Here’s how it goes: at the end of a lesson, or unit, or week, or year, the students in my class give me something. Often they give me an essay I have to read. Sometimes it’s a test they’ve taken that I must check. They give speeches I listen to, or make little videos I watch. They give evidence that they’ve read the book, and more evidence that they understood it, and more evidence that they understood it deeply.
In return I give them a grade.
Technically, this grade is supposed to have no other value than as an evaluation. I personally haven’t ‘given’ them anything in return for the work they’ve done. In fact, I am not making any kind of ‘judgement’ at all, not in the sense that it’s my opinion. I don’t play favorites with grades. I don’t give high grades just because I like a kid. I don’t give low grades on an essay because a kid acts up in class. If a kid acts up in class, he earns a low grade in ‘behavior’, if that’s something I grade. Ideally, the quality of a student’s work must be as unbiasedly measured as the craftsmanship of a mattress or car or meal. A student who missed 3 questions on a 10 point quiz is independent of me. The 70% ‘C’ grade is independent of me. An essay’s quality must be independent of the teacher’s mere opinion. (This is the primary motivating factor behind the exploding number of rubrics used in school.)
The grade, in other words, is an indicator of the actual, unbiased, real-world, practical value of a student’s work, skill or knowledge. (In theory, anyway. There’s a lot of parenthetical qualifications to this, because the world is messy.)
Outside school, the grade’s closest cousin is money. The cost of a movie, or a medicine, or a meal is a reflection of its quality, whether that ‘quality’ means usefulness, or production cost, or demand or a thousand other things. School attempts to simplify, limit, or clarify the driving forces behind a grade’s meaning for reasons of transparency or equity or truth, but the final outcome is that a grade reflects the value of a student’s work or skill the way price reflects the value of what I buy. It’s not a great stretch to compare an ‘A’ over a ‘C’ in a math class to a Ferrari over a Ford, nor is it really an insult to either. A Ferrari costs more to build, goes faster, and runs better. An A in math takes more work, provides wider opportunities for application, and grants access to higher math classes.
In similar fashion, if a grade’s meaning is a reflection of quality, its value is transactional and motivational.
As a transaction, and like employers and salary, teachers ‘pay’ with grades for a product their students create. Teachers purchase a product that they are authorized by their bosses to purchase, trading the grade for evidence of skill or learning. Whether it’s time spent on an exam, or a speech to the class, or an essay, the final trade between teacher and student is a grade for some form of work. Students leave the class at the end of their term with a skill set, but the visible evidence of both the skill itself and its quality is the grade. The sticker price given by the teacher.
It does not matter that the teacher has helped create the skill, that they are purchasing something they helped build, or that they are left with piles of rather useless products. It makes things a little weird for the teacher, but it doesn’t change the monetary-like power of the grade for the student. The student creates something, she is paid for it, and she carries both forward, product and its price tag.
The motivational power of grades is both carrot and stick. Good grades are a carrot, a reward for excellent quality. They are easy to measure and easier to use. Doors open to good grades without hesitation, without resistance at all, greased. When the quality is there, giving an ‘A’ grade is easy and pleasurable. They may be hard to earn, but the reasons for their value are usually clear.
Good grades feel good too. They have intrinsic value. They build self-esteem and confidence.
Low grades are a little more complicated. Sticks usually are. For one thing, as with money in a market society, we’ve made grades a necessity. Without money, a citizen can only survive on the margins of society. The pain created by the absence of money is intentional, because it motivates the citizen to participate, to behave, and to play a positive role. (Again, parenthetical messy qualification of ‘in theory’.) An ‘F’ is not a statement of low quality. It’s a statement of no quality at all. A student with F’s is punished, held back, placed in remedial classes, and denied access to whatever peripheral pleasures the society of school provides: clubs, sports, freedom. And if a school is comparable to a factory meant to produce functioning, valuable citizens, the ‘F’ student is a broken product. An ‘F’ student doesn’t graduate; they are thrown out. In fact, we’ve done quite a bit to ensure that they aren’t simply a broken product, but a dangerous one. Unemployable. Marginalized. Hostile.
