Grading: Learning What Not To Do From My Own Experiences

I learned a lot about grading during the 2016-2017 school year. I read a few books. I attended a few workshops/presentations. I got to meet and speak with (at length) prominent grading gurus in the field. However, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I needed to read the books/papers/journal articles/blog posts, attend the presentations, or engage in dialogue with the gurus to see a fundamental flaw in many of our grading practices (though, all of this most certainly helped raise my awareness concerning the issue). All I truly had to do was reflect on my personal experiences with grading, both as a student and as a teacher.

As a young student, I received extra credit points for bringing in school supplies. I received deductions for late work (which, if we think about it logically, these point deductions don’t reflect a lack of academic ability, but a failure to observe the punctuality standards set by the teacher). My grades were penalized for my excessive talking (probably not hard to believe, but I LOVE talking). Clearly, these grading practices focused more on behavioral assimilation rather than actual learning. Just as unfortunate (I hate to admit it), I also engaged in some of these practices as a teacher. Not a shining moment in my career as an educator. However, I have to give myself some credit. I’m happy that at least I can admit these faults. At least I’m willing to reflect on my mistakes and strive for improvement. That’s not the case with some educators, especially in the realm of post secondary education (at least from my experience).

My worst experience with grading came in graduate school in my School Finance class. The monetary incentive (paying my own school tuition) probably contributed to my disdain for this class, the professor (let’s call him “Professor John”), his grading practices, and the outcome. Professor John mentioned many times (verbally) that if we (his students) positively completed his evaluation at the culmination of the class, he would “help us out with our final grade.” Alfie Kohn would probably refer to this behavior as “bribing.” Often times, teachers/professors engage in bribes in order to achieve compliance (some researchers go as far as saying that all grades are bribes). As luck would have it, I was on vacation while the course evaluation opened, and did not submit my evaluation for the class. As I received no less than an A+ on every assignment throughout the eight-week class, I wasn’t worried and was fairly certain that I would receive no less than an A for my final grade. When I received my grade for the class, I was shocked. I “earned” a B+ in the class (my obsession with grades is probably a good indicator that I experienced flawed grading practices). I couldn’t believe it.

I tried to communicate my concern with Professor John. Conveniently, he was also on vacation. I don’t like jumping the chain of command, but I brought my concern to the department chair’s attention. He was rigid and contemptuous. The department chair stated these types of cases were always resolved in favor of their professors and that their professors were beyond reproach. I was disgusted. I kept thinking, while upholding Professor John’s decision about my grade, it was quite obvious that the university was not only invalidating my concern, but also perpetuating bad grading practices (considering they knew that it was going on and did nothing about it). I doubt they’ve done anything to improve.

Though this was five years ago now, this experience was an extremely valuable lesson for me. We all must be willing to reflect on our mistakes and take steps towards improvement. While reflecting on my grading experiences as a student and as an educator, I have a better contextual standing on which to pivot. I will not perpetuate poor grading practices (or other flawed educational practices). None of us are beyond reproach.

Just an update… What’s equally frightening is that Professor John is a high-ranking elementary school administrator in the south suburbs, and is still actively employed as a professor by the university. Truly unfortunate…


Dear Representative Jeanne Ives: We Need to Talk

I apologize for the delay in blog posts. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve been busy this summer! However, I could not ignore an opportunity to write a post focused on Jeanne Ives and her deleterious comments regarding teachers, unions, and the teacher pension system in Illinois.

Her comments have circulated social media for few weeks now (Facebook Link; Youtube Link). I find the following quote most troubling: “I’ll get out my checkbook and I’ll send a property tax bill to my county to pay for bloated administrative salaries in public schools… in public schools where on average, in the state of Illinois, less than half of the students are ready for college… Just over 1/3 are even reading or doing math at grade level… Maybe I should send them more money…”

Undoubtedly, she’s passionate. You can hear it in her voice. I appreciate that. Yet, imagine if she were more passionate about clarity. Before I begin to poke holes in the validity of her claim, I’ll first share the following troubling statistic/fact (allowing me to situate my response): Schools with less than 10% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds score as well as or better than the highest achieving nations (Finland, Shanghai, etc.) in the world. In fact, if one were to analyze a data set showing level of achievement and percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, one would see an inverse correlation between the two. Therefore, as the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds increases, the level of achievement decreases. In no way am I saying that poor students cannot achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering I dedicate my life to showing that they can. I’m simply sharing this information to highlight the importance of not conflating separate issues in education. Are there overpaid administrators in education? Possibly. Yet, it’s important to understand that one issue does not exist as a result of the other. Put plainly, student academic underachievement is not a result of (possible) bloated administrative salaries. When considering student academic achievement (or lack thereof), there are far too many concurrent variables at play (poverty, student/family mobility, etc.) to make a claim that one of those variables is significantly more profound than all the others. One may see her conflation (as I do) as a complete misinterpretation of issues facing educators today. Thus, it would behoove her (and the many politicians like her) to leave education to those who have the knowledge and ability to bring about the necessary changes.

