Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is it about the grade or the learning?

I have had several conversations with parents and other people involved in education regarding grades.  I think we have talked this topic to death over Twitter and other mediums.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Is it about the grade or the learning?  To most unfortunately it's about the grade, and I guess it's hard to argue when colleges and universities base entrance predominantly on the GPA.  Although this might be slowly changing - recently 48 New England area colleges are now accepting standards based grade reports.  These reports do not report a grade, instead they report the progress of a student in regards to a specific skill or standard.

Shouldn't success be determined by the learning and not the grade?  It is too bad that the grade tends to trump the learning that occurs.  I have seen this first hand where students will intentionally dodge more difficult courses so that they don't risk their perfect GPA.  Is this what we really want?  Kids that choose not to take risks because of the impact to their grades?  I think standards based grading switches the focus from the grade to the learning. If grades aren't attached kids are more willing to take risks.  To me as a parent I want to know how my child is doing on specific skills rather than grade that tells me very little.


Friday, July 11, 2014

The Shame of the Nation

I have been reading The Shame of the Nation written by Jonathan Kozol for a grad class I am currently taking.  It has been an interesting read.  The gist of the book centers around inequities in schooling for kids that attend large urban inner-city schools.  As a rural school administrator at times it has been difficult to relate to the trials and tribulations that inner-city students, parents, teachers. and administrators face.  Kozol's outrage  is felt throughout the book.  I found the following themes very intriguing.

Kozol discusses the use of standards and standardized testing in education. In the schools that he visited he found the use of standards suffocating.  Teachers were not allowed to deviate and he compared students to robots. In many of these inner-city schools everything centered around a rubric, set of standards, or directions.  Kozol found very little freedom for students and teachers to think independently.  One of the quotes from a principal referring to standards education was eye opening.  She said, "If the road does not lead to Rome, we don't want it followed" (p. 110-111). I am a proponent of standards based education, but not to the extent written in the book.  All students need to master what teachers deem as essential standards, but this choice should be up to the teacher.  Rote memorization and the test prep associated with this book to the air out of the balloon in the schools Kozol visited.  He also makes the argument that this sort of regimented factory style education would never fly in a middle class school.  We have to remember that teaching is both an art and a science.  There was sentiment throughout the book where policy makers, and educators felt that without this relentless structure "these" kids could not learn. This was alarming to me.

One could compare the inequities in North Dakota in a similar way.  We don't have inner-city issues of course, but there is a definite disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots." Our disparity occurs between what we would call urban communities and rural communities.  All one has to do is to take a drive from an urban hub and head out to a rural school.  Most rural buildings pale in comparison to those of our regional hub cities.  The course offerings at a rural school are typically bare bones when compared to our larger cities.  In Kozol's experience less experienced teachers typically get their start in the inner-city schools. This is no different in rural areas in North Dakota where young and inexperienced teachers make up the workforce.  A person could make the argument that rural schools are expensive and inefficient and should receive less to operate.  Equity will always be an issue from inner-city to suburban to rural.  If you want to see further disparities take a drive to a reservation school where all of these issues are further compounded.

We have an oil boom that has been occurring in Western North Dakota.  Many schools are dealing with unprecedented growth.  Communities and schools are doubling in size in short periods of time.  I have heard many discussions from other administrators that are concerned with the clientele we are receiving.  North Dakota is an excellent place to live and the way of life is certainly changing for many that have lived here their entire life.  We should be welcoming growth and the increased diversity that comes with it.  As Kozol writes, we have to be careful about putting labels on kids.  These "new" kids will impact our schools in both positive and negative ways and we need to be okay with that.  Diversity is a good thing for our communities and our schools!

Finally, in many of the inner-city schools that Kozol visited he found a common theme of "school to work" programs. In many instances students had to choose a career by the 9th grade.  How is this possible?  I am a believer in exposing kids to a wide variety of careers before they have to make that decision.  As a superintendent I hear often from business in the media about how we are not preparing kids for work and how schooling is about preparing kids for their career.  I understand that work preparation is a large part of getting an education, but is that all education is for?  I think school would become pretty mundane if all we did was teach kids how to cooperate in a work environment.  Education should be about exposure to a wide variety of things.  Kids should be prepared to think independently and critically.  How much of the work preparation should be the job of the employer?

Find some time to read The Shame of the Nation.