I spent the better part of my first two weeks of summer vacation actually vacationing away from my home in Halifax this year. And although I promised to unplug, I could not refuse myself the guilty pleasure of checking the papers late at night by the campfire to see what might be trending educationally. And I was surprised to find the comment columns of Nova Scotia’s largest daily publication fairly awash in gripings, groanings and complaints about, of all things, report cards.
The entire kafuffle began on July 2nd when a piece appeared in The Chronicle Herald entitled “Parent’s Weary of Report Card ‘Mumbo Jumbo'”. The article was an attack on jargon filled report cards whose comments on student achievement left parents baffled. The next day, the CBC’s Nova Scotia office also ran a piece on how many parents were confused by the comments that were written on their student’s report cards, and how this complaint was widespread. As is often the case in this neck of the woods, criticism in the media was followed the very next day, July 4th, by an announcement from our Minister of Education that she would be looking at the way report cards are written in the province. The final word went to the papers, as it always does, this time in a scathing, wrap-it-up editorial on July 8th*. The piece questioned Minister Jennex for claiming that these were the first complaints she had heard on the matter, Deputy Minister of Education Carole Olsen for suggesting that parents who were confused should call the school for clarification, and provided an overall berating of the Nova Scotia Department of Education for using an assessment software program called PowerSchool for this purpose in the first place.
Apparently, I should have delayed my vacation.
This issue, unfortunately, can not be faulted to any one individual or organization. It is actually the assessment experts who lie at the base of this ugly and unlikeable tree. You see, a few years back, the Province of Nova Scotia decided that it would begin to institute outcomes based education, or O.B.E., to standardize what was taught in schools.
That’s when the trouble began.
As OBE took hold through the late nineties and early oughts, the idea began to develop that outcomes were carved in stone and were the only thing that could be assessed in the classroom. Curriculum guides were no longer guides as much as they were commandments. Teachers were told that they could no longer reduce points because a child submitted work late. Lateness was not an outcome. They were told that marks could not be reduced for work that was messy. Neatness was not an outcome. Teachers were told that they must not reduce points for things like homework, or class work, or behaviour. Because as important as these things might be, they were not outcomes.
Now, there was research to support these ideas. Names like O’Connor and Guskey became well known around staff rooms. And as these ideas grew in popularity, the next logical step was reporting on student achievement using only the outcomes. If I could not give a student a mark on something that was not an outcome, how could I address it in a report card?
Now, all might have been right in the world if that had been a simple instruction to teachers. “Hey, folks. Let’s lay off the ‘Johnny is a good kid’ comments for awhile and tell parents what the kid needs to do to improve in the outcomes.” But, alas, many jurisdictions here in Nova Scotia took it one step further, instructing teachers that comments needed 1) an anchor statement explaining the student’s achievement of the outcomes followed by 2) an area of strength, 3) an area of required improvement, and 4) a strategy for making those improvements. These comments were to be solely outcomes based, less than 400 characters and approved by administrators. Comments deemed as not following the guidelines were sent back to be redone, often under exceptionally tight timelines.
So here was the dilemma of the classroom teacher. Create purposeful comments about student achievement following a rigorous standardized format using only references to the outcomes and wording that parents can understand and, oh, by the way, do not change the intent of the outcomes when messing with the wording. Got it?
Yeah, me neither.
The result, of course, was a recent series of report cards that have been aptly referred to as “robo-cards”. As more and more administrators concerned themselves with following assessment trends, more and more teachers were asked to redo, reword and recreate report card comments. It has finally reached a point where the only safe approach for many has been a “give ’em what they want” capitulation. This essentially boils down to an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.
The maddening thing for us teachers is that we have seen this coming. We knew the “outcomes only” approach would, if practiced chapter and verse, result in chaos. Because at the end of the day, we know that the outcomes are not important. It is not the destination, it is the journey that creates brilliant education.
We have learned many good things from the last few years of the standardization movement. But it is time to recognize that educating teachers in good practice then refusing them autonomy in the application of that practice is counterproductive at best, and counter-education at its worse.
*Author’s Note: I wrote this piece for the Canadian Educators Association Blog, where it appeared on July 12th. I repost this here only because the last word on this subject actually went to Minister Jennex on that same day when she stated in the Chronicle Herald that provincially developed report cards did not include standardized comments and teachers are in fact “…encouraged to include personalized comments.” I humbly submit that if this were the case, Minister Jennex would not have found herself in this predicament in the first place.