September 17, 2013

Milwaukee Public Schools get rid of letter grades and stop giving credit for good behavior, extra assignments, and handing things in on time.

One parent says "I think (district administrators) want letter grades to go away because they want to blur the line of failing students," but:
Administrators say the changes capture a more nuanced picture of a student's academic progress.
Nuance!

According to MPS, the updated report card identifies the skills students need to master in each grade level, and replaces overall letter grades with an AD for advanced, PR for proficient, BA for basic and MI for minimal. Proficient is the level expected for a student's grade level....

"The concept behind this is that we really want the grade to reflect the academic performance of the student vs. whether the student brought the assignment, did extra credit or talked in class," said Dave Dentinger, supervisor of secondary education in the Wauwatosa School District.

Last year, Wauwatosa started allowing students multiple chances to turn in an assignment and get it right. They cannot receive zeros on assignments. Homework is now worth only 10% of an overall grade, and extra credit is no longer accepted.
Peering through the nuance/blurred lines, I suspect that this is an effort to help boys. Who was getting hurt by all the emphasis on completing homework assignments? Who, by contrast, was bolstered by all the credit for compliant paperwork?
Oak Creek High School teacher Chris Kurth remembers that last year, when the district encouraged teachers to grade solely on academic performance and not behavior, a lot of questions came from high-performing students. They were sensitive to how the changes could affect their grade-point averages.
In what sense were they "high-performing" if they couldn't do well on the tests? They were "high-performing" in the game of playing to the teacher?
Some parents — and students — appreciate the rewards that grades have long offered to students who continually turn in complete assignments on time, and who speak up in class, as those behaviors are also likely to propel them in high school and, eventually, college or beyond.
Reading between those lines, I suspect that the credit-giving business had been perverted into an enterprise of teaching compliance and tolerance for boredom and constraint.

The real issue here isn't eliminating grades — because they're just shifting from the old-fashioned letters to "advanced," "proficient," "basic" and "minimal" — it's what grades are given for.

59 comments:

SGT Ted said...

They are already allowing illiterates to graduate with a Diploma. Doing away with letter grades based on actual good citizenship and performance seems like the next logical step.

Larry J said...

All students can pass high school. All teachers can be excellent. Anything is possible if you lower your standards far enough.

Matthew Sablan said...

Since when are AD, PR, BA and MI not letters? Also: BA should change, otherwise, we'll have school children saying they got a BA in math.

Turning things in on time, and complete, should count for something, while raw proficiency should weigh somewhere else. This is easier for young kids who have a single classroom (so they can actually have accurate behavior comments on their report cards, "plays well with others," etc.)

I'm not willing to immediately junk the old system, but I'm not ready to sing the praises of the new one either.

Paddy O said...

I would have loved this system.

I had a 3.0 GPA in high school. I missed on average 1 day a week. I rarely did homework. There were issues involved in both of these (poverty and severe family health crises). But I did well on tests.

I did no prep at all for the SAT, got a reasonably good score. Got into a good college. Got a 3.49 GPA. Went to a Masters program. Got a 3.9. Finished a PhD with 4.0.

Grades in high school were more about compliance than about learning. I was a voracious reader and even a decent writer. Found most of the classes boring. Those that were taught to more advanced students tended to up the amount of busywork.

Learning takes place in different ways for different people and I totally see the sense in recognizing the outcome rather than obedience to the method. At the same time, the present system is much better at training kids to be good citizens in an increasingly bureaucratic world. It's also extremely important in business and other fields.

Playing the game is probably the most important skill in moving ahead in life. No one remembers what they learned in school anyhow.

PH said...

Oh American education. Bring back the curve!

Scott M said...

Is there such a thing as helicopter teaching?

Bruce Hayden said...

It may be to help the boys - I do believe that the fairly recent emphasis on homework and being nice in class does advantages girls, to the detriment of boys. They are rewarded for looking nice, and going through the motions, instead of actually mastering the material. Don't know what college I would have gotten in, if it had been I who was faced with this, nearing 50 years ago - I could usually get a top grade on a test, even if I hadn't done the homework, and got good enough grades to get into a good private liberal arts college.

But, I would suggest that this is more racial and economic than sexual. One of the things that we have become more aware of with Trayvon Martin is the cultural distain so many underclass Blacks in this country hold our school systems and learning process. So many just refuse to participate, because it is too "white". Many of us remember Rachel Jeantel on the stand, unable to speak coherently or read or write cursive, yes, at 19, expecting to graduate from high school in another year. These are the kids who should be doing their homework, but never do, because they have such huge problems understanding and mastering the subject matter. So many in the underclasses (and esp from minority families) cannot pass because they don't do the required work, so just abolish the requirement for the homework that would help them comprehend the subject matter, and everyone will feel better about themselves, when they don't fail as regularly, even if they are still functionally illiterate in our high tech society as a result.

n.n said...

