Guest Column

The Bane of My Existence: Grades

by Jan G. Borelli

When I was a secondary school principal, student grades were one of the banes of my existence.

I would monitor the teachers' percentages of unsatisfactory grades (D's and F's). Teachers with high percentages of these would receive an invitation to meet with me at the end of the grading period to discuss the lack of educational progress of most of their students.

I would start by asking whether they were teaching during the year. This question always elicited shocked answers (with lots of disdain), assuring me they had taught their students. Then I would tell them that teaching without learning is not teaching. I advised them their grading of their students provided tangible evidence, through their own measure (their grades for their students), that most of their students failed to learn what they were teaching — or at least what they purported to be teaching by their grading of it. I would end the conversation with an admonishment to the teachers: Either you are failing to teach (by your own measure) or your teaching is not aligned to anything you are basing the students' grades on.

Sometimes I would get frustrated replies from these teachers that I just wanted them to raise the grades. And I would have to assure them I didn't want them to lower their standards. I wanted them to teach each child so that the vast majority could learn to the teacher's acceptable level of achievement. It was never an easy discussion or an easy resolution.

A Mimicked Style
When I was in high school, my brother Pat (who was in high school at the same time) took chemistry. He didn't do too well. In fact, more than 75 percent of the students in his class weren't doing too well. Now, this was a remarkable feat of failure when you consider the school was a private boys' preparatory school where the young men already had been weeded out from the average population to be the cream of the academic crop.

I will never forget my mother getting my brother's report card and then receiving an accounting of the grade from my brother. She hopped into her station wagon (the SUV of the 1970s) and careened down to his school for a meeting with his teacher. Now Mama was not the kind of person you wanted to tangle with. She had five children and had learned a brisk style that allowed her to supervise each child's schooling and teachers with a cool aplomb that didn't even call for the participation of my always-working and dedicated physician father.

This was quite a feat in the 1960s and '70s when women had to have Equal Rights Amendment legislation proposed (which ironically failed) to give them the ability to be considered equal to men. I suppose it was Mama's style that I learned and mimicked to take me up (and down) the ladder of professional endeavors.

So Mama brought that teacher up short when she told him that if 75 percent of the students in his class were not learning and loving chemistry, it was his fault. She told him she had been a double major in college in physics and chemistry and that she found chemistry to be one of the most divine academic pursuits a person could enjoy — and if he didn't make the kids love it, it was because he was a horrible teacher.

There you have it. My whole philosophy about schools and schooling was born in that moment. I believe if children fail to learn, we educators have demonstrated a failure to teach, and if kids don't love what we are teaching, it is because we have failed to show the beauty and excitement of what we are teaching. This philosophy has driven my practice since I began in the classroom almost 30 years ago.

Mismatch Revealed
Now I am an elementary principal, and grades have become one of the banes of my existence. There's a different reason now. When I went to Westwood Elementary, a school that had been on the state's low-performing list for five years, the only indication of failure came from the state testing program results.

Reviewing students' report cards revealed little evidence of academic failure. The children received excellent grades, and yet the teachers revealed to me low academic performance. I again was finding a mismatch between the students' grade-level achievement and what we were grading. The children were not being graded to reflect current grade-level performance but on growth. Last year we struggled through these same high grades with below-grade-level performance, so this year my campus improvement team and I decided to have rubrics (standards to guide rating a student's performance on levels of achievement) that would help teachers in issuing grades.

On the first grading cycle of the new year, I issued a rare edict. I told the teachers that students who were not reading on grade level had to be given D's and F's. Some teachers already had begun to grade their students based on grade-level achievement, but most had not.

Dismayed Parents
It was a sad day when I directed the teachers to begin grading the students on grade-level achievement. I saved the edict for Friday afternoon. There was a lot of crying and hard feelings. With most of our children from families of poverty, did I realize many of our kids have tough home lives? Did I realize the children had made progress in the class?

The questions went on, but I stood firm. I even checked the report cards (computer generated from online grade books) and asked teachers to go back and adjust grades to reflect grade-level achievement. Suddenly, our report cards were reflective of student learning of grade-level goals and objectives, but it was a hard step for us.

At our next parent report card night, teachers had a particularly rough time. They had to deliver to the parents some of the first report cards to reveal a lack of student success. Some parents were surprised and dismayed. Our after-school tutoring numbers jumped sharply. Parents began making conferences with the teachers to determine what they could do to help the children. For the first time, we had found a way to get meaningful parental involvement after we were forced to give meaningful information to parents.

I would be remiss if I didn't share my concern that some children may receive harsh consequences for their grades. I worry about this a lot at a school like Westwood, sometimes in the middle of the night. I do know one thing: If we don't do everything we can to reach and teach these kids, then we are just one more failure in their lives. God protect the children, bless the teachers and help us to provide an education that will enrich all of our lives.

Jan Borelli is principal of Westwood Elementary School, 1701 Exchange Ave., Oklahoma City, OK 73072. E-mail: