STAMFORD — A roundtable is being organized for Oct. 24 to foster an open dialogue on education, including grading policies, tutoring, tests and attendance — topics that have recently sparked controversy in the community.
A panel of experts has been invited to participate, including Ian Rowe, the founder of Vertex Partnership Academies in the South Bronx and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Guskey, professor emeritus at the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and the author of a number of books about grading and evaluation, and Joe Feldman, author of the book Grading for Equity and CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which trains educators.
The roundtable is a response to a chain of events that roiled the district last year. A proposed scheduling change at the high schools led to protests from students, votes of no-confidence from teachers and a firm rejection from the building principals before it was finally shelved at the end of last year. Methods of grading have also been called into question, particularly an initiative that some teachers have piloted known as “grading for equity.” In June, the district decided not to extend Superintendent Tamu Lucero’s contract to June of 2025.
Rowe is the author of the book Agency, in which he argues for a middle ground between two “harmful narratives” — the “blame the system” framework, which says that society determines the ability for a child to succeed, and the “blame the victim” framework, which says that a young person is entirely responsible for the outcome of his or her life. He outlines four “building blocks” for agency: Family, Religion, Education and Entrepreneurship.
Feldman, in his book, discusses the concept of grading in a way that emphasizes a student’s mastery of the material over other “soft skills” such as participation and turning in work on deadlines. He argues that this system creates a more “equitable” way of grading that avoids penalizing lower-income students, makes grading practices more consistent and reduces grade inflation.
Guskey has also written extensively on grading practices and assessments, arguing for clear standards in how grading is done, making a case for multiple grades and the goal to have all students master the concepts taught in the classroom.
Drew Denbaum, an English teacher at Westhill High School and a member on the panel, told CT Examiner that he was looking forward to hearing a variety of experts with different opinions talk about education. He said that Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity provided a good starting point for the discussion.
“It really cuts to the heart of, what are we supposed to be doing? What are we teaching?” he said. “What is the function of a public school — what are the kids doing here? What do we hope that they’re going to get out of it? And everything, obviously, is connected to that.”
Denbaum said he would be bringing his own background as a high school English teacher in Stamford to the panel discussion. He said he was looking forward to talking about how things like grading and attendance relate to the major goal of teaching: helping students reach their individual potential and achieve success.
“Even though we have classrooms filled with groups of students, we’re teaching each student really individually, and clearly that’s a challenge when each student comes with her or her own state of readiness and interests and perspectives,” said Denbaum.
Another panelist with intimate knowledge of the Stamford Public School district is Bob King, a former Board of Education member who sat on the board from 1994 to 2000 and again from 2008 until 2012. King noted the importance of having public dialogue about issues in education.
“What I hope that comes out of [the event] is an interest by all people to recognize how important education is to the success of our community, as well as the success of the students becoming true American citizens being able to contribute to this society,” he said.
The event will begin with an hour of prepared questions from the moderator, with about a half-hour afterward for audience questions. Stephen Bowling, president of the Promethium Foundation and moderator for the conversation, told CT Examiner that while they weren’t sharing specific questions in advance, some of the questions would be “philosophical” and others would focus on best practices and what people “should” or “shouldn’t” do in education. He said topics of discussion would include the way that students should be graded and the purpose of homework.
The Promethium Foundation runs a high school program that encourages teenagers to debate tough issues, and hosts conversations at libraries and political debates as well.
Bowling said his goal as the moderator was to give people opportunities to look at both sides of an issue and decide which perspective was the most reasonable. He said he also wanted to show people that it was possible to have civil conversations about controversial topics.
“As a moderator, I’m looking to just give [people] an opportunity to see different ways of thinking about the issues,” he said.
Lory Warren, Chief Operating Officer of FAIR, told CT Examiner in an email that the organization wanted to encourage people to talk about education in ways that “welcome differences in opinion.”
“We hope residents of Stamford will leave the event feeling informed about grading, including grading for equity: what it is and what it isn’t. We hope they will leave feeling inspired to talk openly with others, share their opinions, and seek to find common ground,” said Warren.
An ensemble of students from Project Music, a non-profit that teaches mainly low-income students in Stamford and throughout Fairfield County to play musical instruments, will be playing at the event. Gabrielle Molina, the organization’s program director, said the students would also get paid for their performance.
“When we come together as an ensemble, I think it’s a really great symbol of Stamford really performing,” she said.
The event is October 24 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Ferguson Public Library in Stamford. It will also be available via Zoom. You may register for the event here.