Marshall Memo 942
A Weekly Round-up of Important Ideas and Research in K-12 Education
June 27, 2022
1. A debate about fair and unfair grading practices
2. Unintended consequences of student learning objectives (SLOs)
3. The effects of students spending more than one year with a teacher
4. Pushing back on the “tiger parent” stereotype
5. Giving students scaffolding when it’s needed and then withdrawing it
6. Mistakes leaders make under pressure
7. Short item: A position paper on antisemitism, bigotry, and discrimination
“Everybody must get an opportunity to at least touch an instrument, learn an instrument, understand that instrument, play that instrument.”
Abidemi Hope, principal of P.S. 11 in New York City in “After the Music Stops for
Covid, One School Brings Back Its Band” by Sarah Diamond in The New York Times,
June 19, 2022
“Educating students is an inherently interpersonal endeavor. Caring relationships between teachers and students foster a sense of belonging for students and create classroom climates where students are poised to do their best learning.”
Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, and Matthew Kraft (see item #3)
“Teacher effectiveness is both dynamic and context-dependent, evolving over time, and shaped by the match between individual teachers, schools, and students.”
Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, and Matthew Kraft (ibid.)
“A sense that teachers were gaming their SLOs undermined school cultures as many principals and teachers disliked working in environments where bad behavior appeared to be rewarded.”
Linda Mayger (see item #2)
In this three-article exchange in Education Gadfly, Daniel Buck and Douglas Reeves have a point-counterpoint on grading policies and the use of zeroes. Here are the key points in their exchange:
• Reeves, in a 2004 article in Phi Delta Kappan, argued that giving a student a zero on a 100-point scale is unfair. That’s because of the way letter grades line up with 100 points: A’s with the nineties, B’s with the eighties, C’s with the seventies, and D’s with the sixties. The 60-point spread from D to zero is out of proportion, he argues, and “just two or three zeroes are sufficient to cause failure for the entire semester.” To avoid this punitive and demoralizing result, he says, the lowest grade should be a 50.
• Buck doesn’t dispute Reeves’s math but disagrees with the underlying assumptions. “Proportionality is no clear determinant of fairness or justness,” he says. “I want a surgeon to know far more than 60 percent of their craft, but an MLB player who hits more than 60 percent would set the all-time record… Cut-off points are at times arbitrary, yes, but not necessarily unfair.” Getting a D for 60 percent correct on an assessment “represents the barest minimum of what a school or teacher considers acceptable by way of student learning,” Buck continues. “Below that is completely unacceptable, deserving of no credit, no points, no reward.” 100-point grading rewards mastery and excellence and sets a clear bar for both, he says, and is an incentive for students to strive for more than just completing their work.
• Reeves has no problem with giving a zero, as long as it’s mathematically accurate – for example, not a single item correct on a math test with 100 problems. But with other types of assessments that have more subjectivity, the 100-point scale conveys a false sense of precision. “No teacher can persuasively explain the difference between a 32 and 33,” he says, “a 75 and 76, and – here is where the blood is spilled when grades are reported – an 89 and 90, or 59 and 60. These one-point variations are classic distinctions without a difference.” Better to use a five point scale – A, B, C, D, and F – whose distinctions students and parents readily understand. Importantly, this is the scale often used to calculate students’ GPAs.
• Buck agrees that zeroes are disproportionate and likes the idea of a five-point scale, which he describes as 0 1 2 3 4. But he’s skeptical and wants more evidence for its effectiveness. He contends that a zero conveys a powerful message to a student who is making no effort – quite different from a 60 for shoddy work. “Disproportionality is neither inherently unethical nor unjust,” he says. “We must look at the consequences that result from different approaches to grading and decide such questions.”
• Reeves agrees that 60 percent correct should not be considered mastery in algebra – or brain surgery – and he imagines an unfortunate scenario of “students bringing in a truckload of missing assignments on the last day of the semester and expecting teachers to absolve them for months of late work.”
• Buck is concerned that if students know they will get a 50 for failing a test, essay, or project, they have little reason to try harder. “Whereas a 0 percent weighs heavily on someone’s final grade,” he says, “and so incentivizes students to make corrections or seek out additional help… What implicit message does it communicate to students when no effort receives half points?”
• Reeves agrees that students should have consequences for failing to submit work, but he questions whether zeroes or F’s or point deductions are effective. If the punitive approach worked, he says, we would have solved this problem long ago and all student work today would be handed in on time, which is clearly not the case. “The penalty for not turning in work should be doing the work,” he says. When schools handle it well, the logical consequences approach is far more effective than zeroes. This involves putting constraints on students’ time and space, not allowing students to participate in athletic teams until homework is done, having a “quiet table” in the cafeteria (or a “quiet room” elsewhere in the school) to get work done. These consequences work, says Reeves.
