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Confessions of a Corrupt Educator

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As another school year lurches into the collective memory, relegated to the digital archives, I find myself reflecting again on the purpose of grades?

The conventional understanding about those lettered evaluation marks is that they are meant to measure student performance -- skills and knowledge -- and apprise those students and their parents of their progress and to assist universities in sorting out who deserves admission and scholarships and, perhaps, in the aggregate, to help alert tax-payers as to the overall state of this school or that school district that they are funding.

By those criteria, any grade not arrived at through entirely objective means and based strictly upon the state academic standards is an act of insubordination.

And yet I find myself -- as I believe do many other teachers -- using grades for entirely different purposes:

  • pushing students to do more than they would like;
  • pushing them to learn more than they think they need to or believe they can;
  • encouraging them to be intellectually curious, to fail better (as Samuel Beckett said) until they might succeed, to value intellectual skills and knowledge, even if theirs are still gravely lacking;
  • coaxing them to never give up on themselves (which sometimes requires giving them second and third and fourth chances they might not, objectively, deserve);
  • and not letting the very brightest and most skilled of my students rest upon their gifts.

Amidst the current deluge of data, such grading practices can result in students with high grades and low state test scores or with low grades and high test scores.

Such incongruities might suggest a watered-down curriculum and low standards and/or a failure to challenge the most capable students. But what they more likely indicate is the collision of an objective evaluating system (standardized testing) and an evaluating system that is most effectively utilized with at least some consideration of individual students, their abilities and their efforts.

I refuse to punish a student for what he or she didn't know before entering my class, nor reward one entirely for what he or she previously learned.

Hard work is the only way that child will get there.

Hard work isn't enough.

Perhaps -- at least in the short term -- but to deliver that message to a student who is trying seems to me to go against the very nature of education. Demoralization may work with snarky graduate students and boot camp recruits, but marginally skilled children in grades K on up to 12 do not benefit from such tactics, even if their lack of performance might justify it.

Same time, high grades not earned can be nearly as disastrous.

Students need clear expectations and must be made accountable to them -- but those expectations must, in the short run, be realistic or they will prove useless. They can make remarkable progress in the right circumstance - with a teacher who knows the subject and knows how to teach it -- if they are willing to work and they most surely won't make much progress if they are not.

We ought to expect more out of a child than she or he might think possible -- but not more than actually is possible. That is the intuitive genius of the best parents and teachers, to see that potential for what it really is and push a child forcefully toward it until the child starts to push him or herself.

This was a recurring theme among graduates this year from the high school at which I teach. The most successful of our students were the ones who expected the most out of themselves and worked the hardest.

That, of course, is no great revelation to most of us who have raised children or taught K-12.

The symbols on a report card might open doors, opportunities, and might encourage confidence -- but it is the learning represented by those grades that will ultimately make a difference for that student.