On Education and Its Discontents

The education system has been cobbled together over hundreds of years, the fundamentals of which we usually take for granted. The following is an email exchange I had over the last few weeks with my brother Danny, also a classroom teacher, about ways to improve on the status quo.

Billy: Hey Danny, let’s do an email exchange on education. I’ll start with a quick hit:

If you met an education genie, and this genie granted you the power to change one thing about school, and this change would go into effect immediately in all schools, what would it be?

Danny: I would eliminate the current grading system. Of all the perverse incentives that exist in education (and there are a lot of them), I think that grades are the most powerful. Getting rid of them would have many cascading positive effects.

I see my students make terrible decisions motivated by grades. I see their parents put an insane amount of pressure on their young kids to increase their grades. I see students suffer social consequences because of their grades.

My heart breaks when students come up to me and want to know how to increase their grades. The students that do that aren’t coming up to ask me about history. To those students at that moment, I’m not a history teacher. I’m a person that gives them a grade. Even if you tell them that mastery of the material will give them the grades they want, that still means that learning is only a means to an end. It’s a means to get points.

And then, students without a mastery of the material get a 70 percent in the class and move on to more difficult things. I remember this happening to me too, particularly in math. They develop gaps in their skills and knowledge. At a certain point it becomes difficult or impossible to catch up, and students get left scrambling to be barely adequate. And all they care about is the points. I see some students get so frustrated that they stop caring about the points. But the don’t start caring about the material. They just stop caring about anything.

Getting rid of grades would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the material. It would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the teacher. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationship with their parents. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with the administration. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with themselves.

Then of course you do have some problems to face. How do you assess students’ progress? How do prospective colleges assess who they let in? How do employers know what kind of student a potential employee was?

Thing is, grades are terrible for all of those things already. I think getting rid of grades would be a positive step even if you replaced them with nothing. Leave everything else the same, just stop recording grades. Colleges and employers would find ways to screen applicants, and I think just about any way of doing that would be better than grades.

I can assess students’ learning without writing down exactly how they performed on their first or second try on a multiple choice test and making it a permanent record. Then we can work on ways to improve their areas of weakness, without an air of judgement or stress.

Do you think grades have some value that I’m missing? Do you know of any alternative systems of assessment? Also what would your change be?

Billy: Let’s think about grades as a number-based evaluation tool. Grades are almost always based on a percentage possible for whatever you do in class. Like your 70% example. Total them up across your classes, then compute your Grade Point Average.

The main purpose for a numeric valuation system is to make comparisons. I think the main purpose of grades is not so much feedback on learning, as it is a way to compare students against each other. As your examples show, students know this very well.

This year, I had two students who were best friends. They sat next to each other and both did a great job in my class. One was very detail-oriented, took notes all the time, and aced all the assignments and tests. The other was more creative in writing and projects, and also took on a strong leadership role — motivating other students and coming up with new ideas for the class.

Leadership and creativity, both extremely valuable, do not show up as line items on my gradebook. Maybe that’s a fault of my grading system? Should teachers base their numeric grades more holistically, factoring in the intangibles as much as the “mastery of the material” on their final grades?

But that’s subjective, and I think another factor driving the grade system and the testing system is a desire for objective assessment. (I would argue any tool chosen for assessing learning is subjective anyway, but that’s a different tangent.)

Who benefits from this system? Colleges get a packet of numbers: GPA and standardized test scores, which makes their selection process much easier. Colleges accept the students who best play the game, hiring managers employ the “best and the brightest” from the top programs.

And so, school becomes not so much about learning, than about competition. A competition that rewards detail-orientated compliance at the cost of arguably more valuable, more subjective qualities.

If the genie granted me one power, I think I would also eliminate grades. Prioritize learning (and the love of learning) for the benefit of the students, let colleges work harder to find good fits for their programs.

But you already eliminated grades, so I’ve been thinking about two things: the existence of standardized tests (including state-mandated tests, AP tests, and the SAT/ACT), and the school schedule (summers off, cram all these requirements into nine months of stressed out teachers and students, and the public perception that teachers have it easy by having so much time off).

