Report Cards: Politics, Education and the Rhetoric of Caring

by Mr. Hugh Burke


In this Morning’s Vancouver Sun, there was an Op-Ed by Geoff Johnson, a retired public school Superintendent, entitled, “Make report cards relics of the past”. Mr. Johnson suggests that “All the fuss about report cards and the importance of letter grades supported by vague generic comments is a fuss about the wrong thing. As public education moves toward 21st-century individualized learning, the systems of reporting progress will need to move with it and the traditional report card will become a quaint relic of the previous century.”

He is, of course, both right and wrong. We might agree that public school report cards have to change. We may also agree that poorly scheduled parent-teacher interviews, characterized by long lineups of parents, need to change. We agree that children need individual attention. However, saying that report cards should be relics of the past indicates that Mr. Johnson needs greater exposure to well-done and well-conceptualized report cards that pay attention to the individual child, and do not simply regurgitate comments that are found on a list, stored in some computer somewhere. Families and children do benefit from report cards – they may not, however, benefit from sloppy, poorly executed report cards, and ill-considered parent-teacher interviews wherein public school teachers are swamped.

This sort of commentary is, as might be expected, the result of public school teachers refusing to comply with reporting provisions in the School Act as part of their job action while negotiating with the BCPSEA. That has been met with the Deputy Minister noting that report cards are a legal requirement, and so principals must send them out, even if blank. With the normal hurly-burly of incrimination and recriminations , statements were made by the BCTF that report cards were not very important, and that teachers will link with parents anyway.  One local union leader was quoted as saying:

“Report cards are not essential to communicate to parents the progress of their child,” said Jason Gammon, acting vice-president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association. “Teachers have many options around how they can communicate with parents, and teachers will communicate with parents as they deem appropriate.”

“If students are struggling, teachers are proactive in communicating that concern to parents and this information is usually addressed well in advance of the first reporting period,” he stated.

However, while many teachers are working to somehow keep parents informed, a number seem to be a bit more reluctant. As usual, generalizations are impossible. In some districts, teachers will only meet with parents if provided with time during the school day. Most teachers will communicate if alarmed about something, but there will probably be little communication for the majority of children whose work is generally satisfactory. (one teacher, in a blog, said this: “Many parents do not know they can ask about their child but if a parent wants a LENGTHY conversation about a straight A student with me just telling them how wonderful their child is, I am not conferencing with those parents on my own time at this time”.)

The point is that the current blethering about report cards is contained within a highly polarized and politicized confrontation between public school teachers and their employers, with sideline comments from observers who want to support one side or the other. Somehow, children – often used in the rhetoric of care – seemed to have been forgotten.

Here is what good report cards do:

  1. They provide a point where teachers must pause to consider each individual child, and allows accountability of the teachers for what is said.
  2. They make phone calls and emails more concrete.
  3. They summarize how the child is doing as a person in relation to others, separately from academics.
  4. They note strengths, and specifically consider those opportunities that children may take to become stronger learners.
  5. They provide a tangible set of discussion points between teacher, child, and parent (students should always be invited to participate in, or to lead, conferences…which should be scheduled, and, if needed, extended).
  6. They provide a place for children to reflect on their own progress – in writing – and set personal goals..
  7. They provide a picture of academic  progress and of achievement against a set of standards.
  8. They ensure concentrated attention for each child.
  9. They support the child in applications for university, work, and volunteer positions.

Geoff was commenting about the types of non-informative report cards that he may be used to seeing. My own child’s report card from the end of last year was six pages long, written with care by teachers, and it was not a relic of the past – it was a document that spoke volumes about their knowledge and care regarding our children. Report cards do matter, and they matter a lot. But they have to go beyond the rhetoric of care, and demonstrate the real caring and individual attention that good schools provide.

For more on the subject:

“Teachers “more than willing” to meet parents”

“Education scene heats up on several fronts”

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