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Academic Dishonesty and Grading

23 Jan

As a former coach, I love the period of time between the end of college football season and the NFL Draft.  I find myself glued to the NFL Network as analysts give their evaluation of player skills during the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft Combine.  I guess I am kind of a nerd when it comes to sports and how players are evaluated in order to predict their performance.

And really, that is what Standards-Based Learning is.  During last night’s #sblchat on Twitter, one of the topics of discussion was academic dishonesty and grading.  Does the learner get a zero?  A redo?  The common question I often hear is “If students are doing something wrong, why should it become more work for the teacher?”

Well, this is a tricky area.  First, let me say that I understand how teachers feel when cheating occurs in their classroom.  They feel it is disrespectful and should have severe consequences.  Students must be taught a lesson.  I agree overall with that.  Students should learn the importance of academic integrity and being honest with their own learning progress.  Where I divide with many is that the grade and the behavior must remain separate.  As standards-based grading proponents have pointed out, a grade is a piece of communication.  It is not currency, an incentive, a weapon, a punishment, or a reward.  It represents student progress (or should).

A zero says the student knows nothing.  Not that he/she cheated, but that he/she knows nothing.  If we give a zero for cheating, we are not reporting accurate information.  So what consequences does a student receive?  That depends on your school’s discipline policy.  There is a referral process for discipline, and academic dishonesty should have some sort of consequence (and please let the consequence be a detention served, possibly re-assessing with a proctor- not simply more work/writing/etc).

Because I believe the issues surrounding grading and giving zeroes needs to be something teachers work towards naturally, I tell teachers that if a student is caught cheating they should call home, write a referral, and submit to the student’s assistant principal-  and what they do with their grade is their discrection, and I will support them.  But next we usually have a good conversations through the incident on what a grade is and what it reports.  Often, teachers will end up giving the student the opportunity to reassess as long as they feel the student’s behavior is being dealt with.  Sometimes, they feel strongly that the student “deserves” the zero- but those have become fewer and farther between as our school moves towards standards-based assessment and accurate grading.

Bringing this back to college football, I think of the cheating/behavior scandals of some big-name players and coaches over the last few years.  A couple of years ago, Reggie Bush was stripped of his Heisman for NCAA recruiting violations.   This past year, Johnny Manziel was suspended (very, very briefly) for allegedly breaking NCAA regulations.  Still, when those players had those issues, breaking ethics codes became only part of their stories.  They were and are still evaluated on their speed, strength, football IQ, leadership ability, etc., and teams were aware that they had talent “but” there were some issues to be aware of.  Bush was the 2nd overall pick, and Manziel looks like a top 5 pick this year- based on their overall package.  They weren’t told they had to give up football forever, or they would lose salary from their rookie contract.  What mattered is what teams saw by the time they were ready to draft.  They knew and know what these players can do well, and what they can’t, and they make a decision based on that assessment.

Now, other sports have had more severe cheating scandals (steriods in major league baseball), that have carried more severe consequences (long-term suspensions, being left out of the Hall of Fame).  But this mirrors life, too.  I can’t get away with cheating in my job, and could be fired if I go against regulations that govern what I do.  But I’m also a professional who has learned there are certain things that must be done a certain way, and that my position holds high moral and ethical standards.  Students are still learning the ability to discern that.

The stakes get bigger as they move into college and the professional world, so there should be consequnces, as previously.  However, giving a zero and moving on is really letting them off the hook from their main responsbilities as a student.  This is the responsibility to learn and demonstrate what they have learned, and what they haven’t.  Hammering them with an insurmountable F, on top of any disciplinary consequences, is not appropriate, and it certainly does not pass the test of good communication.  Addressing the behavior and learning as two separate entities is a best practice that we need to see more of.

