When the zero vs. no zero debate hit the media a couple of weeks ago, I found myself squarely in the minority. Those of us in the minority weren’t getting the media attention that the outraged camp was getting. It was frustrating me, and I was losing sleep. I spent a ton of time writing, because it was the only way to get my thoughts out of my head long enough to let my brain sleep.
Much of what I wrote over the past couple weeks, I posted here, culminating in my assessment plan and my indictment of ranking and sorting. The Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald both published this one. I wish I had sent them this one, because it’s the one I think I am most proud of. My hope was that the outraged general public would find this blog and learn about the assessment journey I have been on for the past 10 years. Judging by the comments, they haven’t found me (yet?). Most of the readers here agree with me, or are concerned educators asking good questions.
In a fatigued stupor, I also wrote several things that I knew I probably shouldn’t publish. I’m going to put my three craziest posts all together here. I had too much fun writing these three not to put them somewhere. Don’t beat me up in the comments. At least two of the three are entirely tongue in cheek.
A $1.2 Billion Solution
June 2 – Written right after the reaction in the public turned ugly.
During the recent provincial election in Alberta, Alison Redford (who emerged victorious as our Premier) promised to spend $2.4 billion on school upgrades and construction of new schools. The 50 new schools she promised will cost 1.2 billion dollars. I can save this province that entire amount with one simple idea. Because I love this province, I’m prepared to share that idea for only 1% of that $1.2 billion.
There are many, many schools in Alberta that are operating at far below their capacity. These buildings are in towns and areas of major cities that are experiencing population downturns. These schools will end up closed so we can build fancy new schools in new areas. My plan will fill those old schools to the brim, thereby eliminating the need for new school buildings.
The plan, in point form, goes like this:
- Every school that is currently operating at less than 50% of its capacity will immediately be re-branded as a “School of Life ™”.
- We will promote our Schools of Life ™ as a place where parents can send their children and rest assured that we will be extra hard on them in an effort to prepare them for real life.
- Our School of Life ™ schools will hire the most rigid, rigorous, and inflexible teachers who will be instructed to use whatever means necessary to hold students to our high standards of accountability.
Given the public outrage at the idea that we need zeros to prepare kids for the real world, I anticipate that parents will be willing to bus their children miles and miles just for the privilege of enrolling them in a School of Life ™. These nearly empty schools will soon be bursting at the seams. We’ll probably have to start a waiting list and have a lottery process to fairly distribute the available spots.
Ms. Redford, I just saved you $1.2 billion dollars. I don’t need a thank-you card. Just send me my 1% fee. There’s 2 m’s and 2 l’s in Scammell, when you are cutting the cheque.
An Analogy for Garner
June 1 – Written after my favorite radio station morning show broke my heart by not understanding what this thing is all about.
My wife makes fun of me when I tell her that Garner Andrews and I would be friends if we met. Garner hosts what I consider to be the finest morning radio show here in Edmonton. He is funny without being offensive or crude. He lets his callers “drive” his show. I agree with just about everything he rants about. In the pretend world where Garner and I share beers after work, we make each other laugh by swapping stories of the oddities in the world that amuse us. We agree on everything. After one of his shows last week, though, we had our first fight. Garner weighed in on assessing students. And like most of the general public who are weighing in on this topic right now in Edmonton, Garner showed that he doesn’t understand what we are allowed to assess in schools.
Garner talked about giving zeros in school, and made the standard argument that we are too soft on kids, and that we need to prepare them for the real world of employment and school. He said that if he didn’t go to work, he wouldn’t get paid so if kids didn’t do the work at school, then they should get zeros. Garner is a master of analogy. He missed the target here, though. School and jobs are different. I explain that in this post.
I called Garner’s show. I didn’t get to talk to the man himself, but I did get heard. In honor of Garner and his proclivity for the analogy, I created one for him.
Imagine that Garner gets a new station manager. The manager calls him in and says, “Garner, you’ve got a good show, but we are going to make it better. Every day when your show ends at 10:00, you and I are going to spend the next two hours planning the next day’s show. After that, I want you to rehearse it for two hours, and then you can go home.” Garner is outraged. He’s doing a darn good show right now without putting in all that time. He knows that extra 4 hours is a complete waste of time. Besides, it cuts into nap time. So Garner blows off the planning and rehearsal, day after day, and yet he still delivers awesome shows every morning.
