Thursday, April 19, 2012

Parent-Zombie-Teacher Conferences: A Linear Equation?

The last night of conferences for the year has come and gone. Lots of good goal-setting, celebrating of accomplishments, and talk of upcoming tests/expectations took place. It is no secret that kids with involved parents, who take the time to contact teachers and check grades and hold their children accountable, have the greatest success in school and life. So I want to thank you, involved parents, for doing what you do. For fighting the uphill battle. For doling out gallons of that bittersweet concoction known as tough love.

Is there a magic equation or solution to student success? Because we teachers, try as we might, are not "the" solution. If anything, teachers are like the "slope" in the linear equation of SUCCESS, and parents are the "y-intercept". Teachers hope to accomplish a constant rate of growth each year (or exponential rate, in a good year!). Each student's slope of progress may be a different steepness, depending on their motivation, or mathematical aptitude, or prior knowledge. But as any good data cruncher knows, and I LOVE DATA, the real X-factor in the equation of success is your starting value. 

Parents, as the y-intercept of life, control how much of a head start we give our kids. Are they getting just the expected, and starting at zero, which is to say, what teachers expect out of kindergarteners on the first day of school? Or are we giving them a head-start of 1-2 years by having them attend pre-school, or educational day care, or working at home on letters and numbers and reading? Or, worse yet, are we somehow hindering our children at home; thus, giving them a disadvantage with -1 or -2+ years behind their peers... through neglect, or poverty, or simple inattention to their creative/learning needs? 

I wanted to share this Minnesota standards document that I made for parents, to help them better understand their own child's personal "linear equation" for success. Of course we all want to see exponential growth in our child's learning, which does happen from time to time; but more often than not, we are just looking for them to follow a pattern of steady growth in content areas. 

What I often find, both as a parent and as a teacher, is that most standardized test scores (RIT, scaled, etc.) are very difficult for parents to interpret. And what do we do with data that we find hard to interpret? We misinterpret what the data actually means, and sometimes react in a way that is detrimental to our children. 

Take for example, my sons being at the 50th percentile for height and weight over the course of several years. Me being the perfectionist that I am, I feel like I am doing something wrong! What should I be doing, to get my kid to the 100th percentile of height and/or weight? Does that make him a "winner"!?!?  What the heck DOES a kid at the 100th percentile of height/weight actually look like? A mini tank? I don't particularly understand how the comparisons are made, or what's the "ideal" percentile, if there really is such a thing, so I just feel like a bad parent no matter what. And honestly there's not much I can do about it anyway. So you what... give up? 

Standardized test scores; even SAT and ACT and AP test scores, often feel the same way. Great. I received my students' test scores back. It's a 480. It's a 25. It's a 3. What does it MEAN!?!?! Is something right or wrong? Where does my kid stand? Did I not do enough? Did s/he not do enough? How often, honestly, do we look at our children's scores, just to look at progress year-over-year... without comparing them to the Jones' genius children.

And what does that set our children up for... other than never being "good enough"? 

So what is the solution...???  I say, judge them on PERSONAL growth. Judge SCHOOLS on that particular SCHOOL's growth. Judge a country based on that COUNTRY'S values and societal growth and norms. And QUIT COMPARING APPLES TO ORANGES. American students are not like students from other countries. They have their own values and priorities, and yes, we can make improvement, but WHO SAYS WE HAVE TO BE THE "BEST" IN THE WORLD ANYWAY??? Can't we just be "GREAT" in our own way? Can't we strive for continued improvement, and CELEBRATE when we DO make improvement? And quit complaining about what's WRONG with education? 

Because, frankly, I feel like celebrating all the progress I have made as an educator this year. And how far my students have come this year. And how much progress my teacher team, and my grade level, and my school has made this year. What truly motivates us in life, is celebrating our successes. Not harping on our failures.