Grades can be grating

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By John Pawlak

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Central Falls school board made national news by firing all teachers in the high school.
It was a drastic move intended to address the school’s declining performance.  
Union officials quickly condemned the dismissals as “immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful and disrespectful” (they would have said more, but they didn’t have a big enough Thesaurus).  
The reason for this mass termination?  The dropout rate was 37 percent and only 7 percent of the students tested proficient in math.
Speaking of math, let’s do a little of it.  A 37 percent dropout rate means that 63 percent of the students graduated.  
If only 7 percent of the students were proficient in math, how did 63 percent of them graduate?  
Can we assume that the school board never noticed the 56 percent discrepancy? (Are you impressed by my ability to subtract percentages?  Clearly, I didn’t get my degree from Rhode Island.)  
By summer’s end, the district hired the teachers back and the news media lost interest in the story, but it fueled the ongoing debate over accountability in student achievement.  
Who is responsible for ensuring that a child learns?  How does one measure the extent and depth of learning?  
At what point can one determine whether learning has indeed occurred?  
Why doesn’t Starbucks just call their sizes small, medium and large? (Just checking to see if you were paying attention.)
In the standard production environment, one can measure success by applying predetermined exit criteria on the finished product.  
If you manufacture microwave ovens, you can pop in a Salisbury steak TV dinner and see if it cooks (but don’t count on it tasting good).  If you produce light bulbs, you can plug one in and see if it lights up (if you make those gargantuan bulbs used on football fields, do you call them heavy bulbs?).  If you make candy bars, you can feed one to someone and if it stays down, you’ve probably done a reasonable job.
But learning isn’t something you can touch.  You can’t weigh it.  You can’t taste it.  You can’t test it for cadmium or melamine content (which you might want to do if you get educated in China).
Learning is anything but tangible and yet it’s one of the most important aspects of survival.  The question of accountability is a debate well worth the erudite effort.
The buzz phrase used to spark this controversy is “teacher effectiveness” and is ubiquitously used by politicians to underscore their interest in public education and their ignorance in what it really means.  
Judging teacher effectiveness by looking at grade distributions and graduation rates is akin to judging the quality of Lady Gaga’s music by the volume of album sales.  
Of course, teachers do have something to do with a child’s education.  Learning may be a somewhat stochastic process, but it seems reasonable to expect “better learning” from a “better teacher.”  These terms however are however highly subjective.  Getting A’s in school would suggest better learning than B’s or C’s, but is usually more indicative of someone’s ability to take tests.
To understand the great divide between teaching and learning, consider the success of charter schools in Central New Jersey.  
Dismal test scores prompted angry parents to search for alternative solutions.  Wearing white hats and promising better results, charter schools came to the rescue and test scores did in fact rise dramatically.  
Clearly, their teachers were better, right?  Well, not quite.  When studying their techniques in the hopes of reproducing these remarkable results in public schools, it was openly admitted by the charter schools that the teachers were “teaching to the test.”  
That is, they were teaching specifically how to get better grades, not how to understand the material better, a technique called educated guessing by the uneducated.
So anyway, where does this leave us?  Is there a solution to this problem?  Can we grade the graders in the hope of getting great grades?  In case you are grading this column, you might have noticed that I never did answer my original question.
Maybe we should ask Lady Gaga.  You can’t argue  with success, can you?

John Pawlak is a teacher at
Los Alamos High School