Grades matter. There, I said it.
I spend a lot of time writing about the importance of developing kids from the inside out. While we can't easily measure internal strengths like curiosity, resiliency, and compassion, we know how to foster and recognize these qualities in children. Most researchers agree that internal abilities are vital to kid's success in life. Some argue they are more important than grades.
Most adults would likely resonate with the famous quote by Tommy Dorsey, "Money doesn't make the man. Some people have money, and some people are rich." We can apply similar thinking to grades: Grades don't make the student. Some children have excellent grades, and some are rich in other ways.
Frankly, if I was raising children today and money was no object, I'd want them to attend the kind of school that my fellow blogger, Alfie Kohn, might describe. It would be filled with teachers who knew how to facilitate real learning; where children had plenty of opportunities for play, discovery, and self-direction; and where there were no grades to distract them from learning.
While Kohn and I wouldn't agree on all aspects of educating children, I often find myself resonating with one side of the grade debate. But when I look more pragmatically at educating a nation of kids, I have to ask, "How can we do our best for the most children today?"
The answer lies in our ability to understand that both sides of the grade debate are flawed, than unless we come to a middle ground understanding of what kids need to succeed, our schools will continue on their path to mediocrity.
I'm willing to concede that grades and test scores matter in today's society. They matter because most people measure success quantitatively. As a nation, we need numerical evidence that shows kids are learning important skills, like reading, math, and science. Grades and standardized tests play a role in measuring proficiency in these areas and they provide important feedback to teachers, curriculum developers, and policy makers. And yes, numerical assessments give most parents the peace of mind that their kids are progressing in important skill areas. I understand this.
What I don't understand is how educated adults can continue to argue about who is right, while putting children's development at risk. Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, we have become a nation obsessed with improving test scores. Each week, a new reiteration of the case for and against standardized testing is made. Each week, the measurements of success are challenged by the other side. The latest in the grade debate involves measuring teacher performance based on student test scores. Read Letters to the Editor of the New York Times from people on both sides of the issue.
I wonder when our national obsession with grades and test scores will end. Is it possible to reach a more productive middle-ground that will better facilitate children's learning and life success? Are we even willing to try?
Five Ways a Middle-of-the-Road Principle Might Change Education
Admittedly, educating children is a complex, developmental process. Yet, if we could agree on a single middle-of-the-road principle, it could potentially affect the actions of millions of adults who act on behalf of children. In turn, these actions would affect the lives of millions of children.
Could we agree that quantitative and qualitative measurements are of equal importance? And if we did, how would that change our approach to education? Frankly, I can think of hundreds of interconnected changes that might take place. Here are just a few. I invite you to share more.
Grades and Test Scores
Grades would be used for the purpose of helping teachers assess each student's progress in the skill areas that can be measured quantitatively, like reading, math, and science. Standardized testing would be used for the purpose of measuring curriculum effectiveness across groups of students and between schools. The most effective curriculum methods would be shared broadly nationwide through teacher's learning networks and continuing education.
The development of positive internal strengths would become part of all learning goals. This includes the development of character (i.e., respect, honesty, and compassion) as well as internal capacities to plan, organize, create, critically think, strategize, and innovate. Teachers would make qualitative assessments of children's development in these areas, without comparing them to other children.
There would be an equal focus on the known skills that foster one's ability to become employed, like reading, math, science, and technical skills, and the unknown skills of the future that require the development of creative minds. To do this, we would bring the arts, music, and sports back into our schools. Why? Because research shows these types of programs nurture creativity, innovation, and important life skills.
After School Programs
We would enrich school curriculum with out-of-school-time (OST) programs that engage children in what matters most to them. These programs would have quality leaders and mentors who would build supportive relationships with youth and help them believe in themselves. In adolescence, youth would be at the center of action and leadership in these programs. They would learn how to become engaged in their communities, overcome obstacles, and gain skills that are achieved through experiential learning in the real world. Thanks to the Harvard Family Research Project, we have a good deal of research in this area.
We would all have an equal and shared responsibility for educating children, and a sense of accountability. That includes teachers, parents, policy makers, and students. We would learn from our successes and failures, rather than blaming them on individuals or institutions. While respecting the need for grades and test scores, we would help our children understand they are more than what grades can ever measure.
Arguing about who is right is no longer an option for our nation's children. What do you think? Is a middle-ground possible? And if so, what are other ramifications of stepping to the center?
How Society Grades Teachers
Education and Learning: Can They Co-Exist?
The Fallacy of Good Grades
©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
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