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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Rick Wormeli: ‘Fair Isn’t Always Equal’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 02, 2018 14 min read
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Rick Wormeli agreed to answer a few questions about the new second edition of his book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

Rick Wormeli is a well-known author, workshop leader and educator.

LF: The first few pages of the book offer the best definition and justification of differentiation that I’ve seen. It’s not a fair question, but could you provide a short summary of what you wrote about it?

Rick Wormeli:

Differentiation is not a list of recipes to follow, defining levels of RTI, or simply knowing the definitions of terms like, “scaffolding,” “tiering,” and, “respectful tasks.” At its core, differentiation is a principled professionalism made actionable with demonstrable results. When we differentiate, we spend overt time and energy getting to know our students, not just in the first week of school, but ceaselessly throughout the year as they evolve personally and experience each unit of study. This is all a waste of time, however, unless we do something constructive with that knowledge.

So, responsive teaching is often a better name for differentiation; we don’t fly blind to the students we serve. We take what we know about students and their learning, and we use that knowledge to inform and create our instructional design, providing a more effective learning experience than could be achieved with a generalized, one-size-fits-all approach. It’s this mindset that is key: “What do I know about this student right here and now, and how am I maximizing his learning as a result?” There will be times when we do nothing because the general lesson is working just fine, but are we vigilant enough to notice when it’s not working, or when there’s a way to make what we’re learning more meaningful?

Differentiation is not individualizing instruction or putting students into groups, though we can do that as situations warrant. As differentiating teachers, we are ceaseless pragmatists: We do whatever works, even when it’s different than how we learn or what we do with the rest of the class. We accept our charge as educators: To teach so that students learn, NOT to play “gotcha,” and think this prepares students for the larger world. This charge includes having the ethical fortitude and genuine and versatile tools to dismantle antiquated, arbitrarily imposed curriculum sequences when they don’t work, and provide the lessons and timing that will. We don’t blame students who fail to learn on the same, uniform timeline, nor do we claim that staying with the same pace as classmates is a good review for those learning at a faster pace.

Because we’re principled and dedicated to students’ success, then, we usually design the most effective lesson on today’s topic that we can, then we augment and revise sections of that plan as needed, based on what would most help students at those points in the lesson. We realize that student competence in our disciplines is the most preparatory and maturing thing we facilitate in students, and that incompetence is never preparatory or maturing. Differentiation is making sure students really learn what they are studying. As such, it’s very demanding of students, whereas not differentiating is, “going soft,” allowing students to escape their learning. It all requires teachers to have significant expertise in their subject areas and in teaching in general, and not succumb to hypocrisies that surround us, i.e. policies, structures, calls for, “fidelity,” and pacing mandates, and programs that inhibit a teacher’s capacity to respond differently to students as needed. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

LF: You spend a lot of space in the book talking about the appropriate use of grades. What would be your “elevator pitch” about their effective use? It seems to me that many teachers have “weaponized” (my word, not yours) them - how can we help move colleagues out of that mindset?

Rick Wormeli:

Grades are judgement communicated: They are aggregate reports of the summative evidence of student learning as of one arbitrary calendar date, nothing more. They are as clear and accurate as they can be, but accepted as flawed and subjective, never to be used as the sole diagnostic determinant when making a high stakes decision regarding a student’s - or a teacher’s - proficiency. If they become anything more than communication, such as compensation, reward, validation, coercion, bribery, status symbols, or affirmation, they corrupt the teaching-learning enterprise, and can no longer be used to communicate student learning accurately or ethically.

Grades are rarely used to provide feedback, as they are declarative judgments of summative mastery. Any kind of judgment, positive or negative, can invoke self-preserving ego when receiving feedback, thereby negating its instructive impact. When receiving low grades, for example, students rarely internalize and learn from their teachers’ comments written in the margins or the tops of their papers. They feel a stronger need to, “save face.” Instead, they make excuses or put up a façade of indifference, so as to mitigate the hurt or painful reality check that contradicts how they see themselves. We’ve found over and over that judging students’ formative work in the early and middle points of their learning process, i.e. grading it or putting percentages on it, not only nullifies the value of those marks, it limits student learning.

