Growing Up: It Takes a Team

Our parents were right. Children grow up. They do this fast, marching towards adulthood with a persistence and determination they don’t even recognize. Despite our best efforts to reverse course, our children still grow up. All the books in the world placed on top of their heads will not stop the process. Time is a masterful general as he moves us all along.

Knowing this, childhood is a scarce resource for any single individual. That makes it valuable. As a result, we guard it and protect it. As parents, we lose ourselves in it sometimes. We forget our ultimate goal as parents is to prepare and equip our children for their futures. It’s a long game for us parents. The short term provides opportunity after opportunity to forge our children’s character, train them and hone their skills and connect them to something larger than themselves.

The memories give us comfort, but the long game of competent, caring and courageous adults gives us hope. We have hope in our own legacy and what we strive to build in our own lives. We have hope for our neighborhoods and our cities. And this blooms into an enduring hope for our nation and our planet. This is the charge of each generation – to pass the baton of responsibility for solving more problems than we create and sharing in the work with others.

This work does not happen in isolation. As parents, we need a team. That does not diminish our responsibility nor the sacred obligation we have to our children. It acknowledges that our families do not live in a vacuum. Even in the strictest and most hedged in of communities – think of the Amish – children are raised by the community, not just their direct parents. Some of our families are fortunate to have robust teams including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more. Others include a connection to a religious community with a host of surrogate mothers and fathers, honorary brothers and sisters. Still others have networks within their neighborhoods including the family next door or community centers or sports teams and dance troupes.

The school is a member of this community and a fellow stakeholder in the lives of children. Parents today live in an educational landscape saturated with choice. To be clear, there has always been choice in education. This could have been private school or home school or zip code. Parents, if financially mobile, can move to find a house near a school they feel will partner with them in the near term for a great educational experience that ultimately contributes to the long game – competent, caring and courageous adults.

For this team to work – the parents and the school – they both have to keep their eyes down the road on this ultimate goal. This happens through a transformative and restorative educational experience that values the individual, creates opportunities for meaningful learning experiences and connects kids to the world beyond school. There should be a little magic each day – exploding rubber band pumpkins and trebuchets, built with your own hands, launching cantaloupes into the air.

Much of the conversation around education fails to capture this magic. There is a great deal of “noise” and for the sake of not contributing to it in this post, you can decide for yourself if you think the conversations we have about education are what we should be talking about or if it feels more like “adventures in missing the point.” Regardless, a school is simply a gathering of members of a community for the purpose of learning.

And in this gathering, there is a social contract between parents and schools. Similar to the Hippocratic oath where doctors pledge first “Do no harm,” schools pledge to “Remember the future.” When parents are looking for schools for their children, they should not just pay attention to the adults. Look at the students. Are they articulate? Are they confident? Are they happy? Is there a light in their eyes? If not, why not? Don’t get me wrong, not everyday is paradise for every child in even the best schools. Life presents a struggle and resistance regardless of age and we are not always at our best.

As a parent, I get it. I get the risk involved in sharing two of the most precious individuals in my life with others. I am also not immune to our culture’s constant pressure to be a perfect parent – ensuring that my children speak 3 languages, can play the piano, be captains of their teams, go on exotic vacations, serve in the poorest countries in the world, pick up a part time job, get 60 hours of college credit by the time they are 17 . . . all in the pursuit of the perfect college resume, to get into the perfect school to secure the perfect job and begin the perfect life.

I am old enough now to know this is not how life works. This kind of pressure does not have a happy ending for many parents or children. As Howard Thurman says, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” So instead of caving into these outside pressures, I should be investing in building my children into whole people or as Brene Brown puts it, “wholehearted people.” These are people who can live with courage and conviction, not in spite of life’s bumps and bruises, but through them.

Still, the draw to shield my children is strong and to stand up and be their protector. But at some point, two things have to happen. First, I have to learn to trust my team and second, I have to recognize that my children are on a path to becoming caring, competent and courageous adults and this requires them to fall down and pick themselves up again.

The school is a part of the team. The teachers, the administrators, the staff and the students are all working together towards this goal of building a better future. A school is a “building with a promise of tomorrow inside.” As teammates, we have a responsibility to one another, to work together, and build each other up. We have the same goal. Like ships setting sail, we are working together to launch students into the rest of their lives. Helping a child grow into a mature, young adult is a dynamic experience, fraught with peril and finished with pride.

