Help Wanted: Teachers Who Read


Fifth (and last?) Part of the No Zero Saga

As I cruise the edublogosphere, including such holy sites as Teacher Magazine’s blog, and the ASCD blog, I feel frustrated when I see the discussions turn to the use of zeros in grading.

Actually, to call TM’s blog and ASCD’s blog “blogs” is probably misleading. They are more like forums where the house “blog” writer throws out a piece of meat and the discussion [dogfight] is on.

Yesterday I tried to participate in the ASCD discussion on zeros, and to save myself a few keystrokes, I referred folks to posts about zeros on this blog, RepairKit. Big mistake. The TypePad filter decided I was a spammer because I included several URLs to direct people here. Well, I can’t argue with that, I guess. It is what it is. I just wonder if the blogmeister actually did look at the post as promised in the kindly explanation that hinted I was probably a traffic seeker and therefore not welcome.

But I digress…

Back to Teachers Who Read: I have concluded that most teachers don’t do much wide reading for professional development outside of what is assigned to them on paid time. Why? I don’t know. There are a million excuses. I just know that most don’t read because they keep pushing the same tired, unsupportable reasons to use zeros to punish kids.

My point is this: I can find nothing, nothing at all, in our professional literature that supports the use of zeros in grading, especially mean averaging. But I do find a lot of writing by authors such as Marzano, Guskey, Wiggins, O’Connor, Stiggins, and a host of others, about what is wrong with using zeros.

There’s no evidence out there in our last thirty-five years of research that use of zeros can be, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, a “best practice.” So if there’s no evidence, why do teachers in overwhelming numbers use a destructive grading practice?

Because they don’t read in their field. They don’t keep up with the best professional development literature. And they cannot be considered “professionals” if they don’t keep up with progress in education. They are so sure they are right, but have no foundation for their convictions. Can you imagine if your doctor, lawyer, or accountant (folks we consider “professionals”) failed to keep up in their respective fields? They’d be inviting a malpractice suit, wouldn’t they?

Bottom line: There is nothing out there, aside from uninformed clucking, to support the use of zeros. I find that ironic, don’t you? Zero support for zeros.

No wonder we teachers need unions.

PS: I cross-posted this, without the URLs, at the ASCD “blog” .

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10 thoughts on “Help Wanted: Teachers Who Read

  1. Well like I said, I agree that we should be more informed. It’s just how we go about it that will make the difference between the well-informed and the well … bored. For instance, the person it’s coming from is important. If it’s from someone who’s got years of experience in the classroom and on the upper levels, that’s easier to dispute than someone who hasn’t even had a year of experience trying to tell you what they just read in an article. Often, teachers need someone to model the behavior for them, similar to what is expected of them.

    Secondly, we need to increase the amount of accessibility for teachers who may not be as tech-savvy as we are about these resources, and even develop our own through the best and researched practices of our day.

    And as far as your ESP, well it’s been a long time since I’ve put down a long comment. I knew I had it in me somewhere.

    I was thinking the same thing about the long comment.

    In the business world, they’re called “self-starters.” But they’re in short supply there, too. You’re pretty much on target with the practical aspect of directed professional development. Have you given a thought to admin, Jose? You’d be an asset. –Hugh

  2. Now, let’s not get too down on ourselves. While I understand that we have this perception that teachers don’t care about their professional development, it’s often because teachers get inundated with too much information that reminds them of things they did 5-6 years back. I’m in personal agreement with keeping up with the latest practices, but that becomes hardly possible when we have unsupportive individuals and administrations who may not even know what they’re talking about themselves, but they’re pushing whatever “new hot word” on the rest of their staff. It’s irresponsible. We need to start looking at that lack of understanding from the top down. It doesn’t relieve teachers from their responsibility to be more informed about what’s best for their children, but often, as with anything, we gotta wait a trend out so we can be sure whether it works or not. That goes for medicine or any field, so why not teaching?

    My ESP is working overtime. I had a strong feeling you would respond with mitigating words of wisdom.

    I agree with you about administrators responding to pressure from above to push what we teachers often regard as the latest edu-fad, and I’m not letting the brass off the hook either. They were teachers once, and have just continued their bad uninformed habits to the next level, at which the Peter Principle will catch up with them shortly.

    As far as waiting for validation of good practices…I think the wait is over. Time to crack the books and get with the program. And, as you implied, administrators should lead the pack by example, not by fiat.

    This was a bleak post, but then so is my outlook on teachers who won’t learn. I’d like to bottle the Vilson Factor and inoculate a bunch of people! 🙂 –Hugh

  3. Hey Hugh!! As as administrator -this is a tough conversation to have with teachers.

    It is tough in the sense that many (not all) teachers CAN’T let go of the zero!

