SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

Freedom, Choice, and the Death of Us

“they did not stop to think they died instead”

“‘next to of course god america i,'” e.e. cummings

Over the course of a couple hours after my mother was discovered comatose, the ER doctor offered us a choice: airlift my mother to a larger hospital for surgery to remove the clot in her brain that caused her stroke or leave her comatose, each moment destroying more of her brain.

Just twelve days later, in front of my mother then in a rehabilitation facility after responding well to the high-risk surgery,  my father became unresponsive; the EMS team summoned by a 911 call were frantically trying to resuscitate my father, kept alive by his pacemaker/defibrillator. Since my father had resisted switching off the defibrillator and choosing a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, the lead EMS responder asked me where I wanted him to be transported.

Because of the proceeding days when we all scrambled against my parents’ health insurance, my first thought was how was I to know where his insurance would cover this event (ultimately the last moments of his life).

While cycling on the local rail trail near my university and where my mother now remains in a single room—the building in which she witnessed my father’s death—a friend and I pedaled up to a road crossing where a father sat on his bicycle with a trailer attached for children to ride along.

This intersection has decorative circles of brickwork on each side of the road. As this man crossed, he steered poorly around the brickwork—the cart left wheel rolling up onto the brick, tipping the cart and his two sons over onto the side of the trail and jerking the bicycle out from under the father.

These are all complicated and difficult stories about choice and freedom in the U.S.

The U.S. is a cruel and calloused culture that values a false narrative about freedom and choice, an idealized version of freedom and choice as concepts that trump all else.

Even human dignity.

Even life.

Especially in healthcare, education, and providing social support for the poor, the guiding principle is giving people choice, believing that individual responsibility is the root cause of poor health, failing students and schools, and finding oneself in poverty.

The meritocracy and rugged individualism myths are so powerful in the U.S. that winners and losers both cling to them even when the game is revealed to be fatally rigged. As Tim Maly explains:

So there are people who can be so wrapped up in a certain worldview that even in the face of serious evidence that they have been taken in, and despite many warnings from the rest of the world, they persist. Indeed, warnings from the rest of the world seem to serve only to entrench them in their position. With some of them, it’s as if they end up making bad choices specifically to spite the people warning them.

The U.S. has instilled a tremendous amount of self-loathing, in fact, among marginalized groups (blacks, English language learners, women) who feel compelled to embrace the bitter American Dream in order to be American—even as each of them could utter as Langston Hughes wrote:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

The parent cycling with his children in tow was free to choose placing those boys in the trailer, free to choose to pedal along the trail and then to send them tumbling.

And there we must admit, parental choice is not universally a good thing, and we must also confront that anyone’s choice necessarily encroaches on the freedom of others: children routinely suffer the consequences of their parents’ choices.

The children were fine, however, but my mother and father—along with our family—have been navigating a hellscape of healthcare dictated by patient choice and freedom, jumbled with a nightmare of bureaucracy in which mandated and bounded choices are not really choices at all.

In the U.S., we celebrate the choice between a Toyota Camry and Honda Accord (essentially the same car with the free market promise of competitive prices in your local market!), but few people are afforded the freedom of not buying a car at all—and no one is allowed the freedom from sales and property taxes or freedom from insurance and liability for all that driving.

Freedom and choice are in fact a nasty shell game used to keep the masses occupied so that they do not realize only the few have some sort of economic freedom and choice because of the labor of those masses, those people drawn to the myths like moths to a flame but never allowed to survive the allure.

It’s July 4th, a patriotic orgy in the U.S. that is as shallow and materialistic as the country we celebrate.

A people truly committed to equity and our moral obligations as humans would recognize that sometimes, maybe even often, choice and freedom are not as important as insuring that no one needs to choose because essentials are collectively provided for everyone to insure the dignity of simply being a human.

No child left to the lottery draw of their parents, no sick person tossed into the meat grinder of market-based healthcare, no elderly cast into the dark well of individual responsibility.