I have to remember that I will not be able to live my children’s lives for them. They need room to grow. As many colleges, universities and business leaders have expressed, kids who are over-parented are not equipped for the workforce. Christine Deputy, who oversees the training programs at Starbucks, says “If your parents or teachers have been telling you what to do your entire life, and suddenly your customers are yelling and your boss is too busy to give you guidance, it can be really overwhelming. A lot of people can’t make the transition. So we try to figure out how to give our employees the self-discipline they didn’t learn in high school.”

Part of being on the team together is letting people play their positions. And our students should be given enough voice, choice and responsibility to play their position of being a “leader of their own learning.”

In this educational environment where choice is treated as a privilege, remember parents, you have always had a choice. Your children are yours to raise and train. They will one day be full participants in the future. At Village Tech, we want them to be active and engaged in their lives and in their communities. We want them to care. We want them to be skilled at their work and in their relationships. We want them to be confident in who they are and what they can do. We want them to take this talent and use it to serve their families, their friends and their communities. We want them to make a contribution to the world around them. As a result, we have created an environment for learning that facilitates this primary goal of building students who become caring, competent and courageous adults. We are looking for partners in this work. Thank you to the families who made us a part of their team.

Gap Year

Malia Obama is taking a year off. Call it a gap year, a bridge year or launch year, the President’s oldest daughter will attend Harvard University after a year-long school sabbatical.

Enter the Twitter-sphere and our cultural love for celebrity criticism.

She has earned support for her choice from some, but many see it as delaying adulthood or a privilege for the upper class. While both those things may be true, the reality is that there are students who are simply not ready to jump straight from high school to a traditional 4-year college.

Even for students who are well-equipped academically, more and more counselors and social workers are being hired to fill the gap for social-emotional health and resilience. When we push students to live beyond their limits, they struggle more than thrive. This may not be true for all kids, but for those who are learning to compete at a high level at a young age, the pressures can be intense. Without a solid foundation of self and balance (Covey’s Sharpen the Saw concept), students who burn bright at a young age have the potential to burn out as well.

“There’s this rush to figure out what you’re going to do,” says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the Franklin Project, which has a goal to create 1 million civilian national-service positions for young adults. We have a cult “of expectations to get started in life because you don’t want to fall behind. Life is not linear. Neither should the pathways of getting started.” – Source:

In the article quoting Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the author also points out that the skills to adapt and solve open-ended challenges are difficult to obtain in regimented and over-scheduled PK-12 education models. This doesn’t necessarily change when students get to college.

In 2012, IBM conducted a survey where they asked high school students and CEO’s what skills they felt were critical to success. The results are surprisingly similar:

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 9.50.56 AM

Both put collaboration, communication, flexibility and creativity at the top of the list. If our students know the skills they need to thrive, and those match with our business leaders, then where is the disconnect?

There are several.

The first is our 15 year obsession with high stakes testing. See a previous post on this topic. I will add: in the same way that students cannot be pushed to live permanently beyond their limits, neither can our schools. If we expect our schools to do everything from educating, counseling, mediating, training, coaching, transporting, feeding and even clothing our students, then schools will continue to be strapped to deliver on the primary promise of preparing students for life.

The second is the rapid shifts in work and society over the last 30 years. Think about this: if you were born at just about any other time in history, your entire life would experience little, if any, changes in society or technology. The forces that would disrupt your existence would have been food supply, disease or war – and either you could solve and overcome these problems or you couldn’t. I recently watched Braveheart and there is a scene where William Wallace returns to his boyhood home and breathes in the air. The air smells the same, the stone huts are the same, the land is the same, the mode of transportation the same, the cultivation of crops the same, methods of warfare identical, and the tyrannical rule of the British king still intact.

In the time period of Braveheart and in other times throughout history, wealth and value were easy to account for. At a recent leadership symposium hosted by Dr. Ruby Payne, she demonstrated that in an agricultural society, wealth was represented by a deed of property. In the industrial age, wealth was represented by a stock portfolio. In today’s knowledge economy, how do we value the knowledge worker? As Dr. Payne pointed out – no one has figured that out. We try, but in the end, we still struggle to put a price tag on the knowledge worker who is creative, collaborative and can communicate well. These intangible skills have tangible outcomes, but a direct link is not always easy to identify.

As a result, we continue to measure things we can count (numbers, correct answers, recallable facts) as opposed to things we can feel and observe, but not touch (teamwork, idea generation, creativity).

