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Learning at its Best

Not Grading is Awful

Cover of "The Report Card"

Cover of The Report Card

Cross posted from my own blog; Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.

I am just going to admit it; not grading sucks!  Not grading means I cannot assign an average, translate it into a grade and be done.  Not grading means I have to have anecdotal evidence to back up my final grade on the report card, anecdotal evidence I have to collect throughout the year and then actually keep in one place.  Not grading also means that my students have not been given percentages at any time throughout the year, which means that when I have to give them a letter grade (as mandated by my district) it is my job to make sure that they have an idea of why they are getting what they get.  Not grading means I cannot just zip through a pile of papers, correct them according to my answer key, and whip out my calculator.  Not grading means that a product can take weeks to truly be complete because that student has to rework it or revisit it in some way.  Not grading means I have to find the time in our super packed schedule to have discussions with kids about their progress.  And it sucks, honestly, because it is so much work.  I am not going to lie.  It is a lot of work not to grade in the traditional sense.

And yet, despite all of this, not grading in the traditional sense of percentages and letter grades makes so much sense to me.  Giving feedback rather than a letter leaves room to start a conversation.  It leaves room for the student’s voice to be part of the deliberation.  It leads to more learning situations as I cater my curriculum to fit the needs of that particular student.  It leads to much more time spent with the student rather than at home going through their piles.

For one, sitting down with my students to discuss why they have assigned themselves whatever grade is eye-opening.  To hear 5th graders take control of their learning, to own up to where they should have worked harder, to set up the future path for learning they need to travel, wow!  I even used my Livescribe pen for some of these conversations just to record what the students had to say, even though no one but me would listen to it.

Second, I am amazed at how often my students and I land on the same grade.  These kids really know where they are in their learning journey and they know why they are there.  It is rare that I have to steer them toward a different grade and even then it is something we discuss.

Finally, having these reflective discussions is a great way for me to culminate the year.  The students give me feedback on what worked for them, they give me ideas on how to improve and we discuss where they are headed.  All of them set learning goals for the summer, not through assigned homework, threats or promises from me but because they want to read or want to remember their math concepts.

And yet, I still struggle with taking that conversation and distilling it to a letter grade.  That letter seems so shallow compared to the rich discussion we have had.  That letter doesn’t seem to reflect all of the growth they have done.  That letter doesn’t seem to describe their journey at all but instead boils them back down to a percentage, to a number and a grade that says nothing.  So I return to my constant state of reflection on grading; what am I trying to accomplish with it?  What is the true purpose?  What am I trying to classify and portray?  How can I ever hope to capture the essence of a child’s growth in a mere letter?  And the time?  Where will I continue to find the time as our school gets more focused on tests and data?  I am not sure I have all of the answers but in my heart and mind I know what I am doing makes sense for me.  Even if it is one of the most time consuming changes I have ever integrated into my room.

About Pernille Ripp

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.


30 thoughts on “Not Grading is Awful

  1. In the piece, it notes that the students are involved in assigning grades. There is of course the fact that with grades on each assessment, that is direct input in as much as each student submits her / his work for assessment.

    But I think you do indeed get student involvement in conjunction with the process outlined in the article. If I were to do this (and it indeed is tempting due to its clear impact on learning), I would ask students for input on how the grade would be determined, what would be utilized as data, and what the grade suggestion would be – along with justification for all three choices. AND I’d do this with them at a minimum of mid-semester and end-of-semester both semester (if only a yearly grade is submitted, there would then be three sessions. And note there are really six inputs each session – providing much practice with this approach that should definitely provide support for effective learning.

    Posted by John Bennett | June 10, 2012, 2:46 pm
  2. As far as I can tell, the only value to producing the letter grade–not the conversations about what has been learned, what else might be learned, how the teacher’s process was/was not helpful, etc.–is that it helps a teacher keep her job.

    Given all of the research out there about how destructive it is psychologically to receive low marks, and how meaningless high marks are once one is out of The System, not to mention their role in feeding the imposter syndrome (read Alfie Kohn’s “Punished By Rewards” if nothing else), I see no justification for continuing the practice of grading.

