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The Grading Gulch

Think how you might respond to this situation. Discuss the questions with your staff or other administrators to help increase your objectivity, decisiveness, and effectiveness.

Consider the following scenario:
Hill Middle School opened in 2003. Diane Davis was hired as a new principal in 2005, when her predecessor retired. As the school is relatively new, the staff comprises a blend of senior teachers who have been in the district for many years, as well newer, less-experienced staff.

There is a high degree of continuity among the seventh grade team members, who are all fairly new teachers. The sixth grade team maintains an aligned academic program, however these mostly veteran teachers see themselves as a separate entity within the school. They hold to the belief that because all the sixth graders belong to “houses” and have developmental needs different from older students’ needs, it impossible to collaborate with other grade levels. The eighth grade group has the greatest mix in teaching experience. Some “newbies” have joined together for planning, but most faculty members prefer to work alone. The science teachers, for example, have significant philosophical differences about which standards should be the focus and how these key standards should be assessed. Some veterans have complained to the principal that their department meetings are long and unproductive.

After reviewing end-of-year report cards in May, the principal notices huge discrepancies in school wide grading practices (tweet this issue), especially where teaming is less prevalent. In June, she fields several parent phone calls about three eighth grade teachers in particular who gave a high number of D’s and F’s in their classes.

The principal decides to place the issue of grading on the agenda at the first staff meeting of the new school year. The math teachers at every grade level voice concerns that other departments (such as English) grade much easier than they do. They feel “hounded” by parents for “grading too hard.” A heated discussion ensues about pervasive grade inflation, and the principal ends the meeting feeling frustrated and defeated.

How can the principal help the staff begin to climb out of this grading gulch?

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The immediate problems:
Damage control is in order because the significance of the issue could not be resolved in one staff meeting. Grading is a highly individualized issue and territorial rights emerge immediately when individual practices are discussed. Thus, the math teachers will always complain about other departments because basic math is usually very objective and much easier to assess. All the teachers need to be brought to the same page and this page will take time to develop. You now have staff members upset with others and you will need to mend fences between teams and departments because of what has been said. Start visiting with teachers reassuring them of their importance to the entire school team and the children’s success.

The underlying issues:
There is an inherent lack of trust among staff, as evidenced by the three completely separate organizational structures in the grade levels and even across grade levels by departments. It appears that teachers at each grade level have the authority to run their grade level as they see fit. The new principal may have inherited the problems from the previous administrator, but this issue is critical in establishing her as the new principal and developing her vision and philosophy. Trust is developed by doing the right thing at the right time and never pitting teachers against each other. Lack of a school-wide vision and mission is evident.

How should the principal proceed? Suggestions from the Master Teacher panel:
Return to the mission statement of the school. What is the philosophy of the school in working with children? Grading practices are an outgrowth of purpose and vision. Are you grading to separate and label the poor, good, and great students, or are you there to see success for all of the students? How a teacher grades is a direct reflection of his or her beliefs. Talk to your faculty about your expectations for your school and what end product you expect when children move on to high school. Then develop clear outcomes in context with all of the grade levels and subject areas. Now is the time to bring your informal leaders together to discuss the grading issue and to form a basis on which to develop common guidelines for grading. This should not be an entire faculty discussion, at this point. The change process involved in developing and implementing a grading policy will take time and must not be rushed.

Other information that might be helpful:
Evaluate specific data on grading to determine whether this is a school-wide problem or a problem of a few teachers. Do you have the data to back up the assertion of grade inflation? Do parents have a vested interest in the grading program of the school? Get their perception of the grading philosophy or lack thereof at the school. Use effective schools research from the late ’70s to the present to compare your school with others across the nation. Revisit your school mission and philosophy and see if anyone has read it, understands it, or practices it.

How might this situation have been avoided?
If you are having a grading problem with three specific teachers, address the problem with the three teachers first. Talk to them individually about the complaints and obtain their perspective about grading. Find their underlying issues with grading and student achievement. Some teachers take pride in the failure of others and enjoy the tremendous power they have in formulating tests and assigning grades. Your problem might be more about the three teachers than about grade inflation at the school. Meet with the team leaders of the three grade levels and obtain their perspective on grading and how it fits into the philosophy of the school. Then discuss the issue with each team before bringing it to the entire faculty. Vision, mission, and philosophy influence the issue of grading. If all three are not the driving force in the school, grading problems will be only one of many issues to face in the future that will reflect either positively or negatively on your leadership ability.

Thought for the Week

Now is a good time to consider exploring what makes a good user experience from the learners’ perspectives.

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