The third disconnect is the time gap. Parents of high school students still see the four year institution as “the way” to a better future because in their high school lives, it was. How could that much possibly change in such a short period of time? In addition, it is easy for us to value pieces of paper over performance because there is a presumed security in those sheets. Don’t get me wrong – degrees have value. College has tremendous value. The ability to obtain a degree in a field of study is a mark of performance in and of itself.

The problem exists when we fail to recognize two things:

  1. Not all degrees are created equal.
  2. There are no guarantees.

In our pursuit to life-proof our children’s existence, we forget that learning occurs through failure, mistakes, experimentation, attempts and do-overs. These are essential steps to success. Failure is a step in a process – neither a goal nor a destination, simply a step.

In technical fields, this is reflected in Thomas Edison’s quote about the “10,000 ways” in which a light bulb doesn’t work. In academic fields, it’s the bleeding essay returned with teacher comments for editing and improvement. In professional fields, it’s not getting a job because another candidate had better interview skills. In social-emotional arenas, it’s working it out with your friend on the playground because you are learning how to set boundaries and have healthy relationships.

These types of “failures” are simply tiny tears in our mental and emotional muscle that get worked out with use. Like physical muscle, they come back stronger. Without the muscles breaking down, there is no growth. In the same way, without mistakes, there is no learning. If we never got a wrong answer, what did we learn? We already knew it. One of the problems in chemistry today is nothing seems to ever blow up. Everything is contained in safe solutions with predictable results. The pioneers of chemistry – some who gave their lives to their discipline – are groaning in their graves at the sanitization of their craft.

When we try to control every variable in the process of growing children into adults, we are giving into fear. Our fear of failure outweighs our pursuit of excellence in ourselves, our work and our lives. We would rather play it safe than put something on the line.

Taking a year to find some gumption and test your mettle against an unsettled world smacks of courage. We would do well to instill in our students a confidence that allows them to carve their own path and make a contribution to those around them.

3D Printing Leadership

Village + Tech = Awesome

On Friday, Village Tech hosted a Leader in Me Training day for area schools. Our students were sharp and represented themselves well through eye contact, posture, confidence and communication. Our teachers were thoughtful and articulate in their comments and work throughout the day. We are working towards Lighthouse Status – a prestigious distinction for schools who create leadership at all levels.

The Leader in Me is a framework that facilitates the development of leaders. The core of this framework is the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from Stephen Covey. The Leader in Me developed in schools when a principal in Atlanta, Georgia named Muriel Summers needed to save a failing school and turned to the 7 Habits. The rest is history and there are now 2509 schools in the process with 193 who have achieved Lighthouse Status worldwide.

Friday was our second opportunity to host area Leader in Me schools. In February, we were selected for site visits during the Dallas Leader in Me Symposium. In addition, several of our faculty members presented at the conference, our teachers were selected as volunteers and Chorus Ink performed I Feel Better When I’m Leading as one of the opening acts for the symposium.

Our drive to develop leaders is at the core of what we do (character, challenge, community). To be a leader, you must first learn who you are. This provides a foundation for personal growth and development that can lead to influence. As Covey says, “Leadership is communicating others’ worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” Ross Perot lists leadership as one of his top hiring priorities. Often, he would hire someone with military experience over engineering experience saying he could teach someone how to be an engineer, but leadership was priceless.

Leadership is often misunderstood to be about title or position or even reserved for certain personality types. None of this is true. Leadership is an inward confidence that leads to an outward influence of the world around you. Leaders recognize the world as a malleable place. Leaders work within what they can control, themselves, to make a positive mark on those around them. This is true for any person, anywhere, anytime within any circumstance. Being a leader of your own life provides a foundation for success. In a village, everyone has an opportunity and a responsibility to lead.

As is often the case at VT, these values show up in interesting and uncanny ways. On Thursday, the day before hosting the Leader in Me Training, two of our faculty and staff members went to Region 10 for a training on 3D printers. 3D printing is a process that takes computerized graphics and then “prints” 3D models out of plastic. This takes prototyping to a whole new level. And thanks to a federal grant, we received a brand new 3D printer and these two young professionals represented VT at the training. On Friday, they fired up the printer and looked at the default options for our first 3D print. There were three options: lion, ‘demo,’ and . . .

. . . a lighthouse.

So on Friday, and in a brilliant picture of leadership development at work, our 2nd year Forge intern is in front of seasoned teachers and administrators presenting the lighthouse he printed in honor of our pursuit of Lighthouse Status. He spoke with poise and confidence, made eye contact, and was a gracious host thanking our guests for their presence on our campus.

