Friday, January 21, 2011

Public Ed vs Real World

As the conversation around the elimination of awards and letter grades continues, there are many people who decry the changes because we are not preparing the students for the "Real World".  Most of the comments were along the lines of "In the "Real World" there are winners and losers so why are we sheltering them from that "reality"?".  The callers on the talk radio seem to feel that young adults think that because they put in the effort that their work should automatically be appreciated in the "Real World".  Based on the arguments offered, apparently you don't get the praise and recognition from your employers unless you are the best of the best in the "Real World".  The one sidedness of the comments was surprising, but it got me thinking.

Are there winners and losers in some aspects of life? Absolutely.  There are people who are going to be offered jobs and those who get the thanks for applying letters.  There are people who are going to get promoted and then those who will be fired.  Top sales reps will get awards, top actors will get awards, top athletes will get awards.and so on.  There are people who will see those people getting the awards and the cash bonuses and will push themselves.  To deny this is foolish, but for how many more does this have little or no impact, or even worse, the complete opposite effect. 

So what will happen in schools, if honour roll and awards ceremonies are removed?  How will this impact the students?  I feel that it would not have a significant impact nor be detrimental to the students' learning.  Many secondary schools now do awards on separate nights, so often the general student population are not present to see the awards being handed out.  There are many students who aren't motivated by the awards.  If they are motivated about their learning intrinsically, they will put in the time regardless of whether or not their name goes on a plaque.

If it is crucial to celebrate the best of the best, why is a "B" average celebrated?  Does this not water it down?  How was a "B" average deemed the cut-off point? If we are to truly recognize the top students, let's eliminate all those who do not have straight "A"s in every course they take.   No "B"s allowed.  Period.  Why is this not done?  Because we want all students to be encouraged to give us their best.  The top students will be rewarded with scholarships, university entrance letters and choices of post-secondary institutions.  Those whose grades are not as high have a limited choice of post-secondary institutions.  If the students are unsure as to what they want to do when they graduate and were only motivated by letter grades, what are they going to do once they graduate?  What becomes their motivation?  I doubt that their employer is going to return a document that they have worked on with a letter grade attached.

Another question to deliberate is how many of those students have tutors? How many of those students have parents who have the ability and the confidence to help them with homework?  How many other students could achieve that level of academic achievement if their home circumstances were different?  What if they did not have to go and pick up their younger siblings, feed them, help them with their homework and then go and work a part-time job to help the family put food on the table?  For some students, a C+ represents an amazing achievement.  For others, it is an incredible achievement that they even made it to school.  I have seen students who in grade 6 are waking themselves up, making their own breakfast, walking for 30 minutes and getting to school on time while watching some of their peers getting dropped off in 500 series Mercedes Convertibles.  I am blown away every time I see those kids in my class and in my school being an active participant and I am going to find every possible way to recognize that.

Whenever I am out with friends and we talk about our various work environments, recognition and praise seem to be a big part of the satisfaction of the job.  Those who do not enjoy their work tend to comment on how they are working hard and not being recognized for it, their boss takes credit for their work, does not even know who they are or only talks to them when there is a problem.  Those who enjoy their work usually comment on how much they appreciate the fact that their boss acknowledges their work and effort, that they take a personal interest in their lives and that they are approachable.  Why would kids be any different?  People, as a general rule, like to be acknowledged for what they are doing, adults and kids alike.  The praise must be authentic and not contrived.

Self-assessment has also been questioned.  Why do we let students assess themselves?  Because it is a crucial life skill to have.  Learning how to critically look at your own work and be able to identify areas that need improvement and strengths are essential in many jobs.  Learning how to look at someone else's work and  identify areas that need improvement and strengths are also essential in many jobs.  This is not the teacher passing the buck, there is a lot of interaction, teaching, modeling and dialogue that has to be in place for this to be effective.

The last point that I wanted to address was late work, as that was another point that seemed to come up a lot.  Yes, it is true that many teachers accept late work.  Yes it is true that fewer teachers are penalizing students who hand in the work late by reducing the mark.  Students receive 2 marks on a report card, one that is supposed to represent their knowledge and understanding of the material covered and another that represents the work habits.  The letter grades are supposed to be a reflection of how well a student understands the material being covered, not a due date.  When there are issues with work that is continuously late there are meetings scheduled, plans set up and regular updates given to try and change it around.  We meet with parents to try and determine if there is a root cause for the work not being done.  Are there issues that we are not aware of at home or at school?  More often than not, penalizing a student for late work does not motivate them, in their eyes it often justifies why they don't bother.  Many students who are struggling with their homework or assignment completion are kept in at lunch or after school.  Sometimes it is arranged that they will be dropped off early on some days in order to get additional support.  There are consequences given when the work is late, but it should not be reflected in the marks.  The key is support and working with all partners to have them improve their work completion. If they have poor work habits then they receive an "N" for their work habit mark.

I guess it comes down to a philosophical perspective on the role and purpose of school.  Are we to be a sorting system where we continuously rank kids and in one form or another and tell them what their place is in the school?  Most people would agree that seating kids according to their marks is very damaging, I saw it firsthand when I went to school in France.  Why do it on a grand stage?  We are there for every student from the most gifted to the most challenged.  Our goal is to find that inner spark, that inner passion that will move that child to give us everything he/she has.  Our responsibility is by the time they leave the school system we have given them every opportunity to be the brightest, shining light they can be, that they have developed as deep an understanding of all of the curricular content as possible and are the best citizens possible.  For every child this is going to be different.

The students are already ranked and sorted in every competition out there whether it be track or debating, writing contests or basketball, Verbathon or other academic challenges.  Those that strive off of competition have many opportunities to do so at school and outside of school.  We see it every lunch hour, but we also see students who are reading quietly, skipping with friends, taking care of the school garden or picking up litter to keep the school grounds clean.  Knowledge, understanding, respect and support are a school's responsibility.  If society determines that there is a need to rank and sort once they are outside the school system, then that is society's choice.  When students leave school hopefully they are confident, independent young adults with the ability to think critically and are self-motivated.  To me these are essential skills for the "Real World".  If gold stars, A's and awards are the only things motivating them then we are in trouble.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing and challenging thoughts. They brought to mind a handful of students who need supplemental love, care, and attention. Thank you.