Thought for the Week: Thou Hast Cleft My Heart in Twain

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.

8 thoughts on “Thought for the Week: Thou Hast Cleft My Heart in Twain

  1. I teach in the high school of a K-12 school that is fundamentally interested in growth over grades (grades are not even given until the “transition” year before entering the HS). But in the HS and especially in regard to the seniors, there is some resistance to the growth model, or a limit placed upon it. It’s as though we feel the anxiety of these people entering the “real world” in short order and needing to be prepared for the expectations and situations they will face there. Therefore, we sometimes act as though the seniors have had their chance for growth, and now they need to demonstrate that they can live up to standard expectations. I’m conflicted over whether this is a harmful retraction of our support, or a necessary and good measurement of the growth model’s success.

    And, honestly, I’m unconvinced of the merits of a purely growth-oriented model. Employers, colleges, teachers, and the students themselves need some way of “grading” how well they [students] *know* a subject and how exceptionally they can *perform* a task, not just whether they have *grown*. Right?

  2. I appreciate this comment deeply– thanks for leaving it. I get where you’re coming from completely. It’s what Cheryl has put forth to us as the melding, so to speak, of the growth and grades/standards model. In otherwords, in order to plan for one’s educational journey successfully (differentiation), you need to know where the student is going (standards), as you indicate so well in your last sentence.

    I should clarify that the elementary schools in my district do also use a gradeless standards-based report card, and other methods of reporting growth. However, all that has tended to evaporate once kids hit 6th grade, which is a problem my district is working to solve.

    Nonetheless, my point here is that even with the mixed model that you describe, or more sophisticated reporting, if growth is not real currency– if it is not publicized, celebrated, and rewarded in a non-controlling way– if it does not result in some tangible, community-wide response– if it is not genuinely consequential within a school system– then it is not truly meaningful, and kids know it.

    In that sense, I share your conflict over how your seniors are treated, from what you describe. If, in fact, your seniors are subjected to a pure standards model in strict replacement of a pure growth model– if their ultimate sense of success is determined summatively by achievement– then growth is only a means to that end, not an end in itself.

    There is strong evidence to suggest that there are ways to honor and reward growth in schools, versus arbitrary achievement, that will result in accurate assessments of a students’ strengths and weaknesses, which then further result in appropriate preparation for fulfilling work– whether that is college, or not. Furthermore, there is also strong evidence that a primary focus on effort PRODUCES achievement, and more achievement, than an achievement model (ironically).

    Have you read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset”? There seems to be a 2012 edition or companion to her 2006 book out now.

  3. Hi Dina and readers! Wow! I’m honored by your reflections. I completely agree that there’s tension between the growth mindset and grading paradigms that were designed to sort and select students. Changes are coming though! Please keep working this issue. I work with an urban high school that has completely given up traditional grades and reports all students as far from, approaching, meeting, or exceeding standards and consistently gives students second and third chances at success. This school is 75 percent free and reduced lunch and 25 percent special ed and 100 percent of their kids go to two or four year colleges. Read the book Grading for Learning by Ken O’Connor. Also here’s my latest Ed Leadership article on DI. Page.action?pg=68&pm=2&u1=friend&linkImageSrc=%2Feducationalleadership%2F201202%2Fdata%2Fimgpages%2Ftn%2F0068_coyael.gif%2F

    I am energized every day by working with teachers of your caliber Dina!

  4. I can’t make this link work for me. Is it me, or did the pasting not get all the letters?

    This is a wonderful thread! I am encouraged to learn that at least some schools are changing over entirely to SBG.

  5. Great article. I really liked seeing the pre-assessment form and reading about both the history and the math classes. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Dina Strasser on Differentiation | When Math Happens

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