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Grades: Education’s Snake-Oil Currency

The idea of abolishing grading from school tends to invoke a kind of fear in teachers and parents. One of the most common fears includes this:

If I don’t give a grade, why would students learn or do anything I ask them?

To this fear, I have tended to quote Alfie Kohn from his article Degrading to De-Grading:

“If I can’t give a child a better reason for studying than a grade on a report card, I ought to lock my desk and go home and stay there.” So wrote Dorothy De Zouche, a Missouri teacher, in an article published in February . . . of 1945. But teachers who can give a child a better reason for studying don’t need grades. Research substantiates this: when the curriculum is engaging – for example, when it involves hands-on, interactive learning activities — students who aren’t graded at all perform just as well as those who are graded (Moeller and Reschke, 1993).

While I think Dorothy De Zouche hits the nail on the head, there may be some truth in that not all students will find all concepts interesting, no matter how it is presented. As an experienced teacher, I have found that despite some of my best efforts, there are always some students that just don’t buy-in.

So let’s look at Degrading through a different perspective. For this, let’s use Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational:

You are at your mother-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite recipe for pumpkin pie has been chose for dessert.

The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother-in-law, you rise to your feet and pull out your wallet. “Mom, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” you say sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. “Do you think three hundred dollars will do it? No wait, I should give you four hundred!”

This is not the picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls over; your mother-in-law stands up red-faced; your sister-in-law shoots you an angry look; and your niece burst into tears. Next year’s Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, may be a frozen dinner in front of the television set.

WHAT’S GOING ON here? Why does an offer for direct payment put such a damper on the party? As Margaret Clark, Judson Mills, and Alan Fiske suggested a long time ago, the answer is that we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms include friendly requests that people make of one another. Could you help me move this couch? Could you help me change this tire? Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant pay-backs are not required: you may help move your neighbor’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours. It’s like opening a door for someone: it provides pleasure for both of you, and reciprocity is not immediately required.

The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages prices, rents, interest and costs-and benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evils or mean – in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism – but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.

When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well. Take sex, for instance.We may have it free in the social context, where it is, we hope, warm and emotionally nourishing. But there’s also market sex, sex that is on demand and that costs money. This seems pretty straightforward. We don’t have husbands (or wives) coming home asking for a $50 trick; nor do we ave prostitutes hoping for everlasting love.

The sad reality is that grading has shaped learning into a sharp-edged, costs-and-benefits market environment. As the retailer’s of learning, the teacher “offers” learning as a product. The consumers then do a cost/benefit analysis – if students decide to buy-in, they demand prompt payment accepted in the form of grading.

Learning conducted in this context shares far too many similarities with Ariely’s example of market sex. Like the prostitute who does tricks for money with no expectations for everlasting love, the student complies while never engaging in a love for learning.

Ariely aptly differentiates between market and social norms. Somewhere along the way, we lost the plot to school. When institutions become so large and impersonal, they become less about fulfilling their founding goals and more about sustaining there very existence (at any cost). Grading allows for the processing of large batches of students, but in doing so, we pay a frightful cost. When market norms drive learning, the teacher-student relationship is bastardized.

But how did we get here? How did the classroom become more about market norms than social norms? While I won’t pretend to know the answers to these hefty questions, I would wager a strong bet that grading has played a significant role in our degradation.

While grading may have been enough to degrade learning to a market relationship, their abolishment may be necessary but probably not sufficient in reclaiming the social norms that should guide the teacher-student relationship; however, if we truly care to re-humanize learning, we need to start with ridding ourselves of the snake-oil currency we call grades.

Five years ago, I abolished grading and it changed everything. For one school year, my students are liberated from the cold and distant clutches of market norms and we are free to learn in an environment that is built upon social norms.

It is good. You should join us…


About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


23 thoughts on “Grades: Education’s Snake-Oil Currency

  1. in theory I could easily give my students detailed feedback. Which means I do not need letter grades or averages. Unfortunately my school and school system will not allow that approach. I am required to give numberic grades, assignments are weighted by predetermined categories in a computerized system, and all kinds of analytical reports are run.

    I think there is another approach which can be taken, even within a mandatory grading system: there are only two grades. One would be the equivalent of an A, and the other would be incomplete, until the student redoes the work to demonstrate complete understanding. Of course, I am not allowed to do that either (although I can allow work to be redone). And remember, increasingly teachers are required to follow rigid pacing guides, sometimes to use canned lessons with fixed assignments, and a large portion of the grade is determined by externally prepared tests of dubious quality.

