It’s week three in season four of #IMMOOC, and Katie Martin has challenged us to rethink traditions in our schools. Her probing questions include, “What can you start doing? What can you stop doing? What can you improve?”

Often, in public education, we find ourselves frustrated by what we cannot control. Whether it’s legislation we disagree with or a student’s life circumstances, it’s easy to get mired in the negative impact of outside influences. Unfortunately, sometimes we are blinded by all of this, and we lose sight of what we can control. Because the truth is, we control quite a bit.

For example, we have been telling ourselves for years, as a school district, that our current system of noting class rank on student transcripts (9-12) is in place because this is something Institutes of Higher Education want to see. However, we had not, for some time, investigated that further to see if this was still the case.

Fast-forward to the fact that every year, some of our seniors write essays about their experiences in our school district. And while we have much to celebrate, many students shared feelings that concerned us and sparked curiosity about root causes:

“To recap, with the exception of a few subjects, my high school education has narrowed my thoughts and made me think more in a survival aspect of how to get an A rather than being purely engaged in the material like I was in middle school and elementary school.”

“The education system has been devastating to my academic confidence. Being so harshly graded and criticized for the past twelve years has obliterated my ability to be proud and confident of my work.”

“This fixation with numbers carried into my secondary education as I mulled over how my GPA, class rank, and ACT score distinguished me from my peers. At some times, it made me feel a false sense of superiority, while at others, it destroyed my sense of worth as a student. I am disillusioned with the idea that a person can be valued this way…I am under the impression that after fourteen years of schooling, the school district regards me as little more than a statistic. I feel as if I am nothing more than one of the two-hundred-eighty-two graduating seniors.”

Once you’ve read words such as these from students, there is no turning back. We decided to examine our systems of grading, class rank, and graduation recognition. Now, as you can imagine, these are topics with varying perspectives and opinions. Pair that with the fact that these topics are complex – many of us think we know colleges are looking for, but many of us are not familiar with the research. Due to the latter, we made a determination not to send out a district survey. And because of the varying perspectives from various stakeholders, we felt the best way to move forward was to form a district committee comprised of parents (one of them -the parent of a student in the #1 spot), counselors, teachers, and administrators.

You can read more about the process we followed here.

We learned a lot from our research. We gathered research from the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. We called our most commonly attended universities and aspirational colleges too. We talked to demographically aligned and values aligned school districts. And most importantly, we talked to kids, other parents and teachers, and each other.

So, a little bit about what we learned: Less than 9% of Institutions of Higher Education place considerable importance on class rank. Many prestigious high schools have never recorded class rank on transcripts and less than 50% of schools across the nation still do.

We came to a consensus that class rank and Valedictorian and Salutatorian designations were doing our students more harm than good, and our board of education voted unanimously in agreement. I could go into more detail about how we will be recognizing more students for excellence at graduation now, and how we also changed the way we weight our courses, but instead, let’s focus on what we learned.

Change is hard, but our kids are worth it. Change requires time and collaboration. Change requires a mighty effort in the area of communication to educate people about the WHY first then what. Perhaps most importantly though, never underestimate the power of student voice. It is the best way to stay grounded in the WHY when the going gets tough.

We have not arrived. We have more work to do to elevate the student learning experience, but we are energized by this work we’ve led. Rather than rest, we are inspired to do more work that we believe in for the students in this district. As David Whyte says, “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”

It feels good to do work we believe in with people we believe in. On to the next!