Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grading for Learning

A recent NY Times article describes a school that is taking the radical step of issuing grades based on material learned, rather than good behavior. From the article:

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.

...“Over time, we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance — not for mastering the course material,” Ms. Berglund said. “A portion of our A and B students were not the ones who were gaining the most knowledge but the ones who had learned to do school the best.”

Speaking as one of the kids who knew the material but flunked the class anyway, I think this is progress.

I really liked this comment from "Glen" at kitchen table math:

Near monopolies often forget who works for whom. It's easy for teachers to start thinking of themselves as bosses and the kids as employees. Bosses usually "grade" employees based on how much their behaviors and attitudes benefit the boss and "the team".

Of course, if students aren't employees, then grades shouldn't be employee evaluations.

Brilliant! Thanks, Glen, whoever you might be!

This discussion reminds me of a math class I took once. I walked in on the first day and the teacher went right over my head -- I had no idea what he was talking about. Fortunately, there was a young woman sitting next to me who was watching the teacher intently, and nodding and smiling as he made his points. I thought, "great, I'll just ask her to explain it." After class, when I asked her what the lecture was about, she said, "I don't know -- nobody understands a word that teacher says. We just look it up in the book later." She, of course, was a straight-A student.


  1. PsychMom says:

    One interesting way to look at this whole education sham is to imagine what would happen if suddenly no grading was to occur in any school anywhere ever again.

    Why would kids go? Why would parents send them to school? Would they send them? Would they immediately be suspicious about what was ACTUALLY going on there? Would it suddenly be seen as only Childcare? And heavens, you don't need 4 year college grads to provide childcare...anybody can look after children. You see what I mean about our society not really valuing kids ...?

    Grading has become proof that teachers do something...the only proof that they have a role. In the US, it sounds as if grading has become a reason to pay teachers as well. Grading tells you nothing about a learner...absolutely nothing. It only tells you what the grader finds valuable or important.

  2. I'm just an ordinary dad with kids in school. I couldn't help noticing the similarity in evaluation format between what my wife and I get from our employers and what our kids get from their schools. Except, our employers pay us to meet their needs, while we pay the schools to meet ours. So how is it that WE get evaluated based on our compliance from both directions?

    I really like my kids' teachers and the principal. They're good people who care about my kids and who work very hard to do what they think they should do. It's just that they seem to be adrift in a world where the goals are at best only vaguely related to my own, yet I'm required to pay for it while they evaluate us on our compliance.

  3. PsychMom says:

    I like how Glen said that: They're good people who care about my kids and who work very hard to do what they think they should do.

    It's the same for me.

    In my child's school, a private school, it is very much about what the teachers think they should be doing. I'm never consulted. I pay them for what they're doing but it's never up to me to determine what they should be doing.
    And I never see anything different going on in what happens from year to year.

  4. I was hoping to post something about this article as well. I can't tell you how many times I've heard parents talk about how their kids do fine on the tests but get lower grades because they don't turn in the homework. Who cares if they turn in the homework? If they can do well on the tests without doing the homework (or turning it in), what does that say about the value of the homework?

  5. Glen -- At our elementary school the principal has explicitly compared the teachers to "supervisors" and the kids to "employees." You can take a look at the handout she distributed here.

  6. BTW, in case anyone thinks Glenn is exaggerating when he says "they evaluate us on our compliance", here's an article about a school that grades the parents!

  7. Wow. Unbelievable! Again, I've found my kids' Blue Ribbon elementary school to be incredibly hypocritical and patronizing re: the parents. My daughter's second grade teacher couldn't write a grammatically correct paragraph but had no problem berating parents who forgot a homework sheet!

  8. Chris - I was the same as a child. Never did my homework, got horrible grades, then got a 98% on all end of year and standardized exams. Teachers couldn't figure out what was going on. Frankly, I was bored by homework and saw no value in it, so I just didn't do it.

    However, I did eventually have to learn to discipline myself to doing homework, because I needed it to learn algebra, so there is value in learning "how to do school." It teaches discipline and focus. It can tip too far into meaningless busy work, I grant, but there is some value in it.

  9. I agree, some things can't be learned without a sustained effort. But I think you learn that lesson when you study those things, not by pouring effort into things that don't require it. Either way, if you're going to grade, it makes sense to grade the performance, not the effort.