When School Is a Game, Nobody Wins

Guest post by Brian M. Stack

As school principals, most of us are measured by how many of our students “meet the standard” for getting to the next level, and therefore, we often focus first on making sure that failing students don’t fall too far behind. But what if this is the wrong metric and the wrong mentality? The fact is, the way we measure educational achievement today puts too much emphasis on staying above the bare minimum, rather than aiming as high as possible. And I’m not just talking about helping the most gifted students do even better. Too many of our students at all levels have figured out how to be “successful” without mastering all of the skills they actually need. If we are to truly advance learning in our schools, something needs to change, and it needs to change fast.

Consider Kasey, a typical 11th grade student. Kasey has a stable family support system and aspires to go to college. Her parents know what colleges look for in the admissions process, and together they make decisions to increase her odds. Here are some of the common approaches that Kasey could take that do not sit well with me as a principal:

1. Kasey tries to enroll in as many honors level and AP courses as she can reasonably fit in her schedule, even if she doesn’t meet the prerequisites for these classes.

2. In honors and AP classes, most teachers weight tests between 40 and 60 percent of final course grades, but Kasey is not confident about her test-taking abilities. Instead, she focuses on racking up as many “easy points” as possible—e.g., 20 points for homework and 10 points for participation.

3. Some teachers give Kasey additional opportunities to game the system by allowing her to drop her lowest test grades. The assistant coach for the football team gives her extra credit for attending games.

Kasey’s approach to getting good grades is logical given the way the system is set up. However, these tactics make me uncomfortable as a principal because I don’t believe that such traditional grading and assessment systems are an accurate representation of what students like Kasey know and are able to do. These systems, in general, create incentives for students to play the game of school by racking up points in behavior-based areas but they do not directly reflect knowledge or aptitude. How will a system like this ever result in the promotion of deeper learning and authentic assessment? The answer is simple. It won’t, unless we make fundamental and philosophical changes to the way we operate our schools.

Competency education is one way to address these challenges. This approach is sometimes called mastery learning, proficiency-based learning, and even, to a lesser degree, standards-based learning. At its core, competency education focuses on enhancing the ways students learn and are evaluated.

Nearly a decade ago, a colleague and fellow elementary school principal Jonathan Vander Els and I engaged in this redesign transformation with our staffs in a small New Hampshire school district near Boston. It was the most rewarding yet difficult experience of our educational careers. Others are discovering this approach to be worth the effort as it is gaining traction across the country. According to a 2016 report by the International Association of K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), there were only six states that had not yet developed policies to support competency education.

Schools across the country that have successfully made the shift from a traditional to a competency-based model are doing right by their students. They have redesigned all aspects of their school, including their curriculum; their practices for instruction, assessment, and grading; how they support students throughout the learning process; how they offer learning pathways to meet individual student needs; how they use time; and ultimately, how they report out on student achievement. By making this shift, school leaders can help all students understand that education is not a game to be played until you reach the next level, but rather a lifelong journey of self-improvement that must be continuously pursued.

To further support our peers who want to be part of a successful reform movement, Jonathan and I are excited to announce that we recently co-authored a book titled Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work (2017, Solution Tree). Please feel free to contact me at bstackbu@gmail.com with any questions or to discuss further.

Think of instructional practices at your school that might be encouraging students to play the game rather than truly learn. Then consider whether a competency-based approach could help improve teacher instruction and student performance. 

Brian M. Stack is the 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, and also serves as a member of the Nellie Mae Speakers Bureau and as an expert for Understood.org. You can follow him on Twitter @bstackbu or learn more about him by visiting his blog. 

1 Comment

  • Thanks for this thoughtful post, Brian. More and more, the job of educational leaders is to lead their communities to challenge the assumptions about school that need to evolve. Your discussion of grades is one of the most actionable ways that schools can make steps away from past practices of another era and toward modern learning. I look forward to checking out your book!

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