Reporting Student Achievement in British Columbia

Report cards will be sent home this Thursday and I’m feeling triumphant.  I have read all the report cards, Individual Education Plans, English language inserts, Resource inserts and in some cases student self assessments and curriculum summaries.  I have asked questions, made comments, suggestions, and signed off on nearly all of them.   They are copied on buff paper to be sent home to parents and copies are ready for each student’s permanent file.  And they are good.  I feel so proud of my teachers and how far we have come as an education system in communicating student learning.  When I was in Elementary school, my Mom use to receive an achievement grade and most often the comment “Carrie is a very conscientious student.”  No need for further discussion.

ThE Ministry of Education in British Columbia mandated that teachers will provide five reports of student achievement to families each school year.  In the Vancouver School District, at least two of those reports must be formal written reports.   At Livingstone Elementary School, these formal written reports are issued at the end of January and the end of June.   The expectation is to include information about student strengths, areas for growth, and how we can work with families support the student in academic and social-emotional learning.  It must also include a sliding scale to indicate how the student is doing in achieving grade level learning outcomes for each subject areas.

My very favourite part of the report card, as both a parent and as a principal, is the opening paragraph.  It was the part I agonized over getting perfect as a teacher when I was writing report cards.  A parent can see their child in a well written opening paragraph.  This opening vignette gives us insight into how the school year is unfolding for the child.  My very compliant daughter made this paragraph easy for her teachers to write.  My headstrong son made it more challenging but readily apparent if he had a teacher that was delighting in his creativity and divergent thinking.  Of course, in some cases COVID-19 has made the developing of rapport between the teacher and the student a challenge.  In person interaction will always be better than online interaction.

Old school report cards were all about achievement.  The “A” was perceived as university entrance, a high paying job, and a charmed life.  We know so much more now about how we can support students so they can create their own version of a charmed life.  We understand that standardized measures of intelligence change over time with increased background knowledge and are not a guarantee of a successful life. 

The work of Howard Gardner expanded our ability to see the many different ways that children can shine.  The work of Carol Dweck helped us to see how a growth mindset can set the stage for new learning.  We want students to be able to identify areas of strength and what they can do to improve the areas requiring more work to develop.   The measure of a good report card is the plan to help students build on their strengths and develop the areas that are not as strong.

Self esteem does not emerge from a sense of someone unconditionally viewing everything you do as perfect.  That is something reserved for loving grandparents.  It comes from the realization that you can do stuff by yourself.  That first paragraph in many report cards includes what students are proud of.  It usually has to do with learning something you’ve worked hard at, whether it is soccer skills, use of a new APP, or learning to read. 

The sliding scale in many ways serves the same purpose as letter grades.  It shows how students are doing in relation to grade level expectations.  The sliding scale has replaced letter grades because it reflects a new kind of thinking.  The goal is to identify areas of strength and those areas requiring repetition, practice, hard work, and possibly adaptations to move learning forward.   

A successful student is a person who is a learner, regardless of age.  A learner asks questions and tries to find answers and new pathways even if it means failing and starting again.  This requires the resilience to try again, as well as the analytical skills to come up with the reason for the fail and a new possibility.  There is no grand prize for learning fastest or achieving perfection.  There is power in believing that with perseverance and initiative, we are able to meet our learning goals. 

My husband and our daughter are the math enthusiasts in our family.  At the dinner table, they would discuss a math problems and alternate solutions.  My son and I would look at each other in amazement that they thought this was captivating.  We didn’t.  And yet in our adult lives, my son and I manage budgets, participate in games requiring math skills, and use math daily in our work.   We both learned that not all things we needed to learn are preferred choice activities.  We figured out that perseverance and commitment to the task at hand was required.  We still opt out of discussions of interesting math problems.  Just don’t get us started on history and politics.

The requirement for additional communications with parents to communicate student learning is an additional bonus to the reporting process in British Columbia.  Conferences, emails, phone calls, and student portfolios provide examples that support the written report cards with specific samples of student self-evaluations, measures of achievement and supports required.  The school website, Twitter, classroom newsletters, curriculum summaries, and blogs are also used at Livingstone Elementary to share learning that is happening at our school.  This provides a very concrete way to involve students in talking about what they have learned, celebrate accomplishments, and develop achievable goals.    

