Category: parent communication

Homework Questions: In Search of the Answer Key

Every hour of the school day, a number of students hustle into my classroom, focused, and eager to get to work. Before the bell rings to indicate the start of my class, students are already invested in their studies. Backpacks are open, paperwork out, and pencils urgently filling in blanks. I don’t even have to provide motivation or verbal cues. My students are great kids. They seek approval from parents and teachers. They have positive intentions toward success and a sincere desire to please.

What’s my secret? Continue reading


The Role of Communication in Standards-Based Learning and Grading


Communicating standards-based learning and grading was the topic of this week’s #sblchat. Question 6 asked participants, “What should be included on a standards-based report card?” The image above captured my initial response, and sparked some personal reflection.

I was reminded of the memorable day when my son returned home from another grueling week of 4K. He had survived the first quarter of his educational career and now it was time to unseal the envelope of truth–the report card. Having sent thousands of grades home to parents throughout my career, I thought I was equipped for this moment–my first experience as a parent receiving a student report card. Intense.

And there it was. A clear checklist of objectives my son had mastered at or beyond grade level. Good kid. Relief.

But wait. Naturally, my attention shifted to two “Not Yet” marks. Allegedly, my son had yet to master tying his shoes and cutting with scissors. The mild-mannered teacher in me transformed into a Hulk-like beast–a defensive parent. How dare this teacher accuse me of failing to prepare my first-born for the expectations of 4K? Surely, my son had successfully used scissors at home. And why didn’t anyone tell me he needed to know how to tie his shoes at this level of education?

Once Phase I (defensive, narrow-minded, fixed on the negative) passed, I moved on to Phase II: consider the evidence and be a proactive parent. Rationalcheck. We practiced tying shoes–one of the countless, precious father-son moments. After some rehearsal, the milestone was conquered. My boy learned to tie shoelaces. He strutted into his classroom the next morning and presented this new talent to his teacher–and even used double-knots. Impressive.

I was more perplexed by the scissors issue. When put to the test, he made straight cuts, but showed no finesse while butchering the outline of a circle. It took some experimenting and a Master’s degree, but alas, we discovered he was more comfortable executing fine-motor tasks with his left hand. Who knew? My right-handed throwing and hitting son prefers to write, cut, and hold a spoon left-handed. The feedback on a first quarter 4K report card made my job as a parent easier, but more importantly, provided an immediate opportunity for my son to learn.

BIG CONCLUSION: A standards-based report card–which separates behavior from academic achievement and communicates proficiency on specific learning targets–presents a clear picture of what a student knows, can do, and needs more time to master.

This information helps guide a teacher’s plans for instruction and answers the most frequently asked question at parent-teacher conferences: “What can we work on at home to help support our child’s learning?” (the question sometimes comes out as, “What can we do at home to help our child get an A?” but I prefer to hear it as I initially presented–makes me feel better about our priorities in life).

So why do we stop providing parents, students, and teachers this useful information? At some point in the educational process, reporting is reduced to meaningless letter grades and several automated comments–the traditional report card fails to communicate learning. Yes, the stakes get higher as students approach high school graduation and institutions want to see a grade on the transcripts. However, if so much of one’s future is at stake, shouldn’t the report become more specific? If I am a respectable post-secondary institution or place of employment, I want to know more about what is heading my way, representing my organization.

A standards-based grading and reporting system is the logical solution. I know because I am an educator, a coach, a parent, and a student. In fact, I am the student who somehow survived high school calculus. My homework average was an A (I completed all work with some assistanceanswers to the odd problems were in the back of the book), quiz scores were in the B range (showed enough work), but my test scores were typically in the C range (sometimes lower). Final exam C-. When the report card arrived, I peeked inside the envelope to discover I earned a B+ in Calculus, “pleasure to have in class.” I was relieved and my parents had no hesitation displaying a Proud Parent of an Honor Student bumper sticker on the back of the car. I might have grasped some concepts, but did not learn calculus. I played the system, which is the one skill a majority of students are quick to master if they so choose.


