Grades Are Failing Us
-Stan Call, Village Sudbury School, September 16, 2016
They are a source of family tension and stress for parents and students alike. Many include “good” grades as a condition for the right to spend time with friends or engage in fun activities, and respond to “bad” grades with punishment. Even car insurance companies base their rates on grades. In some families, a B or even an A- counts as a bad grade, while others just insist on passing grades. What is almost universal, though, is the assumption that it is important for children to try and earn good grades, that grades matter. Most of us never question the value of this late 19th century invention (that’s right, before the late 1800s, there was no such thing as a grade!). In this article, I reflect on excerpts from Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich, which shed some light on the problems with grades (italicized text).
School teaches us that instruction produces learning. The existence of schools produces the demand for schooling. Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions... In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.
Grades don’t actually measure learning. Before starting at Village Sudbury School, my daughter was failing in Social Studies, according to her report card. On further examination, it turned out that she had As and Bs on her classwork and tests. The F was due to not turning in homework. Think about a casual conversation: when people say to “do your homework,” they mean to study an issue and be prepared to deal with it. In school, however, regardless of how ready one is to demonstrate knowledge and competency, to “do your homework” really just means to submit busy work to be stamped and checked off a list.
People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them, what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity... But personal growth is not a measurable entity. It is growth in disciplined dissidence, which cannot be measured against any rod, or any curriculum, nor compared to someone else's achievement…
The very existence of grades pollutes the learning process. Judging and evaluating affects the subject of evaluation. There is a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as the observer effect. The very act of recording and measuring subtly alters that which is being measured. In the case of quantum mechanics, the alteration is minor, caused by things like the impact of photons. In the classroom, the pressures of external evaluation have far more wide ranging consequences.
Think of trying to make an important personal decision, regarding, say, a romantic relationship or major life change. You might ask close friends and family for advice, or even consult a therapist. But ultimately you are the one who needs to decide, and relying too much on the opinions and advice of others can lead to unhappiness and regret. This is an example of when knowing one’s self is important. Likewise, when it comes to the development of academic, social, artistic, and technical skills. There is a huge difference between relying on external evaluations like grades, depending on authorities to tell you what matters and to rate your performance on tasks they (or the state) selected, compared to the experience of intrinsic motivation, setting one’s own goals, and striving for improvement for the inherent satisfaction of a job well done.
Educational innovators still assume that educational institutions function like funnels for the programs they package. As long as the relations continue to be those between a supplier and a consumer, educational research will remain a circular process.
Schools can’t be fixed with legislation like No Child Left Behind or Every Student Succeeds, nor with more funding, better books, or flipped classrooms. The structures of school which we take for granted are known as the “hidden curriculum.” While a school may claim to teach language arts and math, the hidden curriculum teaches that grades and test scores are far more important than actual learning. It teaches students to do the least possible thinking needed to make the grade. In “From Degrading to De-Grading,” Alfie Kohn documents extensive research demonstrating the destructive effects of grading on motivation and learning.
Everywhere, all children know that they were given a chance, albeit an unequal one, in an obligatory lottery, and the presumed equality of the international standard now compounds their original poverty with the self-inflicted discrimination accepted by the dropout. They have been schooled to the belief in rising expectations and can now rationalize their growing frustration outside school by accepting their rejection from scholastic grace…
Furthermore, just as judging people based on their looks is objectifying, likewise constantly rating children on academic performance in a compulsory context is degrading and objectifying. Students are taught to feel bad about themselves if they get bad grades, and are literally labeled as failures. When a student takes grades to heart, it can kill self-confidence and cause long-term harm. Low grades are often related to factors outside a student’s control, such as problems with health or finances, so the hidden curriculum also teaches the poor that they deserve their poverty.
Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instills in the pupil the myth that increased production will provide a better life. And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails.
It is high time that we engage in public dialogue about the purpose of school and the definition of success. The effects of the hidden curriculum extend far beyond the classroom, crippling creativity and independence and cultivating a sense of powerlessness and addiction to institutions and outside experts. Compulsory education is failing us.