As we wave tiny plastic flags today, swill (mostly) cheap beer while overeating from our decadent grills, let us roast in the sun and the recognition that we actually have freedom and choice—and this heartless and selfish country is what we have chosen.

For Further Reading

Why poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society, Shervin Assari

‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ by Frederick Douglass

Resisting Cultural Appropriation: A Human Response to the Inhumanity of Privilege

When I posted K. Tempest Bradford’s argument “that cultural appropriation is indefensible,” the first comment I received (from a white man) suggested cultural appropriation is unavoidable, mostly discounting Bradford’s challenges.

Once I replied, the same person added: “The solution is to change the power relationships, not to erect artificial cultural walls.”

First, when so-called racial minorities speak against inequity, whites often fail to listen, shouting over or offering the condescending “yes, but”—in the same way men correct and marginalize when women confront sexism and misogyny.

In the situation above, the typical white male moderate or even self-proclaimed progressive response is at play, something like “Let’s work toward a color-blind society!”

This ploy fails on several layers.

As noted already, it fails because the response replaces a willingness to listen, to value the perspective, and then to act in alliance.

But more broadly, the premise is also flawed because the goal is not to be a color-blind society or to eradicate cultural (or racial, or gender) walls, but to make our identifiable differences worthy of equal celebration and to insure that those differences never stand as markers for injustice, inequity, and dehumanization.

As Bradford asserts, cultural appropriation must always be resisted because the U.S. is a capitalistic and materialistic society in which each person’s dignity and the humanity of that person are inextricably tied to any identifiable group with which they are connected.

Further, the U.S. remains incredibly inequitable and unjust along race, class, and gender lines (among others).

Entertainers such as Elvis or Pat Boone at mid-twentieth century, for example, were allowed to benefit and profit greatly on the musical styles of blacks who were directly excluded from the same financial and entertainment opportunities.

More recently Vanilla Ice and Eminem represent the lingering power of cultural appropriation despite the Civil Rights movement and greater access to wealth and fame by blacks.

And the entrenched negligence and insensitivity of sport mascots—such as the Washington Redskins or Florida State Seminoles—stand as bold symbols that white privilege continues to trump genuine appreciation of diversity and essential human dignity within capitalism.

One key point in this debate, however, is understanding the basic human response to cultural appropriation among marginalized and oppressed groups.

For those marginalized groups to cling to and defend their culture is a human response to the inhumanity of privilege.

Blacks, for example, are still daily told that they as humans do not matter as much, do not count as much as whites (lower pay even with equal experience and education, greater incarceration without greater criminality, disproportionately higher rates of being shot and killed by police, etc.), and then, elements of black culture routinely are appropriated by whites as long as whites benefit and profit.

Throwing Shade in 2017 as a TV show hosted by two whites?

If we dig deep enough, we may well have to face that beneath racism and cultural appropriation we will unearth that capitalism is the root of all evil—monetizing everything above human dignity.

As long as we allow our larger culture to be grounded in the amorality of capitalism and materialism (supply and demand trumps ethics or morality), then we are doomed to inequity and injustice, in the form of racism, sexism, classism, etc.; those individuals and groups suffering that inequity, then, must reach for their humanity and dignity by clinging to that which the dominant group deems valuable.

If tearing down “artificial cultural walls” is a valid goal (and I am skeptical it is), then the only truly progressive response by those with race and gender privilege is to listen to those who resist cultural appropriation (and all inequity), to accept that resistance, and then to offer their privilege in solidarity to end the injustice—not to shout over or offer yet another bitter “yes, but.”

Introversion in a Time of Loss

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

“The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot

June, not April, has been the cruellest month this year for me—my father’s death coming less than two weeks after my mother suffered a stroke.

While waded through this loss and near-loss, Facebook reminded me we lost our family labs in June a few years ago, only weeks apart.

My father’s funeral presented to me, then, in one hour most of the social and family interactions I have been avoiding for decades. I weathered the repeated “I bet you don’t recognize me” and hand shakes along with hugs that included extended holds.

