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.