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…


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.


Calling All School Administrators: Collaborate! Deprivatize Your Practice! Share The Learning!

Dr. Brad Gustafson said, “If school leaders are not modeling effective collaboration, can we really expect teachers to facilitate it for students?” (2017, p. 50). Gustafson went on to say, “School leaders must model collaboration if it is to become part of a school’s culture” (2017, p. 53).

I wholeheartedly agree. I first focus on these questions as they specifically pertain to administrators and teachers (before thinking about the trickle-down effect with students). Can we really expect teachers to facilitate or engage in collaboration among THEMSELVES if we as administrators aren’t modeling it OURSELVES? I can’t help but notice some reluctance or trepidation regarding collaboration in my meetings with fellow administrators. Clearly, effective collaboration takes time, effort, commitment, and support. Therefore, apprehension concerning collaboration is most certainly understandable. Yet, purposeful reluctance or defiance regarding collaboration will only serve to harm teachers, students, and school culture.

In order for us to improve as educators (and improve schools and the field of education itself), collaboration is key. We must become comfortable with collaboration. We must become committed to collaboration. One of the most effective ways to begin this process is through dialogue with other educators. It is essential to deprivatize our practice and share our learning (and failures) with others (I completely understand that this may be difficult when systematic issues in some districts discourage failure and risk-taking, thus hindering trust, the deprivatization of professional practice, and effective collaboration). However, if as an administrator (or educator in general), you don’t personally accept the reality that collaboration is key for improving schools, you will hinder your school’s efforts towards improvement.

In my district, we’ve implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) which, when done well, requires high levels of collaboration, risk-taking, and deprivatization of professional practice. We’ve had lots of bumps in the road. It has not been smooth sailing to say the least. However, we are committed to the process and the reality that, without collaborating, our schools will not improve. I can’t speak for the other administrators in my district. But, I can say that I will stay the course, as I’ve seen wonderful results regarding collaboration in our PLCs. It must be noted, PLCs are not the only avenue through which educators can collaborate. Educators from across the world have collaborated through face-to-face methods and have broken down barriers by collaborating through asynchronous means using social media. Thousands of educators have embraced technology to help build their Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). Embracing technology’s ability to tear down barriers to collaboration is a wonderful example of effective, technology-based collaboration. Teachers and administrators are constantly learning and developing (for free!) by reaching out to their PLNs.

Also, collaboration doesn’t always have to start with the school leader. I’ve read about teachers starting their own collaborative efforts (through traditional methods or by using social media) and the wonderful effects these efforts have had on the entire building. However, it is important to understand that if the school leader does not personally embrace collaboration, this will drastically harm the school’s collaborative culture and its improvement potential.

During my next administrator meeting, I will challenge/encourage my fellow colleagues to not only deprivatize their practice and share the learning, but also collaborate with school leaders inside and outside our district. I will encourage the utilization of traditional and more modern methods (such as collaboration using social media) to help our schools improve. These types of collaboration, when effectively modeled by the school leader, can lead to positive changes for teachers, and eventually have a positive impact on students.


Teacher Quality and Practice Comes First

At yesterday’s district institute, we had a wonderful presenter who initiated the conversation regarding grading practices and homework. He brought the data to help support his claims. He cited relevant research that showed that homework, especially in the primary grades, often results in an effect size of zero when it comes to student learning. Yet, one of the aspects about his presentation that made it so compelling was his connection to our children and our students. We may have heard the message before, but he was particularly effective in communicating “If it’s not good enough for your own kids, why would you consider it good enough for the students you teach?” I’ve traveled to neighboring districts to see similar presentations from different presenters on grading practices and homework policies. The presentations lacked that compelling piece.

I completely see the validity in the presenter’s claims regarding homework and grading. It’s hard to argue with the majority of the evidence he presented. However, I’m not quite sure that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices is a step towards district improvement (or the most effective step towards improvement). For example, with homework, if a teacher looks at an assignment and determines that it’s good/quality, but in reality, the assignment is not very good and serves no purpose for student learning, I’m thinking there’s a deeper issue at hand. With this scenario, we may have an issue of teacher quality. In this instance, I do not believe that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices or what good homework should look like (if homework is given at all) is the first step in the process of improving the quality of that teacher. Yes, having this knowledge regarding grading practices and homework is essential. But, like I said, there may be an underlying issue that can’t be completely addressed by learning more about homework and grading.

Point being, improving teacher quality (especially from an instructional standpoint) before focusing on grading and homework policies is essential. We may be putting the cart before the horse by considering homework and grading policies before considering teacher quality.

Later, I was fortunate enough to participate in a round table discussion with the presenter. He agreed that addressing teacher practices and teacher quality before grading practices and homework policies was essential. He then clarified (which I had difficulty articulating for some reason) that with good teaching practices and improved teacher quality, grading practices and homework policies could lead to school improvement.

Overall, the presentation was fantastic. I’m simply concerned about any execution of his suggestions before improving teacher quality (and administrator quality for that matter).