The cycle begins anew. When I attended grade school, the top performers were boys. The years of biased equalization efforts have clearly taken their toll. What was a reactive movement, intended to address real and manufactured disparities, was incorporated and corrupted. They still have not learned to respect individual dignity.

I suspect also that parents have delegated their responsibilities in favor of their personal achievement and welfare. Mothers have bought into the feminist craze, and fathers have voluntarily or involuntarily accepted their diminished status in society.

Sam L. said...

Let's all get fuzzy.

David-2 said...

According to a comment on that article by a MPS administrator (I believe, he didn't provide a title) the report card is also more specific in terms of achievements.

The example he gave is: "A 3rd-grade student is expected to master a number of critical concepts in mathematics. Two of those are multiplication/division and geometric shapes (...). If a student excels at multiplication/division but still struggles with geometric shapes, the standards-based report card, instead of showing a "C" in math, will reflect specifically the student is advanced at multiplication/division but minimal at geometric shapes. It provides students and parents with better information about how the student is performing at the specific concepts he or she is expected to master."

That changes the picture somewhat, I think. I can believe the detail provided would have helped my parents, when I was in school, and I was a high performing student. But it isn't clear to me that that level of specificity would help all parents. I'm not sure.

(Also, the conspiracy theorist in me wants to know what I'm not seeing: With all this specificity in report cards adding to the paperwork burden of each teacher, they only got the teachers' union approval because the teachers saw a benefit ... what was that benefit?)

They also grade behavior separately, on a scale of 1-4, according to a different comment on that article. That sounds familiar. I am still somewhat rankled that I got a 'D' in 'personal hygiene" in 2nd grade.

LilyBart said...


Yes, because finishing work on time, doing extra assignments and 'good behaviour' isn't really important to these kids' future employers.

/sarc.

We are preparing kids to fail in life - and the poor things won't understand why they are failing.

Oso Negro said...

Given that Milwaukee is 40% black, I suspect this to be a scheme to avoid stigmatizing negroes. But perhaps I am too cynical, and this effort will broadly raise the subject mastery of all learners.

traditionalguy said...

It's a day care only institution now.

cubanbob said...

It would appear the best thing to do is abolish those schools and hand the parents voucher funds to send their kids to private schools where this nuanced nonsense wouldn't be tolerated. Still give them props for finding a nuanced way of grading A, B C and D but no F.

EDH said...

Peering through the nuance/blurred lines, I suspect that this is an effort to help boys.

If you really want to help boys, there should be grades for "twerking" and "foam fingering".

trumpetdaddy said...

People are starting to realize that public schools, and a lot of private schools, are simply expensive babysitting services.

Obedience, and the ability to check all the boxes, is what mass institutional "education" values.

Home schooling, and the coming post-college skills-assessment tests are assaults on the current mass education model, from the bottom and from the top, respectively.

People (employers especially) are starting to figure out that what matters is what you actually know and can do, not superficial obedience. While it is certainly true that good behavior and the willingness to do extra, mindless work over-and-above the minimum are valuable to the work world, actually adding value is more important.

Mass public education teaches one to be a docile time-server and very little else.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

All of this will have precisely as much effect as would a Height Coach being added to the athletic department. And for the same reason.

Unknown said...

"The real issue here isn't eliminating grades — because they're just shifting from the old-fashioned letters to "advanced," "proficient," "basic" and "minimal" — it's what grades are given for."

Precisely: they've changed the nomenclature, but what it is is A,B,C,D, (and no F).

Michael K said...

Are they given extra credit for voter enrollment ?

Given the dilution of standards the past 50 years, any change is suspicious.

Read a school book from the 1930s. It was a different world.

Robert Cook said...

I have a friend from high school who has been teaching at our alma mater for 24 years or so. He is appalled at the continuing changes being forced on them by the school board and the superintendant--45 students per class as of this year, in 90 minute classes, with not enough seats for all the students--and teachers being laid off.

A lot of blowhards and know nothings love to castigate the teachers as being the authors of all the ills (they perceive) in public schools these days. In fact, teachers have virtually no power. They are dictated to as to what to teach and how to teach and in what conditions they must teach.

As with companies that fail, schools fail because of poor or corrupt management, and not because of the working stiffs who are subject to management dictates.

Peter said...

