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OPINION: Schools without marks

Jayden Somers, left, Jason Sin, and Kate Shi, right, work on their new Chromebooks in a newly remodelled classroom at Grace Christian School on Sept. 10. Kai Vere/The Guardian
Jayden Somers, left, Jason Sin, and Kate Shi, right, work on their new Chromebooks in a newly remodelled classroom at Grace Christian School on Sept. 10. Kai Vere/The Guardian - Contributed

Litmus test for education reform initiatives set at low bar – “do no harm” to teachers or students

BY PAUL W. BENNETT

GUEST OPINION

University of Kentucky student assessment guru Thomas R. Guskey has the ear of the current leadership in P.E.I. education. For two days in late November, he dazzled a captive audience of over 200 senior Island school administrators with has stock presentations extolling the virtues of mastery learning and competency-based student assessment.

P.E.I’. s co-ordinator of Leadership and Learning Jane Hastelow was effusive in her praise for Guskey and his assessment theories. Tweets by educators emanating from the Guskey sessions parroted the gist of his message.

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“Students don’t always learn at the same rate or in the same order,” Guskey told the audience. So, why do we teach them in grades, award marks, and promote them in batches?

Grading students and assigning marks, according to Guskey, can have detrimental effects on children. “No research,” he claims, “supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades lead students to withdraw from learning.”

Professional learning, in Guskey’s world, should be focused not on cognitive or knowledge-based learning, but on introducing “mastery learning” as a way of advancing “differentiated instruction” classrooms.

“High-quality corrective instruction,” he told P.E.I. educators, is not the same as ‘re-teaching.’” It is actually a means of training teachers to adopt new approaches that “accommodate differences in students’ learning styles, learning modalities, or types of intelligence.”.

Guskey is well-known in North American education as the chief proponent for the elimination of percentage grades. For more than two decades, in countless PD presentations, he has promoted his own preferred brand of student assessment reform. “It’s time, “he insists, “to abandon grading scales that distort the accuracy, objectivity and reliability of students’ grades.”

Up and coming principals and curriculum leads, most without much knowledge of assessment, have proven to be putty in his hands.

If so, what’s the problem? Simply put, Dr. Guskey’s theories, when translated into student evaluation policy and reporting, generate resistance among engaged parents looking for something completely different – clearer, understandable, jargon-free student reports with real marks..

Classroom teachers soon come to realize that the new strategies and rubrics are far more complicated and time-consuming, often leaving them buried in additional workload.

Guskey’s student assessment theories do appeal to school administrators who espouse progressive educational principles. He specializes in promoting competency-based assessment grafted onto student-centred pedagogy or teaching methods.

Most regular teachers today are only too familiar with top-down reform designed to promote “assessment for learning” (AfL) and see, first hand, how --because of poor implementation -- it has led to the steady erosion of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

Education leaders entranced by Guskey’s theories rarely delve into where it all leads for classroom teachers. In Canada, it took the “no zeros” controversy sparked in May 2012 by Alberta teacher Lynden Dorval to bring the whole dispute into sharper relief.

As a veteran high school physics teacher, Dorval resisted his Edmonton high school’s policy which prevented him from assigning zeros when students, after repeated reminders, failed to produce assignments or appear for make-up tests.

Teachers running smack up against such policies learn that the ‘research’ supporting “no zeros” policy can be traced back to an October 2004 Thomas Guskey article in the Principal Leadership magazine entitled “Zero Alternatives.”

Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra analyzed Guskey’s research and found it wanting. His claim that awarding zeros was a questionable practice rested on a single 20-year-old opinion-based presentation by an Oregon English teacher to the 1993 National Middle School conference. Guskey’s subsequent books either repeat that reference or simply restate his hypothesis as an uncontestable truth.

Guskey’s theories are certainly not new. Much of the research dates back to the early 1990s and work of William Spady, a Mastery Learning theorist known as the prime architect of the ill-fated Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) movement. OBE was best exemplified by the infamous mind-boggling report cards loaded with hundreds of learning outcomes, and it capsized in the late 1990s amidst a firestorm of professional and parent resistance.

The litmus test for education reform initiatives is now set at a rather low bar – “do no harm” to teachers or students. What Thomas Guskey is spouting begs for more serious investigation. One red flag is his continued reference to “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences,” two concepts that do not exist and are now considered abandoned theories.

Guskey’s student assessment theories fly mostly in the face of the weight of recent research, including that of leading U.K. expert Dylan Wiliam. Much of the best research is synthesized in Daisy Christodoulou’s 2017 book, Making Good Progress. Student assessment panaceas like those of Guskey tend to float on unproven theories, lack supporting evidence-based research, chip away at teacher autonomy, and leave classroom practitioners snowed under with heavier ‘new age’ assessment loads.

Proficiency-based education, a form of the CBA model, has recently experienced a major setback. Adopted by the State of Maine in 2012, implementation has been repeatedly delayed. Students and parents in Scarborough and Lewiston have mounted protest petitions and successfully blocked the initiative claiming that abolishing grades is already hurting Maine’s students.

A final word of advice for P.E.I.'s education leadership – look closely before you leap.

- Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, and founding Chair of researchED Canada, the Canadian branch of a U.K.-based teacher research organization. His professional blog, Educhatter, was awarded the Gold Medal in early 2018 as the Top Education Blog in Canada.

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