The Absolute Best We Can Do For Kids

The news that Maryland’s biggest school district gave up on its attempt to change the grading scale for its 150K kids shouldn’t shock anyone. But reading between the lines of the Washington Post story that chronicled its retreat back to an A-F format offers up a relevant postmortem on why many changes we try to implement in schools in general end in failure.

To me, one question should guide our work in schools: Is what we are currently doing the absolute best we could be doing for our students? In essence, are we doing the right thing, or trying to do the wrong thing right? It’s arguable that much of what we do in schools isn’t the best thing we could be doing for kids. Some of the most prevalent constructs of current day schooling are in place primarily because they just make our lives easier. We make a conscious choice to honor efficiency over effectiveness despite the fact that given the opportunity to create schools based on what’s best for kids, we’d  quickly throw many of those traditional ways of doing things out the window.

Grades are a great example, especially in the context of this story from Maryland. The argument against grades in schools in compelling. Read Alfie Kohn. Listen to ETS. Listen to the American Psychological Association. Read the dysfunction that leads us to prescribe drugs to kids so they can improve their grades. Join us in Change School where this week we heard stories of kids sobbing in the hallways, worried about their chances to become valedictorian. It’s an understatement to suggest that grades in school are unhealthy for our children. And I think most educators know this in their souls.

Yet, we remain silent. It’s just easier.

So kudos to Montgomery County for giving it a shot, at least, half-hearted as it appears to have been. I know what’s reported in the Post isn’t the “full story,” but it’s complete enough. So let’s parse it out.

The system went to a standards based grading system (the new rage) to “better reflect what students were taught and how much they learned and were able to do.” All well and good, but apparently the change was not because there was any professional acknowledgement about the detrimental effects of grades on kids.

And so when parents started complaining, the response was not about “the absolute best we could be doing for our students.” It was instead the best we could be doing for parents. The head of the PTA spelled that out really clearly:

“I’m glad that it went back,” said Jennifer Wood, PTA president at Twinbrook Elementary. “I grew up with an A, B, C, D system, and I think probably most of the teachers did. It makes it an easier process to communicate.”


And this:

Some families said under the P system — rolled out in phases and first used districtwide through fifth grade in the 2013-2014 school year — they did not know until middle school, when traditional grades were used, that their children were straight-A achievers or had been lagging all along.

Many said Ps appeared to mean anything from a low C through an A, so it was hard to spot student strengths, weaknesses and progress — and some kids lost motivation.

“We felt like it was time to make a change,” said Hazel, noting the system could also be challenging for middle schools as they sought to place students in classes. “Our hope is that our parents will be better-informed about their children’s progress.”

So, there’s a lot to unpack there. And once again, it’s all about the language that we just let pass almost unnoticed. We learn here that kids are laggards if they don’t get straight A’s, that kids lose motivation if they didn’t get grades, that grades are pretty much the sole determinant of placement, and that grades are what best inform parents about progress. Yet I think many of us (all of us?) would agree that all of that is pretty much BS when applying “the absolute best we could be doing for our students” rule. Know any kids who are powerful learners that aren’t getting straight-A’s? Wanna argue that grades should motivate students to work harder? Don’t think there are better ways to “inform parents about progress?” Portfolios, anyone?

Here’s what Montgomery is really saying: “We know our kids are better (but not best) served by changing the system, but honestly, we just don’t have our hearts in it enough (like other schools do) to work through the issues and build the capacity of lazy, just-want-to-see-the-A’s parents to understand that grades pretty much suck for kids and that they don’t represent much if anything of what kids really need to flourish in their futures. It’s just easier to make parents happy.” As in:

“It certainly puts grading in a format that looks like the report cards parents had when they grew up,” she said.

School leaders are growing more and more interested in the conversation around change, and the urgency around change is increasing. That’s the good news. But too often, their interest is not driven by what is the “absolute best thing we can do for kids.” It’s instead about latching on to the newest trend or buzzword and checking a change box to make them feel like they are doing something…anything to move “forward” depending on how that’s defined.

What we really need are school leaders who are committed to “doing the right thing” and have the courage to see it through, no matter what the hurdles.

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2 thoughts on “The Absolute Best We Can Do For Kids”

  1. Just getting rid of letter grades without tackling the other underlying assumptions about learning is probably doomed to fail. We do a lot of things besides letter grades that are done out of ease or tradition instead of being driven by learning. Semester long courses. 50 minute classes. Graduation requirements built around course credits. Final exams. Courses built around acquiring specific subject content. College admissions driving K-12 decision making. Single age classrooms. Focusing almost exclusively on measuring individual performance. Overvaluing measurements that are easily quantified. All of these things are about moving hundreds and thousands of kids through the system in an orderly, predictable manner.

    Obviously if we started with the question, “How do young humans learn?” we would build up a system that looks very different from our schools.

    Instead we say, “What doesn’t work in our school systems?” and we pull out pieces or pile on new pieces hoping that what is left behind is better.

  2. Bob Feurer

    Our elementary principal was explaining the move to competency based grading in her building when a fellow board member said, “I like the old way better, that number grade tells me more”. What’s that number tell you? It says nothing about what you do or don’t know or what you can or can’t do! It simply rates you on a pretty amorphous metric established by another person using their personal value system more than likely. Yes, we have our work cut out for us!

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