Category Archives: Grades

Deconstructing Graduation Day: Administrators, “The Road Not Taken” Speeches & Other Regrets

graduation_msclipart_450pxIt’s hokey, trite, and boring:  long live the great American high school graduation ceremony & hopes and dreams for students and parents!

As a teacher I grew cynical about graduation ceremonies. At my school the faculty blessedly sat well behind the podium, mostly out of view. When one of our kind ever “went to the dark side” and joined the administration, we’d always riddle them with texts during the ceremony about having to behave and offering to pass along some Hot Tamales, the faculty currency during these tedious events.  We ran bingo contests with student names, competed as to who could eat the most Hot Tamales at a time, bet on the length of the speeches, and otherwise fooled around worse than the children had done in our own classrooms.

I no longer go to graduation ceremonies for a living, but the other day my wife and I sat through a ceremony for a family member. Since we were in the audience, I had to behave. At least, I thought, the faculty of this school had to behave, too, as they were seated on the main floor by the students in full view of everyone. Ha!

Then I had to figure out how to survive it myself. My wife had banned all thoughts of listening to a podcast, so I put the phone on airplane mode and, unlike half the people around us, sat isolated from the outer world with only a graduation before me. So I begged my wife for a pen. She sighed, reached into that magic bag she calls a purse, and produced one. I spent the rest of the ceremony employing the advice I give students on how to survive a boring class by jotting notes on the program, deconstructing the events.

Grade Inflation!

My first notes regard how many times the principal bragged about grade inflation. Well, he didn’t put it quite like that, but he bragged over and over that 103 kids, about a third of the class, graduated with honors. I pondered how the rest possibly managed to get below a 3.5.

The clue was “Weighted GPA,” which is education-speak for honors-classes bonus where a C is a B, a B is an A and an A is a 5.0 on your 4.0 scale GPA. There were certainly kids taking honors courses (AP/ IB, etc.) that did not make a 3.5, but for those kids not taking honors, a 3.5 is truly a 3.5, whereas for the honors kids that’s just a C.

Administrative Bloat

My next notation reads, “7 or 8 Vice Principals!!” and is underlined three times. I was already shocked by the number of faculty — they streamed in like the Persian army of old.

Then the principal got to introducing the administrators. What should have been a quick, “Here’s Ben, our Vice Principal of Student Affairs” and “Meet Lucy, our Academic Vice Principal,” turned into a directory of all the administrative positions you never heard of. I attempted a quick mental calculation of the administrators times their bloated salaries divided by the county residents, but then I just got angry.

Next came introductions to the County Superintendent of Schools, a Director of Curriculum (was the County Director of Honors Programs unavailable?) and a couple Board of Education members. My notes read, “Memo to self: NEVER RUN FOR BOARD OF EDCUATION!”

The Superintendent took the easy route and had the kids write her speech. She just read off a list of quotations on the meaning of high school that the school had students send her. Our family graduate made the list with one I felt was rather apropos to my own take on the ceremony about not letting the haters get you down.

A Board of Education member then gave a speech she had to have pilfered from a web search on “trite graduation speeches,” featuring Robert Frost, of course, and his “The Road Not Taken.” I can’t remember if she got the title right, as it’s usually called “The Road Less Traveled” by most graduation speakers. And, of course, she read the poem.

Really? You read the poem? Okay, it’s only four stanzas, but make that four incomprehensible stanzas coming over a basketball stadium loudspeaker to an audience most of whose last breath of poetry came precisely at their own high school or college graduation ceremony, likely hearing this same poem.

She next delivered the standard tripe about daring to take the road “less traveled,” even though the poem states that both roads are equally traveled:

“…the passing there  / Had worn them really about the same.”

Worst of all, and here I take offense on behalf of Robert Frost and all thinking English teachers, she assured the kids, heh, don’t worry, even if your road is the wrong one it’ll be alright because, “you can always turn around and go back the other way later.”

What’s horribly wrong with that misreading of the poem itself is precisely what’s wrong with an education system so full of backstops and “safety nets” that magically protects students from their own bad choices.

It starts with turning zeroes into 60% Fs, dumbed-down summer school and no-competition sports, and ends with the absurdities that we’re all winners no matter what we do – and one third of the graduating class receiving honors.

Nobody Better Than Anyone Else

But even those students are all equal among themselves, as the word “Valedictorian” didn’t make it into the program. The student speakers were the class president and another student whose title or honors went unmentioned. My notes here read: Memo to school: VALEDICTORIAN IS THE PERSON WHO DELIVERS THE VALEDICTORY.”

Usually, that’s the kid with the highest GPA but not always. I learned afterwards that the selection was based upon a speech contest, which is fine. Nevertheless, the word “valedictorian” did not appear in the program or the event, and no mention was made of who was no. 1 in the class. I guess we can distinguish a third from the rest, but not the one-percenter from even that top third.

