When thinking of Socrates – one of the greatest teachers who ever lived – it is hard to imagine him assigning A’s and B’s or worrying about students Plato and Xenophan’s grade point averages. Socrates knew that greater knowledge brought greater happiness, but the first and foremost assignment would be to know oneself in relation to the world – only then through reasoning and logic could true knowledge be attained.
Flash forward to our current abysmal education system where everything revolves around grading and standardized testing. In order to get students to do well on these assessments, so-called “knowledge” is shoved down their throats with intensity in order to have them perform well and prop up test scores for their districts. In this meaningless annual cycle, teaching to the test amounts to little or no teaching at all, but rather a concerted effort to make the grade.
Parents across the country have rebelled against state assessments and standardized testing. They have realized that students are not truly learning content – which means mastery – but rather are being put through repetitive drills with sample tests in order to succeed on the examinations. Once the exam periods are over, there is no retention of information and thus the next school year the exasperating cycle will have to begin again.
One school district in Connecticut has done away with grades. In Windsor Locks students in the middle and high school there are involved in a new system that requires them to “master” skills in every subject area in order to be promoted. School superintendent Susan Bell notes that a D- (the old passing grade) is no longer a pass to the next grade or to graduation. Of course, this makes sense because no one is ready to move up to the next grade with a D- average.
The model in Windsor Locks should not only be applauded by other educators – it should be initiated in some form or other in their districts. The idea of mastery means progress – gone is the formality of number or letter grades that do little to tell anyone what a student knows. In this school district, a student must fully learn skills and, if he or she needs more time, is not penalized but rather supported until mastery is achieved.
Yes, this is a unique model, but it also fits into a vision I have had for schools for a long time. In my ideal school, every student would have an IEP – an Individualized Education Program – not just those enrolled as special education students. By giving each student a plan designed for his or her abilities, schools would be enabled to structure a course of instruction that is reasonable and personal.
In this system grading would be obsolete. Students will compile semester portfolios which will show their progress and, as in the Windsor Locks system, they will have to demonstrate more than a simple understanding of each subject area – but each student will have his or her own level of tasks needed to be completed. In this way mastery is in no way a one size fits all expectation just as A’s and B’s used to be.
Opposition to these kinds of innovate education plans is to be expected. Many parents and teachers who came through antiquated A’s and B’s school systems feel semesters and report cards are normal parts of their children’s scholastic experience. They have been conditioned to accept the status quo because they know nothing else.
Why should any child not have an optimal educational experience in school? What has been going on in classrooms for many decades is far from optimal. A teacher who is in a classroom with 25 students must face the facts – that in some ways he or she is failing to reach each one of them in a given day because he or she is expecting them to conform – to all get the same understanding through instruction and then to get the same grades on tests which should result in the same grades on their report cards.
How could any teacher possibly believe that he or she could reach 25 students who are all unique individuals in the same way every day? It is a cookie-cutter approach that has been going on for far too long, but the problem is that kids are not uniform cookies – they come in all shapes and sizes and have different learning needs. The education system continues to fail students because of this folly of expectation that has resulted in reliance on standardized test scores that have no meaning in relation to what a child knows and retains.
I praise Windsor Locks school district for its innovative approach and hope that more school districts will begin to embrace this kind of instruction and assessment. It should be the wave of the future, but administrators will have to be brave and bold and do something that has not been done for so long – what is best for the children and not their budgets and the vested interests like testing companies.
Instead of a child bringing home a report card with grades on it, he or she should come home with a multi-page document – I label it a "Learning Narrative" which sounds a good deal less intimidating than "report card" – that covers all skills learned, ones yet to be learned, and realistic goals to be reached in the following period of instruction based on his or her IEP. As it always should be, parental involvement and support would be encouraged and welcome – as it is now many parents are kept at arm’s length from the school building and do not feel like partners with their children’s teachers. This has to change.
The most important thing to parents besides their children’s health and well-being is their education. As a parent, I want my kids to come away from school with the skills they need to succeed in life, but I also want them to be able to retain knowledge and have an understanding about subject matter that is deep and not just cursory in order to pass state and standardized tests.
As parents, it is our duty to do everything we can to advocate for this kind of change that will create a more meaningful and memorable school experience for all students. We owe it to our children because they deserve so much better than what they are getting now.