    Who wants to be considered “average”, really? Who honestly believes he/she is “above average”, or benefits from seeing him/herself as “below average”? What if my low grade is primarily an indicator that I am not particularly interested in whatever it is that the powers that be have decided I “should” learn? Maybe, as many corporate leaders know, a low grade is a sign of the ability to discriminate between what is interesting to the learner and what is not and the willingness not to waste valuable time that could be spent on the former slugging through the latter.

    The title says it all: grading sucks, and it should be done away with altogether. It is, like other aspects of forced schooling, merely one more component of a system that is ultimately about power–who has it and who doesn’t–and it takes the natural pleasure out of real learning, which is why we won’t stand for it as adults. Imagine being given a homework assignment–or worse, being banned from a movie theater–if you had to have a conversation with the director after seeing a film and proving that you “got it”? Or being excluded from your local supermarket because the fish that you bought yesterday was not prepared to the satisfaction of the seafood manager?

    No, we can’t even imagine life with grading once we are not compelled to endure it. I suggest that young people are no different from us adults no matter how hard they try to fool us into thinking otherwise.

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 10, 2012, 3:31 pm
  3. Two points, Peter. First, learning is not an option. There are many General education knowledge areas that are necessary to have a satisfying and rewarding (BOTH as decided by the learner) that suggest that effective education in these areas are important. Here, effective means cooperatively exploring the current interpretation and limitations of knowledge – NOT the blind obligation to learn (memorize?) “facts” for use on quiz shows and standardized tests. Formal schooling can be important here in terms of efficiently facilitating such effective learning. The same argument can be made and I suggest defended for more narrowly focussed effective learning of knowledge and skills associated with chosen career paths.

    Second, effective learning must be lifelong as the research and discovery develop new and expanded knowledge. This learning is almost certainly going to be informal; as a result, the formal schooling must also help developing the skills and procedures so important to this lifelong learning.

    Could all of this learning be done in the informal education arena? Of course it could! But it is and will be Elmore efficiently as well as effectively done through both formal and informal learning!

    Finally, with respect to grades, there is no argument that grades alone are of little and maybe actually negative impact on learning. But grading done Well and periodically is acceptable as a succinct overview of the status of learning. What are absolutely critical however are the self-assessment and the ongoing feedback / dialogue between teacher and student that provide the dinput to further learning important to the student! Given an option of an unjustified letter grade or broad feedback / discussion without letter grade, the latter is important while the former is useless. But both is ok too!

    By the way, think about it, besides requests for donations, what is the ONLY item you can get from a school after graduation? Yep, it’s the TRANSCRIPT – the listing of those grades …

    Posted by John Bennett | June 10, 2012, 4:46 pm
    • John, we may have to agree to disagree…but first, let me be sure I understand what you are saying.

      With regard to your comments in your first paragraph, I’m a bit confused. As John Holt said, “Yes, there are many things that people need to know…We just can’t agree on what they are!” Do I really need to know something as basic as the names of all of the planets (sorry, Pluto, you flunked out after I left school) or even the continents? Why? Seriously. We learn much of what we really know as it becomes relevant to us. (On a Gallup poll taken at the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, the vast majority of Americans had never heard of Vietnam let alone could they locate it on a map. And I’ll bet the given a map right now, most couldn’t correctly identify Iraq. Does that matter? I’m sure they all “studied” it in school–along with so many other data bits that somebody else decided were critical components of General Knowledge.)

      But then you say “BOTH as decided by the learner”, whereas we have a system in which, for the most part, the learner has little or no say in what he/she is held accountable for learning.

      As for “effective learning must be lifelong”…well, maybe, in some instances. Who is to say when we are allowed to stop in any particular area. I, for one, know all that I care to know about Chester Arthur, William Saroyan, cell division, polynomials…You get my point. If, on the other hand, I go to a lawyer for advice or a doctor for treatment, I certainly hope that he/she is motivated to keep learning and therefore be up to date. But even that is a crap shoot and difficult if not impossible to legislate. (True story: I had heart surgery three years ago from a doctor who was skilled in robotic surgery, rather than his colleagues at my local hospital who were still doing the chest-cracking type, only because emergencies were being diverted from one hospital to another due to frozen pipes in the basement. Does that mean that the chest-crackers should be forced to learn the new methods? Should your realtor be legally required to learn to use a computer, or will he/she likely get there when the market demands that quality of service? As you can tell, I am generally opposed to mandating any particular kind of “learning”.

