Grading and Attendance

For years, we’ve been struggling with the idea of grades. If a student gets a “B” in seventh grade science, what does that mean? When I was teaching (back in the dark ages) most teachers used a point system. Bringing in a box of Kleenex is 5 points. Homework is 10 points. A quiz is 25 points. A unit test is 100 points. That big project at the end of the term is 200 points. Maybe the grading period has 600 points. A “B” means the student got more than 510 points, but less than 560. Grades sort of reflected the degree to which the student learned science, but more than that, they reflected the stuff the student did or didn’t do. She loses points for turning in late work, or missing a homework assignment, or arriving to class late. She gains points by completing assignments, answering questions correctly, and behaving in a responsible way that doesn’t create more work for the teacher.

Mostly, as a teacher, I measured what students DID rather than what they LEARNED. It was really difficult to get a grade lower than a B if everything was done and turned in. Looking back, grades were used in my class as a extrinsic motivator. Students had a lot of pressure to get good grades, so in my class they did whatever I wanted them to do in order to get the points they needed to earn the grade they wanted to keep their parents off their case. It was a simple transaction.

Long after I left the classroom, we started thinking more critically about grading practices. That “B” should be a reflection of the RESULT of learning, not the PROCESS of learning. It’s really not particularly helpful, other than to say, “this kid did pretty well in Science. She’s not at the top of the class, but she’s not in danger of failure. She remembered most of the stuff we talked about, and she’s a pretty good kid.” Most parents like hearing that their children are pretty good kids. A few parents want their kids to be better than all the other kids. Those are the ones who got 620 points out of 600 because they brought in a case of disinfecting wipes and did all of the extra credit because their parents want them to go to an ivy league school.

As grading practices evolved, we started differentiating between formative and summative grades. Formative grades are given for activities that are part of the learning process. If I pick up a violin and try to play a D major scale, it’s going to sound awful. I have to keep the bow straight. I have to put the right amount of pressure on the strings so it doesn’t sound bad. I have to place the fingers of my left hand on the fingerboard in the right places so the notes are in tune. Trying to play a D major scale is formative. I’m just learning. But if I practice, I’ll get better. For me, it would take a LOT of practice. But eventually, I’ll be able to do it. Maybe I try to play the scale 20 times. The first 10 are horrible. Then, I start to get the hang of it. The next 7-8 start to sound like a scale. The last couple get all the notes in the right places. I’m not ready for the concert hall, but you can recognize that I’ve made a lot of progress.

So what’s my grade? Do I get a “C”? A lot of those scales were cringe-worthy. But in the end, I finally did a pretty decent job. The first 18 ties were formative. They documented the process of learning. The last couple were summative. I demonstrated the achievement of having learned something new. Ideally, the grade should reflect the learning. The goal was to be able to play a D major scale in tune, and I can do that now. But that doesn’t work in the point system, because there’s always a lot more practice than performance, and that’s going to bring the grade down. If there are no points for practicing, though, students are less likely to do it. And then, the learning doesn’t happen. The same is true in science class or math class or physical education. If we don’t measure what students DO, they’re less likely to do it.

COVID-19 brought a tremendous amount of disruption to our society, and schools were no exception. When we transitioned to a fully online model of teaching and learning, one of the questions that arose was how to take attendance. If a student shows up for a Zoom session, do we count that as being present for the day? What if they leave early? What if they join the Zoom session and leave their camera off and mute their microphone so they can play video games while the teacher is talking?

The idea of “being present” changes when the people involved are not all in the same place. I’ve certainly been in many situations in the last four months where I was doing multiple things simultaneously. There’s a video conference happening in this window over here, and I’m checking my email, or having a conversation with a colleague, or texting my family. There was one memorable experience this summer when I was in two different video conferences at the same time, and I was participating in both text chats simultaneously while selectively muting one or the other depending on what was happening. We don’t give 100% attention all the time when we’re online.

Sometimes there are a lot of things going on at once.

So what does it mean for a student to be absent? Do they have to be completely missing in action? We had some cases in the spring where different teachers had Zoom sessions scheduled for the same time. Which one did the students attend? The one where the teacher was giving points for attending. Maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we think.

What if we combine these two problems, and use one to solve the other? Could the student’s grade be a measure of what the student has learned? It would be a reflection of the progress the student has made toward mastering the content standards in the subject during this grading period. Meanwhile, the measure of what a student has DONE — the activities in which the student has engaged to further the learning process — is recorded as “attendance”. Turn in the homework. Complete the reflection exercise. Make an entry in your learning journal. Submit today’s exit ticket. If you do that, you get credit for attending the class. It’s not about time spent, it’s about attention and making an effort. Then, when we measure what you’ve actually learned, that becomes your grade.

