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.

5 comments:

Dan Meyer said...

Had this in my to-read-and-comment pile for awhile just on the strength of your opening analysis. Good write-up. The benefits of grading for effort have been running with me this week. I've decided that's a really worthwhile strategy when checking student work -- classwork, homework, etc. -- but not so much on summative-ish assessments.

At a certain point, as a teacher, I've got to know what you know. To keep from breaking my behind-grade-level Algebra 1 freshman I've implemented a fluid assessment system that flexes with their failures, gives them incentive to remediate, and then instantaneously reflects their progress in their grade.

Assessment has become my favorite part of teaching. I agree with Haberman only as far as "testing" constitutes high-stakes unit-wide assessments that do little for a teacher's ability to remediate and serve on some fundamental level to keep student's afraid. (i.e. "This is going to be on the test," etc.)

I wrote about it in detail here if any of this sounds interesting.

mrc said...

The importance of keeping the focus on effort instead of ability is underscored by Carol Dweck's research on the effects of praise. I wrote about it here after reading a Po Bronson article in New York Magazine. Definitely worth checking out.

H. said...

Thanks for your comments, Dan. I do know about your assessment system, and like it a lot; there's actually a link to it in my blog entry. I was planning to implement a somewhat similar system when I started last fall – but then I got four preps, and two of the courses had no curriculum, and the task of breaking each course into specific and readily measurable skills to be tested with small and frequent assessments just got too big for me. Maybe next year!

H. said...

mrc, that was definitely worth checking out. Now for an integrated math unit for teaching this material to the students... another summer project?

Dean R said...

We dont need to choose between rewarding effort and rewarding skills. In a mastery grading system like Dan Meyer's, IF the skills tested are just within reach of the students, then as the students master the skills their effort is rewarded.

Haberman is exactly right that many children in poverty (and underachievers in general) tend to attribute their success or failure to ability rather than effort. The best way to change that unfortunate tendency is to create an attainable but genuine challenge and then reward students for attaining it. Kids see right through other kinds of "nice try" rewards for effort.