      My primary issue with grading is the inequity in the power component. It’s like when women were not allowed to own property–what kind of marriage was that?! Once women could earn a reasonable living on their own, bad marriages often broke up. (I know that it was more complex than that, but you get my point.) If we level the playing field with regard to learner/instructor, we will raise the quality of genuine learning immensely for all concerned. This is already happening in life outside of schools. When will so-called educators catch up with the rest of the world? When those without equal power step out of the game. When we end forced schooling.

      Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 10, 2012, 5:24 pm
      • You are speaking my language Peter, and John you are speaking the monoculture story. I could not have said that better (though I have tried). What you say is so clear and obvious to me that I am befuddled that the majority of people don’t see it. Adults are just big kids- we adults learn what we want to learn and we have this false idea that kids have to be forced to learn a certain fraction of the vast content of the world. My child’s learning was drastically slowed down by school. His curiosity was killed and his interests were ignored because he had to learn grammar, the names of generals what X equals, and plate tectonics. I pray that Udacity, Khan and tech we can’t imagine yet will save our kids from the factory model.
        Public educations main purpose is to give adults a job- the bureaucracy of it all helps to create exponentially more jobs then are remotely needed.

        Posted by Paul | June 10, 2012, 6:39 pm
  4. A couple of thoughts to both of your comments: With regard to general knowledge, I’d put in that category topics such as civics that are critical to our responsibilities and then topics such as art appreciation that are critical to our being human but the degree of these is indeed a personal decision.

    Similarly, I would argue that lifelong learning – REGARDLESS OF DEPTH, CHOICE OF TOPIC, OR DURATION ON ANY GIVEN TOPIC – is important to our self-worth, our contentment with ourselves. Yes, that does mean I believe that individual’s bitterness in some part is associated with the frustration of not being a learning person – regardless of reason. Again a personal belief.

    Finally, though it need not be based upon grades, I believe their needs to be some judgement of one’s capabilities based upon education. At Johns Hopkins engineering grad school, there were not even formal courses (and hence no transcripts) BUT there were two extensive oral assessments of learning – one to be admitted to the PhD program, one to determine qualification for awarding of the PhD (along with the thesis defense of course). So there was a judgement by faculty of worthiness. Is this different from grades? Yes, but does it address the power / control issues raised?

    Posted by John Bennett | June 10, 2012, 7:12 pm
  5. Reblogged this on elketeaches.

    Posted by elketeaches | June 10, 2012, 8:18 pm
  6. I am in awe of the discussion happening here which is often much more eloquent than what I write in my blog posts. I think part of the problem is that we distill students to a mere letter; all of their growth, their goals and their failures, one single letter. And that letter means different things every where you go. The students certainly rarely really know what it means to get an “A” other than they did good, but what does that tell them about taking control of their learning and pushing themselves forward? So in the end who are the grades for? Adults mainly, whether parents or politicians so that we can classify our children and decide who is worthy of praise or scorn. We determine their further education based on a letter and fool ourselves into believing that is the whole story of that child. Truly sad indeed.

    Posted by Pernille Ripp | June 11, 2012, 8:34 am
    • Agreed, Pernille. Beyond sad, the situation is tragic. Have you read fellow Co-op Catalyst Kirsten Olson’s book “Wounded By School”? Great stuff.

      As to why the culture grades, I would direct you to another excellent book, Riane Eisler’s “The Chalice and the Blade”. I know that it is risky to suggest that any complex issue has a single root cause, AND I think that she has nailed it. We (like almost everyone else on the planet, but not all) live in what she refers to as a Dominator society, as opposed to one based on the Partnership model. It is based on the scarcity mentality–the belief that there is a finite set of resources available to satisfy everyone’s needs, and that we must compete to get our needs met. The Partnership model, on the other hand, is based on the abundance mentality–the belief that, through collaboration, we can all get our needs met, and that the supply of resources is expandable, not infinitely perhaps but certainly not limited to the finite level that we fear exists.