    Even within a somewhat rigid framework (and mine is not so much so), it is possible to connect students with the material sufficiently to engage at least a good number in the excitement for learning that comes from being intrinsically motivated, but it takes a lot of work.

    Posted by teacherken | June 19, 2010, 6:21 am
  2. Hi Joe! I love that you are so passionate about abolishing grades. To play devil’s advocate- how do we persuade the students. Students also fear not having grades because they want to attend universities and many weigh decisions based on grades. How did you deal with these student fears?

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 20, 2010, 12:37 am
    • There are hundred and hundreds of examples of non graded schools (Sudbury Valley School, Summerhill, Alfie Kohn) and the success stories of their students getting into good colleges. Some colleges even prefer these students as they often have a better grasp of their own learning and strengths and weaknesses. The history of grades is quite interesting…. and start actually in College not in the public education system at all…

      I think Joe and me are on the same wave length here. I hate hate hate grades… thanks for writing this….

      Posted by David Loitz | June 20, 2010, 2:40 am
      • I’m on the same wavelength as well. I prefer no grades but I wanted us to detail how this would work for passerbys. I think part of every “buy in” factor is presenting solutions to when people say how it cannot be accomplished. If we can offer solutions and show how this is really accomplished then we encourage people to believe in the change. Perhaps, this should be a series where we present how this is accomplished or steps teachers take to accomplish this. We write these posts for those who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon so when I read these ideas yes I champion them but I think we also need to continue the movement we suggest by following up with ways that teachers can begin to change their school systems after they digest and absorb these ideas. We need to provide them with materials of how this is possible. Alfie Kohn is a great start but I believe we can flesh the “how to” more.

        Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 22, 2010, 6:14 am
    • Hi Shelley:

      You are right – once a school has gone down the path of “rewarding” learners for what they do anyway, it is hard to reverse course. Some teachers do not have the faith in children as learners. Some cannot imagine relinquishing that power and control. Grading is a system, a technology. And changing an entrenched system and mindset is hard. It’s hard too because the “rewards” of the system get the “successful” hooked on them.

      I think it has to start with the conversation and the investigation. And in the end a leap of faith. If everyone gets to the place of saying – grades make no sense – then that leap becomes easier. Maybe it grows a grade (level) at a time through the system. But the key is – having people understand how counterproductive grading is.

      And then again some just cannot imagine what the college process would be like without the AP or the IB as well as the GPA. Many schools are moving away from the AP and the IB and they face the same worries from all concerned – how will my child stand out and be recognized if there are no AP scores? On that topic I recommend looking into ICG – the Independent Curriculum Group for resources.

      And on the topic of succeeding to educate children, and get them into the colleges that are right for them, I suggest taking a look at Poughkeepsie Day School (vested interest here!)

      Posted by Josie Holford | June 20, 2010, 10:00 am
      • Hi Josie!

        I’m always about looking at schools that get it right! I think we learn from them even if the model has to be tweaked in other districts. I believe you are right that changing this mindset is hard. Therefore, I suggest we continue this series.

        Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 22, 2010, 6:16 am
  3. Thank you, Joe. Makes me so happy to realize as coach and trainer in a company setting, no one asked for grades. In driving school – no grades. If you are not yet good enough, life has a way to tell you, “better learn, and quick.”

    Shelly, you make me think a systematic issue to review is with the universities. Or with employers. Why do they expect grades? Do they trust the grades to help them reduce risk in prefering one candidate over another? Hell, no, or little if any. So why are there grades?

    Posted by Cocreatr | June 20, 2010, 2:12 am
  4. Great article Joe – and my thinking is in total alignment with what you said. Btw, loved your analogies 🙂

    Before I crossed-over to the practitioner world, I used to be in the academics. And while I truly enjoyed teaching, it saddened me at times to see students more worried about getting “through” – even getting a C – than in trying to understand the fundamentals that would help them in later lives (some of them were people in the basketball and football teams and so forced to maintain a minimum academic standing to continue to play). In addition to the many things you mention, grades to me can rarely test true learning — most times they test superficial concepts (for a variety of reasons including the limited time we have to test). Also, by having grades what we are essentially doing is to pre-fabricate a mental model for the students that says that you get X or higher in all your courses and we provide you with a stamp and certificate of education. I know students that never studied except the night before the exam and they crammed the content in in a matter of hours to get through the exams. Unfortunately, such cramming always goes into the short-term memory and so having an education didn’t really help them in the long run.

    Now having said that I also realize the reality of the situation that we just cannot abolish grades until we have a collective alternative to it. Removing grades has many implications both within an institution and between an institution and the ecosystem around it (universities, society, employers etc.). Anyway, that is another debate altogether.