    Even the ones who are willing to listen believe that this practice (not giving zeros) let’s kids off the hook with the work. . . they just don’t get it.

    I’ve tried many analogies to get them to see the point. . .

    1. Reminding them that they were given SEVERAL opportunites to pass the Praxis – and when they passed, the good ole testing folks didn’t average in their failures with the one time they passed

    2. Reminding them that when they fail to turn in some of that necessary (but bothersome) paperwork they are asked to turn in – and they DO NOT – they don’t lose their job – their given another opportunity to do it – without penalty. Sometimes I may require that they stay a little later to do it, and that’s it –

    Anyway – I think you get the point. The teachers hear me and understand when I make the point, but then they go right back to the same practice -bad habits can be a . . . .

    By the way – thanks for the “encouragement” and my comment may be more lengthy than Jose’s (not intentionally) 🙂

    Alisha, you’re on the right track. Even in my district, movement in the lackazero direction is a slow, multi-year conversation. But…for the last two years, the supe has recommended to new teachers that they get on board with standards-based grading, and this year, next year, and the year after, we will be giving each new teacher a copy of Ken O’Connor’s book on “broken grades.” We bought cases of them. That’s 150-200 copies a year. It’s a soft sell, but I guess that’s the only way that works.

    I guess sometimes that I’m the “bad cop” in the conversation! 😉 –Hugh

  4. I dunno… I mean, aside from changing schools, there’s not a lot we can do about our administration. Sure, we can encourage them to make wise decisions, but ultimately, those decisions are up to them.

    We had just such a mandate foisted on us for the upcoming year – the principal had the department heads review the proposed change and vote on it. They voted it down. So then he called another meeting, and explained why their concerns were not valid reasons to vote down the proposed change, and had them vote again.

    They voted it down again.

    So then he finally just said, “look, we’re going to go with this plan.” Which is what he SHOULD HAVE DONE in the first place.

    Even so. Rant aside, I know I can’t control what others do (though I don’t let my students know that!) so it’s up to me just to do what I can, regardless of the stup… obnox… uh… CHOICES… of others. 😉

    It’s actually quite liberating!

    Hang in, Clix. I always loved the fact that when the classroom door closed, it was my world, insulated from doltish administrators. But to be fair, I went out of my way to make good admin feel at home in my room. 🙂 –Hugh

  5. Yes, I have. I would get into it more, but we can e-mail each other about that. People are following my moves on the Interwebs, and I gotta make sure that what we say here is between us, understand? Your ESP I’m sure is on target.

    My intuition is a precision instrument. 😀 –Hugh

  6. I have been reading this and related postings and comments with interest. As an outsider, i.e. a person outside the realm of professional educators, I can’t help but think we have a “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation here.

    There are so many very many different “things” that teachers must do in a classroom that it must be very hard to keep focused on all aspects of the job. My grandson recently completed his first year in public school, a full time kindergarten, and I watched with interest all the things he had to adapt to. There were not just the 3 “R’s” but many other levels of learning, everything from how to be with 25-30 other children all day to how to count from one to one hundred.

    A classroom can be as complex a situation as any adult workplace environment. And the learning about this for a young boy is a major part of his education. But, how does a teacher place a number grade on these learning activities?

    I understand the need for assessment and evaluation of a student’s learning progress and work assignments. Yet quibbling over how to place a mark in a book to represent how a student failed to reach a goal set by a teacher does not help the student advance in his or her learning. Giving a figurative slap in the face to a poor student, a non-performing student, does not help that student become inspired to learn and do assignments.

    Classrooms and the associated schools are very complex social systems, like the proverbial forest. Yet we must not loose focus on the individual trees, those precious individual children. A poor grade given to a child will rarely, if ever, inspire that child to perform better. I know this from my own personal experience. There are many things that will inspire a child to perform to a higher level, but issuing him or her bad grades will not do it.

    How’s this for a radical idea. If a student is performing below a certain level of expectation, throw out all grades until work improves. Forget the grades and work to inspire the student to perform, to learn, at a certain level. Oops, there’s that need for numerically represented evaluation again.

    We will never escape the need for those numerically represented evaluations, but we must never forget that individual tree, that one student, that needs to learn. Be the necessary inspiration to him or her. Grades are incidental to this process.

    “How’s this for a radical idea. If a student is performing below a certain level of expectation, throw out all grades until work improves. Forget the grades and work to inspire the student to perform, to learn, at a certain level.”

    Not radical at all, Tom. In fact, learning doesn’t require grading, but assessment feedback from teachers, and even peers, is crucial. Grades, unsound grades, often become the substitute for that feedback. –Hugh

  7. That’s right, not radical at all. We do NOT need to give zeros and, I’m sorry, but the excuse that we’ve got so many initiatives thrown at us warrants the practice? (the practice = completely demoralizing children and doing nothing to help improve their learning) Come on. A zero as feedback gives me no hope.