      Grading, then–along with forced schooling, war, theft, capital punishment, most legal wranglings, hedge funds, etc. etc.–is merely one more symptom of the scarcity mentality and resultant Dominator effect. Why in the world would we make (sic) young people compete (sic) to learn, when learning is such a natural, and normally pleasurable, part of life?

      And when, I ask, will the guards stop doing the bidding of the wardens? When will true professional educators rise up and say, “Hell no, I won’t grade!”. I figure, if that approach helped end the Vietnam War, it ought to be able to end the emotional and intellectual abuse of our youngest citizens. And yes, I do consider grading to be child abuse, along with several other practices performed in the name of “education”. As I have written previously, we adults would never stand for most of the practices of traditional schooling.

      What’s that? Why is your hand in the air? No, you may not go to the bathroom until the end of the period, when you will have three minutes to get to your next class.

      Peter A. Bergson

      Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 11, 2012, 9:40 am
  7. Two remaining questions of concern to me with no grades (and I’m NOT in any way arguing grades must or even should continue): (1) How does the school and the student for that matter know the academics are complete enough to leave / graduate? I know grades can and often are misleading but I think this is an important question. And (2) how do we get educators to care enough about their students’ effective learning to engage in the important feedback that many educators and students really don’t want (or don’t understand why)? I don’t think this is an easy issue to resolve!

    Posted by John Bennett | June 11, 2012, 11:55 am
    • Does number 1 happen now? I know 8th graders that can pass the majority of 12th grade classes- especially the ones that just require a lot of busy work. What exactly is it that seniors are ready for when they graduate? How much do any of us need to know to be out of school? Maturity is all we are really waiting for. Schools best benefit to society is that it keeps kids supervised while adults work. Plain and simple: If we force kids into subjects apathy will be prevalent. HS- taught me that jumping through hoops was important, so I did well in college. All my assignments were easy. Cramming info into my head was easy. College taught me NOTHING for my eventual job. Nothing, nada, not even a little. I know that is not true for many, but it was true for me. College kept me a little busier until I finally grew up.

      Posted by Paul | June 11, 2012, 1:10 pm
  8. Don’t get me started with forcing courses. Students need to be advised properly to participate in a selection of courses that are compatible with each other and that provide experiences that assist with maturity, critical thinking, effective problem solving, … When mature enough and when qualified, they should be encouraged to do college courses of relevance to aspirations. I’d be all for competency-based assessment; but that only changes the assessment decisions from “how well did she do in the class” to “what competences should be required and how well odd they need to do to pass.”

    My experiences at the university level suggest that students have certain expectations with respect to assessment: first, the instructor will tell them what they need to know and then assess them by asking them to repeat it back; and second, if they don’t do as well as they wanted, there is always some extra credit work they can do that will enable them to get the grade they wanted!

    Help me out here! Let’s say we start with pre-K students. In many if not most systems, they don’t get grades now until what, 3rdor 4th grade. So we’ll presume they have a system that enables decisions as to who’s promoted and who’s not. How should that system evolve as students continue without receiving grades? How would a student be placed into another school system without grades? Again, this same type of considerations would be necessary for identifying students for skipping classes or fast-tracking them. How would Harvard and Balls Mills Naval Academy (my fictitious but lousy college) decide which applicants to offer admission?

    And also, from a comment one or two back, there’s still the elephant in the room: how would you suggest would motivate teachers in large numbers to actually provide the type of feedback that you, I, and many others know would enhance student effective learning?

    I am affirm believer is Stephen Covey’s Better Alternative. It does exist without any doubt in my thinking. Starting with the premise of no grades, I’m not sure I understand what the resulting issues will be, let alone what ideas might be suggested for discussion.

