Well hallelujah and pass the potatoes.
Somewhere around the end of June last year, Nova Scotia media outlets got wind about concern in the general public centered on the way report card comments were being written for students. A piece in The Chronicle Herald entitled “Parents weary of report card ‘mumbo-jumbo’“, written by education reporter Francis Willick , laid out a few pivotal concerns. The overall gist was that parents had no idea what much of what was written on report cards meant for their kids.
On July 12th, I penned my own piece for the Canadian Education Association website all about the report card comment issue. In it I complained that report card comments were the result of years of standardization and that they had become a maddening undertaking for teachers. We were being asked to “…provide comments that 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.” Trying to meet the prescribed pattern, prescribed length, and anchor the comments in the outcomes, all the while attempting to communicate in a clear fashion what we truly wanted to say to parents was a frustrating undertaking, to say the least.
The summer passed and, in November, I brought the issue up again, this time with a piece on my own blog subsequently published in The Chronicle Herald. In that piece, I complained again about the lack of teacher voice in the debate, and expressed some hope in the then new Liberal government.
“…there is a new sheriff in town. Stephen McNeil is our new premier, and Karen Casey our new education minister. It is my sincere hope that under this new management, government will, for once, stop listening to the radio talk-show hosts, editorial writers and would-be education experts who have not set foot inside a public education classroom in 20 years.
It is my hope that this government, when considering education, will finally listen to teachers.
How about we start by getting back to trusting teachers with writing report cards?
Well, it appears this week that I might have gotten my wish at least partially granted. On Friday, Education Minister Karen Casey announced that she wanted boards to instruct teachers to create report cards that were: 1) clear and jargon-free, 2) individualized to the student, 3) based on students’ strengths, any areas for improvement, and what students can do to improve, 4) provid[ed] advice to parents on what they can do to support their child’s learning at home.
A ray of hope shineth through.
There are several reasons why I am not completely singing the praises of this announcement. To begin with, the wording of this directive does not seem to be that far removed from what I was complaining about back in July. Number three in the new model is simply the old 2, 3, and 4 collapsed. As well, the new directive number 4 may prove to be the bane of this reporting cycle. Assessment theory espouses that grading should not be about behaviour, and although directive 3 says I can make suggestions for improvement, 4 says that I should tell the parents what they should do, not the student. Thus, comments like “Billy should do his homework a bit more often and come to class on time and prepared” may still very well be off the table. Clarification on the type of advice teachers should be offering to parents could prove of some use.
I also have some concern about some of the language being bandied about. The Minister herself in her release seemed to suggest that the challenges of the new reporting system were not systemic, and that “In some cases, teachers needed clearer direction to implement the new report card with success”. As well, the Minister was clear to point out that she had heard loud and clear from families and students about report card comments not being clear, but left teachers off the list of voices duly noted.
Finally, I am also bit mindful of the direction the media is taking with all this. A recent editorial in The Chronicle Herald ended with following foreboding sentence:
“If parents aren’t satisfied report cards include comments written in plain English that can clearly tell them how their daughter’s or son’s education is progressing, they shouldn’t be shy about letting government and teachers know there’s still work to do.”
In other words, if the new model is again restrictive, the blame falls, at least to some extent on the messenger. One can almost see the headline on July 2nd if this round of report cards does not go well.
In the end, however, this is a hopeful news story for teachers in what has been a particularly bleak period, and is a step in the right direction for this government. I believe now that teachers can write clear comments to parents that do not hinge on outcomes, and that they do not have to bury in educational jargon. Although this is not the complete autonomy that I feel teachers should have in such matters, it seems to be a recognition, at least to some extent, of our ability to do the job were hired to do.
And for much, at least, I am greatful.
One final note, however. If someone at the decision making level had listened to an actual classroom teacher before this, say, for example, in July of 2013, a great deal of this confusion and consternation could have been avoided.