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Disrupting Our Grading Ecosystem

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
June 9, 2022

The Use of Grades

Students today experience a greater sense of anxiety than ever before. Hundreds of articles, op-eds, and essays have been written describing the stress that students experience surrounding school and academic expectations. Ask a student about the source of this stress, and tests and grades will inevitably be central to the response. Such assessment measures are deeply embedded in the infrastructure of our schools, for better and for worse, and they become drivers of much of what happens in school. But we must take a step back and consider these practices. Why do we give grades? When and why did this system originate? Whose needs are served by the process of grading, distributing report cards, and designing transcripts? Before we can posit solutions to this problem, we need to explore the problem itself, understanding its component parts and the values that underlie them.

Our Grading Ecosystem

I have easy scapegoats for this state of affairs. I blame the college admissions process and the College Board, with its SAT and ACT exams, all of which have set expectations beyond our control. These external institutions, I argued, create the pressure that fuels our students’ anxieties.

At some point in all of my blaming, though, a respected colleague suggested that perhaps schools themselves are complicit. We, the schools, have power; we, the parents, have a role to play in this process. And both schools and parents can help our kids chart a calmer path. After hearing this suggestion, I began to explore how we contribute to this pressure-cooker system. And there is much to say.

We are teaching and raising our children in a particular educational ecosystem that is dynamic and constantly shifting. But different communities’ educational ecosystems differ from ours, and we can consider other models. To envision possible change, we should identify the forces that drive our educational system, which is deeply rooted in the earning and giving of grades. What are these forces, and how are we complicit? Three factors stand out for me: power, commodification, and cultural capital.

Power: Teachers and parents exert power through our words, often when we express our expectations and anxieties: “If you want to get into a good college, you are going to have to take this more seriously.” “In order to succeed in college, you have to learn independently.” Grades also serve as a mechanism of control for teachers. Students perform because not to do so will negatively impact their grades. Teachers know this and use that power to assert control over the classroom environment and the students’ choices.

Commodification: Perhaps in a more penetrating way, grades are a commodity, a means of exchange. In order to get into college, I need the grades. David Labaree, a professor of the history of education at Stanford University, describes the commodification of grades that has evolved over the last 150 years in American education. Grades are the currency exchanged in and between schools. Stronger grades result in greater opportunities at every level. In fact, Labaree argues, two basic American values are at odds with each other: equal opportunity and merit-based (rather than class-based) status. On the one hand, we believe that our society should reflect the inherent equality that all people are created equal. Yet we also believe in merit-based achievement. Educational reform movements tend toward creating equal opportunity for more children. Yet our meritocratic commitments in a capitalist educational market prompt us to want what is best for our own kids. The result is a system in which we believe in equality for other people’s kids but want the best for our own. The result is a never-ending upward spiral with both higher stakes and higher expectations. Students who aspire to attend an elite college quickly learn that they must pursue the grades, even as they may also pursue true learning, because grades are the currency in which educational institutions trade.

Cultural Capital: More than ever, grades are a form of cultural capital, an expression of status and individual worth. In our ecosystem, good grades are considered indicators of intelligence, capacity, and character. Good kids get good grades. We even get reduced rates on car insurance for earning good grades. Grades as cultural capital are central to a student’s self-esteem and self-worth.

These are drivers of our grading ecosystem; and these elements are not focused on learning. Capitalism, meritocracy, the educational market, teacher control, parental hopes, and student aspirations join to maintain cycles of intensity and pressure. They will continue to intensify unless something breaks the cycle.

Exit, Voice, or Loyalty?

Noted economist Albert Hirschman wrote a slim volume about the market entitled Exit, Voice, Loyalty. Ironically, these market concepts map quite neatly onto our educational credentialing considerations. If I am dissatisfied with a product, I have a choice to make. I can turn to a different product, or I can choose to stay with the product because I value my loyalty to the enterprise. If choosing loyalty, two paths still remain: I can be silently loyal and struggle through, or I can assert my concern, use my voice, and try to effect change.

It is very difficult to disrupt an ecosystem. But it is possible. The first step is to recognize that we have a choice. We can remain loyal to the system as it is, or we can retain the system and advocate for change. Alternatively, we can exit from at least some aspects of the system. We should first ask ourselves why grades are so important to us. What is our goal? Three possibilities come to mind: a path to a career, a mind-expanding education, and higher personal status. We must dig deep and ask ourselves which goal is primary. These three goals can overlap but can also quickly diverge.

As students and parents, we can choose to exit aspects of the grades race. For example, Yeshiva and Stern Colleges are our home institutions. Yeshiva University is committed to our children, and our children can receive an outstanding education there. Some students might decide to go to Israel for college where SATs don’t count. Parents can say private college is just too expensive. We can all say that character, ethics, love for learning, and authentic passions should earn higher social status in our community than good grades.

As teachers, we can explore forms of feedback other than grades so that students can explore themselves as learners through a means disconnected from our commodified grading system. This can include “ungrading” experiments, extensive feedback mechanisms, and peer review, options that are currently being explored by members of our Machon Siach grading cohort.

Reshaping school culture is like turning a ship against a current. It requires lots of consistent effort, patience, and a belief in small steps over an extended time. The character and well being of our children are well worth the effort.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark

Rabbi Harcsztark is the Founding Principal of SAR High School and Dean of Machon Siach. He is the recipient of the 2017 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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