A Fresh Look At Schooling: The Role of Grades (Part 3 of 3)

By: James P. Krehbiel

(Continued from A Fresh Look At Schooling: The Role of Homework (Part 2 of 3))

The purpose of schooling is to teach our children to learn and produce quality work. In order to accomplish this goal, our schools must re-think the ways in which they view the educational process. Such changes do not necessarily cost more money (although increased funding for education is important), but rather requires a radical shift in how we set out to support our students in achieving quality in their school experience.

Although many students are currently experiencing success in our schools, we have too many young people who are branded as failures as a result of the inadequacies of our present academic system. The premature use of competition, the introduction of compulsory homework, and an obsessive emphasis on grading (which often overshadows the primary purpose of education — learning), all serve to detract from promoting quality education.

In his classic work, Schools without Failure, psychiatrist William Glasser focuses on the components of successful schooling. In his opinion, teachers must develop a positive involvement with students, re-think the relevance of their curriculum and consider the student evaluation process as a byproduct of a successful, quality learning experience.

Within most schools, grading takes on a life of its own. I call it the "wad-ya-get" phenomenon. I find it interesting that when I talk with students and parents about their schooling, the topic promptly turns to the issue of grades. Grades have become the "be-all" and "end-all" of education. Rarely, when students or parents talk about school, do they discuss the content or quality of what kids are learning. They invariably turn their attention to grades. Parents typically ask their children "how" they do in school rather than "what" they accomplish in school. Power struggles between parents, their children or teachers rarely involve the nature or quality of the work students accomplish, but generally pertain to the unsatisfactory grades received.

When teachers are asked about grades, they insist that grades are positive motivators. My educational experience has shown that good grades (A's and B's) are positive motivators for excellent students, but poor grades (C's, D's, and F's) actually reinforce failure-oriented school behavior among those students who chronically fail.

When I taught elementary school students, I would say, "I want all of you to succeed in my class; let's talk about some meaningful objectives for getting A's and B's in my class and how you can achieve that goal." My students were puzzled. They were used to being told, "If you don't get your work done and turn it in on time, you will have trouble making it in this class; there are specific standards you must meet in my class or you will fail." When the attitude implies "the glass is half full," students are more likely to buy in to a teacher's expectations and fulfill them. Students are eager to accommodate teachers who believe that all of their children have the potential to succeed no matter what happened in their past school career.

The primary purpose of grading/evaluation is to provide students with a yardstick for progress being made. Grades should never be used as an arbitrary measure reflecting a teacher's standards. When we are evaluated on our job, the process is hopefully designed to motivate us and improve our performance. Many teachers mistakenly believe that they can coerce students who are not doing quality work by using grades as a motivational tool. However, it is naïve to assume that a student who has chronically failed school will improve his performance by being labeled a failure through the grading system. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, noted management theorist and consultant, believes that managers (i.e. teachers) who attempt to coerce employees (i.e. students) will get workers who do just enough to get by. The use of coercive, punitive management techniques is not good enough for our students and our educational system.

Here are some principles of grading that will enhance a student's chances of learning and experiencing school success:

Some in the educational establishment may say that the ideas articulated in this article call for a lowering of academic standards and a "dumbing-down" of the curriculum. On the contrary, I am suggesting that school systems need to honestly grade themselves and see where improvement may be needed. Without a lead-management style of relating from administrators and teachers, and a curriculum based upon critical thinking, problem-solving, and meaningful work experiences, schools will fail along with their students. We cannot afford for that to happen if we are to promote quality schooling.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC is an author, educator, freelance writer and cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached through his website at krehbielcounseling.com or leavingthebubble.blogspot.com.

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