    I really began to learn the art of assessment about 5 years ago, when I met Ken O’Connor at a conference in Ottawa. And then I started to read everything I could about it, which I’m still in the middle of doing 😉

    So I guess I’m one of those teachers who read. And you know what I do when I am reading? I do it publicly – I carry the book around with me, I talk to others about what I am reading and about how, if at all, it is helping to change my practice.

    So it DOESN’T need to be top down. If we sit around waiting for someone else to do something, well…wouldn’t it be lovely for their to be the perfect piece of grading policy to fall from above that all teachers would embrace and follow. (where’s the smiley guy for sarcasm?) Un-unh. I’m not waiting for policy to inform my practice. I prefer to focus on my practice and allowing it to inform policy.

    I googled Ken O’Connor and found this. An administrator’s notes from one of his sessions from last year. I particularly like the list at the end – repair kit for grading.
    http://carnets.opossum.ca/roberto/2007/10/ken_oconnor_excellentevidemmen.html

    he he – first comment of the weekend. Guess the coffee is kicking in 😉

    “So it DOESN’T need to be top down. If we sit around waiting for someone else to do something, well…wouldn’t it be lovely for their to be the perfect piece of grading policy to fall from above that all teachers would embrace and follow. (where’s the smiley guy for sarcasm?) Un-unh. I’m not waiting for policy to inform my practice. I prefer to focus on my practice and allowing it to inform policy.”

    That’s what I decided in 2000 after a two-day ASCD institute with Ken, in New Mexico, on “grading for learning.” The grading guidelines I used subsequently can be found on one of the pages at the top of this blog.

    I retired in 2003 and ran for the board of ed. In 2004, we hired a new supe. This year, every new teacher gets a half day of inservice (out of three new teacher inservice days) on grading for learning, and they get a copy of Ken’s book on broken grades. It’s been a long trip, but worth it.

    Thanks for the link to the bi-lingual admin blog! I’ll get a chance to practice my high school French. 🙂
    –Hugh

  8. A few questions (based on wider reading here):

    If given an incomplete instead of a zero, what happens when that incomplete remains unrealized (despite support)? Most institutions of higher ed allow faculty to assign incompletes (at their discretion), but those incompletes expire and become F’s.

    Everywhere I have learned and taught in higher education, late assignments received a point or percentage penalty (except for extenuating circumstances). How does one explain to a student who worked hard to meet a deadline that deadlines don’t really matter when it comes to performance assessment and that their peer(s) who turn in late work receive equal performance assessment?

    No doubt, there is an abundance of ineffective evaluation methodology out there, and I agree that we need to understand “best practices” in all areas, but what is a student to do when they come out of such systems that you describe and walk into most higher education classrooms that penalize late work, penalize missing work, missed exams,…

    No doubt, learning requires assessment feedback, not simply grades. But it is quite naive to think that traditional grading or scoring practices do not matter in our society… GPAs, SATs, MATs, MCATs, LSATs, PRAXIS, ACTs, PSATs,… These are some assessments that students need to prepare for, take, and live with the results. Yes, some can be retaken at a cost and personal inconvenience, but it will be a cold day in hell before a anecdotal report or performance-based assessment will replace them. If you walk into an testing center late, you are out of luck. There is no incomplete. I guess one saving grace is that in K-12 education, most testing benchmarks are meant to inform teachers. The sad part is that the assessment data is reported late, the assessment tools are often poorly constructed or irrelevant, and teachers tend to ignore the data that they are presented with.

    Sorry for rambling… feeling a little punchy tonight.

  9. “A zero as feedback gives me no hope”

    Ok, I completely agree with that one. But if you don’t give me anything at all, I can’t give you feedback at all, in my book, it’s a zero! Just like for the teacher: until all my papers are correctly back to the administration, I don’t get any money.
    I precise that I work with student over 18yo. This zero is not definitive, but it still a zero.
    In this situation, where is the problem?

    • Thanks for your comment Laurence.

      The problem lies in the meaning of the numbers. Actual scores represent some evaluation of learning. What does the zero represent? Certainly not an actual evaluation, so it’s an “unlike term,” an orange among apples, and if you just use arithmetic rules to crunch the numbers, you’ve lost the meaning of the average. Not to mention violating the rules of mean averaging in statistics (use of outliers is verboten).

      If you must give zeros, give up the mean and use the median average in a percentage scale. Or go the the four point system where a zero would be an F, a D is a one, C a two, B a three, A a four. The the damage is lessened even with mean averaging, and the student less discouraged.

      But mostly, I would contemplate what my numbers represent and the meaning of what’s left when I throw them all together.

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