Exit Ramp: Done with grades
It’s the season. I’ve just finished marking papers and submitting grades. I gave them all A’s for the semester. You’re thinking, “Easy grader.” I’m thinking: “I actually care about learning.” My students all worked hard, showing seriousness of purpose and mastery of what they read. I want them to feel good about what they learned, take it with them, and feel confident about themselves as future teachers. When you give grades, you hold immense power over people. Every grade you give is a label you force students to wear that tells them what you think of them, regardless of what you actually think of them.
And here’s a big secret that’s no secret at all: Nothing gets in the way of learning more than grades.
I didn’t say it first. Read Alfie Kohn’s “Feel-Bad Education” or his challenge — to go from degrading to de-grading in schools. You can be a member of the No-Grades Movement or join the thousands in the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group who believe that observation, feedback, iteration, and student self-evaluation will make real learners out of students. Grades won’t. You might read about the 40-plus schools in New York City that have moved to mastery-based learning. Better yet, you might sign your kid up.
But don’t wait too long. Kids who don’t get good grades can find their report cards a confirmation of failure to those whose opinions matter most to them: parents and teachers. Bad grades can cripple a child’s sense of self-worth — no matter who they are outside of the classroom. Good grades can have an equally deleterious impact. The drama. The self-hate. The recriminations. The judgment. The humiliation. The outsized, Olympic expectations that drive children to over-perform to please makes robots, not learners. As the adage goes, “The notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either.” This was the perfect description of everything I crammed in my brain for finals that stayed there precisely until the test was over.
The stress levels experienced by “good” students today are simply not worth the price of the paper of that impressive diploma. And because good is a moral judgment above all, let’s talk about how much goodness we squeeze out of grades when they are the No. 1 reason students cheat, take short-cuts, or act brutally competitive. What grades produce more than anything else is anxiety, and we cannot afford any more anxiety in schools today than we already have.
In “The Case for Not Giving Grades,” Marty Nemko asserts that “Eliminating grades moves motivation from the extrinsic to the intrinsic,” and reminds us that issuing grades is a way for professors and teachers to get away with poor instruction. Sometimes kids work hardest in classes that are the most poorly taught. They don’t want to ruin their GPA because a teacher is lazy or incompetent. Teachers who give up on grades have found alternative, meaningful ways to bring students into assessments and together create personalized learning plans. It takes time. It takes intention. It takes good teaching to make good learners. And when it’s done well, it’s called education.
Yes, I am passionate about this subject, nowhere more than in Jewish studies in Jewish day schools. You’ll argue that if we don’t give kids grades, they won’t take their classes seriously. I argue that most kids aren’t taking bad teaching seriously anyway. They’re just throwing away a love of subject to something more worthy, where they feel good about themselves. A Talmud teacher confessed to me that he had an excellent student but gave him a B-plus because he often came late to class. Not surprisingly, that student disengaged from Talmud study altogether. He saw his teacher as a person with the wrong priorities. Think about it. Most of us can’t remember what we learned years ago. We remember feelings about certain teachers that got transmitted to the subjects they taught. Associations linger.
Some schools, dare I say it, give grades in prayer. Imagine the judgment. Tender spirituality is squashed. Sure, it’s hard to get kids quiet, but consider the long-term soul damage. It’s simply irreparable. Do you think God gives us grades? You cannot have a warm, loving, intimate relationship with a God who gives grades. Even if you’re an A student.
There will come a day when a few courageous Jewish day schools have the vision to take a bold step out of an outmoded system and do what Jews have done for millennia: study for its own sake. You brave few will make life-long learners out of your students. You will foster curiosity and love. You will nurture engagement and intellect. You will grow the soul. You will show the rest of us the way.