Friday, September 28, 2012

Why a No Zeroes policy is good for learning

Recently in Alberta there has been a large to-do over the suspension and subsequent dismissal of high school teacher Lynden Dorval.  The main issue involved in the disciplining of Dorval was his refusal to follow his school's No Zero policy for student assignments that did not get handed in.  Many people are referring to Dorval as a "hero" for standing up to what they view as watered-down, permissive education. 

Ken O'Connor, an internationally recognized expert on evaluation and grading wrote a good defence of No Zero policies in the Edmonton Journal in June.  I want to explain and expand on some of the issues he raised.

The first thing that Dorval's supporters do not realize is that teachers following best practices do not use averages to calculate final grades.  When you don't use averages, then giving a zero or not becomes irrelevant.  A student who has done work to demonstrate the learning demanded by the course curriculum deserves to be recognized for that learning even if he or she has not done all the work.  A student whose missed work means that he or she has not met all course expectation should not be granted the credit, even if an average of his/her marks would give a grade above 50%. 

Secondly, allowing a teacher to give zeros allows both teachers and students to avoid responsibility.  A student can choose to not do work and "take a zero", avoiding his/her responsibility to do school work.  A teacher can give a zero to  that student and avoid the responsibility that I feel a teacher should have to follow up when a student has a problem so significant that work does not get completed.  I ask parents out there, if your child did not do a school assignment, would you want the teacher to give a zero and forget about it or instead follow up with the student (and maybe you too) about what the problem was and how it can be fixed?

The third point that Dorval's proponents seem to be missing is the idea that grades and marks should try to accurately reflect student learning.  If a student does not produce work, assigning any mark to it actually makes no sense.  It would be a little bit like a meteorologist saying "On Thursday it rained most places in the city but because of a technical problem I did not get a rainfall reading so I will treat Thursday's rainfall as zero".  Assuming that a measurement should be zero because you were unable to take the measurement is going to skew your data.

Now that you have read this post (and Ken O'Connors piece as well, I hope) you should have a better understanding that No Zero policies are not about watering down education or being permissive with students.  No Zero policies are about trying to provide the best educational and learning opportunities possible to our young people based on what we know right now.  If you are looking for more information on current best practices in assessment and evaluation, checking out Ken O'Connors books is a great place to start.

Why I don't average student marks

A short while ago Janice Kennedy of the Ottawa Citizen wrote a piece about teachers ignoring what she called "educational kookiness". Reading that piece, I realized that she was looking at the process of determining marks for students as if it had not changed since she was a teacher.  In particular, she is assuming the teachers determine a student's final grade by averaging all the marks that student has earned.  This prompted me to come up with an example of why current best practices recommend against using averages to determine student grades.

Imagine that two students have written the same series of tests in a course.  Each test reflects the cumulative knowledge of the student for the whole course at that point.  Student A scores 80% on the first test, 70% on the second test, then 60%, 50%, 40%.  Student B scores 40% on the first test, then 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%.  If we determine final grades based on averages, then both students get the same grade, 60%.  But clearly student B is improving his/her learning while it looks like student A is understanding less and less.  There are more statistically sophisticated methods than simple averages that can be used to try and capture the trend being shown, but they are tricky and have potential flaws.  The reality is that any given statistical method for calculating final grade will have weaknesses, so Ken O'Connor, a recognized expert in student evaluation, offers this as Guideline #6 in his book How to Grade for Learning K - 12: "Crunch numbers carefully, if at all."

So instead of crunching student results into an average, best practices call for teachers to use their judgement based on the most consistent student results, with the emphasis on the most recent.  In the example above, the lack of consistency would mean that a teacher should focus on the most recent results which are 50% and 40% for student A and 70% and 80% for student B.  These most recent results suggest that student A may not have learned enough to pass the course while student B's learning can fairly be evaluated as being in the low 70s.  That is a big difference from giving both 60%.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No voluntary activities, now what?

