CBE’s new report cards are a lesson in failure

June 15, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald

It is soon going to get a lot more difficult for Calgary parents to figure out how their kids are doing in school. Instead of standard letter or percentage grades, parents can look forward to finding out whether their kids are in the “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging,” or “support required” categories.

As a part of a new pilot project in a number of its schools, the Calgary Board of Education is bringing in new report cards. Not only will there be no letter or percentage grades, teachers will no longer provide written comments. In addition, report cards will be sent home only two times each year instead of three or four times. Eventually, the board intends to implement the new report cards for all kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

Advocates of this new approach claim it will improve communication with parents. However, only someone immersed in edu-babble could seriously believe that replacing well-known and understood letter grades and percentage with vague descriptors makes it easier for parents to understand how their kids are doing. For most parents, the difference between traditional grades such as a B and a D is a lot more obvious than the difference between “evident” and “emerging.”

Unfortunately, parents had better work at deciphering the “evident” and “emerging” descriptors since they are likely to appear most frequently on report cards. This is because “exemplary” means a student is performing well above grade level, which usually includes only a small percentage of students in any class. After all, if most students in a grade consistently perform above grade level, then the skills being evaluated would likely be moved to a different grade level.

As for the “support required” descriptor, this is a new code word for failure. However, since we all know that failure is almost impossible at the elementary levels, it is reasonable to assume parents will rarely see “support required” on report cards. Consequently, it may lead to some interesting conversations at home when parents try to encourage their kids to try to be more “evident” in their two-digit multiplication skills.

To make matters even more confusing, the new report cards will not contain any personalized comments from teachers. While the school board says these comments are unnecessary because teachers will communicate more regularly with parents, the fact remains that written comments on the report card are a prime opportunity for teachers to provide important information to parents — particularly those with younger children. The removal of personalized comments from report cards may lighten the workload of teachers, but it won’t benefit students or parents.

Advocates of these kinds of reporting systems frequently claim they have research evidence on their side. This claim is patently false. There is no body of research showing that the removal of percentage or letter grades in public schools leads to improved student achievement. While it is true that some students and parents prefer nebulous or non-existent grades, it is equally true that many students and parents prefer a rigorous grading system that enables them to track their academic progress.

What research does show is that timely and understandable feedback from teachers to students and their parents is extremely important. In his seminal 2009 book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, education professor John Hattie classifies feedback as “among the most powerful influences on achievement.” While traditional letter and percentage grades are far from perfect, they are a long-standing and important form of feedback to students and their parents. The traditional grades should not be abandoned without very good reasons, and so far, the reasons are not evident.

In a letter that recently appeared on the Calgary Board of Education’s website, chief superintendent Naomi Johnson expressed her wish “for additional communication between teachers and parents . . . ” She added that, “The goal of this work is more frequent communication overall.” If increased communication between parents and teachers actually is the goal, it is odd that report cards will go home only twice per year. Fewer report cards usually means less information is being provided to both students and parents.

If Johnson wishes to improve communication with parents, she can begin by listening to the concerns already being expressed about the new reporting system. There is no need to completely remove traditional grades or personalized comments from report cards.

Calgary Board of Education’s report cards deserve a grade of F, or “support required” in their new grading scheme.


Gadgets in classrooms are gimmicks

June 6, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

According to many education gurus, incorporating technology in the classroom is the key to a solid 21st century education. As a result, school superintendents race to be the first to purchase the latest gadgets, while principals boast about the extent to which technology has been embedded in their schools.

Recently, CBC Manitoba reported that a Winnipeg school division plans to make iPads mandatory for all grades 6 to 8 students. During a public information session, parents were informed that tablets would soon become as essential in the classroom as basketballs are in a basketball game. These iPads are expected to replace textbooks, maps, and other printed classroom materials.

However, before rushing to equip schools with the latest technological gadgets, it is prudent to ask whether this will improve student learning. Considering the significant cost of purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading technological devices such as iPads, we need to ensure that it is not simply another expensive fad.

Peter Reiman and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney recently conducted an analysis of the research literature about the impact of technology on student achievement. Their findings were published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013). They conclude that most studies show only a moderate academic benefit from technology and that “the effect of computer technology seems to be particularly small in studies that use either large samples or randomized control groups.”

In other words, rigorous research studies reveal that the wholesale introduction of computer technology in classrooms has, at best, only a limited impact on student achievement. One needs to ask whether this modest benefit justifies making technology the focus of school reform.

Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University, certainly doesn’t think so. In an article published in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week, Cuban notes that technology purveyors have promised for decades that schools need the latest gadget to engage their students. To make his point, Cuban quotes from an early typewriter ad that promises to “raise her marks,” a filmstrip ad that says it can help “pupils comprehend faster,” and an Apple ad that tells teachers that an Apple IIe “makes it easy to become attached to your students.” While the technology may change, the overblown promises remain the same.

If schools truly wish to improve academic achievement, they should focus on the three essentials of learning – a content-rich curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. In his 2011 book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Mike Schmoker demonstrates that schools focusing on these three things substantially outperform schools that do not. According to Schmoker, technology is unnecessary when it comes to improving student achievement and too much emphasis on technology can get in the way of these learning essentials.

For example, Schmoker notes that reading properly written textbooks is the type of reading students need to do more often. “Textbooks, along with other carefully selected nonfiction documents, afford students the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that . . . students need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge,” writes Schmoker. While students may read some non-fiction on their iPads, it is unlikely they will read the same amount of dense, complex prose they would normally encounter in a course textbook.

Some technology advocates suggest that iPads are better than regular textbooks because they can provide more up-to-date information to students. However, this argument overlooks the fact that most sound textbook content is not outdated. The history of Canadian Confederation remains the same now as it was 10 years ago, as do most of the basic scientific concepts students need to understand. When updates are needed, there is nothing stopping teachers from providing supplemental information to their students.

Anyone who thinks students will be left behind if schools do not incorporate the latest technological gadgets needs to take a deep breath. The reality is that students have no difficulty learning how to use technology whether or not schools show them how to do it. In fact, using the latest technology is something that comes naturally to most young students. What does not come naturally is the kind of intense, systematic reading and writing that only happens if it is explicitly taught.

Before school administrators rush to adopt the latest technological gadget, they need to ask themselves whether it is the wisest course of action. Technology may be flashy and exciting, but it should not be the driver of education reform.