Stamford Roundtable on Education and Grading, Attracts Controversy, Thoughtful Debate

An education round table in Stamford offered “civil dialogue” about academic standards (CT Examiner)

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Ken Goldberg was one of the Stamford Public Schools parents who came out strongly against a proposal early this year to change the high school course schedule.

There were protests, heated discussions on social media, and votes of no confidence in Superintendent Tamu Lucero. Goldberg created a petition on Change.org that garnered nearly 600 signatures in opposition. 

But out of discord can come civil discourse, Goldberg said. The result was Monday night’s roundtable at the Ferguson Library, organized mostly by parents. It’s the first of what Goldberg says will be a series of forums that will offer parents a venue for learning about education policy and speaking about their expectations for how and what their children learn in school.

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The goal is to also involve teachers, said Goldberg, parent of a high school senior at Stamford’s Academy of Information Technology & Engineering.

“We didn’t plan the roundtable with the intent to point fingers at educational leadership” after the scheduling controversy, said Goldberg, a tax attorney. “The purpose is not to say, ‘OK, here is the blueprint for how the Stamford Board of Education should proceed.’ It’s to say, ‘This is how we have respectful discourse.’ I think now we have to hear from Stamford teachers, because a lot have been frustrated by the process and afraid to speak out. I hope roundtables will enable more constructive dialogue.”

Critics have said Goldberg, a Republican, is out to advance a political agenda. Goldberg pushed back in an opinion piece he wrote for the CT Examiner that the leadership of Stamford Public Schools, with a few exceptions, did not respond to invitations to attend the roundtable. 

At least one member of the Board of Education and two city representatives were spotted at the event. Others may have viewed it on Zoom.

The need for dialogue is clear, Goldberg said. The district, for example, has implemented a different way of grading in a pilot program at Westhill High School with limited input from parents, he said.

The pilot program is based on a book, “Grading for Equity,” written by Joe Feldman, who took part in Monday’s roundtable.

“We wanted it to be ideologically diverse. We wanted to have recognized experts from outside the community alongside local educators, and that’s what we did,” Goldberg said.

The panelists were:

  • Feldman, a former teacher, principal and school administrator, and founder and CEO of Crescendo Education Group. Feldman’s book, “Grading for Equity,” addressed inconsistent grading, why it isn’t fair for students and why it is hard for educators to change.

  • Tom Guskey, PhD., a nationally recognized leader in student assessment and author of 25 books, including “What We Know about Grading.” Guskey began his career as a teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools, and was director of the Center for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning, a national research center. He is professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. 

  • Bob King, former chairman of the Stamford Board of Education, a U.S. Army veteran, retired IBM executive and member of the NAACP.

  • Drew Denbaum, an English teacher at Westhill High School and Housatonic Community College, and a 2022 Stamford Public Schools Teacher of the Year finalist.

  • Dana Stangel-Plowe, managing director of education at the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, a nonpartisan network of educators who work to advance fairness, understanding and humanity in education.

Another panelist, Ian Rowe, founder and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies in Pelham, N.Y., could not attend because of the sudden death of his mother, Goldberg said. 

Rowe is the author of “Agency: The Four Point Plan for All Children to Overcome the Victimhood Narrative and Discover Their Pathway to Power,” which challenges the low expectations placed on underprivileged students and lays out a plan for helping them succeed. Rowe is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Despite the panel’s ideological diversity, the roundtable was interrupted by a group of Hispanic residents wearing T-shirts that read “48 percent” – the portion of the Stamford student population that is Hispanic.

The protesters said the roundtable panel, with members who were Black and White, had none who were Hispanic, and the discussion was not translated into Spanish.

Goldberg said it was not possible to do a live translation of the discussion, which was partly in person and partly by Zoom, but Lucero has offered to put a translated version online.

The panelists were chosen by a “demographically diverse planning team” that focused on including differing views of educational policy, he said.