Standards-Based Grading: Work Ethic and Preparation for College

8 Jan

Today I was drawn into observing a Twitter debate between @stopsbg and various proponents of standards-based grading. The sbg opponent kept coming back to a couple of key issues he has with standards-based grading: 1) The perception that it does not teach students to have a strong work ethic and 2) it does not prepare students for college (and he spoke with many college professors who appeared to support his stance).

Now, here’s what I’ll say before posting my own thoughts on these important issues: I am not from Iowa- I’ve never been there. It could be that “@stopsbg” has valid concerns for his community. Looking at his website, from his point of view (and supporters) it looks like there are issues with a rushed implementation and lack of leadership involving stakeholders. Additionally, it appears concerns with the Common Core are directly linked to concerns some in this community have with “SBG”. I live and work in a non-Common Core state (Virginia). Honestly, I don’t know. Therefore, this is not a direct rebuttal to that particular situation or person, but rather what I felt compelled to share in regards to the two “issues” stated above- as they are commonly shared with me in discussions with teachers who are anti-SBG.

I went to college at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had over 25,000 students (important as I am about to describe an individualized and standards-based education I received from some professors there despite its size). As a freshman, I took an English class in which over 50% of the grade was based on the final paper. Along with a description of the paper, I was provided with a clear rubric detailing how my work would be assessed. Wanting to do well, I took the professor up on her offer of submitting drafts of the paper during the semester. I submitted a first draft, which was returned with comments based on my progress towards fulfilling the rubric’s standards (which was based on course objectives). I had some mistakes, fixed them, and turned my work in again. The professor said I was close to a great paper, but now I was ready to go further. She gave me specific ideas on how I could bring more analysis, and better rhetoric- I was now not only demonstrating knowledge- I was demonstrating skill. Well, by the time the paper was due, I turned in an excellent final product- my third attempt. It was worth it- I had learned how to write a great paper. The paper was still due on the due date. I did not get to re-write it- because I already had, so I didn’t have to. My grade was not based on an average of my initial drafts- it was based on what I had learned in the end, after revising and re-working it. (By the way, earning a high grade in this class exempted me from Junior English because it was based on many of the same skills….SBG advocates will know what I am saying here.)

Another example, again from my freshman year. A course on Game Theory. After all assessments, I received a B+. I did not feel that accurately reflected my knowledge. Luckily, my professor offered all students the opportunity to come to office hours and discuss grades. When I got there, we had a great discussion on Leviathan, which I had initially made some misinterpretations on. He saw that I improved. He stated that the grade he gave me was not accurate (before I did!). He gave me an A.

Now, let me be clear: I did not get all A’s, I do not consider myself a genius, nor do I consider myself a grade-grabber. I had educators who were concerned that I learned the course standards and offered me multiple opportunities to improve and demonstrate my competency. Did it happen in every college course? Of course not! Not in most- however I was able to deal with those sink-or-swim courses because my work ethic was developed by these professors early on. I believe both of these vignettes capture the spirit of standards-based assessment.

Proponents of SBG believe in preparing students for college and helping them learn work ethic. For example, for many teachers at my school, formative assessments are not calculated into the grade, and students can retake assessments. However, in order to retake a test, a student must have fully attempted all preceding formatives for feedback. Students quickly learn that they can not just show up on test day having done no work and can just keep trying- they must learn it. So, they begin doing the formatives, and getting feedback, and then they do not NEED a retake!

I believe in standards-based learning precisely because it promotes work-ethic and college and workforce preparation. It promotes learning and becoming proficient at skills and knowledge. It takes time to implement correctly in a school, but once it is, you will begin to see the mission of education fulfilled.

What Teachers Want

1 Jan

Last night, many across the nation brought in the New Year with Dick Clark on what was his 40th year hosting “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”.  Can you imagine doing the same job for 40 years?  As someone in education, I can’t- and I wish I could.  When it’s going right, it’s among the most fulfilling professions in the world- and you don’t have to work with Ryan Seacrest or pretend to appreciate the musical talents of Miley Cyrus.

