The Report Card as a Design Challenge

“Mommy, can I open my report card?” Jake asked me at least three times on our four-minute walk home from the last day of school. I was a little surprised at his eagerness as we’ve never made grades a big deal in our house, but he just finished third grade and was clearly excited to see how he had done.  He was also excited to read what his teacher had written about his progress this year. I convinced both boys to hold off on opening report cards until after dinner when we could look at them as a family. I don’t know if it was the additional anticipation or the hope that somehow the report card would be different at the end of the year, but opening the report card was a disappointing experience for us all.

It was the box standard LAUSD report card that assigned students a numerical value on a 4 point scale.  Both boys had a fantastic year, their report cards were full of 3s and 4s. We read off the categories and celebrated success, but were unable to answer the simplest of questions.  Owen, who is very talented athletically, asked why he only received a 3 in PE. No clue. Then we moved on to teacher comments which consisted of a few pre-written comments that teachers click on. That was it.  After 180 days of learning that was all the information we received. Sadly, as a parent, I was disappointed but not surprised. I was surprised that my boys wanted more. They wanted comments from their teachers on what they excelled at and what they might need to work on.  Now I totally get that our teachers (whom we love) were following LAUSD protocols and did everything they were told to do, but I wonder if their practices might change if they saw what it was like for a student to open the report card. What an opportunity for a redesign!

Having been a part of “Report Card Redesign Projects” at the district level, I know what a long bureaucratic process it can become. Don’t get me wrong it is important that we tackle these problems at the systems level, but I don’t think it should stop innovation at the school or teacher level.  What if we empowered teachers or school leaders to redesign their own report card? What if schools started with a question—How might we design a report card that provides meaningful and actionable information in a parent-student friendly manner?— and then empowered those closest to students to do something about it.  Yes, we may still be required to have the official standard report card, but there is nothing to say that schools or teachers can’t attach their own documentation. Here are two examples I have personally seen in action that make a difference for students and learning.

  • School: Design 39 in Poway has questioned everything, so it’s no surprise that they are also rethinking how to report student progress.  They are choosing to report student progress via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards. Growth Guides weren’t anything fancy, in fact when I visited Design 39 their first iteration of a growth guide was an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.

  • Teacher: When I worked as a principal, I had a rockstar team of first grade teachers who never felt that the “district report card” was enough so they created their own. As a team, they worked together to create a template of the types of learning feedback they wanted to share in narrative form. They wrote about students’ strengths, areas of growth and areas for improvement - including opportunities for summer learning and reinforcement.  

What does your current report card communicate to parents and students about the last 180 days of learning?  What is their experience opening the report card? Does this experience match your core beliefs about learning?  If not, don’t wait—redesign it! Like others you may still have to complete the required, official documents but there is nothing to say you can’t add your own. The more clearly we can share authentic feedback with students, the more engaged they become in their own learning process.

I'm Tired of Working in a Worksheet Factory

These were the words of a third-grade student as shared by Ron Baghetto, a creativity researcher, during his session on “Possibility Thinking” at SXSWedu.  I chuckled, captured the statement and shared it via Twitter. In most cases, worksheets represent the drudgery of learning in schools and this student comment captured that sentiment perfectly!

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What I wasn’t prepared for was the immediate reaction to this tweet.  Within minutes, there were hundreds of favorites, retweets, and comments from educators and parents who have witnessed a similar student response to worksheet learning.  The quick response both surprised and saddened me. Part of the reason I look forward to attending SXSWedu is that it attracts one of the most forward-thinking and optimistic groups of educators nationwide. Every time I have had the privilege of attending, I have felt like I found my people and yet even among this very forward-thinking group of educators the “worksheet drudgery” experience resonates.  I’m not intending to get into an argument about the merits of worksheets, sure there are probably some worksheets that are valuable(?), but we know most worksheets don’t equate to true learning. Yet we allow (encourage? ignore?) the practice to continue.

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Why?  If we know better, why aren’t we collectively able to do better?   Isn’t this an opportunity for us to impact change? I know we are focused on bigger education issues—equity, poverty, innovation, digital divide… the list goes on and on. But I can’t help but wonder how we can eradicate the drudgery of worksheets that students are experiencing daily.  Sure it’s a small change, but it is defining the learning experience for children in schools everywhere and it’s turning students off to school and more importantly turning them off to learning.

I’d love to hear about your worksheet experiences. How have you made an impact in this area?