Guess what the teacher learned

The soft-rollout of my transition to standards-based grading began three days ago. It was met with near-universal approval by my alternative education students. Not only did students begin to understand how they could improve their grades by their own actions, their teacher learned a thing or two as well.


When you find someone who has a good idea – steal it.

While there’s no one way to use standards-based grading in your classroom, there are known practices that yield predictably good results for students. Not coincidentally, these same practices prompt teachers to recognize also foreseeable benefits.

We know that changing routine can add that necessary, (low), level of student frustration needed for learning to occur. When my students entered the classroom and dutifully collected their daily agenda, I was pleased to see some furrowed brows on familiar faces.

Not surprisingly, a few students in most classes asked the dreaded question.

“What are we supposed to do?”

Of course, the instructions were brief and clear, but we all know how other teachers reward such pleas by doing for the student what the student should learn to do for him or herself. In this instance, I listed the assignments for the past week and asked for three responses from the student.

  • Did you complete the such-and-such assignment? (Yes or No)
  • Of the half-dozen assignments, which four would you like for me to grade?
  • Of those four assignments, how would you rate the quality of each? (A B C)

What did come as a bit of surprise to me was how rapidly most students understood the immediate benefit; by selecting the four assignments they completed, and for the most part, completed well, their weekly grade would improve. In some cases, grades rose dramatically.

As you ‘d expect, I strategically selected those assignments that provided direct evidence of mastery for specific skills or standards.

Change for the better

From the student self-assessment responses, I recalculated grades after first recording the old point-based grades. Here are the results:

Before switching to Standards-based grading
24 of 43 students were failing.

After switching to Standards-based grading
16 of 43 students were failing.

Net change: One-third overall reduction of failures. 

Cleaning house, (or rather my previous grade book practices

Gone were the zeros I entered for missing work. As Dr. Douglass Reeves amusingly observes in this short video, there’s no thoughtful reason for using zeroes to calculate student grades. Our teachers used them. We’ve all used them. It’s time we stop using what Reeves rightfully describes as toxic grading practices.

Gone were the low marks from activities that, while helpful for student growth, did not directly correlate to a standard or skill I was teaching.

Most importantly, gone was much of the disconnect students felt about how their grades were calculated.

Guess what the teacher learned – about differentiation

By now, the only surprise I’m experiencing about standards-based grading is why I didn’t abandon years ago a popular, but professionally indefensible practice. I’ll delay commenting on that, in part, because all of us know the answer. What I will acknowledge is that, as predicted, my new practice illuminates immediately which student needs help with a particular skill. My ability to accurately target differentiation activities has all but become automated.

Parting shots

Not only have my differentiation considerations become more obvious, so has the theme of a near-future post.

Without adopting standards-based grading, the concept of data-driven instruction is just one more educational fad.

First step obstacles in standards-based grading

I’ve more or less recovered from the shock to my system that comes when teachers return to school after a break. Those first three days necessitated some serious napping and an extra few doses of coffee.

More importantly, My initial plans for changing the way I grade have run into the first line of obstacles. My first disappointment came during Spring Break when I began to make the necessary changes to the district’s online grading program. To my delight, I found settings for standards-based grading co-located with the traditional grading setting. Better yet, I found well-organized YouTube videos with clear instructions for setting up my online grade book.

When I called our technology department inquiring how I could access the features necessary for using our program’s standards-based grading settings, the reply was prompt and to the point.

“You can’t.”

I found comfort in another teacher’s blog who described a similar technology obstacle.

The bad news is that many of those obstacles are needless. The good news is that I’m able to overcome them, albeit with the help of future naps and plenty of good coffee.

Making the grade

Making the grade

My blog posts are meant to be reflections on teaching, but sometimes they turn out to be nothing less than confessions. Several days ago, I dutifully entered my student’s mid-semester grades onto our district’s online program, but I can’t help feeling a sense of unease. Have I rationalized those grading choices still left within my purview, and if so, what am I going to do to improve how I give feedback on student progress?

Standards have improved instruction, so why haven’t grading systems improved?

When I began teaching, there were no state, (let alone national), standards for each discipline. If a pupil was fortunate, their social studies teacher shared with the class a well-defined list of ten paramount specifications to be met during the course. Soon, written standards became part of teaching, and again, the best teachers embraced those standards, but they also folded each into one of their top ten requirements. With these changes, it was at least implied that grades were to be tied to those standards.

