So, What’d You Think? Asking Students about My Lessons

“Can we have naptime? I think we should have naptime.” 

Ever since September, I’ve been meeting with a select group of students to receive feedback on my classroom instruction. Wooed free 7-11 donuts, five students spend every Monday’s lunch period sitting in a circle and telling me what’s working and what could use some improvement. Nap comment aside, the students take the time seriously and view our weekly meetings as important.

I was first introduced to the idea of meeting with students to discuss instruction in Ira Shor’s books Empowering Education and When Students Have Power. I loved the idea, but I wasn’t entirely sold. Shor’s books deal mainly with higher education, and I had a hard time visualizing what such a meeting would look like at the middle grades.  It wasn’t until I read Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood that I realized I had to create a space for teacher-student dialogue. For Emdin, these “cogenerative dialogues” are an important and powerful step towards building emancipatory classrooms.

The idea is simple. Gather a representative selection of students from your classes. This means students of all ability levels, race, etc. I explained the process and then had interested students fill out a short Google Form. Then, you ask relatively simple questions with easy-to-implement answers. For instance, what are some ways we can do in the opening/closing minutes of class? What are some things I can do more of? Then, depending on everyone’s comfort level and the nature of the class, the questions ramp up. Instruction, discipline, text selection, etc. All topics are fair game. Students then rotate out of the group every six weeks or so. The idea is that students come to see themselves as co-creators of the educational space.

The first few weeks were spotty: kids didn’t show up consistently, I struggled with schedules, and discussions were more dead air than authentic exchange. But after a couple of months, we settled into a groove that’s persisted into the new year.

The C.A.B., or class advisory board (even after saying it for a month, ‘cogenerative dialogue’ felt forced and weird coming out of my mouth. Instead, I embraced my inner bureaucrat and created a sterile acronym-friendly moniker that fits me), hasn’t yet reached Emdin and Shor’s descriptions. The meetings remain fairly teacher-centered. As soon as the kids come in I pepper them with questions. We make sure everyone speaks, and I move the conversation along at a rapid pace, but my questions and presence drive the meetings.

The Limits of Student Feedback

For the last two weeks, I walked the lunch group through the previous week’s lessons. I created lesson summaries and asked them to tell me what worked and what didn’t work. In my mind, the students would be eager to “thin-slice” each lesson, offering me suggestions for better transitions, more engaging mentor texts, etc. Instead, they tended to remember single activities more than a lesson’s nuts and bolts. “This was fun because we got to move around,” or “This was boring because we’d already done it.”

In order to get around that, I ask every class for feedback on the day’s lesson twice a week. This usually takes the form of answering “What worked about today’s lesson? What would you improve?” on a sticky note and plastering it to the wall as they leave.

This week we talked about how to handle our end-of-quarter portfolios. Students responded with,

“You should give us quizzes so you know what we know.”

“Yea! And quizzes tell us what we know, too”

“If you let us pick our grades everyone will give themselves an A.”

Their answers, while certainly authentic to their experiences, reminded me of a quote from Paul Thomas. “Students remain uncritical of their behavior as students as opposed to learners or humans.” I don’t have discussions with my seventh graders about why I stopped use tests, grades, or quizzes for this reason. (It’s also one of the few aspects of my class that is not open to debate or wiggle room.)

Class Advisory Board has become an important part of my pedagogy. As administrators from central office continue their walkthroughs of the schools in my district, the authentic feedback I’m receiving from students who spend every day with me makes for an interesting contrast to the faceless forms following a 2-3 minute classroom visit. Students aren’t yet co-planning parts of a lesson a la Emdin, but it’s a start

 

 

Central Office is Coming

“Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals but prey upon the wounded or sick,” Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby

“So, how are you differentiating for gifted learners?”

The question was recently raised to me by an administrator during one of my CLT meetings. My school has opened its doors to education consultants from the private sector and administrators from central office. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but to be honest the reason doesn’t matter that much to me. As a teacher, I’m used to being told what I’m not doing well enough and what techniques I should employ in order to improve. Just like students.

That said, these sorts of observations and interactions still make my stomach ache. The second the experts walk in, I feel like a kid. I wither under the scrutiny, stumbling over words, and making careless mistakes. It’s like I’m back in school and the teacher has just slapped a pop quiz down onto my desk. My training, my experience, my professional reading and writing all disappear. All that remains is the feeling of not being good enough.