Leaders are made, they are not born (Vince Lombardi).

Some might even be 3D printed.


Q is for QUOTES

Everybody needs a little inspiration, perspective and fun now and then. A good quote is often just the thing. Here is a collection of quotes from around the Village:

“Educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all.” – Aristotle

“Dream the Impossible, Seek the Unknown, Achieve Greatness.”

“Scatter Kindness.”

“Excellence is not an ACT but a HABIT.” – Aristotle

“People who wonder whether the glass is half empty or half full miss the point. The glass is refillable.” – Unknown

“Through these doors walk the finest students in the world.” – Side Entrance to the Forge

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain

“Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless”  – Mother Teresa

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”

“No matter the weather, always carry your own sunshine.”

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

“What is better, to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?” – Paarthurnax

“In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.” – Tim Peters

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.” ~Haim Ginot

“What you think of yourself is much more important than what others think of you.”

“In  this room we don’t do easy.  We make easy happen through hard work and learning.”

“Success is never owned, it’s rented. And the rent is due everyday.” – Unknown

“Character takes courage. It requires doing what’s right, not what’s easy or popular.”

“Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

“No one rises to low expectations.” – Anonymous

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney

“The more difficult the victory the greater the happiness in winning.” – Pele

“30 years from now, it won’t matter what shoes you wore, how your hair looked, or the jeans you bought. What will matter is what you learned and how you used it.”

“If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

“Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire.” – St. Cathrine of Siernna

“Greatness is not in where you stand, but in what direction you are moving.” – Plover Wendell Holmes

“Character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking.” – J.C. Wells

“Serve one another in love.”

“Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

“Character first, then everything else.” – Robert Johansen

“FAIL – First Attempt In Learning.”

“The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you do with what you know.” ― Tony Wagner

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” – Atticus Finch

“The expert in anything was once a beginner.”

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” ~Babe Ruth

“Challenge- To succeed you should find something to hold onto, something to motivate you and something to inspire you.” – Roy D. Chaplin, Jr.

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

“Always be yourself! Unless you can be as superhero, then ALWAYS be a superhero!”

“Be a light, not a judge; Be a model, not a critic.”

“Being male is a matter of birth, being a man is a matter of age, being a gentleman is a matter of choice.”

“Never beg for what you can earn.”

“While most men seek acceptance from others, what a gentlemen seeks is within himself.”

– Quotes on being a man found in the men’s restroom by the Forge

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

“Don’t just fly, SOAR.” – Walt Disney

“If you DREAM it . . . you can ACHIEVE it.” – Walt Disney

“Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests.” – Sir Ken Robinson

“Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.” – Sir Ken Robinson

“Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergize: combine the strengths of your team. Sharpen the saw.” – The 7 Habits by Stephen Covey

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

“If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” – Maya Angelou

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.” – Plato

“Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful and present, to serve with excellence and love, to be a force of love.” – Brendon Burchard

“Sometimes the reason good things are not happening to you is because you are the good thing that needs to happen to other people.” – Steven Aitchison

“You are not as fragile as you fear. Take on those big dreams. You will gain strength in the struggle.” – Brendon Burchard

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and trying new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney

Life is Like a Jackson Pollack Painting


This picture pretty much sums it up. Despite our best efforts to keep all the colors in their appropriate jars, life has a way of kicking over the paint cans. For the scientists reading this, you already understand this to be basic entropy – that systems have a way of moving from order to disorder. Just think of anything that requires maintenance – your home, your car, your relationships. Without constant care and attention, these things start to fall apart and dissolve.

Yet as an institution, education seems to reject this reality. If we can optimize our procedures, prevent mistakes, preempt any questions, then class as we know it can run smoothly. As a classroom teacher, this is a huge temptation. If I can just do it myself and take the work out of the students’ hands, then the ship will run smoothly. Deviating from this course of action leads to lost time at best and total chaos at worst. We see this play out at a legislative level as well where we continue to push towards a teacher-proof system. The problem in this faulty logic is what I mentioned in a previous post, education is a human activity and any attempt to human-proof it alienates both students and teachers.

There is a balance to be struck. The classroom cannot be a free for all. Even in the looser construct of the Montessori school of thought, there are principles guiding the decisions of those educators. And besides, total chaos is only conducive to the future anarchists of our society. The rest of us need some level of structure and framework within which to operate. And of course, there are different preferences by parents, students and teachers.

