Grading Students: Defying the System

I once fired a teacher for giving an A to every student he taught.

George D. was a high school social studies teacher in Arlington (VA) where I  served as superintendent. In the Fall of 1976, the principal of one of the district high schools (1500 students half of whom were minority) called me and said that he had received complaints from parents that George D. had given As to all of his students. The parents were outraged because they believed that there was a bell-shaped curve of performance and in a class of 30 students, maybe 3-5 would receive As. Most students would receive Bs, Cs, and Ds and a few would fail. These parents believed in a meritocratic system and that teachers were expected to grade students on how well they performed academically. This teacher, they told the principal was both mocking and  destroying values that were important to them and their sons and daughters.

I asked the principal to meet with the teacher, ascertain whether or not the teacher had done what parents alleged and, if so, find out why he had. Also to take notes and direct quotes from the teacher. I further asked the principal to meet with some of the teacher’s students to confirm whatever the teacher had said and done.

The principal called me at home that evening and said he had spoken with the teacher and, yes, George D. had given all of his students As because the common system of grading used in public schools was biased against poor and minority students,  shut down real learning, and reproduced the inequalities prevalent in society. The principal then said that those students in his classes he had contacted confirmed that the teacher had given them As.

I asked George D. to come in the next day to meet with me. Having with me the notes that the principal had taken in his interview with the teacher and from what students had said, I wanted to know if what he had told the principal and students was accurate. Correcting a few details, George D. basically agreed that he had given each one of  his students an A. No, he had not reached out to parents to discuss his decision about giving As. He again gave as his reasons the inequities that minority students faced and his efforts to level the playing field and focus students on learning social studies content and skills rather than completing work to get a certain grade. I chose not to argue the merits of what he said. I wanted to confirm that the facts were accurate. He did not dispute the facts. I called School Board members and informed them of the situation and that I planned to dismiss the teacher. None of the five members disagreed.

Since George D. was a probationary teacher, state law permitted a superintendent to fire such teachers without going through the process laid out in the collective bargaining agreement that protected Arlington tenured teachers from such dismissals.

I spoke with George D. the following day and fired him. He then went to the Washington Post and other local newspapers, a radio talk show, and other media telling his side of the story. The papers and local TV stations carried the news that evening and the following morning. When asked by reporters I had no comment since it was a personnel matter. Within a week, no mention of George D. occurred in the media and a new teacher had been hired to teach George’s social studies classes.

What is the point of this story?

In retrospect, I can see now (although at the time, I didn’t have the concepts and language to say it clearly) that George D. had stumbled over a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. Americans prize historic and pervasive values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers face mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited time and other resources. George D. made a unilateral decision giving sole priority to treating all students equitably, ignoring that parents, other teachers, and administrators have tried pursuing all three values working out day-to-day compromises as they traversed the school day.

George D. either had not considered or didn’t know sufficiently that teachers, parents, and policymakers, while trying to offer equal opportunity and a sense of community cherish highly excellence which is procedurally embedded within the age-graded school: tracked classes such as honors and Advanced Placement; ranking of students by grade-point-average, periodic report cards. In effect, teachers judge student performance and are expected to assign marks that have consequences for students’ academic careers.

Consider the value of excellence–-creating meritocratic rankings (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)-–since parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few students can grab the high letter grades and achieve academic excellence while most classmates fall in the middle of the distribution in academic performance. That belief in a “natural” distribution in performance has been compressed into a fact-of-life within age-graded schools (and other workplaces) that parents, policymakers, practitioners, and researcher heed, as George D. found out.

There have been (and are now) efforts to eliminate A-F grading (see here, here, here, and here). Advocates today offer some of the reasons that George D. gave in defense of his actions but these few teachers and administrators have reached out to parents, teachers, and colleges to explain what they want to do with their students before instituting their plans. Working through the dilemma of finessing contradictory values by abolishing  grades amid the dominant social beliefs, societal commitment to a meritocratic system (real or illusionary), equalizing opportunity, and building community, remains both hard and steady work.







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12 responses to “Grading Students: Defying the System

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    I am trying to figure out the logic of trends in education that favor de-schooling education and outsourcing judgments of merit.

    Your narrative seems to be making a case for competency-based education with the curriculum sliced and diced into little modules, perhaps with adaptive testing that ends with a declaration of “mastery.” Grades are transformed into checklists of “skill sets,” or grades still exist but they are expressed as if rubrics (e.g., needs improvement, nearing proficiency, proficient). Enthusiasts for learning “any time, anywhere, from anyone” seem to favor an ungraded architecture for education (e.g.,, INACOL).

    In the new “ecology of learning,” stackable badges/certificates of “competency” replace grades. Teachers are not needed except as potential navigators or sherpas who put students in touch with learning opportunities. Judgments of merit based on grades, honors, and the like are decoupled from schools (grade levels, and the rest).

    This seems to be how the grading issue is being addressed by proponents of mastery-based learning. The persons, groups, agencies who may wish to evaluate the “merit” of a candidate, for any reason, ask the candidate for badges/certificates of “mastery,” “competency, or “demonstrated skill sets.” A stack of badges/certificates might be accepted for additional education or training or for immediate employment. Badges/certificates might indicate credit worthiness.

    Of course, whether these badges/certificates are “trustworthy” assessments of an individual remains an issue, and it is not fully settled. For the time being, decisions are left to persons/agencies who want an evaluation of a candidate for some position or opportunity.

