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An Absurd Grading System and Lessons Unlearned

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Dear Diane,

I’ve been pondering your letter. The grading system is so absurd as to be intriguing. How could it have happened? It suggests a disconnect between the people making decisions “downtown” and reality of humongous proportions. Its source though puzzles me—since these are not dumb men. How could they have been led so far astray?

Ordinary common sense should have led Jim Liebman (the author of the NYC grading scheme) to have junked it before going public. For just the absurdities you pointed to. But ordinary common sense doesn’t work when you hire people to make important decisions who know literally nothing about the field itself. But disrespect for educators is so deep and pervading that none were apparently seriously consulted. No one apparently asked a school person: “Does this make sense?” “Are the results credible?”

It’s part of what makes me particularly nervous, Diane, at your belief that “national standards” would be based on genuine “expertise”. Not only do I have my concerns about the reliability of even honest experts—in the face of ordinary human bias—but we’re living in a world in which expertise is scorned when it comes to the fields you and I care about. Lawyers and financiers are at the top of the pyramid. Regardless of the nature of the decisions involved. The Kleins et als of the world will soon be grading scientists and scientific truths. This is not merely a phenomenon of right-wing “crazies”, but so-called sensible centrists—like Bloomberg et al.

Wacky indeed. But also scary.

It is not just test-score wacky either. In the high schools, 55 percent of the grade went to improvement in “courses passed”. Imagine how this encourages the dumbing down of courses!

When we started CPESS (Central Park East Secondary School) in 1985 we were above all interested, ala Ted Sizer’s seminal work, in building an educational model that totally bypassed the idea of graduation by credit hours (courses passed). We built instead a system of “accountability” based on a review of work accomplished and knowledge demonstrated in 14 fields. Ted Sizer called them “exhibitions”. It’s worth rereading Sizer’s books today. The old CPESS school got a waiver from the state of New York for its radical redesign. Kids took courses, but ala Cambridge, Oxford, and the world of doctoral candidacies, we came up with a graduation committee review and defense of student achievement. We claimed a student could graduate (however unlikely) who had failed every course, but passed all 14 subject reviews! (Fourteen was absurd, but that’s another story.) We told kids they might stay with us forever—we were in no hurry to get rid of them—but they would get our diploma only if they proved to us that they were ready. It meant that the teachers of course were there to prepare kids to do the kind of work that would meet our standards, which were—in turn—open for public review and critique.

We also engaged researchers to follow up on our students after they left us to see whether our standards held up in the real world. After all, accountability ought to be just another word for accepting responsibility for the impact of one’s work. (I keep reminding myself that democracy is built around the idea of accountable authority.)

Not only did CPESS have graduation committees for each student, but we brought in outside experts every year to examine different areas of practice—subject matter, as well our standards of evaluation. We videotaped sessions as well as archived work. Other schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools network tried other approaches built around the same underlying concepts of responsible authority. No two did it exactly the same way. A state-organized panel of independent experts—mostly in educational testing and assessment—concluded that graduates of these schools considerably outperformed comparable students. But maybe that’s irrelevant, as Nebraska’s Chris Gallagher notes, in a charming satire in Rethinking Schools (winter 2007-08). You can have so much more fun “sitting around and devising indexes and rankings and play with imaginary numbers.”

It’s brutally demoralizing to discover that a dozen years later the system has learned nothing from our work, and has at great cost installed such shabby and ill-informed judgments in the name of “accountability”.

Yes indeed, Diane, you have got it right.

Deborah

P.S. There are still a few dozen schools in NY State benefiting from that late 80’s waiver. They are holding on by the skin of their teeth, constantly forced to compromise—or get Cs, Ds and Fs! How much longer can they hold out? I do not know, but I‘d not guess for long unless…But that's for another letter, Diane.

11 Comments

Deborah,

Your dismay at the lack of impact that your experience at CPESS is completely justified and represents a clear example of why our schools are doing so poorly.

We have no systems in place to learn from other teachers experiences. We have no way of sharing experiences and knowledge about teaching. As you have found, even writing books has little influence on actual classroom practice.

Unfortunately, we have this mistaken idea that teaching is completely learned before stepping into a classroom. This leads us to talk about “qualified” and “unqualified” teachers. As if a few years in college discussing theory coupled with a few weeks of student teaching would really produce a “qualified” teacher! Teaching, more than any other profession, is a learned-on-the-job experience. And yet our schools provide little to no support in developing quality teaching abilities.

