Financial Accounting and the Teacher Gradebook

In financial accounting, there are three interlocking financial statements:

  • The Balance Sheet
  • The Profit and Loss Statement
  • The Cash Flow statement

The purpose of these statements is different.  The balance sheet shows assets and liabilities… what does a particular person or business own? What does the business or person owe? It’s a “right now” sort of thing, although it can have a series of columns that show change to the balance sheet over time.

Profit and Loss, on the other hand, is a statement of what the business or person has done, what it cost them in time and money and effort and materials to do that work, and what their “administrative costs” were… what it took to get them to that point in the market.

The Cash Flow statement, though, is a set of numbers that detail what a business or person is making from their main line of work, what they’re making from investment and financing, and what the reconciliation is between them.

What does this have to do with gradebooks?

During a meeting today, I was asked about a student.  I flipped open my gradebook, and looked at the numbers, and said, “he’s making mistakes on homework, participating a lot in class, and doing great on quizzes.”  Which means, of course, that he’s using his homework and class-time as learning opportunities, and seeing quizzes as a major form of assessment for me (which they are).

But looking at my gradebook, I realized that those three statements of financial accounting were in fact hiding in the columns of my gradebook.  Maybe.

Join me on this thought experiment a moment:

  • 1) The homework and classwork column are the balance statement, in a very real way.  There’s a snapshot of how many homework assignments a given student has done, how many “empty” columns they’ve left unfilled by not completing work.  Completed homework is like inventory… it represents raw materials for studying; flash cards for new vocabulary; notes and doodles for remember information; diagrams for making sense of mysterious data.  Isn’t that all a kind of equity?  There’s a series of credits left by participating in class, and a series of debts left by not participating or acting up.  Not participating is short-term debt.  It can be rectified, relatively easily, and replaced with positive credits.  But long-term debt… preventing other people from communicating or learning in class, has to be tracked differently.  Sometimes that’s what we call as “acting up,” and we as teachers have an ethical standard to uphold… what’s the difference between acting up and being high-spirited and overeager?  There’s a difference between knowing a learning style, and just being impatient.
  •  2) There’s a profit and loss statement, too.  I try to keep track of how organized a student is:  Is their binder neat and in order?  Are we wasting much time getting notebook and pen and paper and agenda and text all set and ready to go?  Is the student overloaded with materials?  That’s all administrative costs, because it costs us (and the class) learning time.  On quizzes and projects, though, is the student showing evidence of analytical thought?  Are they reading more than just the required reading?  Are they building quality projects, and are they making reasonable guesses on quizzes?
  • 3) Finally, there’s a cash flow statement hidden in that gradebook, somewhere or somehow.  I’m sure of it.    Some of it is “attendance”.  Is the kid in school enough that he or she is getting enough face-time with classmates and colleagues?  I think it’s this: is the student using those homeworks and tests and quizzes in an efficient way, to actually learn something?  Are they building up an accumulation of cash to do something bigger and better? Or are they mechanically going through the motions for good grades?  Are they collecting good will by participating in class, and networking during study halls to build a good academic reputation by helping and tutoring others? Are they getting in the know, and by so doing, are they getting ready to do something bigger and better than they can do right now?

I don’t know if my gradebook can do all of these functions.  I know that without spending some time in an accounting mindset this summer, I wouldn’t have seen it today.   I may not have the idea down strongly enough to actually revise my gradebook to take this into account yet, but I think this is something worth building on… three interlocking statements of grades (probably powered by a spreadsheet or database) which help a teacher recognize what learning is occurring at multiple levels of the classroom and homework experience.

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  1. I teach ESE High school English. I see a lot of use in this mode of thinking about gradebooks as being extremely useful in a special education setting, especially in consultations with students and IEP meetings with parents.

    This puts the “why” into perspective for the stakeholders at the various meetings — in fact, you could see the annual IEP meeting as an investors’ meeting. Placing it in that light could shift the conversations in some incredibly useful avenues.

    Thank you for the thoughts this morning.

    • Hi, and welcome!

      I think one of the keys for me was looking through Financial Accounting for Dummies as a source of information about reading financial statements, and comparing different assessments with categories of financial data.

      I then tried to create analogies between the financial data and the kind of record keeping I am doing or should be doing as a teacher, to decide where it might belong: hence attendance as either deficit or credit.

  2. Really interesting. Mind if I share this post? I have a special fascination with re-purposing concepts from one discipline to another.

    • Go right ahead. You can share anything you like from this blog.

      I’ve still been thinking about how to help your friend in Florida out. All I can think of is going down there and offering a training. I’m not as good as a visit to the Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA, though.

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