Monday, March 3, 2014

Whose Gradebook Is It?

One recent morning as I entered the school, I passed by a teammate's door and saw her using a paper gradebook. Now that was a blast from my past! When I started teaching in '87, of course that's what I used. I remember hours with a calculator averaging grades. As math was never my strong suit, it was a gigantic pain in my behind. On the plus side, I was allowed to set up my gradebook the way I wanted to. I had some strong opinions on the matter.

When I was a student there were many classes I breezed through. I could pass those courses with little to no effort. Then there was math. I could pass math, even do well at times, but it never came easily to me. I worked my butt off every day and still made middlin' grades on the tests most of the time.  

It irked me that the kids who were naturals in math could not work as hard on a daily basis, but make an A in the course because they could pass the tests. Just as, I am sure, it irked them that I never had to really work up a sweat in English or social studies.  

So, as a teacher, I made the decision that no one was going to be saved or sunk by test grades. This was especially true after I started using workshop methods exclusively and stopped giving tests altogether. Everything in my gradebook, including daily participation was counted equally. At the end of a quarter I would add up the number of points a student had earned, divide it by the number of points possible, and that would be the grade. 

Even as we moved into the wonderful world of electronic gradebooks, as early for me as when I had my first Apple IIe, I was let alone to grade as I saw fit. The biggest hassle was that I was required to keep a paper gradebook as my “official” document. But the computer averaged the grades for me and I was better able to keep my students informed as to their progress, so I went with it.

Even then I was allowed to use my professional judgment. Wait, maybe I should explain that for some of the younger teachers who may be reading this. Once teachers were trusted a bit more than they are now to make decisions. Weird decisions. Things like: what to teach; what methods to use; what order to teach it in; how to count the grades.

For example: after my second year of teaching I was a mess. I felt like I had nothing really to offer my students. We had a textbook called English In Action. I secretly thought the title should have been two words instead of three. I got really lucky then. Dr. Richard Graves of Auburn University was, among other things, the site director for Sun Belt Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project. I was accepted to be a fellow that summer. 

I read the career altering work of Nanci Atwell, Linda Reif, and Tom Romano. I went back to the school to start my third year, my tenure year, as a ball of fire. I took the brand new textbooks issued to the students and locked them in a closet. We did writing workshop and reading workshop all day, every day. I never thought to stop and ask permission to do any of this. 

Before long, my principal let me know he wanted to meet with me. He wanted to know what I was doing in my classroom. I went in loaded for bear. I had all kinds of facts and figures ready to show him this was a research based method of teaching with proven effectiveness. He told me to calm down. He just wanted to know what I was doing so he could reassure parents who called him. And I was allowed to grade it the way that made sense to me. 

Imagine that happening today. I can't. 

When I returned to middle school in 2010 after a few years teaching writing at the high school level, I continued my grading practices. Up to a point. The principal told me that each student had to read five AR (Accelerated Reader) books on his/her level and pass the AR test on them. Ten percent of their grade was based on this. That ten percent was the average of how many books they passed AR tests on (each book being worth 20%) and the average of their AR tests.  I wasn't happy with this-it made the book talk forms I had prepared and run off pretty much useless to me. But, I had asked to return to the seventh grade, so I dealt with it.

We were in teams that year. The math teacher on the team was a veteran with more years in than I had. He could have retired at any time, but loved the kids and loved the work, so stayed on. He told me about Saxon math. This is a pretty much scripted way of teaching math. The teachers had to follow certain exact procedures and were told what percentage each of two different categories, tests and homework, were to be counted.  I felt for him. My own tribulations with a dictated curriculum were still a short way off. 

About two weeks before the end of the third quarter, the principal came around to each team meeting and told the teachers that we were to keep three categories in our gradebooks: tests, homework, and classwork, and how much each category counted. This was even worse. I could still get around it, though, and really make it about the points. Even though he tried to spin it as a positive change, we knew that this had been imposed on him from above.

At the end of the year my principal was promoted to a central office job. We lost a full time assistant principal. Changes in curriculum were instituted from the central office. Teachers were told that their grades should be 50% tests and 50% classwork/homework. 

After school started the next year, I was called into the new principal's office. This was soon to become a pattern for me. When I came in the principal and assistant principal had my gradebook pulled up on the computer screen. They proceeded to grill me on why the scores for the first multiple choice test I was required to give my students had overall lower averages that the other English teachers had. 

I want to make this clear-the grilling was not about the final grades for the year. It was not about the final grades for the semester. It was not about the final grades for the quarter. It was not even about progress report grades. It was about the grades on one test-the first one given.

I knew the answer. The other English teachers had all given out study guides which basically went over every question, in order, and went over the answers with their students the day before the test. I didn't. I felt that my students should be able to pass a test on the story (“Rikki-tikki-tavi”) without that kind of a crutch. I knew that, but could not say it. I started to tell them about my problems with the new curriculum and that I was doing my best with it, but that didn't matter. They just wanted my test scores up. Not the standardized test scores at the end of the year, but the scores on each and every test I was required to give.

The situation gradually worsened over the last few years. This year it has reached what I think has to be its zenith. The teachers in my school were again told what our categories would be and how much they would count: Major Grades 60%, Minor Grades 25 %, and Classwork/Homework/Participation 15% (math has separate categories and percentages). We were told that we had to have a minimum of six major grades, nine minor grades, and twelve classwork/homework/participation grades. I don't object to having at least 27 grades a quarter, I usually have more. I didn't like being told how many to give in each category, though.

Then came the new twist of the knife, the insult heaped onto the injury: we actually had these categories and percentages preprogrammed into our gradebooks. We were locked out of changing them. We were also told that we had to use category averages, not anything else, to figure out our grades. Apparently that could not be preprogrammed or it would have been.

At that point, I pretty much felt numb. I had taken so many body blows over my teaching the past few years that this barely registered. The principle of not allowing tests to save a gifted-but-lazy student was a thing of the past. The daily participation grades, once about half my students' average, was no longer the spur to active participation that it had previously been.

There was a time when teachers could simply “close their door and teach.” Even that is disappearing. The assistant principal for the seventh grade goes into all the gradebooks each week. He checks to make sure that there are at least two to three grades for that week and that there are no “blanks.” Those teachers that meet this by 8 o'clock Monday morning (the same time our lesson plans for the week are due to our department heads), get a congratulatory email. Those who don't get an emailed admonition to fix it as soon as possible. 

I think this gradual process of losing the power over my own gradebook is symbolic of what has happened to teachers across the country over the past two and a half decades: the loss of autonomy, the disregard of professional judgment, the assumption that teachers need to be monitored and micromanaged lest we dare fail to follow the dictums we have no say in, the disrespect of our professionalism.

As the monitoring and surveillance of our daily procedures grows and deepens, I fear the micromanagement will only worsen still more. The Orwellian future has slowly crept up, one indignity at a time, until it has become the present we all live in and accept as normal.