Other, more successful school systems realize that developing teaching ability is central to student learning. As an example, in Japan, teachers are encouraged with both time and expectations to improve their teaching ability.

One way that Japanese teachers work to improve their practice is by collaborating together on developing a single, quality lesson. When developed and delivered to an actual class, the group of teachers publishes the lesson in a teacher’s magazine that is distributed throughout the country. This allows other teachers to see how curricula can be presented to children and what might be the benefits and problems with different types of teaching approaches. It is the Japanese system of teacher improvement that allows teachers to grow and learn. This system of teaching improvement is something completely lacking in our chaotic school systems.

You have mentioned that you have concerns about national standards. But the Japanese experience is only possible with their national standards. Without shared goals, nobody (teachers included) will collaborate effectively. The teachers in Japan share the same common goals (as set by their standards) and yet they do not feel hampered/restricted in their classroom as they direct all their creativity and efforts in developing quality methods that enable children to learn.

And isn’t it quality student learning that is our shared common goal.

Erin Johnson

"In the high schools, 55 percent of the grade went to improvement in “courses passed”. Imagine how this encourages the dumbing down of courses!"

Deb,

Is this the same "dumbing-down" of grades and courses that brought about our education reform two decades ago? Social promotion of countless students simply to get rid of them, move them along, or get them out of the system? Giving kids the "benefit of the doubt" (which is only natural, as we've discussed this before) when they're in between two grades?

For me, dumbing-down education is bad enough when it involves a grade on a test or even a course. It's a whole different ball game when it comes to awarding a high school diploma to a youngster who clearly is incapable of even a resmeblance to competency determination.

Hi Deb and Diane,

I have been reading a lot lately about the history of mental testing in the United States. I think it’s interesting to note that the craze began in the first decades of the last century -- a time of great cultural and economic upheaval attributed mainly to the industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban centers and waves of immigrants coming mostly from southern and eastern Europe. These cultural shifts made social-Darwinist ideas and the eugenics movements quite popular among many powerful political and intellectual leaders of the time, including several prominent psychologists who developed and promoted IQ testing in a whole range of public institutions, but especially in schools.

So the dominant cultural metaphor of the time was the clean efficiency of mechanization and IQ tests were seen as just such a clean, efficient mechanism – one that could help to “organize” what was perceived as a very messy society by fitting individuals into the types of jobs and educational tracks deemed most suitable to their mental capabilities as determined by a single score on a standardized test.

In the article, Schools as sorters: Testing and tracking in California, 1910-1925, the author, Paul Davis Chapman (1981) writes:

From these case studies of [schools in California] it is possible to make some tentative generalization about the adoption of intelligence tests…The reforms [university psychologists and school administrators] proposed met with quick acceptance, in good part because intelligence testing and tracking reinforced some central values of the Progressive Era [1910-1925] – efficiency, science, and nativism. In Oakland and San Jose especially, the publication of group intelligence test scores seemed to validate widespread assumptions about the inferiority of certain ethnic groups. The most important cause of the testing movement however, may well have been the problems the schools faced – mushrooming size, increasing diversity, and a new role for education in a complex, industrial world (p.714).


I bring this up, first because I think it’s important to keep in mind the origins of over- and misused standardized testing (it should be mentioned, of course, that much of this sorting and ranking was done in the name of establishing a more merit-based system)

But I bring it up also because I can’t help but wonder if we are not living in a similar climate today: about twenty years into a major technological revolution that is causing massive cultural and economic uncertainty, a new wave of xenophobia leading to restricted immigration (I would like to say that the eugenics movement is a mistake that has been left in the past, but the publication of the Bell Curve just a little over a decade ago makes that difficult), and all of the problems that Chapman lists in the last line of his quote.

What do you think?

ERIC--RE Japan. Interestingly, Japan is no longer so happy with their system, and it's not the fad of the moment. But CPE teachers collaborated around their own work without a national standard, as have many other schools. Most Mass. schools outperform re international comparisons--and yet up until very recently had NO state standards.
So while there is no definitive answer to this--I hardly think this is sufficient reason to abandon the hope that schools can serve higher purposes than tests.