After learning how to tie shoelaces and cut (but not run) with scissors, my son–now well into the third quarter of fourth grade–continues to enjoy the learning opportunities presented to him. My wife and I gained wisdom from the 4K experience and sent our daughter to school with enough skills to teach her classmates how to tie their shoes. Good thing standards-based grading provides specific feedback and allows for growth over time; I am proficient and improving, but yet to show mastery as a parent.

Promoting a Culture of Learning in 10 Steps

At the end of every school week our teachers receive a bulletin which provides valuable updates, cites interesting educational research, recognizes staff accomplishments, and highlights upcoming events. The format remains the same but new content is presented. The one constant is the series of (Du)Four questions intended to guide our practice and reinforce our mission statement: As the faculty and staff of a comprehensive high school, we will provide opportunities to all students giving them the skills needed to better themselves and society.

Guiding Questions:

1. What do we expect our students to learn?

2. How will we know they have learned it?

3. How will we respond to students who are not learning?

4. How will we respond to students who already know it?

These four questions have provoked some of the most stimulating and challenging professional conversations I have experienced in eighteen years of training and professional development. In 2008, Dr. Tom Guskey opened our school year with a memorable inservice presentation, sharing his wisdom and expertise in healthy grading practices. As a result, the district formed a committee–of which I was thrilled to be part–to research, discuss, and establish a philosophy of best practices for instruction and grading. The brilliant work of Wormeli, Reeves, O’ Connor, Marzano, DuFour, Wiggins, Tomlinson, Wiliam, and Guskey–among other educational experts–inspired my teaching and affirmed my classroom philosophy (learn with a purpose). After numerous drafts and revisions, the committee published a 6-12 grading document which our learning community continues to review. The most positive improvements include:

  • the elimination of zeros and extra credit
  • grades indicate achievement only
  • behaviors and work habits are reported separately with criteria identified on a citizenship rubric
  • distinguishing between formative, benchmark, and summative assessments (as online grading categories)
  • common summative assessments and consistent reporting in like courses (taught by multiple teachers)
  • a reassessment policy for summative assessments

While teachers continue to make significant progress in building workable classroom models, some have struggled to transition from a traditional mindset of grading and instruction. The cause of this discrepancy is mostly due to varying interpretations of the grading guidelines document. The research highlights what Frank Noschese identifies as the spirit of standards-based grading–a positive first step in a traditional model; however, traditional district practices impede the path to officially commit to the philosophy. I anticipate many school districts can relate to being caught in a similar predicament.

So now what? In an educational world where so many conditions are predetermined, attitude is the one factor we as individuals are able to control. As more questions arise, teachers, administrators, parents, and students must seize the opportunity to create an environment with freedom for growth and expectations of achievement. Rather than resist this positive shift or complain about the inevitable challenges,  let’s act with the mindset that all may thrive if we fully commit to a culture of learning.

In addition to expressing our own passion for teaching, love of our students, and zeal for learning, here are ten immediate, attainable solutions to impact our culture of learning.

1. Increase our reflective practice to contemplate what works or does not work and why.

Returning to the four guiding questions above is the best starting point. With respect to colleagues and friends, I challenge everyone to put their responses to the big questions in writing. And if those questions are too broad to start with, try answering these:

  • Have you and your department identified standards and learning targets for each course?
  • How are you assessing student performance on learning targets?
  • What are the reasons why students are not learning?
  • How effectively do you differentiate to provide opportunities for all students to learn?

