It had been a long, hot and muggy Chicago summer. I was the principal of a private school that had decided to move to a new building, and I had spent countless hours...
Change the Scale, Change the School
There are times when we finally see the light. When years of old thinking is suddenly and instantly swept away and the truth is there right in front of us. Many of us call this an “Aha” moment.
Usually we just turn over and go back to sleep. The truth seems too inconvenient, it might demand too much change and too much effort. And, hell, I’m on summer vacation! But, deep down inside we know we’ve been exposed to a new way of thinking, a shift in perspective that will simply never let us go back to ‘the good old days’.
I had such an experience a few years back. I was fortunate to have my school realize that even principals could use some development (or maybe I should have taken it as an index of job satisfaction) and off I was to Boston for a summer at the Harvard Principals’ Center, ‘vacationing’ as it were at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Of the many excellent presentations (and some not so excellent – sorry Harvard, but your football team isn’t so great either) the one that signaled a ‘paradigm shift’ for me, was a given by Doug Reeves, a renowned educational thinker.
Reeves’ lecture focused attention on grading practices (he has since published his ideas in his book Elements of Grading) in which he proved the toxic nature of many of our grading practices. Other than showing the pure folly of ‘averaging grades’ or the ineffective nature of failing students (see my blog post The Myth of Failure), Reeves forced me to rethink the purpose of grades and ultimately led me to leave Boston with a commitment to change.
By the November reporting period the change had happened. We jettisoned our letter grades and replaced them with a proficiency scale. We reported to parents the following: Exemplary achievement, Mastery, Proficiency, Partial Proficiency and when the students had Not achieved Proficiency.
At first, some staff challenged that nothing had really changed, only the names had changed (to protect…). Many felt that we were just trading an A for an E, a B for a M, etc. They challenged that it was all a game of semantics. But, in reality, everything had changed.
Grade inflation almost completely disappeared. Now that grades actually communicated something real, teachers began to give students exactly that which they had earned, both on the high and low end of the grading scale. Teachers no longer felt that the grade was a reflection of their relationship with the student, but rather a report of their actual achievement. Fascinatingly, students seemed to sense this change and stopped badgering teachers to raise their grades above that which they truly deserved. Teachers could now focus on understanding what constituted proficiency in their subject, look closely at student growth and real progress, and not just record an average of linear performance. And finally, parents loved the fact that the grades told them something useful about how their children were faring in school, and communicated useful information regarding expected proficiency.
A simple change, maybe the road less traveled, but it has made all the difference.