My son, six, runs to class each morning. He is upset when he is not called on. He revels in knowing site words and showing off his skills. He is the kid any teacher would want in class. My high school boys—particularly my athletes—walk into class differently. Their shoulders often hang in defeat, fatigue, or both. Of course, this is not all athletes, nor is it all boys, but after sixteen years in the classroom, you notice. They want to know what they have to do to pass or if I am going to check the homework. This disparity of approach has been gnawing at me for years, and I have tackled it in honest, but ultimately ineffective, ways until recently when I connected three dots. I remember from geometry that one can connect any two points with a straight line, but a third point needs to fall precisely on that straight line.
The first dot is the application of our century-old grading system. My athletic boys are not bad students, nor are they dim witted or unmotivated; in fact, the opposite is true. When you tally up the hours they spend at games, practice, lifting, fundraising, playing, then add on to that the normal business hours associated with being a student, we are looking at a sixty- hour work week. Most Americans cannot pull off what these athletes do for months at a time. They are far from lazy. Their coaches and the system of athletics have harnessed all that we want to see from them, but the classroom has too often failed to do what coaches have always done. These students are not bringing the problem to class, nor are they the problem. We are. Even now, staring at the blinking cursor, I hate seeing those two words, but I cannot deny their truth. (I am using this subgroup of male student scholar athletes as a vehicle but all students, even the most successful, are held back by our current grading paradigm.)
I was raised in a system that measures student output. I was trained in the same system, and I have perpetuated the same system of omnibus letter grades. My parents were happy with As, disappointed with Ds, and the same is true for my students. But the fact is I could not tell you what that D meant when I was in high school or, more to the point, the Ds I doled out last spring. These vacuously coded symbols have been found suspect by researchers since the early 1900s, yet we use them unquestioningly. We don’t question this system openly because the whole machine has not come undone. We still have valedictorians giving speeches. We still have ne’er-do-wells dropping out and every strata of student in between. So, we’re good, right?
We have reached a tipping point (if you haven’t read Malcom Gladwell’s book of the same title, stop reading this and read that.) where the requisite critical mass has formed for a systemic change. For a catalyst we can look to charter schools, the decentralization of information provided by the internet, engaging researchers like O’Connor, Wormeli, Marzano, and Guskey, or our growing savvy inspection of social institutions in general for this tipping point. We have enough information at our disposal to bring our quiet reservations about grading into the light and call that system out for what it is: a loose-cannon on the deck of our students and children. Here we find the importance of the first dot.
Say you just finished your junior year in English with a D or an F. You “earned” this low, low mark because your teacher does not accept late work. If it is late, don’t bother. Nearly half of the English teachers I have worked with share this policy. Your teacher draws this line in the sand because she wants to teach you how the real world works (spoiler: it does not work this way). This hard line comes from a good place, and her perceived nobility is reflected in the fact that students vilify her for it, thinking, “I will take their ire on the chin because I care about their futures; it is so much easier being the teacher that is liked.” This is pretty sound reasoning, but it fails in practice. From the student’s point of view, and I have interviewed several such students on the matter, writing essays has always been hard. It is hard now because it always was. Neither policy, practice, or approach have changed, so of course results have not either.
Stay with your role here: you did not like the novel the paper was based on. You used to like to read when you were young, but that waned in middle school. So, you wrote less because you read less. When you did write, it was labored, and you knew it was weak. You clung to the first words that came to mind and turned those in, glad to be done. Then in high school you were hit by zeroes. In the same way that most Americans are one paycheck away from financial problems, your bad luck caught up with you. You didn’t get around to writing the paper on The Iliad. You meant to throw something together, but life happened so the paper did not. You are no math whiz but you know that a zero on the first big paper means that an A for the semester is out of reach. The second zero is easier to stomach when being ultimately successful is statistically improbable anyway. This second zero on a paper now puts passing the class in jeopardy.
For a kid with weak skills and fragile confidence, taking what feels like the inevitable F in the class seems more and more like destiny. What is more, now you refuse to practice any skills that will make success next year even possible. Now, because of the teacher’s policy and your practice of it junior year, you stroll hang-dog into my class as a senior, defeated before we begin. You know you are not ready for this year, and if I have the same grading policy as the junior year teacher, how high is his probability of failure now and of turning that into a self-defense decision to drop out?
Our policies matter. Our symbols matter. Those symbols, to this point, are a hodgepodge of un-examined decisions not based on research, rarely based on skill, propped up by the idiosyncrasies of an individual teacher, safe from scrutiny behind her closed door. In essence our grading system is a Banana Republic that we, as teachers, revere like ancient Athens because we survived it—benefited from it—and have never lived anywhere else from which to being in new ideas. Reform happens when those with the agency to change a practice have the altruism and the long-view to do so. I want my six-year-old to be as excited for class a decade from now, as he was when I dropped him off this morning.