Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Educational Autopsy

The end of the semester has come and gone at most schools across North America.  It is a time for a fresh start for students and staff.  It is the culmination of a course at one end, and the new beginning to other courses at the other.  For me, it is a time that I start to do "The Autopsy", where I look at summative data of a semester gone by: I begin to look at the success rate/failure rate in each of our courses.  I call this "The Autopsy" because it seems akin to a doctor coming along to his patient and trying to figure out what went wrong when the reality is that the patient is already dead.

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.


  1. Interesting post, Cale. One of our goals at our school this year is to create assessment folders for each student where we collect a variety of assessment data: Vancouver Island Diagnostic, Kathie Peters Reading Assessment, STAR Reading Assessment, Year End Performance Standards, WIAT-II results, etc. - and really focus on using this information to guide and inform our instruction. One of the most frustrating things we have found with our student transition (from middle school to high school) is that the teachers in the high school typically look at the letter grades in report cards (and occasionally skim written comments from the original source documents) when trying to learn about their new students. It really perpetuates the systemic march to the beat of the drum of "one size fits all". If teachers truly intend to see ALL students be successful, then they must pitch it where they can hit it. How many times will a batter step up to the plate when they know they don't have a chance of success?

    Carol Ann Tomlinson hits the nail on the head when she says that many teachers consider differentiation to mean we lower our expectations for students when in fact it is exactly the opposite. It is essential for teachers to have high expectations and standards for ALL students where the ladders and the scaffolding (which are the DI strategies) help ensure the student can climb to that success. Documenting the supports that we provide to students is equally important (which continues to be a source of frustration when it comes to official reporting of student progress) because that says so much more than a letter grade on a report card.

    It is our sincere desire that these assessment folders, along with an improved reporting system, will be of great value to us for the three years we have our children. We are equally hopeful that this information will enhance the chances of success for students in the high school and the "educational autopsy" will become a thing of the past.

    Keep up the great work!

    Reid Findlay
    Principal, LWMS

  2. Hello Cale,

    Great post that mirrors almost identically what we are going through at the school in which I work. Similar to you, I am at a semester school of 1200+ where we enjoy tremendous student success rates. We have just looked at our Grade Distributions also, and while we are proud of what our students have accomplished, we also stop to look quite closely at those who did not meet with success.

    I have heard the term "educational autopsy" before, and like you, get quite reflective when looking at the students who have failed courses. I enjoyed very much the list of questions you ask yourself and the staff, and we engage in similar conversations with our staff. I find, fortunately, that more often than not, the answers to those questions is yes.

    I do wonder, however, about where you have written that "educational autopsies" need to become a thing of the past. While I understand that you are referring to helping all students meet with success in all of their courses, I tend to think of the analysis of the Grade Distributions as less an "educational autopsy" of students and more a "school physical" for the staff. We share the departmental breakdown of the Grade Distributions with our staff and engage in conversations with them about how the students are doing in their classes. This is a springboard into a conversation about assessment practices, and helping more students meet with greater success; not only passing courses, but exceeding expectations. A school community is a living, breathing thing also, and it needs to be checked to see what can be done to make it more healthy. The conversations that we engage in with our staff, and they with each other in their department meetings looking over grade distribution data, are excellent opportunities for them to grow and improve the way in which they do things.

    Reviewing the data and initiating conversations about practice and purpose, and thus helping more students meet with greater success, are the types of "physicals" I am all for, and want to see continue. Ideally, in the end, continuing to analyze how we are doing, and what we can do differently, will lead to exactly what we all want, schools where all students are meeting with success in everything that they do, staffed by a professional group of people willing to ask themselves difficult questions, and make changes when they determine there is need.

    Thanks for your very thought provoking post.



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