I’ve been able to make the case that my student’s letter grades correspond with their mastery of state standards, but there’s still something missing. Do my students understand that relationship between grades and mastery? If I continue to use averages to determine letter grades, the truthful answer is no.

What about those zeros?

Zeros may be clues as to why a student didn’t attempt a learning activity, but they certainly never correspond to a rational determination as to how far a student’s journey towards mastery is. My confession would be incomplete if I didn’t reveal that I’ve justified using zeros as a so-called consequence of student effort. The flaw with my own thinking is that including zeros in grade averages is not about the student being lazy, but rather me. I’ve fallen prey to an expediency that, despite its wide use among far too many teachers, reveals a bias, a dubious assumption, rather than the totality of all the evidence available for any given student. This brings me to the idea of grades as feedback. Students are constantly giving us information, but is our part in the exchange of equal quality?

Grades as authentic feedback

We know that students provide us with clues about their emotional and academic needs. These breadcrumbs are seldom crystal clear – but they’re there for a trained eye to discern. We know avoidance is often about not wanting to have a weakness exposed, (especially to someone with whom a trusting relationship is still in the building stages), and so doing nothing and accepting a zero is an effective strategy to that end. But using a zero, (or another arbitrary number such as 50), bears no relationship to the student’s progress or potential. Where’s the validity in that?

In my next post, I’ll outline new resolutions, (or rather, long-established grading practices I’ve known full well to use but didn’t), to be implemented upon my return from a relaxing break.

The freedom to create my own curriculum

On my final day of Winter Break, I’m finalizing lesson plans for this soon-to-arrive, back-to-school week.

I’m fortunate that I can create my own curriculum and attendant pacing schedule, (as long as I teach the state standards).

This semester, I’m timing my lessons for the second semester US and World History classes so they cover The Great Migration during the month of February.

This year’s Black History Month theme is Black Migrations. My students will first research their own family histories in January and then, hopefully, make some great discoveries as they connect the past to their own lives.

It’s difficult for me to image having to “cover” an externally mandated set of lessons that may not have the same relevance, and therefore impact, as what I now enjoy. The initial workload is greater for my style of teaching, but I’m confident that my students will experience greater academic growth as a result.

Turning the Tables on Parent-Teacher Conferences

In the fad-crazed world of K-12 education, there is one ubiquitous practice that remains steadfast amid a changing world. That, of course, is the problem.

What if schools began each year by holding parent-teacher conferences? Taking this further, what if the parent or guardian were recognized as the expert on his or her own child, while the teacher assumed the role of the enthusiastic learner? Wouldn’t student achievement be improved, perhaps dramatically, if each teacher knew at the start of the year how a student best learns, what motivates him or her and what strengths could be supported by thoughtful instruction practices?

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is embarrassingly long overdue. Here’s how, and why, this arcane and self-defeating institution needs to evolve and do so with a committed sense of urgency.

Research on student achievement

Being up front, there exists today no large body of validated research supporting any specific change in parent-teacher conferences. However, after decades of the practice, no field of studies exists remotely explaining why the tradition was ever seen as worthy of time invested. Research does exist, though, that makes clear what influences work best in education.

Educational researcher John Hattie is internationally recognized as having produced not only a ranking of practices that work but a measured accounting of which of these work significantly better than most. Among the top ten, at the far end of the statistical curve, feedback – meaning feedback to the teacher – appears. By comparison, class size, socio-economic status, teacher subject matter knowledge, and motivation are all of significantly lesser value.


In simplified terms, the more information a teacher receives about what a student knows, what he or she needs to acquire new skills and how best to instruct each student to exceed each new accomplishment, the greater the achievement.

Ask the experts

Consider this. At the elementary level, a student’s teacher sees that pupil roughly six hours each day for about 180 days during one year. The parents or guardians, for the most part, live with that student the balance of the time. By the time that child reaches middle school, the interaction between by any one of his or her teachers drops from 30 hours a week during the school year to five. However, at the beginning of each school year, the teacher usually has no direct prior knowledge or understanding of the student. That’s both a problem, but also an opportunity.

Think about it! For generations we’ve arrogantly assumed that those with a handful of hours in the same room with a child, know more about the learning needs of a student than do the persons who taught them to walk, speak, use the potty and scores of other fundamental lessons. By the time parent-teacher conferences are held at mid-semester, instructional issues resulting in poor performance and/or behavior are months old. That student-teacher relationship, recognized by educational researchers as among the top aspects of superior teaching, is damaged in many cases, needlessly so because of a tradition possessing no rational basis of existence.