When my two nephews and I drove away after the ceremony and receiving of friends, I explained that I would not be joining others for lunch; I was eagerly awaiting being alone in my car for the nearly hour-long drive to see my mother still in a rehabilitation center.

This was likely the first time I had confessed to them that I am an introvert, a twin companion to my lifelong adventures in anxiety. Neither confession—”I am an introvert” or “I suffered from anxiety and depression”—ever goes very well.

The response is mostly a well-meaning discounting of my sincere sharing. No one believes me because my masking techniques, my defense mechanisms are incredibly well honed.

Introverts must do the heavy lifting of adjusting to the world—yet even more stress heaped onto this predisposition no one would choose.

The drive alone and stopping to eat alone helped me begin to recharge; introversion, you see, is less about being shy or reclusive (although we can be and often are both) and more about what is emotionally draining and how we regain our energy, our peace and calm.

Then, when I arrived at my mother’s facility, her room was packed with her friends who had attended the funeral and her sister’s family members. The claustrophobia from the crowd and rising June heat of the funeral was replicated in this even more confined space.

The day was an incessant internal battle: the introvert’s primary response to the world is to flee, escape, seek solitude or possibly the safe proximity of one person (who would ideally not make eye contact, remain silent).

But I reprised my role from earlier in the day. I smiled, I spoke, I remained in the room dutifully—although with jaw clinched and muscles tense.

An introvert, nearly always paralyzed with anxiety, I am also not religious.

So over recent days, I have sat patiently and quietly while the hospital chaplain offered her solace, her prayers. I have sat patiently and quietly as one of my nephew’s father-in-law conducted the funeral service, slipping into his role as minister to invoke our all being sinners and calling us all to Jesus.

Clinching, folding into ourselves is the default pause of the introvert. The World advances as we retreat as intensely as possible, as quietly as possible.

And now I sit with the paradox of introversion in a time of loss.

I read over what I have written (begun while sitting with my mother) and see that everything becomes about me, although I long simply to walk out of anyone’s view—just simply not to be here.

Every fiber of my being (physical, emotional, psychological) clinched, I focus all of my energy on being what is expected of a normal person grieving the death of his father and fearing that his mother will remain a shadow or herself.

I have begun to covet the moments when I am sitting along with my now frustrated silent mother, pretending we are not in the quasi-hospital when we hope she will return to us.

When she closes her eyes and sleeps—after checking that I am sitting nearby—I am both being the dutiful son and completely released from anyone’s expectations.

June, not April, has been the cruellest month this year for me, my internal dialogue coaxing myself to remain in The World, at least in a time of loss when I am needed whole and connected.

Healthcare? We Do Not Care: Blood from a Turnip

Over the past two weeks, my mother had a stroke and resides now in a rehabilitation facility, and my father died sitting beside her over this weekend, after deteriorating for months because of a failing heart.

My family has been experiencing the nightmare that is the consequence of living in a nation that worships money above all else: being sick and dying in the U.S. remains a financial disaster.

We in the U.S. have purposefully and willfully monetized illness and death.

While my mother was in the hospital, she needed her IV changed, but the floor nurse on duty was having trouble with the new placement. She called in the head nurse, who asked me about the care my mother was receiving at the hospital.

I eagerly praised the nurses, doctors, and staff—all of whom had been wonderful, and it is no hyperbole, they literally saved my mother’s life.

I explained, however, that this recent experience combined with my own accident on Christmas eve had reinforced how senseless the healthcare and insurance systems in the U.S. are.

She was quick to concur, noting how often the insurance representatives dictated what doctors have traditionally decided was best for patients.

My mother’s insurance was not a provider for the hospital where they saved her life; that same insurance made placing her in a rehabilitation facility a week-long waste of time, including rejecting her being in a higher care facility recommended by the doctors.

Today, we head to the mortuary with the blunt awareness that my working class parents have only a small balance in my father’s check book—accounts we may not be able to access due to my mother’s condition—and only their insurance and Social Security to sustain them.

