Life and stuff,  Teaching Tips

What Does Progress Look Like?

School is in full flow.  Interim reports have gone home and it is time for parent teacher conferences.  Whether you are a new teacher, nervous about what could be an intimidating meeting or an experienced teacher with many meetings under your belt, it is always good to have a refresher on what progress looks like.  

You are about to embark on a discussion of someone’s child.  And whilst parents might not expect their child to be the next Einstein, what they want, what we all want, is for their child to be making progress.  They are going to be concerned if you tell them that their child hasn’t met the benchmark goal for this quarter.  They are going to ask why.  They may question your teaching.  They may ask what is distracting their child in class.  And they may tell you that at home their child seems to fully understand everything that is going on in class.

And your hackles are going to rise.  You may feel personally affronted.  But take a step back and breath.  Because the above questions are reasonable.  You are going to answer with honesty, and you are going to have lots of samples of the student’s work, and data to back you up.  But you are going to be kind.  You are going to show parents that progress doesn’t look like benchmark reports and end of year assessments, that those things are just a snapshot on one day of how their child answered questions.  And most importantly, just because their child didn’t meet a goal at a certain time of year does not mean that they are heading on a path toward failure in their school career.

What we think progress looks like

If you ask someone to draw a graph that shows progress, it might look like this:

What we all think progress looks like

At the beginning of the year a student starts at level D, for example and is at level J by the end of the year, according to district guidelines.  If you look at any published assessments series that schools use, there will more often than not be progression charts that look like this.  But this chart is misleading because it makes out that progression is linear, and that a student should hit certain points at various times of the year.  In the above chart, it looks like a child should be at level G by the middle of the year.

Steps model of progression

The steps model illustrates that progress is actually a lot more complex than a diagonal line.  

Steps Model of Progression

In the steps model, the steps illustrate students spending time at a point on the chart, working until they have mastered the level, and then step up to the next level only when the previous one is mastered.  It’s basically how a school curriculum is designed – we teach, reinforce, master, test and move up to the next step.  But the steps model is too convenient.  Each step is the same size, and each jump to the next step is the same.  And we know that learning in our classrooms doesn’t look like that.

Real World Progression

What really happens in our classrooms is this:

In this example the student began the year on a level D and appears to climb steadily throughout the year.  However, notice that in the middle of the year he is not at the perceived benchmark goal of G and by the end of the year he is not at J.  But this child has made a lot of progress.  Look at how he plateaued in between F and G for nearly a third of the school year.  Then he only made small gains until the very end of the school year where he jumped two levels.  This is a more realistic illustration of progress.  Did he meet the district goal at the end of the year?  No.  But is he heading in the right direction?  Absolutely.  And that’s why we need to step back and not look only at the data from one particular school year.  You don’t have a crystal ball, and you can’t forsee what will happen in the future.  

Progress over three years

In this example the same child’s progression is mapped over three years.  In second grade the student actually performed worse by the end of the beginning of the year in second grade than they had at the end of first grade.  Imagine being a teacher and having to explain that to parents.  Progress isn’t always upwards and onwards.  It involves plateaus where we are learning and relearning.  And it involves dips and drops where we forget and make mistakes.  By the middle of second grade this student has found his stride and is jumping huge steps and by the time he is in third grade he spends the beginning of the year hovering between level T and U before moving on.

The data in isolation for the first grade student showed someone who was not meeting grade level expectations at the end of the year.  But we must emphasize to parents and students that the year they spend with us is just one year of their sum total time in school.  Nine weeks worth of data on a student does not tell us what that student will become, only where they are on the chart right now.

Children don’t learn to walk and talk on the same day at the same time.  Why then do we expect them to learn to read or grasp math concepts at a certain time of year?  All children learn and they all make progress.  We know this as teachers.  We are revisited by former students who just got into college.  The same student who was not on grade level by the end of the first grade.  

Because I think this is really important and helpful to point out to parents I have compiled the above charts on a free download for you to share at conferences.  Get it here:

Best of luck with your conferences this school year and in addition to being kind to parents, be sure to be kind to yourselves!


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