At long last, define a measurable outcome

If you’d like to know the priorities of any organization, find out what it is that body painstakingly tracks. If it’s not tracked, it’s not important. With this in mind, have you ever heard of a state education department requiring district data on family participation at parent-teacher conferences? Of course, many schools do ask teachers for numbers of parents who attended conferences, but have those changes driven substantive change? I think you know the answer. The fact remains what should be obvious as unacceptably low participation, particularly in schools located in economically distressed neighborhoods, is routinely accepted.

Setting as a minimal goal 90 percent family participation at conferences, even at the high school level, is attainable. Participation must be accurately tracked by a valid accounting method in order to produce measurable outcomes. Currently, the outcomes beyond participation are non-existent. Curriculum and instruction seldom, if ever, are driven by feedback gained by conferences. That’s a problem.

Redirect the actors

Under the best of circumstances, change, even if embraced, involves a lead time of at least a full year. This is largely due to the need for extensive in-service training for teachers and a dynamic campaign beyond the school in the community served. For one, teachers will need not only instruction on how to productively listen to feedback from parents, but also training on how not to slip back into the role of the expert during a parent meeting. But then there’s an even bigger problem to overcome, one demanding not only time but trust.

Parents who’ve been intimidated, even humiliated, by the traditional parent-teacher conference experience don’t trust schools to do the right thing. After all, we’ve subjected whole communities to a practice underscoring a pervasive contempt of parent/guardian value. Nothing short of a well-executed campaign aimed at patiently restoring trust will produce acceptable results.

Well before the start of any transition in how parent-teacher conferences are conducted, the word needs to go out on no less than a weekly basis that parent/guardian feedback is highly valued. Nothing short of a public mea culpa will even begin to earn back a trust systematically thrown away for more than a half-century.

The observable, measurable outcome of this campaign is to achieve that 90 percent level of family participation, meaning active, informative contribution that produces actionable feedback resulting in much greater student achievement than ever before.

Putting it all together

Location! Location! Location!

This wise response to the question of what matters most in real estate has applications for parent-teacher conferences in general and gaining community trust and actionable feedback, specifically.

Holding a majority of conferences not in classrooms, but in locations within the communities ostensibly served by the school district is an indispensable component of turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences. The implications should be obvious. Lip service about change – and that’s what most families will initially conclude when they hear from school officials about a desire to value parent feedback – will always be trumped by action in the public’s eye.

Finally, there’s no question that evolving from an accepted tradition to an ambitious level of professionalism poses a myriad of logistical challenges. Again, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and implementing the changes I suggest, (and necessity demands), is hardly comparable to planting a pair of flags on Mount Suribachi. The key is to identify ways to accomplish a worthy goal, not generate excuses supporting the status quo.

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is a must-win challenge for public schools if they expect to remain relevant in these times of unprecedented changes in our communities. Demanding a sense of urgency in implementing the fleeting opportunity is the duty of all who also demand real progress in student achievement.

A Matter of Accountability

Alternative education programs all hold students accountable for learning, but who holds to account those adults and institutions who, to varying degrees, failed the student?

We practitioners in the field of helping at-risk learners succeed have to accept that one of our many hats is that of the advocate. However uncomfortable the role and however sensitive the topic, we have to spell out to policymakers why alternative ed programs cannot be allowed to become dumping grounds for hard-to-reach, hard-to-teach students. Where do we begin to assert influence on the process that leads to placement in an alternative program?

The Tough Talk

Alternative programs are, by their very nature, dependent upon those schools from which come our students. No students, no justification for the program is a common, though shortsighted view held by some policymakers with oversight of regular education schools as well as at-risk programs.

Hoping that these same policymakers seek out the input from alt-ed teachers and program directors, it’s our responsibility to help shape a process that ultimately serves the student we see enrolled in our programs. In practice, however, this involves conveying uncomfortable truths to, at times, those who’ve played a role in creating the cracks through which our students have fallen. Combining diplomacy and accountability can be accomplished through collaboration, specifically through the creation of a checklist to which all parties pledge their fidelity.

Intervention Comes Before Identification

One of, if not the first intervention an at-risk student receives should not be placement in an alternative education program. The possible exception may be the assignment in lieu of expulsion for a single behavioral incident of a serious nature. But even in such cases, it’s likely that responsible adults saw a lack of coping skills, or worse, unreported bullying of the student that contributed to the critical event.  Under any of these circumstances, it should be the responsibility of the student’s school of record to determine the likely underlying causes, however bad a light might be shone on that institution.