This looks suspiciously like a version of Dodo method (From Alice in Wonderland, wherein the Dodo was asked to determine who had won a race and, unable to do so, declared "Everybody has won and all must have prizes."

That is, teachers are encouraged to find something to praise about each and every student.

Sorun said...

"Minimal" sounds better than "flunked," and self-esteem is what's really important here.

In fact, minimal sounds almost as good as acceptable.

Inga said...

In elementary school this may work. But in high school GPA matters as to college acceptance.

I agree that if the student is doing well on tests and being lazy on homework assignments, he shouldn't be punished with a bad grade to a large degree, but undisciplined geniuses fail in the universities. I like that the report cards are more specific as to the students weak areas in a subject, while reflecting their strong areas more clearly.

My first reaction was, yes this will make it easier on the teachers, but maybe not. If the whole class is failing the tests, the teaching may be the culprit. However, I give MPS teachers a lot of credit, they have their hands full.

MadisonMan said...

Note that this is for Middle School.

They did this at my kids' middle school (Hamilton) while my daughter was there. There are actually Administrators in the Doyle Building on Dayton who (have to promote *something* no matter how nonsensical in order to justify their salary and therefore) want to get rid of it in High School, too, but there was such severe push back from parents, and it's not going to happen while my son is in High School, if ever. (Especially since Colleges do look at a GPA when they consider admission!)

Given that Middle School is mostly just something to endure before you get into High School, I don't see the elimination of letter grades as much of a big deal. Learning how to get work done is more important than mastering a subject. You can get a 4.0 in Middle School, and what does that mean? Nothing at all.

Gabriel Hanna said...

The problem with points for turning in homework, attendance, meeting deadlines, etc, is that students use these points to pad out bad test scores--if they get points for checking off boxes then they do not need points for knowing the material.

The problem with grading on points is that points are fungible, like money. Weighting exams and homework differently does not change that. So the point you missed from not knowing how to add fractions is offset by a point you gained from doing your fractions homework on time, but wrongly.

If you want a class to learn topics A, B, and C, you need to grade on those things directly.

What people are trying to do with points for attendance, neatness, etc is encourage students to be good students by encouraging good-student behaviors. In reality hat you get is students checking off boxes to get points they cash in for the desired grade.

Freeman Hunt said...

I like it. The purpose of the homework is supposed to be learning the content and practicing skills. If the student already knows the content and has mastered the skills, there's no reason to require the homework.

Attendance in school does not correlate to attendance at work. I skipped school all the time in high school. I was required to be there by law; I didn't sign on to go to that place. I had 112 class absences during the first semester of my senior year because that was the year that it occurred to me that if I wanted to leave, I could. And yet, when I worked I was not one to ever miss a day. School and work, one is not the same as the other.

If you think all of this compliance business is especially important, you could add on another rating for it and call it Government Institution Compliance Rating. Ha!

GrandpaMark said...

Many of us remember Rachel Jeantel on the stand, unable to speak coherently or read or write cursive,
California schools are eliminating cursive from the curriculum.

At one point they replaced phonics with some sort of "sight recognition", which worked about as well as could be expected.
No more spelling tests .

I watched Rachel Jeantel in real time. She was cool, calm and collected.( I am fairly certain she held something back, as instructed).

She was playing to her particular audience, which is her peer group, not to the entire country.





surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seeing Red said...

Via JS Online 6/21/12

Of the 50 largest school districts by enrollment in the United States, Milwaukee Public Schools spent more per pupil than all but three East Coast districts in the 2009-'10 school year, according to public-school finance figures released by the Census Bureau on Thursday.

MPS ranked near the top among large districts by spending $14,038 per pupil in the 2010 fiscal year. It was outspent by the New York City School District, with the highest per-pupil spending among large districts - $19,597 - followed by Montgomery County Public Schools near Washington, D.C., and Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland, which spent $15,582 and $14,711, respectively, per pupil that year.

MPS officials on Thursday acknowledged Milwaukee's high per-pupil costs in comparison with other large districts, but they also pointed to unique local factors that drive up the cost, particularly the city's high rate of poverty, the district's high rate of students with special needs and other long-term costs, such as aging buildings and historically high benefit rates for MPS employees that the district is working to lower.

"The cost of doing business for Milwaukee Public Schools and Wisconsin is relatively high," Superintendent Gregory Thornton said. "But because of legacy and structural costs, we were not geared toward driving those dollars back into the classroom."

"What we have to be is more effective and efficient," he said....

Ann Althouse said...

""Minimal" sounds better than "flunked," and self-esteem is what's really important here."

