Monday, April 21, 2014

Why some schools are giving letter grades a fail

This was written by Erin Millar who is a journalist and author with a lifelong interest in education, innovation and creativity. For nearly a decade she has written for leading Canadian and international publications including Reader’s Digest International, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Times of London and others. This piece first appeared here.

by Erin Millar

Krista Wolfram credits an innovative new assessment program with helping catch her daughter’s difficulties in school early. When Antonio Vendramin, principal of Georges Vanier Elementary school in Surrey, B.C., announced to parents in November that the school would no longer award letter grades, Ms. Wolfram was skeptical. “Some of us were scared of change,” Ms. Wolfram, whose daughter is in Grade 2, recalls. “I grew up with As, Bs and Cs.”

Instead of reporting to parents only two or three times a year, teachers began regularly communicating using an online student portfolio system called Fresh Grade. Ms. Wolfram quickly discovered that her daughter was having difficulty with her writing. “Every day her teacher would snap a photo of her journal or a video of her writing with her phone or iPad,” Ms. Wolfram explains. “I could see exactly where she was struggling, and I could work with my daughter and her teacher to help.”

Because Ms. Wolfram was able to intervene early, her daughter was writing at her grade level by the time she received her report card just before spring break. “If we had to wait until her report card to find out, she would have failed writing,” she says. “I wouldn’t have known she was struggling.”

The Surrey Board of Education pioneered a pilot program eliminating letter grades in several elementary schools in September and now more than 40 classes at 13 elementary and six secondary schools have joined the experiment. Nine more schools are set to join soon, and the results will be reviewed this summer.

The Surrey school district is not alone. Schools around the world are experimenting with new ways to assess student achievement that do not rely solely on high-stakes reports that use numerical marks and letter grades. The movement is in part a response to calls from employers for the school system to emphasize skills such as creativity and communication, not just knowledge of traditional subjects. But even as recent research suggests that descriptive feedback better supports students in developing these soft skills than traditional grades, parents, educators, and higher education institutions are struggling to adapt. If there are no grades, how we will know whether students are prepared for jobs or further study?

The idea that traditional measures of academic achievement don’t support learning isn’t new; in 1998, the British education researchers Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published a widely-cited article demonstrating how increasing descriptive feedback raises student academic achievement. More recently, the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has published numerous studies showing how grades and standardized tests don’t predict later life success such as employment and income level.

In response, school boards in Canada are implementing new approaches to assessment. Elementary students in Ontario no longer receive letter grades on their fall report card. Quebec has reduced the number of formal reports to parents, opting for more descriptive feedback.

In June, the Calgary Board of Education announced a plan to eliminate letter grades up to Grade 9, a measure that was hotly debated. The new report cards would have used four phrases − exemplary, evident, emerging or support required − and not included written comments from teachers. Many parents were concerned about the proposal. Cathy Ward, a spokeswoman for the Calgary Board of Education, says that while some schools have begun transitioning to new ways of assessment, the board is reviewing the plan and no firm decisions will be made until they consult further with parents and teachers.

At Fraser Heights Secondary School in Surrey, English teacher Leah Samson no longer uses numerical marks to give students feedback on assignments. She devotes considerable class time to teaching students how to assess their own learning and give effective peer feedback. She also has regular one-on-one meetings with students to discuss their goals and progress. Instead of Ms. Samson telling students how they are doing, they are expected to articulate to her what they learned in class, how it relates to their learning goals and where they’re struggling.

Ms. Samson is still required to give students a letter grade at the end of each semester, but the letters have taken on a whole new meaning to her and her students. Struggling students have a much clearer idea of how they can move from a C to a B or an A. “Once grades are removed, students are learning for themselves rather than learning for their teacher.”

The move away from grades matches a growing belief among employers that traditional assessment is not the best way to help students develop the skills they need to succeed in today’s world. In national and global surveys, employers don’t complain about applicants lacking specific knowledge or technical skills, which are easy to test and express in a letter grade; they want employees who can analyze critically, collaborate, communicate, solve problems and think creatively. A 2012 McKinsey & Co. survey of 8,000 students, educators and employers in nine countries found that there was a gap between what educators thought students needed to succeed and what employers really wanted. “Education providers will say that all skills are important, whereas employers will place much clearer prioritization on soft skills – where the likes of team work and work ethic come out quite strongly,” Mona Mourshed, director of education at McKinsey, said.

