This article was published in the Lexington Minuteman newspaper last year. Mr. Leonard has since retired.
Jeffrey Leonard, band director at Lexington High School in Massachusetts, recently announced plans to retire after thirty-five years of teaching. A past recipient of Lexington’s “Teacher of the Year” award, Leonard leaves a long legacy of students grateful to his inspirational musical education and for whom music remains an essential component of their adult lives. While speaking at the annual Massachusetts Music Educators Association conference, Mr. Leonard discussed his out-of-the-box approach to grading. Non-music teachers would do well to listen.
“People think that band is an easy subject because many students get an ‘A’ grade,” Leonard remarked. “It isn’t easy at all; I make them earn it.” Leonard explained that before every concert, he has students play their instrumental parts into a digital recorder. Then he listens and assesses. To be fair, he doesn’t listen to the entire recording. Often he fast-forwards to the challenging parts. If the students can play those, he assumes that they can play the rest, too.
But what if they are having difficulties? Fellow-teachers, please take note: Leonard explains how he tells his students “this music is too beautiful for anyone not to do ‘A’ level work.” But he assures his students that he will work with them to help them until they learn it.
And then he does. Not only does he work with his students, but he has set up a student leader system in which more advanced students provide musical assistance, too. If the students learn their parts before the upcoming concert, or demonstrate significant improvement, then they will get their ‘A’ regardless of how poorly they might have performed it during the initial recording assessment. The goal is not to be the first to learn it well; it is simply to learn it well.
Because the music is too beautiful for anyone not to do ‘A’ level work.
Which is almost the opposite of how most teachers grade.
Most teachers average their test and quiz grades according to some formula that, they believe, accurately reflects student performance. Wonderful. But how does that score actually help the student? If students perform poorly on a test, there is little incentive for them to improve in that area. From the student’s perspective, it is a punitive number and a done deal with no upside. In effect, it’s a de-motivator. (Now, onto the newest topic, and get ready for the next test).
Certainly, tests do motivate some students to study. However, for many smart students who happen to learn more slowly than the teacher’s timetable, the typical assessment approach not only is a disincentive to mastering the material but ultimately short-circuits their love and confidence in learning.
But what if teachers adopted the Jeffrey Leonard method? Imagine if a math, history, science, or English teacher told his students, this material is too beautiful for you not to do ‘A’ level work. What if the teacher then committed to working with that student, or utilizing more advanced student leaders to help the student? “You will have to work hard, but if you learn the material, you will get your ‘A’.”
Leonard’s approach is consistent with the way we evaluate many real life, non-academic activities. We seek highly qualified surgeons, engineers, writers, artists, and teachers regardless of how long it might have taken them to develop their expertise. If they spent more time studying and exploring their craft, we celebrate their commitment and effort. Certainly, nobody ever walks out of a great concert because the soloist spent more years working on the piece than someone else.
The question is whether the goal of assessment in today’s education system is to help students improve or to simply generate a score that indicates which students learn the material the fastest.
Jeffrey Leonard is beloved by his students partly because he understands that assessments should be used to help students master the material rather than to penalize them for not mastering it fast enough. If he gives out many ‘A’s, it is because his students have earned them. Because they wanted to. Because he convinced them that the subject is too beautiful not to learn well.
This is his legacy.
Any teacher who understands this, deserves an ‘A,’ too -- regardless of how long it takes them to learn it.