Sunday, April 22, 2007

Effort grading, Mastery Grading, and other dichotomies of dubious value

This entry grew out of a comment on Dan's comment on the previous entry; it just got too long. It's basically a continuation of the previous text.

I certainly agree that “as a teacher, I've got to know what you know” - the question is rather how this knowledge should be translated into a grade, and this question should probably be answered differently for different student groups, and that is the point, a point I wish I'd understood better at an earlier time.

During my first year I taught in a fairly functional school, was drilled in mastery grading, and read a lot about the importance of keeping standards high, and of emphasizing learning outcomes (what matters is that the students are actually prepared for life after school, not how they feel about themselves now). Then, when I started teaching in a much more acutely poor area last fall, it was like starting from scratch again. There certainly were some significant cases of students rising to my demands, braced by the challenge maybe, students who - surprised and shocked by the idea that they would have to do stuff and know things in order to pass decided to go ahead and do stuff and know things. That is what most literature I had read suggests students will do if you show that you believe that they can do better. However, there were also so many, many students who did not. Haberman's book, like no other I have read, feels as if it really describes the students I teach, the characters and challenges of my classroom. It is also the first text I have read that describes emphasizing effort over achievement as the good and right thing to do, instead of citing this approach as indicative of low expectations or even racism.

Again, some students do need to be taught to emphasize learning outcomes, and some will put forth more effort and learn more when they receive a lot of data about how they are doing. On the other hand, those students who have attendance rates of, say, 50% or less, who are staying out of school for weeks at a time in order to take care of younger siblings, who are still working through their grief over the loss of one relative when the next is killed, who are already dabbling in drug dealing or prostitution – many of these students are just not going to rise to the challenge of finishing their homework or passing their test. In retrospect, I think that the best thing I could have done for these students would have been to show myself to them as being really happy whenever they arrived, to make them feel that if they'd show up again tomorrow that would just make my day (Haberman's stars convince their students: “I need you here” (p.83)). In order to do that, I would have had to spend more time on running and sleeping, and less time on keeping their miserable homework records updated (records whose only real function is to prove that they do indeed deserve an F). I would have had to spend less energy on freaking out about how nothing they know about grade-level standards, and more on thinking about interesting things they could possibly do and get involved in. I would also have had to worry less about classroom conduct not looking right (especially given the absence of clear school wide standards for behavior) while investing more time in knowing and liking the students the way they are. Reading Haberman has made me see awfully many missed opportunities in the past year. Feeling guilty about it will not enable me to make the students feel more welcome at school, however, so I'm trying not to.

Teaching students in poverty is different from teaching other students, and we learn too little about this in education classes. Marcie advises, “When grading or making expectations remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If the bottom two parts of the triangle are missing from your student's life, they are in survival mode. Children in survival mode learn in a whole different way.” They do. I guess the problem with teaching new teacher candidates about this has to do with the fine balance – or rather, the necessary tension – between, on the one hand, having faith in the students' abilities and communicating this faith with firmness, and, on the other hand, showing understanding, giving slack, and convincing students that you want them to be in your class even though most grade-level work will be inaccessible to them. Perhaps we can discuss this in a responsible way only if we can curb the desire to find one right answer, to resolve the conflict once and for all, because any slogan-style conclusion of the kind "keep expectations high!" or "be gentle, the students have enough to contend with" will miss out something, placing us at risk of battling and kicking out students who will not respond to our great standards, or else of resigning to letting students do and learn too little. There are dangers of under-, over- and just mis-estimating the students on all sides. What "best practices" are depends on the student population and on the culture of the school, and maximizing learning is a complicated optimization problem subject to many different parameters. In a school like mine - no, in fact, in two of my classes and for a percentage of my students - emphasizing effort far more than achievement would most likely have led to more learning, in part just because it would have made me a little less discouraged. But now it's late in the year, and I can't do much more than chalk up a lesson learned, and hope to do better next year.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reading Diary: Haberman's "star teachers" grade less

The introductory lines of one of Haberman's sections on what star teachers do not do surprised me:
Star teachers spend as little time as possible on tests and grading. Apart from particular school rules that must be followed, they are generally quite disinterested in the topic. Their evaluations are based primarily on students' effort. ... [T]hey have little faith in - and place little credence on - standardized tests of any kind. (p. 12)
These lines had me questioning whether Haberman is strictly reporting what great teachers do, as opposed to revealing his preconceived notions of what great teachers must do. However, Haberman does claim to have identified the star teachers on the basis of a combination of measures including their students' standardized tests scores and their principals' ratings, and he claims to be just describing typical traits of thusly selected teachers. Besides, Haberman's evident attunement to the peculiar challenges of students in poverty makes it impossible to simply dismiss his statement as overly ideological, and I am forced to try to reconcile his observation with what I think I know about certain really effective teachers' work.

