A primary school in Cali, Colombia, has implemented major changes intended to give students a more active role in their own education. Mr. Denby focuses on one of these changes--a new format for parent/teacher conferences.
DURING THE PAST several years, the faculty of the primary section of Colegio Bolivar in Cali, Colombia, has been striving to implement a student-centered curriculum and a school environment that reflects the needs and interests of students. Until recently, however, one area lagged behind: student assessment.
Then, during the 1994-95 school year -- encouraged by a Colombian law that set new guidelines for reporting student progress--the primary teachers decided to stop giving letter grades and to try to eliminate the tendency to compare students that is inherent in traditional grading systems. Instead, we teachers began to assess students on whether they met the objectives set forth in the curriculum. On the new report card that was developed jointly by teachers and administrators, students would either surpass objectives, meet objectives, or not meet objectives.
Most students meet objectives (although this designation admittedly covers a wide range of achievement). "Average" students may simply have more difficulty meeting objectives than "excellent" students. At Bolfvar, individual students and their teachers now pay attention to what the students have accomplished, rather than to what others have done. The new anecdotal format of the report cards allows teachers to detail each student's strengths and weaknesses.
This approach to assessment inspired even more changes. In December 1994 the principal, Peggy Pastor, passed along to the primary faculty an article about student-led parent/teacher conferences, and the idea was an instant hit. Most teachers agreed that such conferences were a logical extension of our earlier reforms. Our reforms had been aimed at having students take an active role in their education and having them feel a sense of ownership of their work. Now, with parent conferences scheduled for the end of February, some teachers set to work immediately, preparing students to take an active role in their own evaluations.
Under the old system, teachers spent a few minutes several times a year informing parents of their children's successes and failures. Now students would actively evaluate all aspects of their schoolwork. Their opinions of their products and behavior would be the focus of the meetings with parents.
IN PRACTICE, students in grades 2 through 5 proved themselves able to speak authoritatively about all aspects of their school lives and to identify with remarkable accuracy their academic and behavioral strengths and weaknesses. That children so young would have such a clear view of themselves amazed the adults. According to Sandy Waite, a third-grade teacher, parents "sat in awe, watching their youngsters speak with such confidence about themselves."
The time allotted to each conference was 30 minutes. During this interval, each child--using work samples, journals, and self-evaluations--led his or her family through a detailed tour of his or her academic life. Parents listened attentively and asked probing questions about work habits, successes, difficulties, relations with peers and teachers, and school behavior. The students were amazingly honest in their self-evaluations. Carole Jenkins, a fourth-grade teacher, noted that, "if anything, they were sometimes too hard on themselves." In identifying their own problems, the children also began to develop strategies to improve their work or behavior. Parents took part in this process, offering suggestions as to how they could help at home.
Teachers served as facilitators, asking questions of students and parents. They also helped parents to refocus attention on their children. Unaccustomed to the new style of conference, many parents--especially at the beginning--tended to direct their questions to the teacher. …