"Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children

Originally published at Change.org on 2009-07-18 04:35:00 UTC

As I end my week of guest blogging at change.org I realize that while I have discussed what our schools are really about, what technology really means, how to change our schools, how to find the best teachers, and how to help our students find the best technologies for themselves. I haven't yet dealt with the realities on "the ground." So, to do that, I'm offering a new version of a post from my blog earlier this year...

My son went to a great high school. Among the many things they did well was to use a grading system which combined letter grades with long narrative evaluations. At the end of his ninth grade year, this mixture allowed me to see the great problem with our evaluation of students even in the best schools.

For at the end of that year his Latin Class evaluation read (in part) this way: "[He] was the best student in the class, he completed both Latin I and Latin II this year. He will need to take future courses at [a nearby] college in order to continue his advancement. Grade C-"

"What grade," I asked the teacher, "did the second best student get?"

I was told that my son got a bad grade because he did not do his homework. "Apparently," I said, "he didn't have to." But, you see, this teacher had a rubric. Homework was 25% of the grade, and apparently there was no block in the rubric for doing two years of work in one.

I didn't really fight. I didn't care. The next year he was sitting among college students reading Ovid. That's what matters.

Schools force comply or defy on students, then wonder about
behavior problems
Except, that is not what matters.

"Can I write "Dear parent, your son has greatly improved on things not considered important by the school [reporting] system"?" Tomaz Lasic asked on Twitter today. Mr. Lasic is a teacher in Western Australia dealing with "troubled" children, and a brilliant observer of the system. He followed up: "In my 'low achievers' class: Where's the "halted [self]abuse", or the "began to smile" box to tick?" And: "Every time a particular kid (totally socially inept past) walks in our office and says please, or gives a high-five, we say: "Evaluate that!"

What is our national standard (whatever nation you are in) for getting a child to smile? For getting a child to publicly ask a question? For getting a child to confidently present an idea? For getting a child to be willing to ask for help? Or to ask to play with another child?

What is the national statistical trend line for feeling safe in school? For picking up that first book of interest? For solving an interpersonal problem for the first time? For absorbing an unfair call in athletics without going off?

I know my son did well in Latin. Not just because he was taking a college course as a high school sophomore, but because later, as he took up French, he rushed through that learning, and at one point last year, got a free trip to Algiers through his employer because he was the only French-speaking tech guy. I know he did well in Latin because I can ask him about original meanings in ancient texts, and he can give me all the possibilities. I know he did well in Latin simply because he would come home from school and talk about it, in that excited way people learning new things do.

And Mr. Lasic knows how his students are doing as well. He is a teacher - and I assume, a great teacher - and teachers know their students. They see them day by day. They watch their frustrations. They watch their triumphs and they watch their failures. These are complex things. A great writer could surely create a book out of any student's year in school. A "deep map" of that learning experience as William Least Heat-Moon might say.

But we don't ask for that. We don't encourage that. We won't pay for that. Instead we expect rubrics which lead to 'consistent grading' which lead to letter grades and tick boxes.

There are so many things we hope children get from their education, but when we discuss "data driven decision making," or "accountability," or "standards," or "merit pay" for teachers we become complete reductionists, assessing (very badly) a tiny fragment of all that expected learning - and most often - not even anything which is really important. And in doing this we tell children they are worthless, and we assure that success in school is a matter of socio-economics and playing the "those-in-power" game, and nothing else.

See, it does not matter if a child is rushing ahead or struggling to keep up. We do the same thing to anyone who doesn't measure up to our fictional "average." We crush them, demean them, and sneer at their accomplishments. And in doing so, we prove our worthlessness and lack of credibility to virtually all students.

So when people talk about measurement in education, I always get angry. First, because we can not free the curriculum until we stop our destructive assessment habits. Second, because I know that neither Arne Duncan nor any of the big "accountability" school bosses - Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Michelle Rhee - would give a dime of merit pay to Mr. Lasic for helping that kid learn to smile, nor even to that Latin teacher for letting my son rush ahead. And I know that schools which must spend years making their children simply feel safe will always be rated below those in wealthy suburbs.

Because you can not discuss "standards" or "evaluation" or even "accountability" until you adopt some kind of legitimate sense of what counts in the education of each individual child. And we are nowhere close to even having that conversation.

I began this week of blogging with the question of what we want our schools to do. And I end the week here - asking that we evaluate our students as humans. Asking that we meet their needs. Asking that we give them the supports they require to grow into successful adults.

Because when it comes down to it, we must remember that children are the "customers" in education. Not America's corporate elite. Not even the parents. We do not want our children limited by the hiring needs of General Electric, nor by the expectations of parents who have themselves been victimized by the education system.

So our schools need to be student centered, they must embrace student choice, and they must measure in human terms.

Please, let us stop tinkering around the edges, and let us begin the real work of fundamental change.

- Ira Socol

To Clay Burell - thank you for this opportunity, and thank you for all the work you do to keep education's real issues at the forefront. To Shelly Blake-Plock who preceded me here and Jon Becker who will follow, I am delighted to be in such illustrious company, to share this conversation.

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