As millions of people have done and are doing, we are navigating how inexpensively we can bury my father while also balancing how to provide my mother the care she needs to recover her life, again as inexpensively as possible,

I am a son of the South, just as I am of my parents, and I cannot push from my mind “You can’t get blood from a turnip.”

How did we allow this? How do we sit idly by and cheer on the soulless political leadership that manufactured this disaster and works now to make it even worse?

Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and lawyers are feeding on us; our healthcare system is a real-life reveal like Soylent Green.

The wealthiest and most powerful country in human history could easily provide humanely for the health and death of every person who lives in the U.S. And as a people who rush to wave our flag and shout about being a Christian nation, we have the capacity to put our actions behind our words.

Other countries do because the people expect this basic human dignity.

But we do not care. We are an awful people.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10, NIV)

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7, NIV)

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24, NIV)

If you are so inclined to evoke God, claim to know the wishes of God, we must admit there is no act of a god greater than the will of a people to put children, the elderly, the sick, and the dying before all else.

Instead, we have cast them all into the Terrible Churn that is our glorious Free Market.

Damning them, damning ourselves.


For Further Reading

Health Insurance Coverage and Health — What the Recent Evidence Tells Us, Benjamin D. Sommers, M.D., Ph.D.; Atul A. Gawande, M.D., M.P.H.; and Katherine Baicker, Ph.D.

Are the benefits of publicly subsidized coverage worth the cost? An analysis of mortality changes after Medicaid expansion suggests that expanding Medicaid saves lives at a societal cost of $327,000 to $867,000 per life saved.29 By comparison, other public policies that reduce mortality have been found to average $7.6 million per life saved, suggesting that expanding health insurance is a more cost-effective investment than many others we currently make in areas such as workplace safety and environmental protections. Factoring in enhanced well-being, mental health, and other outcomes would only further improve the cost–benefit ratio. But ultimately, policymakers and other stakeholders must decide how much they value these improvements in health, relative to other uses of public resources — from spending them on education and other social services to reducing taxes [emphasis added].

Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment

To whatever degree I have been an effective teacher over a 33-year (and counting) career directly and indirectly connected to teaching literacy has been grounded in my inclination to assess constantly my practices against my instructional goals.

Teaching is some combination of curriculum (content, the what of teaching), instruction (pedagogy, the how of teaching), and assessment (testing, the monitoring of learning). When I was in teacher education as a candidate, the world of teaching was laser-focused on instruction—our learning objectives scrutinized and driving everything.

Over the three decades of accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing, however, and the rise of backward design, both how students are tested (test formats) and what tests address have become the primary focus of K-12 teaching.

Accountability’s state and national impact has increased the importance of standardized testing—the amount of tests students are required to take but also the format of in-class assessments teachers use to prepare students for those tests.

High-stakes and large-scale testing is governed in many ways by efficiency—formats such as multiple choice that can be marked by computer; and therefore, many K-12 teachers model their assessment content and formats on what students will face in these high-stakes environments.

Over my career, then, I have watched teaching to the test move from a practice shunned by best practice to the default norm of K-12 education.

As a committed practitioner of de-grading and de-testing the classroom, I offer below some big picture concepts that I believe every teacher should consider in order to improve the quality of grading and testing practices, in terms of if and how our assessments match our instructional goals instead of how efficient our tests are or how well our classroom assessments prepare students for (really awful) large-scale high-stakes tests.

The principles and practices below are imperative for literacy instruction and learning, but apply equally well to all learning goals and content.

Holistic v. skills (standardized tests). Let’s imagine for a moment that you wish to learn to play the piano, and you are given lessons on scales, proper fingering, etc., using worksheets. After a unit on playing the piano, you are given a multiple-choice test on that material, scoring an A. 

Having never played the piano or practiced at the piano, what do you think of that A?

To be proficient in the context of efficient skills-based tests is not the same as being proficient in holistic behaviors. While the testing industry has sold us on the idea that efficient skills-based tests (usually multiple choice) correlate strongly with the authentic goals for learning we seek, we should be far more skeptical of that claim.

