Right Time, Right Place, II

Besides everything I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Monday was also Progress Report day … and it was the day when my colleague, Ms. C, finally distributed the “incentive homework passes” she makes for students with perfect attendance or honor-roll grades.  Some other “incentive homework passes” are available now, too – bring canned goods for the food drive, or bring a screenshot of your parents’ Parent Satisfaction Survey, and you’ll get one.  Responses have been low, so there was some  … not yelling, exactly, but scolding and labeling in an announcement.  “You really should do this, students,” said someone, “because everybody could use a homework pass.”

Factory-model schools have a strange view of incentives.  Sometimes we barely mention them – other times we obsessively focus on them – but we rarely ask students if our “incentives”  are meaningful or important to them.  Then, predictably, we get angry – we yell and label – when students don’t respond as we’d expected.

(Go and read the Google+ thread about yesterday’s post – so many great thoughts about wasted time and priorities.  And of course those themes are closely connected with factory schools’ grades and incentives.)

If you’ve read any of Daniel Pink’s books, the non-response to “incentives” is predictable.  But so is the factory-model response:  yell and label, then do more of the same.  First we pitched grades as rewards.  Then we tried rewards for grades.  How about rewards for the rewards?

When our Student Information System first arrived, one selling point was the ease of generating progress reports.  “All you have to do,” said the trainer, “is click this button, choose your formatting options, and press Print.  It even makes a PDF, so you can save the reports or email them.  Students and parents will always know and understand their grades.”

That was exciting in 2003!

For a moment, it felt like a right time and right place for openness about grades.  Maybe we could even talk about what grades really measure –  or about the disconnect between grades and real-world performance.

But if you’ve spent time in factory-model schools, you know what happened: not that.  Pretty soon Ms. X and Mr. Y demanded a “report-card style” progress report (a single, numeric grade, with a comment from a drop-down list, per class).  It was “too hard”  to print detailed reports –  and it “wastes paper,”  they moaned. So we compromised – and used more paper.  The “report-card style” report goes home, but teachers also print detailed reports … or they’re supposed to, at least for students with low grades.

So much for saving paper!  And of course Ms. X and Mr. Y still need paper – lots of it – for those worksheet packets.  The ones they download from the Internet.  The ones they yell and label about when their “bad, lazy students” find the key online, too.

But where does the grade come from, and what does it mean?  For many students, it’s a mystery.

“I can’t believe it!” exclaimed … let’s say Y, because I can’t remember who it was.  “I passed all of my tests,  but Ms. X gave me a 75!  I’m really angry at her!”  In the absence of a detailed report, I couldn’t sit down and show Y how the barely-passing test grades in Ms. X’s class, plus the barely-passing quiz grades and the half-done homework assignments, had produced that 75.  Perhaps Y found a right time and right place during Ms. X’s class.  But  Ms. X almost always has “too much to cover.”

N was enraged – at me – because of a big assignment she hadn’t done.  “I’ve always had A’s,” she said, “but now I have a bad grade, and it’s all your fault!  There’s no way I can fix that!”  N has learned the factory-model lesson well: nothing really matters but the grade.  She sincerely believes she’s entitled to “good grades,” too, because she’s a “good kid” and “smart.”

Fixed-mindset thinking like that makes me angry (when it comes from adults) and sad (when it comes from students).

When N is feeling better – and when she’s done that missing assignment and, ironically, received the grade she wants – we’ll find a time to talk about learning, not  yell about grades.  A right time, and a right place.

Grades, grades, grades.  At least my Latin III students don’t yell.  “Do you have a hard copy of the rubric for the project we didn’t do, or should we download one?”  they ask.  C and F tried half-heartedly to argue that they had done it.  But they knew that I knew, so they finished it instead.  And of course I updated the grade.

Grades, grades, grades.  At an afternoon meeting, we kept talking about them.  “We have got to do something,” said several people, “about kids who take classes they aren’t qualified for and make bad grades.  We don’t need those non-honors kids in our honors classes!”

Fixed-mindset thinking from educators makes me angry … and so does labeling.  And it had been a long, tiring day.

“You know,” I said, “I think there’s a deeper issue than the grades and the grade requirements.  It seems to me a lot of our students aren’t developing the skills we want them to develop, regardless of their grades.  And that really concerns me.”

I was stunned – astonished – when people agreed with me.  But we immediately returned to grades.  It wasn’t the right time or the right place for the core issue.

We’ll meet again next month, talk about scheduling too.  Will that be the right time and right place for the uncomfortable conversation about grades?

When the measure has become the goal, when incentives don’t motivate, when yelling and labeling become ends in themselves, who will tell the poor Emperor the truth about his new clothes?  And what happens if – when –  the Emperor won’t listen?  How long do you keep pointing out the obvious, and when do you just walk away?

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Published in: on November 20, 2012 at 11:16 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] talked about some of those headaches on this Google+ thread about yesterday’s post.  But there were […]


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