This means that we do not formally grade anything that is not the summative, final declaration of mastery. That includes homework, quizzes (yeah, I said quizzes), classwork, notes and notebooks, group projects, labs (unless they are the culminating application of the unit’s learning), or any other teaching method that we use to get students to mastery. We grade against standards and learner outcomes, not the routes students take to achieve them. Guided by this principle, stakeholders can trust the integrity of the grade report, at least to the degree it’s reasonably accurate.

Given this, grades are never used to punish, motivate, or teach [Insert whatever mature work habit or behavior you seek in students here - self-discipline, collaboration, submitting completed work in a timely manner, following through on goals, etc]. Read every research study you can, dive deeply into anecdotal reports as well - None of them will list, “punitive grading” or grading in general as an effective technique at teaching these important character traits. Educators who promote this fallacy that grades teach these things are demonstrating a lack of training on how to help students build self-efficacy, positive work habits, executive function, and more. Teachers who are not trained in these areas overly rely on the gradebook for classroom management and are less effective as a result.

LF: I have a particular interest in “differentiated grading” for English Language Learners. What would your advice be to mainstream teachers who are trying to figure out how to grade ELLs fairly?

Rick Wormeli:

When facing challenges of how to grade English Language Learners in the mainstream class, always go back to your assessment/grading principles. Here are a few that work for me and many others (basing a few from Chapter 2 in the new book):

  • Just as with any student we serve, English Language Learners have a right to assessments that accurately measure their knowledge of the subject content under review. We protect those rights, even when it requires extended time and energy on our part to create assessments that generate accurate reports of proficiency. We can’t knowingly falsify a score or grade. So, if an assessment’s over-reliance on using English is the reason a student can’t express what he truthfully knows and can do regarding a particular standard, we have to change the assessment format. It’s not a choice, nor is it a matter of whether or not we have time or creativity to do it. As ethical assessors, we elicit accurate data and make accurate reports of evidence presented. There’s no moral authority for teachers to lie to students or their parents. Making sure a grade is accurate for an English Language Learner’s true proficiency takes courage and instructional versatility.

  • ELL students must not be penalized for errors in English unless the test is specifically evaluating their language proficiency.

  • If we’re not testing English specifically in this standard, we will test the student in her own language. We can choose from among the numerous translation options available to educators.

  • Report cards communicate performance related only to publicly declared standards/outcomes, not something outside of that. So, if we use an alternative assessment with an English Language Learner that doesn’t really ask for the same evidence as what is asked of his classmates, we are providing a false report as well, and this is to be avoided.

  • We will review all test items for cultural or experiential bias to make sure the student does not get tripped up on context that does not have anything to do with the skills, concepts, and knowledge we are evaluating.

  • Although we may choose different test formats for ELL students, we will not make the tests less rigorous than those used for native speakers. Maintaining rigor, however, does not preclude breaking the test up into shorter chunks that allow ELL students additional time and focus that it takes to translate their thinking into clear responses for evaluation. We’re mindful that trying to play a game to which we don’t know the rules is tiring. ELL students are expending a lot of energy to learn English, fit in, avoid embarrassment, learn local customs and procedures, let alone the actual content on which they are being evaluated. Fatigue has already set in before they start the test. Breaking it up into shorter chunks mitigates some of the unhelpful stressors present in long testing sessions without affecting the accuracy of the results.

  • We will be careful to go through every point in our lessons and assessments and identify academic English terms that we need to translate for the ELL student. A student may get by with conversational English, but academic terms are much more difficult to comprehend.

LF: Your writings about the role of assessment reminded me of a recent Harvard Business Review article that shared research on managers. It found that ones that called “Always On Managers” - those who constantly gave feedback to those who they supervised - did more harm than good. They were always pushing and giving little time for assessment to determine if the things they were pushing were what their employees needed. What’s your advice to teachers who want to strategically balance their use of assessments with appropriate instruction?

Rick Wormeli:

I’m really hesitant to equate schools to businesses here and elsewhere, as they have very different dynamics with elements that just don’t map well to the other. Attributing success or failure of an element in one to the success or failure of a similar element in the other can be misleading. Your question is a real concern in both worlds, however, so here’s my thinking: When managers (teachers) constantly give feedback to employees (students) [Wow, I dislike the analogy of teacher as manager and students as employees], they are perceived as arbiters (judges) of quality and the direction of the learning. This is not conducive to coaching and facilitation or to adjusting goals in light of new evidence, which is what most of us aspire to do in our classes.