Along with the problem of efficiency in standardized tests and selected-response tests in class-based assessment is the historical and current purposes of large-scale testing—for example, IQ and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.

IQ testing has its roots in identifying low academic ability (identifying people who were expendable) and has never overcome problems with race, class, and gender bias.

College entrance exams began as a process for distinguishing among top students; therefore, test items that create spread are “good,” regardless of how well the question achieves our instructional goals.

For classroom teachers who seek assessments that support better teaching and learning, then, we should be seeking to assess in holistic ways first, and then to expose students to the formats and expectations of high-stakes testing.

One goal for rethinking assessment is to emphasize allowing and requiring students to practice whole behaviors (composing original texts, reading full texts by choice, etc.) and then to assess students’ levels of proficiency by asking them to repeat whole behaviors in testing situations.

Accomplishment v. deficit perspective. I am certain we have all experienced and many of us have practiced this standard approach to grading a student’s test: Marking with an “X” the missed items and then totaling the grade somewhere on the sheet, such as 100 – 35 = 65.

Let’s consider for a moment the assumptions and implications (as well as negative consequences) of this process.

First, this implies that students begin tests with 100 points—for doing nothing. Further, that creates an environment in which students are trying not to lose something they did not earn to begin with.

Now, a much more honest and healthy process for all assessments is that students begin with zero, nothing, and then the teacher evaluates the test for what the student accomplishes, not looking for and marking errors (something Connie Weaver calls, and rejects, as the “error hunt”).

By avoiding a deficit perspective (starting with 100 and marking errors) and embracing an accomplishment perspective (starting with zero and giving credit for achievement), we are highlighting what our students know and helping them to overcome risk aversion fostered by traditional (behavioral) practices in school.

Moving toward an accomplishment perspective is particularly vital for literacy development since taking risks is essential for growth. It is particularly powerful when giving feedback on and grading student writing (I learned this method during Advanced Placement training on scoring written responses to the exam).

Collaboration v. isolation. “[T]he knowledge we use resides in the community,” explains Gareth Cook, examining Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, adding, “We participate in a community of knowledge. Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities.”

However, traditional approaches to assessment are nearly always done in isolation; collaboration in testing situations is deemed cheating, in fact.

Consider for a moment your own lives as readers and writers. What do we love to do when reading a new novel? Talk with a trusted friend about the book, right? Community and collaboration fuel a better understanding of the work.

When writing, feedback is essential, another eye on our ideas, an uninvested editor to catch our mistakes.

While many of us have embraced community and collaboration in our instruction—implementing workshops or elements of workshops—we rarely allow collaboration in assessment.

See this post for an example of collaborative assessment in my introductory education course.

Feedback v. grades. One of the most frustrating aspects of practicing a de-graded classroom is that my students often identify on their opinion surveys of my courses that I do not provide adequate feedback—because they conflate grades (which I do not give throughout the semester) with actual feedback on their assignments (which I do offer, abundantly and quickly).

Most teachers, I believe, spend far too much time grading and then students receive insufficient feedback that requires them to interact with and learn from that help.

One element of my concern is that when teachers provide extensive feedback on graded work, most students check the grade and do not engage at all with the feedback; this is a waste of the teacher’s time and not contributing to student learning.

Ideally, we should be providing ample and manageable feedback on work that requires students to address that feedback, either in some response or through revision (see below).

For literacy instruction, fore-fronting feedback, requiring and allowing revision, and then delaying grades all support a much more effective process than traditional grading.

Revision v. summative assessment. That process above embraces revision over summative grading.

Whole literacy experiences, low-stakes environments that encourage risk, high-proficiency modeling and mentoring, and then opportunities to try again, to revise—these are the tenets of powerful and effective literacy instruction and assessment.

When students experience reading and writing as one-shot events mainly produced to be graded, they are cheated out of the awareness that literacy is cyclical, and recursive—to read and then to read again, to write and then to write again.

For Paulo Freire, literacy is agency, empowerment; we must read the world and re-read the world, write and re-write the world.