Good & Bad Choices

“The Road Not Taken” ends with a “sigh” as the narrator considers that he may, in the future, look back upon the choice he is making today with regret:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,*
And that has made all the difference.

The job of educators is to guide children into making positive choices. By dumbing down both negative consequence and positive rewards, we are developing fragility in our children, not robustness.

There’s much pedagogical discussion about the benefits of failure, but clearly it’s not being implemented here. This school has a multitude of administrators whose job is to make sure as many kids as possible “earn” a 3.5 and as few as possible don’t somehow manage to fail out. With one-third the class earning honors, largely due to the grade inflation of the GPA “honors bump,” what’s the other two-thirds to do but ponder why they bothered at all?

The problem is that the failure is too easy and too little sanctioned. There is no pain in failure if summer school is easy and all stigma is removed. Worse, in offering no positive alternatives to academic failure, we merely make anything possible and that will too often be seriously bad choices. Our Board of Education speaker is only creating more future sighs of regret.

And let’s clarify here and now that a very few, if any, of the kids will be a trail blazer. I wish a normal life upon them all, one that, when they get to be my age, they don’t look back upon and sigh, as Robert Frost’s narrator knows he will one day, and wonder what might have been on that other road. The lie our speaker told is that each of us is unique and special and, by the way, we won’t be held accountable for our screw-ups. Maybe you’re the one. Good luck. But for the rest of us, let’s just see what we can do to make our paths — which are never really just a straight choice between this and that, and are instead a series of turns and cross steps — as safe and happy as possible.

A sigh for who didn’t make it – and applause for those who barely did

I know there were kids who didn’t make it through to their senior year and were not there that day. I also know there were kids who walked that stage but have not yet earned their diploma. For the ones who have fully graduated and who earned every bit of it — and not just the one-third of the class who benefited from grade inflation, I congratulate you, and I trust your road will be a well-planned, well-traveled, and safe route to happiness.

I rather love the kids who struggled, who got screwed by a teacher or two, possibly deservedly but mostly not, who dug a few holes, and who can’t remember what’s due when, but who fought back and graduated. God bless the 103 honors students, but the others are my heroes.

Yet, it’s the kids NOT on that stage who need to learn the meaning of the Frost poem. Those who weren’t there, dear Board of Education speaker, are your audience, and you might do a better job of helping them avoid the lesser roads they unfortunately took — and can now very little work back from.

Congratulations Graduates!

Honest, I’m not a buzz kill, and I congratulate the students and their families on this graduation. That’s wonderful and it’s an important rite of passage in our country. My cynicism is for the hordes of Principals and Vice Principals and Superintendents and Boards of Education who could use a refresher on the meaning of “The Road Not Taken.”

– Michael


* The “one less traveled by” isn’t a unique, different path, rather, it’s the narrator’s future rationalization for a regretted choice of today — and it couldn’t be a more inappropriate sentiment for a graduation ceremony. 

 

Ancient advice from Epictetus for students and parents: want what you can, not just what you want (setting realistic expectations)

All students are aspirational: they want to do well in school and for their parents. But when they fall off from expectations, the excuses and resistance begin.

Managing a teen student is complicated enough! Now you have to deal with enforcing rules, upping the oversight, and staying on top of a resistant child. Communication breaks off, and things get, well, unhappy.

At the A+ Club, we help students do better in school by engaging them in reflection, problem solving and goal setting — and following up week to week, along with assignments and grades oversight and direct tutoring when needed.

Our system helps students identify what is possible and feel empowered to get there. When kids don’t know what to do or can’t see past the next step, it’s usually because their expectations aren’t aligned with their realities.

Do not “require a fig in winter”

– Epictetus

When we adults say, “I want to lose weight” it’s as vague and meaningless — and counter-productive — as when a student starts a new quarter after low grades with, “I’m going to get straight A’s.”

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Brenda discovers that she actually can learn the quadratic formula! (with a little help from the A+ Club)

Cartoon1_Panel2_bBrenda’s mom is upset about her grades and that she’s not doing her homework. Brenda thinks her mom is being too pushy. Like high school teens & parents everywhere, they’re both a little right — and also a little wrong.

Brenda’s mom is right to be concerned. And Brenda is naturally feeling stressed over doing something she is genuinely having trouble accomplishing. And that’s where the emotions get in the way.

This scenario plays out every day with high school teens and their parents.  Sometimes students just don’t know how to do their school work. Worse, sometimes they don’t know how to go about studying. That’s where we can help.