A recurring theme in advice on teaching struggling students is that of constant assessment, of incessant feedback, and at first glance this contrasts with Haberman's description of star teacher practices above. However, much of this tension may come from conflating grading with assessment. While I may not be following established definitions here, in my mind 'grade' and 'assessment' ring differently, and 'grade' connotes a more vague and also a more definitive judgement of – what exactly? Some average of test results, work completion and attendance, usually. In contrast, 'assessment' connotes (in my mind) a snapshot of a more specific competency, a snapshot that can be replaced by a more updated version when competency is improved. A system of small, specific assessments where the best score always counts, where there are numerous opportunities for improvements, and where there is a clear emphasis on progress could perhaps serve to elicit and reward the student effort that Haberman's stars are said to be so preoccupied with.

Further appreciation of the good sense of the stars' said tendency to de-emphasize grades comes from understanding why these teachers are so obsessed with encouraging effort:
Children who explain their failures on the basis of ability are prone to think less of themselves and to try less. If it's all a question of ability, one should succeed with little or no effort and, by third or fourth grade, most youngsters in poverty believe this to be the case. Thus, youngsters who make this attribution are left in an at-risk position at a very early stage of their school careers... [Star teachers] emphasize effort in order to keep youngsters involved in the system. (p.13. Emphasis added)
This rings so true about my students. They refer to themselves and each other as either 'smart' or 'dumb', and if they are 'smart' they seem to feel that should not need to do the work (and they should also not need to prove that they already know the material – they resist any tasks that might expose confusion). The notion that excelling can be a result of working hard rather than of just 'getting it' is not one that they bring to school. I am finding my earlier commitment to 'mastery grading' challenged in reading and thinking about this.

For context it is worth noting that Haberman is writing about elementary school teachers, and also that his focus is on teachers in dysfunctional schools. These are not the kinds of schools where failing a student would most likely result in the student cheerfully retaking the course, thus learning the necessary skills not mastered at the first attempt. Whatever sense mastery grading makes, it presupposes some level of reason and order in the total structure of the school, some official prerequisites and expected learning outcomes for each course, maybe. If these are absent, it is not clear that mastery grading does all that much good. If a student has been enrolled in 10th grade Geometry without mastering 5th grade arithmetic, failing this student for not coming close to mastery of grade-level standards is probably not going to encourage a lot of learning. Bringing five years of educational negligence down on the student is probably not going to persuade the child to work really hard to catch up. For all the merits of mastery grading (such as being honest with the students about what statewide expectations look like, emphasizing academic rather than behavioral learning outcomes, keeping standards high), in the context of a dysfunctional school where a teacher has control over only the learning happening in his or her own room, mastery grading appears to have serious problems to it. It seems reasonable that Haberman's star teachers would typically spend a lot of time on gathering materials for interesting assigments and little time on grading:
I have never met a star teacher clutching a grade book, or averaging grades based on test scores, or taking papers home simply to grade them, or meeting with parents just to share grades, or ... grouping children on the basis of grades, or complaining about grades, or happily entering grades on permanent records, or using grades to explain to a child how he or she is progressing. (p.13)
Also for context, it is worth noting that these star teachers, while typically avoiding formal tests and emphasizing effort over results in their own rooms,
...willingly submit to having their children tested to show that they are learning as much or more than children being taught by typical textbook instruction. (p. 38)
In other words, it seems not so much that these teachers do not consider mastery and academic learning outcomes important, but rather that their understanding of their students makes them conclude that focusing everything on effort is more likely to bring about involvement and learning.

Finally, I confess that one thought that shot through my mind when reading the passage about star teachers' grading practices was that “here's one reason why they manage to stay in the system for so long”. Grading is a task that, for me, grinds away motivation like few other things. It's not just the tedium of it, though here is certainly that too, but rather the repeated reminders that the dear students still do not know what I have taught and reviewed and retaught. Maybe a greater emphasis on student effort would shift focus toward what development there is, and toward the possible and attainable, instead of focusing attemtion grimly and relentlessly on the ever distant goal of mastering what children with 10 years of quality instruction behind them can do. Maybe their emphasis on effort is one reason why Haberman's stars don't burn out. Some readers will no doubt interpret this as an apology for lowering expectations and underestimating students, and maybe that would be a fair criticism. To that I can only respond that if you are able to grade for mastery of grade-level standards when kids start the course five or more years behind, without having the students give up and stop working, then I would very much like to hear about how you do that.