Pardon me whilst I muse a little, please…

When I was 21, newly married, broke and not terribly interested in schooling (as yet), I took a job working for a packing shed that leased land and grew onions and other vegetables. My task, no experience needed, was to walk row upon row of harvested onions, counting burlap sacks filled with two, five-gallon buckets of onions. I have never in my life been so happy to be told, after a few days, that I would be moved from this task up to the “Onion Grader” (set aside that I thought at first it was an onion GRATER). This machine, I came to learn, had shade…

In essence it was a tractor hauled machine that had perhaps a dozen of us standing around on both sides of it. The purpose of this machine was to separate the onions by size (a type of grade) and fill market ready bags. The skilled workers in this crew were the women who could by touch assess the Colossal grade onions and put them into the proper bags. All other grades of onions were found by ever larger grates on the conveyor that loose onions past hands, and into the market bags. For the most part, my work was to pull out the rotten onions and toss them over the side of the machine. This went on for 12 hours a day and was grueling, dusty, hot work, but less miserable than before. I have, in my mind, this image whenever I am asked to assign a grade to a student. It is a miserable experience, grueling, with vision obscured by bias, and, at times, tear inducing.

Why do we have an educational system predicated upon the concept of grading anyway?

This musing was stirred on by a recent post by a kindred-spirit-math-teacher-fellow-GMPAmbassador/friend, @mathwithmatthew, Dr. Matthew Beyranevand: Retaking Assessments: Many math teachers are late to the party!. He advocates for us mathematics teachers to embrace the concept of re-taking assessments, a practice I support. I am not here arguing this practice in as much as asking a larger question entirely.

What good is gained in assigning a grade to a child’s work? The concept of 90–100% = A, 80–89% = B etc. is so entirely subjective and fraught with fallacy. Because a child can do every question on your arbitrarily chosen and constructed exam, and do so by anticipating what it is you are looking for with 100% accuracy does not mean they understand or can explain what the mathematics is about.

What alternative is there?

I have one rough idea of one based upon the idea of creating a portfolio of your work. I will flesh this idea out in another post, but in a nutshell this idea is built upon the concept within the more artistic professions. Here you curate a collection of demonstrations of techniques and skills you master, and put them on display as your resume, or CV. In this era of practically unlimited data storage this could easily be accomplished. Each student would not only need to think broadly about themselves, and their accomplishments but be able to tailor their public images for particular needs (e.g. when applying for that entry level data entry job, you provide evidence of your keyboarding skills, but when you are applying for that job as an auto body worker, you present before and after pictures of your work…).

Back to why…

Why should our children be assigned something we also use for factory produced vegetables? Grading is an anachronistic hold-over from the Scientific Management era inserted into schooling during the 19th century. Performance on a test has been inserted as a proxy for comprehension and the ability to coherently discuss or deploy reasoning. Take a few minutes and watch this highly editorial short documentary about Finnish schools. Yes it is by Michael Moore and therefore suspect, but not terribly far off the mark.

I get through this video fine until about the 3:30 mark or so where he is in a faculty meeting and the young female teacher in the back says, “School is about finding your happiness…” I have seen this video perhaps too many times, but each time I do I have to stop and cry for a while when she says this. My heart breaks to think of how few American children experience any happiness in schooling past the very earliest of years. Moore is calling for an end to homework in this video, but I want to make an analogous argument for ending the practice of grading children.

In the past year and a half I have visited Finland twice for the express purpose of coming to understand what it is that the Finns are doing, Michael Moore’s editorial aside. Call me incredulous when it comes to the claims that Finnish kids have NO homework, but call me a believer in the idea that the Finns place less importance upon grading their children against each other. Formative assessment replacing heaps of summative assessments. Furthermore, within the past 2 years, the Finnish national curriculum has been addended to include a multi-disciplinary requirement in each year of schooling. This will require a completely different method of assessment, there is no way to assign a single letter or numeric grade to such a task.

Warning, the next bit gets academic it is the researcher in me.

Schneider & Hutt (2013) provide an excellent history of how the grading system took hold in the US. Tracing its history into the early 19th century. This practice began in the Ivy League colleges, and was patterned after European colleges, specifically Prussian schools. These schools placed heavy emphasis upon competitive assignments and identifying the highest achieving students to separate them from the rest. Horace Mann, for all the wonderful things he brought to American Common Schools, was instrumental in the creation of our graded system.

In answer to some of the early criticisms of the competition model, Mann advocated a system of graded classrooms from 1st to 8th. These would allow students to be “re-ranked” annually rather than once at the end of their schooling years. Hmmmm still sounds competitive to me, but hey I am no Horace Mann right? The education reformers of the day likened grading to an accountant’s ledger. Emphasizing the accumulation of successes (on record of non-successes) for purposes of determining, and reporting, “in a compendious manner, the punctuality, deportment, and comparative merit of the pupil, in his recitations…”

By the mid-19th century there were already some concerns being raised with this anti-moral system of ranking students against each other. Honestly, is ranking an important outcome of education? Do we need to know who was “best” or “worst” at reading the minds of their teachers and regurgitating what those teachers want? In a recent speech (see her notes here), education researcher Dr. Diane Ravitch made the point that we have built for ourselves an education system predicated upon winners and losers, with high need for accounting of outcomes.

My point in this is that we seem to have lost the learning purpose, the goal of growing humans into their best selves is not central to our endeavor. Watch that short clip again, the one where the Finnish teacher declares that school is about learning to find happiness, to help humans become happy persons. Then tell me where that goal fits inside a grading system predicated on a so-called “normal distribution” of outcomes? If some have to get A’s, some must also have to get F’s, and the overwhelming majority who get Bs to Ds, get left out of focus.

I say the American system of education needs to drop its focus upon grades as being the product of 13 years of a child’s life. Bring to schooling the joy of learning as it will go farther than the negative consequences associated with grades. Our children are not onions.