Are report cards still relevant?

Now that teachers in Nova Scotia have returned to the classroom after a well deserved March break, the phrase “the new normal” is on the minds of many. After  Bill 75 effectively ended the teachers’ job action, (and, hopefully,the Liberal regime come election time) teachers have struggled, to some extent at least, to regain their equilibrium.

The work to rule campaign framed in a very stark manner the myriad of seemingly pointless tasks that have become part of the reality in today’s classroom. Stepping back from them caused many an educator to examine how hard they were working to meet demands not directly related to student success. Now, of course, it could be argued that everything done in schools is student related. However, when asked if they would prefer to focus on ephemeral notions of school improvement or on their own classrooms, teachers were pretty quick to choose the latter. In the entire time we were on work to rule, I did not receive one complaint saying teachers were missing after school meetings about data collection.

With the imposition of Bill 75, teachers are finding that the new normal is starting to feel a great deal like the old one. This is concerning for any number of reasons, of course. We need to be keenly aware that a primary driving force behind the recent job action was classroom conditions. As we learn more and more about the science of education, we have seen increased pressure for teachers to respond to the individual needs of students. This increased accountability has not always been accompanied by an appropriate increase in either training or resources. The resulting strain was a major contributing factor to the recent unrest.

Teachers were feeling, rightfully so, that over the past number of years there has been more demand for them to provide media sound bites rather than educational advancement. Instead of putting their energy into their students, teachers have been finding themselves putting their energy into proving the validity of political mandates.

And for my money, perhaps the best example of this conundrum lies in that ever more onerous piece of paper, the report card.

Outside of perhaps snow days, I can think of no other issue which has as little educational impact and has garnered as much attention as report cards. Here in Nova Scotia, the issue began to be discussed in earnest back in 2013 under the NDP government when CBC picked up a claim by some local parents that they could not understand what was being said about their students. The language used in report cards, they argued, told them little about how their child was actually doing in school and was, instead, a confusing bundle of educational jargon.

This was a valid complaint. Only a few years before, teachers had lost a great deal of the autonomy they once enjoyed when it came to reporting when the DoEECD introduced their standardized reporting system; PowerSchool. In place of personal comments individually prepared by the teacher to explain a student’s progress, teachers were given a subscribed template to follow. Teachers could still create their own comments, but they needed to fall within a specific set of criteria. In short, teachers could no longer say what they wanted about individual students, rather they had to say what the DoEECD wanted them to say, using pre-approved language.

As is so often the case here in Nova Scotia, it was this media attention, not teacher complaints, that caused the government to act on the issue. Education Minister Ramona Jennex promised that she would fix the problem, but her NDP government was shown the door shortly thereafter. Then the at-the-time-bright-as-a-penny Liberals swept to a majority, and  newly re-appointed Education Minister Karen Casey was quick to state that she would be dealing with the issue. In May of 2014 it was announced that comments would indeed become easier for parents to read, however, the resulting policy adjustments did little to improve the situation for teachers. In a news release, the minister instructed that report card comments should be:

  • clear and jargon-free
  • individualized to the student
  • based on students’ strengths, any areas for improvement, and what students can do to improve
  • providing advice to parents on what they can do to support their child’s learning at home.

This may seem like a good framework to some, but in truth, little had changed. Teachers were still being told to write comments that followed a very stringent formula, and to do so using “parent friendly” language. The expectations became so high that many supervisors felt pressure to check the comments to ensure they met provincial guidelines.

So much for professional autonomy.

A great deal of muddy water has passed under the bridge since that announcement, and there have been yet more changes to the process. However, none have eased the burden on classroom teachers, nor, to my mind, created a more effective way for parents to understand how their kids are doing in school. Report cards remain an onerous and stressful task which, in the end, provide very limited information to parents, and offer little in the way of helping students achieve better results.

The issue is not unique to Nova Scotia. British Columbia announced last year that they would be getting rid of the traditional report card, moving instead to a comment based model.  This is certainly one way to approach the problem. However, it makes little sense to have a comments only report card if those comments are so heavily prescribed that they remain cumbersome to write and even more so to read.

There are a number of other options, of course. My personal favourite is to get rid of the documents altogether.

It may be time to recognize that we, both as parents and educators, place far too much emphasis on a document that can offer only limited information about a child’s progress. Although there are many downsides to PowerSchool, it does give parents instant access to their child’s marks at the click of a button. In today’s world, if you wish to see where your student stands academically, that information is readily available. At least one Canadian jurisdiction, again from BC, has gone completely digital.

School is about much more than simply marks, of course. And, to be fair, reading comments about my own daughter certainly gives me a much better picture of her overall “school” progress than a simple percentage.  However, the time and effort expended by my daughter’s teacher on crafting these documents so they follow a prescribed template might be better spent elsewhere.

This semester, in an effort to mend some fences and smooth the transition back from work to rule, superintendents across the province have somewhat reduced teacher expectations around report card comments, with the message being they may be a tad lighter than usual. There is a general sense that, due to the events of the past few months, teachers need time to transition back to “the new normal”.

It will be interesting to see if these “lighter” comments cause a parental uproar, or if the switch will go relatively unnoticed.

Recent recommendations put forth by the Council to Improve Classroom Condition, if acted upon, may make the use of PowerSchool a bit less taxing for teachers, and for my money, that is a step in the right direction. However, if we are to see real change in classroom conditions, it may be time for some fundamentally new thinking.

Examining the actual educational value of some time-honoured educational traditions, like report cards, might be a good place to start.

Originally published in localxpress.ca on March 26th, 2017

 

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Filed under assessment, Education Policy, Public education, Report cards, Teacher autonomy

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