Teacher’s Throwing Out Grades

ttogLast weekend, I listened to Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) talk with Nicholas Provenzano about the No Grades Movement. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this theory, but given my new outlook on my career and life, I gave it more thought than I had before.

In the past, I have always dismissed the idea. “I dealt with grades, and I came through just fine!” I thought. “A 94% was the lowest A, these kids have it easy!” “We’re building a generation of self-entitled…” et cetera, et cetera. In a recent discussion with the teachers I teach on Thursday nights, I called this the Uphill-Both-Ways-In-The-Snow Mentality. I get it though. We, as adults, have this feeling that we did it, they should. We’ve done it forever, why should we change it?

But in the same breath, we all agree that education is broken. We know that the US is falling farther and farther behind other countries in every metric. We’ve heard the stories of how underprepared students are for college. Teachers see it day-in and day-out; lack of interest, lack of involvement, boredom, apathy (is there anything worse than apathy?). And yet, we are quick to dismiss a new idea because it is too “radical” or “just isn’t the way we do things.”

So as I listened to Ms. Sackstein talk about the problems with grading, I found myself agreeing with her, much more than I have agreed with similar discussions and opinions in the past. In fact, it was this discussion that lead me to assign the TEDx project mentioned in my previous blog post.

I think the best summary of my opinion on the whole thing came to me in a scene from Interstellar. I watched the movie for the first time last night (I know, what took me so long) and was especially fascinated by the parent conference scene. At one point, this discussion happens between Matthew McConaughey and a school principal (please excuse the expletive):

Cooper: You’re ruling out college for my son now? He’s fifteen.

Principal: Tom’s score simply isn’t high enough.

Cooper: What’s your waist line? What 32, 33 inseam?

Principal: I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at.

Cooper: You’re telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son’s future?

I brought this quote up with my students today when I explained to them the thought process that went into me designing (mostly stealing) the TEDx project. Is it truly fair that we boil down 7.5 hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years into one number: GPA? Does a higher GPA mean that students KNOW more? Does it make them more prepared for college or careers? Does a 4.0 GPA in my class mean the same thing as a 4.0 GPA in the teacher next door? All teachers know the answer to this question is definitely “No.” Even when we incorporate common planning, common assessment, PLC, EOC, EOY, state tests, Common Core…At the end of the day, the “grade” is reflective only of if they did the work or not. It has little bearing on if they learned.

Does that mean I’m ready to toss grades out? We (shakily) agree that the grade doesn’t reflect learning. Research shows that low grades do little, to nothing, to encourage compliance. So how do they benefit us?

The most common argument brought up against No Grades (at least in my, admittedly limited, experience) is the whole, “Well, that’s how it works in the real world!” (this is the same argument used against a “No Zero Policy”). You know what though? That’s EXACTLY how it works in the real world! Any adult who is going to try and tell me that pay for a job is directly correlated to how hard the employee works at the job is either delusional or an entrepreneur (and even then, I don’t always agree).

So where do we stand, really? Education is broken. Grades are broken. Toss grades, and the problems are solved!

No, obviously not. No one is trying to say that grades are THE problem (at least, I don’t think they are). Grades are A problem. Arguably, they are a symptom of a bigger problem, but regardless, they don’t work. Let’s try something new. Let’s try pushing kids. Let’s try motivating them to learn by showing them that learning is awesome! Let’s get kids invested in their own education for the sake of making themselves better people, not for the sake of getting a CD for straight A’s (I know, no one buys CDs any more, I’m just saying).

I’m trying it, and I’m more excited about teaching right now than I have been in years.