In Eleven, a magnificent short story written by Sandra Cisneros, the protagonist explains how misleading a birthday can be. When you turn eleven, she says, you’re still ten. And nine, and eight, and seven, etc. Just because I turned 35 last November doesn’t mean the difficulties of youth and inexperience are completely behind me. I still carry the emotional residue and muscle memory of three decades’ worth of triumphs, disasters, and everything in between. When it comes to school, I’m used to acquiescing to anyone higher than me on the chain of command.

Returning to the administrator’s question, I had a choice in how I responded. I could have inquired about the question itself. For instance, why are so many children identified as gifted? Why do many of them come from white families with dual-earner incomes? Was that person aware of the larger history of the gifted and talented movement? Of white supremacy and colonialism and class anxiety and the various ways certain funds of knowledge are prioritized while others are denigrated? I could have engaged in a conversation about ability groupings and tracking and heterogeneity. Or about the research on the effects of race, class, gender, and family education level on student achievement. But I didn’t.

I also could have used that time picking the expert’s brain to try and figure how to improve my teaching. Maybe they had advice about finding engaging mentor texts without spending my weekends hunched over my computer. Or how I can use issues of social justice to inform my pedagogy. I could have mentioned my concerns about my district’s new remediation mandate. Or how the absence of grades and tests in my class makes family communication problematic. I didn’t say any of that, either.

Instead, I provided a rote answer to a rote question. Was I differentiating? Yes. Leveled texts, scaffolded support, and differentiated assessments.

Schools socialize. We learn which behaviors get us rewarded and which get us punished. We learn to recognize who is above us on the ladder and who is below us. For teachers and students, identities within a school are demarcated and negotiated along the familiar lines of seniority, content, and job title. As a teacher, I listen to mandates, close my door, and find a way to make it work. I don’t push back and I don’t cause a ruckus. And I don’t expect my administrators to, either. While it’d be nice to hear that the leaders of my school and district are pushing back against irresponsible and unfair mandates, I don’t count on it. It’s not part of the job description.

Maybe they do and I simply don’t hear about it. For the most part, we remain in our boxes, using the tools granted to us by historical precedent and the prevailing discourse of our profession. Administrators wield data, push down initiatives, and support teachers in reaching various technocratic goals. In return, I use the standards, measure learning, and stay up to date on instructional strategies.

This is not an anti-administration post. They’re doing what they’ve always done, and I’m doing the same. We are playing the roles bequeathed to us from the last 100 years of American public education. The central office administrators will be back with their questions, and I’ll be prepared with my answers. We’ll continue doing our jobs as if nothing happened at all.

 

 

Talking Back: Refuting False Narratives

To be a teacher is in many ways to be a scapegoat. In America, we expect the impossible from our public schools. Educators toil in the shadow of continuous failure. Anyone who works in the profession is familiar with the attacks. We’re not equipping students with the skills they need to be college and career ready. We’re not training children to be 21st century ready. We’re leaving gifted and talented kids behind. We don’t use technology enough so our kids won’t know how to code. We use technology too often and therefore our kids have lost the art of conversation.

Ours is a cacophony of misdirection from inside and outside the profession. I wrote the following dialogue to help me process through the junk regularly flung at educators. I also wanted to share some of the resources that have nourished me this year.

American students are falling behind their international peers. We need innovation and entrepreneurship to revitalize our public schools. 

Wrong. In Mean Scores in a Mean World, Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby disaggregate PISA data to demonstrate that “70% of American children are among the highest-scoring students in the world, despite the public schools’ open doors” to students with limited English proficiency and special needs. The claim that we need to reinvent school to compete with the rest of the world is a ruse, a fear mongering statement designed to make schools and elected officials open their doors and coffers to private entities.

What about that other 30%? Schools are failing children of color and children living below the poverty line. 

Yup. Absolutely true. Schools have historically mistreated, marginalized, and underserved communities of color. And since high stakes testing rewards students who come from means, it should be no surprise when poor children perform badly on tests.

So how are you going to fix the achievement gap?

First off, the term achievement gap is problematic. In “Please Stop Using the Phrase ‘Achievement Gap’,” Camika Royal encourages us to watch our mouths around how we discuss the term. It enshrines white knowledge and places blame within families of color. To “eliminate the achievement gap” is to ignore the effects of more than two hundred years of racism, inequitable funding, and marginalization. Wealth gap? Yup. Education gap? Yup. Opportunity gap? For sure. But not an achievement gap.

As for the answer to the question, here’s a start. Pay a living wage. Provide equitable funding for public schools through a centralized mechanism instead of local property taxes. Resist the militarization of schooling and put an end to racist discipline practices. End the school to prison pipeline. Ensure that all children have access to advanced courses and specialized content. Actively recruit and retain teachers of color.