Re dumbing down. Paul, the trouble is the context in which any of these things happen. When we put into place external incentives of a high stakes nature we shouldn't be surprised if it impacts on practice. In fact, it's supposed to. That's its purpose. Right? So if 55% of a school's high stakes "grade" rests on upping the course passing percentages, well then.... If we gave schools extra points for holding kids over, we'd increase that too. And in a way we do, since if kids are one or two years older than their peer test-takers they will probably scores a bit better. (NYC has for decades been holding a majority of its students over at least once before grade 9--many two and three times, thus encouraging--unintentionally?-- many to drop out BEFORE high school.) The example I was giving suggtsts we abandon both age-grading and course-passing, and focus on what it is we value and ways (note the plural) in which we can make judgments regarding how efectively we've addressed these "ends."

Finally, Emily, I'm going to get into the IQ question probably next week, since NYC is planning to give IQ tests to all 5 year olds next fall!!!

Deb

Deborah,

Massachusetts scored significantly below the top countries in the world in math (Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong), below the top countries in science and just barely above the US as a whole when tested by the 1999 TIMSS-Repeat. We are all very hopeful that the gains in both national and state test scores that they have enjoyed since implementing their standards will translate to improvements on an international scale. But we will not be able to see that comparison until December when the results from the 2007 TIMSS are released.

http://timss.bc.edu/timss1999b/pdf/TB99_Math_all.pdf
http://timss.bc.edu/timss1999b/pdf/TB99_Sci_all.pdf

While every country wrangles with internal discussions regarding school improvements and student achievement, clearly Japan has succeeded in 1) giving their students an outstanding math and science education when compared to the US and 2) developed a system of teaching and improvements in teaching that are admired throughout the world.

Certainly, the TIMSS video study highlighted the extreme difference in quality of presentation and the thoughtfulness associated with Japanese teaching. That is, while there were large differences in teaching approaches and styles, the Japanese teachers presented students with more complex, difficult problems (when compared to the US) and allowed students significant time in which to probe the complexities of the problems. Multiple analyses of the video studies suggest that it is the quality of the problems and the careful development by the Japanese teachers that enabled their students to score so well on the TIMSS.

http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003011.pdf

I am not suggesting that we adopt the multiple types of Japanese teaching styles outright but rather acknowledge that their system of supporting teachers with time to develop quality lessons and improve their craft, as well as the type of collaboration and wide dissemination of specific lesson development is something that our chaotic, isolated school systems completely lack and our children suffer from that lack.

Also, regarding your experience at CPESS. The fact that the teachers at the school came to a consensus about 1) what the goals of schooling are and 2) how to implement a specific plan to achieve those goals was clearly one of the schools strengths. If every teacher at CPESS had a different idea of what “success” constituted and there was gross disagreement within the faculty about what was important or what topics should be covered, it is unlikely that CPESS would have been half as successful.

This same logic applies to the US as a whole. If we had a well defined, common agreement about what a quality education would constitute, then teachers would be able to collaborate, share ideas and evaluate a broad range of specific teaching techniques beyond the 2-3 other teachers at their grade level within their school. It is only with specific agreement about what/when to teach our children specific content and material that real collaboration between teachers in different schools would be possible.

In one sense, national standards could be viewed as a broadening of the collaborative agreement that you had at CPESS to US schooling as whole.

Erin Johnson


I'd like to get back to the heart of the exchange. To me, it's Deb's definition of accountability. In actual practice, not just talk, she demonstrated a higher form of accountability. We are all accountable for our contribution to democratic principles and behavior. I'd push the point further and say we are accountable for an educational tradition that predates democracy. We should all have different ideals, but whatever they are, we should be accountable for them.

Re: Japanese collaboration, there are several defintions of collaboration. One implies openness, respect, compromise, and conversation. The other, "helping the enemy," is the opposite. I see the Japanese model, and our current educational definition as being 1/2 way in the middle. In today's jargon, collaboration implies discussion and give and take in order build buy-in when we reach a pre-ordained approach. Today's theorists want us to settle on a common approach and even develop common assessments. Often, all opinions are welcome as long as everyone agrees to adopt a common strategy.

In a democracy, however, we need a more modest approach. We need teamwork. But we also respect the rights and individuality of the minorites. Even teachers should always retain the right to agree to disagree. There is so much that we can reach consensus on, that we don't need unanimity, and a lock-step approach.

Once we model those principles, we are prepared to pass on the same values and same accountability as Deb did in the real world.

DT

I'd like to get back to the heart of the exchange. To me, it's Deb's definition of accountability. In actual practice, not just talk, she demonstrated a higher form of accountability. We are all accountable for our contribution to democratic principles and behavior. I'd push the point further and say we are accountable for an educational tradition that predates democracy. We should all have different ideals, but whatever they are, we should be accountable for them.

