For this post we posed several questions to Carly Thomas, a founding teacher at Nansha College Preparatory Academy, a new American curriculum school in Guangzhou, China. Nansha is also JumpRope's first school partner in that country.
Nansha (NCPA) is a start up school, Carly, in the midst of its second year. How did the school come to the decision of doing standards-based grading? Was there ever some conversation about doing traditional grading?
NCPA is a start-up school, and as a part of that, we have to plan and set up everything from scratch - so why not do it the best way possible? Before I was hired to teach at NCPA back in early 2012, it was already decided that we would be a standards-based school as this is best practice based on the current research. Traditional grading was never an option; the administrators, curriculum coordinator, and others decided to start with standards-based from the beginning.
Nansha is also a start up American curriculum school just south of Guangzhou, China, with 100% Chinese students. How have those issues, such as communicating with your Chinese families, impacted your implementation of standards-based grading?
Standards-based grading is a major change from traditional grading, and many of our students have come from schools where students were not only graded but ranked. This makes standards-based an even bigger change for our students and their parents, and we have been working on educating both students and parents on what this means. When a potential student is touring and testing at NCPA, they're told about our standards-based grading policy, and in every class teachers make an effort to ensure that students understand what their grades mean. This is an area that still requires improvement, especially since most of our parents do not speak English and our students' English levels are at different phases of development. For some, a philosophical discussion about standards-based grading is beyond their reach at this point. As we continue to develop our school, our report cards, and our assessment policy, we are finding ways to communicate with parents and students more effectively. With time and experience, students and parents are coming to better understand what standards-based grading means.
What's been the most powerful part of implementing a standards-based grading system, knowing full well that you're just 1.5 years into it? And what has been the most challenging aspect of implementation? How are you and the Nansha community working to address that challenge?
As a teacher, the most powerful part of standards-based grading has been the way it helps me focus my planning; now when I look at my curriculum standards, it's so much clearer to plan lessons, activities, and assessments to help my students reach proficiency for those particular standards. In the past I used curriculum documents to help plan my course and lessons, but as I was using traditional grading, the emphasis came from my experience and preferences rather than from the standards themselves. I also appreciate the transparency of the system; it's so clear to the students and all members of the school community that you're teaching a lesson to help students master a standard.
The most challenging aspect of standards-based grading for NCPA is the fact that it's a completely new system for almost all of our teachers, and we did not have time for substantial training before we started out with it. The second aspect that makes this even more challenging is that everything is new at NCPA. We're not only trying to learn and implement standards-based grading effectively, but we're also trying to learn and implement EAL teaching techniques, align our work to learning goals based on David Conley's Standards for Success, and build our curriculum, our after school program, and many other things, all at the same time. As time goes by, we're better able to address these challenges because there are more staff who have a handle on things and they can help the new staff. We have also created an assessment committee this year that's trying to iron out an assessment policy and provide teachers with easy-to-use guidelines and tools to make standards-based more effective and efficient.
What kind of advice, Carly, would you give schools - whether overseas or not - as they think about implementing a standards-based grading system?
If it's an option, I would try to do it gradually - try it with a few teachers or grades or subjects so that you can work out the kinks and develop some teacher "experts" who can help others when you move to a schoolwide system. I would try and educate faculty, students, and parents about the why and how of standards-based grading - the more buy in and understanding you have, the easier it will be.
OK, an off topic question: What do you enjoy most about teaching in China?
I love the travel opportunities that come from living abroad, exploring Asia is a continuous adventure, and I am always planning my next trip! When it comes to teaching, I have to say that the students here make it all worthwhile. There's a lot of work to be done at our school, but the students are so well behaved, hard-working, and just nice that it makes it all worthwhile.