Reflections on Grades, Mastery, and What Really Matters

Prior to moving to the Dark Side of Educational Administration, I was a band and orchestra director, teaching kids in grades 5-12 some of what the critical skills of music and the arts can do to enhance their lives. Inherent in a performance-based class is the concept of the outcomes of our work with students being publicly exhibited, and that same public making judgements about our abilities as teachers based on the performances of our students.

We have a special name for that concept, we call it “Friday Night.” About every other Friday, our students perform in stadiums and gymnasiums filled with fans at sporting events. Few in the audience know or care how many band kids are either cheerleading or playing in the game. But all can tell if the band sounds good or not.

And we realize that our performance is only as good as the worst player, and the worst player is playing. We have to make sure that every player can perform at a mastery level.

A discussion of other performances throughout the year that are not related to ball games, where we actually demonstrate performance to adopted Fine Arts standards, not performances intended to entertain/inspire, and how fair it is to judge us on things not directly tied to our performance standards, is for another day. Suffice to say that I have yet to see “score well on the standardized test” appear in any grade or subject level content standards documents, nor to does “play well at the ball games” appear in the latest adopted music standards.  But it is a fact of life for all teachers.

As a staff developer during the adoption/onset of No Child Left Untested, I could certainly empathize with  English/Language Arts and Math teachers who were finding themselves under that same microscope for the first time. I would remind them that our goal was increasing student learning, measured in multiple ways. Our focus was not on the scoreboard, but shooting at the rim, if you will. Like all excellent coaches, if they emphasized the processes of and skills of learning rather than explicitly teaching to the test, the test scores would take care of themselves. Data proved us to be correct.

My current district, like many others, is having discussions about transitioning to a standards-based report card. We are not yet sure of what it will look like or what the performance level descriptors will be, but I’m fairly certain that we will agree on something resembling “Below Proficient,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.” Then the process of educating parents and the public will begin. Is Below Proficient the same as a D or F, is Proficient the same as a B or C, is Advanced the same as an A?

SIDEBAR – How we will follow the lead of other districts to ensure that standards-based teaching and standards-based learning will be in congruence with standards-based reporting is a topic for another day. If all that changes is the report card, much time will have been wasted. END SIDEBAR

In my world, the videos below capture the conversation magnificently. Two different directors, two different ensembles, but both make the point of what it really represents to earn an A, and that the characteristics of mastery go well beyond the letter grade.

Short version here.

Long version here.

In previous posts, I have already touched on the fallacy of teaching to the average, but in case you missed it, the video by Dr. Todd Rose is here.

I, and many others, have voiced our concerns with the education pendulum swinging back to homogeneous and leveled reading and math groups under the banner of RTI. Are we spending so much time and focus working on the mechanics of reading that we are losing the innate joys of reading? Where is the emphasis on the non-cognitive aspects? The emotion? The imagination? The love? The passion? The Why Should I Read?

The purpose of the performance is to connect with the audience on multiple levels. To transcend the mechanics of playing. The purpose of school should be to connect with learning on multiple levels, not to show up and earn a grade, or achieve a particular level on a report card.

The conductors of these bands explain it much better than I. The mechanics of playing; the right notes, correct rhythms and tempos are at the bottom of the staircase, not the goal to be attained at the top of the stairs.

As both ensembles illustrate, Proficient, or getting an A, isn’t good enough when Mastery is both the expectation and the desired result.

Hopefully our performance level descriptors will move beyond just the mechanics at each level. While paint-by-number pictures are kind of nice to look at, there isn’t much of a future for an artist who is limited to that medium.

And so it goes…

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