Re: Japanese collaboration, there are several defintions of collaboration. One implies openness, respect, compromise, and conversation. The other, "helping the enemy," is the opposite. I see the Japanese model, and our current educational definition as being 1/2 way in the middle. In today's jargon, collaboration implies discussion and give and take in order build buy-in when we reach a pre-ordained approach. Today's theorists want us to settle on a common approach and even develop common assessments. Often, all opinions are welcome as long as everyone agrees to adopt a common strategy.

In a democracy, however, we need a more modest approach. We need teamwork. But we also respect the rights and individuality of the minorites. Even teachers should always retain the right to agree to disagree. There is so much that we can reach consensus on, that we don't need unanimity, and a lock-step approach.

Once we model those principles, we are prepared to pass on the same values and same accountability as Deb did in the real world.

DT

The argument that national standards and testing will help bring more continuity and consistency to our ed system is a compelling one. Who doesn’t want more consistency and continuity?! I agree that there are certain things that all American children should learn in school. But ultimately, I fear that national curriculum and testing emphasizes the acquisition of specific bits of information – again, important – but , certainly only a slender slice of what we hope students will get out of their public education.

I sat next to a high school student on the plane recently. She started a conversation with me because I was reading a book that she had read in her senior AP lit class – Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. She told me that she had hated the book and that she had suffered through every page. But she had a couple of other books that she was reading for pleasure over her vacation and we ended up having a very pleasurable and mature conversation about our favorite books and authors.

Is it important for all high school students to read the same set of books? Certainly it will be hit or miss in terms of finding books that resonate for students no matter what is on the list (but the Sound and the Fury for 17 year olds – come on!).

What was impressive, however, was not so much that this student had read some of the same books as me, as was her ability to articulate what, in her opinion, made for great literature, what kinds genres she preferred and, of course, that she was even interested in striking up a conversation about literature in the first place. Someone, whether it was her teachers or parents or both, had done something right – they had instilled in this young woman the underlying principles of being a literary person.

I am not against a National curriculum, per se, but if we are to have one, I want the lists of required material for each subject to be short – (not more than a page long!) I am much more concerned that there be consistency and continuity in the quality, rather than the quantity of what students learn. When I taught and a new students came into my classroom mid-year, I was not so much expecting them to know the same information that we were studying, as I was hoping that they would have developed a strong set of habits of work and mind: the ability to concentrate, to form and articulate opinions, to work independently and collaboratively, the ability to use their imagination and to empathize, etc.

And I’m not even sure I agree that it is a plus for students to come to the classroom all having studied the exact same material (is this not the goal of having a standardized curriculum?) I think that there’s something to be said for diversity of knowledge that students can share with one another, turn each other on to, etc.


OK, I will stop there…

Emily

PS: I meant to say, national "curriculum" not "standards" in the first sentence of that last post.

standards, in my mind, are closer to guiding principles, while standardized curriculum is more about specific information and materials that all students should learn.

"When we put into place external incentives of a high stakes nature we shouldn't be surprised if it impacts on practice." Is that practice or learning?

Deb,

Another hero of mine (like yourself) Al Shanker, often citied a common querry of his students when he gave a quiz or a test, "Mr. Shanker, is this going to count?" Kids always tend to put in a more honest effort when they know what the teacher is asking of them was considered relevant/important. Funny how that works but also lucky for us as teachers.

It must be VERY demoralizing to discover a dozen years later the system has learned nothing from your work. Would you consider your school's assessmnet practices as objective or subjective?

Erin,

Have you read James Stigler and James Hiebert, The Teaching Gap? They talk at length about teaching in Japan. Japan maintains a national data file on sucessful lessons taught by their teachers. If a teacher wants to view a quality lesson they go to the national file and pull it up. They call this "lesson studies" and insist it is what makes teaching in Japan a science as opposed to teaching in US classrooms, which they view as an art. They also suggest this is the main reason behind Japan's dominance in math and science over US instruction, especially in these two disciplines.

________________________________________

Emily,

Your contention for national standards is a valid one and something I endorse completely. The only qualifier I would add is that national standards would also eliminate many of academic redundancies. If national standards call for studying food chains and food webs in grade three, then it need not be addressed as a major part of any other grade's science curriculum.

Elementary teachers should not all teach about the first Thanksgiving every November. They could all discuss it perhaps but it should be the major social studies theme in only one of those grades.

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