The Danger of Edu-jargon: SBG’s Birth Cry is its Death Knell?

There are some who can already hear the dirge being played as standards-based grading is drug through the streets to be buried among the rest of the edu-jargon. Why are their ears so much more attune to this than the rest of us who are just now jumping on board what is purportedly a soon-to-be hearse?

Perhaps they are jaded from too much experience with mercurial edu-trends. I know I am, and I’m a fairly young teacher.

Perhaps it’s a fear of the wildfire-contagious kool aid imbibing that happens so easily in educational circles. You know exactly what I mean. It goes like this:

Teacher A: I just did this thing with my kids where I care about them and listen to where they are and help them to the next level! I’m going to call it “learninating”

Teacher B: Hey, your students are really happy, what did you do?

Teacher A: It’s called Learninating, all you do is grade differently! I just wrote a blog post about it, and now I’m writing a book that’s going to be published with a soft cover of oddly broken concentric circles and a sweet modern font that can be easily marketed at education conferences!

Teacher B: Hey, I’m going to call what I do “Learninating” too, and hopefully my kids will be happy and get 102% on the state exam!

Teacher B: (Two days and a half-assed implementation later) Well! Hurumph. That didn’t work. Teacher A is full of it! OoOoOoh, what’s this new “self esteem” thing . . .

In what seems to be an amazingly common turn of events, we end up opening the buried pedagogical treasure to discover the same old things that we always uncover. What’s worse, is that Teacher B rarely changes their methods, if ever. They just re-label them. This re-labeling does nothing but create logistical headaches for Teacher B that often consist of writing the new edu-jargon phrase on a bunch of folders with expensive Sharpies. There’s no philosophical shift here, and I bet you can guess what happens? Epic failure. People see this fake implementation and the lack of effects and decide the whole thing is rubbish. Teacher B then moves on or reverts. This is the frustrating life cycle of edu-jargon.

As soon as something catches on, everyone jumps on board. They aren’t philosophically primed. They haven’t had that moment where they have to walk in the woods and hope they come out alive. This lack of shift usually culminates with administrators wanting to make sure they don’t sounds stupid at conferences, so they re-label “quizzing” as “formative assessment” and call it a day.

!@#%. That pisses me off.

I Refuse to Let Anyone Kill SBG.

Do you understand me? This is too imporant. This is too grass roots. This is too close to the ideal vision I’ve had for my classroom to let anyone run off with the acronym and start preaching it in some sterile lecture-based methods course at some awful online pre-service program.

I don’t care what you call it. Use the word “criterion,” if it makes you feel smart. Use the term “learning target” if you like the aiming-a-projectile analogy. Use the phrase “Mr. Snuffleupagus wants you to relearn shit and have your grade reflect your new found maturity and understanding.” I don’t care.

Just don’t make this about some magic set of rules that are going to make your classroom perfect. Guess what? That will never happen. Stop looking. Education is always going to be ugly. It’s always going to be hard. Progress will be slow and sometimes backwards. Students are going to make you cry your eyes out on your commute home as you imagine the sabotage they’re receiving at home in place of parenting.

Some magic lesson plan skeletons or some insipid list of someone else’s standards aren’t going to help you. Write your own damned standards and test them. If it isn’t perfect, who cares? At least you’re trying.

Here’s how I know this is for real. I came up with my SBG implementation through conversation and thinking. I didn’t read a book. I’ve never even been to an education conference (I thought you had to be invited up until Townsley told me you could just register). I’ve never even met Marzano. Someone just asked me two questions, and the rest fell into place:

“What do quizzes mean to your students? What do quizzes mean to you?”

That’s it. The rest is blogified history.

New Teachers, Ahem, Read This:

You want your ticket punched to board the SBG Express? Then ask yourself the following questions: (answer key follows!) Finding youself in disagreement? Then you may not belong on The Express, and guess what? That’s totally fine. There are millions of fantastic teachers out there reaching an innumerable amount of students who will never happen stance upon the term “standards-based grading.”

If you don’t like my answers, then maybe your style lies somewhere else, and I want desperately for you to find it, embrace it, and start serving your students.

Here’s the customs shake down as you enter the SBG Express:

  1. What’s a “quiz?”
  2. What should a letter grade communicate?
  3. Teaching responsibility includes grading homework and notebook organization. True or False?
  4. Are my students pressured to leave behind material that they don’t understand?
  5. Should students have the right to show me that they “get” something that they previously didn’t?
  6. Points vs. Feedback. Compare and Contrast.
  7. Students remember what “Quiz 6” assessed. True or False.

Spoiler Alert! Here are my answers. Please check in pen so I know you didn’t cheat. HA! Just kidding: Please ruminate on your answers and ask yourself if you really are doing any good forcing kids to turn things in just because you have made up deadlines, or do you actually secretly love watching them squirm?

  1. A periodic assessment of progress that tells the student if they should be spending more time on that specific material. Quiz grades are dynamic and can be replaced by demonstrations of future understanding.
  2. Level of mastery of the academic standards for your course. Not attendance. Not brings-a-damned-pencil-everyday. Not responsibility (If you make me type that one more time I’m going to find your school and sit in the back row of your classroom and glare unblinking for an entire day taking sporadic notes as you teach without telling you what my notes say).
  3. False. Grading responsibility makes no sense. Punishment for behaviors that should be compulsory breeds a psychology where the subject will avoid certain behaviors only when the punisher is present. Is that the kind of responsibility you want?! The don’t-kill-someone-because-I-might-go-to-jail kind?! Really?!? I have high blood pressure.
  4. I hope to God not. This is the scariest implicit message we send kids. “Moving on” forces kids to compartmentalize learning and throw away things they’ve learned before. This is ugly, as anyone who has taught 3 weeks of review at the beginning of geometry can tell you. Let your kids go back and reassess what they had a hard time with. They will surprise you.
  5. Yes. Moving on.
  6. Points are a disease. Feedback is the currency of human interaction. As we’ve seen with the wonderful successes of capitalism, when you put a price on everything, only high priced items get valued. Is that what you want in your classroom? This is the same principle that’s causing us to use the planet like a giant disposable diaper; nature has no price, but a flat screen TV does. Barf barf barf. When you use words to describe someone’s performance, on the other hand, they listen. They care. They remember. How many 90/100’s do you remember? How many thought-out constructive feedbacks do you remember? After the feedback, the student has a chance to get better, then you can grade them. It’s only fair.
  7. true? Don’tmakemefindyou: FALSE. Putting individual assessments in your gradebook is meaningless. Indexing those assessments by a standard is much more meaningful. This also has the side effect of showing kids what they don’t know and where they should spend their time studying. Gasp!

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

The acronym is meaningless. SBG is a philosophical shift away from gate keeping. If you don’t want to make that shift, then don’t water down the acronym. In fact, screw the acronym altogether. I’m just going to call it good assessment from here on out. I’ll keep the SBG links for you administrators, but all I’m really advocating here is for good Midwestern values to permeate your assessment philosophy.

Don’t like my answers? Then I’ve got nothing for you. They work for me, and that’s all I’ve got. I’m not revolutionary, hell, I’m not even that great of a teacher. It boils down to the fact that caring about your students has been around for a buhjillion years. Obscuring it with points and made-up bell curve garbage is a new smoke screen sold to us by the myth of factory style education.

Good night. I’m going to write about The Mandelbrot set now.