Being an urban charter school principal is hard work. In my fourth year in the role, I’ve learned that days are unpredictable—sometimes you find yourself fishing clementines out of the boys bathroom toilet, or trying to coax a 10 year old girl back to class while she cries about the possibility of One Direction splitting up, and you wonder, like the Talking Heads, how did I get here? I should be observing third period math.
I’ve also learned that simple tasks can sometimes go on forever—really, it should not take that long to create and laminate a Women’s History Month bulletin board for the front foyer, but alas, it’s April in two days and still it is not done. This oddly causes immense guilt, and buzz words like “broken windows theory” and “culturally responsive teaching” haunt me as a result.
I’ve learned that packing breakfast, lunch and dinner in one Whole Foods insulated tote is difficult, but necessary, for any administrator looking to actually accomplish anything in March. The days are long (so, so long), and keeping my blood sugars high helps offset the 3-7pm drag. This is how I embrace the “whatever it takes” mantra of high performing charters: snacks.
And I’ve learned that effectively managing adults sometimes requires Herculean patience, strong communication skills, and an abundance of chocolate. They’ll do anything for chocolate.
But perhaps the most difficult aspect of the job, I’ve learned, is having conversations with families about the possibility of their child repeating the year due to failing grades. Retention in our 5th or 6th grade drastically impacts our attrition rates over time, has a negative impact on school culture, and worse—it seldom produces the significant gains in academic achievement that one would think. It quite literally keeps me awake at night.
In those early hours of morning when I should be sleeping, I continuously think about how arbitrary grading can be. It’s easy to think everything is arbitrary during a sleepless delusion, but this one is real. I feel it in my gut. Even within the parameters that we provide as a school—class work = 20%, homework = 20%, minor assessments = 30% and major assessments = 30% of every overall grade—no two gradebooks look alike. The point values for assignments are left to teacher discretion, the number of assignments in any one category is not prescribed, and what the actual assignment assesses is still, sometimes, unclear. I truly, in my 11th year in education, can’t adequately explain what constitutes a “C” in science as it relates to a “B” in math or an “F” in history. All I can really say with certainty, sometimes, is that anything below a 70% is considered failing, and failing two or more classes for the year results in retention.
So it was only natural that I started to really consider shifting our school towards standards based grading—if for no other reason than being able to look a parent in the eye and know, for certain, that retention really was the best option for their child given their grades, despite the potentially negative impact it will have on their child’s confidence and social life. Or more positively, so that I could know, for certain, how to best intervene to educate each child before it is too late. My preference would be to never have to have those conversations.
My preference would be academic success with all my students.
Grades, I believe, should be transparent, accurate data points about student learning and mastery, and not rewards for having strong habits of mind. Grades should inform instruction more than they should inform student self-worth. This is particularly pertinent, I believe, to any administrator looking to close the achievement gap in a school as diverse as Boston Collegiate. Here we have an unique challenge—as a school that begins in the 5th grade, pulling from all 13 neighborhoods in Boston with a huge range of income levels, we are already inheriting quite a large disparity in student skill, stamina, habits, and attitude about learning. To effectively plan for, teach, and assess such a range of students is in itself a heroic deed; Superman has nothing on my teachers.
I started on this journey in August 2014—we kicked off staff orientation looking at student data, reading articles about how to be more innovative and supportive in school, and analyzing some of our key structures with a lens towards equity and transparency in grading. We made a shift to how we approach homework and the assessment of it, and as a result no student was failing a core class due to low homework averages after Quarter 1 and Quarter 2 report cards. We considered that our first big win. That fueled us.
Additionally, teacher dashboards were created so that data analysis could be a regular part of our monthly PD. I wanted to get teachers thinking about student performance constantly—who is excelling in your class? Who is not? Why? Is there a trend here? Do student grades reflect ability? If not, why? I realized that if I want this shift to truly take-off, I needed to get at teacher philosophies about grading and the habits that guide how they approach it. It has been fascinating to watch this play out.
I also formed a working group of teachers to dive deep on standards based grading—and over the last eight months we’ve researched what people like Rick Wormeli and Robert Marzano have to say on the issue, and have read books and articles about how it can be implemented or why it is an effective approach. I’ve talked with other schools who have adopted this, and have chosen it as my year-long focus as a Lynch Fellow. By June we expect to have a tighter grading policy in place for next year to build consistency, but, much like spring in Boston, we feel so, so far from embracing it (it being a true roll-out of standards based grading). Sometime around January I realized that this is actually phase 1 of a three-year plan, and that is when I truly understood the Hemingway quote “never confuse movement for action.”
Which leads me to the last thing I’ve learned about being an urban charter school principal—facilitating movement is hard, exhausting, necessary work, but be careful of spending too much time on it. We made a lot of the right moves this year, and I think we are in a good place to continue this work. But action? Action gets results. It’s important to have an early win; to have something tangible to point to and say “we did that,” and then to plan the next big step. For us, the next big step for 2015-2016 is determining the standards for each class—which are the non-negotiables and which are the looping skills. You see, action is the stuff heroes are made of; whereas movement, well, it is simply the plight of Sisyphus.