    Posted by John Bennett | June 11, 2012, 6:01 pm
    • I am not quite sure if you are for or against grading. I am also not quite sure if you believe students should be forced into school. I don’t believe students in Finland receive grades until secondary school. I coulg be wrong, but I think they have a portfolio (of sorts) that show what they know. This is still mandating what they need to “know.”
      once kids know how to do basic math and read and write- let the learning happen naturally. When the student then wants to dive into a subject…let him. It certainly can’t be worse then what is happening now (In the U.S).

      Posted by Paul | June 12, 2012, 5:45 am
  9. I’m for some consistent way of determining that students have learned to an acceptable level in prescribed areas (meeting standards – e.g., I’m following the evolution of the Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS, with interest – but not necessarily grades. I’m for more student input to curriculum – but with a much more extensive list of topics (including civics, science, ethics, and writing) than you AND a list of skills as well (most importantly – effective lifelong learning, effective problem solving, and effective communicating).

    Bottom line: If the typical education and its assessment is not optimum (AND IT’S NOT), the fix is not eliminating all guidelines / requirements / standards; the fix s a careful development of a better alternative for guidelines / requirements / standards AND local implementation / assessment with emphasis on issues as determined locally to address those guidelines / requirements / standards.

    Posted by John Bennett | June 12, 2012, 8:48 am
  10. Re-reading all of comments about grading, I feel two basic questions emerging for me. First, I ask, “Why do we measure (or attempt to measure) people’s knowledge/understanding?” Second, I wonder, “*Can* we measure it with any degree of reliability/accuracy and value?”

    The first question I think gets to the power issue that others and I have already mentioned–the notion of testing, grading and sorting that is part of the Dominator mentality described in Eisler’s “The Chalice and the Blade”. I challenge the assumption that we have the right to intrude into other people’s llves in such an all-encompassing and abusive manner as is routinely performed in schools. Checking to see if someone is capable of driving a car or practicing brain surgery well enough is one thing; insisting that they know what a gerund or a polynomial is, (let alone punishing them if they don’t) is quite another. Really, now…What business is it of yours as to whether or not I passed such “tests”? I recall hearing John Holt say that he thought that someone’s “educational background” (meaning, in this instance, their history of schooling) should be considered as personal as their religious beliefs–to be shared only when/if they cared to, and certainly without obligation.

    The second question goes to the validity of testing, and therefore grading, in the first place. Again, it is all about definitions and (back to my first point), whose definition is determined to be the standard. When I was in college, it was well known that some of the graduate students who graded the papers of certain professors were “tougher” graders than others. Where’s the fairness, let alone the accuracy/validity in that? The same term paper submitted to two different graders led to two very different *permanent* assessments. Suppose one kept you from graduating “magna cum laude”, and that kept you from being accepted to a certain law school? Grading is not only subjective, it is unpredictably and irrationally so.

    On the other hand…When my son, a software engineer, applied for a summer internship at a non-profit that writes open source programs, the first step in the application process involved taking a test that required him to write some code to solve a problem that they provided. The reviewers looked at his “solution” not only with regard to how well it worked but also *how* it did so–in their terms, how elegant was his product. They could tell from this who was worth interviewing and who not *from their perspective*. To my thinking, this limited approach to grading–limited in scope, in implication, in time–is perfectly appropriate. No one has to submit to such a test if he/she doesn’t want to, and “failure” doesn’t brand you for life, or become part of any permanent record, or even become public knowledge the way, say, failure to graduate from school/college does. So, yes, there are in my opinion reasonable circumstances that support the concept of grading. School grading, for dozens of reasons, is certainly not among them.

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 12, 2012, 12:15 pm
  11. Paul, Peter, and all:

    I couldn’t put you two in the reverse order … How about this list of things HS graduates should have accomplished?

    Posted by John Bennett | June 12, 2012, 8:00 pm
    • When you look at that list, do you really see school as the best place to learn that? For some reason, we like walls more then we like bridges. Bridges to other places, new ideas, and experiences. That list is great. My son is going on a missions trip this summer. He will practice/do many of those things while he is there. It will be a much more valuable experience then his entire past school year. I would love for schools focus to be on helping kids practice those skill sets (we don’t “teach” anything on that list- all of that has to be experienced- how do you teach punctuality? “Hey it is important to be on time.” There…now they know ). The majority of adults involved in school don’t need to be there. A child, a guide, and experiences- that is all that is needed.