2. Identify the purpose of each course and design units to meet course goals.

  • Determine the course content and performance standards
  • Craft essential questions to guide teaching and learning of standards
  • Break each unit into student-friendly learning targets (“I can” statements)
  • Allow common formative assessments to inform instruction as necessary to meet success criteria of learning targets
  • Design summative assessments around common standards to measure learning

3. Define levels of proficiency so students can achieve course goals with the encouragement of a growth mindset.

Proficiency scale

Proficiency Scale

4. Make Learning Transparent.

  • post learning targets so they are always visible to students (then, attach them to reinforce purpose and refer to them throughout the learning process)
  • emphasize the formative process to guide teaching and learning (continuous consideration of practice needed to become proficient on learning targets)
  • know expectations of summative assessment
  • students are accountable for monitoring their progress–there should be no surprises

5. Stop grading and reporting everything online.

  • instead, provide constant feedback on progress toward standards without including a number or letter grade
  • differentiate next steps for learning according to individual student needs
  • teachers may record student performance but this should not factor into a grade
  • better yet, have students chart their progress and take greater ownership of their learning
  • homework should be considered practice–ungraded, assigned as necessary on an individual basis, and respectful of each learner’s time
  • allow the process to determine when students are ready to be formally assessed. Then ask, “What can you create as evidence of your learning?”
  • remember: learning stops when students see a grade

6. Stop grading on percentages or points (ex: 7/10 = 70% = C-).

Instead, assign a score based on a scale of proficiency (7-8/10 = PROFICIENT or  9-10/10 = EXEMPLARY). Teachers have professional freedom in this and may report as required by the online grading program or district guidelines (ex: 7/10 = PROF = B or 85 online).

7. Redesign assessments to compartmentalize learning.

  • arrange by learning targets and label headings accordingly
  • reassess portions only–the most recent learning gets reported
  • students must prove they are ready–promote the mindset that students have earned the opportunity to reassess
  • have students reflect on their growth or verbalize their learning
  • embed reassessment into portions of the next assessment or formative piece (graded for individual students)
  • make sure rubrics reflect an accurate description of success criteria toward mastery of standards

8. Change the gradebook and reporting of grades.

  • set up categories to organize course standards
  • report performance on standards separately, not as a single grade (traditional example: “Chapter 1 Test” does not communicate learning)
  • report online by standards (ex: Understands How to Multiply Fractions)
  • learning is continuous and should only be final at the end of a semester, which means stop averaging Quarter 1 with Quarter 2–allow for improvement, recovery, and growth. Remember, the MEAN is MEAN!

9. Network with other educators. Learn from their expertise. Be inspired.

There is no excuse for neglecting professional development. If we do not seek to improve our craft, we will fall behind. Yes, we lead busy lives, but teaching requires reflection and constant adjustment; it’s our responsibility to be lead learners. Twitter provides a constant flow of information and is always available for educators–begin by observing and then get involved. Follow #SBLchat #TG2chat #ATAssess #COLchat, some personal favorites and an outlet to engage in conversation about my passion–student learning.

10. If you commit to one suggestion from this list, PLEASE make it this one:

In every conversation with students, teachers, administrators, and parents of the community, make a conscious effort to replace “grades, scores, and points” with “learning, progress, and growth.”

Taking these simple steps to promote a culture of learning–with an emphasis on learning–will benefit any school environment. The reality of acting on these improvements will undoubtedly:

  • guide daily instruction, planning, and assessment for teachers
  • empower students to learn with a growth mindset, rather than be point chasers
  • increase communication with parents about what their children know and can do
  • impact the public image of the learning community
  • shift the mindset of a culture
In a Culture of Learning

In a Culture of Learning

Prep Hour Praise: Communicating With Parents


By seventh hour of the school day I have expended a considerable amount of energy—always engaged, in the moment, “on”—greeting, coaching, moving around the classroom, explaining, preparing for the next class period, exchanging, collecting, organizing, and reorganizing. Does any of this sound familiar?

After teaching five classes and supervising a study hall, I finally get a few moments to sit and reflect at the end of my school day. Early in the school year I committed to increase communication with parents and end each day on a positive note to avoid dragging negativity home to my family. Therefore, as often as possible, I dedicate the first ten minutes of my seventh hour prep period to email praise to the parent of a student who did something noteworthy. Continue reading