In mastery learning, the variable is time. We want the same outcome for all students. But the time it takes for students to reach that goal is different for each kid. Let’s stop focusing so much on the time spent, and maybe pay a bit more attention to how that time is being used, and what progress is being made toward the goal. Online learning is a tremendous opportunity to make time a variable. Let’s take advantage of that.

Photo credit: Daniel X. O’Neil on Flickr.

We’re Not Going Back

It’s time to face reality: school is not going back to “normal” any time soon.

There are a lot of factors at play here. But looking at the reality of the pandemic, anyone who is advocating for “business as usual” is not putting public safety at the top of the priority list.

At the state level, we did really well in Ohio this spring. We followed the advice of our medical and public health professionals. We self-isolated. We controlled the spread of the disease. We flattened the curve. Then, Memorial Day came and we took our eyes off the ball. (Wow. A baseball metaphor. Let’s just rub salt in the wound, shall we?)

There are a lot of factors at play. The economy was in a tailspin. Politicians are trying to get re-elected. There’s a lot of crisis-fatigue among the populace. We stopped paying attention to science, and started listening to people who were telling us what we wanted to hear.

We wanted to hear that it’s okay to have a summer. It’s okay to travel and go out to restaurants and visit our grandparents. It’s okay to go to the beach and have cookouts and do all of those summer things that make January worth the trouble. And when the infection numbers started rising, we criticized the testing. If we wouldn’t test so many people, we wouldn’t have so many positive results. That seems like a flawed strategy.

Here are the numbers from Ohio. I’ve been tracking confirmed cases (not total cases) since March 8. These are daily new case numbers for Ohio, with a rolling 7-day average.

It takes about two weeks from the point of infection until people start showing symptoms. Memorial Day was May 25. Two weeks later was June 8. If you looked at this graph in late May and early June, when we were wrapping up the school year, you could reasonably conclude that we were on the right track. We might even be able to open schools in the fall. We’ll make some adjustments. We’ll put some social distancing measures in place, we’ll buy gallons of hand sanitizer, and we’ll get back to doing what we do best.

Anyone who is still saying that is either not paying attention or not making people’s safety the top priority. Debate it all you want. The inconvenient truth is that it’s not safe for school buildings to re-open this fall. The inevitable consequence of the numbers over the past month is that we can’t go back to business as usual.

Sorry. I know. Your emotional well-being was built on the hope that we’d be done with this by September. We’re not going to be done with this by September. It’s increasingly looking like we’re not going to be done with this in 2020. The good news is that it’s now mid-July. We have half a summer left.

So what should we be doing? Here are some suggestions:

If you’re not working this summer, it’s time to start working this summer. I get it. You’re not getting paid to work all summer. You have a 186 day contract, and you’re guaranteed ten weeks of vacation in the summer. But you’re salaried. And you’re a professional. And every time you spend a couple hours in July working on things for the fall, you’re reducing your blood pressure in September by a couple points. Even if you’re not doing the heavy lifting of detailed planning, at least get a big picture approach fleshed out soon.

Listen to people who put public health first. The people who know what they’re talking about are being drowned out. The World Health Organization has more credibility than the CDC at this point, simply because of the political pressures in play. I’m trying not to make this too political, but the loudest people often have the least to say. Use your information literacy skills to find the credible voices.

Be the professional. Every time a teacher whines on Facebook about how this isn’t what they signed up for, it hurts the credibility of the profession. You know what good learning should look like. You know about differentiation and authentic assessment and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. You know about project based learning and formative assessments and standards and mastery. You know that 40 minute Zoom lectures are a bad idea, and endless worksheets waste everyone’s time. Start talking about those things.

Design for online. Start with what you know about learning, and build experiences for students that reflect those best practices. Stop trying to replicate the classroom experience in a digital environment. It won’t work, and it ignores the benefits that online learning can bring to the table. You’ve been doing face-to-face learning for a long time. You learned a lot about online learning this spring, even if it was new to you. It’s time to apply that expertise. And start talking about how you can make learning better than it was instead of almost-as-good.

Pace yourself. Think big picture, and focus on one thing at a time. It’s not time to panic yet. But the more time you spend now, the easier this is going to be in the fall.

Last school year was the most unusual I’ve seen in my career. We really did change direction with almost no advance warning, and the world changed overnight. It’s time to acknowledge that we’re on a different path now, and we’re not going back. It’s time to get ready for the new journey.

Image credit: Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

Five to Seven Years

Twenty-one years is a long time.

I wore a pager to the interview because we were expecting a baby any time. That child is entering her senior year of college this fall. I was asked if I knew Visual Basic. “Sure,” I said. How hard could it be? I had programmed in a dozen languages by that point, and I was pretty sure adding another one wouldn’t be that hard. I was hired as a Visual Basic teacher who also oversaw all aspects of technology for the high school in my spare time.

