Two years ago we would dream about getting rid of grades over lunch in the faculty room; something that would never happen in our lifetimes. If you had told me that we would be getting rid of grades for the class of 2021, I probably would have made some snarky remark about how that “would be nice”. So how did it happen so quickly? How is it possible that our board approved a reporting method that doesn’t include grades for next year’s freshman? I have been reflecting on this historic decision over the last week still in a little bit of a state of shock that it’s actually happening.
I think the first turning point for us was several years ago when our principal purchased Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and asked all of us to do a summer reading of it. Growth mindset is really an easy sell, at least intellectually; it is harder for people to internalize and actually demonstrate through actions but intellectually, it’s an easy shift and a fundamental understanding if you want to talk about learning without external motivators like grades. In fact, grades start looking pretty bad after a cursory understanding of growth mindset is in place. A second summer reading of On Your Mark by Thomas Guskey gave tools to those interested in making some mindset related changes in their grading practices.
Layered on top of our mindset work, Vermont enacted a law that required proficiency-based graduation instead of credits and seat time (seriously, at this point, I thought I might be dreaming). As we worked to understand and develop this system, grades became even less relevant. I mean, students either master the skill or they keep working on it until they do. Not only do grades not make sense in a system like this but they get in the way. We have played around with how to make it work but giving a grade either stops the learning or the grade loses its meaning because it can keep changing as a student works toward mastery. As we grappled with how to implement a proficiency-based system, we explored standards-based grading practices but we kept coming to the same conclusion; the one through four system didn’t look a whole lot different from the A-F system. I think one reason we were able to see this was that many teachers had already been aligning their curriculum closely to standards and translating assessments scored on rubrics into grades. Doing this in an online grading system seemed no different. Even the kids started to see how it didn’t make sense or it just seemed extremely confusing. Why keep trying if they already got a grade? So, coming to the conclusion that we needed something besides grades to report this type of learning was relatively easy. The hard part was figuring how and what to report. Experimenting with incompletes, retakes, and other strategies that disrupted traditional grading only made it more and more clear that grades and proficiency-based learning didn’t mix.
Making learning more visible came naturally as some teachers experimented with project-based learning that required authentic audiences. Looking back (and looking forward), this was and is a key component of getting “buy-in” or even better, genuine interest. The most persuasive argument for proficiency-based learning has come from students. Getting people in the building to see what the learning looks like makes the “buy-in” part genuine. It creates trust and demystifies the changes so they don’t seem scary. Proficiency-based learning is really just good teaching and learning and creating opportunities for people to experience this is more effective than telling them about it in a community meeting. We have done several exhibitions of student projects as well as invited community members in to work with students in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Getting people in the building is one way to make learning visible but using social media channels and the school website is another way to show what learning looks like.
In addition to the shifts I have mentioned, another important strategy we used was to build on strengths rather than trying to improve weaknesses. We used starting points where we already had assets and this helped us build stronger foundations so when there was uncharted territory, we were more able to handle those novel moments. These three aspects of making change as well as our focus on strengths got a critical mass of people on board prior to any presentation was made to our school board.
There are still many skeptics at this point but all of these experiences allowed us to get very clear about what we were doing and why we were doing it. When it did come time to communicate to the board, we had answers to a lot of questions. We genuinely believed that the changes we wanted to make were the best thing for kids and would improve their achievement and motivation for learning. Ultimately, if there is nothing else, trust is the number one factor that impacts the ability of a leader or school community to make change that sticks. Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon have identified three key ingredients for making change in schools including strong leadership, communication and resources.
I have identified several others. I realized early on (and to my dismay) that there wasn’t going to be a school out there that modeled everything we wanted or needed in order to make this shift. Our school and community eco-systems are all so different. There are some common themes when making change though and they are starting to come out as schools begin to transform. I tried to synthesize some of the characteristics that have allowed us to move forward into a tool that is followed by possible next steps and resources. One thing that I have definitely learned is that change can seem overwhelming and that can be paralyzing. Finding a manageable task that just makes a small step can prevent this paralysis. Check out the strengths assessment tool to identify your starting point. Follow the #nogrades hashtag on Twitter to get updates.