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.