Maybe you could help me out with choosing. I’m indecisive. I guess both fall under this similar theme: reduce stress, prioritize learning. Stress and learning aren’t very compatible, are they?

Danny: This is something I’ve been thinking about since I wrote that first reply. Stress management is an incredibly important skill, one that I developed over the course of my schooling (most especially in college). In fact, I did learn a lot in stressful situations, usually writing big papers on a deadline.

There are a lot of arguments I’ve heard for keeping “the game” the same, or at the very least having some element of “the game.” Stress management is one element that frequently gets brought up. Knowing how and when to follow authority is another. The problem is: we don’t actually teach those things in school.

The best teachers can weave lessons on those things into their normal curriculum. But even in the rare cases where that is done well, it’s still a side-dish, and tends to reinforce the problematic relationship with academic learning that results from the grading system. The “detail-oriented compliance” you mentioned often gets taught as the only way to succeed. The only way to manage stress is to study more, comply more. But that usually just feeds the stress.

So we have a problem. We want to students to learn important academic subjects. We want students to learn life skills like stress management and playing the game. We have a system that teaches the former, but is set up for the latter.

I think standardized tests are definitely over-done. Reducing the emphasis on those and changing the school year would definitely lead to more balance.

Maybe balance is what it’s all about. I get a little reactive when it comes to this topic, wanting to go completely in the opposite direction towards a totally stress-free school environment. But maybe that’s not a good goal either.

I’ve toyed with the idea of unconventional classes. If we want school to teach life skills, why not explicitly teach those things? You could have Managing Your Emotions classes for young kids. As you start introducing a more high-stress environment in middle school, have Managing Stress classes along with support structures. In high-school have classes on How to Play the Game, and personal finance classes every year. In fact, these classes would probably be more valuable in the long-term than a lot of content that get taught and forgotten right after the test.

Billy: I’m glad you took it in that direction, because I was going to play devil’s advocate for why grades and standardized tests matter.

The most compelling argument can be captured in two words: Rigor and Accountability.

School needs to be rigorous, push kids to work hard, hold them to high standards. Only grades can properly account for their performance, keep them on track. If they fall behind they can be pushed to work harder, do more, raise their grades.

Likewise, standardized tests hold schools and students accountable. Are schools teaching kids effectively? How does your school stack up to other schools taking the same tests? How much are students progressing from year to year?

High expectations prepare students for expectations at work, the obligations of family and society. Discipline to pay your taxes on time, balance your checkbook, etc. Prepare kids for the responsibilities of adult life.

And this gets at the heart of my own feelings about the arrogance of school. As if nothing important has ever been, or will be, learned outside the confines of these four-walled rooms where adults coerce young people into following orders for thirteen years.

Think about a time when you really wanted to learn something. For me personally, I wanted to be a great basketball player. (And I know you taught yourself guitar.) It wasn’t easy. I remember slamming the ball on the ground, getting pissed off, refusing to leave the court for hours until I got a skill just right. I’m sure you did the same thing with chords on the guitar, or with learning lines for a theatre production.

When I got interested in psychology (long after I was forced to learn anything), I would struggle through the writings of B.F. Skinner and read critiques by other psychologists, wanting to figure out the best theories on human behavior.

The most celebrated teachers in our schools have the entire year planned out, month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day, minute-to-minute. Under a barrage of arbitrary curriculum and deadlines, homework, threats, and high pressure multiple-choice tests, when do kids get to explore their own interests?

Maybe the question is not “stress” vs. “no stress,” but about “prescribed forced instruction” vs. “self-initiated learning.”

Danny: I think that’s a great dichotomy to think about. And those seem to be the roots of stressful or non-stressful learning. I guess a better balance of those two educational styles is what we’re really grasping at. How do you balanced prescribed instruction and self-initiated learning?

I’m not sure you can get balance with the existence of grades. I think grades lock you into the prescribed instruction style of education, and virtually eliminate the possibility of self-initiated learning (or at least make it an uphill battle).