Quadratic Formulas & Other Troubles

Brenda is stuck on the Quadratic formula. She gets it when her teacher shows it in class, but when she has to do it on her own, she gets stuck. And then everything else becomes a problem, too. Continue reading

Brenda & Her Mom Don’t See Eye-to-Eye on Her School Work

Brenda & Her MomMeet Brenda & her mom.

They both know that parenting a teen through middle and high school isn’t always easy. And being a teen isn’t always easy, either.

At the A+ Club, we provide academic coaching, mentoring & tutoring in order to help parents of middle & high school and college students track their work, get tutoring and homework help when needed, and engage in the positive processes of goal setting, problem solving, and academic self-advocacy.

We can help!

Please meet Brenda and her Mom. They’re really nice people, and they love each other very much. But sometimes mother and high-school age daughter don’t see eye-to-eye over homework, grades, and school. We can help them both!

Click on the images to see Brenda’s & Her Mom’s worries about school, and how we the A+ Club helps both students and parents:

Learn more about the A+ Club here or take the Academic Needs Survey to identify your student’s challenges and find the right solutions for them!

– Michael

What do grades measure, anyway? How to make sense of grades and student learning

Student-Performance_Process-flow-chart_noheaderParents! If schools were meant for learning, why do we have grades?

In other words, if learning were the goal, wouldn’t every student have to get an A+ before moving on to the next level?

If, when a student gets a D, and it indicates the student met 64% of expectations, is there learning going on at that school? Wouldn’t a 100% grade represent true learning?

As long as there are grades less than an A, the point of schools, then, is not learning.

Worse, not all grades are equal. Does an A in PE represent learning as much as an A in math? They both count the same towards your GPA and both are required. Clearly, learning is not the only thing being measured here.

Grades as thresholds of… of something

So, the student got a B- or a C+, or an F. What does that mean, anyway? The F might be a zero –no work was done at all, or maybe it was 59% and just shy of a D. That’s quite a leap, but that F is still an F.

Or, maybe that C+ was because, even though the student aced the tests, he didn’t do any homework and got nailed for it on the overall grade.

Ask my son, as that was his strategy for high school. He learned everything asked of him, but he only showed it on tests. He learned, but that’s not what school is about.

Well… It worked for him, as he’s a successful musician who dedicates himself to perfecting his craft and learning everything he possibly can about it.

What’s going on here is that grades measure lots of things, just not always – or even mostly – learning.

School is about process

A student like my son learned everything required of the test but skipped on the rest of the process required by the teachers.

Here are some of the things students get measured on that have nothing to do with the generic “Learning”  but everything to do with “grades” and doing what’s asked of them. Some of the things by which students are measured include:

  • showing up
  • writing name on papers
  • sitting down for long periods of time.
  • lifting one’s arm in the air before speaking
  • remembering locker combinations

Okay, so sometimes students are measured on figuring out math formulas or reading literature. But it seems to me that a student could get a much higher grade in high school doing all the other things than strict “learning” that my son did, by actually learning, and never proving it on tests.

School is about figuring out what’s expected and then getting it done, learning or not. My advice to parents, however, is not to get to worked up over a student’s ability to follow process. It doesn’t measure worth, it measures… process.

Of course we want our kids to get good grades, the best grades, and the best way to get there is to follow teacher and school processes. So let’s understand “studying” as not just learning but also following all the little steps that students are being graded upon in addition to “learning.”

See what inspires your child, encourage it, and then encourage her to engage in grade-accumulation as well as learning.

The Secret Life of a teacher gradebook

At the A+ Club, we often hear from parents and students that the student got a B-, or whatever, and can’t say why. The teacher didn’t explain it, the student doesn’t understand it, and the parent is helpless to figure out why.

I just had a conversation with a very bright student who was disappointed in a B+, as her goal was an A. She says that her grade dropped because of a single quiz — which is possible. I suspect, though, that there was something else that knocked her off, and it was very likely manipulated by the teacher. I’m guessing that as a brilliant thinker, quick learner, and full of impatience with process, that quiz grade was the excuse the teacher needed to reflect an overall B+ — smart, got it down but didn’t do everything I asked.

That’s a guess, but I know it happens all the time, especially as an excuse to lift grades — “Oh, well, he did all his homework, so I’ll just pass him even though he failed all his quizzes.”

I’m hearing disgust from all the high-minded teachers out there who believe that standards are standards and the grade book speaks for itself. I’m sorry, but that’s impossible. You will always, necessarily, judge kids holistically, no matter how hard you try to be objective.

Let’s say a student has an A in homework, which is 25% of the grade, an F on tests, which is another 20% of the grade and a D in quizzes (with corrections)  and an A+ in classwork, each 20% of the grade. That adds up to a 77%, or a C+. (Try it here: Mercer Univ Weighted Average Grade Calculator).

