Saskatchewan Reform, Superman and the Media

The education world is a buzz with the release of the new movie "Waiting for Superman". The media has embraced the movie and is joining the charge to make schools better. While everyone is in agreement that our system is broken, not everyone is siding with the methods and approach and even the pedagogy described in the movie. Here are three takes you should read before you get on the Oprah bandwagon.

Dear Ms. Winfrey

I'm Not Waiting For Superman

What Randi Weingarten Should Have Said

I also wrote a post a few years ago about Michelle Rhee and her methods.

The issues in the US have some similarities to our issues in Canada and Saskatchewan but we're now battling our own reform issues. Recently the Saskatoon Public School Division, our provinces largest district, implemented some new policies around grading that are in direct alignment with our new curriculum. In a nutshell, we're moving to outcomes based education and need to change some of our practices to stay true to that. The problem is that many of these practices appear to fly in the face of many things that have been mainstays in schools for years. The biggest problem you have when making these changes is in garnering support. In this case all stakeholders are having difficulty understanding these changes. Administrators, teachers, parents and students are questioning the changes. Our own Premier has come out publicly and is questioning these policies. There's nothing wrong with questioning change. Change is difficult and in this case, some of these changes at first glance can appear downright strange.

But this is a combination of poor communication and implementation as well as media who are in the business of creating controversy. Headlines like "Teaching Plagiarism" or "How to Succeed: Cut and Paste" all serve to incite readers and enable them to quickly jump on the bandwagon and find a target in school officials as incompetent idiots. Everyone in education realizes that it's one of the few businesses that everyone feels they are expert in. That makes it very difficult to consider alternatives when many leaders and strong voices were once successful under the current regime of schooling. You'd have to read most of my 500+ posts over the last 5 years to get a small glimpse of understanding of the changes that are occurring that require us to change. This is not about change, for change sake, this is about doing what is ethical and best for kids.

 I'm going to try and address some of the most common misconceptions in this new policy and while our division has fully implemented these ideas, rest assured that in the BEST INTEREST of students, we do hope to move forward.

Students are not penalized for late assignments. False. The major shift in this policy is separating grades from behaviour. If we're going to measure learning, time should not be a factor. The argument many are making is that this is unfair to students who get their work in on time and it isn't teaching them real world skills. Once again, if this is a behaviour issue, schools need to determine how to deal with poor behaviour. Traditionally, many teachers simply made students stay behind or docked them marks. Schools need to set guidelines and ways to deal with lates. There should be deadlines and there should be consequences for late assignments. The obvious consequences is that those finished, don't have it hanging over there head. But there can be other consequences, but losing marks shouldn't be one of them. It's not often a reflection of their learning, it's a behaviour and should be dealt with accordingly. The solution of docking marks was the simplest but I'm not sure it solves the problem and definitely doesn't reflect what a student knows and can do.

Students are not penalized for plagiarism. False. Like lates, they aren't penalized academically but as a behaviour. In this case, the obvious consequence is do it again. The other issue here is one of education and developmental appropriateness. If a 10 year old is caught cheating, I don't think the consequences should be the same as a university student who knows better. If our job is to educate, then we need to start from that premise. Sometimes educating may involve punishment but it needs to be appropriate.

Schools are getting soft on kids. False. These policies are not intending to make it easier for our kids but if implemented well, places more onus and ownership on students. The struggle comes in developing specific protocols as the school level that are fair for teachers as well. A team approach is required which once again, has not been the norm. Typically classroom teachers have had to carry the full load of both late assignments and cheating. I think the consequences for these behaviours should vary according to age and regularity. Giving student a zero for cheating is a pretty soft consequences as opposed to making them redo it and maybe tacking on some community service for example.

I really don't understand those who think behaviour and achievement should be lumped together. One argument is that there is a relationship between the two. Absolutely. But this is another example of our need to simplify. Instead of rich information about a student that pinpoints learning strengths and weaknesses and also reveals work habits and behaviours, we ask for a single number to define the entirety of a student. We say, that's how it is in the real world. That's where I might disagree. Suppose you were hiring an electrician, I might tell you that she's does outstanding work, goes above and beyond but she takes forever. Depending on your situation you may be fine with hiring her. I could also tell you of an electrician that is adequate but can be there tomorrow and will finish the same day. The more information we have, the better decision we can make. That's the entire purpose of this grading change. The problem is we want simple, clean evaluations that can be reduced to a two digit number. How sad and potentially useless. 

