Monday, March 21, 2016

Just Tell Me How to Get an A: One Teacher's Journey to SBL

Written by Guest Blogger Justin Chapman, English Teacher at CVUHS

I move around the room handing back a batch of “summative” assessments, as we’ve now learned to call them.   Each of these has a cover sheet that lists the skills we’ve targeted for this particular unit – and since I teach English, these skills are always centered on communication, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.  I give the usual schpiel: these are individual assessments... please focus on your own... we all have our strengths and weaknesses…  Each student is invited to revise her work, so these scores are malleable, a snapshot of the process, not something etched in marble.  Each skill is measured on a four point scale, and each level comes with a brief descriptor, what that skill should look like when executed.  A “3” is the grade-level “target” – the level at which we expect sophomores to perform.  Still, when I hand back these assessments, some of these students are busily converting their 3s into percentages: 75%, a C.  I can feel the collective angst.  Seems we can’t shake the old 100 point scale.

And it’s no wonder.  We’ve been working with essentially the same educational system since the Industrial Revolution.  Meanwhile, our school has begun the shift to standards-based learning (SBL) and standards based grading (SBG) – different sides of the same coin.  SBG means a lot of things, not least that we don’t average numbers.  Rather, we take the latest performance as the measure of a student’s progress on a skill.  One of the biggest differences between SBG and traditional system is that we don’t count homework, we don’t give (or average) zeroes, and we don’t factor students’ “habits” into a grade.  This means that no matter how much I like a kid, and no matter how hard she works, I measure the skill, not the student’s ebullient personality.  There is no easy way to institute systemic and institutional change – but after almost two years of standards-based education, I am convinced that we have to try.  

Change is hard for any human.  I’ve been teaching high school for almost twenty years, the first seventeen in the traditional sense, with the traditional grading system.  For most of my educational life, I’ve been subject to and subjected kids to the currency system that is the 100 point scale, where grades are dispensed like cash in return for effort.  I am convinced, however, that SBL is more humane, more accurate, and ultimately better for students’ (and teachers’) souls.  But there’s a certain type of student particularly ill-adapted to this system.  This type needs constant external validation in the form of A’s.  I’ve started calling this the “A-fix” – and the A, for a certain type of kid, is as strong a drug as heroin.  They need to be told, in very clear terms, how exactly to get an A.  And if you don’t tell them, they can get pretty surly about it.

I understand where this pressure comes from.  Students, particularly in our affluent district, are driven to succeed.  They have successful parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings.  They equate placement at an elite college (whatever that means) with future success.  They are often intelligent and affable – yet quite uncomfortable with 3s, especially the kids who’ve been able to game the system up until now.  Worse, they are uncomfortable with collaboration and open-ended assignments which require creative problem-solving.  Rather, they tend to like black and white assignments with right and wrong answers.  

The biggest problem with that attitude is that college is no longer a guarantee of future success, like it was for decades, right up until I went in the early 90s.  Worse perhaps, we don’t really know what students will need to know in the future.  While the factory model has served us well (enough) to this point, technology has changed the game immensely.  These issues are outlined clearly and succinctly in the new film Most Likely to Succeed by Greg Whiteley (, which should be required viewing for any educator at just about any level – and maybe any American who pays taxes for education.  The movie confirms what many of us in secondary education, and particularly the humanities, have been working toward for years: an emphasis on critical thinking, collaboration, and creative problem solving.  The film reinforces the idea that depth is more important than breadth.  

The antithesis of this idea are AP (Advanced Placement) courses, and its purveyor The College Board -- two of the most negative forces in education today. I see the College Board as that creepy guy in the van trying to get the kids to try candy– except that they peddle success.  Success for the College Board still means competing for seemingly rare spaces at elite colleges.  Competition, to my mind, has no place in a good education system.  Education should not run like a business, and A’s are not some precious treasure to sit on and guard.  Along with manufacturing a sense of competition, AP courses, by design, emphasize rote memorization and breadth of “knowledge” rather than depth.  Not surprisingly retention of the “facts”, even just 30 days after AP tests is dismal.  Kids often take AP courses just to pad their resumes, because it looks good on their transcripts – and that transcript is the ticket to the next level of the game.  This suggests that the only selling point for AP courses is that they’re a rung on the ladder to success.  And students and parents have bought the snake oil for decades.  

Are we emphasizing the right things in schools?
For me, the biggest issue with this type of student is their abject fear of failure.  They need the A-fix, and they need it often to be validated as people.  Consequently, they are often unwilling to take risks or to be creative.  Matthew Syed outlines this idea in an op/ed piece for the BBC called “How Creativity is Helped by Failure.”  He examines several successful organizations and how each cultivates a community where failure is a part of the process on the way to success.  “Organisations [sic] like Google… and Pixar have developed cultures that, in their different ways create the conditions for empowering failure.  They have become living ecosystems of the imagination.”  Without testing ideas and examining their flaws, he argues, we cannot develop innovative solutions to problems.  When we don’t allow students to struggle through a difficult problem-solving task, we stifle creativity.  While we don’t know what the workplace will look like in ten or twenty years, we do know that critical thinking and creativity will be essential skills to develop.

Last year, one of my students wrote on his final reflection, “SBL is OK once I figured out how to get the A.”  While this is annoying, it’s also understandable.  At present, our system is a hybrid of old and new.  We still convert SBG assessments to traditional grades.  Colleges still want the old ACT/SAT scores.  No cultural shift takes place overnight, but I am excited about the possibilities.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s not the kids’ fault that they want As – it’s the system and the culture around it.  The more we envision a system where students and teachers collaborate for success and mastery of particular skills, where content doesn’t necessarily drive the course but skills do, where we seek to make interdisciplinary connections and to foster collaboration – and the more we see that college is not the single determinant of one’s success in life, the more we have to conceive of our educational systems, not as a factory, but as a functioning ecosystem of the imagination.

Images from: 
  • Most Likely to Succeed Trailer:
  • Schleicher, Andreas. "Building a High Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from Around the World"