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By Michael Thomsen Slate

There is always something or someone to blame in our struggle for education reform. Sometimes it’s the “bad teachers” who get the blame. Other times it’s standardized testing, insufficient funding, or slow-moving bureaucracy. I blame grades.

Grading students, from A to F, has become synonymous with education itself. Report-card day is an American rite of passage. Yet, there’s reason to believe the structure of grading students is the biggest culprit in America’s long, steady decline in education—SAT reading scores are at a 40-year low, and one recent study ranked the U.S. 17th in education, worse than Poland, Canada, Ireland, South Korea, and Denmark.


It’s becoming increasingly clear that the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn because of its negative reinforcement, encouraging those who do well to gradually favor the reward of an A over the discovery of new ways of thinking, and reinforcing harsh class divides that are only getting worse as the economy idles.

A 2002 study at the University of Michigan found that 80 percent of students surveyed based their self-worth on academic performance—more than cited family support as a source of self-esteem. A 2006 study at King’s College showed adolescents with low self-esteem were more likely to have poor health, be involved in criminal behavior, and earn less than their peers.

Since it’s overwhelmingly poor students who are prone to bad grades, a self-reinforcing loop is created. Poverty leads to bad grades and low self-esteem, which leads to more poverty and social dysfunction.

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In its earliest forms, education was a Socratic practice of self-knowledge; an isolated act of enshrining religious traditions; or, most commonly, an informal transfer of skill on the homestead, with parents teaching children how to plant, harvest, raise livestock, or practice some craft passed through generations. That all began to change in 1792 when William Farish, a tutor and soon-to-be chemistry professor at Cambridge, became an early advocate of evaluating student performance through quantifying test results.
A century later, the logic transformed into a letter-based scale first seen at Mount Holyoke College in 1897. By the 1930s, the ABC approach had been adopted by a wide group of schools and universities around the country and, not coincidentally, would be reabsorbed by a number of industrial interests, including dairy, beef, poultry, and plywood. (That’s some A+ plywood!)

These changes coincided with the rapid expansion of compulsory education in America, a legal standard that had been adopted by all 50 states by 1917. Grades were the foundation of this expansion, providing data points for a system in which one person would get a corner office and another would be lost to a life flipping burgers or changing motor oil. If you want to succeed in life, stay in school, get good grades.

The catch is that fear of negative outcomes has been repeatedly shown to be a major impediment to learning. A survey of students at the University of Cape Town found that stress and fear of failing tests led to “classic symptoms of procrastination and avoidance,” confusion and low self-esteem. “It’s one of those things where if I have to fail a test, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t fail a test.’ It’s like a really serious strain,” one subject reported. Another showed the classic habit of grade-weighted failure leading to disengagement: “But I just didn’t like the fact that I had failed, so I just moved on to something else.”

These responses are echoed by a number of studies that show students’ willingness to take on challenging tasks diminishes when grades are involved, but without grades, students left on their own tend to seek out more challenging problems.

John Taylor Gatto, a one-time New York State Teacher of the Year-turned-fierce education critic, proposed an education system built around “independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, (and) a thousand different apprenticeships.” Schools built on these values have flourished in the margins of state-funded, graded education throughout the 20th century.

The most famous example is the Montessori schools, noted for their lack of grades, multi-age classes, and extended periods where students can chose their own projects from a selected range of materials. The schools have educated many of today’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, business management legend Peter Drucker, and video game icon Will Wright.

A 2006 comparison in Milwaukee found that Montessori students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math. They also “wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.”

Some contend that Montessori schools attract more affluent and successful parents, who give their children an inherent advantage, but the Milwaukee study was built around a random lottery for Montessori enrollment. All the children in the study came from families with similar economic backgrounds, with average incomes ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.

Free schools have taken the gradeless structure even further, treating the school as an open space where students are not only allowed to self-direct but are given equal responsibility in the organization and rule-making of the school itself. The Summerhill School in England is one of the most recognizable and longest-running, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.

Summerhill is built around the idea of creating stable, happy, and compassionate humans capable of filling any role in society—a janitor being no less a success than a doctor. In place of dedicated courses, students are free to follow their own interests while teachers observe and nudge them toward new ways of thinking about what they’re drawn to. Students with an interest in cooking, for instance, might learn the basics of chemistry by way of thickening a sauce. Those drawn to playing soccer might learn to improve their game with some fundamental principles of Newtonian physics.

Schools inspired by the Summerhill model have flourished in recent years, with free schools operating around the country from Portland, Oregon, to Sudbury, Massachusetts  The Brooklyn Free School has earned attention for its open structure and regular democratic meetings, where students debate how to handle problems like boredom and whether playing video games on the school computers should be considered a learning activity.

The higher tuition costs do tend to attract wealthier families with well-supported children, but many go out of their way to provide assistance to low-income families, favoring diversity over bill-paying. The Manhattan Free School in Harlem makes do on an annual budget of $100,000 and collects full tuition from only 20 percent of its students. The Brooklyn Free School operates on a sliding scale of tuition, collecting full payment from only half of its students, with some paying as little as $20 every few weeks.

It’s a common misnomer to assume no student evaluation happens in environments like these, but in most cases free-school environments require more teacher attention than traditional classrooms. Instead of testing for comprehension of a select group of facts or ideas, teachers constantly monitor a child’s behavior, support an array of student experimentation, and subtly encourage efforts that best match the student’s abilities.

In free schools failure is not a punishment for bad study habits but the sign of students testing their knowledge to see if it holds true in practice. In our soccer analogy, success wouldn’t be evaluated by students scoring goals but in gradually learning how and why the ball curves in some cases and goes straight in others, a process that would surely produce many more misses than scores.

And free schools perform reasonably well. A survey of former students at Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts found 80 percent of its students went on to college or professional school, and 20 percent enrolled in graduate programs. In 1998, 75 percent of Summerhill students who took Britain’s certificate-qualification exams passed.

Abandoning grades would be a massive shock, but holding onto them has not forestalled decay, from waves of school closures for poor standardized test results to the trillion-dollar debt guillotine awaiting college students who’ll struggle to win unpaid internships for all their hard work.

Eliminating grades would not single-handedly bring salvation. There is a whole new world of challenges and complications in a classroom without pedagogy and rank. But it would be an ideal place to start anew, to stop motivating students, teachers, and under-performers with the fear of being flunked, fired, or shut down. Without that dysfunctional ranking we could instead form a child’s education around his or her eagerness to discover, contribute, and share. An A-to-F grade scale is only a distraction from that process and in many cases an outright deterrent. It’s time to admit that system has no place in our future.

This article was written by Michael Thomsen and published in Slate on May 1, 2013. Photo by woodleywonderworks/Flickr.

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