Which raises the question of what students actually purchase with the currency of their grades?
Everything and not much at all.
Everything because that’s the power of currency. If we speak only of the tangibles, just about anything can be bought with enough money. Just about everything that school promises for the future can be bought with high enough grades. Within school (and ignoring the social aspects), grades are king.
But not much at all because every effort is made to prevent schools from having market characteristics, and this very much includes grades. The only thing grades allow a student to purchase are either more school or no more school. Unlike a college degree, the monetary value of a high school diploma to the workplace, and to the world at large, is limited to whether you have one or not.
In secondary education, for the kids who buy into the system (that’s not even a pun), they purchase further education. Whether they do the hard work of an ‘A’ for the pride of accomplishment, knowledge of the future, intrinsic interest in the subject, or anything else, the immediate, tangible power of the grade is access to more school or school-related product.
For many other students, their grades are used to escape school. They go through their classes with as little expended energy as possible, ‘earning’ those C’s and D’s so they can trade them in for a key out the door. (Paradoxically, those students must do the things they hate in order to escape doing the things they hate. The grade allows them to know how much is as little as possible.)
The end result of this contradiction is a mess. In giving grades, and tying them so closely to so much that is school-related, we guarantee they have monetary power. And we cannot really eliminate grades either, because the purpose of school is to create skills and instill knowledge and these things must be scaled and measured.
Grades work for many students who don’t really need them, because those students aren’t actually motivated by the grade at all.
But for the students who might benefit most from the motivational power of grades, the effect is too often counter-productive, because the only thing they can purchase with them is more school.
Grades don’t work for the students who need them most because the transactional and motivational power is limited to things they don’t want, to things they are trying to escape altogether. Grades don’t force more learning, they create less, because the only thing they can be used for is more school.
The thing is, we can neither get rid of grades, nor eliminate the currency effects once given, because the currency effects of measurement cannot be avoided.
The true power of money is that it isn’t married to anything specific at all. My dollar bill can be used to purchase absolutely anything. Once I have earned it, through doing something of quality or value, I now hold, in hand, something severed from whatever brought it to me. What I have now is something that I can immediately use, for my purposes alone.
The monetary aspects of grades are both inescapable and powerful. Once we assign a grade, we cannot avoid the effect. We cannot escape its meaning, its transactional authority, or its motivational power.
And we cannot get away with no grades altogether. (Though heaven knows many, including myself, keep trying.)
The solution to this problem is to make grades more like money, not less.
There are 2 simplified approaches to this, as I see it (but I’m not an economist, so there’s that).
In the first, as in an unregulated market economy, basic needs are not met. The currency of school, the grades earned by work and skill, would be used to purchase such essentials as food, a chair, pencils, clothing, water. To literally survive in school, students need to work in their classes to earn the credit to purchase staples. Like the real world, they are forced into the environment and left to survive or perish. There is no social contract except that which they have created amongst themselves, collectively. Teachers, in this case, are like the elements, demanding of students without explanation or excuse or recourse.
In the other proposal, basic needs are met. Food, shelter, supplies. This, of course, is closer to the reality of schools, but it’s worth asking free-market purists how far they would go by imagining the first scenario. In the second simplified scenario, the currency of schools is used to purchase wants rather than needs. Things within school, and maybe even things without.
Let’s expand, rather than continue to contract, the monetary power of grades. Continue to give grades, but make them into an actual kind of money. Allow the grade, once given, to be severed from the qualities that first produced it. Allow the grade to purchase not only admission into college, as it does now, but other things as well. Hell, allow colleges to fund themselves with the monetary power of the grades their students bring.
Students are, after all, workers in society, it’s just that what they produce has extremely limited value to a very small number of people. But the same is true of much of what adults do too — extremely limited value to a very small number of people. But willing and able to pay for it. Because of money.
The truth is that school is not, as we seem to desire, a kind of worker’s paradise, free of currency and capital accumulation, motivated by the greater common good, overseen by benevolent dictators.
It is an economy, just like every other society, but to my knowledge we’ve never treated it like one, much less allowed grades to have the kind of currency authority they seem inescapably driven to assume.
Maybe we ought to give grades the chance.