      Posted by Paul | June 13, 2012, 7:44 pm
  12. In this discussion, what HS graduates should have accomplished has come up. In a blog posting by Steve Weber on titled “A Bucket List for K-12 Students,” here’s his choices:

    Communication Skills
    Collaboration Skills
    Time Management
    Interview Skills
    Personal Financial Literacy
    Digital Literacy
    Ability to analyze multiple perspectives
    Ability to share his or her own perspective (i.e., blogs, social media, and creating original work to post online)
    Civic Literacy
    The Tools Needed to Succeed in First Year College Courses, without Remediation
    Ability to Apply Skills and Adapt Abilities in Different Enviornments
    Critical Thinking Skills
    Citizenship (The type of skills that apply in most international settings)
    Reading and Writing Skills (not just a passing grade in English, but true skills)
    Global Awareness
    College Knowledge (What Does It Take to Get Into College? – See David Conley’s books and articles)
    Students Who Understand the Importance of Community Service

    What does everyone think? It had a number of the ones I mentioned in a previous comment.

    Posted by John Bennett | June 12, 2012, 8:35 pm
    • Very few of them can be “taught” in a traditional classroom. Actually, very few of them are even taught. They may be modeled but they are not taught. For instance, how does one teach punctuality? “Hey, it is very important to be on time.” There…now they know. We need to create real projects, experiences (or even virtual situations) where they can apply many of those skills listed.

      Posted by Paul | June 12, 2012, 8:59 pm
  13. Dah, … I’m of the opinion that effective learning happens when VERY LITTLE IS TAUGHT! But I do believe very strongly that one can facilitate that learning in ways that lead to accomplishing the development of these skills / habits. My choice would be PBL in any class. And yes, this list does fit!

    Posted by John Bennett | June 12, 2012, 10:06 pm
    • Here’s the bottom line for me: how are schools doing with regard to helping young people develop in the areas on this bucket list–or, frankly, any other list of desirable skills and/or attributes? If they are doing such a good–or even moderately good–job, then why are we facing the challenges that we see today? Why, when I say that I love my work, do most people say that I’m “lucky”? Why, when I say that my offspring are happy and healthy and also loving their work, do they say that they, and I, are “lucky”? (The four of them are all lifelong unschoolers, now ages 28-36.) When my second daughter was six years old, her best friend “turned” after only six weeks in her wealthy suburban school. They got together for a playdate, after which my daughter said with sad disgust, “School rots kids”. It broke my heart to see her lose her friend, although I knew just what she meant.

      It’s not a matter of good curriculum or bad, good teachers or bad, good peers or bad, good environment or bad–well, of course, good is always better than bad, but in this case it’s rarely enough. It all turns on the fact that when schooling is forced on youths, even if it is “progressive”, it undermines their sense of self-determination and their ability to think on their own; and adding insult to injury, when they are forced to compete with their peers, people of any age turn nasty. The classic example, the Stanford experiment ( prison_experiment), demonstrated how, given minimal environmental influence, even the “best” people become monsters. Why is *anybody* surprised that, after 12-16 years of being in a school environment, the vast majority are significantly damaged in one way or another relative to the bright, happy, self-directed, passionate learners that they were when they were two?

      No matter how much you fiddle with the time and temperature, if you put seeds in an oven instead of in the ground where they belong, you’ll never see them grow, let alone flourish.

      Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 13, 2012, 9:13 pm
      • Peter,my biggest regret is that I learned what you are saying after my kids got beat up by school. My son was the most curious person I had ever met–by far. One day he came home from school and informed me that nobody cares about what he cares about and that kids make fun of him for the things he does (read books, fiction and non-fiction). I did not think much of it. I just told him to be himself. Well, he has conformed. He has learned that wanting to learn is not cool. He has learned that what he wanted to know isn’t important, and he is now dull, angry and barely passing school (9th grade). Up through kgarten he was thought of by many as crazy smart- now he is thought of as average or lazy. When will we learn? How do we stop this from happening to the majority, and why don’t more people see it?