    Posted by Ned Kumar | June 20, 2010, 12:55 pm
  5. Loved the post.

    From my education experience in University, where a few teachers pulled great stuff out of me while most tried to put mediocre stuff in, to my later experience in l´école nationale de cirque de Montréal, where we would all put in 12 hour days and then sleep a few hours to let our bodies recover while our minds dreamt about what we would do tomorrow, the grades never really affected me. I could pull off high marks in school without a lot of work: circus got me really working. And those four years changed me for the better, because it was a fluffless school. (Ok, sometimes we had outside quizzes and expectation, and we all recognized it as silly. One could walk up to the director’s office and ask why and get an answer or an explanation or a shrug/apology.) In general, your projects were your curriculem. It ruled.

    Henry Woolf at the U of Saskatchewan was a great worker in that direction, and Ernie MacCullough in Philosophy, to name a few, were also good at making autonomous learners. There are a lot of teachers in University I don’t remember, because they just did their job at pointing you towards the test at the end, which was the real protagonist.

    If the certificate at the end of 12 years of schooling is to mean more to you than that you kept out of jail, then maybe we should focus on learning and producing self reliant learners.

    Keep it up…

    Posted by @mattledding | June 20, 2010, 7:44 pm
  6. thank you for the post Joe.
    and for the great comments guys..

    we tried to do away with grades this year… the students requested them back. seems – as much as they loved what we were doing (this was the outside of the box class) – other classes giving grades trumped their homework time.

    but – we all believe grades need to go. here’s one of my students looking forward to the innovation lab next year:

    we researched a lot – as you have. DIY U by Anya Kamenetz was a big help. many uni’s aren’t looking at gpa, some not even sat and act anymore. used to be hs grads were rare…now over 70%, so gpa isn’t such a stand out.

    more and more companies – the ones who are doing as opposed to just talking – (unfortunately like many in ed who can’t break the cycle) – are saying that a piece of paper means little compared to proof of what has been done. video logging and blogging are becoming a much greater reference and resume.

    a piece that speaks to gpa and ap and ib… Jason Fried in Rework says that if he was hiring and had tie candidates.. the one skill he would look at is writing. a couple chapters prior – he said the skill kids have to unlearn most – writing. grades, standards, all the norms, rather than adding rigor – seem to be stripping us of our best assets.

    your word liberation plays out in so many gains for students.

    Posted by monika hardy | June 20, 2010, 9:30 pm
    • Not surprised to hear students requested the return of grades. First off – they are addicted to them. Second – they can’t imagine the alternatives.

      Many students equate their own commitment and hard work with the grade they receive – therefore – it only seems “fair”. But primarily – they cannot imagine a world without them.

      It is our responsibility to ween then them from the limiting dependency on grades as rewards, confirmation and recognition. It’s also a matter of respect. We can do just takes our determination and commitment as a first step.

      Posted by Josie Holford | June 20, 2010, 10:05 pm
  7. Grades: we need to take a stand here, be selfless, offer a ton of education, and move forward without grades regardless of the personal/professional cost. In the short term this will be painful. In the long term, it will transform school culture.

    Joe once said we need to be ready when they come at us with knives. They will come at us with knives over grades. We need to be willing to be hurt here.

    After my department worked through an #sbar pilot at a past school that cross-walked student performance back to grades, we went back to traditional grading because students and parents wanted more grady grades.

    We need to persevere until we can present enough student growth, excellent work, and joy in the classroom to convince our partners that there are alternatives to grading in schools.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2010, 10:02 am
  8. I find that the systems aren’t mutually exclusive. I have kids who love to learn, and let the curriculum change their lives, but they *also* make sure that their grades are right. I have some kids who work only for the grades, and some who work just enough to pass. What I’m most proud of though, is that I convince many kids who don’t care about grades or school at all to get involved because the activities hold meaning in and of themselves, and are relevant to their lives.

    I think grades are preferred because it’s easier to think about. As an art teacher, I’m amazed at how many people would like to be told what to think about art, instead of pausing and reflecting for even 20 seconds to reach their own conclusions first. I would just as soon do without the grades, and while I make grading policies clear and accommodating, I ‘sell’ my subject matter everyday as worth doing in its own right. I keep moving forward, a foot in both worlds.

    Posted by Brandi Martin | June 21, 2010, 12:04 pm
  9. how cool is this…

    Alec is amazing – and probably sways the validity a bit – but – the success of his application in this format is huge validation for what we are pushing for..

    we should congratulate him and thank him.

    we need more evidences of this type of validation. they make us bold… and unable to be trumped by the reliability-oriented’s.

