolute standards that some children will not be able to reach? I have seen many times the impact of students who no longer believe that they can succeed. They become the bullies and class clowns that pull me away from teaching and engaging other students. It’s clear to me that we need to keep the carrot far enough ahead of each student so that he is motivated to achieve, but close enough that he doesn’t lose hope.
I take personally much of the criticism that is leveled against the public education system, claiming that we coddle children and protect them from the cruel realities and unyielding requirements of the “real world”. How do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints? Do we determine some basic level of mastery and require it of every student? Or, do we seek to move each student forward a set amount each year, regardless of whether they achieve mastery?
These are the questions that keep me up at night. Well, these questions and a disturbing addiction to caffeine. In search of an answer, I have spent this holiday break (mine is combined with a two-week year-round track-out break) reading and collaborating with my PLN. I owe much of where I stand today on what I’ve learned from Ken O’Connor’s “How to Grade for Learning“, the formative assessment work of Page Keeley, and some sage advice from Science Goddess (who recommended the O’Connor book). The short and sweet version of it is this: Beginning this semester, I am utilizing a grading system based on no failing marks. Students who submit work that does not meet the standards set for a “C” will earn an “Incomplete” until the work is re-submitted at the requisite level. Students who go above and beyond the minimum requirements will continue to earn “A” and “B” marks.
The philosophy behind this grading system is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say it rewards my highly motivated students while simultaneously encouraging those with substandard work to see their work as the product of revision and improvement. Once it’s up and running, this system should result in a zero percent failure rate as measured by mastery of the minimum standards (that’s a “C”).
I don’t know whether we are best served by encouraging our more challenged students with marks based at least partly on effort, or whether we need to draw that line in the sand and say, “If you don’t get to this point, you can not pass my class.” The answer may seem obvious, but it so difficult to watch a student with a low I.Q. put forth a Herculean effort and still not reach the bar. Clearly, we need a place for these students, and this system doesn’t provide it. What is unclear at this time is what will happen to those whom I remediate to no avail.
For now, I am on my own with this little experiment, as my school and district move with glacial speed toward some undefined “improvement in grading practices”. I believe strongly in this change and I simply can’t wait for those in power to make the difficult decisions that are needed. As I recently shared with a colleague who has played devil’s advocate to many of my grading arguments, the change has to start somewhere.