In the midst of all this equity, won’t someone remember the gifted and talented?

The notion that gifted children are being left behind makes me apoplectic. As Megan Erickson notes in Class War: The Privatization of Childhood, “high-achieving” students are regularly separated out from the rest of us. They’re taught to value individual gains more than communal problem solving and empathy and the ability to explain concepts to peers. And efforts to identify “gifted minorities” aren’t an option as they do nothing to “challenge the foundational propositions of giftedness.”

American students are not career ready.

Wrong. In Skills Gap, Skill Shortages, and Skill Mismatches: Evidence and Arguments for the United States, Peter Cappelli destroys the popular notion that public schools fail to prepare students for the workforce. Cappelli traces this idea from its contemporary beginnings in the late 1950s (Sputnik, the 1958 National Defense Act) through the 1990s (America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages?) and into the millennium (the ascension of STEM). It’s an employer’s duty to train their employees. The notion that schools aren’t preparing kids for work is absurd and unfounded.

Cultural competency and diversity training are about developing empathy and understanding. 

As Leigh Patel says in The Irrationality of Antiracist Empathy, “empathy does not require the realignment of social relations.” Spending a few afternoons paying lip service to a whitewashed form of diversity ignores the everyday racism that exists in our society and in our schools. Patel’s essay serves as a fierce reminder that asking white teachers to sit around and discuss our racial identities does nothing to confront racism or decenter white supremacy. She points out that while such discussions are necessary, they are not sufficient in developing a plan of attack to dismantle white domination.

Teaching is a fiercely political act. The classroom is, and has always been, a contested site of meaning. The funds of knowledge we teach, the ways of learning we value, and the subjectivities we help bring into being are all wrapped up in issues of race, class, gender, and power. The potential strength of our profession rests with our ability to rise up and talk back about the issues that matter.

 

So What Do You Do?

At a recent department meeting, the call came down for every teacher to produce spreadsheets for the data from our most recent district-mandated benchmark exam. We were to chart out student performance by standard, strand, score, and subgroup.  This request is nothing new. Administrators have been asking for charts, and teachers have been making them, since at least the nineteenth-century*. Even without the marching orders, many of us would continue to make such spreadsheets. This type of data, after all, plays an important role in how we make sense of the world.

So I spent Monday’s district-mandated collaboration time working on my chart with my teammates. Jumping between my internet browser and Excel, I exported data, color-coded cells to match arbitrary cut scores, and designated which students fit into which subgroups. (When it comes to subgroups, my district uses a fairly common quartet of SWD [students with disabilities], LEP [limited English proficiency], African American, and Hispanic.) The end result looked like this:

scores

To preserve anonymity, every number and X placement on this chart is a complete fabrication.

Crude, but functional. Data charts are seductive. By distilling complex relational forces into “stoplight data,” this scheme offers an illusion of efficiency, a color-coded roadmap that reveals little and obfuscates much.

Regardless of how much critical pedagogy I expose myself to, this sort of testing data makes my inner technocrat drool. It flattens and compresses and whispers in the language of knowable outcomes and cause/effect relationships. Charts of this type proliferate throughout every level of education. This is understandable; the intense bureaucratization of mass scale schooling requires a high level of data transferability.

The data is a few weeks old and relatively meaningless from an instructional standpoint. Even if students just completed the benchmark yesterday, the results from a quarterly exam designed by someone I don’t know covering an arbitrarily circumscribed section of the curriculum using a handful of multiple-choice questions aren’t valuable to me.

The rationale behind making the charts is similarly uninspiring. Pick and choose from the word bank of modern education reform’s empty sloganeering: To maintain high standards for all and ensure that every child receives the support they need. To maximize teacher effectiveness and tailor instruction to suit a child’s needs. To close the achievement gap and provide an empowering snapshot of every student’s ability.

The data is also already accessible via my district’s contracted benchmark provider: PowerSchool Group LLC, a subsidiary of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners. The decision to require every teacher to transfer information from a website to a spreadsheet strikes me as confusing at best and Foucauldian at worst. Understand it is not my intention to scoff at these administrative demands, only to work through the ramifications of what I’m asked to do on a daily basis.

So what do I do? If I disagree with the data chart and the assumptions behind it, how should I proceed?  In “So what do I do?” Paul Thomas describes a number of ways teachers can claim their professionalism and push back. Thomas suggests that teachers identify and evaluate their obligations with care. Brainstorm with colleagues authentic versions of inauthentic mandates. Cultivate communities of empowerment that build professional knowledge and leverage individual strengths. Expand your influence and engagement beyond the walls of the classroom to include parents, fellow educators, and community members.

