John and I jogged around the track at Conard High School, dew tipping the long blades of grass that covered the football field. We moved at an easy pace, talking about the game we would play later that day on the same field. Lacrosse season was at its peak intensity, and we weren’t going to waste energy on the mile run we were completing in gym class.
Even at our pace, we would finish under 10 minutes, and we chugged slowly by some of our less-athletic classmates, breathing heavily, or slowing their feet to a walk, beads of sweat dripping down their faces, like more blades of swaying grass.
I crossed the finish line as my gym teacher began walking towards me. He was a small guy, more of a coach than an athlete, so it took me completely off guard when he reached for my throat.
I knocked his hand away out of instinct.
“Relax, Daly,” he said, “I’m just checking your pulse.”
He placed his index and middle fingers against my Carotid artery, and started counting while he looked at his watch.
“I thought so,” he exclaimed in disgust, moving his fingers away from my neck. “You’re an athlete, you’re supposed to be an example! And you’re not even trying!”
I turned back to the track, noticing the substantial number of my classmates that were still running.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, pretty annoyed. “I finished before almost everyone! We have a game today, I’m not spending all my energy here!”
He shook his head, looking down at the track. “I understand that you guys have a game today, but this class isn’t about how you do against others, it’s about how you do against yourself.”
I used to tell that story for a different reason. Usually it was to ridicule the teacher, and explain how crazy he was for grabbing my neck. He was a bit of a clown, and it was easy to dismiss his opinions because I was young, and headstrong.
Now, however, I see the wisdom in the lesson.
Imagine the same scenario inside a non-physical education setting. Students are given a standard task, such as writing a 5-paragraph essay. A group of students that are already writing at grade-level toil appropriately at the task. The students that are above grade-level are capable of breezing through the assignment, and the students that struggle are forced to work much harder to complete the task, if at all.
Now think about the way these students will be graded. In general, the higher level students will receive the higher grades, and the lower level students will be assigned the lower grades.
We typically rationalize this behavior for one of two reasons.
- Getting them ready for “The Real World”
Let’s approach these rationales, and explore why they represent gross fallacies that may actually border on student oppression.
Often, when dealing with less progressive teachers, the subject of grades and fairness arises. At the middle and secondary level in most American schools, the A through F approach is still both a requirement and reality.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with this.
It is perfectly acceptable to assess a student’s work, and assign a number or letter to that work.
The problem arises in the way we are assessing, and the role that Personalization and Individualization, along with proficiency and growth, play in reaching that letter or number grade.
Dweck’s work on Mindset plays a key role here, as the importance of factoring a student’s effort into their grade, and how that effort is perceived by the rest of the class, is integral to developing grit and perseverance in our students. To put it plainly, our grading and assessment systems need to promote the idea that EFFORT EQUALS ACHIEVEMENT. Anything that gets in the way of this is short term or arbitrary at best.
In order to be truly fair, we need to individualize student work, using standard acquisition and effort as the formula for grading.
The Real World
This fallacy is tied to the previous section as well.
We are often in positions as teachers where we are receiving pressure from some other entity above us, bemoaning the lack of student readiness. In the public school system, this is always true, as the influence and anxiety that the college acceptance process creates looms large over all decisions in a trickle-down manner.
Proponents of this type of thinking see college as a hard deadline, one where their students must be up to proficiency at the end of the 12th grade.
This assertion is sloppy, lazy, and used to create excuses against innovation.
The real world exists, but we cannot use a child’s experience as a student in our system to pretend that what happens prior to their eventual high school and college graduation is a preamble to some “Real” life that exists.
I have been working now for around 20 years. What makes me a good employee, and an effective worker, have been my ability to be resilient, to understand how important a work ethic is, to see myself as a learner, to know how to ask questions, to cultivate healthy relationships and communication with my colleagues, to be empathetic towards my students or customers, to care about what I do, and to show up day in and day out.
None of those skills are related to my ability to determine the points on a parabola, or name the capitals of 50 states. The grades I received through my education, and the tasks i was required to complete were rarely things I have used in my adult life.
Imagine now that you are entering high school reading below grade-level. You desperately want to improve, but none of the classes are built to specifically address your literacy deficiencies. You are asked to read Shakespeare, or Salinger, Steinbeck if you are lucky. You are going to learn one thing very quickly: that you are unable to do. That you are stupid. That hard work is a waste of time.
Imagine instead that we reward resilience, learning as a process, grit, hard work, pushing yourself. These qualities couldn’t be more needed in a workforce and economy.
We do need to get students ready for the “Real World”, but I would argue that comparative grading is getting in the way of that.
Moving away from static ways of assessment, and comparative grading, is the only way to ensure that all of our students are being treated fairly. This can be accomplished through the adoption of grading platforms and structures that take into account growth, standard acquisition, and effort. In order for this to occur however, we must move toward a policy of personalization and individualization of curriculum as well.
These days, I don’t run as much as I should. With my two children (with one on the way), work requirements, tutoring sessions, coaching, and the never-ending joys of homeownership, exercise has too often taken a back seat.
When I do get out for a run or walk, I find myself putting my two fingers to my neck, making sure that I am pushing myself, measuring whether I’m making the most out of the time that I have.
Are we doing this for our students?
Can we do better?