But ultimately, I am not talking about preference. I am talking about our fundamental assumptions about how the world works and how to prepare our children for it. Some of us see life as a closed system with clear formulas for success. If we can sit the right way, bubble the right way, take the right tests, get the right scores, take the right classes, attend the right college, get the right job, buy the right house and raise the right kids, then life will maintain the order we desire. In this worldview, children should be prepared for life through an educational system that values rote memorization, an intensely structured environment and a focus on the correct answers over good questions.

This isn’t inherently a wrong way to look at the world – I just fundamentally disagree with it. We are not cell phones. We cannot life proof our lives. The American Dream was never about living in the suburbs. The American Dream was and is about the opportunity to live life on your terms in harmony with those around you. The suburbs just provided an affordable and seemingly safe option.

The world we live in, whether we like it or not, is a series of open-ended problems. When K12 schools ignore this, we are setting our students up for an identity crisis. When the formula no longer works, the answer isn’t in the back of a book or there aren’t four options to choose from, how will our young men and women see through the confusion? How will they make a path for themselves out of the inherent disorder that permeates the planet we occupy?

School should be an environment where students can begin to come to grips with the tension of the unknown. They will need a number of tools for navigating an unknown future. These include: asking questions, embracing mistakes, recognizing patterns, play, conflict resolution, collaboration, communication, creative and critical thinking (aka, creatical thinking), visioning, prototyping, testing, interviewing, ideating and reflection – to name a few. Despite what we keep telling ourselves as a state and as a nation, these skills and these types of learning environments are at odds with an evaluation system where high stakes tests are king. And note – I said high stakes, not standardized. Standardized testing, in small doses, provides some insight into large batches of students. High stakes testing takes that insight and hyper inflates its importance to be the only metric that matters.

This is risky because it is easier to trust the lie you know than the truth you don’t. Students and teachers are making it in our current system in spite of it, not because of it. The adaptive skills – emotional and cognitive – necessary for success in today’s world are cultivated through students solving open-ended problems within the context of a real community. This is not at the expense of foundational skills. This is building the house on top of it. Our failure to do so leaves far too many students intellectually homeless.

The good news is the conversation is shifting. We are rethinking our obsession with measurement. We are embracing a little ambiguity in the learning process. Nationwide, there are schools designed for students to learn things that last. When students can learn who they are, learn things that last, and learn they belong, they are equipped for life beyond high school. The result is an opportunity to make a masterpiece of their own lives. And they won’t give up if a few paint cans get knocked over along the way.

Sense of Belonging

On Good Friday, several surrounding schools marked it as an inclement weather day. We did not due to its proximity to Spring Break and with El Niño working overtime this warm winter season, it turned into a day off for those schools.

Village Tech was in session.

Now, if you are a high school student without school on a Friday, what would you choose to do:

a) sleep in

b) go to the mall

c) volunteer at your former school

I don’t know what kind of student you were in high school, but option A would have looked pretty good to me. For three former VT squids, they chose C. In fact, one of them even led a tour of our campus telling parents and students all that makes VT a great school. I was blown away. This speaks to that young person’s qualities of professionalism and character – traits that began at home and were furthered through their experience at Village Tech.


This also speaks to our school environment. Students frequently call VT ‘family’ or ‘home’ or ‘community.’ They feel they belong and are part of something. Belonging is a basic human need, as significant as food and water on the emotional plane. Having a sense of belonging is linked to motivation, happiness and overall well-being. You can check out Gregory Walton’s work on attributional retraining for some of the research on this.

The sense of belonging is also something that has to be nurtured. Creating a community does not happen overnight nor is it an exact science. Each individual brings themselves to the table and as a result there are a variety of viewpoints, values and personalities. Each individual has to choose community. The prevailing metaphor is more like a garden than a factory. We cannot pound out community widgets, but we can cultivate a sense of self. The gardener cannot control every factor, but they can work to make the conditions for the plants optimal for growth. The result is a fruit or a flower – signs of health and vitality.

In the same way, students who belong demonstrate signs of health and vitality. These vary from student to student and every person’s scale and capacity is different, but there are signs. These include increased motivation, openness and honesty, persistence to work and learn, desire to take care of one’s self, improved academic performance. These can be subtle shifts over extended periods of time. Also, this is the work of children growing up and there will always be detours. Children, by their nature, learn through mistakes and failures.