    Perhaps the trustworthiness issue will be settled by following the lead of China. By 2020, every person in China will receive a Social Credit rating. It is not hard to imagine how young people could receive a single social credit score for “mastery,” “competency, or “demonstrated skills” with some additional points added for judgments of good character, having a growth mindset, focus and on time performance, and so forth. Further, earning a high social credit rating by the age of 18 or 21 might be attached to perks–access to career opportunities, reduced fees for products and services, and so on. In some degree judgments of this kind are already embedded in the algorithms for screening candidates for jobs, scholarships, and the like.

    In a new book, Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart, Rachel Botsman, describes the new Social Credit System in China. Excerpts are available in several internet posts. Here is one link.

    In any case, thanks for this candid account of you experience with grades. As a worker in arts education, I have spent a long professional career with variants of this issue, especially where grades are so ill-suited to the aim of preserving a love for learning in the arts, irrespective of the matter of talent and in a domain where conventional content is always under criticism or reconstruction.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Laura. No, I am not making the mastery/competency-driven argument. The point is that the age-graded school (which does not operate on the principle of each kid takes different amounts of time to master content and skills) is at the heart of the dilemma about grades. There are many ways to slice the mastery-pie; competency-based learning is one of many. Again, your comments about China and the link to Botsman’s book is most helpful since I was unfamiliar with her work. Thank you.

  2. Ann Staley

    Early in my teaching career, I was at a Junior High School in Medford, OR.
    I wore long skirts, my purse was a back pack, I wore Birkenstocks. In other words, I was a bit of a hippie and had been hired by a principal who wanted diversity in his staff. I taught three 90 minute classes each day and when we got to “grading time” I asked all three of my classes, “Do you want me to give you a report card grad or write a letter about your efforts and performance in this class. Two of the three classes chose “normal grades” the other class chose the letter form. I had so much fun writing the letters, and, of course, the parents loved this kind of personal feedback about their kids and their school work. My principal backed-me-up for my attempts at offering options. That spring we also had a class day when every teacher chose a “student teacher” and helped prep them for teaching their class. The teacher then took their student’s classes all day long. This had many more possibilities for “little mess and big ones,” and they all happened. Never tried this one again! I understand what the teacher you fired was up to.

    • larrycuban

      Smart move, Ann, to discuss option of narrative report or grade with students first. You did not force it upon them unilaterally. And you discussed it with your principal (who you wrote about so well for this blog). As for spending an entire day as a student and having a student take over the class–ah, the 1970s–not a golden age but so delightful to remember our younger selves and what we did as teachers. Thanks for the comment.

  3. EB

    Traditional grades are a way of distributing students along a bell curve (rewarding “merit”) but they are also a way of rewarding effort, without which school is pretty pointless. And, they are a way of assessing what the students are ready to learn next. As you point out, these three different roles for grading are at cross-purposes. I sympathize with George D — no one wants grades to be discouraging for students who start out with weaker backgrounds or more challenging home situations — but what he actually did was to take effort and progress-through-a-curriculum out of the equation — in fact there was no equation — and the students, as well as the teachers they were assigned to the following year, were robbed of useful information. Similar efforts to keep students motivated by banning F’s and D’s are well-intentioned and probably do less harm, but again they hide reality when the students have learned nothing.

    I’m curious, Larry, as to what you do propose as a way of abandoning age-graded classrooms. I’ve taught in such a classroom (6 year-olds and a few 7-year olds) and found it worked well. In the later grades, problems arose again — it was hard for students who were placed with mostly students younger then they were, even though academically that was where they belonged.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,Jane. Motivation is the constant issue with any form of compulsory schooling, less so when children are young (ages 3-7) but more so as they age and especially in high school. I surely do not have the answer to your question. I do know that there is no one way to get around grades but there are some historical experiences of schools that have had (and still do) multi-age groupings wrapped into mastery-driven curricula (rather than how many hours of seat time to cover content and skills in the age-graded school). This organizational form has its own issues but at the least pieces of intrinsic motivation rather than wholly extrinsic (points for homework, tests grades, and marks in report cards) can persist through the career of a student over a dozen years of compulsory schooling. The fact is that the age-graded school will not go out of existence; parents will want it to continue and for some, many, in fact, it may be the best kind of organization for them. There are over 100,000 public schools in the U.S. My guess is that 98% are age-graded. I would prefer many alternatives to what has been the dominant organizational form of schooling since the mid-19th century and dominates even charter and magnet schools that are supposed to be the acme of innovation.

  4. mstegeorge

    This story troubles me, as though something is missing. Perhaps it’s the effort to help this new teacher see some kind of compromise. Or was he dead set on promoting his own agenda? I suppose what I am looking for is his disposition as a learner as well as a teacher. Was he so arrogant and beyond reach that he needed to be fired? Did he leave education after this experience? I’m more interested in the human side of this story than what it says about grading and societal demands. Would you do the same thing today? – a different George

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment and questions, George. My recall of the times I spent with him was little effort on my part to do more than find out why he did what he did. Remember this is a probationary teacher meeting with first the principal and then superintendent. Not venues for easy give-and-take. It was clear on my side that either he would change his grading policy or there would be consequences for him. I did have the impression he wanted to make a statement and if it cost him his job, then it was worth it. I lost track of George and do not know whether he taught elsewhere afterwards or left the field.

      Today, you ask, would I do the same thing. Probably yes because I can read situations better than when I was in my late-30s and if the probationary teacher would be dead-set on keeping the every-kid-gets-an A-policy, then I would dismiss him (or her). And if the teacher still wanted to teach I would suggest places where the climate for narrative report cards and written comments on students’ work rather than letter or point grading was more accepting of his views.

      • mstegeorge

        Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. This helps me see a bit more of who he was and who you were and are. I am not sure why this story troubles me so much except that I can’t but admire a person standing on principle. I’m glad that if it happened today you would point him to a place that would support his beliefs.

      • larrycuban

        Appreciate your comment, George.

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