Traditional assessment largely focuses on measuring students’ ability to regurgitate information and was designed for certification and accountability purposes rather than to support student learning, argues Maria Langworthy, chief research officer with Ontario education expert Michael Fullan’s research group. “Think about working in a knowledge-based economy where the sort of end products we produce are intellectual, things like software, design, social policy,” she explains “There’s no multiple-choice test that can capture the value and complexity of those sorts of products.”

Friday, April 18, 2014

Place equity at forefront in education debate

This was written by my friend and colleague J-C Couture who is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers' Association. While I wish he did blog and tweet, he does not. I'll let you know if I ever convince him otherwise. This post was originally found here.

by J-C Couture

In recent weeks, there has been much hyperventilating concerning government efforts to fundamentally redesign Alberta's K-12 curriculum based on the five year-old promises of Inspiring Education.

A small but vocal segment of this province has been gathering the tinder for what could become a season of wildfires. Calls for "back to the basics" and a return to more testing are being countered by those who question Alberta's overloaded curriculum while calling for more local flexibility for schools. Adding potential fuel for a firestorm is the exit of Alison Redford as premier, leaving Education Minister Jeff Johnson with an orphaned mandate and an image in some people's eyes as advancing an ambiguous agenda of "21stcentury learning" hatched by an inner circle of advisers.

Whether it is the competitive energy expended over international rankings, the current hand-wringing over memorizing multiplication tables or bemoaning the decline of phonics instruction - Albertans' deeply rooted anxieties over what counts as learning (remember the existential threat from the Japanese in the 1980s?) perpetuate our collective inability to address the systemic barriers to student learning.

According to Joel Westheimer, one of Canada's pre-eminent educational researchers, these interminable curriculum debates obscure larger social problems that stand in the way of a great education. Rather than polarizing debates over content versus competencies or traditional versus progressive education, the greatest impact on student learning is support for students in the early years of development and provision for optimal conditions of learning throughout schooling. Renowned scholar David Berliner and his team take Westheimer's point further. In their recent book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools, Berliner concludes the impact of the quality of teaching on student learning contributes 10 per cent of the variation in outcomes. Student background, community characteristics and other variables shape 60 per cent. Further, his team found that no credible researcher disputes the claim that teacher and school programming combined determines more than 30 per cent of student learning outcomes.

This is all not to say teaching, curriculum and what goes on in schools do not make a difference. But Albertans cannot lose sight of the fact with family and community characteristics determining more than 50 per cent of the chances for students to succeed in school, equity ought to be our strategic priority. Unfortunately, the current curriculum flare-ups distract us from the reality that among peer countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Alberta along with the rest of Canada ranks 17th out of 20 in terms of income

inequality, with one in seven children living in poverty in the province.

In a two-year national study involving more than 600 principals from across Canada that we undertook with the Canadian Association of Principals, school leaders report that rather than being able to focus on instructional leadership and supporting their teachers, they are increasingly struggling to mitigate the negative impacts of growing income inequality, the brittleness of families and increasing psychosocial problems of children and youth.

B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and other far less economically advantaged provinces than Alberta have made huge strides in their education systems by focusing on the systemic barriers to learning. Quebec's comprehensive daycare system is yet one more example of how addressing the readiness to learn can lead to huge gains in learning. While we are materially some of the richest people of the planet, Alberta remains at the bottom of the 25 economically advanced jurisdictions with respect to children's readiness to learn by age six.

Alberta teachers are mindful that literacy and numeracy will always be part of the eternal golden braid of learning. In a recent visit as part of the three-year-old educational partnership, Krista Kiuru, Finland's minister of education and science, remarked that as with her country, Alberta remains among the select few "education superpowers." With our Finnish colleagues and other international partners, Alberta teachers understand that the goal of creating a great school for all students will not be achieved through a preoccupation with finetuning government-mandated curriculum documents, obsessively testing students on the so-called basics or aggressively chasing competitive rankings.

Our schools are constantly renewing and recreating themselves. The 19,000 new students expected to enter next year and the 144 babies born every day in this province deserve more than the current curriculum brush fires - they deserve our sustained commitment to equity. This will ensure a great school for all students and our province's vibrant future.
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