As a parent and an educator, I know the power of words. Words can speak of promise and possibility, but they can also be used to demoralize. If you are in Amarillo ISD, you know that I refer to our students as scholars. To me, a “scholar” is a life-long learner. A scholar possesses a growth-mindset. When we label our students as scholars, they might see themselves a bit differently, but I know I definitely do. Students must be able to read, write, calculate and learn what is set before them. Scholars must be empowered to be thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors. In AISD, we teach the student and we nurture the scholar in every child. We speak possibility and our actions match our words. It’s our job and we take it seriously.
I have two daughters. I remember teaching them how to ride a bike and how to drive a car. I knew the importance of positively focusing on the knowledge, skills and concepts they’d need to do both well.
It didn’t make sense for me to label, compare or rank them. What made sense was to encourage them as they practiced. It made sense to check for understanding, add more information or practice, and then go again. The stakes were high. Riding a bike or driving a car are things one will do for life. I didn’t have to label, grade or rank my girls in order to motivate them to do better. Because of the importance of both tasks, it was my job to ensure they knew the rules of riding or driving and that they could do it all well. They needed encouragement and practice. They didn’t need to be ranked and compared to every other kid learning to ride a bike or drive a car.
As educators, we know the work that we do to educate our scholars is high-stakes. It’s not high-stakes due to the STAAR or any other test. It is high-stakes because (just like parents) we know that if our children are going to have the knowledge, skills and concepts necessary to graduate prepared for success beyond high school, then it’s up to us to provide the encouragement and practice they’ll need to do so. We fully understand that our schools are about the academic education of those we serve, along with the social and emotional parts of learning and being in community with others.
Too many of our legislators have a fascination with labels and rankings for our schools. Over the years, our schools have been labeled names like Exemplary and Recognized or even Met Standard or Improvement Required.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric fed to those who represented us in the 84th legislative session by Bill Hammond, President and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, and others was:
Every six weeks, our students get a report card that is easy to read and understand. Everyone knows what an A means and everyone knows what an F means. Why shouldn’t schools be graded once a year using the same A-F system?
So, here we go again. Part of House Bill 2804 required that our Commissioner of Education determine a new A-F system for Texas. Though we’ve been in school since August, we’ve not known what we’d be “graded” on until TEA released that information on Dec. 1. On Friday, Dec. 16, they released a lengthy document (you would need about 14 pages for each campus) to show how the 36+ areas which will comprise our “grade” will be boiled down into “provisional” grades for each Index 1- 4. Please note that the data set is based on 2015-2016 data and that some areas where we will be graded do not have data sets yet because we haven’t collected those numbers in Texas before.
So, while it’s easy for Mr. Hammond to say, “Everyone knows what an A means and everyone knows what an F means,” he is not correct.
In Amarillo ISD, we use data from a variety of sources so we can check how we’re doing related to criteria and so we can continuously improve. We have growth mindsets, not fixed. We value the opportunity to learn from our efforts and improve on them daily. Adults and students use data everyday in our schools to collaborate with each other about specific areas to celebrate as well as to design the next steps necessary for improvement. We already use many of the data sets listed in the A-F system, but we use that data as a way to help individuals know what the next steps for improvement are, not as a way to label and to rank.
I visit campuses at least once a week. I often sit with our scholars as they proudly tell me about their individual data notebooks, data sheets or goals. I have never had one of our scholars tell me that he or she is an “A” student (or any letter grade for that matter). Instead, our scholars tell me what they know and what they are working on based on the individual instruction and assessments we give them. We encourage their practice throughout the entire year. We don’t use the state’s two or four hour test as a label or identity for each of our scholars.
We have a commitment to “high stakes.” You see, high-stakes to us means we are entrusted with people’s most precious possession, their children. Our parents, community members and business leaders expect us to welcome each scholar who enters our door with a promise so that they can graduate with a plan. Last year, leaders in our community helped us develop our Profile of a Graduate. They told us it is important for our AISD scholars to be empowered to be thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors. They did not say they wanted every child to get an A on a report card. In fact, we never talked about grades or report cards. In the State Board of Education’s report titled, “Texans Speak” people across the state stated they are tired of our schools and our children being defined by a once a year test. Our community agreed.
I am not opposed to a fair accountability system. I am opposed, just like educators across the state, to the notion that all of the individual work we do with our scholars can be boiled down to a system designed to rank entire campuses. While those who are legislating for “school choice” want to say that everyone knows what an A is and what an F is, in this provisional or preliminary system they don’t. As I am typing this right now, I don’t even know what an A or F is… and I really don’t know what a B, C or D means.
I’ve read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I know that Hester was not ordered to wear a solitary letter as a way for others to encourage her. It was not meant to motivate her to do better. The letter she was told to wear was meant to label and shame.
When I taught my girls to ride a bike and to drive a car, I didn’t label them or compare them. I did just like we do in our schools. I taught them the knowledge and skills necessary. I provided lots of practice with encouraging and honest feedback. We didn’t stop until they mastered the task.
I didn’t decide on a test date where I stopped all instruction and said, “Here’s your grade. I’m sorry you didn’t learn as fast as your sister who earned a better grade.”
Also, as a parent and now as a superintendent, it would be silly for me to think that my children’s efforts or even grades in school could be simplified to one overall grade for the entire year.
So, what do you say to people in the grocery store or at church after the labels for your school are posted in the media? First, become familiar with our A-F fact sheet. Then, I suggest that you share how you use data in your classroom as a way to identify strengths and weaknesses and help scholars learn what they need to know to be successful. Explain how you use assignments and assessments throughout the year, not just a once-a-year standardized test, to develop a whole picture of each student. Talk about the academic, fine arts, athletic and other opportunities your school provides to grow scholars into thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors… just like our community wants us to do.
Of course, our schools will dive deep into learning more about the data used in the grade calculations because that’s what we routinely do. But, you also know—as someone who works with and cares about each individual scholar in AISD—that we aren’t going to rank or label our schools or our scholars based on a provisional, oversimplified state-imposed system that does not provide more resources or support for the work you do each day. In AISD, we are more than a label. We are more than a grade.