Praise the Progress

About a week ago, NPR ran a story titled “When a School gets a Bad Report Card” about North Carolina’s recent decision to grade their schools on the traditional A through F scale. (You can read the entire article here.) The State isn’t the first to try this method, and most certainly they won’t be the last, but what concerned me was the fact that of a school’s total score 80% is based on student scores on standardized tests while only 20% is based on student growth. The school at the center of the story is Allen Middle School where nearly every student receives free or reduced lunch and where the state made every employee re-apply for his or her job. That was two years ago. During that time, the school worked hard to make progress and indeed showed improvement. However, their student test scores weren’t high enough to earn them a grade above D.Grading schools

Republican State Senator Jerry Tillman, lead proponent of the new law says “‘We’re not asking [schools] to post a big marker outside that says “Welcome, we’re an F school” but you know [in] the real world, this is what you’re achieving.'” I couldn’t help but chuckle acerbically at his statement. What exactly is “real” about basing the success of a school on one matrix, in this case, test scores? (In the real world, even restaurants are given a score by the health department based on more than just one measure.) And, as any teacher worth his or salt can tell you, test scores, by far, are the least accurate way to determine a student’s, or indeed a school’s, achievement level. It’s the progress, not only the end result, that determines success. Of course, that depends upon what you define as  success and clearly North Carolina, and many other states, only have one definition: test scores.  Senator Tillman goes on to say that if he were the principal of a D or F school he would “bust his fanny” to make sure they weren’t on the list next year. So we can only assume that these schools have just been sitting around NOT busting their butts because they didn’t earn a C or higher, right? There are so many words I could use to explain how I feel about this but none of them would garner a rating less than “R”…

The most disheartening part of this article, outside of Senator Tillman, comes from a mother who volunteers at the school and is responsible for copying the letter that must go home to each parent explaining the school’s grade: “‘Now it feels like we took five steps forward to take four steps back. We felt so good about our growth…and now you tell us: What you did was not good enough.'” If Allen Middle School were a student, he’d probably drop-out. And that, my friends, is the problem.

In a previous post, I lamented that we now educate our children in a “Veruca Salt” era where this machine we call “education” is only interested in the end results and it’s not all that concerned with how these results are achieved.  Continually tell a student that he doesn’t measure up and you will have a student who doesn’t measure up. Do the same for a school, and guess what? Or, continually praise the progress. Think self-fulfilling prophecy. Case in point:

In my 9th grade English class, I have a student we’ll call Daniel*. Pretty much, Danny is your typical quiet, moody, unmotivated 14 year old freshman except for one important fact. When he arrived in my class in August, Danny’s reading comprehension level was just above Grade 3.5. Even if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 3-5 years and have no idea what Common Core is you are hopefully adept enough to know that a student in 9th grade should be reading at a much higher level than Grade 3.5. Yet here was Danny, sitting in the front row of my class  waiting for me to teach him what he needed to know to pass the yearly end-of-course test.

During his 1st semester, Danny struggled on every individual assignment. Actually, struggled wouldn’t be accurate. He failed. Nearly every one.  The fact that he passed my class (with a 70) was due more to my insistence on small group or paired assignments (which make up a sizable chunk of my students’ grades) than it was on his individual work. I cringed every time I had to give him back an assignment. One of the most heart breaking moments as a teacher is when students put forth their best effort only to be presented with a failing grade, which is why I put so much emphasis on praising their progress. “That was 20 points higher than your last quiz! High five!” Inevitably, he’d look at me with that “Are you crazy woman? I just failed again” look but I simply continued to focus on what he did right and not what he didn’t.

2nd semester rolled around and it was time for vocabulary quiz #1. Words like flamboyant, incontrovertible, ubiquitous, bewailed, and maxim stared back at him. He had the same look on his face as he always did, defeated before he even began. I walked past his desk and put a sticky note on it that simply said “You got this” and walked away. That afternoon, I reached for Danny’s quiz and began grading it. With each check of my pen, I could feel my heart racing. Correct, correct, correct, correct. I began rooting for him like I was at a basketball game. “Danny! Danny! Danny!” By the time I was finished, there were tears streaming down my face. He’d passed, with a 73. I ran to his other teachers to show off his quiz. I sent a picture of it to my administrators. Heck, I sent a picture of it to my parents. The next day in class, as I was giving shout outs, I made sure to give him his accolades. The entire class cheered. “This is refrigerator worthy.” He smiled. In fact, the boy smiled for the rest of the week. In class, the same person who seemed to wear defeat like a worn-out hoodie was in class, taking notes, and fussing at his classmates to get back on task. “Y’all aren’t gonna jack up my grade!”

Yesterday, students took quiz #2  and Danny earned another 73. He frowned. “Ms. Holliman. I got the same grade as last time.” “Yup. You did. But that’s the second quiz in a row that you passed. That’s more than you passed all last semester and it’s only the 5th week of school! High Five!” He smiled and said “You’re so corny.” ‘Yeah” I said, “But you love it.” Oh, and by the way, he’s passing my class with a 78 right now.

Imagine what would happen if, instead of focusing on a schools failings, we highlighted their progress, offering up high fives for the things they are doing well, rewarding them for busting their fannies, papering their hallways with sticky notes that say “You got this” and mean it. Attempting to shame schools into success works about as well as it does for students. It doesn’t. If the education system is sincere about ensuring every student receives a quality education we must stop putting a scarlet letter D or F on the schools where they attend. By doing so, you plant seeds of discouragement that will ultimately grow into weeds of defeat. And is that what we really want? Clearly that’s up for debate.

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2 thoughts on “Praise the Progress

  1. I applaud you and am proud to hear of your successes. Please continue to champion the students because it is evident you are making a difference.! We are blessed to have you in the craft and you have put a sme on my face and increased hope in my heart.

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