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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Coburn Speaks Out On Grading Policy Discussions

Post in Rock Hill's The Herald
Photo by The Herald - Bryan Coburn

Grading policy concerns

After reading the first sentence of the editorial concerning the new grading policy, I felt an obligation to respond. The rationale used to support the new grading policy does a disservice to your readers. It incorrectly characterizes teachers as callous, it misrepresents the manner in which they currently work with students, it distorts the facts concerning how teachers determine grades, and it creates a false choice pertaining to grading policies.
I have taught for 20 years and I have yet to teach with someone who practices in the manner described. Such behavior is not indicative of the teachers in my school, nor of the many teachers I have met across this state. These teachers go above and beyond to help the students under their charge to succeed. It is a disservice to all quality teachers to create an image of the teaching profession based on a fabricated scenario, as was presented in the editorial and is touted by some proponents of the new grading system.
Teachers make it a practice to assist students who are struggling, and many, as do I, find that some of the greatest joys of teaching come when a student who is having difficulty, and with whom you have been working, begins to understand. Furthermore, it is patently false that teachers do not re-test, provide extra credit, or allow students to do extra work in order to improve their understanding and their grades. As a matter of fact, teachers routinely offer these options using their professional judgment and experience. Moreover, the notion that those who critically question the merits of the new grading system ascribe to a belief that only top-tier students are to be served and that the struggling students get what they deserve, is a deceptive argument. Wherever such harsh teachers exist, it is up to those in charge to take action to resolve the situation or to help them seek other employment options.
This school district, or any other, that seeks new or improved ways to engage students and improve learning should be applauded. Analyzing assessment methods, examining teaching practices and grading procedures is an activity schools should be involved in continuously. Critical thinking and analysis are components of that process, which includes considering potential outcomes, both intended and unintended.
A goal for public education is to prepare students to be college- and career-ready as well as to educate our future leaders and citizens. Considering this, I took the opportunity to ask leaders across our state for their input concerning the new grading policy. The responses I received from business leaders and members of higher education should not be disregarded.
One concern is the policy not to hold students accountable for meeting deadlines. As educators, we must educate the whole child. Adhering to deadlines is part of that responsibility. South Carolina leaders stated that they could not operate their businesses without deadlines, and they did not want future employees with such deficient work habits. The college community agreed that scholarly endeavors operated with the same requirements. We have an obligation to assist students with their understanding that there are deadlines, some of which can be adjusted, while others cannot, in order to prepare them. Teachers manage their classrooms with both types of deadlines.
Allowing students to cheat or willingly plagiarize and then replying with merely an academic slap on the wrist was met with much disdain. One vociferous comment from a South Carolina business leader sticks out, "What moral lessons are you teaching?" In light of recent issues surrounding political, business investment, and celebrity ethical behavior, many in our community are concerned with ethical decision making.
Retaking nearly every test is illogical to state leaders on several levels. First, there is a reality that there are times when you do need to get the task correct the first time. Next, the idea of doubling the teacher grading responsibilities does not make rational sense. Finally, the point was made that developing the skill and ability to master a concept and correctly apply it the first time are not mutually exclusive and should be a part of student development. Once again, teachers practice re-testing using their professional judgment, as well as teaching that there are times when students need to demonstrate the ability appropriately the first time.
How many of you would frequent a business that did not meet deadlines, had to redo most of its work, or, without informing you, used counterfeit material? I suspect very few would make that choice. However, on a case-by-case basis, we allow for deadlines to be extended, work to be redone, or we might choose to use replacement material given the situation. Teaching professionals need the same latitude to help children learn as many of life's lessons as they can.
I believe we are to educate all children, and I will agree that learning is more important than high grades. However, valid questions have been raised and should be addressed. The community deserves full disclosure and honest discourse about grading policies so that we can develop a system that assists our students to achieve their potential. We are preparing the leaders of tomorrow. The foundation that we build today will determine the future.

2010 S.C. teacher of the year Bryan Coburn teaches pre-engineering at Northwestern High School.
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