Note: This is the second of four blog posts about facilitating healthy grading conversations in schools. The series is intended to help educators navigate the challenging and sometimes turbulent waters of changing any conventional practice—especially grading practices—where tradition, the court of public opinion, and the potential for failure at the expense of students’ future opportunities hurl immediate deterrents in the path.
Pulling the trigger (e.g. creating and announcing policy changes) before there is systemwide understanding and preliminary agreements will backfire. Schools that do usually end up on the evening news or the front page of the local paper. Generally, this results in abandoning the initiative completely, and thwarting future conversations from ever happening again. The grading “blowout” seems to leave deep and wide scars across the system.
So, after teams have spent time investigating the answers and potential considerations to their own questions (see my first post), it’s time to invite critical conversations with all key stakeholders before changes are even proposed.
Package the invitation and the messaging carefully:
- Know your rationale for this recommended change. Make sure everyone knows it (in statement form) and can/will share it when representing the work of the district in the broader community.
- Use your rationale, information, research, and the data from the findings during the investigation stage to frame the invitation.
- Strong leaders first brand and then carefully market their message—always striving to build one voice. Prepare the staff to share the right message in the right way. This doesn’t mean leaders should mandate what people within the organization can and cannot say. Instead, it means leaders should build consensus, clarity, commitment, and competence to the degree that there really is one clear and consistent message to share. Already fraught with challenge, a grading conversation can be easily sabotaged by a single resistor.
Consider inviting all stakeholder groups to the table for conversation, at various times and in a variety of ways:
- Develop partnerships with local respected universities/colleges. Ask if they will send a representative to talk to your guiding coalition and/or community members. Ask if they will partner with you long enough to provide you with feedback after you make changes to the grading practices and implement them (do they see an improvement in accuracy of grades reflecting what students know and can do?)
- Bring the community along. Remember, parents always want what’s best for their students. When it comes to grading, they just don’t know what “best” looks like—yet. Share constant snapshots of what staff are reading, trying, and discovering in your bulletins, newsletters, at informational meetings or in focus groups. Share data as to why you are considering a change. Share success stories from the efforts of teams engaged in action research.
Help them see the efforts
Before you move to the next phase of initiating changes in grading practices, it’s important to help all stakeholder groups understand the lay of the land. What will you be trying? How might it look? What can stakeholders expect from the changes? What assurances can you make to provide a safety net for students as you launch?
Many successful schools have created promises, like the following, that have supported their ability to move to implementation (statements below are reworded as shared with me from a variety of districts around North America):
- “We will partner with key stakeholder groups to ensure our grading information is quality and meets their needs.”
- “What and how your student learns will not be compromised as we change the grading system. Your child will still have a top-notch educational experience while in our care.”
- “You will have good information about your student’s progress along the way. It will look different than what you have seen in the past, but it will be quality information.”
- “We will work to ensure that all students who should qualify to attend a post high school learning organization are able to attend. Even as we are learning, our grading system will never block an eligible student from advancing.”
- “We commit to improve our grading practices and policies if our resulting grades are not working for the broader school community. We will continue to involve you, seeking your input.”
Keep stakeholders in the loop
Finally, commit to follow up and check in along the way. It’s always important to check with teachers to ensure the new practices and policies are workable. As a guiding coalition, actively search for the emerging hurdles and begin mitigating the new challenges almost as they emerge. Explore community satisfaction through surveys after parent teacher conferences, etc. and strategies for better alternatives if needed.
Make sure the universities and other post-secondary institutions you invited to the conversation feel like they are getting the right information as well. Though this last option requires time to pass before exploring, it’s an important ingredient for your ultimate success. Interview college admissions offices to see how your former students are faring. Ask if the grades they earned while in your care were true to the expected performance those grades suggested would follow. You can use their satisfaction and approval ratings as continued support for your ongoing efforts; it becomes additional data regarding your success.