What Are You Going to Do to Make Sure My Son Gets Into Harvard?

I created this art.

I didn’t write the title of this post. In fact, no one wrote the title. I overheard it at my previous school during a parent’s event some time toward the beginning of the school year. And it came from the parent of a first grader.

Poised at the tipping point between the past and the future, schools around the country have embarked upon a buoyant journey to reinvent school. Educators animatedly discuss student-centric learning, unmaking the grade, flipping classrooms, redefining school around student passions, and developing grit. I, as one of those educators, get pretty animated myself, excited to be part of the process of redefining school from the ground up. We have the motivation, the interest, the knowledge, the empathy, the desire, and the strength to do this. But what are we going to do about the parents?

“Doing school,” however you define it, is cemented in our collective unconscious. It’s so “there” that we don’t think about it, like that random pile of papers that’s been lying on the kitchen counter so long that they’re part of the landscape. I think it’s pretty safe to say that every single person who reads this article graduated as a product of the same kind of educational thinking that has been in place for the past 80 years or more. Tom Murray, from the Alliance for Excellent Education, calls it “the cemetery effect”— rows of desks in classrooms, with information parceled out linearly; an inheritance from the agrarian economy of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We were sorted and categorized into age groups and divisions, marching along in lockstep, some of us even put into tracks. It was convenient for administrators, and it emulated business. It was comfortable. Sure, many of us liked school. But the school we attended did not much differ from school circa 1925. And we grew up with the mantra that if we studied hard and got good grades, we would get into a good college which would in turn help cement our futures with good jobs. We knew that “big business” trolled the top schools for promising future employees so the equation was obvious: Good education + studying hard = good grades = good college = good job: Every parent’s dream for their child and every anxious future for us, especially the grades part.

What is the history of grades? Quoting the late Joe Bower from his blog, “For the Love of Learning,” and excerpted from Thomas Hartmann’s book Complete Guide to ADHD, a Cambridge tutor named Farish “…came up with a method of teaching which would allow him to process more students in a shorter period of time:

He invented grades. (The grading system had originated earlier in the factories, as a way of determining if the shoes, for example, made on the assembly line were “up to grade.” It was used as a benchmark to determine if the workers should be paid, and if the shoes could be sold.) Grades did not make students smarter. In fact, they had the opposite effect: they made it harder for those children to succeed whose style of learning didn’t match the didactic, auditory form of lecture-teaching Farish used.”

Leave it to Farish to apply this concept of grading commercial goods for sale to children. Gradgrind would have been pleased.

Unfortunately for us, the human mind enjoys compartmentalization, categorization, and ranking. And thanks to Farish, we’re now saddled with a generations-long collective memory of grades and all the baggage that comes along with that memory: The feeling of “winning” or “losing,” the attitude that you’re smarter than your friend because you have a 4.0 GPA; the feeling that you’re not good enough to get into that college, and the pressure from parents to do better. Grades have seeped into our feelings of self-worth, which has nothing to do with learning and of course is just completely wrong.

No parent would ever admit that they don’t want the best for their child. Ironically, though, their perception of “the best” doesn’t always jibe with what’s good for their children. The parent I overheard sadly conflated these two ideals, projecting her own experience onto her son. As educators, part of our job now is to demonstrate to those parents that School Version 2.0 will be better for children’s health, well being, sense of self, and ultimately, success as a person “in the world.” But until we can change parents’ outdated perceptions that grades and entry to a prestigious college are the brass ring, schools may wind up “doing school” as usual until the rest of the world catches up.

For a look at one teacher’s semester-long experiment in abolishing grades, check out his blog: http://unmakingthegrade.blogspot.com/. If you like what you’ve read, be sure to hit recommend below, to pass the story along to your followers. As always, consider following The Synapse for more authentic voices in Education!

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