Now, the teacher also has a 15% “participation” grade, and whatever the teacher assigns here will decide that overall, final grade:

  • a C in participation will yield 76%, or a C
  • a B in participation will yield  78%, or a C+
  • an A+ in participation will yield an 80% or a B

Assuming there’s no real metric for “participation,” the teacher is justified in assigning this grade based upon pure observation, which will then impact the overall outcome of a C, C+ or a B.

Teachers can do the same by tweaking different grades, such as dropping the lowest grade in each category, or whatever.

From the grades profile we have created, this student is following teacher process, such as in doing homework, but is not learning what is required of the test. Many teachers would be sympathetic to the process and reward a high participation grade simply because the student ostensibly did what was asked, whether or not any learning was involved.

I’m not judging this process. I just want parents and students to be aware of it.

So what do your child’s grades actually measure?

Tests necessarily contain some learning measurement, whether or not it was taught or if it was an explicit part of the content (multiple choice measures reading and logic as much or more than content knowledge). So test scores are usually a primary indicator of your child’s learning. (It is not an indicator of a presence or absence of effective teaching!)

Other assessments such as research projects and essays yield measurable learning, although, like homework and participation grades, these are process-heavy assessments and do not necessarily reflect learning achievement (“mastery” the educators like to call it).

Look over the grade book, speak to the teacher, and discover what, really, is being measured. An A in homework does not mean learning is happening, especially in classes in which the teacher grades for compliance and not accuracy (check it off for having something written on the page — yes, this goes on every day).

Hopefully the various categories of student measurement align, such as B in Homework, B on classwork, and B on tests. I have to say that a part from A- students, that kind of overall consistency in grade results are rare.

Above all, insist upon strong feedback from your child’s teachers. Only the teacher can say what the teacher is measuring, and a good teacher will align grades with thoughtful feedback on actual student production.

Grades measure a lot of things. Make sure you and your child understand what, exactly, is going on with your child’s grades.

– Michael

What’s your student’s emotional IQ? Maturity, Emotional Intelligence & Salesmanship

So your child is that smart, a high-riding, high IQ, straight A’s academic cowboy!

Cool that, but how’s that maturity thing going?

The peak age for absorbing new information is age 18. The peak age for assessing the emotional state of others is 40.

It makes sense, as our developmental years are for learning, testing, and expanding our bodies and mind and testing how they interact with the outer world. Our adult years are for organizing and evaluating ourselves within the larger world.  (Here for How Intelligence Shifts With Age)

So perhaps we can measure our children a bit differently from ourselves?

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High school students getting smarter, or high schools getting easier?

Or just another case of grade inflation?

Bad news from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: as of 2009, a majority of high school students scored “basic” or “below basic” in reading and math skills.*

(*Kudos to the Wall Street Journal for not using “progress report” in its article or headline; here for the rest who fell into that trap.)

Hmmm: in the early Nineties, 74% of  high school students graduated. These days, it’s 81%. Clearly, the additional 7% of graduates aren’t driving those proficiency scores higher.

The report also informs us that based on SAT scores, only 43% of high school students are prepared for college.  Whether or not that number has been extrapolated to the entire graduating population is unclear. If not, the prepared-for-college students represent 43% of the only some 45% who take the SAT (as of 2007).

All of this means… Continue reading

Self-advocacy & the missing work trap: why so many zeroes?

So your teacher posted a grade report and you have no idea what those missing assignments are?

Problem or no problem? Well, you have no idea what that work was, anyway, so there’s nothing you can do. Problem solved.

A couple things are going on here:

  1. The teacher is using code for the assignments
  2. The key to the code is in code
  3. The items your teacher posted have nothing to do with the homework assignments your teacher gave you and you can’t figure out which is what.
  4. You’d rather just not deal with it.

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Procrastinating the steps: how to follow instructions when you just want to rush through it

Impatience with instructions is just procrastination in another form

In this case, the procrastination isn’t delay, it’s not wanting to put up with annoying instructions, details, and steps.

If,

Procrastination is harmful deferment of an aversive task
(translation: putting off something we don’t want to do and getting burned by it later)

then, if you’re skipping instructions in order to finish more quickly and it leads to a lower grade, you’re procrastinating. Continue reading

How do I get better grades? Five easy steps to improve your grades

Lots of advice out there, most of it good but not very practical.

Try these steps for simplifying and acting on your goals one bite at a time:

1.  Lower your expectations

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2. Focus on little steps, not big gains

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3. Be aware of why you procrastinate

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4. You don’t have to do it all at once: just get started!

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5.  Ask your teacher a question

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Notice how each of these five steps are about the same thing: focusing on the little parts of your bigger picture and just getting started on it.

It will all fall into place once you get going.

Good luck, and please let us know if we can help out.

– Michael