For those of you reading this in "real time" you may know that as a result of the Ontario Provincial Liberal Government's Bill 115 (supported by the Conservative Party) all teachers in Ontario have lost the right to bargain contracts or go on strike.  My response to my MPP about Bill 115 is posted on this blog.  This left "withdrawal of voluntary services", not doing activities or events that are not in our contract or the Education Act, as the only method of protest for teachers.  The union has only recommended that teachers not participate in voluntary activities as the union is not allowed to order such job action without a strike vote.  As a side note, the strike votes are happening pretty much as I type.  However, for the moment the decision to withdraw voluntary services is being made teacher-by-teacher or sometimes school-by-school.  This means that some schools in the Ottawa public board (Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, OCDSB) are offering all sports and clubs, some schools are offering none and some schools are offering a partial selection.

This has made students unhappy as some of them have been more affected than others and many are annoyed about being "pawns" in a teacher-government dispute.  However, teachers are also unhappy.  First of course, we are unhappy about losing bargaining rights.  But many teachers are unhappy about how losing extracurricular activities means losing opportunities to connect positively with students and opportunities to help students who may be having difficulties at school or at home.

As I was thinking about this problem, an idea came to me.  It will not work for every teacher but if it works for any, it is better than nothing.  The idea is this: take some of the time and energy that would ordinarily be devoted to extracurricular activities and devote it to helping a student or students in a different way.  Maybe find some more time to offer extra help.  Maybe find a way to offer extra, extra help for someone who really needs it.  Maybe make an extra phone call to a parent every day just to stay in touch and keep lines of communication open.  Maybe help a colleague with their prep or their marking so that they have more energy for their students.  Anything you can do with that "extracurricular" time will be some small improvement in someone's life.  And if you are anything like me as a teacher, then that is why you are in the profession.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My email to my MPP

The government of Ontario passed Bill 115 yesterday called "The Putting Students First Act".  This followed several months of spin by the government that depicted teachers as overpaid and did its best to tap into the idea that teachers don't work that hard and should be grateful for all the great perks and benefits they get.

Bill 115 takes away teachers' ability to negotiate pay or working conditions and removes benefits like sick leave and retirement gratuities that had been freely negotiated between school boards and teachers.  You may feel that those benefits are unreasonable since most other professions don't get them but please remember that those benefits come from negotiated agreements.  If teachers received those benefits, it means they gave up something else, maybe salary, maybe some other benefit.  So taking away those benefits is a unilateral removal of money from teachers.  I can't see how unilaterally taking money away from people who negotiated in good faith is ever going to be fair.

All this is to set the stage for the email I wrote to my MPP, Bob Chiarelli.  I am going to post it here because I think it does a decent job of saying what I feel about this situation.

Hello Mr. Chiarelli,
I am a High School teacher for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.  My home is in your riding and I voted for you last election.  I would like to tell you a bit of my story as it is representative of the difficulties faced by teachers.
I graduated from Engineering Physics at Queen's University (with first class honours) in 1993.  In 1994 - 95 I attended the Faculty of Education at Queen's.  When I graduated I did some supply teaching and other teaching-related work and I became a contract (permanent) teacher with the OCDSB in 1998.  The frustrations of teaching, partly compounded by the government of the time, led me to move into high technology as a Software Designer with Mitel in 2000.  However, I eventually realized that software design did not give me the feeling of helping that I got when I was teaching. 
In 2007 I returned to teaching and I am now in my sixth year of trying to get a permanent job.  This is the reality that faces all new and returning teachers at this time.  It takes years of hard work followed by some good luck to land a job that does not go away at the end of June every year.  The teachers who persevere through these difficulties are committed, caring professionals who put students first every day.  Teachers like me are not in this for the money, not in this for the bankable sick days, not in this for the summers off.  By the way, at Mitel I could have taken a two month unpaid leave in the summer and still made more than I would have as a teacher.
Teachers like me are in this because we love teaching, we love the students, and we love trying to help build a better society one student at a time.  I don't know why your government has chosen to attack us.  I don't know why your government has chosen to act like we are lazy, greedy, and selfish.  I don't know why your government has chosen to take away our ability to have any control over our working conditions.
I do know that your government has treated all my hard work and efforts, and those of my colleagues, as unimportant and of low value.  If I ever treated a student the way your government has treated me and my fellow teachers I would be ashamed.  I hope you will hear and understand some of the pain and difficulty your government has caused me.  I hope that you will lobby and act within your caucus and the Cabinet to mitigate what your government is doing to us.
Because if an election was held right now I would be voting for the NDP because you voted to take away my rights and they voted to uphold my rights.