My first ID badge, 1999

I needed a computer, and was told to pick one out. It was a 300 mhz Pentium 2 with 32 mb ram and a 500 mb hard drive, running Windows 98. I used it for years, and then repurposed it as a server. Among other things, it hosted the district’s first Moodle and WordPress servers before we finally recycled it. Since then, I’ve had three other desktops and six laptops. My current laptop is the oldest and slowest on the administrative team.

When I started, I inherited a new server that handled logins, network drives, and the district web site. It was the first time students and staff members had to log in to computers, and it was a brand new concept that annoyed a lot of people. We didn’t have any support agreements, and when things broke, it was up to me and Alta Vista to figure out what was wrong and fix it. There’s nothing better for developing problem solving skills than having a problem that you’re responsible for solving and people relying on you to solve it quickly.

I taught the Visual Basic class in a computer lab that had IBM PS/2 computers in it. We replaced that lab in 2000, and then again in 2006, 2012, and 2019. That’s five sets of computers in that room.

That first year, the goal of the technology team at the high school was to find a way to get a computer in every classroom. At that point, there were a few computer labs, and 10 computers in the media center, and computers in the department offices. We didn’t have computers in every classroom until 2002, and the high school was the last building to achieve that goal.

Instructionally, all efforts were focused on tools. We hadn’t figured out yet that technology is a catalyst for pedagogical change. We didn’t know that we could leverage technology to better differentiate and focus on higher order thinking skills and improve engagement and relevance. We were mainly focused on helping teachers use technology as a resource for preparing instruction. We knew technology was going to change the world. We just weren’t sure how.

I expected to stay for 5-7 years. In previous jobs, I realized that the person in charge of technology is really only effective for that long. Education is glacially slow at adapting, and technology is painfully quick. Those forces rubbing against each other cause a lot of friction, and the person straddling those two worlds gets burned out quickly. I saw technology directors craft a vision and set goals. But the goals took too long to accomplish. They were so laser-focused on meeting the goals that they didn’t realize that the goals were no longer relevant. I didn’t want to be that guy. So I gave myself seven years, max.

Six years in, I discovered personal learning networks. In late 2005, I started listening to podcasts and blogging. Somehow, I got roped into EdTechTalk, which led to that crazy Africa trip. I started doing conference presentations. I was bullied into starting a Twitter account. I engaged in an online community of practitioners who were doing amazing things. They were asking the same questions I was asking. They were struggling with the same challenges. They were finding successes and setbacks and I was learning from them. I found I had some things to share, too. I started seeing learning in a different way, and it changed my view of how technology can support the schools we need. I was renewed, refreshed, recharged. My participation in these communities bought me another 5-7 years.

In the early 2010s, I was losing momentum again. The online conversations weren’t as groundbreaking as they once were. More people were coming online and saying the same things. I got tired of people comparing schools to 19th century factories. I grew bored with the artificial STEM vs STEAM vs STREAM arguments that amount to little more than arts and humanities advocates acting on their insecurities every time someone suggests that math and science might be important. I checked out of the online world and focused more on what we were doing locally.

And we were doing a lot. Computers had become affordable. Thanks largely to the industry disruption caused by the otherwise deplorable OLPC project, we could start putting computers into the hands of all children. This started as classroom carts introduced with curriculum adoptions. Within a few years, it made more sense to transition the technology from “places to people” and the 1:1 program was born. To go along with this, we opened the Center for Innovation and Technology in Education in 2014. This space physically embodies the intersection of learning and technology, and houses both the technology department and the instructional coaches. It has space for big idea conversations and more traditional professional development. It’s flexible and adaptive. It’s perhaps not quite as innovative as we had originally imagined, but it’s a place where we can focus on the craft of teaching and learning.

But now, it’s been another seven years. I’m running out of steam. And I’m realizing that I’m running out of years, too. I’ve just finished 27 years in education. I probably have 10 more. If I’m going to do something different, now’s the time to make the change.

The school will be fine. Some things aren’t going to be the same. There will be problems. But those will be an opportunity for someone else to become a problem solver. I’ll be the bad guy for a year or so. All of the problems tend to get blamed on the person who most recently left. There have already been some significant efforts to discredit my work and set the stage for the blame that’s coming. That’s fine. It doesn’t really matter that much.

I’ll miss some of the people. There are some great professionals in this school district that I deeply respect and admire. It’s been a privilege working with them. It’s unlikely that I will stay anywhere else as long as I’ve been here. So in some ways, this will always bee home.

But now, I have new challenges to face, new problems to solve. And 5-7 more years.