Monday, May 19, 2008

I've been thinking a lot about the arbitrary-ness of education lately. It seems so many of the "professional educational" decisions we as teachers make about our students are more based on gut instinct and personal preferences than anything else.

In these days of increased accountability, the call for standards-based grading/assessment, the constant pressure of high-stakes testing and the ever-present urging of teachers to solve the problems of today's youths, logic would say we are far from arbitrary in our decisions, basing them on data, results, and solid evidence of our original intent and the end result.

Unfortunately, I see the polar opposite in daily practice, my own included.

Grading is volatile topic. Too often, teachers grade students on participation, attendance, cooperation, or simply whether or not the student is "liked". Standards-based grading can eliminate the bias of grades, but the move to these can be complex and confusing for students and parents, as well as teachers. It can also be a time-consuming task for teachers already overloaded.

Other pushes in grades lean towards forgiving missing or extremely low grades and not assigning any grade below a preset cutoff, such as 50%. From this article in the Las Vegas Sun, "Advocates of the more generous policy that makes 50 the minimum F say it is intended to give weaker students a better chance of passing. It is aimed at keeping them from being prematurely doomed by the numbers that are behind report card letter grades," it can be gleaned that even this policy is not hard and fast accurate, at least mathematically speaking. While I agree with the policy in theory, I find it even more difficult to explain to other educators and parents than standards-based grades.

Lucy scores a 52% on her test. Lucy obviously is struggling with the material. In theory, she has mastered 52% of what she should have learned. Pretty straight forward, right? Then comes along Robbie who was less than concerned about his test, knowing the lower grade to be recorded would be a 50% anyway, so Robbie doodles around the edges, attempts a few answers, scores a legitimate 28%, but in the grade program, a 50% shows up. Do we know anymore about what Robbie really can do, what Robbie actually learned than we did before when had he known the true score would be recorded, he might have put forth more effort?

Granted these are extreme cases, but most teachers in today's public schools would shake their heads in agreement of the likelihood of such a scenario.

Past the arbitrary-ness of grades, we can move into the discipline arena. We are planning for our annual 7th grade camp, a 3 day outdoor education experience. Who goes and who gets left behind is always another arbitrary event in education. Most students are going, pure and simple. Camp is intended to be all-inclusive and an honest attempt to allow all to attend is truly made. However, each year there is at least one hard-core, frequent flyer to the office, who simply cannot go along, for his/her own safety or that of others. No one seems to doubt the legitimacy of this decision, not even the student.

But then.... the arbitrary fairies start circling the toadstools. Billy and Joey got in a food fight in the cafeteria. Billy is a model student. Joey, well, not so model, but the decision made must apply to both, so.. OK, let them go. Then Maya and Lacey get into a pushing match in the hall, resulting in Megan getting knocked to the ground and her glasses getting broken. Megan's parents are irate, and Maya and Lacey get suspended. They are both semi-frequent fliers anyway, and the teachers think camp would most likely be more pleasant without them along anyway. And on the story goes, as student by student, decisions are made, without a clean cut plan.

While camp decisions are being made, schedules for next year are being put together also. As the 7th grade math teacher in our district, I am caught up in the drama of which incoming 7th graders should be placed in pre-algebra and which should take simple 7th grade general math. Then I am to also sort and sift my own 7th graders into their 8th grade class, either pre-algebra or algebra.

Too many things way on my mind as I write names in columns. Susie was in pre-algebra this year, and did OK, but is she really ready for algebra in the fall? Mom is a high school math teacher and really expects Susie to be in the highest group, but Susie doesn't like math and would be quite content to coast along in the lower group. Her scores on the placement test are borderline. Knowing Mom's expectations, I feel pressured to recommend her into algebra. But then there is Mickey, who was in regular math this year, not terribly motivated, but extremely gifted in math. His score on the placement test tops Susie by a good 10%, even though he was in a less-accelerated program this year. I know in my heart that Mickey could manage algebra in the fall, but I also know he won't complete his homework regularly, will be disruptive in class, and won't fit into the mold of the 8th grade teacher's idea of an algebra student. I also know there are only so many spots available in algebra. How do I decide Susie or Mickey for that chair?

I don't have a solution; I wish I did. I just feel pulled in all directions by the ever-constant decisions pressed upon me daily. How do I justify my choices to students and parents, and to myself at 2 a.m. while I lay awake contemplating my dilemma? Is it OK that education is not always black and white straight line, but more a gray wavering snail trail through muck?


Anonymous said...

I get the impression that all students should get an "A." One of my principals said the parents can't be upset.
They are supporting her new program, where she gets the extra big bucks. I don't even have a teaching space.

TeachMoore said...

Thank you, Cossandra, for putting real faces and heart-wrenching teacher issues into this debate. I've been following with some interest comments on several sites generated by that article. Assigning grades and hundreds of other classroom decisions are often so much more complex than they appear. It's the really good, truly professional teachers who agonize over the effects of those decisions.