By keeping one foot firmly planted in lived reality, the post’s seven suggestions illustrate David and Julie Gorlewski’s idea that “Critical educators must enact dual perspectives; they are simultaneously agents of the state and agents of change.” In the past, I would have simply crossed my arms, closed my door, and refused to make the charts. With the Gorlewski’s quote in mind, though, such willful abdication seems petulant.

In the four days it took to write this post, the data chart has come and gone. Additional action items have risen up to take their place. Ours can be a profession of ceaseless demands, a hydra. In the scheme of things this data chart is a minuscule blip. But the blips add up and form the very fabric of the profession.

I struggle to find the time and the energy to engage in the aforementioned suggestions. But I write these blog posts and use social media to expand my professional network and knowledge. For now, this is enough. For now, this is what I do.

*During the Progressive Era, superintendents and top-level administrators cast themselves as data-savvy technicians. By adopting the language of business and social efficiency, the new administrative progressives created an archetype of “effective school leader” that remains influential today. As a side note, this is one of the reasons I enjoy learning about education history. It helps me place administrative demands, and pretty much everything else, in a useful context.

The Heart of Praxis: NCTE2017 Proposals

The call for proposals for the 2017 NCTE conference has been issued. The title for next year’s conference, Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission, highlights NCTE’s commitment to speaking truth to power and championing the teacher as a change maker. I’m interested in how we can use theory to reclaim our voices and engage in our work with renewed focus.

To that end, I’d like to put together a proposal for a session on using theory as a source of vitality and inspiration. Here are some rough ideas. They all fall under the draft session title of

The Heart of Praxis: Using Critical Theory to Inspire and Guide Your Teaching

1. Drawing inspiration from America’s neoliberal turn of the 1970s and 1980s, teacher prep programs are training teachers to be data managers and technicians. Politics, history, and theory are of little value when all that matters is increasing test scores among gap groups. How can we draw on critical pedagogy to recenter teacher training on issues of critical literacy and social transformation?

2. The dominance of test scores and punitive systems of accountability create an atmosphere of distrust between teachers. Building a supportive network of teacher collaboration has become increasingly difficult. For many teachers, collaboration has become yet another mandate required by central offices, a standardized ritual focused on quantitative learning outcomes and Dufour/Solution Tree agenda templates. What does radical teacher collaboration look like?  How can we use theory to replace false collaboration with meaningful exchange?

3. The rise of alternative assessment practices like standards based grading and proficiency scales harken back to the administrative progressives of the early twentieth century. Critical theory can help us understand how our language of learning sacrifices the democratic potential of education and figure out how to chart a course to a more relevant and uplifting form of learning.

4. All too often teachers experience cultural competency as a set of boxes to check off on their district-wide professional development regimens. Cultural competency can become what Leigh Patel describes as “parking lots for emotionality and white fragility.” By ignoring education’s historical role in creating and sustaining class stratification and material inequality, much cultural competency training fails to prepare teachers to ignite change within the classroom and the teacher’s lounge. How can critical race theory help us recenter our classrooms and school communities?

Again, these are just ideas. Please reply to this blog post or contact me on Twitter/email if you’re interested in putting together a proposal on these or any other theory related topics. 

Let’s Plan A Unit! Mentor Texts and Anxiety​

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.

graph.PNG

The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup, Poets.org, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.

 

Grades, Modernity, and the New Administrative Progressives

modernity

Jørn Utzon, factory proposal, CC license

Grades, Modernity, and the New Administrative Progressives

The 2016 NCTE conference was amazing. Even though I was able to attend sessions on a variety of topics, I spent the majority of my time discussing grades. I took part in a round-table discussion focused on removing grades from secondary English classrooms. Most of our talk centered around what to do after getting rid of grades, quizzes, and tests. What do you put in their place? How do you make sure kids stay motivated? What kind of feedback do you offer? These valuable questions have been taken up by minds far sharper than mine, and I advise you to check out any of the blogs, books, and professional resources devoted to such topics. That’s not what this post is going to be about.

Instead I’m going to write about the gut-level unease that trailed me for the duration of my time in Atlanta, Georgia. The feeling began to gnaw at me during the round-table when I didn’t know how to field questions about removing grades at the high school level. As the teachers around me were right to point out, it’s much easier to throw out the grade book in middle school (where I teach) than high school. For most middle school students, topics like financial aid, graduation requirements, and college admissions don’t have teeth.

