Outsourcing Grading in High School

Last September, Inside Higher Ed had an article on Kentucky outsourcing grading in its community college ("Outsourced Grading"). Now Lynn Thompson reports on its occurrence at high schools in Seattle ("School districts turn to paid readers for grading student essays", Seattle Times):

In the Northshore School District, some English teachers don't spend much time reading student papers.

In the Bellevue School District, some don't even grade the papers.

Both districts now rely on paid readers to evaluate and in some cases grade student essays in English classes; Seattle's Garfield High School is piloting such a program this year. The use of readers greatly reduces teacher workload and gives students more writing practice, but the trend raises questions about teachers' roles in inspiring and guiding students' work.

Although feedback can guide students' work, it's not clear how giving grades inspires or guides their work, unless one is considering them as reality checks. The real question, as noted by Stephen Miller, president of the Bellevue Education Association, is:

"All English teachers would agree that students become better writers by writing more. But is writing many essays more important than personal feedback from your teacher? We don't know the answer," he said.

But even this question assumes teacher feedback to be more personal than that of an outside reader. My questions would be, Is the feedback from the teacher significantly better than the outside reader's? Is feedback from the teacher on 1-2 essays more effective than an outside reader's feedback on 7 essays?

Much of the response against outsourcing reading and grading seems to be some sort of out-of-touch-with-reality smokescreen. All agree that high school teachers simply do not have the time to read, comment, and grade more than one or two essays a semester when teaching five 30-student-classes a day. Yet, Carol Jago, co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project, asserts,

What's lost is how teachers get to know their students through their writing. And students no longer know the audience they're writing for.

Most compositionists argue that one problem is students always writing for the teacher rather than a real audience. So, it's not clear how moving away from an undesired audience, the teacher, to an unknown one, is much worse. As far as getting to know students through their writing, is it really possible through the apparent limit in high school of one or two essays? More importantly, how do teachers keep informed about their students' writing?

According to Lance Balla, a curriculum and technology coach for the Bellevue schools,

the district built into the program several checks to keep teachers informed about their students' work. The teachers develop a scoring guide for each assignment and read three out of every 30 essays. Readers and teachers consult after each set of papers is graded, and teachers are expected to use the readers' comments to look for common problems and if necessary, adjust their teaching.

I'm not sure how well this works, but I do like the idea of adjusting teaching according to outside feedback. When teachers are the only ones commenting, there is no potential dissonance to help move teachers to reconsider their approach to writing instruction. In addition, the extra time from not grading can perhaps be applied toward those students who need the most help.

From the Inside Higher Ed article, Douglas Hesse, board chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and professor English at Illinois State University, argues against outsourcing grading, saying that

grading was not a function that should in any way be removed from the faculty members. The process of reading a paper and evaluating it, Hesse said, is crucial not only for assigning a grade, but for thinking about how to work with a given student, for evaluating whether certain assignments are achieving their goals, for revising lecture plans, and more.

Hesse's points make sense to me at the college level, although I imagine that not all professors take the extra time to work with students and re-evaluate their pedagogy. For those who don't, it just might be a waste of money to pay other readers and graders. For those who do, reading and grading would seem to be good channels of feedback. I'm not sure that we should simply assume, however, that this feedback should be considered sacrosanct. I'm listened to experienced composition instructors who suggest ways of limiting the time for grading and commenting on papers to 15 minutes. I wonder how effective 15 minutes of feedback can be for the student, or for the instructor. Would doubling the amount of time significantly improve the effectiveness of the feedback? Perhaps not. Perhaps 15 minutes is enough to set students to moving in the general direction of better writing.

I suppose I have more questions than answers on outsourcing grading. But as my previous posting on "Learning takes place in an ecology" implies, grading takes place in an ecology, and what was appropriate at one time may require re-inventing to remain relevant to students, teachers, educational institutions, and the communities in which they are embedded.