My district has a complete gem in our current professional developer, Cheryl Dobbertin. I mean, honestly. Warm, funny, relevant, challenging, and respectful: the rare kind of educational presenter from whom you actually take, you know, something useful. She was a teacher before she was a trainer, and she has never forgotten it. Her bailiwick is differentiation, as a student of the equally warm and relevant Carol Ann Tomlinson; all of us have published in ASCD recently, and it’s a true honor to be among them. (Check out Cheryl’s article on experts, and Carol Ann– well, she’s a giant over there.)
You can tell how Cheryl’s students must have felt: cared for, competent, and connected. It was a fairly drug-like experience of hope sitting in her training today, given how dour educational conversations can be these days. It made me realize, once and for all, that there are two visions of education that are yet in bloody battle– and no, I don’t mean Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee.
I mean a fundamental clash between valuing growth, versus grades.
Growth is what Cheryl, Carol Ann, and differentiation are all about. It’s about meeting and respecting students where they are. Differentiation doesn’t throw curriculum standards out the window, but it gives kids every opportunity to maximize their strengths on their journey towards meeting them, and it doesn’t fault them if they don’t. On the contrary. A student who doesn’t meet standards is not a failure, but only someone who needs even more intense respect and attention paid to them as individuals– as human beings. Differentiation, unlike many other pundits’ suggestions for improving schools, also strives to make that attention scalable and sustainable, even with a student load of hundreds. In that sense, I find it to be one of the only truly promising methods of education out there for those of us on the secondary level.
Grades, however, are still the beast at the center of the labyrinth. The infrastructure of public schools remains based on them almost entirely. Think about it. What gets reported to families? What gets rewarded? What gets punished? It’s not growth, in the vast majority of public schools. It’s grades.
Even a district such as mine, engaging in an honorable and necessary struggle to revise our grading practices, has still not figured out the vast repercussions of a commitment less than cosmetic to differentiation. They have not seemed to have figured out, for example, as my colleagues did recently while merely sitting in a team meeting, that in order to maintain status quo grades while honoring growth, two entirely different report cards are actually needed.
They haven’t figured out that honoring growth instead of grades would require the revamping of every number-driven academic carrot and stick we have embedded into education. (Pizza parties? Acceleration requirements? Honor Roll? Summer school? Retention? Promotion?)
They haven’t figured out that as long as kids know– and oh, boy, do they know– that insofar as tangible educational consequences are only attached to grades, growth has no currency. It’s like handing them a thousand dollars of Monopoly money.
And most sadly, schools haven’t figured out that hiring gems like Cheryl doesn’t mean half of what it could mean, as long as her sparkle serves in a system which is not yet designed to honor, reward, or support growth in any concrete, consequential way.
Could we get there, though? Despite the wariness (weariness?) of this post, I want to ride out on the hopeful note I came in on. The continued presence of the Cheryl Dobbertins of education, while breaking my educator’s heart in some ways, also hold out the potential for making it whole again.