I’m not a fan of letter grades for many reasons. For one, in my entire career I’ve never met a single student who I believe actually became more motivated as the result of an “F.” More often than not, the “F” is demoralizing, and gets logged with all the other evidence a child might use to prove to himself he is worthless and can’t learn…despite how hard we might try to convince him otherwise.
I’m not a fan of the terminology applied to our evaluation. In many meetings and trainings, I joke about the fact that the terms (U, B, P, and D) are in fact adjectival labels…that at the end of the year I plan to have my summative label embroidered on my school polo, right below the school logo and “STAFF.” I’m a believer in the potential of our evaluation model, but I see it being undone by four little words. One word, actually: “Basic.”
Because I understand our framework, the law, and our model very deeply, I’m not personally too concerned when I have a “Basic” here or there. I also have a few “Distinguished” here or there, and I’ve said flat out to my evaluator that I never choose to aspire to anything more than “Basic” in 8.4. That one, with all respect due to Dr. Marzano, represents someplace I don’t intend to devote my personal and professional energy. (It’s true: I’m arrogant. I am good at my work; for me it’s not about being bulletproof, it’s about knowing my own professional weaknesses before my evaluator even has the chance to point them out.)
As summative conversations are happening in my district, my role with our teachers’ union and as a Marzano framework trainer means I have received many emails per day from both teachers and principals about the “Basic.” It is quite clear, that despite my hopes, “B” is the new “F.”
Despite all the talk of this being a growth model (and while it is now too cliche to use the term “growth mindset,” I am still a big believer in the essential premise of mindset as a deciding factor in success, happiness, and professional improvement), I realize that the labels themselves don’t walk the growth mindset talk. The labels are static. They “define” a teacher. As adjectives, they imply a fixed state. Thou art “Basic.”
But here’s the kicker: Almost none of the conversations I’ve had with principals and teachers have been about a summative overall “Basic” score. In almost every case, the teacher is set to receive an overall label of “Proficient.” In some cases, every one of the major criteria is set to receive a “Proficient” rating, while one or two components here or there is labeled “Basic.” The “Basic” is intolerable. It is a professional affront. And it is, very possibly, an accurate assessment of the practices taking place. The reality is that some students do perform at an “F” level, and some teachers do perform at a “B” level.
A teacher who “gives” a student an F will no doubt argue that the student “earned” the score. There will be evidence (or an absence of evidence) to support the rating. Nevertheless, I still contend that the “F” label serves to demoralize rather than motivate. The “Basic” has a similar impact…but the action I too often see motivated from the “Basic” isn’t a motivation to take action and change practice, it is a motivation to challenge the label. Just as when a student (or parent) challenges a grade with little regard to the learning it is supposed to represent, I see many of us challenging the label without much regard for the practice it is supposed to represent. In my interpretation, it isn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault for this reaction. The fault stems from terminology the connotes a state of being rather than a description of actions.
The problem is the meaning that our system, our whole culture, applies to those labels. I know a syntactical shift won’t change everything but moving from an adjective to verb, from label to action, from fixed to fluid, could be one way to shift perspectives. An adjective defines what we are, and definitions (in our world) are fixed. A verb describes what we do, and once we’ve done what we do it is in the past; we always have the choice do something new or different in the present and future.
Word changes, you say, won’t change the fact that we are as a culture intolerant of second-places, B-minuses, and not being treated as exceptional. That’s a bigger issue. But the words we choose shape how we see ourselves and the world around us.
And I’m just pollyanna enough to believe that a student getting a rating of “Emerging” rather than a label of “F” will sense that there is perhaps hope. I believe it because I’ve seen it in my own classroom with my own students. I believe that a teacher being told his skills are “Developing” will respond differently than if he is given the label “Basic.” As it is, the “Basic” shifts our focus to the label, and away from cultivating better practice.