On Average

It’s Saturday and night and I am writing letters…the same kind of letters that so many heads and principals in international schools are writing… letters of recommendation for just about anyone we have ever worked with who wants a new job. And of course this is a valuable ‘report card’ for the schools seeking to fill vacancies. It’s a reasonable practice, if all involved remain thoughtful and ethical.

But what is NOT reasonable is the double standard that we are asked to apply to teachers versus students in this teacher form of a ‘summative’ report card.

Despite the now long standing practice of working from standards- based curriculum, that final ‘report card’ for kids is all too often an ‘average’ – be it numerical or narrative- of the learning over a whole reporting period…and sometimes over an entire year. I think we all know what averaging is; it combines evidence from the beginning of a period of learning with where they eventually arrived and everywhere along the way. It is one of those practices which NEVER should have been established, NEVER made sense and yet still today grips whole schools – even ‘enlightened’ international schools!

We in the learning business know better than anyone that learning is a process – a process of connecting the unfamiliar to the familiar, determining contexts in which those connections matter, practicing within those contexts, ‘failing’ many times, and making the new learning a routine part of our repertoire. It is a process which unfolds at a personal pace, odd and unpredictable intervals, sometimes as an ‘ah-ha’, sometimes bit by bit. -NONE of these match the ingredients needed to make averaging useful.

Averaging is not just an outdated process; it is actually inaccurate and even unethical, particularly now that learning standards are the norm. Surely we have the obligation to assist the learner in knowing to what extent a standard has been achieved, deemphasizing for the most part how long or how many times it took achieve it.

Serial ‘averagers’, (particularly those in secondary school) have a difficult time letting go. Somehow it is not ‘fair’ to those who learn early and well to allow one who learns more slowly – who EVENTUALLY learns and learns well- to end up with the same ‘grade’. Averaging values the ‘early’, more than the ‘well’. It seems more about ‘equity’ and comparing kids to others than about progress in learning. Essentially, averaging holds kids hostage to early learning attempts and teaches them that failure to learn RIGHT AWAY is a serious offense that they will pay for over and over.

I find the ritual of writing recommendation letters the quintessential opportunity to help teachers better understand why this practice of averaging MUST be fully eliminated. Pretty simple really. To those still wedded to the averaging process for kids, I reply: Yes, I will write you a letter. And it will describe the ‘average’ of the teacher you were in the first year together with all the other years -NOT the brilliant teacher you actually were when we finished our work together. Still want the letter?

3 thoughts on “On Average”

  1. Personally I think this essay on averaging misses some key points. Averaging is but one limited indicator of levels of attainment but it does not speak to an individual’s academic and personal development. Averaging pertains to a semester or final letter or numerical grade while a letter of recommendation for either a student or a teacher speaks to how they began and how they grew through their experience.

    I would not do away with averaging but I would do away with grades. Grades are so overvalued and and inflated that they have no real educational meaning. Narrative assessment is the only equal way to speak about averages and the real story behind those numbers.

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