Works hard, but could do better.

It’s a safe bet that in any given month somewhere in the world teachers are writing, or preparing to write, reports.  It is an even safer bet that, regardless of the reporting system used in their school, the majority of teachers are complaining about it, and that many are considering a career change to something that less demanding, such as coal-mining.

When term-end exams were regarded as a meaningful and sufficient way of measuring learning, it made sense to issue a report card that simply summarised the results of those exams, together with a couple of words from the teacher to personalise the exercise (as in the title of this post).  However, although we now recognise that exam results are at best inadequate and at worst irrelevant as a measure of learning, we stick with the termly report card to which they gave rise.  Furthermore, as report cards were conceived as a simple summary of objective results, our efforts to force them to serve the completely different purpose of an anecdotal commentary on a progress actually makes things worse.  A student’s learning is a complex and constantly evolving process, and any attempt to generate an accurate ‘freeze frame’ account is doomed to failure.  Generalities are of little value, and specifics are likely to be unrepresentative, no longer applicable, open to misinterpretation,  or all three.  Hence the stress on teachers, who feel obliged to fill the yawning space allocated, yet who know that everything they write will be scrutinised, analysed and given meaning and significance that was never intended.  Small wonder that what used to be an end of term chore of a couple of hours is now a two week (or longer) wordsmithing  nightmare.

Report cards are the bane of teachers’ existence, and school administrators are caught between the preference of the faculty not to have to work late into the night after a full day of teaching and the demand from parents for detailed information on the progress of their children.  They could be forgiven for wanting to scrap report cards completely.

So why don’t they?

Technology has given us the means of communicating with parents and students in a way that properly mirrors what is happening in school, i.e. an ongoing commentary made up of small observations that, when taken together, provide a realistic narrative of the development of the student.  Of course, many Elementary (and some Secondary) teachers already do this for themselves in the form of running records, class notes etc., but they tend not to be shared with parents or students.  If a permanent three-way conversation were to be established, parents and student would gain a much clearer understanding of the complexity and inherent messiness of learning, as well as a more meaningful picture of the student’s progress.

Of course, tweeting parents regularly would add to the daily workload, but at least it would be work that had a clear purpose, and could be structured sensibly into the working day, instead of the present artificial exercise that ruins the lives of teachers for a month, and then ruins the lives of many students for the weeks following!