A record of attempted, good-faith interventions should always accompany any request for placement of a student into an alternative education program. Failure to have in place such interventions shouldn’t be an acceptable excuse for removing a student from his or her regular school. Neither should be a lack of adequate documentation about any attempt to correct a perceived shortcoming of a student.

Hand-in-hand with a record of interventions should be both up-to-date testing data, appropriate IEP of 504 Plan information and summaries of progress in obtaining written goals.

Giving Teeth to the Process

Too often, inappropriate identification and subsequent placement of a student into an alt ed program stem from a fatal flaw in any well-intended process. If the program director is not given an unequivocal, conditional veto over a placement recommendation, further corruption of the process is likely. By conditional, I’m speaking of rejecting a recommendation for failure to adequately document interventions or provide necessary evaluative data for the student.

Finally, in the case of a program rejection of a recommendation, time is of the essence in securing the documentation or reassigning the student to his or her original school. The most unavoidable failure adults can deliver to a student is to delay the continuation of learning because of neglect on the part of those charged with helping the student.

Why thematic units make sense for alt-ed programs

Teaching differently with thematic units

Why use thematic units when teaching social studies in an alternative education program? Here are three good reasons why I’m making the change.

Always begin with the student in mind

Many alternative education programs are established to give students a second chance at learning following an expulsion from his or her traditional school. For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, the student newly assigned to an alt-ed program has spent several weeks, (or more), away from a classroom. Most often, this student has a long history of not being successful in a regular school setting and has significant gaps in both content and skill knowledge. Compounding his or her academic deficiencies, particularly in history courses, is the common practice of returning the student to a chronologically-based curriculum. This puts the student at a great disadvantage for learning concepts such as continuity and change over time without knowing what changed and what retained common patterns. But the placement of a student at some chance point of a chronological narrative robs the student of more than content knowledge.

Skill development requires repetition

Understandably, we teachers are expected to develop higher-order thinking skills in all of our students. One huge obstacle to this is having the dual opportunities to teach students critical learning skills and have those skills practiced multiple times until mastery is reached. However, when absences – enforced by policy, circumstances, or avoidance issues – are an issue with a student, chronological teaching of history further becomes problematic.

Most teachers I know really hit the various skills at the beginning of the semester. Summarizing, analyzing, comparing and contrasting all tend to be lessons generously incorporated into study topics during the first month or two of classes. While those skills are continuously used throughout the year, there’s an expectation that the student has had adequate time to internalize and apply them as a means to an end.  This isn’t the case in many alternative education circumstances.

Students returning from incarceration, absences from school during the due-process period of an expulsion process, as well as truancy all have young people arriving late in the grading period or semester. Their peers who were assigned early in the rotation have relearned and practiced skills to varying levels of proficiency and no longer need much scaffolding, let alone introductory examples.

Whether a student arrives in an alternative program early or even late in a semester, teaching thematic units allows more opportunity to differentiate process during every one of the multiple units taught during the grading period. This leads us to my final reason for teaching differently, which is student choice.

Give the kid a choice

Don’t get me wrong; the opportunities for student choice when teaching history chronologically are numerous. However, teaching social studies using thematic units provide even more ways for a student to follow his or her interests. I’ll use the period of Reconstruction and the larger theme of civil rights as an illustration.

Teaching the period of U.S. history generally dated as 1865-1877 affords many different avenues for students to explore as they attempt to make sense of Reconstruction. The period provides options such as studying the collection of larger-than-life figures from Thaddeus Stevens to Nathan Bedford Forrest and from Hiram Revels to Oliver Howard. The issues of the day, democracy, race, divided government, and back-room politics are also downright juicy topics into which students can dive and then share out in a swap meet of knowledge. But think about the dynamics of choice when Reconstruction is studied as part of a larger civil rights thematic.

Many contemporary students are, alas, not entirely sure when slavery ended in the United States, with more than a few reasonably sure that outcome was brought about by Dr. King. These are not poor students, but rather, students trying to find relevancy between the past and their own troubled times. I argue that there is an added benefit to teaching a thematic unit that includes current events of which the student has some knowledge in the context of related events and issues that predate our sixteenth president.

Of course, any competent teacher can make connections between the present and the past while teaching history chronologically. The difference is that with a thematic unit, the student can make that connection on his or her own by seeing multiple examples of events over time. The teacher’s challenge then becomes carefully planning a rich learning experience that exposes the student to interesting choices.