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And You, on Average? Notes on a Blatant Double Standard

By Bambi Betts
And You, on Average? Notes on a Blatant Double Standard

It is Saturday and night and I am writing letters... The same kind of letters that so many heads and principals in international schools are writing... Letters of recommendation for just about anyone we have ever worked with who wants a new job. And of course this is a valuable “report card” for those schools seeking to fill vacancies.
It is a reasonable practice, if all involved remain thoughtful and ethical. But what is not reasonable is the double standard that we are asked to apply to teachers versus students, in this teacher version of a “summative” report card.
Despite the now long-standing practice of working from standards-based curricula, that final “report card” for students is all too often an “average”—be it numerical or narrative—of the learning over a whole reporting period... and sometimes over an entire year.
We all know what averaging is; it combines evidence from the beginning of a period of learning with where someone eventually arrived, and everywhere along the way. It is one of those practices that never should have been established, never made sense, and yet still today grips whole schools —even “enlightened” international schools!
We in the learning business know better than anyone that learning is a process—a process of connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, determining contexts in which those connections matter, practicing within those contexts, failing many times, and making the new learning a routine part of our repertoire.
It is a process that unfolds at a personal pace, on odd and unpredictable intervals, sometimes as an “a-ha!” moment, sometimes bit by bit. None of these match the ingredients needed to make averaging useful. Averaging is not just an outdated process; it is actually inaccurate and even unethical, particularly now that learning standards are the norm.
Surely we have the obligation to assist the learner in knowing to what extent a standard has been achieved, de-emphasizing for the most part how long or how many times it took achieve it.
Serial “averagers,” (particularly those in secondary school) have a difficult time letting go. Somehow it is not “fair” to those who learn early and well to allow one who learns more slowly—who eventually learns and learns well—to end up with the same “grade.”
Averaging values the “early,” more than the “well.” It seems more about “equity” and comparing students to others than about progress in learning. Essentially, averaging holds children hostage to early learning attempts and teaches them that failure to learn right away is a serious offense that they will pay for over and over.
Writing recommendation letters is a quintessential opportunity to help teachers better understand why this practice must be fully eliminated. It is pretty simple, really. To those still wedded to the averaging process for students, I reply: Yes, I will write you a letter. And it will describe the “average” of the teacher you were in the first year, together with all the other years—not the brilliant teacher you actually were when we finished our work together. Do you still want that letter?

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