Bad Grades 

Schools need support and participation

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There’s a term in education known as student “buy-in,” describing the magical moment when your students realize that, despite their objections, you are going to force them to read Huckleberry Finn, and you are going to force them to write about it. They can do it either happily or sadly, so they decide to do it happily—OK, at the very least, they won’t try to sabotage your lesson by asking to go to the bathroom eleven-hundred times. That’s what buy-in looks like: students not trying to sabotage their own learning in every way possible.

As a new teacher, realizing you don’t have buy-in yet is terrifying. It starts with recognizing the dead-eyed look of the smart kid in the back row, the one who won’t make eye contact with you because the classroom environment has dictated that it isn’t cool to answer. Then some smartass decides to throw something. You ask a question, only to frantically rephrase it 10 seconds later, hoping that this time someone—good lord, anyone—raises a hand.

New teachers are terrified of the classroom without student buy-in, but good and experienced teachers know that a class of dead-eyed zombies is not a death knell, but a chance to regroup and tweak your teaching strategies to fit the needs of a specific class.

Maybe the kids don’t yet trust you, so they are afraid to raise their hands because last year, some jerk teacher made fun of their wrong answers. Teach them it’s OK to give a wrong answer as long as they learn.
Sometimes the kids think silence equals good behavior. I’ll never forget a principal coming into my rowdiest class for an evaluation, only to watch my usually very active students turn to stone. They answered questions in one word. They barely talked to their partners during the assignment. They sat neatly in their seats until the principal left, only to then exclaim, “Ms. Lauritzen! Did you see? We were so good for your evaluation!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them otherwise. I just spent the rest of the year teaching them that good classes don’t just need good teachers, they need good students—and good students participate.

The high school where I work also underwent a misleading evaluation. The Utah Legislature recently “graded” our school and gave us a C. I’m less concerned about the grade itself and more worried about the methods in which we were evaluated. The Legislature used a one-size-fits-all method of grading, determining grades based solely on standardized tests. The Legislature claims the grading system was intended to “shine a light” on the failings of public education, publicly shaming low-performing schools into improving. But  a standardized test cannot cover the  entire scope of a school’s accomplishments. I teach humanities, a class not tested by the CRT. The learning and growth I see in my students each year was not graded by the Legislature because I cannot provide them a neat little number.

Furthermore, the evaluations compared the progress of low-income schools—schools that teach hundreds of English Language Learners—with college-prep charter schools like the Utah County Academy of Sciences. Schools that serve underprivileged populations already know their test scores aren’t going to match a school with more resources. And whatever the circumstances of the school, the last thing a public school needs is a failing or low grade. Public schools need support, not just from the Legislature but from parents, who are now wondering if they should pull their child from a C- or D-grade school.

At the end of the day, the most disturbing aspect of the grading system devised by the Utah Legislature is the fact that they knew in advance that using a bell curve to grade schools would result in a high number of C grades relative to A grades. Their intent was not to support public schools and make them better, but to scare the public into thinking their kid’s school wasn’t good enough, making them more likely to support measures that undermine public education. That’s why the grading bill was written by Utah Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher organization, and not educators themselves. That’s why legislators stopped meeting with representatives from the Utah Education Association and the Utah PTA. The Utah Legislature is the kid in the class who won’t buy in to the value of public education, so he throws something in the middle of the lecture so the smart kids feel afraid to raise their hands.

So, how can Utah parents buy into public education? Ignore the grades put out by the Legislature; it’s just a kid asking to go to the bathroom instead of doing work. Focus on supporting your local school by knowing when you send your children to school each day whether they did their homework. Volunteer in the classroom and the PTA and work to make struggling schools better instead of abandoning ship and crying “vouchers!” and “private schools work because they run like a business!” every time your school does something you don’t like. Public schools won’t improve by handing out vouchers and taking back resources; they’ll improve when the smart kid looks me in the eye and raises his hand because he has decided that education is important. He’ll grow up and send his daughter to a public school because we need the smart kids with involved parents to stay. He’ll buy in.

As for the teachers? We’ll keep doing our best to work with huge classes and limited resources. And we’ll hope. We’ll hope that Utah voters will remember that good schools need good students, and good students participate. 

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