No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

6 thoughts on “No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

  1. In a school with no grades (at least at the elementary level), kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying/thinking/creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.
    How do I know? Because 19 years ago when I joined the faculty at my elementary school, we didn’t give grades, or test scores, or report cards. Back before NCLB and the standardized testing craze, we used student portfolios and real performance assessments.
    Back then, when kids finished a project, they would say “I love this!” Now they say, “How do you like this?”
    Keep writing! More, please.

    1. What a beautiful response to these questions. Thanks! The question, then, is whether or not high school students, with at least 10 years of conditioning by carrot and stick under their belts, will be able to go back to “I love this!” and resist and finally forget about “How do you like this?” I think they can. What an awesome thing that you were able to experience the grade-free classroom!

      1. It really was a wonderful, child centered model. It sort of makes it all the sadder now, though, as I constantly struggle with rubrics, scores, grades, etc.

  2. This. This is why, though it means our bank account is often down to single digits in the last week of the month, we pay to send our kid to a small crunchy/progressive/child-centered school that sounds a lot like the one momsheib describes. (Yes, it’s private – alas, no public options here that fit our pedagogy or our child. The building is a bit shabby, but the student-teacher ratio can’t be beat, and the love and thought that go into making education work for each kid can’t be beat.)

    And, for us, at least, it works. No one tells my kid he’s better than other kids just because he has the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old. No one tells him he’s worse than other kids because he has trouble writing his name. They do their best to meet him – and every other kid in the class – where he is, academically, socially, and emotionally. it is possible.

    Michael, I think it’s also possible with (many if not all) older kids, if you’re honest about what you’re doing. You’d need to very clearly define and describe the culture of the place, get the kids involved in creating and endorsing that culture, and overtly and implicitly foster internal motivation. Portfolios, student-led quarterly conferences, etc. help. But you also need to be clear about what the school believes education to be – then follow up in word and deed so the students understand it’s not just jargon or tricks.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! I think it’s sad people have to go to private schools for this. I know there are exceptions, though, across the nation. There are progressive public schools. And each of us does what we can in the realm of our classrooms and with our like-minded colleagues to shake things up. I may not be able to abolish grades in my classroom, but I can do what I can to get students to forget about them and focus on what matters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: