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.


Elona said...

"What "best practices" are depends on the student population and on the culture of the school." That statement is so true. I've learned to welcome kids to my classes by saying "I know your late to my class, or I know you weren't here yesterday or for the last few days, but you know what, I'm glad you came or I'm glad you're back" and really mean it. We need to respect Maslow.

Mr. Owens said...

Ok, so is there any mention of a system for doing this? I'm fine with incorporating effort, or even progress from where you started. Still I need a way to keep track of it all and keep them informed. Maybe Marzano's "Grading That Works" can get me some ideas.

In middle school "effort" is often equated with not getting in trouble and finding a way to copy missing homework and other things you don't understand from a friend.

I'd like to find a system along the lines of the one articulated by Dan, but haven't figured out something that works for me yet. Again, trying to keep track of it all and keep them informed.