Challenging Assumptions – Grade Reporting Timelines

What conditions and characteristics of school do we simply assume are engrained parts of the system? You know, those things about school that we take for granted are just baked into the structure of school.

During the 2016-17 academic year (there is one of those assumptions, right?), I plan to post a series of blog entries about these assumptions along with a few ideas and questions about how we might challenge them.

Why am I interested in thinking about and sharing these assumptions? Well, when our school year started at Mount Vernon, our Head of School Brett Jacobsen shared some powerful messages about being Mavericks – those people and organizations that step up, stand out, and face their giants. When talking to the faculty at the opening-of-school gathering, he named three things that Mavericks must do:

  1. Mavericks must vary their routes.
  2. Mavericks challenge assumptions.
  3. Mavericks live fully.

So, I’ve been thinking even more than usual about what assumptions we might challenge about the structure of school as it has been designed by so many educational organizations in the last century.

Additionally, I am currently reading Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning by Charles Schwahn and Bea McGarvey. Recently, I spoke to Bea, and she and I discussed a few of the items she highlights in Chapter 8: “Weight Bearing Walls.” These weight bearing walls are the elements that supported an industrial model of schooling. They are also known as the assumptions we take for granted about the structure of school. In the conversation, Bea expressed that school design of the future must develop new weight bearing walls.

Here is the list of weight bearing walls in Chapter 8 of Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning

  • Grade Levels
  • Students Assigned to Classrooms
  • Class Period / Bell Schedule
  • Courses / Curriculum
  • Textbooks
  • Paper and Pencil
  • ABC Grading Systems
  • Report Cards
  • Learning Happens in Schools
  • Nine-Month School Year

So, what about grade reporting and grade-reporting calendars? Typically, summaries of grades come out every quarter of the school year (for the many schools on the quarter system). In many cases, teachers are expected to add narrative comments to those grade summaries, and the grade-comment combos are sent home to parents via email or snail mail.

For my mother, when I was in school as a child, this schedule probably made more sense. There was no email, no online grade books, no Twitter, and no online dashboarding that she could use to “keep up” with what I was doing in school and how I was performing relative to the standards set. Given that students and parents today are much more technologically capable and empowered to monitor progress in real time, why do we keep to the quarter summary of grading? (And I am not yet even challenging the assumptions of the grading system itself – that will come in a later post.)

What if student learners had a more regular practice of reflecting on their learning and progress, and what if they sat more in the driver’s seat of reporting on their learning? Perhaps with a tool like “7 Questions to End Your Week,” student learners could send their own email or online-based progress reports, and teacher-mentors could comment on the student learner reflections. And perhaps on a monthly basis student learners could reflect and report on their overall learning and progress relative to some power standards and habits of mind. Sure, it would take developing such systems for reflection, and a school would have to commit to building those muscles in learners. But such a newly designed system could definitely provide a more modern and effective load bearing wall for the future of school.

What do you imagine to be more effective timelines and systems for reporting on learning?

2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 22,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 8 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

2014 on It’s About Learning

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 27,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ban the average. Design to the edges. Nurture talent.

Most days, at some point in the day, I am prompted to think about a Sir Ken Robinson quote that goes basically like this:

School should concentrate on identifying “How are you smart?” instead of concentrating on “How smart are you?”

This morning, as I watched Todd Rose’s TEDxSonomaCounty talk “The Myth of Average,” I was again reminded of Sir Ken’s challenge to all of us school people. As Rose detailed a U.S. Air Force issue and used it as an entry analogy for school, I pictured, among other things, the traditional school report card, filled with subject-area course titles and numerical averages listed to the right of each.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with that progress monitoring construct. At the very least, shouldn’t our progress reports disaggregate the averages and make visible the essential criteria, traits, and characteristics that we say we hold dear in a person’s learning and schooling. If content knowledge or mastery is a critical component in one’s school, then by all means report on it. But don’t skew the report by boiling together all of the dials and gauges that belong as separate meters on the proverbial dashboard. If work ethic, as represented by certain observable traits, is a critical component, then give it it’s own dial on the dashboard. And let the previously mentioned content knowledge component be a truer indicator of that unencumbered domain. And if classroom participation and collaboration are critical components, then allow them to be visible well beyond wondering what that “Math….88” means, in all it’s jumbled complexity, on a semi-annual report card that may have actually outlived its usefulness, given our more modern means of communication, digital exchange, and 2.0 capabilities.

Yesterday, I was privileged to be in a professional learning session with Jeff Moore of Moore Leadership and the Striver Quotient. Moore explained that Strivers feel an almost continuous sense of “incompleteness” – that they find it reasonable to be in an “uncomfort zone” as they strive to make things better and to make themselves better. Also, yesterday, I was blessed to be a part of the Innovation Diploma team as they worked through their Gallup Strengths Finder results, as individuals and the collective team (see here and here), with Ed Psychologist and Strengths Coach Elizabeth Payne.

Those threads of striving and building strengths are wonderfully tangling together for me with Sir Ken’s quote, Todd Rose’s ban-the-average-and-design-to-the-edges message, and my near 40-year history with the traditional report card. What if we designed progress monitoring systems – whole, coherent systems – that more fully demonstrated what we value in learners and want to make visible for further striving and strengths finding?

Moore also shared that Strivers are motivated by a purpose that transcends winning. Well, I’d love to work the progress monitoring system with a team of other strivers who see the immediate and critical need to ban the average and design to the edges – for the benefit of helping all of our learners see more fully how they are smart, rather than worrying about how smart they are.

A 21st century framework for designing student success and demonstrating student mastery requires Mount Vernon to develop a [v]igorous, relevant, and innovative learning and assessment map for each student…. (from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s (i)Plan17)


Hat tip to Lawrence Smith, at St. Paul’s School, for sending me the Todd Rose TEDx talk and sparking this morning’s reflective writing for me.

Assessments that overvalue and undervalue – what are we doing about them?

I’ve changed my routine for watching TED talks. Because I have pivoted from viewing one a day, I watch a few on the weekends. As I was “catching up” this morning, Susan Etlinger’s talk, “What do we do with all this big data?,” stopped me in my tracks.

He was teaching himself to communicate, but we were looking in the wrong place, and this is what happens when assessments and analytics overvalue one metric — in this case, verbal communication — and undervalue others, such as creative problem-solving. Communication was hard for Isaac, and so he found a workaround to find out what he needed to know. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense, because forming a question is a really complex process, but he could get himself a lot of the way there by putting a word in a search box.

I am thinking a lot recently about assessment, progress reports, and how we communicate about what we most deeply value in schools. Etlinger poses such a powerful challenge: “This is what happens when assessments and analytics overvalue one metric and undervalue others.”

What are we overvaluing and undervaluing on our school progress reports? If we look at our students’ report cards, do they express what we most deeply value? Across the city, state, country, and world, we should be deeply involved in resolving such a question.