Report cards drive my teaching.
There, I said it. I know it’s the last thing we are supposed to say, because we strive so hard in international schools not to teach to the test. But, the truth is, it’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about for fear of being judged.
It doesn’t really matter whether I’m teaching to a standardized test or a report card based on unrealistic curriculum frameworks, I’m still teaching to something. And for many months out of the academic year, it sucks all the life, fun and passion out of education.
In all likelihood, 75% of these report cards are going to be looked at once by parents and never seen again. Some of them won’t even read the words. They’ll just skim over the columns to get a general overview of their child. Considering this, is it really worth the enormous amounts of time teachers continue to invest in them year after year?
Instead of allocating two entire months a year to collecting data and writing report cards, I wonder if our time and energy could be better spent somehow. I wonder what might happen if we spend that time creating intriguing and meaningful learning experiences for our students rather than giving them weeks worth of independent activities while we assess on the outskirts of our classrooms.
We like to think that we hold ourselves to high standards. “We don’t teach to the test and we don’t cover units,” is an often-heard expression of every proud educator. Coverage and teaching to the test are considered bureaucratic and ineffective in education, so we don’t dare use those words.
In place of them, we’ve found substitutes that diffuse the potency and are more tolerated. Instead of “cover,” we now use “get through” and “finish.” Instead of “teaching to the test,” we now “have to report on it.” The linguistic ambiguity somehow lessens our guilty conscience, and allows teachers to remain in a passive role that absolves them from any responsibility.
“This is just part of education. We can’t get around it,” you’ll often hear us lamenting. “What would happen if we got rid of report cards? That’ll never work.” Despite our loathing for report card writing seasons, it’s easier to stay the course and play the game than it is to revolutionize it. Part of the reason we oppose report cards so strongly is because we know they are a waste of time and believe something is inherently wrong with the current model.
So, how can we make it right? How can we track student progress in a way that is meaningful, yet time-efficient for teachers? How can we shift the focus back to learning, rather than reporting on it? How can we ensure that teacher time is used for effective long-term growth, rather than short-term appeasement?
What follows are a few ideas to get the conversation started at your school for how to throw out traditional report cards and move into personal learning contracts.
Less is More:
Literacy and numeracy are the only concepts that teachers should continue to collect data on in elementary schools. This data should then be qualitatively and quantitatively tracked (and reported on) to ensure the foundation of learning is strong in all students, and differentiation takes place at school and at home.
As for everything else, what’s the point?
The world is not going to come to an end if we don’t report on an eight year old’s understanding of migration push factors and three-dimensional figures. Little Timmy won’t be at-risk if his parents don’t find out in writing that he struggles to read graphs, but has a solid understanding of how media influences society.
Secondary schools are often attempting to assess more skills than are humanly possible. How can you know 80 students so well that you can assess them on 14 different skills when you only see them twice a week? Why are we wasting so much time on a best-guess scenario?
What we might find is that by freeing up time currently allocated to assessing and writing report cards, we can spend more time teaching to the misconceptions students have raised…and fostering more learning along the way.
Educators are beholden to time more than anything else in this profession. If time is such a precious commodity, why are we assigning so much of it to jumping through systemic hoops because that’s the way we’ve always done it?
From Reporting to Coaching:
Administrators don’t give report cards to teachers because it doesn’t foster professional development and they have more important things to do with their time. Many schools are now moving towards a coaching model of professional growth where administrators or learning coaches help teachers identify strengths and areas of development.
The most empowering form of this coaching model is when teachers can identify an area of development (potentially gleaned from previous observable data) and take ownership of it as their learning goal. When this goal is articulated to the coach or administrator, it becomes a form of a contract for personal or professional growth. The teacher acknowledges that this is an area they are struggling with and would like to put time and energy into developing. They call upon the coach to provide guidance when necessary, collect observable data and monitor their progress.
For example, if I choose to make a contract with my leaning coach that I would like to work on providing greater wait time between question and answer, the next time my coach comes into observe me, I know that this specific outcome will be the source for data collection. I won’t be focusing on seventeen areas of development all at once, but rather, one which I can effectively manage and nurture.
Teacher-directed professional growth is beneficial because we have ownership and agency over our individual goals. We negotiate the terms of our learning and are empowered in doing so.
If this coaching model is so effective for professional development in teachers, why aren’t we employing it for personalized learning in students as well? Why has the coaching model evolved for teachers, while the reporting model remains archaic for students?
Redefining What Drives Learning:
We always tell our students that they shouldn’t be overly focused on their grades and how they compare to others. We preach that what we care about most is their progress, their growth and their attitude towards learning.
Yet, our speech and our actions are contradictory at best, hypocritical at worst. On Monday, we tell our students that they shouldn’t stress out about their scores. On Friday, we write report comments based on the unit we just finished and assessed. What better way to lose students’ trust than by telling them they should measure their personal progress against where they started while we measure their ability against an abstract standard.
Instead of having unnecessary summative assessments and end of term report cards, why don’t we base our student growth model around personal learning contracts. These contracts, established between the coach (the teacher) and the coachee (the student) would arise out of periodic conversations between both parties. These coaching conversations would take place in the same way teachers have reflective dialogues with their administrators.
The teacher would ask the student to specifically identify an area of development. The student would articulate the concept(s), skill(s) or attitude(s) they would like to work on over a given time frame. Throughout that period of time, the teacher would be collecting observational data on the student’s progress and report back what was collected. After the contracted time frame, a follow-up coaching conversation would ensue with the teacher communicating what was observed. The student would then reflect on their efforts, their progress and their next steps. A new contract would be identified, or the old one modified, depending on the direction the conversation takes.
The length of time between coaching conversations would depend on a variety of factors, such as: is the teacher in elementary or secondary? how many students are in the class? how frequently will specialist and world language personal learning contracts be formed? how old and/or capable is the student of pluralizing their personal learning goals? how much data will still need to be collected in literacy and numeracy for tracking and reporting purposes?
The pitfalls for such a change are many, but it will inevitably come down to one question: is it adding more to teachers’ workloads, or is it freeing up time to teach and coach?
One way to ensure that teachers are not falling victim to the add-on ethos of so many institutions and curricular frameworks is to schedule these coaching conversations into their daily or weekly timetable. Whether it’s 20 minutes a day to meet with one student in elementary or it’s 60 minutes a week to check in with several secondary students, this cannot be seen as “one more thing to do” in teachers’ eyes. Otherwise, we’re only substituting one failing concept with another in disguise. The whole essence of a new model is to have teachers stop wasting their time on report cards and free up more time to improve student learning.
A Conceptual Rebirth
With some ideas in education, we can try to reconceptualize them in a new light in order to make a current model better. But for others, the models are embedded too deeply in our consciousness for a simple conceptual shift.
We can’t allow a new concept to grow until an old concept has died. Whether it’s a coaching model based on learning contracts or something completely different, we must allow our concept of report cards to die. They don’t serve us anymore.
The death of report cards shouldn’t be a passive and natural death–it should be active and intentional. We must kill the report card. For it is only through this death that a new conceptual rebirth can emerge.
And maybe then, something other than report cards can drive my teaching.
This blog is not a critique of the school I work at (which is awesome), but an observation of conceptual and systemic failure in education as a whole.