When It's Time To Change You've Got To Rearrange
I'm lucky in one respect. In my school, we only do formal conferences twice a year. Of course this doesn't stop parents from swinging by whenever they damn well please. The school, by the way, does absolutely nothing to deter this. Even the formal conferences themselves are laughable. In most districts parents get appointments. Not where I teach. There is a two hour time slot. After that, it's a free for all. At any given time you can have ten parents waiting or you can have none.
Around Thanksgiving is the first time we have formal conferences, near the end of the year is the next. It's actually very interesting to watch the pattern of parental involvement during the year. The parents that care come in for the November conference, eager for their child to succeed, full of promises about better behavior and open to suggestions about how to improve their child's work.
Then they go home.
Most of those same people, who are probably well intentioned, don't really follow through. At this point you see very clearly where the children get this from. So by the end of the year, the parents may return, but they're singing a different tune. By the time the end of the year conference rolls around they have one thing on their mind, the bottom line: is my child going to the next grade or not? Once they get that information everything else you say might as well be the snow that comes on your television long after the program has ended. Oh sure they're still sitting there, but for all intents and purposes, they have left the building.
As if the conference itself wasn't an awkward enough experience, my district has a few monkey wrenches thrown in to make it even more of a challenge. For one thing, many of the parents do not speak English. So you will try, in vain, to explain to them how their child is doing. But if someone is not around to translate, then I begin to look a lot like a performer on a streetcorner, trying to pantomime my concern about their child's progress.
The other problem is the grades themselves. Last year the elementary schools in my district switched over from A,B,C,D to 4,3,2,1. Obviously, my district does not subscribe to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy of grading. No. We have to try and reinvent the wheel, as if we have discovered something about grading that years and years of time had not.
Last year the teachers were in an uproar about this. A was 4. B was 3. Up was down. Down was up. Some parents were upset, but not as much as much as you might think. And for all the changes, everything remained the same. The kids that were doing well were doing well no matter how you sliced it. And the kids that were failing were failing with an F or a 1, but failing nonetheless.
In fact, the only reason I think more parents weren't more upset was because they didn't understand what was going on. Even now, I still have kids asking me how they did on an assignment, even after I wrote 4, attached a sticker and wrote the words Good job! They have NO IDEA.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have the policy that parents sign and return tests when a child fails, this way I can keep it as a record if the child continually does poorly. Yet I STILL have parents ask me how their child is doing. Let's see, you've signed about 5 failed tests, no? I know I'm the professional, but how do YOU think your child is doing, honestly?
This is why too many changes is not always a good thing. For as many things my district does right, they do a few things glaringly wrong. One is their what I like to call, "Oh by the way" means of spreading information. Every month we have a grade level meeting. We also have to participate in one committee meeting each month and one faculty meeting each month. So that's at least three meetings each month, and yet, there are some things that inevitably come out nonchalantly that are anything but. This constantly kills me. We can spend hours and hours on whether to wear jeans on Friday, but a major change in the grading is sandwiched somewhere between bring in your canned goods and tell the janitor if you have a leak in your room.
This month is no exception. At our last grade level meeting, a few weeks after report cards were given out to be worked on mind you, my principal says, well you know, we are no longer doing averages, right? Huh? What now? Apparently "we" aren't. Yet everything we say and do otherwise points to the fact that we are. I send tests home with how many the child got right, the average and the number it translates to. And I'm not the only one. The school itself sent home the grading policy again at the beginning of the year. And yet, something changed between September and November and we all should have just known this.
Here's what I know. The 4,3,2,1 is still in place. However how you get a 4,3,2,1 is not. No longer are we to compute averages and covert them. Now a 4 is simply the child is going above and beyond. A 3 means they are on grade level. A 2 means they ar e working towards grade level. And a 1 means good God where was this kid when the lesson was taught.
The problem with this is without the system of averages, grades become highly subjective. I can just imagine trying to explain this to a parent who didn't get the old system:
Parent: So he has a 2.
Parent: So a 2 is like a D?
Parent: How does he get a 2?
Me: Because he's working towards the grade, but he's not there yet.
Parent: How do you know that?
Me:...Umm, I spun a wheel?
I mean I know it's not that arbitrary and I know most parents won't protest, but if I were a parent, I would want something more than your child got a 3 because I felt like it.
So the problem now becomes how do you know what a "3" is. I mean as teachers, we know which children are working on grade level and which aren't. But just saying we know it without having a way to show it isn't going to cut it. So my principal, who agrees with this much, says that maybe we should create rubrics. At this point hysterical, manic laughter sets in. We'd have to create a rubric for every assignment we give?!!!
All of this is taking the long road to get to the same place with the same results.
If only we could grade the grading system. Now that's something I'd like to see.