You said “only grades can properly account for their performance,” and I’m not sure that’s true. Sometimes the real world might have something analogous to grades, but it frequently promotes perverse incentives, just like grades. One of the first things that came to mind when considering real-world examples of strict quantitative evaluation was sales goals. Look at the example of Wells Fargo. What happened when they established harsh sales goals for their employees? Those employees looked for any possible way to reach those goals with the least amount of effort. They didn’t get better at selling things, they got better at cheating or gaming the system. The same thing happens in schools.

I don’t know that we should be training students that such a system is acceptable or normal. In some of the jobs I have had, they used quantitative metrics without establishing hard and fast goals. They use those metrics for feedback, not for incentives or promotion. Any improvement I did was self-initiated, but the feedback helped direct my efforts. It was actually a similar story in the really late stages of college. I think you could apply this idea to teach kids self-initiation at younger ages.

I teach 6th grade. I see no reason why my students should be given their grades. It isn’t for colleges — they won’t look at them. The only argument I could see is that it gives me, them, their parents, and the administration an idea of how well the students are performing. But I can get an idea of that without giving them paper 5 times a year distilling a very complex process into a single letter. I could just use those metrics so that I have an idea of who needs the most help, or who isn’t ready to move on in the curriculum. I can relay that information to parents and the administration, if it is a problem. I can recommend when I don’t think it would be wise for a student to proceed, or when I think they just need help with organization, etc. But the students don’t need it.

In this world I would still have deadlines, still have assignments, still have tests. There would still be that element of learning to deal with stress and work within a system. They would still get feedback from me. But instead of being given with numbers, it would ONLY be actionable information regarding their performance. As it is right now, any of that good feedback I give is largely ignored because they are focused on the single number (despite the fact that the feedback would help them improve that!) I think this actually would better simulate real-world scenarios than grades. Students might then learn a bit more how to self-motivate, and how to really improve. This might actually promote self-initiated learning. Something that also might help is having more elective-style classes for younger students. This really comes down to a combination of freedom and more realistic feedback mechanisms.

Once they get good at that you could up the stress factor. Grades could potentially be introduced in High School, once they have actually developed the academic skill of self-initiated learning, and when it would be useful for colleges to get an idea of how students perform in an academic setting. Sophomore and Junior year could essentially be considered part of their application process, and it would be then when their GPA would be recorded.

The problem then is accountability. If I give a student a writing assignment, but they don’t have a grade riding on it, what is motivating that student to actually complete the assignment? Part of this problem might solve itself. As it is, an average student gets back an assignment with a big number telling them they are average or below average. At that point they don’t necessarily care about my feedback. The grade is in the books, and they now have a dismal view of the writing process. If I only give them feedback on what they did well and what they did wrong, there is nothing else to focus on but the comments. That student might be more inclined to complete the next assignment happily with the knowledge that their past performance doesn’t matter, and that they only have to focus on my feedback. In that sense I think students would probably develop more self-accountability.

But there will of course be students who won’t meet deadlines and won’t develop that accountability. How could you promote accountability in a system with more freedom and less quantitative feedback mechanisms? Do you think the sort of system I’m describing is even workable?

One problem I see is institutional inertia. It would be a massive coordination problem to eliminate grades, even just for middle school. I’m trying to see a way to re-work the incentives with minimal institutional change, and this is what I came up with. It still might be too drastic to be realistically implemented.

Billy: No doubt, these tweaks would increase the overall well-being of students, lead to more engagement and self-motivation. A balanced, incremental approach is definitely realistic — it would only take one administrator at one middle school to give it a shot.

I’m more of a radical. I think the problem is the institution itself. Not just grades and testing but age-based class progression, the “standards” dictated by the state, and the power dynamics in the classroom. I’m glad you brought up cheating, because cheating is rampant in all schools, from the elite-of-the-elite to those struggling to get by. Bullying is rampant, too, and I think bullying is partly a side-effect of the completely authoritarian situation we call school.

