Sunday, December 23, 2012

Special education vs. standards based grading: What are grades for?

We've been struggling with some of #1's 10th grade teachers for about 8 weeks now.

The problem seems to be related to his school's transition to "standards based grading", though I am sure there are other contributing factors. New teachers, for example, don't have much training in adaptation vs. modification, and several of his teachers are relatively new. Experienced teachers learn this over time.

This seems to be a fairly simple problem, so I was initially surprised how slow progress has been.

I was surprised, that is, until I remembered my general rule "Everything in education maps onto health care". When I remembered that rule, I understood. I know secondary education only as a special needs parent and a medical school professor, but I know American health care and medicine very well.

I know how dysfunctional even the best health care systems are, and I know American health care is far from the best. I also know that most physicians only understand a part of what's broken, and that almost none understand why simple things seem not to happen [1]. So I can't blame educators for struggling to understand; like physicians they have too much going on, and the system is broken in too many ways.

If we ever did have a meeting of minds on modification and grading for non-degree students, I'd like it to be based on reviewing and expanding this simple table, a summary of the utility of grades for diplomate and non-diplomate students.

Mandate (system) Yes Yes
Work incentive Yes Yes
Teacher evaluation Yes Yes
Guide instruction Yes Yes
Certification Yes No
Streaming Yes No
Post-grad triage Yes No

The last three, to us at least, are the key.

Non-diplomate students grades are not being certified as "high school" graduates. They aren't being streamed for advanced pre-graduation opportunities. They aren't being triaged into community college, state college or elite college tracks or scholarship eligibility.

Once one understands what grades are used for, it should be easy to discuss how to manage grade adaptation. For example, a grade record of all D with the occasional C doesn't fit this framework.

In the meantime, we'll continue the time consuming process of meetings upon meetings. We seem to make progress through meeting-induced exhaustion; it's a process few parents can afford.

See also:

Update 1/13/2013
We're not going to win this battle. The lesson is we can work with teacher problems, and we can work with system problems, but we can't work with both system and teacher problems.
Update 3/6/2013
Contrary to what I thought two months ago, and thanks to L's patience and persistence and hard work at many levels of the school, we actually reached a reasonable detente. This has involved a mixture of arbitrary grade increases, more appropriate grading of his work, and increased flexibility in assignments. I don't think there was ever a dramatic understanding, more gradual acceptance.

- fn -

[1] My personal pick for most obscure and under-appreciated micro level contributor to US health care failure -- the 1990s transition to "CPT E&M" based accounting mechanisms. Just one among many causes, but not one physician in a thousand understands what that did. At a macro level, Baumol's Disease afflicts both health care and education. Another micro-cause - physicians don't understand why their health record software is so bad.

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