Minimal seems to correspond to D, so F seems gone or merged with D.

That's the main discrepancy in the conversion from letters, eliminating failure.

"Minimal"... implies something.

In law, there's something called the "minimal scrutiny" test, which all laws must meet, and it's possible to fall short of that test.

Christy said...

Why do I suspect that this is an excellent scheme by the MPS to score maximum funding from the feds? And with little interest in educating students?

Robert Cook said...

"As an inner city public school teacher for 35 years here's the real world of inner city schools at the middle school level. Sometimes half the class shows up without paper or pencil. Not because they're poor but because they could care less...."

Let me make a correction for you. The correct phrase is couldn't care less", a contraction of "could not care less."

surfed said...

A teaching compatriot commented upon reading the thread that I'm insane for even attempting to tell the truth. That no one, absolutely no one is really interested anyway. never have been and never will be. If they were things wouldn't be the way they are now. So saying I deleted my comments. I retire from this in 12 weeks. I have to learn how not to care anymore. Deleting comments is a start.

Broomhandle5000 said...

No possibility of failure, so social promotion is assured. The school district has basically admitted they cannot justify their reason for existence.

Carol said...

Given that Middle School is mostly just something to endure before you get into High School,

I dunno, I seem to remember some pretty important math functions like the manipulation of fractions, being taught during those years.

If you blow that off then forget about algebra and the rest.

surfed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol said...

Read a school book from the 1930s. It was a different world.

They've been dumbing down for a long time. Even as a kid I suspected it, because they used terms like Social Studies which is both boring sounding and vague.

I think the idea was to make public schools more inclusive, so kids wouldn't drop out and go to work after 8th grade like they used to.
But they kept rolling and rolling with it, rolling downhill..gahh.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Bruce Hayden,

Many of us remember Rachel Jeantel on the stand, unable to speak coherently or read or write cursive, yes, at 19, expecting to graduate from high school in another year.

This isn't quite fair. Cursive is no longer taught at all in many places. I grew up with it, and didn't switch to printing until high school. I remember a social studies assignment about the Versailles Treaty in which I'd used the phrase "concurrent resolution" a couple of times, puzzling the teacher because she couldn't figure out what I was trying to say, my cursive double "r" looking so like a cursive "n." (Hey, you'd think the context would be a clue, would you not?)

But that was in the late 70s. Now? Not a lot of cursive instruction. Not a lot of penmanship of any kind, in fact. My husband's younger students barely know how to write by hand at all; they type everything, and signing their own names is a production. At least modern education is finally bridging that terrible legibility gap between physicians and the rest of us.

As for Jeantel's

Birches said...

For self motivated kids, (like Freeman) it won't make a difference. But many kids aren't. Homework is one of those things that helps adolescents learn to be working adults. And now, there is no reason for doing it, so they won't do it and won't suffer any real consequences until they show up in HS.

It might be to benefit boys. But unless the wider culture changes, all this does it make it harder for people to succeed like this in the real world.

Bad. Bad. Bad.

surfed said...

@Robert Cook - I was typing on a tiny phone on the fly in between classes in a very crowded, loud hallway. I thought the word "not" but did not type it...a common occurrence for me when typing quickly under stress. My apologies. I stand corrected.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Robert Cook,

He is appalled at the continuing changes being forced on them by the school board and the superintendant--45 students per class as of this year, in 90 minute classes,

In most areas that would be terrible, and I feel for your friend. But there are classes in which 90-minute periods and 45 students are a godsend. Orchestra, for one.

My husband is in a new HS orchestra position, and one of its nuisances is 50-minute periods. The shorter the period, the larger the fraction of it taken up by the necessary pre- and post-liminaries: getting instruments out (and, at the end, putting them back), getting settled, tuning, &c. The plus is that he gets every ensemble every day, but there's still time lost.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Carol,

Yes, "Social Studies" always puzzled me. In my childhood it was a catchall for American history, world history (not very much of that), and world cultures and religions (quite a lot of that, but with a conspicuous exception: We were all presumed to be Christians, even those who weren't, with the result that at the end of sixth grade I could tell you all about the Five Pillars of Islam, and Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and the Sorrowful Wheel and the Eightfold Path, and the Tao, but when a classmate made a crossword in which one clue was "Billed himself the Son of Man," I had no idea what he meant.)

LTMG said...

Who, I wonder, is going to clue in the university and college admissions officers about the "nuances"? It will be interesting to see if in the future Milwaukee Public School graduates are underrepresented in tertiary education.

Smilin' Jack said...