    Posted by monika hardy | June 21, 2010, 12:34 pm
  10. @Shelly re: students needing grades for university

    Shelly, I teach middle school (grade 8) so I will be honest, the kids simply are not looking that far ahead. Besides, I know of know college or university that ever cared (or should care) what grades a student got in middle school.

    thanks to all for the comments. I enjoyed reading them.

    Posted by Joe Bower | June 21, 2010, 4:48 pm
    • Joe,

      I believe in your ideas. I champion them. However, I think we should flesh this out more. Many educators, parents, and students find abolishing grades difficult. How did you do this? What research and real world examples did you refer to and seek guidance in when you were starting out? What obstacles did you overcome? I encourage you to carry this on and flesh this out more in several posts. This way the “passerby” not won over by your great ideas will find solutions to the several obstacles already forming in their minds. What do you think?

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 22, 2010, 6:20 am
  11. Grades have been the bane of my professional existence for 25 years. In our school district, we are required not only to generate numerical averages for each student each grading period but also to maintain a computerized gradebook where numerical grades for each individual assignment are open to administration, parent and student scrutiny. Many parents and students are addicted to these numbers, and review them daily, living and dying with the fluctuations of the various numbers. Many teachers I know are equally addicted, unable to imagine teaching and learning without numerical rewards and punishments. Our district curriculum director, while theoretically supportive of a move away from traditional grading, argues that the community “freak-out factor” would just be too great to ever accomplish it.

    What is wrong with the picture when we feel we have to bribe or threaten students to do something so natural, self-empowering, and deeply satisfying as learning? Rather than blaming the children for being lazy and unmotivated, we should be asking ourselves what we have done to make learning so onerous for them that they refuse to engage in it without bribes or threats.

    Before any abolition of tradition grades can be successful, we must help educators, families, students and communities to see what school without grades would look like and how they can fit in to the existing system. We must be able to answer the “freak-out” questions like “How can my kid get into a good college if he doesn’t have a GPA?” — not theoretically, but with real world examples.

    There are some schools, even some otherwise traditional public schools, who have abandoned grade averages and grade levels in favor of more meaningful and productive feedback about progress in learning. Here’s an article about one of them:

    Posted by alabamaschoolmarm | June 23, 2010, 9:45 am
  12. Sorry, digital native I’m obviously not! Alabamaschoolmarm’s post is actually mine (I don’t know how that showed up) and here’s the web address of the article: (I must confess I’m having a little difficulty figuring out how to insert a link to it.)

    Posted by Anne Kemp | June 23, 2010, 2:48 pm
  13. This past year my youngest son (age 16) tried to get the kids in his alternative, democratically organized high school program to abolish grades. He and a couple of other kids wrote a proposal for grade abolition for Town Meeting, after doing lots of research. (As in the comments above, they found lots of research supporting their position). My son then asked Alfie Kohn to come to Town Meeting and talk about grades. Alfie came. He talked for about 2 hours, answering questions about grades, reward systems in school, etc. The headmaster of the high school came to Town Meeting, and kicked the ball around with Alfie and the kids. Ron Miller came to Town Meeting the next week. They talked about grades again.

    Students didn’t vote to abolish grades. They couldn’t see a viable alternative and they really want to go to Williams and Yale.

    My talk with my son. It takes a long, long time of activism to get your ideas into play. This is Round 1.

    Where do we take this discussion?

    PS I’m copying my son on this post. Ironically, he is at Brown this summer studying acting.

    Posted by Kirsten | June 28, 2010, 1:56 pm
  14. I think we should ask Joe to organize us in a distance Japanese-lesson study re: abolishing grades. We each act locally, compare notes and student work samples, and keep sharing and pushing from there. We each find a way to do something.

    I’m willing to ask for a waiver to work without grades next year and to blog about the viable alternatives we find in middle school. I’ve gotten SBAR waivers in the past. Suggestions for what I should trade in terms of accountability for that freedom?

    Would your son post here about his experience and future plans?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 28, 2010, 2:10 pm
  15. Chad, This is a great idea. I love the idea of each of us working in our domain around non-grading. (I ask my students to grade themselves. That’s a whole post in itself.)

    My son is on for posting. Like a lot of adolescents I know, he’s way more visionary and brave than a lot of adults I work with. I think we miss a lot in terms of movement politics through inadvertent age-grading of this discourse.

    It would be great to get some of Monika’s students in here too. How about some of yours?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 1, 2010, 9:38 am
    • Awesome – I can’t wait to read his post.

      I’ll ask my students – some may be ready to publish.

      I’ll also share out my request for a waiver to go grade-free once I’ve presented it to my school management team.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 1, 2010, 11:42 am

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