Head of School
When all students returned to campus in the fall of 2021 for in-person learning, their lively presence confirmed what many of us have long believed: There is no substitute for the full Milton Academy experience.
The primacy of nurturing authentic relationships in small settings across our community, the excitement of our active learning and co-curricular environments, and the physical and mental presence necessary for classroom discussions at the highest level became abundantly clear.
While Milton—to the credit of our faculty and staff—was able to quickly pivot to remote learning at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic and support students’ needs regardless of their location in the world, the return to a fully in-person program affirmed the incredible value of our community. Although the past few years affirmed the power of in-person learning, they also demonstrated that there are many modes of curricular delivery, and those modes work differently for different students. As we look toward the future at Milton, we should embrace the lessons of the past few years. Among those, most critical are the need for schools to constantly review their approaches to teaching and learning, and the recognition that every child achieves differently—according to myriad factors that include but aren’t limited to their educational foundation, their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the ways in which they learn.
The traditional American grading system—A, B, C, D, F—implies that there are only five possible outcomes after a semester or a full year of learning. As educators, we know that such designations are no longer adequate to describe a student’s progress. Those letters on a transcript don’t provide a complete picture of a student’s mastery of skills or content, nor do they demonstrate improvement over time. They also feed into the pressure that many high-achieving students put on themselves to be perfect, pressure that’s compounded by an increasingly competitive college-admissions landscape.
In Milton’s Middle School, students are well prepared for the academic rigors of high school without receiving letter grades. Our teachers in the middle grades are in regular communication with students and their families about achievements and progress: Students are intrinsically motivated because they know how they’re doing—not because of a letter grade or a number average they strive to keep or attain, but because they have a deep understanding of their own proficiency. Our Lower School teachers are constantly monitoring their students’ growth and giving them feedback, informally and in real time, as part of the rhythm of each school day. With our youngest students, this process of constant assessment informs the direction of our curriculum: Before moving forward to a new unit, Lower School teachers have built a complete picture of their students’ proficiency in the current one.
In the Upper School, we have begun the work of considering improved ways to assess students’ performance to better reflect the rich learning experiences they have in their years at Milton. Before the pandemic, we removed letter grades from transcripts for Class IV students in recognition of the widely varied experiences students have had by the time they arrive at our school. All new Upper School students have achieved academic success, but given our global enrollment, their foundations for learning differ. Now, Class IV teachers can help all students build toward understanding and excellence, rather than spend all their energy reaching for perfection—or trying to avoid failure.
Since 2016, Milton has been a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a coalition of public and private schools across the country that are investigating better and more equitable ways to assess students’ learning. Although we have not adopted its new transcript format, the ideas generated by this group provide much for Milton to consider. According to the consortium, the MTC transcript presents a clear visualization of each student’s distinct strengths within the context of their school, and it allows students to highlight particular projects and achievements that demonstrate their growth. Both features provide the kind of evidence of learning that letter grades on their own cannot convey.
There is extraordinary value in a Milton Academy education that extends far beyond students’ access to superb colleges and universities. At our best, when we live our mission and prioritize holistic development at each grade level, we graduate students who are not only highly capable academicians, but are prepared to advocate for themselves and others, manage their mental and physical health, rise in the face of conflict and discomfort, and recognize and appreciate their own growth.