Recently, Jeanne also blasted a teacher on twitter, claiming that “support of unions = chaos in schools.” As you can see in the picture accompanying this post, I responded with a comment to get her thinking and to encourage her to explain to me how unions contribute to chaos in schools, considering that chaos is prevalent in a considerable amount of non-unionized, failing charter schools (I’m still waiting for her to get back to me…). In addition, I always think it’s wise to consider how successful districts or world nations deal with prevalent education issues. For example, Finland works closely with its teacher union in order to best serve its students. Granted, as an administrator, I’ve had many difficult conversations with teachers’ unions and union representatives. However, like Finland, I believe that in order to raise achievement for all students, it’s considerably more propitious to work with unions as opposed to lumping them all together into one picture/broad stroke and developing evil machinations to bring about union demise. Jeanne’s comments really brought me back. Teacher/union blasting was so 2014. I think Diane Ravtich should send her signed copies of her most recent work.

She also made comments about the “state’s pension problem.” This will be short and sweet. If I’m not mistaken, politicians have voted to borrow against teacher pensions for decades. These politicians have never paid back the loan. I’m no financial expert. However, it’s rare in life to get a loan and never have to pay it back (sarcasm). The pension system was never designed to serve as an interest free loan for politicians to use as they see fit.

Of course, it’s truly unfortunate when people who have widespread access to such a large array of people don’t think before they spread misinformation. At the same time, her comments truly demonstrate her lack of understanding. Not that politicians need to be experts in all fields. However, a working knowledge regarding some of the basics would certainly help.


Courageous Actions and Conversations: The Most Effective Leaders Are Willing To Do/Say The Things That Others Are Scared To Do/Say

Good/effective leadership is most certainly not always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult/stressful/heartbreaking/deflating/etc. However, for the sake of helping all the people we serve in our educational organizations (whether it be students, parents, or teachers), we must fully engage in the difficult aspects of being a leader (of which there are many). But, for now, I’m focusing on honest and courageous actions and conversations.

I’m focusing on this aspect of leadership because having difficult conversations with students, parents, or teachers is well within our control (and it’s one of our primary responsibilities) when considering how effective schools function. Whether your difficult conversations highlight necessary cultural shifts in the school or pinpoint areas of poor student achievement, these conversations should be and must be had (how a leader goes about having these conversations is another blog post entirely). However, the leader must be willing and courageous enough to have these conversations. The conversations will be tough, uncomfortable, tense, etc. I recently participated in a PLC workshop a few weeks back. The presenter said something that still resonates with me and I hope will continue to resonate with me throughout my career: “Schools weren’t built for our employment. Schools were built for student learning.” At the end of the day, we’re here to do what’s best for students.

As Todd Whitaker said, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate” (obviously, this quote is completely applicable to all leaders throughout a school district, top to bottom). As leaders, if we tolerate bad behavior, low expectations, student mistreatment, disrespect, unprofessionalism (just to name a few), what kind of implicit message does that send the rest of our staff? As leaders, our actions (or inactions) are just as important (and scrutinized) as our words. School culture takes a hit whenever we refuse to address or act on pressing issues facing our students, parents, or teachers. It’s never easy. It’s never fun. However, it’s necessary.


What Do We Have Control Over As Educators?

This post is a partial continuation of my most recent post, Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas.

I’ve had the conversation regarding school improvement (especially as it relates to underserved/disadvantaged districts) with so many educators. In fact, after my most recent post, I’ve had multiple educators in my district approach me and thank me for sharing the post and express interest in learning more. Again, I posit that there are aspects of education we can control (or have a better chance of controlling), and think it’s essential that we A) take a look at ourselves and determine if we are honestly doing the “right work” by focusing on the things we CAN control while B) simultaneously acknowledging the copious amount of outside-of-school factors that impact student learning, but not letting those factors define our solutions or plague our thinking/efforts.

