Build Out Excuses

How much information is too much?

That’s a question that has been flying around not only my own head over the last few weeks, but also the departments with which I work.  We are moving toward an open gradebook whereby students and parents will have access to grades online.  Yes, I know, for many of you this is old hat; however, as many of you also may remember, it didn’t occur without significant conversation around how it was going to be done (or maybe not).  We are in the beginning stages of getting our teachers ready for it, and in speaking with teachers about the process, there is considerable trepidation about how much information parents should have, and whose responsibility is it to make sure they have that information.

For better or for worse, we rely on our students to act as portals to their parents when it comes to giving updates on their progress, and when that system fails, we then access parents directly either via the phone or now through email.  In past years, I may have included the traditional handwritten note in that group, but we are talking mainly middle and high school students here, and it is a well-researched fact that there is a cut-off point for when students cease bringing home paper documents from school in their weekly folders.  That cut-off point is sometime around October of their 5th grade year.  Does the use of web-based grading systems step in at this point and provide that solution for the failed communication between school and home?

Not entirely.  Just as I feel that we can never have a completely virtual schooling systems in which there is no personal contact, there can never be a portal that parents and teachers can rely on all of the time, regardless of the information displayed there.  However, I truly feel that making student grades and student attendance available 24/7 does much more harm than good for relationships between schools and communities.

The pushback we are receiving is coming in the form of increased pressure on teachers to get grading done in a timely manner.  In most math classes, it’s not such a big deal, but in AP Literature and other writing-based classes, the issue of how long a teacher has to grade a major paper becomes a thorny issue.  How long does it take to grade two sections worth of five-page essays?  How long does it take to grade a senior research project?  Two weeks?  a month?  In addition, the conversations around personal grading styles is now put in the spotlight.  If a parent can now see exactly how “teacher A ” grades compared to “teacher B,” they may begin to wonder why they are so different.  Why was Johnny weighted so heavily in participation as a sophomore in US History, but not at all as a junior in US History II?

When we moved to providing every teacher with a web page, it made it possible to post everything you handed out in class, effectively building out the excuse made by students that they didn’t have the “handout” or the notes.  Not every teacher did this, but it certainly was possible.  Philosophically, some disagreed with it, saying that it fostered no accountability by students to pay attention in class.  That’s flawed thinking, in my book.  Build out the excuses: if they have access to the documents from school or home, their reasoning is not plausible.  The same is true, I feel, for gradebooks.  By eliminating the unknown, as in how their child is doing, you are removing that from the table when discussing a child’s progress with parents.  Instead of “I was shocked to see that he is failing,” the conversation can begin with other terms, such as “how do we get him to do the work?”

I understand that opening up your processes to public scrutiny may feel like an attack on autonomy, but that is not where we are going with this.  Getting a group of intelligent, well-educated individuals who care about the success of kids to talk about their instructional practices, especially assessment, will move mountains.  It will begin to change the culture of a building.

If you have done this in your district, what input did teachers have on determining the policies behind the implementation and what parents see?  I’d like to have a few ideas so that when I begin working with teachers, I can offer suggestions as to how they should proceed.

Cross posted at Techlearning.com

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8 thoughts on “Build Out Excuses

  1. I’ll pushback a little too, but only for perosnal opinion. As much as it is nicefor all to have the information and for grades to not be a mystery, the conversation becomes about the grades, not about the learning. How many parents or kids will call teachers to talk about amount of knowledge that is lacking or gained vs “Why did Johhny get a C”? You know the answer there.

    Alas, grades should be a tool. Too often they are used as a weapon. By both sides.

    1. Barry,

      I hear you there, and I am just coming off of a conversation that focused on a similar topic. How do we handle that conversation with a parent about “why did Johnny get a C?” when the grading process established for that class is rooted in subjectivity. For example, take Art classes. There is a huge component of achievement in Visual Arts classes that is rooted in how hard you work towards achieving an outcome. Is that in the standards? Can that be assessed? Not exactly, but it ends up being that way. That is what worries me most about moving to this, but it also excites me a little because of the questions it forces us to ask.

