Standards-Based Grading: The End

Editorial Note – 11 Jul 2013: I am not leaving the classroom. BIG is run by the teachers that staff its halls (i.e. downtown Cedar Rapids). My responsibilities as headmaster are more like lead teacher responsibilities, although I do have an owl in my office. I’ll have ~40 students per semester this year. Thanks!

I took a bunch of heat for referring to SBG as “a gateway drug to awesome.” I suppose making a cursory look at a drug reference could be construed as inappropriate, if you’re of the construe-anything-as-inappropriate-don’t-read-the-whole-article ilk.

I stand by the tongue-in-cheek reference, because, frankly, I believe in it. I didn’t get into education to stand in front of a classroom so I could “say it better” than the teachers I had. That’s novice-teacher garbage, and the kind of stuff we try to root out as early on as possible in the Science Education program at the University of Iowa. I got into teaching because I know there’s a whole lot of bored, underutilized, and learned-helpless teenagers out there who think that they deserve summers off because the school year was just so taxing.

That’s a culture of “done” that we’re breeding, and I’m not about to use my career to promote it.

To me that’s just insane, an environment purportedly designed to engaged and enlighten has the result of students burning books and taking as many weeks off as possible staring into the sun? Yeah, I’ll do anything to change that, and SBG was just the first step.

I’m not done until every student everywhere is using their summer vacations to get better at something they actually like; learning Japanese, building Arduino projects, learning to cook, seeking internships, in short, I’m not done until work learning is your new favorite. Do you understand me?

And, no, I don’t think I’m taking this too seriously: when I graduated I thought I had it made, and I was a joke. I was “prepared.” So, I’m sorry if I don’t take someone’s word for it that they are or aren’t prepared for college, if they haven’t actually gone there yet.

Here’s a recent unsolicited comment from an actual college student and former student of mine:

Just thought I’d let you know that so far in my internship, I’ve found that the most important things I’ve learned in school have been the practical skills and knowledge. Like how to solder, use a multimeter, 3D model, read a screw size, know how to not kill myself with high voltage… And I have to say that most of that knowledge/skills came from or started with all the projects we did in physics and calc, which were possible because of SBG. Just thought you’d like to know. And also because I’m getting a little frustrated with all the hate towards SBG… because it really helped me out by making me learn all those things. So yeah, it works great, (but of course you already knew that haha) people just don’t know that secret yet apparently

So, this will probably be my last post in my series on SBG. Mostly, because SBG is a stepping stone, and I’ve been given an unbelievable next step: a school.

At BIG there are no grades, we build competencies that combine several content standards into a customized learning target for each student. These are binary, and the idea of remediation is outmoded entirely.

The idea of remediation is a serious hang-up for those that like to have hang-ups about new ideas. At BIG, we’ve left this whole idea of scheduled learning–and therefore hacking scheduled learning–behind, which is all SBG really is, a nice hack of a broken system. Like sending Internet packets down phone lines.

Our students work towards a competency for the following reasons:

  • Faculty take an enormous amount of time learning about the student’s passions, interests, and current projects.
  • Our goal is to produce a resume-building experience and product the student can take with them long after they graduate.
  • The student co-designs the projects, competencies, and work.
  • Students seek out faculty time, and have significantly less required “seat time” than in a traditional environment.
  • The pedagogy at BIG is wildly student centered
  • Notable absence: for a grade

The last couplet of points is the most important. We’re seeing an insurrection of grading initiatives around the country, which almost by definition means that the whole thing is going to implode under the weight of poor implementations. Sad, but education is as education does.

So, why is SBG a gateway drug? Because the minute you admit that you’ve been grading ineffectively, you end up admitting all sorts of things are weird about school. Like schedules, like cookie-cutter assignments, like students doing work to be “done with it.”

It’s a gateway to student-centered pedagogy. It’s a gateway to asking what kind of projects can be done that envelope multiple standards. It’s an exercise in creating deadline-murdering, interesting projects.