10/10/2012 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Is It Time to Stop Making the Grade?

I got two very different e-mails this morning that underscore just how far our thinking has to move if we're ever going to truly reimagine American public education in ways that are aligned with the individual needs of each child.

The first was framed around a provocative question -- "Imagine if rather than waiting to scale [innovative] ideas [about schools], we focused on scaling each individual?" -- and an even more provocative idea: building an app that allowed people to self-direct their own learning experiences and reimagine the city as the school. The point is not that THIS IDEA is the answer -- read the piece and decide for yourselves how much merit it deserves. The point is that this IS the sort of outside-the-box thinking we need more of if we are serious about making the modern educational landscape more personalized and customized (and we should be).

Which leads to the second e-mail, a link to a New York Times article in which five different people react to the latest progress reports for New York City's elementary and middle schools -- progress reports that continue to rate schools via the same A-F letter system we've used since your grandmother was dancing to Big Band Swing. As the Times editors frame it, "Proponents say the "A" to "F" grading system is one of the best ways to get parents to pay attention, but critics say that the city's over emphasis on test performance skews the grades, making them unreliable for judging the quality of a school."

I'm sorry -- but is this really the best we can do? On one hand, I get it -- the best way to communicate is to speak in symbols and languages people already readily understand, and there is no more widely-understood set of shared symbols than the ones we already associate with American public education. On the other hand, I repeat -- if we are serious about making the modern educational landscape more personalized and customized, at some point we have to start creating new symbols that reflect our commitment to personalization and customization. And letter grades ain't it.

To be sure, massive urban districts like New York City's have a particularly heavy burden when it comes to reimagining the shape and structure of school, but that doesn't mean they need to be helpless in the face of our most intractable societal memes. And as long as leading voices in education keep making decisions based on the easiest way to "get parents to pay attention," you don't need me to tell you what the rest of us will keep getting as a result.