By Jeff Evans, CSSU Director of Student Learning & Innovation
I had to teach an SBL course to teachers recently, so I dusted off the power point with the usual overview on SBL I’ve given many times to many different audiences—teachers, parents, students, fellow administrators. Sure, I’d make adjustments based on this audience’s needs, but tugging at my conscious was the TED talk our superintendent had recently showed us at our board retreat. The presenter lamented about the propensity of leaders to focus on the what and how of initiatives without placing nearly enough emphasis on the why. The why, in fact, should be at the center, he suggested, and the most successful businesses have that figured out (he used Apple as a shining example). So, for this presentation, I wanted to pay more attention to why standards-based learning is something I believe in and something worth our investment.
I labored more than usual on the slide dedicated to why, vetted my reasons with colleagues, and felt largely satisfied with my result. I shrunk the slide to five reasons:
1. brain research
2. it demands proficiency for all
3. it creates more investment and accountability for teachers, students, and families
4. it’s a necessity for good differentiated instruction
5. And if those don’t convince you, well, now it’s state law.
Those are really good reasons, and I had prepared compelling commentary to support each. Yet…it felt like something was missing. Why didn’t these feel “Apple-worthy”? Then it hit me. These were my “administrator” reasons. If I were a teacher, a student, or a parent in one of my audiences, would any of those reasons really resonate? After all, I had been using standards since very early in my teaching career. So I asked myself: “Why, when so few colleagues were doing it, did I put so much time and effort into standards-based learning?” The answer is Laurie.
It was only my second year in education (early 90’s), and I was teaching a writing class to high school juniors. The unit was compare/contrast, and students were expected to write an essay that compared any two colleges or universities. Laurie wasn’t in my class, but I had taught her in 10th grade the previous year. She came to me one day, asking for help. She was in a class working on the same essay (all juniors took this course). She had just gotten her essay back from her teacher, and she was disappointed in the grade. She asked me for help on how she could improve her writing. “I can’t ever seem to get the grade I want with this teacher. He’s really hard.” So I read her essay with her. About one paragraph in, I started sweating. I recognized this essay. In fact, I recognized every word. I had already read and graded that essay—for a student in my class!
Imagine my conundrum. A former student asks for help with a paper, and I discover her essay is one handed in to me a few days prior by one of my students. “Laurie,” I said, “we have a problem.” It turns out Laurie had the class the period right before mine, and in the same computer lab. On the day the paper was due in my class, one of my students was in a panic. I was about to collect the essays, and he hadn’t done the necessary work. As students printed off their essays, he sat down in front of a computer and wondered how he could rescue what was doomed to be a failing grade on this essay…and there it was: Laurie’s essay. She had forgotten to shut down the computer and left it up on the screen.
For most people, the story is this poor guy. What are the chances the essay he steals belongs to the only student in the school to ask for my help on that very essay? For them, the story is the plagiarism charge that followed and the associated consequences. But for me, the story was the grade. Yes, the grade. You see, I had already graded that essay days before when I thought it belonged to the young man in my class. I was pretty impressed. I admit I can’t remember the exact grade, but I’m pretty sure it was 91/100…A-. I remember thinking this was one of this student’s better pieces, that he was showing progress, and that I must be helping this guy become a better writer. But don’t forget Laurie was there to see me because she was disappointed in her grade. It was a 78/100…a C+. That’s what the “hard” teacher had given her.
Same course. Same assignment. Same essay. Two different students. Two different teachers. Two very different grades. How? Had I inflated the grade because I saw growth in this student and wanted to reward that growth? Had the other teacher deflated the grade because he had seen a drop in the quality of Laurie’s writing, even though the writing was still quite good? Was his grade lower because he was a veteran and I was a rookie? Were we assessing different things? Were high school transcripts really vulnerable to this kind of inconsistency?
There are lots of possibilities regarding how this could have happened, but it was clear to me I needed better criterion for grading. I needed to know exactly what good writing looked like, and more importantly, my students needed to know. I needed to be more explicit. So I started using standards. My students no longer received one grade for a summative, they earned a grade for each standard associated with that assessment. They kept records of how they did on every standard. If they weren’t meeting a standard, they knew to make it a focus. I knew to make it a focus.
Over the years, I evolved a bit, though not nearly as much as our teachers have these past few years thanks to the research and excellent work of so many. Now, teachers work together on developing learning targets that are the same for every student, regardless of who teaches a particular course. They offer descriptive feedback on multiple practice opportunities with targets before summative assessments--they would have recognized that young man's essay was not his own. They’ve begun the process of looking at student work together and calibrating what evidence represents proficiency for each target. They will now align targets with graduation standards.
So, now I have new answers to “Why SBL?” It’s so students like Laurie will know what they need to know, understand, and do to be successful. They will know what they do well, what they need to improve, and how to improve. They will be measured, not based on who they are or who their teacher is, but on how well they meet criterion. It’s so the Lauries of the future will be better prepared for what’s next.
Apple-worthy? Try SBL for a while and then decide.