In the past year, public education, and particularly the role and status of our nation’s teachers, became a hot topic in the national dialogue.  Most notable were the protests in Wisconsin and the recent (and faulty) studies by two conservative think tanks that determined that teachers are overpaid.  (A nice response to that study can be found here).  Whether it is salary, tenure, or retirement and health benefits- what teachers “deserve” seems to often be a point of contention and has increasingly become a serious political issue.

There is a group of the best teachers I have ever known that I think about when I read about these issues.  They are a conglomerate of teachers I have had as a student, as a colleague, and as teachers I now work with as an administrator.  I have never heard these folks complain about money.  Sure, everyone nation-wide wants to get paid more- and teachers fall into that category with police, nurses, firefighters, etc. who everyone agrees society could not function without.  But master teachers, or those who are at the top of those other jobs mentioned, did not enter the professions for pay.  They entered it because they wanted to wake up in the morning ready to make a difference and go to bed at night proud of what they contributed to the world on a given day.  So yes, teachers should be paid more- but I don’t think the pay alone is what they really want.

While the media, or think tanks, or Cameron Diaz movies might have you believe that “bad teachers” are everywhere (those who are teaching as a fallback option and aren’t really into it), that is blown out of proportion.  The truly bad teachers that hurt the education of kids are not the problem- although it can be difficult, strong school leadership can take care of those problems.  The problem is that mediocrity in teaching is often accepted by school leaders (these are the teachers who “get kids through”) and the great teachers in various school buildings do not have as much incentive to continue their excellent practice, and often burn out.  Not because it’s the easy way out, or they care less- but because they have had lower expectations placed on them by leadership and society at large.  The problem is that in teaching, there isn’t a way to stage a career (and who wants to do the same thing for 40 years unless you’re Dick Clark???).

As a result, the only options are becoming an administrator (which is a very different job that not everyone wants to do, or should do) or moving to some sort of central office job (which takes a great teacher out of the classroom).  That is when the attention turns to pay- the thought being, “if I am going to work hard year in and year out and be in the same place as Mediocre Teacher X- I might as well get paid more!”  When I was in the classroom, I often thought I would willingly take on a class size of 50% more students if I got even 20% more pay, having confidence in my work ethic and education to figure out how to still give huge classes a quality instructional environment.  It would be a lot of hard work, but at least I would be awarded for my teaching ability in a tangible way.

Solutions such as teacher awards and National Board Certification are great, and anyone who has been National Board Certified deserves every bit of respect that comes with that great accomplishment (to the point that I think schools should put the names of their NBCT in a great place of honor- whether on the website, or at the front of the building where you can find the names of administrators).  But at the same time, those master teachers are still bringing in less pay than an older teacher who passes out worksheets and reads from the textbook.  These master teachers still get dragged to faculty meetings to be told something over and over again that they have been doing for years because they are masters of their craft.  (As an aside, I give a lot of credit to my principal- who has done away with the traditional, full faculty meeting in favor of smaller discussions and trainings on instruction).

Finland’s education reform has been getting a lot of attention recently.  An old high school friend posted this article on Facebook yesterday that summarized why it works- the focus is not on getting kids through, it is on excellence.  This starts with teachers who are given high standards to even become teachers.  (Note- in Finland teachers don’t make a lot more money than American teachers…but everyone knows how hard it is to become one, so the payment is in the respect the profession is given).

While it would take a major overhaul of the education system to do what Finland is doing, maybe Iowa is on the right path.  Take a look at the blueprint that Governor Terry Branstad published this October.  Now, I don’t know enough about Iowa politics or the state of their education system to tell you if it will work…but what I do like is the out-of-the-box thinking in coming up with a plan to allow teachers to get promotions, while staying in the classroom!  And as an administrator I can’t think of anything better than having one of my “Master Teachers” working with their own kids every day, but also working with colleagues to help them grow.

The concept brings a sense of respect and career growth that money can’t buy.  And that is what our best teachers want.

Happy 2012, here’s to a year of progress in figuring this thing out.