It’s been 3 years since the experience of receiving a B+ from a professor in one of my doctoral classes sparked a flame that got me thinking about the many problems with our current A-F grading practices. Back then I wrote about the old model of education and how it’s being upended by the new model of education where A’s are nice to have but certainly doesn’t equate to mastery. So finally after 3 years, I’m ready to write Part 3 of Why Your Kid’s Grades Won’t Matter. So why did it take 3 years? Well, life got busy with a new kid, more work, and a doctoral degree…but now that my son sleeps through the night (mostly), the doctoral degree is complete, and I reached the crisp “calm water” that was three-week summer break when I wrote this, I’m ready to revisit this interesting topic, so if you haven’t already, I encourage to read Why Your Kid’s Grades Won’t Matter: Part One, and Part Two.
So here’s Part 3. Let’s start with a story.
Mario, 22, is from the outskirts of Manila and is the youngest of his six siblings. His parents finished only a few years of school themselves, but understood the value of education and tried their best to provide for all of their children to go to school. Although Mario put forth a lot of effort in his studies and even graduated from high school, his university options were limited and expensive. In need of cash, Mario’s older brother helped him secure a job as a doorman at a high-end hotel in Makati, the city center. The pay was ok and Mario enjoyed the work, but more importantly, the job offered him something scarce…access to free wifi. Like many teenagers, especially those from Manila, Mario used his smartphone to stay connected with his friends on Facebook, Instagram, texting, as well as a number of other apps.
Since Manila’s traffic can be notoriously bad, Mario would often stay at work well after his shift waiting for traffic to subside, and in the meantime to use the free wifi. It was during this time that Mario began to pursue his interests and passions online. Eventually, Mario was able to save some of his money to purchase a cheap PC, which provided much more freedom and accessibility to the web. As time progressed Mario became more interested not just in using his computer, but also understanding how it worked. One evening, while pursuing this interest, Mario stumbled into Khan Academy, A US-based education website that has the lofty mission of a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. With a little searching, Mario found the coding and computer programming section of the website and instantly began to absorb everything he could about the topic.
Eventually, Mario began to experiment with web design, even offering out his services for free to friends, and getting a little better with every job. Of course, it’s not surprising that after awhile Mario got good enough that he was able to start charging for his services. With the extra money, Mario was able to buy better equipment and the software needed to create a great product for his customers. In addition to gaining customers through word of mouth, Mario was also starting to get work through Owave.com, a website directory that connects programmers and designers from around the world (especially in the third world) with customers at a variety of prices.
Mario eventually went on to leave his job at the hotel and to create a web design company that operates in the Philippines with customers all over the world. He was able to do this without the help of a college a degree or a fancy 1:1 program at his school and no one has ever asked him to recall his GPA.
Mario’s story may sound unique and likely very different than the students you interact with on a daily basis. To many, it may sound like a nice story about how with the right tools, attitude, and some luck, amazing things can happen in our rapidly shrinking world…Disney should make it into a movie, don’t you think? Yet, I submit to you that if that’s all you see in this story you’ve missed the point.
So what’s the point?
Somewhere, in the past 15 years between the launching of youtube, Facebook, Google apps, plus the explosion of personal technology, many of the walls that separated the educated from the less educated have been knocked down. Certainly, you’ve noticed this a little bit when speaking with a customer service rep from your cell phone provider based in the Philippines or India, but it can be easy to miss the huge shift that has taken place. “Wait.” You might say. “You are talking about globalization, didn’t Friedman already write a book on that?” Certainly, that’s one way to think about it, but more accurately it might be better to think of it as micro-globalization. Instead of just manufactures and call centers exporting jobs to all parts of the world with cheap labor. Small businesses and entrepreneurs that have never set foot in the US are beginning to compete for customers in the first world.
What does this have to do with grades?
Simply put, although high grades may get you into university, it’s no guarantee that you’ll learn to be flexible, creative, collaborative, and entrepreneurial enough to achieve success after that and stay afloat against the oncoming wave of competition. In fact, you might even find that succumbing to the old model of education might suck the last drops of creativity out of your soul. This isn’t to say that academic achievement doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s clearly not as important as a number of other important traits. Author and education guru Dr. Yong Zhao mentions this is his book Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes when he says:
Non-cognitive factors such as personality traits, motivation, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills have been found to correlate significantly with educational attainment, workplace productivity, and life earnings. As a result, among the most highly valued personal qualities, academic achievement ranked lower than communication skills, motivation/initiative, teamwork skills, and leadership skills (Zhao, 2016 p. 4).
What can we do about it?
The old model of school and A-F grading is a tangle of complexities, incorrect assumptions, good intentions, infrastructure, and even some learning. Trying to fix the problem with one big solution is bound to lead to more problems that will make A-F grading look like the good old days. Of course, there are a few small steps in the form of questions that might help get change moving:
- Do your grading practices measure student growth, discovery, failure and risk, or mostly follow through, procedure, and “high-stakes testing?”
- How do teachers assess student progress in the midst of lessons to provide guided and directed support?
- Do your grades reflect student trajectory or averages?
- In what ways are your students creating works that receive feedback from people other than their teachers?
- Do the systems in your school create or hinder students’ opportunities to develop ideas beyond the classroom? Is this the norm or the exception?
These questions, plus many others should be asked by teachers, parents, and of course, students in order to grow this conversation and focus a spotlight on how students are being assessed. The good news is since I started thinking about this topic 3 years ago, change is happening. One great example of this is the work is happening through the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is a group of independent schools who are leveraging their influence to change the way student achievement is communicated to universities and other parties.
Here take a look:
This is exciting work and hopefully, its momentum will lead to transformations beyond high school transcripts into the way we do middle and elementary school assessment and reporting too. So that’s where I leave my three-part rant about traditional models of grading. Perhaps I missed something or mischaracterized A-F grading, if so, please leave a comment below, and If you’re new to Learn[ed]Leadership and you like interesting stuff, then make sure to sign up for a free monthly (or so) newsletter by clicking here or in the fancy box to your top right. Or if you want immediate updates, Like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.