If school reform is going to take root in educational culture, then we must leave plenty of room for students (and teachers for that matter) to develop a sense of self and a sense of belonging. This is not a new idea, it’s really quite ancient. Human endeavors demand human agency – the ability to choose and act upon the world around us.

Some of us even choose to wake up a little early and give back to a school that still cares for us even after we’ve left.




If you attend an Ivy League school and make an A, you might not want to call home to brag about it. In 1950, the average grade earned by a Harvard student was a C-plus. In 2013, the average grade was an A-minus.

I am glad to know that Harvard graduates are smarter, more capable and better equipped for the future than their 1950’s counterparts (

Of course, don’t tell that to the 10 Nobel Prize winners who graduated in the 1950’s (Henry Kissinger among them), or the 9 Pulitzer Prize winners, or the multitude of business and civic leaders who graced Harvard’s halls in the 1950’s.

So what’s really going on here?

In its purest form, this is known as grade inflation – where the grades earned climb steadily over time. What this really demonstrates is that not all A’s are created equal. At one school, an A might be a 93 and above while at another a 90 and above. Does this mean that the student who earns an A with the higher grade cut off is in fact more knowledgeable and better prepared for the next class or life after college?

Maybe? But how could you know?

Not to mention that multiple teachers teaching the same course grade in different ways. Some teachers are “easy” while others are “hard.” One teacher penalizes for late work while another doesn’t. One teacher drops a grade while another counts every grade and a little responsibility on the side.

The reality is that the A-F and 0-100 grading system is remarkably flawed; yet, few parents, students and educators question it. We assume that a student is average if he/she makes a C, above average with a B and exceptional with an A. We take comfort in the simplicity even if it masks the fact that a child may not be learning the course content or is learning the course content but at a slower pace than his peers.

To illustrate the point: a former Algebra I teacher was working with her son on his math homework. It was late, they were tired, and they got to the last question. Mom describes it as a “good question, multiple steps, higher level thinking and the kind of Advanced Level III question you will see on high stakes tests like STAAR.”

Then she says, “And what does my kid say to me?”

Kid: “Mom, it’s ok. I can take a miss on this question and still get a 95 on my homework.”

He has learned that learning is secondary to scoring.

I am thankful that my doctor does not have the same attitude.

“Whew, I have successfully treated 95 patients today – I’ll take a pass on these last 5.”

At Village Tech, we grade on a mastery-based system. This is sometimes called competency based, performance based, standards based or even proficiency based. The idea is simple: students must demonstrate mastery of essential content in order to progress through each course. Teachers are curators of the learning experience, providing inspiration, expertise and organization while students are responsible for demonstrating mastery of the contents of the course. Grading should reflect the following ideas:

  • Grades should clearly communicate what students know and are able to do.
  • Students need time to learn and practice from mistakes.
  • Students should have multiple opportunities to show what they know.
  • All of the course materials are important; not just 70% of them.
  • Technical, professional and social-emotional skills are as important as academic skills.
  • Students who demonstrate effort should be given opportunity to improve.
  • All students have something to contribute.

Instead of grading being driven by assignments, grades and performance are driven by standards. These standards can be academic, technical, professional or social/emotional. Rubrics clearly identify how standards will be assessed and higher performance is reflected by deeper learning and effort, not random extra credit. Students demonstrate their knowledge through presentations of learning, exhibitions of learning, portfolios and student-led conferences. In class, teachers make use of a multitude of informal measures to see what a student knows or can do: can the student explain something, compute something, build something or perform something? This creates a body of evidence to more accurately evaluate learning. All of this is stored in a portfolio or leadership notebook. Students then own their learning through goal setting and report their performance to teachers and parents in a student-led conference as opposed to a parent-teacher conference. The students are after all . . . the students. (Perhaps this will reduce the number of parents calling college presidents to resolve roommate issues. For more, read How helicopter parents are ruining college students.)

This form of assessment is not easy. It takes time, conversation, reflection and student ownership. It is an adjustment for parents and students who are used to seeing a number or a letter on a single assignment instead of a level of competency or mastery on core skills and knowledge. It is an adjustment for educators who organize content around assignments as opposed to learning outcomes.

However, if public education is to remain relevant for students and families, we must have the courage to engage in the conversation and reassess student assessment.

While a portfolio of work may not fit on the front of the refrigerator, it does sit nicely at the dinner table and that is a dinner conversation worth having.