The shifts in reporting practices have been a move to recreate the communication of student learning to families from an event that happens a few times a year into a conversation that happens throughout the year. John Hattie’s research has taught us that children benefit significantly when parents establish and communicate high expectations for student achievement with them.

The Ministry of Education in British Columbia has outlined the process to give parents the information to actively participate in their child’s education. However as with any profound educational change, it is the commitment and efforts of teachers that determine the impact. It is work intensive. It is exhausting. Teacher efforts to help students understand themselves as learners, determine required supports to facilitate further development, and involve parents in the process are what make this process exceptional in British Columbia. Much of it is a labour of love by consummate professionals. Lucky for us.

Back to School

img_4630

It is that time of year where I am filled with conflicted emotions.  I desperately want to eke out every possible enjoyment of summer.  The lazy days of summer start to pick up the pace.  I desperately want to maximize reading of fiction, organizing, writing, socializing, exercise and random opportunities into the last days of freedom from responsibility.  The last bit of time before the days spin by and I drop into bed exhausted.  Too tired to read.  Too tired to pick up after myself.  Too tired to want to do anything other than flop down in front of reruns of Modern Family.

And yet, there is also the excitement of a new school year.  The smell of new books.  The seduction of brand-new highlighters and pens, colourful file folders and novel post-it notes.  The promise of a new year with complete organization and balance in life.  People to meet.  Conversations that make a difference.  The excitement of a new year of possibilities.

The good-bye speech from one of my teachers at my previous school, included the story of the teacher calling me to deal with four boys that were wreaking havoc in his class one afternoon.  He came to my office to find them drinking tea and talking about their feelings.  There is always a story and I do love to unearth them!  Facilitating the first steps to calm-down strategies and then moving on to problem solving makes a big difference in student perceptions of conflict and their ability to navigate it.  It’s also the essential piece required for empathy and for relationships to be repaired.  I look forward to facilitating those lessons that have the potential to make long term differences in lives and a kinder and more peaceful world.

I also love the opportunity to collaborate about learning opportunities with colleagues, students, parents, and community partners.  I have been fortunate to work with many strong administrators in my capacity as both a teacher, administrator, and as a parent.  These individuals believed in a flattened hierarchy and they believe in empowering others to assume leadership positions.  I look forward to helping teachers, parents and community partners to achieve ends that benefit them personally while also supporting the school community.

The Vancouver School district has defined a vision of creating a collaborative learning community through a lens of excellence and equity.  As a social justice advocate, equity of opportunity for all students in foundational in my educational philosophy.  As a principal in a new school, I am reflecting on what I need to learn from my new school community.  I will be investing in trying to learn about a new school culture.  I’m looking forward to the opportunity to the activities and conversations that can lead to a common understanding of our culture and define directions to consolidate and celebrate our strengths and the capacity for future growth.

Over the past year, our dynamic superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, has used the metaphor of the iceberg to facilitate conversations between administrators about the culture in the Vancouver School Board, one of the largest and most complex of the 60 districts in the province.  It has provided a meaningful way to facilitate discussion about culture,  both the visible parts of the culture that are easily observable, but also the larger mass that exists beneath the surface and is more difficult to discern.

I spent most of my career as a teacher in Coquitlam.  When I started to work as an administrator in Vancouver a decade ago, I discovered the challenge of trying to identify and understand the less obvious aspects of culture.   I attended VSB schools from Kindergarten to Grade 12.  I lived in Vancouver until I got married and moved to the suburbs.  I believed I knew Vancouver culture.  And I did know the obvious, exposed areas of the iceberg.  But I had no insight into the less obvious aspects of the culture.

Visiting David Livingstone Elementary and initial conversations have given me some insight into the culture and vibrancy of opportunity at the school.  I look forward to the conversations with the people in the school community to help me develop a deeper understanding to guide my work.  And this part is the most enticing part of back of school.