Constantly giving immediate feedback diminishes students’ autonomy and capacity to assess themselves. Both are important skills for academic achievement and life, however. We don’t want to make students overly dependent on external validation. Many students already feel like they only have value to the adults in their lives based on tests scores and report card grades. They often don’t know how they’re doing unless a classmate or teacher tells them they are okay. This creates a passivity in students that counters the active learning and self-efficacy we claim to instill. Combine this concern with the growing emotional issues associated with posting items on social media and nose-diving into depression when no one responds positively within five minutes, and we’re setting students up for a major crash.

Feedback should be timely, but that doesn’t always mean immediate. For many early-in-the-learning skills and content areas such as basic sentence writing, new physical skills in p.e., art, or music, learning new rules in gaming or new protocols in coding, immediate feedback has great value. It’s corrective, seen simply as information that’s good to know in order to progress. There’s no threat to ego. Gosh, all feedback should be this way. With more advanced material, though, we don’t need to rush in with the feedback train right away, if at all. We invite students’ critical analysis and reflection instead. We teach them to self-monitor: How am I doing in relation to the evaluative criteria for success? Do I need to change my actions or do I need to change my goal here, and how do I know?

The modern educator doesn’t presume to arbitrate and bestow knowledge on passive recipients and declare students proficient when they can parrot back to the teacher what the teacher said in an earlier lesson. As teachers we have to ask ourselves: What am I doing to help students learn independently of me? Does learning and assessment happen only when I’m physically present? In each planning breath regarding assessment, we have to ask, too: How will students get feedback on this other than through me? If, in the majority of assessments, feedback comes only from the teacher, we’re not only depriving students of other valuable perspectives that would help them grow, we’re giving students another excuse not to own their learning. Where’s the joy and maturation in that?

Let’s circle in our lesson plans where we help students assess themselves, provide them tools for giving themselves and each other descriptive feedback, then let them act upon that knowledge as they engage in the next steps of learning. In such classrooms, students participate - they have skin in the game.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Rick Wormeli:

In this short discussion, I kept emphasizing ethics in several places. This is key, as most assessment and grading practices don’t change for the positive unless there is moral imperative to do so. I don’t think it’s too weird or over the top for a teacher in a department, team, or grade-level meeting to ask, “Is this the moral thing we do?” when discussing a new grading policy. A colleague notices, for example, final grades at the end of the year incorporate scores from the first quarter, but that material was never re-assessed at the end of the year to see if the student carried it forward. The grade, then, is based on a fragile premise, and may not be accurate at all. Does this bother us? Is the student being set up for humiliation, thinking he is competent, but really is not? In another conversation, a colleague says that we shouldn’t sacrifice sound assessment practices in high school, thereby jeopardizing students’ learning, because some colleges who lack the scale and training regarding those policies don’t use those same policies in their coursework. When we widen the lens of what we do, we see clearly, and with moral context, we teach and assess effectively.

We also have to ask to what degree we will allow individuals without professional training to tell us what to do. There are many teachers and principals who know what creates ethical and accurate grading, but they don’t employ those practices because parents or school board members are still pushing for antiquated, ineffective practices and they don’t want to choose that battle when they have so many others. I get it, and I can’t judge these people too harshly because we’re all hypocrites from time to time in education. There is a lot at stake here, though, including students’ lives, and that’s not hyperbole: Students can be denied or accepted to a training school based on one percentage point, scholarships granted or denied based on 1/10,000th of decimal point. Grades better darn well be accurate. What goes unlearned, unachieved in students because we were playing it politically safe and chose not to push for ethical grading? It’s worth the extended, hard conversations that have to happen.

The final thing I would ask is for educators to investigate how most professions in the working world that our students will enter when they graduate from our schools assess and evaluate their employees. They will find a remarkable disconnect between traditional grading practices and working world realities. Accurate, ethical, evidence-based reporting has stunning parallels with the post-high school/college world. It’s far more preparatory for what’s to come.

LF: Thanks, Rick!

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