        Posted by Paul | June 14, 2012, 6:10 am
        • Paul, my heart goes out to you and your son. At the same time, I want to assure you that, as Yogi said, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” I can tell you that there was no reason to think optimistically about my future path after I had graduated from *college*, let alone prep school. I had a BA from a prestigious college, sure, but I was absolutely clueless about life, learning, a sense of direction and purpose. I was the stereotypical “good boy” who went through the paces because I was told to, unlike your son, who may secretly be a resister more than the failure that you fear he has become. What turned me around was reading Holt the summer after I graduated. “My God”, I thought, reading “How Children Fail”. “It’s not me–it’s the System.” That epiphany launched a most rewarding career; a former book-hater, I started reading everything on the subject of education reform that I could get my hands on–the rest of Holt, Kozol, Herndon, Goodman, etc. What might it be for your son? Who knows? But as Tug McGraw said, “You gotta’ believe.” (I seem to be into baseball references today, eh?) I suspect you are already doing this somewhat out loud with him, just ramp it up and make sure that you, yourself believe it: it’s not him, it’s the System. *He* is not dull…it’s the System. He may *have* anger, but, hey, isn’t that the appropriate emotion given what has been imposed on him? I know that you join him in that anger–does he know? My wish for you is that you could zone in on one of his interests–surely there is something, even if you aren’t so happy about it, or don’t see it’s value–and actively support his interest with your time, money, encouragement, etc. Let him know by your behavior that you know he’s bright, deserving, going to win at life…and that you’re there to minimize the damage until he’ll be old enough to get out.

          I realize this sermon may seem Pollyanna-ish. It is. I’ve just seen lots of examples where parents can help a youth escape a negative future by helping them create a path different from the one they seem to be failing on. Your son needs to know from experience (not just words) that you a.) understand his pain, b.) don’t see him as the perpetrator but rather his well-intentioned school system, and c.) that your primary goal is to help him find/pursue whatever will nourish his mind and his soul.

          You probably know all this already. I just felt compelled to urge you “not to let the bastards wear you down”, as they sing up in Cambridge.


          Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 14, 2012, 7:42 pm
        • Thanks, I needed that. He is going on a mission trip this summer (he likes helping people). I am also trying to reconnect him with his love of biology. He used to spend hours reading animal encyclopedias. I am trying to set up some trips where he can talk and learn from real biologists.
          The ironic part of all this is that I am an assistant principal in a public school. I see it everyday and I try to change it from within. A grassroots sort of thing, but I have to be “sneaky” about it lest I am branded “not a team player” by the other admins. Public school is all about adults confirming their expertise, and adults figuring out how to manage large groups of kids- it has little to do with what is best for kids- and that notion incenses most (if not all) educators. However, it is hard for people to step back and see that fact. Most teachers are good people who believe they are doing a noble thing- but they can’t see the trees because of the forest.
          Thank you very much for taking the time to reply to me as you did. Your children are lucky to have you.

          Posted by Paul | June 15, 2012, 7:26 am
  14. If I’m watching the students do their daily math lessons, I can tick off whether or not they have met the objectives. If I’m not sure, I can give them a few extra problems. While students are doing projects, I continually discuss their progress with them, using language from the rubrics. Hence, I know their proficiencies before the turn in their projects (writing or otherwise).

    When you average grades, you reward the quick learners. If, at the end of a unit or course of study, two students have mastered content to an identical level, why would I penalize the one who took longer to learn it? In the end, we should report what students know and are able to do.

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | June 14, 2012, 7:57 am
  15. Relevancy seems key to me. How do we change classrooms to “flip” who decides what is relevant? How do we “flip” assessment so that kids know, absolutely, when they have reached their goals?

    I don’t think that much of what we’ve discussed here is work best left to the adults. Instead, it is work we must not stop kids from doing.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 14, 2012, 12:11 pm


  1. Pingback: Not Grading is Awful | Ripples | - June 10, 2012

  2. Pingback: Not Grading is Awful | EdTech in PYP | - June 10, 2012

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