If you revolutionize the grading system, too many perverse incentives still exist. The players are too invested in the game. You’ve got state laws with required curriculum, state rating systems that rank schools by their performance on standardized tests. You’ve got testing companies making boatloads of money. You’ve got the college board. You’ve got colleges and universities making boatloads of money. You’ve got jobs that require a college degree.

Even in Arizona, in their hey-day of school choice, most charter schools simply try to become better at the game. Better test scores. More rigor. Better and more college acceptances.

That accountability piece is HUGE. How are we going to get little Jimmy to write these essays, or do these math problems, without a bunch of consequences riding on his head?

To which I would reply, little Jimmy would probably be interested in a whole bunch of meaningful things, if he weren’t systematically neutered of his own passions. No, he might not care about Algebra. So what? I was really good at Algebra, haven’t used it or thought about it in 15 years. Someone else is going to be stoked on Algebra, but not as much about reading novels. Who cares? As long as you are aren’t prevented from finding what’s out there, you should be free to chart your own path.

Right now we’ve got hundreds of pages of standards, things kids are required to learn, most of which working adults have long forgotten, or never really learned in the first place, because they didn’t care.

Take your idea of adding emotional coping skills to the school curriculum. Great idea, but what is it going to replace from the required curriculum? It’s like entitlement spending in government. These requirements are never going away.

I believe two mindsets are to blame for the rationalization of the status quo. The first I already mentioned, the arrogance of the school system. Educators who think nothing can be, or will be, learned without our sophisticated teaching strategies. It’s a myth. Everyone can think of important things they learned outside of school. Some of the most brilliant people today and across history were either self-taught, did poorly in school, or dropped out.

The second mindset is the “little kid” mindset. Underestimating the competence of young people, and so treating them like babies. Teenagers have a lot of angst. Can you blame them? Almost every aspect of their lives is dictated by the external pressures of a soul-sucking institution. I know teenagers working jobs to support their families, but in school they have to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Earlier you said if we took away grades and replaced them with nothing, school would be better. What if we took away school and replaced it with nothing? Are kids not going to learn how to read and write? Are they not going to learn how to work with numbers? Will they not know the scientific method? Could they not function in society?

Maybe not. Too radical. Of course young people should be encouraged and mentored in some way. I would like to think students would voluntary study history or government with me as their instructor. I’m not sure how much prescribed learning is necessary, only that I think blowing up the system, or doing something outside the typical structure, is the only way to enact the most authentic changes to benefit the most people.

Ok, deep breath. I can dream of radical change, you can dream of incremental change. Neither is happening on the ground level any time soon.

So let’s finish with this. What’s one thing you are going to do differently in your classes this year, within the system, to mediate a better learning experience for your students?

Danny: I think that the best thing I can do is to emphasize real feedback and improvement over grades. I also want to encourage student freedom and choice. I think it will take a lot of experimentation.

Right now I have two main ideas.

One — making grades on some assignments be malleable. For example, if a student turns in a short answer assignment with recommended changes implemented, their grade will reflect the new draft, not the old one. Also maybe letting cumulative test results override lower results on previous tests. I don’t want a student’s performance in the past to continue punishing them in the future if the make progress.

Two — as much as possible, offering choices when it comes to writing prompts and other assignments. This would be relatively low-effort for me, and I think would go a long ways towards motivation.

What about you? What changes will you make?

Billy: I’m going to steal your “malleable grade” idea for writing assignments.

Also, I want to continue something I did sporadically last year, which I found to be a difference maker.

That is to design meaningful, real world things for student to do with the information we work with in class. Rather than learning stuff to regurgitate back to me on a test, or again with the five-paragraph essay, let’s do something real.

For example, write a newspaper article, or pretend you’ve been hired by your town to create a memorial for this thing in history. Or make a campaign advertisement for one of these politicians. Or let’s conduct a mock-trial for this controversial person or event.

I want to tie the relevant skills of my subjects into real stuff people do in those fields. This will enable me to sell my students on the big picture, encourage creativity, while making sure to hit the standards required by the state.

Thanks for taking the time with these emails! Appreciated the dialogue. It challenged me to think differently and more critically about my views on education, and hopefully others will similarly benefit from reading this exercise.

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