      Your point is well-taken, but I think it’s but the first step in the process. I don’t think you can have the conversation about learning with parents, or teachers for that matter until you get past the conversation about grades themselves.

  2. I think that you’ll find you have some other issues, too, surrounding how the overall grade is determined. I do a lot of work with schools and teachers around the state on grading—and the number 1 issue is that the on-line gradebook only supplies an average (and is a pain in the…neck…to override). Teachers want to be able to assign what’s fair—not what is equal—for every student.

  3. I find parents care about the grade not the learning, sadly. I find students use the internet for Facebook, not my web page (on which I voluntarily post all the information), sadly.
    This year I have begun a weekly update mass email, and parents unfortunately then seem to think I am emailing them as individuals, and I am spending a lot of time answering individual emails. As I explained to my students, five minutes per student is 550 minutes, or almost 6 hours. I can’t do that every day. All that work is done “on my own time” along with the grading (another 3 hours a night if they write so I can read it).
    I am not sure if it’s a benefit, or encourages helicopter parenting.

  4. Instead of going through the effort and expense of showing reductive grades, numbers, and report cards online, why wouldn’t schools skip this step and share actual student learning artifacts in the form of learner driven portfolios. Schools who haven’t gone the route of sharing reductive forms of measuring student progress have the opportunity to leapfrog many school who do by having students share their ePortfolios with parents.

    1. Matt,

      Great point, and one I truly believe in. One of the classes we created last year at our middle school is doing that this year. They are creating ePortfolios using Google Sites and sharing their work out to the community. What I am most hoping for is to have them comment on their own work as they go through the year. We need to continue to build in reflection to what we do, especially in the form of post-assessment reflection.

      Do you have any samples of work you have done with this? We’d love some more models…

      1. hey patrick,
        This post piqued my interest because today was the first day of our introducing portfolio learning to some of our 9th grade students. This isn’t a school-wide implementation by any means…I’m hoping a groundswell will take place and I think it will. I don’t have student samples yet…they are building their portfolios in google sites and right now they are only visible within our domain. I just blogged a bit about this today over here: http://middleschoolblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/portfolio-learningits-happening.html I also included the google slide deck that I used to give an overview of ePortfolio learning to our students. At some point I’ll record audio to go along with the slides. Needless to say, I am SO excited about this potential.

        Also, at my previous school I helped create a system that facilitated the electronic distribution of report cards to families (not individual assignments, though…I did advocate for showing assignment grades). However, I have to say that I really regret doing this-while parents appreciated that they didn’t have to check their snail mail to find grades, nothing really changed at all as far as student learning. It was another example of an expensive technology solution that was put in place that really didn’t have anything to do with students using technology in creative and meaningful ways. It seems odd, but early in my career as an instructional technology specialist I focused on installing expensive school information systems that had nothing to do with students using technology…my professional goals are just the opposite now.

        Let’s try to connect and share stories of success with ePortfolio learning…Helen Barrett was going to create some type of community space for this to happen. Who knows, maybe we could even get an elluminate room and provide students with another way and medium for them to share their portfolios (sharing is an important part of the portfolio learning loop).

        Cheers!

  5. Louise,

    One of the reasons my wife no longer does the weekly email to parents is constant banter it would foster. What I suggested to her, and what we are working for her this year, is to set up a blog, or a simple site where she can post daily, or twice weekly updates for parents so that they feel they are getting information, but also so that it gives my wife a little distance from the process.

    The title of this post was meant to drive at a point that I believe we are all guilty of: we allow people “outs” when we make changes. If we say we are paperless, we cannot hand out copies of worksheets when students arrive; if we move our staff information to a wiki, we cannot still send out individual emails. With your parents and students, if you truly want your website to become a hub, what will you need to do to make that happen? What can you do to force the traffic to flow through it? And ask yourself “why should students go there?” Put yourself in the shoes of your students: is it a useful and engaging place, or just a one way street where information is given? Is that what you want?

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