• Buck is skeptical, arguing that zeroes get students’ attention. “If a student doesn’t have the dead weight of a zero hanging on their grade,” he says, “won’t they be less likely to pursue corrections, retakes, or extra tutoring in a last-ditch attempt to save their grade? Won’t more students just accept mediocrity rather than fighting to correct an F?” But he admits that this is all speculative and theoretical and calls for trying out different approaches in a few schools and analyzing the results. “If learning really does improve in a measurable way or school climates get a boost, I’ll change my opinion,” he says. “But scrapping our current grading practices without a viable alternative is unwise, reckless even.”
• Reeves says that the problem is not just zeroes but the way they are averaged with other grades, often automatically by electronic grading systems. “This is why the zero becomes the academic death penalty,” he says. “Far from incentivizing students to be diligent, the zero, when combined with the average, tells students that all the blather about resilience and perseverance that they hear from their teachers is just so much hot air.” He’s observed many students giving up in the final weeks of a semester, accompanied by disruptive behavior and absenteeism.
• Buck lists what he believes are advantages of traditional grading: “It provides at least some extrinsic motivation. It incentivizes excellence over mere completion. And as all the SAT critics love to point out, a student’s GPA has proven to be an almost chillingly accurate predictor of future college and life success, meaning a letter grade succinctly condenses countless factors – from general intelligence to content mastery to conscientiousness – down to a simple, useful data point.”
• Reeves says that pilots, surgeons, and engineers make lots of mistakes as they are trained in simulated environments, and their early failures are not averaged in when they take final competency assessments to enter their profession. “The same emphasis on learning from mistakes, getting feedback, respecting and applying feedback, and ultimately improving performance should be the focus of classroom work in schools,” he says.
• There are better alternatives to the no-zero idea, counters Buck. One is grading students in comparison to their peers. Another is standards-based grading. A third is additive grading – starting students with a zero and awarding points for each skill and piece of knowledge acquired, working toward a perfect score of 100. While none of these is perfect, Buck believes they’re better than eliminating the zero, which has little research backing and has encountered local opposition and been abandoned by some schools. In addition, Buck argues that grading on a 100-point scale is quick and efficient, especially for teachers who have more than a hundred students. An efficient grading system leaves more time for preparing units and lessons, feedback to students, and parent communication.
• Reeves believes that he and Buck want the same thing: “Students who respect teachers, organize their work, meet deadlines, and learn the habits of responsibility and diligence. My respectful suggestion is that we pursue these goals with techniques that actually work rather than persist in a system of zeroes and averages that undermines the very character we seek to instill.”
In this Elementary School Journal article, Linda Mayger (The College of New Jersey) says that holding teachers accountable for their students’ learning was a central part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. In addition to classroom observations, a key accountability tool was value-added measures (VAM) – statistical algorithms that used state test scores and other variables to determine teachers’ contribution to student learning. The problem was that VAMs could be used for only about 30 percent of teachers – those teaching in grades with standardized test data.
For the remaining 70 percent of teachers, Student Learning Objectives were the recommended tool. With SLOs, teachers decide on at least one specific learning target, identify appropriate ways to measure student growth, get their principal’s okay, make predictions about how students will do, track their progress over a semester or school year, measure whether students hit the proficiency targets, and are given a score by the principal based on how well the targets were met. The idea was that SLOs would get teachers more focused on what their students learned, encourage data-based instruction and team collaboration, and give teachers a more active role in their evaluations.
Here’s an example of a grade 4 ELA target from Connecticut: Nine students (45%) identified as “some risk” or “at risk” in September will increase their proficiency by one level by May as measured by the STAR Early Literacy Assessment. And here’s a grade 9-12 instrumental music SLO, also from Connecticut: By the end of the school year, 13 of my 17 Treble Choir students (76%) will score a 70% or higher on the summative musical symbols and vocabulary assessment. Federal education authorities arranged for materials and trainings to support schools as they developed SLOs.
Right from the start, there were concerns with SLOs. One study (Gill et al, 2013) predicted that combining the flexibility of SLOs with high-stakes consequences would be counterproductive, making it “nearly impossible” to make SLOs a valid and reliable way to evaluate teachers and spur professional growth. “Teachers themselves are setting the targets,” said the researchers, “and if their evaluation depends on reaching the targets, teachers will have an incentive to set the targets low. So districts need to recognize that the efficacy of SLOs for instructional improvement could be undermined in high-stake contexts. More generally, because teachers can customize SLOs, it is difficult to use them fairly for evaluation.”