...I suspect that the credit-giving business had been perverted into an enterprise of teaching compliance and tolerance for boredom and constraint.

That's not a perversion, it's the essence of public education, and properly so. The smart kids are going to learn what they need to know anyway, and all the dumb ones need to learn is to do as they're told.

Archie said...

I detect that the impetus for this is the under achievement of the usual racial group.

Broomhandle5000 said...

Surfed,
It's a shame you removed your initial comment as it was the most interesting thing I 've read on the Internet this week. Just because people don't care care about the truth doesn't mean it shouldn't be out there.

Biff said...

Coincidentally, the Yale Alumni Magazine reports that:

Fifty years ago, 10% of Yale College grades were A’s or A-minuses. Now, 62% of Yale College grades are A’s or A-minuses. The university is floating a number of ideas to reverse the trend, which one professor calls "grade compression," instead of "grade inflation."

Ann's suggestion about gender possibly being a factor in the Milwaukee situation is not one that I would have thought of. I'm not sure that I buy it, but it's interesting to try to fit that suggestion onto schools like Yale, many of which have been seeing significant declines in male/female ratios among applicants, i.e. decreasing numbers of qualified male applicants vs increasing numbers of qualified females.

Sunslut7 said...

Ann,
Another reason to pull your kid from the public schools. Really, we are raising a cohort of students unable to compete IMHO.

I think they are doing this so that (1) teachers can avoid criticism and (2) they can stealthly reduce their work load. Eventually everyone gets a free unicorn to feed and nurture.

Christy said...

Regarding cursive -

Back in the day, in discussions about expert systems and artificial intelligence, the brain's ability to recognize symbols in a variety of media and shapes was much discussed as a truth. And a challenge to computers. Shouldn't a literate reader be able to recognise cursive, even if she couldn't write it?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Bruce Hayden, sorry about my 2:38 comment getting cut off. (Not Ann's fault; mine.) I didn't think Ms. Jeantel's testimony was that terrible. She was a shy young woman put on the stand in a very high-profile trial. I would like to think that I would have given clearer and more convincing testimony at that age in like circumstances, but I can't vouch for my 19-year-old self.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I think they are doing this so that (1) teachers can avoid criticism and (2) they can stealthly reduce their work load. Eventually everyone gets a free unicorn to feed and nurture.

Actually, that's not so, especially wrt the directives not to allow attendance or class participation or work done to affect grades. Something like this directive came down in OR too, and I can name one teacher at least who is pissed off about it, partly because if your class is a musical ensemble, if you don't show up, you really are negatively impacting everyone else's education.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Christy,

Shouldn't a literate reader be able to recognise cursive, even if she couldn't write it?

Jeantel wasn't IIRC asked to recognize it; she was asked to read it. Not at all the same thing. I can recognize Greek and Russian and Tagalog and Thai, but I can't read any of them.

Christy said...

Michelle, pardon me. I was sloppy in my word choice. I think cursive should be readable even if one hasn't been taught to write it. Lowercase cursive i, o, and u as well as b,c,d,g, h,j,k,l,m,n,p, q,... are but slight variations of the printed letters. I'll grant that the very common English letters s, e, and r might be a bit harder to puzzle out, but it could be done, I think. I'd be interested in seeing any research on the matter.

Robert Cook said...

Surfed at 2:47 pm:

My apologies to you, sir or ma'am. My comment comes off as snarky and obnoxious. In reality, it merely reflects my automatic response to such common misuse of the phrase.

Of all common usage errors that kill me, the use of "of" for "have" in written communications, (e.g., "I would of called, but my phone was dead"), is, by far, the most maddening!

Freeman Hunt said...

We homeschool, and I don't do letter grades. When you master something, you move on. If you haven't mastered it, what is the point of assigning you a low letter grade and moving on? If you need to know it, you need to know it.

ajs said...

I wonder if this will help Milwaukee Public Schools overcome the fact that it is the only school district in Wisconsin that did not meet expectations, in the state Department of Instruction "report card" issued today. Doubt it.

David said...

We homeschool, and I don't do letter grades. When you master something, you move on. If you haven't mastered it, what is the point of assigning you a low letter grade and moving on? If you need to know it, you need to know it.

One of my family jobs has been swim teacher. Taught my kids, am teaching grandkids now.

Freeman's statement describes my approach to swimming skills.

Also applies to skills for swimming in the world. Our societal mistake is forgetting that nothing short of "mastery" is sufficient for crucial skills. Or remembering, but failing to insist on the mastery.

Cindy Dy said...

I must appreciate your post which is helping us in such a great manner.

Brent
www.gofastek.com