02/05/2013 12:15 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Educating for Democracy: What Do Grades Mean?

Recently I asked my students in my writing course at Kingsborough Community College what motivated them to learn. As this is an evening course, most of them are in their 20s and 30s with full-time jobs, some with families, who are "credentialing" themselves for better jobs in what most see as promising futures. Most all of them have either been born in another country or are first-generation American. I mention this because I want to make clear that these are pragmatic, no-nonsense students: conscientious, focused and very bright. When I asked them what motivated them to read the assignments, write -- and revise -- their papers, and prepare for their tests, I assumed that getting good grades would be their highest priority.

Certainly, grades were important, but, at least the way I teach my class, my students judged how they learned as more important than measuring what they learned. You see, what I try to do in my classes is make them into "learning communities" where students feel confident enough to share and debate their opinions, write them down, discuss them with each other and me, and develop them. Instead of being the sole authority figure, I am willing to share the "power" in the classroom with the students by de-emphasizing grades and focusing them on independent and critical thinking. I would not suggest that this method always works and doesn't need continual adjustments but that I find my students more engaged in their education than through a conventional lecture-discussion format.

Increasingly, however, grading, measuring, evaluating "how much" students learn by relying on numbers is not making a measurable improvement in education in this country at least in terms of minority education the group that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) was intended to help. A report in 2011, "Federal Policy, ESEA Authorization and the School to Prison Pipeline" shows that NCLB worsened the learning environment and made schools less effective. It led to decreased graduation rates, slower rates of academic improvement and of closing racial achievement gaps, as well as an increased burden on the justice system and wasted tax dollars.

"By focusing accountability almost exclusively on test scores and attaching high stakes to them, NCLB has given schools a perverse incentive to allow or even encourage students to leave," explained George Wood, Executive Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.

Alfie Kohn, the well-known educator and critic of grading, observed in an article written almost 20 years ago "Grading: The Issue is not How but Why." Educational Leadership, October 1994:

The trouble is not that we are sorting [grading] students badly -- a problem that logically should be addressed by trying to do it better. The trouble is that we are sorting them at all. Are we doing so in order to segregate students by ability and teach them separately? The harms of this practice have been well established (Oakes 1985). Are we turning schools into "bargain-basement personnel screening agencies for business" (Campbell 1974, p. 145)? Whatever use we make of sorting, the process itself is very different from -- and often incompatible with -- the goal of helping students to learn.

If we are going to be really serious about education for our children then we have to examine how young learners and, in fact, all learners really learn. And that is a very complex problem. I would prefer dealing with that than to political expediency which throws numbers at parents and pretends we are improving their children's education while actually narrowly training the majority for low-skilled, low-level , low-paying jobs.

I and many other educators have been arguing for years that poverty is one of the chief obstacles to quality education: lack of resources for cash-strapped schools, unsafe neighborhoods, overwhelmed parents, beleaguered and increasingly burned-out teachers: all of these factors contribute to what adds up to a "low-achievement" grade, even for schools that are able to make some small improvements against the odds. The result of this grading is the closing of schools, firing half of the teachers, disrupting neighborhoods when local students have to go into others' "turf." And the trend in many cities is inserting charter schools which take needed space and resources away from the host school. A Stanford University study just released showed that there was no measurable improvement in "bad charter" schools when compared to district schools. The report, done by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) and funded by the Robertson Foundation, also found that charter management organizations on average do not do a 'dramatically better' job than traditional public schools or charter schools that are individually managed.

If I were more optimistic about the future of public education in this country it would be because I believed that radical economic reform would peacefully occur and finally raise people out of poverty through a more just distribution of wealth. That, however, is about as unlikely as hoping that our politicians were more interested in the public welfare than holding onto power.

The fact is, there are no simple formulas and "national plans" that can be used to educate all of our children since "best practices" can be as varied as are the students in a class. There are more enlightened methods of education being implemented in various, if relatively few, schools throughout the country as an alternative to the industrial strength assembly-line system of education that has, in many guises, provided miseducation for our students. Using the arts, for instance, as a way of motivating students to learn is now being tried by an organization, STEAM Not STEM, that has a mission statement which recognizes the vital importance of the arts in the future development of our educational system:

"Our mission is to have business leaders, arts professionals, educators and others work together to educate governments, the public and the media to the need for returning Arts to the national curricula. China and others have determined, as we must, that STEAM education is a national priority issue."

The Waldorf School has been using the arts successfully for generations in educating young learners and Lesley University in Massachusetts is noted for its learning through the arts education program as well as another arts-based educational program in Oklahoma. But to my way of thinking, given the stultifying atmosphere that often is geared nowadays to "standardization" in many cases, the most successful learners are the ones who achieve excellence in spite of the way they are being taught rather than because of it.

In my short fiction class I give my students the opportunity to create their own stories and have them professionally printed in an anthology. Their "reward" is not a grade but a copy for each of them at the end of the semester. Their objective in that part of the course then is to produce something of their own rather than getting a grade for doing a proscribed assignment. Such skills as editing, revising, collaborating on ideas, and then having the discipline to meet a deadline and getting the satisfaction of seeing something of their own in print. These skills seem to me far more important for them to develop than show on a test how many quotes they have been able to identify or give definitions to literary terms.

What seems to be a trend these days is "robotized" education with the increase in on-line classes on both the K-12 and college level which is really about cheapening the teaching profession despite all of the technical advances in accountability and accessibility. Having "live" instructors, no matter the sophistication of the mechanized "delivery system" is more effective in motivating students to learn. Especially if they are among the many whose problem is their lack of engagement in what is going on in a classroom. Certainly, there are teachers that do not connect with their students any better than a machine but if the reward for students' responsiveness is ultimately a grade, it is not as powerful a tool as a genuine feeling of achievement of something that is beyond a grade: it's a connection to another human being who cares enough about his or her students to treat them as individuals.

If motivation is an essential ingredient for students' education, grading -- especially negative grading -- only motivates low-achieving students to give up on wanting to learn anything and results in their dropping out of school. The measure of a student's effort cannot be and should not be determined by mere letters and numbers. Emphasis on grading as a method of determining student learning should be diminished and the practice eventually eliminated.