The weight attached to SLO ratings in teachers’ evaluations varied across the U.S., from 10 percent in Indiana to 50 percent in Connecticut, with a median weight of 25 percent. The most serious concerns about the reliability of SLOs were in districts with merit pay, including Denver and Austin. In one low-performing Denver school, the percentage of teachers who met both of their SLOs ranged from 20 to 100 percent. There were complaints among Denver teachers about targets being set low by some teachers – and about some principals requiring teachers to adopt unattainable learning targets.
There was so much backlash to VAM and SLOs that the 2015 federal ESSA legislation did away with the requirement to use student achievement as part of teachers’ evaluation. “As state policy makers capitalize on this flexibility to revise their evaluation process,” says Mayger, “it is critical to examine whether SLOs warrant an investment of time and resources.” This is especially important since 34 states haven’t taken advantage of the freedom in ESSA and are still using teacher evaluation systems developed during Race to the Top.
At the heart of the Obama-era teacher accountability initiative were two theories of motivation, internal and external:
In her study, Mayger examined (a) the extent to which teachers and principals believed SLOs were an effective and efficient way to evaluate teachers, and (b) how SLOs influenced their work. She interviewed and surveyed 297 teachers in 17 states that were using K-12 performance evaluation systems with an SLO component. Here’s what she found:
“‘This Is the Piece of the Pie We Can Control’ – Educators’ Experiences with Student Learning Objectives as Performance Measures” by Linda Mayger in Elementary School Journal, June 2022 (Vol. 122, #4, pp. 591-615); Mayger can be reached at [email protected].
In this Annenberg/Brown University paper, Leigh Wedenoja (Rockefeller Institute of Government) and John Papay and Matthew Kraft (Brown University) report on their study of Tennessee students in grades 3-11 who were with the same teacher for more than a year. They found that intentional looping was quite rare; only 1.5 percent of teachers kept the same group of students for two or more years. But unintentional repeat pairing of students and teachers was much more common: 44 percent of students spent at least one additional year with the same ELA or math teacher, with repeating more common in middle and high schools. Unintentional pairing occurred when teachers moved to a higher grade or taught several grades – for example, a math teacher who teaches general math to seventh graders and algebra to eighth graders.
Wedenoja, Papay, and Kraft were able to compare student achievement and behavioral outcomes for students who worked with the same teacher more than once with students who didn’t have a repeat teacher (students who repeated a grade with the same teacher were not included in the study). The finding: being with a teacher more than once had several positive effects on students:
“Second Time’s the Charm? How Sustained Relationships from Repeat Student-Teacher Matches Build Academic and Behavioral Skills” by Leigh Wedenoja, John Papay, and Matthew Kraft, Annenberg/Brown University EdWorking Paper, June 2022; the authors can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and[email protected].
In this Teachers College Record article, Janine Bempechat (Boston University), Amy Cheung (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Jin Li (Brown University) describe their study of how lower-income Chinese-American ninth graders perceive their immigrant parents’ academic expectations and involvement. The researchers found that the stereotype portrayed in Amy Chua’s 2011 book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – harsh and authoritarian, with excessively high expectations of their children – was not accurate. The picture that emerged from interviews with students was quite different:
“Academic Socialization from an ‘Informed Distance’: Low-Income Chinese-American Adolescents’ Perceptions of Their Immigrant Parents’ Educational Messages” by Janine Bempechat, Amy Cheung, and Jin Li in Teachers College Record, April 2022 (Vol. 124, #4, pp. 124-150); the authors can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected].
“How to Use Backward Chaining to Differentiate Instruction” by Jennifer Gonzalez and Melanie Meehan in Cult of Pedagogy, June 20, 2022
In this Leadership Freak article, Dan Rockwell explores the mistakes that busy leaders make, especially when they’re under time pressure:
• Being penny wise and pound foolish – “There’s always too much to do,” says Rockwell. “Busyness is no excuse to take your eye off what’s important.” Some examples:
A Position Paper on Antisemitism, Bigotry, and Discrimination – The National Council for the Social Studies just released this position paper.
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This weekly memo is designed to keep principals, teachers, superintendents, and other educators very well-informed on current research and effective practices in K-12 education. Kim Marshall, drawing on 52 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, writer, and consultant, lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
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Those read this week are underlined.
All Things PLC
American Educational Research Journal
American Journal of Education
ASCA School Counselor
Cult of Pedagogy
District Management Journal
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Elementary School Journal
Harvard Business Review
Harvard Educational Review
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy
Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk (JESPAR)
Kappa Delta Pi Record
Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance)
Literacy Today (formerly Reading Today)
Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12
Middle School Journal
Peabody Journal of Education
Phi Delta Kappan
Reading Research Quarterly
Review of Educational Research
School Library Journal
Social Studies and the Young Learner
Teaching Exceptional Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Journal of the Learning Sciences
The Language Educator
The Learning Professional (formerly Journal of Staff Development)
The Reading Teacher
Theory Into Practice