At the very least, we should decrease summative assessments and grading while increasing how often we require and allow revision.

Many argue that reducing grading also removes necessary accountability for student engagement, and while I find these arguments less compelling, I do replace my use of grades with minimum requirements for credit in any class or course. And I use those minimum requirements to emphasize the aspects of learning experiences I believe are most important.

Therefore, drafting of essays and revision are required, just as conferencing is.

Ultimately, our assessment and grading policies and practices send very strong messages about what matters in our classes; we must be diligent we are sending the messages we truly embrace.

Recalibrating grade scales (with a caveat) and no more averaging grades. Debates and policies about what numerical grades constitute each letter grade—such as whether a 90, a 93, or a 94 is the lower end of the A-range—are little more, to me, than rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

Instituting uniform grade scales in schools, districts, or entire states is unlikely to produce the results proponents claim; however, some policy moves concerning grades are both warranted and highly controversial—such as creating a floor score (such as a 50 or 62) for an F.

Rick Wormeli and others have very effectively demonstrated the inequity of traditional grading scales that have about 10 points per letter grade until the F, which may have 50-70 points.

Low numerical summative grades and the flawed practice of averaging grades have very negative consequences for students—the worst of which is creating a statistical death penalty for students early in a course that may encourage those students to stop trying.

Creating a floor grade on F’s is instructionally and statistically sound, then, but only if combined with the minimum requirement concept discussed above. In other words, converting a zero to 50 or 62 when a student does poorly on an assignment is not the same thing as converting a zero to 50 or 62 when a student submits no work at all.

The latter must not be allowed since students can game the system by doing no work until late in the grading period and depending on averages to produce a passing grade for the course.

Therein lies the failure of averaging grades.

Averages skew the weight of grades earned while learning instead of honoring the assessment or assessments after students have had ample time to learn, practice, and create a showcase artifact of learning.

As well, averages are not as representative of reality as modes, for example. Consider the following grades earned by a student: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100.

The average for these grades is 73, but the mode is 85, and if these grades are earned in this order (10 early and the 100 last) on cumulative assessments, the 100 is also a potentially fair grade.

Grade and grade scales, then, are incredibly flawed in their traditional uses. Combining a revised, equitable numerical/letter grade structure (with minimum requirements of participation included) and choosing modes over averaging or portfolio assessment instead of averaging is recommended if de-grading is not an option.

The concepts above about rethinking assessment are effective ways to interrogate current assessment practices, and they are urgent for improving literacy instruction.

I do urge seeking ways to de-grade and de-test the classroom regardless of what is being taught, but in the real world, I recognize that goal may seem impossible.

The ways I offer above to rethink assessment, I believe, are quite practical and certainly are justifiable once we consider if and how our assessment practices do or don’t reflect our teaching and learning goals.

And thus: “A critical pedagogy asks us to reconsider grading entirely,” argues Sean Morris, “and if we can’t abandon it whole-hog, then we must revise how and why we grade.”

Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Discussing scholars as writers, Michael C. Munger explains, “We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

And that practice, Munger argues, must be “like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days….Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.”

This interview about the intersection of scholars (academics, professors) and writing wades into a fascinating and troubling phenomenon that I expose first-year writing students to in their seminar midterm. I ask them to choose a professor on campus in a discipline they are considering for their major, and then to interview that professor about writing as a necessary aspect of being a scholar.

My students discover, and are surprised to discover, that most of the professors openly share that they dislike writing, struggle with writing, and/or simply tolerate having to write in order to have their research published.

A parallel reality exists in K-12 education. During my current graduate course in literacy, I asked how many of the eleven students had ever been participants in a writing workshop; none of them raised a hand.

Taken together, we are faced with a important hurdle in the teaching writing: at all levels of formal education, writing is taught by scholars/academics and teachers who themselves are not writers, who have had no or very little direct instruction in being writers (as noted by Munger above).