As for me, the single letter my district requires me to enter into the gradebook at the end of each quarter has little bearing on the educational trajectory of my students. I have structured my class so as to spend the absolute bare minimum amount of time thinking about student grades and points and rubrics. This is a privilege afforded to me by a trusting administration and a welcoming school climate.

So I sat at the round-table feeling foolish. Unlike the other round-table participants I did not come prepared to discuss feedback mechanisms and mastery learning. Nor did I have advice on setting up a gradebook or handling the paper load. I chose to spend the weeks leading up to NCTE feverishly typing up pages of notes on the history of grades. I’m not particularly interested in talking about why grades don’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I love to sit around and bloviating about the negatives of grades. I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most important part of the larger conversation about grades and measurement.

We know that grades don’t work. External rewards undercut intrinsic motivation and create situations where students/humans will do the least amount of work possible for the maximum result. Grades aren’t particularly effective proxies for learning, either. They’re crude symbolic abstractions of a complex and non-linear process. There’s nothing new to this assertion; educators have been speaking out against grades since at least the Common School era during the mid nineteenth century.

What struck me most during the anti-grading conversations I participated in at the conference was the ever present allure of efficiency. Behind the discussions about proficiency scales and standards-based alternatives to traditional grades lurked the human (and, in our case, distinctly American) desire to quantify and fix and stratify. In my mind, the Rob Marzanos and John Franklin Bobbits of education have begun to blur.

In his influential book The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education, David Tyack details a new class of 20th century school reformers, a group he famously called the “administrative progressives.” Administrative progressives sought to centralize public education under a unified banner of social efficiency, scientific management, and mental measurement. The progressive designation had nothing to do with John Dewey. Instead, this new group of reformers saw themselves as mavericks, iconoclasts who would lead public education out of provincialism and old world traditions through modern science and technology.

While grading systems were common across schools in the early 1900s, they lacked any sort of standardization or uniformity. Some schools stuck to old-world grading methods (emphasizing individual competition, ranking, and behavior) while others favored a more modern approach (the belief that grades could provide objective data and distinguish between ‘classes of men’). Various titles, levels, and numerical systems jostled elbows, often times within the same district. As schooling became larger and more complex, schoolmen needed a universal metric of academic progress and intellect to link schools vertically and horizontally. By the 1950s the A – F system of grades the majority of us grew up with was well on its way to becoming the national standard.

Administrative progressives remain an important part of contemporary education. Top level administrators and superintendents continue to act as bureaucratic data-managers, technocrats expected to know more about managing inputs and outputs than instructing a classroom full of students. Appeals to the debunked factory model of education, a myth as potent now as it was one hundred years ago, fit right in with administrative progressivism: education is stuck and the key to progress lies in more efficient technologies of instruction.

I sometimes feel that current anti-grading rhetoric has much in common with the desires of the twentieth century administrative progressives. A cottage industry has sprouted up around alternatives to traditional grades. Much of the rhetoric behind proficiency scales and standards based grading seems to me to be taken from a Progressive Era playbook. The language of a proficiency scale provides more information than a letter or number, and standards based grading grounds a teacher’s  judgments rooted in content objectives, but they still serve to reduce the complexity of learning into transferable terms. Such alternatives to traditional grading are, as a mentor of mine once commented, the best way of doing a bad thing.

So how can we get around them? What about high school where letter grades and GPAs play an essential role in admissions, graduation requirements, and financial aid? Or when students transfer between schools and counselors use report cards and test scores to make important decisions about class placement? Grades, and the national consensus of how an A differs from a B, are baked into every single layer of schooling. Parent meetings depend on grades, when basic assumptions of a child’s competency, intellect, and progress draw from letters and numbers. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and this post isn’t about pointing fingers. Because any teacher who removes grades must grapple with the institutional inertia behind traditional marks.

Mechanisms of grading, ranking, sorting, and transferring are essential to modernity. In Making the grade: a history of the A-F marking scheme, Jack Schneider and Ethan Hutt situate grading as “…a key technology of educational bureaucratization, a primary means of quantification, and the principal mechanism for sorting students.” Removing grades can disrupt and draw attention to this. In our rush to find alternatives to assigning grades, we should be wary of implementing systems with similar functions.

Some questions of education can be answered through assessment technology. Tracking student progress and content mastery, for instance, benefit from any sort of standardized scale. More important questions of education, such as the what, the why, and the how, cannot be. We shortchange education discourse when the majority of our conversations stick to the former at the expense of the latter.