Last year I removed grades from my classrooms. The entire process took me three quarters to complete. This post isn’t about how I went about de-grading my class, though. That’s for another time. This post concerns what happened after I removed grades. I want to make clear from the outset that I refuse to demean or trivialize any of the amazing work accomplished by teachers who choose to use grades. The last thing I want to do is bash the profession that I’ve fallen deeply and obsessively in love with. Nor am I interested in yet another “Here’s something else American schools get wrong” article. That sort of rhetoric allows external forces to gain influence over what happens inside our classrooms (As Little Finger from Game of Thrones would say, chaos is a ladder. For a fascinating look into the relationship between perceived moments of social crisis and education trends check out Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order). I’m merely providing commentary on how what started out as a way to escape the burdens of mind-numbing rubrics ended up leading to a complete rewiring of what it means to be an educator.
Because when I talk about removing grades and tests, I’m also talking about a whole-scale pedagogical shift. When you remove grades you also reject the notion that learning can and should be quantified. When you reject the notion that learning can be measured you find yourself at odds with pretty much everything that happens in an average school. Data analysis, psychometrics, ice cream socials for honor roll kids, reading logs, common formative assessments, unpacking standards, state and federal tests, etc. Although some of these things might be only tangentially related to grades, they’re still outgrowths of a vision of education rooted in metrics, management, and deficiency.
Removing grades from my classroom was an incredible experience. It wasn’t until I tried it that I realized just how central grades were to my own pedagogy. I want you to try something. Try to go an entire day without using the language of scores, percentiles, points as a way to modify a student’s behavior. Group of boys unengaged with the task? Perhaps a gentle reminder about how report cards are coming up and that classwork counts for 15% of their grade. Spot a student doodling on the side of a paper? A simple warning about the importance of whatever it is we’re doing and how it will end up being tested and graded should suffice.
Grades, raising them, sustaining them, reversing them, etc. becomes the modus operandi of almost everything we do. The rhetoric of academic excellence and 21st century knowledge simply provides a new reason to keep doing the same thing. It’s like the Janus-faced administration who cautions against teaching to the test but then spends professional development time discussing cut scores and gap-groups. This is because grades function as a sort of gravity. No matter how hard you try to escape their orbit, the gravitational forces makes sure everything always comes back to numbers, letters, and percents.
I often tell people that removing grades from the classroom changes both everything and nothing. On one hand I was still a teacher. Students came to my room every day at the same times, sat in roughly the same desks, and engaged in various educational activities. My responsibilities didn’t change. I planned lessons, worked with students in groups and individually, and did my best to love and nurture every child that entered the building. You can’t love and nurture while punishing, ranking, and sorting.
Removing grades is a simple task. You just stop doing it. You stop grading things and you stop entering things into a gradebook. Yet this simple change requires a complete revision of value judgements and educational purpose. My instructional goals used to be straightforward. Start out with the state’s testing blueprint and crosswalk (these documents lay out specifically what skills the state will use to measure each child). This narrows the standards down to a solid 15-20. Then use the schedule of assessments to see when each standard would be tested by the district’s benchmark exams. Now I know what will be tested, when it will be tested, and how it will be tested. This is to wield education as a technology in order to bring about certain specific outcomes. Think an inch deep and a mile wide. A dizzying array of tools to wield but only a single reason to use them.
But if I’m not teaching for mastery of content (delivered to me by someone else and measured by grading), what am I teaching for? And this is when the real work comes in. And the fear. How will I get children to work? How will I manage a classroom? How will I communicate with parents in an age of grade-surveillance and instant communication? Will I give homework? What skills will I focus on? How can I convince children to embark with me on an unknown path bereft of signposts and cardinal directions? Will they trust me? Will I trust myself? What starts out as a quiet act of revolution quickly metastasizes into real existential-occupational dilemmas.
These dilemmas force you to make choices with actual consequences. You will find yourself, perhaps for the first time in your professional career, fully in charge of your classroom. This is sublime in the true sense of the word.
Popular concepts like student-centered classrooms, engagement, and technology mean nothing without a firm philosophical and ideological backdrop. And this is where I am now. Trying to work with students and develop content that excites and challenges them while following my heart’s lead through new fields of understanding. The full enormity of our responsibility as educators and citizens can only be accessed by jettisoning the dead weight of gradebook mandates and superficial assessments.
It’s my hope that more educators will experiment not only with removing grades but rethinking the entire enterprise of what it is we’re supposed to do in the classroom.
It’s worth it.