Some of the questions we must investigate, then, include the following:

  • Must anyone who teaches writing be a writer?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster the teaching of writing among those who are not writers, who struggle as writers, and who see writing as a necessary evil?
  • How can and should we support those who write by necessity but never feel compelled as writers (a reality that comprises most students and many scholars and teachers)?

Having been a writer and a teacher for about the same amount of time—37 years writing and 33 years teaching—and since my primary focus as a teacher has been the teaching of writing, I often wrestle with the questions above, but during the last decade while I have been teaching first-year writing at the university level and also providing faculty development for professors teaching writing, I have come to understand better that there are more disjunctures than intersections among scholars, teachers, and writers.

As a high school English teacher for 18 years, I had to fight for time to write; my life as a writer, in fact, intruded on my work as a teacher in direct and indirect ways (about the latter, I suffered subtle and not-so-subtle antagonism from some colleagues for publishing). When I moved to higher education, writing became something valued as part of my work, my schedule allowed ample time for me to do as Munger suggests and write daily, and the expectations for being a professor (teaching, scholarship, and service) included explicitly scholarly publication.

However, lest you believe higher ed to be some sort of writer’s Shangri-la, being a productive writer and writing for the public have also created tensions for me in academia, where a very narrow expectation for being a writer persists (being prolific viewed with skepticism, hints that one cannot write that much without sacrificing something such as teaching; public writing viewed as frivolous use of a scholar’s time and too political).

As noted above, though, what links my K-12 and higher ed experiences is that most teachers/professors charged with teaching writing are not themselves writers—although most professors are more likely than K-12 teachers to write by necessity.

Here is a lesson I now see more clearly: We have failed, mostly, to confront directly that writing is typically taught by those who aren’t writers, but we have implicitly addressed that disjuncture by attempting to make the teaching of writing teacher-proof.

To teacher-proof writing instruction, we have chosen, as Johns examines, genre acquisition over genre awareness [1].

Briefly, that means in-school writing instruction tends to assign writing in template form (five-paragraph essay and its cousins) and to reduce all writing to that artificial form (in terms of what “essay” means to students as both writers and readers).

In effect, teacher-proofing writing instruction removes most of the instructional decisions from teachers and almost all of the writing decisions from the students-as-writers. As well, both writing instructors and students-as-writers are primarily complying with directives that are artificial (or as Johns notes, “‘staged'”).

To foster the most effective writing teachers—and thus to foster students-as-writers—a few key approaches are warranted:

  • Couch calls for writing instructors to be writers in the acknowledgement that most are not, and may not feel compelled to be writers.
  • Be aware of and avoid shaming writing instructors who are not writers or who see writing as merely functional to other pursuits.
  • Provide all writing instructors with authentic experiences in direct writing instruction themselves; teachers of writing need to have had experiences as writers and students in the instructional practices they should use with their students.
  • Reject the traditional efforts to teacher-proof writing instruction and begin to build for teachers and students a broad range of experiences with genre awareness grounded in the disciplines and so-called real-world writing.
  • Revitalize reading and text experiences in formal schooling from K-12 to college so that students experience powerful models for the ways in which writing occurs, both within and against a manageable toolbox of conventions linked to the disciplines and published writing.
  • Include for all teachers/professors, K-12 and college, expectations for writing, professional rewards for writing, and then the sort of time and administrative support needed to fulfill writing obligations without impinging on primary obligations to teach.

The irony, I believe, is that the road to effective and empowered writing teachers is as nuanced and complex as the sorts of lessons we need to teach about writing, a many-headed beast that is often hard to wrangle, much less understand.

We can and must admit that more disjunctures than intersections exist among scholars, teachers, and writers. Bridging those gaps is a daunting challenge, but traditional teacher-proof approaches fail both teachers and their students.

Both writing instruction and how writing is viewed by teachers/professors and students require that we step away from many reductive and ineffective assumptions so that we can start again for the first time more honestly and newly committed to teaching and writing as valuable but complex endeavors.

Suggested

The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham


[1] From Johns:

GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….

GENRE AWARENESS…is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts.