Whatever happened to …

… handwritten report cards?

Thanks to Andy Forgrave for the idea for this.

I’ve talked to a lot of educators who have left the classroom for one reason or another about their regrets and their responses typically have been “I miss the kids”.  After all, they’re what keep us young while, at the same time, age us.

Oddly enough, I have never had anyone say that they missed doing report cards.

Could there be a sheet of paper or a card that means so much to students and parents?

I’ll admit to always enjoying most of my education and generally doing well in every thing I ever studied.  It was always the day of reckoning when the report came home and I had to show it to my father at supper.  I still remember comments like A?  Why didn’t you get A+?  99%?  What did you do wrong?  I took this learned parenting skill and applied it to my own kids.  I don’t know that they appreciated it any more than I did.  Deep down though, I knew that my dad was proud of me.

Those report cards were always handwritten and usually came with the great advice “Good work”.  I don’t ever recall a “Doug was a pleasure to have in class” though.  Later, I was to learn that that comment should never appear on a report card.  Somehow that made it easier to swallow because the omission seems to imply that “Doug was a PITA”, which I have no doubt was probably true.

Secondary school was a continuation.  My most memorable report card was, again, handwritten in Grade 13.  In preparation for university, I had taken the requisite 6 courses – 3 Mathematics, 3 Sciences, but then had thrown in English because someone had convinced me that you can never have enough Great Gatsby or learning to write.  Mathematics and Science marks were high – I don’t recall how high but I do remember my English mark – 60%.  Maybe that explains this blog.

University was interesting.  Report cards were never given to you; they were mailed.  They were matter of fact – you took this course, you got this.  It was a mixture of numeric marks or letter grades depending upon the Faculty offering the course.  There was no easy right of appeal; I guess the logic was that you were grown up and got what you deserved.  Unlike elementary and secondary school where my parents always went to Parent/Teacher nights, totally understanding the mark and my learning or lack of it was never a communication with the professor moment.  You got what you got.

The Faculty of Education was completely different.  There was the formal report card, of course, that contained the matter of fact important number or letter.  But, the reports generated by associate teachers where I taught their classes for a couple of weeks were completely handwritten and contained great anecdotes and pieces of advice.  They were the best I’d ever had and really did what they were supposed to do – make me reflect and grow as a teacher.

It was a puzzle to be solved when I landed a job.  Unlike other schools where report cards were circulated with students or via course for handwritten marks and comments, we were one of the first to have electronic report cards.  In our mailboxes, we received “Mark Entry Sheets” where we were expected to enter the final mark and then select one appropriate comment to go along with it.  I always had this nagging desire to use comment #7 which was “Bien Fait” but resisted it.  I did always send home my own personal invitation to all parents to join me for a parent/teacher discussion and I followed the school advice to make the telephone call home to parents where I was going to assign a failing grade to a report card.  Fortunately, I always had great students and I can only recall having to make that phone call just a couple of times when I taught Grade 9 Mathematics.  I often wondered – why didn’t we call the parents of the students who did really well?

Then, it was off to a wonderful job working with educators trying to embrace technology.  I thought I’d seen it all when it came to report cards.  I’d seen handwritten; I’d seen computer reporting.  What else could there be?

Generally, I was welcome in any of the schools that were in the district – EXCEPT – during the times leading into reporting periods.  It wasn’t normally a problem with secondary school but certainly I wasn’t welcome in elementary schools at those times.  As I found out, these report cards were all handwritten and it wasn’t just a mark and a comment.  It was a mark and then a short story.  And these professionals were really serious about this.  Then the discussion became an elementary/secondary one.  “We do real report cards and don’t just pick from a list.”  That really hurt.  I took pride in choosing the proper comment from the list.

Could it get any worse?

Well, yes, it could.

Let’s further pick on the elementary panel and make all their report cards electronic.  Make it so, Doug.

It was too late to go back to my own classroom but, seriously, how hard could it be?  The Ministry of Education had designed a new report format and dictated how they were to be completed.  And, they had commissioned a province wide initiative created with Filemaker Pro (this is where Andy comes in).  We didn’t have enough computers available for teachers to have it done at school so people were buying home computers like crazy and I was supporting this as well.   The first revision not only required that teachers enter a grade and check off appropriate boxes per subject area but were expected to type, for each student and each subject, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Next Steps.  Our implementation rolled out a few important things –

  • addressing the concepts and the philosophy of the record card and reporting
  • file sharing for rotary subjects (which in this case was by diskette) and file compatibility between the Macintosh and Windows
  • getting a copy of the report card into everyone’s hands in a timely fashion – this lead to me creating a Teachers’ Essentials CD-ROM with things like that on it and making copies for every teacher in the system
  • teaching about Filemaker Pro – for many the first serious application that they’d ever used and for others the concept that things could be saved without having to click a “Save” command was foreign
  • sharing comments among those teaching the same grade/subject – “How can I say this?”
  • recovering files accidentally deleted
  • instructing how to copy files from diskette to hard drive and back – later this became a task of sharing via our email system
  • making sure that everyone had the latest and greatest version of the report card

The whole process monopolized my life at reporting time to be sure.  It was also part of our new teacher induction program.  Even today, I still get questions at every report card time even though another solution has been put into place.

Interestingly, I guess a good job was done.

Nothing breeds success like success.

Early Years’ teachers were still using pen and paper for their own report cards.  My support person was a master with Filemaker Pro and, between the two of us, developed our own Early Years’ Report Card.  Secondary school teachers had a number of solutions in place and we harmonized that by licensing a product for the entire board and enjoyed the same success although it still required a great deal of effort to get everyone on the same page.

I never much enjoyed doing my own report cards and supporting others wasn’t a walk in the park either.  It never really was a highlight that I enjoyed especially, as any teacher will tell you, it’s a real drain on time.  I’d much rather communicate with parents by having them show up and have their child lead them through a portfolio of what they’d completed in class.  The more that you deal with report cards, and especially electronic ones, the more you realize that it’s a business process that stands on its own, external to working with people, which I suspect is a concept foreign to most teachers.  Add to that the verbiage required for the constructions of the comments.  It’s stressful.

But it’s a necessary evil in our school system where grades, subjects, and the length of a school term/semester/year still rule.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Do you have any good report card stories?
  • Have you ever “lost” your work?  Share your story there.
  • In society, the resume, education, and work experience rule.  Could we still survive if we didn’t have report cards to provide some of this information?
  • Have you ever bought a computer or upgraded because you “needed” it for report cards?
  • As a parent, is the process tainted for your own child’s comments since you know how they’re done?

This whole Sunday series of “Whatever happened to …” is available here.  How about taking a walk along memory lane with me?  Got an idea, share it on this padlet.

OTR Links 07/24/2016

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.