I'd encourage you to listen to the 11 minute interview with Ken O'Connor who is a noted expert on grading. You may want to explore the area of his website where people have asked him questions.

The recent discussions in the US is slightly more complicated and controversial because the argument around what schools should be about is at the core of the discussion. Media has encouraged the public to look for simple solutions to complex problems. This approach satisfies our human need to see the world in black and white, good and bad. I'm sorry to say it's not that simple and to say it is borders on arrogance. I work with teachers every day who know the challenges and difficulties of providing great learning for all students. In the case of the new grading policy, we all want simliar things. We want our students to be accountable. The one deeper philosophical debate is whether you believe that schools are about sorting and ranking students into smartest to dumbest, good to bad or if you believe it's about helping all students learn. Those interested in ranking or survival of the fittest may lean towards lumping achievement and behaviour together.

As I said, we know that even our own teachers are struggling with these ideas. They fundamentally shift many long held beliefs. The implementation of the concepts themselves are challenging. They require staffs to sit down and figure out how make this manageable. Again, our old system was very efficient in many ways but not always in the best interest of our students. I'm not yet comfortable with how we've helped teachers become part of these discussions, let alone the parents, Joe Public or even our students. Simplistic approaches and answers won't cut it.

Thanks to the media, they've reduced a very important conversation to a bucket load of stupid, mean spirited comments that will only polarize people instead of uniting them. (by the way, if you want to listen to an intelligent discussion about how to balance the idea of transparency and public commenting, have a listen to this CBC spark clip) I'm hoping our district can do better to inform all stakeholders as to why these changes are important and ultimately serve the best interest of students.

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  • Dean Loberg

    Well said Dean.

  • The first time I heard Ken O’Connor, I felt like doing a ‘face-palm.’ The need for his “Grading for Learning” concepts was so obvious, yet it was so contrary to everything I had been taught to do as a teacher. One of my upcoming blog posts will be an apology to my former students for the mistakes I made with them, much of which has to do with grading.

    Since that time, many of us have been advocating LOUDLY in my district that we separate academic grades/marks from reporting behaviors. Every single teacher in my district has the ability to write comments on a report card. That seems the obvious place to report behaviors, both good and bad, rather than include with an academic grade. Some of the secondary teachers I work with complain that they have too many students to do that. I don’t accept that excuse. I have over 430 kids, and they all get a comment from me.

    Beth Still just wrote about this very same topic, and I know it’s one that ignites serious passion from a lot of educators. Thanks for doing such a great job of explaining away some of the myths about grading!

    • Thanks Michelle,

      The fact that these ideas are so entrenched in teachers makes it difficult. But I want to be careful not to blame them. I’ve had the luxury of time and reflection to consider things and want to honor teachers in helping them get here as well. It’s tough making change and our current system is poorly designed to accept many of them.

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  • It’s interesting to feel this intense sense of solidarity, even before I enter the profession. I feel like every teacher everywhere is part of the “Real Reformers”. One of my profs said “It’s a great time to join the profession” and even though there’s no jobs where I live, I think it is too. While I struggle to understand Ontario’s standards, teachers in other places who are 15 yrs in, are struggling with new ones they’ve only heard of 3 weeks ago. I really feel like “we’re all in this together”, despite the cynicism.

  • Jeannine St. Amand

    Garnering support for change is such a messy business. Your post is cautionary and helpful to those of us in New Brunswick working to shift our system to what is outlined in our NB3-21C plan. We’ve done a good job of looking at the big picture ideas, but the real challenge will come when we explore changes to the grading system, or graduation requirements, or school calendar, or any specific element that people don’t see as “broken”.