This list includes a plethora of aspects in education over which we have NO/VERY MINIMAL CONTROL (not an exhaustive list):

  • Poverty and its various effects
  • Dysfunctional family home lives
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • School segregation/school district redlining/other discriminatory policies
  • Blighted/unsafe school communities and neighborhoods
  • Paucity of school funding
  • For some districts, decrepit schools and facilities
  • Formal schooling is not mandated in Illinois until first grade (6-7 years old)

These are some of the aspects in education I think we CAN CONTROL (or have the most control over) in order to help improve schools in underserved/disadvantaged areas. What am I missing? (feel free to comment!):

  • Teacher quality
  • Administrator quality
  • The support we provide our teachers and administrators
  • The type/quality of the professional development offered
  • Safe/comfortable environment for teachers/administrators to act autonomously/take risks/innovate
  • Level of collaboration between teachers and administrators
  • Building relationships/rapport/respect with the entire school community
  • Instructional practices
  • The hiring process
  • Interventions/servicing students who are experiencing difficulty
  • Curriculum
  • Student engagement
  • Culture building/developing/rebuilding
  • School branding
  • Exercising fiscal responsibility with the funds schools do receive
  • Prioritization of duties/responsibilities

Again, please Comment/Like/Share!  I’d love to know your thoughts!

Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Actually, this has probably been a thought of mine (at times, it may have lingered in the back of my head as opposed to taking center stage), since I first started my career in education. I work (and have worked since the start of my career) in a severely disadvantaged school district. Over 80% of our students come from low-income homes. We have a 40% student mobility rate. It doesn’t help that our standardized test scores according to PARCC are not very good (which, in my opinion, is highly indicative of socioeconomic status. You can take a map of the south suburbs of Illinois, throw a dart at it, and you will more than likely hit an area that’s underperforming while serving a severely disadvantaged population). What’s even more unfortunate, there is an undeserved negative connotation associated with my district and a plethora of unfavorable perceptions regarding my current school district (and a lot of districts that serve similar populations).

This unfortunate scenario is reinforced by social scripts, which are “a series of behaviors, actions, and consequences that are expected in a particular situation or environment”( In my district’s case, the social script is defined by environmental factors such as poverty, dysfunctional student home lives, high percentages of EL students, high percentages of students with special needs, etc. Districts like mine (there are many) are often expected to fail (sometimes, this expectation is even held by those whom the district employs) because of the out-of-school factors impacting our students and their learning (among other things). But, I’m trying to find a way to flip that script. We focus a lot on what we CANNOT control in education. Let’s start focusing on what we CAN control.

Elena Aguilar (2013), author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, describes the Coach’s Optical Refractor as an essential tool which encourages coaches to view issues/problems/situations from six different lenses. If you’d like to learn more about the Refractor, I highly recommend her book. I want to focus on the first lens, Inquiry, and how it relates to my thoughts regarding school improvement in disadvantaged areas. She states, “The way we define the problem dictates how we define the solution” (p. 50). Defining/describing improvement efforts concerning our disadvantaged schools are almost always plagued with assertions and descriptions regarding the effects of pervasive poverty, the dysfunctional family home lives of our students, the lack of resources to properly help our students learn and live productive lives, etc. I understand that those issues impact our reality. There’s no way around that. We can’t deny this reality, and we must be cognizant of how it shapes our own perceptions, beliefs, and actions.

However, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing on those aspects of the problem so much so that the solution (if there is one) is often (only) defined in these ways as well. I’ve heard the, “If only we had more resources,” “If only our students’ parents cared more,” “If only we had more parental involvement,” “If only the neighborhoods where are students come from were safer,” “If only our kids came to school on grade level (a good portion of our students do not come to school on grade level),” etc.

In my opinion, we may need to reframe the problem so that it doesn’t focus so much on issues outside of our control. By reframing the problem, we may also need to adjust our professional practice mirrors onto ourselves to determine what exactly we CAN do in order to positively enact change and improve learning and/or achievement for our students. Can we safely reframe the problem so that we take into consideration all the contributing factors to a student’s success, but also focus mainly on what we, as educators, can do to help ensure learning? I think so. I think it will require honest, courageous, uncomfortable conversations. But, I think it’s possible (and worth it). I also think that this type of change won’t occur until we get honest with ourselves and begin focusing on what we CAN change, as opposed to focusing on those issues over which we have no control.