The manager doesn’t like that Garner is skipping the planning and rehearsal, so he decides to punish poor Garner. He starts docking Garner’s pay for missing those meetings. Garner wants his pay, so he goes to a couple. The show is still awesome, but not any more awesome than before. Garner doesn’t see the point of the planning and rehearsal meetings. He misses his naps so he decides the pay isn’t worth it and quits going to the meetings. His pay drops, but his show is still awesome every day.
What really matters (the key criteria, in assessment jargon) is his show. But this station manager isn’t judging Garner on his show. The manager is judging Garner on his practice. Teachers do this to kids all the time, and it’s not right.
For kids in school, the show is their summative assessment (a test, in lots of cases). They have to do the test, just like Garner has to do the show. Less competent morning show hosts than Garner probably need to plan and rehearse, but for Garner, it’s a waste of time. He’s a master. Even though those weaker hosts wouldn’t be assessed on the practice, they would still do it, because they would know that they need the practice to be able to do a half decent show. So they would practice, and then be assessed on their performance on the show. Weaker students need to do some practice (formative assessment) before being assessed on a test.
Teachers, what’s your show? What are the things you absolutely must assess? Those are the things you should assess. Those are the things you should dig in, and make sure your kids do so that you can assess them. Are you chasing kids for minor things that really don’t matter anyhow? Are you like Garner’s station manager?
In this analogy, Garner has his pay docked for failing to do unnecessary practice. This is equivalent to giving a student a zero (which lowers his overall average) for failing to do one unnecessary thing. Garner has to do his show. Kids have to to the summative assessments.
Let’s compare some of the things addressed (and some not) in this analogy.
Missing Your Job vs. Missing Some School Work
- Garner – He gets some holiday time (It crushes me when he’s gone – They play old clips, but it’s not the same), and he’s probably allowed to be sick occasionally without being docked pay. If he started missing the show regularly for unexplained reasons, he would eventually be fired. They would cut him some slack because he is darn good at what he does. He’s worth the effort of saving. They would do everything possible to get Garner back in his chair doing the show.
- School Kid – A kid who misses a minor assignment or two won’t be docked marks. If he starts missing the major assessments, we would treat him like Garner. We would cut him some slack. We do like kids, don’t we? We do think they are worth saving, don’t we? We would do everything possible to get that child into a chair to do the assessment. We can’t fire kids. That’s a big distinction between work and school that was made by a smarter woman than me. We didn’t choose the kids we have in front of us, and they didn’t choose us. For better or worse, we are stuck with each other. That’s very different from the world of work.
Practice vs. Homework
- Garner doesn’t need to practice. He’s that good. Because he’s so good, he doesn’t understand why that mean station manager wants him to spend extra time rehearsing for his show.
- Kids don’t understand why we ask them to spend extra time on things they don’t see as valuable. Assign what needs assigning. Assess what needs assessing. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
- Ultimately, Garner is assessed only on his show. If he doesn’t do the show, we don’t know if he is any good. If his show stinks, we help him improve it.
- Students are assessed only on their performance on the summative assessments. If they don’t do the tests, we don’t know if they can do the tests. We can’t randomly pick marks of 0 (or 42 or 71 or 63 or…) and enter them for that test. All we can do is make the kids do the test. If they won’t, we don’t give them credit in the course. Simple. Problem solved.
Garner, I still want to be your friend. Facebook me.
Why Stop at the Zero?
June 3 – Written in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep.
Since this story broke in Edmonton, every single radio station I turn to is talking about it. I can’t get away from it. I go to the modern rock station (see Garner, above) and they’re talking about it. I switch to sports radio and they’re talking about it.
The dominant public sentiment seems to be that we are “coddling” children too much. Kids don’t know about accountability and work ethic and they are lazy because we are too soft on them. We try too hard to build their self-esteem. How the heck does not keeping score in soccer pop up so often in assessment conversations?
It got me thinking. The same thing was said 40 years ago when we started banning the strap in schools. Chaos was going to ensue. Kids were going to grow up soft and poorly behaved. Should we look at bringing back the strap, too?
Here’s a great article on the history of the abolishment of corporal punishment in Canadian schools. From the abstract:
The long historical debate over the physical discipline and punishment of children arose from different perspectives on appropriate forms of child rearing and pedagogy. At one end of the spectrum were adults and educators who believed that social order, good behaviour, and moral development required the regular use of disciplinary instruments such as the rod and the strap.
That end of the spectrum uses the same arguments that I’m hearing from people who think we should punish kids with 0’s, doesn’t it?