Here is some of what the panelists had to say:

On Grading

Feldman: Grading systems in the United States “were fossilized 100 years ago, during industrialization.” Teachers get little training and tend to grade the way they were graded as students. Traditional grading systems “undermine effective teaching and learning” and “create inaccurate descriptions of where students are,” Feldman said. A student achieving at a given level in algebra, for example, should earn the same grade regardless of who the teacher is, but “teachers develop their own way of grading and students have to learn to navigate each teacher’s grading system.” In some school districts, teachers have students write their names on the back so when they grade a test they don’t know the identity of the taker. 

Guskey: The United States “is far behind the rest of the world in grading,” Guskey said. Educators in Canada, for example, give separate grades for achievement, homework, class participation and other aspects of learning. In the U.S., all aspects are folded into a single grade, so that a student who comprehends the course work can get a low grade for failing to hand in homework. The U.S. system clouds “the picture of what students have achieved,” Guskey said.

Denbaum: In the classroom, “only 30 percent to 40 percent of students are at proficiency level.” There is “tremendous variation in readiness.” A teacher has to look at each student as an individual and recognize progress as it occurs. “We have to appreciate the effort and quality of thinking,” Denbaum said. “It’s important for students to know they’ve progressed.” Creative thinking occurs when students make connections – first between the text of curriculum content and themselves, then between one text and another, and finally from that “to the world.”

Stangel-Plowe: Education “cannot be one-size-fits-all.” Each learner is unique and “grades don’t recognize that.” Teachers are “human beings, so there’s always a subjective factor,” but grades have value in that they “show strengths and weaknesses and where students can improve.” It’s crucial to “expect the most – keep the bar high for everybody.” There are “different ways to demonstrate proficiency – we have to know if a student is ready to move on.”

King: Grades, like the education system itself, are a tool for teaching students the life skills they will need to succeed “across the many jobs they will have in their lives” – being on time, showing respect, distinguishing between good character and bad, working well with others. In sports, coaches instill discipline by setting consequences for players; if they are late for practice, they are sent home, King said. “It teaches a discipline that takes you through life. We need to do that in the classroom.”

On Homework

Feldman: When teachers have a policy of taking off points for late homework, students sometimes compensate by copying homework from a classmate. It’s better to set a policy that the homework, if late, must still be completed. “What matters is the quality of the work, maximizing the learning opportunity,” Feldman said. “Students take greater ownership of learning … when you say, ‘Give me the best you’ve got.’ Homework, he said, “is for the student, not the teacher. It’s practice.”

Guskey: With homework, “it’s important to recognize that more is not always better – there is a point of diminishing returns.” For a third-grader, homework time should not exceed 30 minutes, he said. For a sixth-grader, an hour, and for a high school senior, no more than two hours. “Beyond that, it’s an exercise in persistence.” Assignments must be “manageable, purposeful and effective.”

Denbaum: “I will not take points off for late work, but I give two hard deadlines” – all work must be completed at the midpoint of the semester, and again at the end. “Then students have the time they need to do the best they can.” In assigning homework, teachers have to take into account demands on a student’s time because of family and work obligations and other situations. “Students have all kinds of stress for reasons teachers will never know.”

Stangel-Plowe: Educators have to be “very conscious about stress,” but “if an elevator scares you, at some time you should get in the elevator, not avoid it.” Teachers have to “be nurturing and help students to cope with stress.”

King: Homework and the associated stress offer an opportunity to learn a valuable life skill. “We have to teach students to move through stress. Nerves may be there, but you have to learn to overcome them.”  Educators must prepare students “for real life situations – if we don’t expect things of them, they can’t move on.”

The panelists, who took audience questions, also discussed whether students should be graded on attendance and class participation, whether students should be allowed to re-take tests, and whether certain practices lower expectations of what students can achieve.

Goldberg said organizers will review all aspects of the event and start planning for another.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” he said. “If we have whetted the appetite of the community by doing this, that’s great. We should have more dialogue, and somebody has to create that forum.”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com