Sunday, February 6, 2011
The Educational Autopsy
Why do I do this, you might ask. Scratch that, you SHOULD ask me why I do this. You should be saying "You are an idiot. Don't you think it would make more sense to look at this while the patient (student) was still alive and your treatment (school-based interventions) still have a chance to make a difference?". And if you asked me that, I would sigh like I always do and agree, you are exactly correct.
This semester, we had over 1400 students take just over 5200 course instances (ie. on average, each student takes just under 4 courses per semester--some of our seniors had a study block). We had 216 course instances failed, which represents a success rate of 95.8 percent across all of our courses. Since beginning the Professional Learning Communities journey at our school four years ago, this represents the fourth year in a row that our success rates have increased. This is tremendously successful, and attributable to the hard-working staff at our school, their approach to teaching and assessment, and the numerous interventions that we have at our school.
However, I fret. Of course these results are very good. Of course a huge number of our students are being incredibly successful. But one thing that I know is that all of that success doesn't matter all that much to the students that were not able to pass the courses that we offered to them.
Failure has a number of costs. From a cold and pragmatic perspective, it has a financial cost. Many of the students in our senior grades will have needed one or more of those courses to graduate. We will have hired a teacher for that course that they just failed, and we will provide another one for them to try to get through another course to get their credits to earn their Grade 12 diploma.
Failure has a logistical cost. So now what? A student has been unsuccessful. Do we make them repeat the course? Of course, the research is abundantly clear that retaining a student has zero benefit, (see Hattie, p 97 in Visible Learning). Do we pass them along without some of the requisite skills to be successful at the next level? Do we find learning supports, move them along to the next course, and give targeted remediation? Where do the supports come from?
And of course, failure has a huge emotional cost: it has a cost on the self-esteem of those who have been unsuccessful. I have never believed that a student starts a course with the intention of failing. I am going to guess that every student who is beginning a course here in the second semester is thinking about what they are going to do meet the outcomes of the course and pass as opposed to a carefully laid plan outlining their educational demise. And don't think that it is a great moment for the student when they go home and break it to mom and dad that they didn't quite make it through that course. No matter how much someone puts on a brave or blustery spin on it, it stings. Failure is not fun. And for those people who say "failure teaches kids", imagine being a fly on the wall listening to the two parents when their child leaves the room after giving them the bad news. Not a great moment.
From where I sit, I tend to get reflective at this point in the year. I tend to ask questions:
- Did we do all that we could?
- Did we meet with the student early in the course to determine their interests, and how they like to learn so we could maximize their engagement in the course?
- Did we develop a personal connection to the student to let them know that we care about them, and that we will work with them to help them through this class?
- Did we involve the parents so they could be partners in the learning process through frequent communication (ie. via phone, email, creating a class blog or webpage, weekly progress updates)
- Did we try to differentiate the learning experience for the child through engaging methods of instruction and multiple, frequent and varied methods of assessment?
- Did we use assessments to inform and alter our practice?
- Did we sit with the student and have an honest conversation as to what we could do that would help them be more successful?
- Did the student get sent to our Connections Tutorials?
- Did they get the small group help that they needed during our mandatory study block?
- Were they asked to stay in at lunch to get extra help?
- Did they get referred to our Academic Intervention program?
- If none of these worked, was our counselling department involved?
- Did we bring the student to School Based Team Meetings and make an alternate plan?
- If attendance was an issue, was the administrative team involved?
- Did we get the parents, the student, the counsellor, the admin team, and pretty much everyone else who could make a difference in to a meeting to pull out all the stops and see if there was any way to make this work?
This is not an exhaustive list, but it seems to me that when we do all of these things, the odds of students passing their courses should be incredibly high. I think we have a tremendously successful student body because when we see students starting to fall down we ramp up the support and wrap it around them so tight that they can't get away.
But every year I do the educational autopsy, which tells me that I still have a long ways to go. And although better than 96 percent of the time we are successful, more than 3 percent of the time we are not.
And I don't think we can stop until the educational autopsies become a thing of the past. I would much rather be taking students through their educational physicals en route to them being successful in all of their courses. Every time.
All failure teaches me is that we still have a long ways to go.