    Getting teacher/admin support for the major system shifts necessary will be challenging, but I suspect getting support from parents will require even more persistence, passion and persuasion. As a parent advocate I’m surprised how often parents want to hear a grade or mark, rather than seek to understand what their child has actually learned, and even more worried when they want to know how their child “ranks” against other students in the class/school/district! Don’t even get me started on people who think kids should get marks for doing homework.

    I think your comment (in the comments) is key – we need to get the “shift” ideas out there early and with appropriate context – in order to give people time to reflect, to discuss, to question and to LEARN. We need everybody in on the conversation, including students and parents, to hear their fears and to address them head-on.

  • Anonymous Coward

    I brought up the new plagiarism policy in the staff room today — first response from a seasoned teacher was insightful. If the only penalty for plagiarism is “you have to do it again”, what stops a student from just plagiarizing a second time, a third time, etc. What kind of ridiculous intervention scheme will be required to stop this from happening?

    • Anonymous Coward,

      Nothing is stopping them. But who would actually want to do it 3 more times? Besides you’re beginning with an adversarial position assuming the student is a lying, cheat rather than making a youthful indiscretion. Our job is to educate so if they’re doing it 3 times, we’ve not our job either.

      I’m not suggesting there be no penalty, just not an academic one. Once again, no one is condoning plagiarism, it’s simply a matter of trying to determine what your students know. Giving them a zero or whatever would suggests they know nothing when the truth is they’ve just not provided any evidence.

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  • William Kierstead

    Jeannine, you’re absolutely correct. Change is difficult. Change in education, more so. In my experience, everyone is for school reform. Nobody has a problem with doing things better. The problem is that we are in the middle of a revolution, not reform. Reform is doing what we always did, only better. What we are trying to do in the 21st century skills movement is to stop doing what we have always done. It doesn’t work. Revolution brings wholesale change. The very issues raised by Oprah and NBC are currently being addressed in schools and jurisdictions around the world. Change this messy takes time and resistance is guaranteed. Regardless of what the literature tells us about the importance of grades, structure of the school day and year etc., the changes that need to be made to bring about the revolution education needs will not speak to the experience of many parents and stakeholders.
    In the end, it isn’t the literature and supporting research that will guide the type and pace of change needed. The revolution will unfortunately be guided by the expertise (read perception) of those whose own experiences with the public system have made them de facto experts. This will bog down any change that is brought to the table (if my child doesn’t get a grade, how will I know if they learned?). Until we get serious and realize that the answer doesn’t rest with handing education over to corporations, and we start listening to the research, the media and self appointed pundits will continue to be able to have influence over education policy.

    If you went to the doctor and were given a diagnosis you weren’t happy with, you might seek a second opinion. But it would be from another doctor, wouldn’t it?

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  • Kevin Tonita

    Most students want to succeed at school. They are quite happy and willing to play by the rules whatever the rules might be. Somehow the media has made a leap from “we are not going to punish academic dishonesty by giving a zero” to “every student will now feel that it is ok to cheat.” In my mind that is a far stretch. Plagiarism in the classroom in my experience was a rare occurrence. Students understood what it was, and that it was unacceptable. I don’t see that changing; good teachers won’t allow it to change.
    When discussing all of the aspects of our grading practices and assessment policy, some seem to quickly gravitate to very extreme cases which are not the norm. Everyone has a very compelling story of why a particular aspect of the policy can’t succeed. Again, these extreme cases are not the norm. The reality is that changes to current assessment practice will be good for the vast majority of our students. They will be more supported, they will receive better feedback, and they will have a better understanding of where they stand with respect to the targets we are asking them to achieve.

    • Kevin,

      Any insights or examples of helping your constituents understand this shift? We struggle with the fact that many of our own teachers are having difficulty buying into these changes. For the most part I understand their hesitations. For years we’ve asked and expected teachers do deal with lates, etc on their own. Grading penalties is a fairly simple approach that provides them with the appearance of control. We’ve also not provided them with enough time to explore solutions to these well meaning concepts. There is some discussion to be had at the school level. Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on any successes. We’ve had some but still are looking for more.

  • “Students are not being penalized for plagiarism”

    This one’s definitely false. My school (Penn State) has one of the strictest plagiarism policies. If a student gets caught plagiarizing, they fail the course.

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