Performance Based Education Continues

I attended another school board meeting last night, and I left feeling fairly discouraged. I saw a group of very well-intended people come to a (to my mind) nonsensical decision. As a reminder, my district has been struggling with what to do about Performance Based Education (PBE). Here’s an earlier post I wrote about the topic. Here are some of my biggest concerns about the system, quote by quote from that earlier post:

  • The difference between a 1, 2, and 3 is clear and distinct. It makes sense. But how exactly a student gets a 4 is much murkier than I’d like.
  • We’re experimenting with a class or two or three of students, where teachers are learning the ropes at the same time as the students.
  • If we go through all of this sound and fury and end up with another system that isn’t really that much different than where we started, it will have done nothing but harm.
  • I think the district should have very clear procedures in place to measure whether or not its working.
  • We’ve already invested heavily into PBE. So what? It’s a sunk cost. We should ignore the time and effort already spent and make a decision based purely on what’s best for us now.

At last night’s meeting, the administration presented a “new” approach to PBE. Gone are the measurements of 1 (does not meet the standard), 2 (partially meets the standard), 3 (meets the standard), and 4 (exceeds the standard). They have been replaced by N (does not meet the standard), PM (partially meets the standard), M (meets the standard), and E (exceeds the standard). I’m not making this up. I also don’t think I have to say anything else about that “change” to lambaste it. But there were other changes made, so I’ll just continue.

After each student has been given a letter on an assignment (N, PM, M, or E), that letter will be turned into a number from 0-100 through some sort of process that wasn’t not described concretely at all yesterday, likely because it hasn’t been decided yet. Each letter will have a corresponding range. So an M might equate somewhere between an 80 and a 90. Maybe. They’ll figure out the details later. It’ll be up to the teacher to decide which M’s are 80s and which are 90s. (Though some board members seemed under the impression that this will be more prescribed than that. The administration didn’t correct that assumption. Maybe I just don’t understand it.)

Note that the 0-100 scores are not in any way really tied to traditional 0-100 scores. They’re tied to N, PM, M, or E. So what we’ll have is a grading scale that looks like the old one everyone’s used to, but doesn’t actually mean the same thing. I can’t help but think this will leave many people even more confused than they were to begin with. Especially when this change is happening the night before school starts. (That’s right, folks. My kids’ first day is today! Kindergarten, Fifth Grade, and Ninth Grade. Consider this my “back to school post” of the year. I’ll post pics to Facebook.)

I was concerned before that it felt like the administration was experimenting on a few graduating classes in an effort to get to a better grading system. That the teachers were still learning the ropes even as they were trying to apply the approach. This has only exacerbated this problem. Before, we at least had a year of the system to build on. Now, we’re trying to cobble together things as claim it’ll all work out.

I feel very much as if our district jumped out of an airplane last night, clutching only a single package that the jump master assured us was probably a parachute. Now we get to pull the cord and find out if it’s a piano, instead.

If this were the only alternative, then I believe we would have been better off simply sticking with the system that was used last year. But that ship has sailed. Let me readdress my earlier concerns, one by one:

  • The difference between a 1, 2, and 3 is clear and distinct. It makes sense. But how exactly a student gets a 4 is much murkier than I’d like. This hasn’t changed at all. All that’s different is that now the murky difference is between an M and an E.
  • We’re experimenting with a class or two or three of students, where teachers are learning the ropes at the same time as the students. As I just stated, this has actually gotten worse, not better.
  • If we go through all of this sound and fury and end up with another system that isn’t really that much different than where we started, it will have done nothing but harm. This is exactly what has happened.
  • I think the district should have very clear procedures in place to measure whether or not its working. There are no procedures in place whatsoever. Which is natural, as the actual grading approach (the line up of the letters to the 0-100 scale) has yet to be defined.
  • We’ve already invested heavily into PBE. So what? It’s a sunk cost. We should ignore the time and effort already spent and make a decision based purely on what’s best for us now.

It’s on the last concern I want to focus a little longer. One item most on the board kept coming back to last night is how appreciative they were of all the hard work the administration put in to come up with the new approach. The administration had had several all day meetings, then a couple more day long meetings with teachers to try and come up with a new approach. And they’ve spent hours and hours trying to make the transition to PBE in the first place.

I can appreciate hard work. So can teachers. Unfortunately, “hard work” doesn’t always equate to a suitable outcome, as this new grading system recognizes. I give this new approach somewhere between a PM and an N. Just because we’ve worked really hard on an answer and come up with a wrong one doesn’t mean we should keep hammering on that answer.

In the end, I hope all my worries are for naught. I’ll be working with Tomas today when he comes home from school, asking him to show me all the paperwork from his classes so we can try and figure out how each of his teachers will be grading this year. Assuming they’ve figured that out themselves.

Sorry for the negative post. I just call it like I see it. I think the board and the administration are burning a fair number of bridges in this effort, all in the name of improved education, without any real concrete proof that it will work. I hope they’re right, and I hope I’m wrong. When budget season rolls around next year, I don’t think there will be nearly the core group of impassioned school supporters ready to go above and beyond as they’ve done in the past to try to protect the budget, which is even more tragic, as I believe this will be right when we need to keep education as strong as possible.

Happy back to school, everyone!

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