Thoughts on grading in schools

Yesterday, I watched this video making a case that schools should stop using grades as part of the education process. I watched the video with interested and found myself agreeing most of the time. Although the video was directed specifically about primary and secondary education teachers, she used modern employment opportunities to support her arguments. The old model of grading was more appropriate for a time when the primary goal was preparing students for factory jobs involving obedience and doing things despite disagreement or not understanding the purpose. Now, it is claimed, the jobs are more collaborative where even the managers are working side-by-side with workers, and no one is working alone. A person who needs no help doing his work should spend his time helping the person who is struggling with their work.

I agree that this country does not have many factory type jobs any more. Those jobs were exported to other countries. The remaining jobs may involve skilled trades, or service industry jobs, but the video appears to present the preferred job as being an office job, where the office has an open floor plan, and people always work in groups on conference tables and whiteboards, or their virtual counterparts.

At one point there was even a claim that many of the service jobs or trade jobs should be eliminated or at least reformed. One example was the inappropriateness of customers using Amazon’s next day delivery option because of the burden it places on delivery drivers. More broadly, jobs that add inconvenience on the worker for the sole benefit of giving more convenience to the customer. It is fine to deliver something to the customer, but the customer’s demands are excessive if the delivery times make the delivery job less comfortable.

The topic of work in general definitely took on the current dominant thinking about work. Roughly summarized, all workers deserve to earn living wages, employers with job openings should offer those jobs to those who need it economically, and during employment the employers should strive to comfort the worker by providing interesting options for the employee to choose from. Every task should be a team effort, with at least the opportunity to have someone help each time an employee struggles.

As mentioned above, many jobs do not fit that ideal. These jobs involve people being in situations where they alone must tackle some task, their boss or dispatcher assigns them the task irrespective of the staff’s comfort with the task. There is room for the worker to declare that a task is outside of his capabilities or qualifications, but the expectation is that he will be able to do the task assigned to him. The assignment may be with the intent to challenge the worker to expand his confidence or skills.

When a plumber serves a particular house, a solitary plumber arrives with a well-stocked truck and a cell phone. He does not arrive with a team unless it is a trainee or the job is very large. The cell phone may be a lifeline for support, but it is not expected to be used. The company needs to retain its reputation for getting jobs done at low cost, and discussing a problem with a video call will make the job more expensive. Meanwhile, the company’s advertisement highlights expensive homes, and yet the plumber is expected to serve older homes with old plumbing or fixtures.

Another example is in the retail industry where the staff assists customers to pick out merchandise. This is inevitably a one-on-one relationship. The sale largely depends on that added assurance and encouragement from a trust gained during that encounter. Even involving a second staff into the process will undermine the trust and confidence of the customer. In the linked video, there seems to be an assumption that the job of the staff is to complete the transaction that was going to happen before the customer entered the store. This is not how most sales work.

My experience has primarily been in office-type knowledge-based jobs. The video suggests that this is the type of jobs that the teachers should strive to prepare their students to obtain. At the start of each day, I hoped I would get through the day without receiving some unexpected task that requires me to stop my normally scheduled work. Those tasks did occur and I had to accept them, even though I felt uncomfortable doing the task and even felt unprepared for the task. The task needed to be done, and I was the best option available to tackle it. More often than not, I managed to satisfy everyone.

This relates to preparatory education. Specifically, education that involves challenging assignments that have deadlines and that will be graded strictly. When I was growing up, there was an emphasis on grading on a curve.

Contrary to my agreement in general with the video’s points, after watching the video I became more convinced that grading is important and that grading on a curve is essential. I agree that there are problems with the current system. I just don’t think the problem lies in the grading.

I had a few experiences in a teacher role, primarily in college setting. In one case, I had to design a test for the students. The question was how to determine if the test would be a good test. A good test serves two purposes. One is to inform the student how well they know the material. The second is to tell the teacher what material people are struggling with. The test needs to cause a sizable portion of the class to struggle.

The design of the test is related to the grading on a curve. Even when we ignore the curve, the curve will exist. A well designed test will have the peak of the curve represents a sizable number of incorrect answers. If most of the results are near perfect scores, then the test becomes a quiz.

Later in my career, my educational experience has been in the area of training and certification testing. These tests are actually quizzes. The expectation is that the all of the material is mastered, and thus the grade should be a perfect score. There is leniency for a certain number of wrong answers but there is just a pass/fail grade. A passing with some wrong answers is still a failure to master everything.

In these cases, it is important to master everything, or at least anything that can come up in the course of a particular job. I think that skill training on a basis of passing or failing is more appropriate than assigning a letter grade. The above-linked video also mentions cases like medical schools that use this system. These are skill training training schools. The requirement is for the students to master a skill.

Earlier education is not for mastery of a marketable skill. There is a goal of mastering some basic skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, and some other subjects. We also recognize this period as a period of indoctrination of the students into the ways this world operates so that they can learn how to live within it. The students learn that they live within a society where they need to cooperate or compete in order to thrive.

I think grades are important factor in this preparation. The problem we really face is the exaggerated importance on the A grade. The ideal grade ought to be a C. I think there is a good deal of truth in the saying that A students work for C students. We should consider the C to stand for cohort. Receiving a grade of a C should mean that a person is solidly within their cohort and as a result are most able to leverage the benefits of their cohort in their own success. The disadvantage of the A student is very similar to the disadvantage of the F student because both are outliers of the cohorts they should belong to.

Age cohorts are very important to society. The cohort determines the direction that society will follow. In particular the cohorts are the political power brokers. Innovations and proposals may come from the cohort outliers, but the cohort determines

Age cohorts are very important to society. The cohort determines the direction that society will follow. In particular the cohorts are the political power brokers. The central cohort adopts or accepts the innovations or proposals offered by the cohort outliers.

My point is that grading would work fine if we would return to an older sensibility that a C grade or a C grade-average is an ideal goal. C grades come as a result of balance within the peers. C students essentially sacrifice their own potential for higher grades to be closer to the middle of their cohort. They will take time to help their peers to learn material they already mastered instead of spending the time to master additional material. They will also be careful in their own testing to get grades similar to the rest of the cohort. Being well adjusted to a cohort will offer benefits throughout life. C students are broadly prepared to participate in full social and economic life.

As I mentioned with test design, the test targets to identification of this C group. It is the central hump of the bell curve. To fully resolve the C group, the test needs to move the hump of the curve closer to the middle of the test’s range. The test results needs to show clear tails at either end for the specific project of identifying the cohort.

Defining a cohort requires cutting off the tails. The tails of the curve do not belong to the cohort. There is an easy way to dispose of the high-end tails by assigning them to the higher education tract. Historically, higher education was a disposal bin for those whose capability and behaviors are more optimal for study than for participating in a cohort. While we have lots of examples of highly educated intellectuals providing societal benefits with some new discovery or new way of thinking, we never hear anything from the vast majority of people who pursue advanced education. They may themselves be comfortably employed and that is an ideal aspiration to the speaker in the video. The academically trained tend to be isolated from the cohorts they could have belonged to.

We prefer to describe the high grade achievers as having successfully set themselves apart from the rest. This also means they have separated themselves from their age cohort. They are outliers.

The central cohort determines a broad availability of life success to its members. There is a brotherhood and sisterhood within the cohort that broadly helps each other out in a variety of small ways that add up to substantial benefits unavailable to the outliers. The central cohort also determines the trajectory of society as a whole.

The above linked video tells a story of an inquisitive and creative child entering a school and soon learns that her inquisitiveness is detrimental to reaping rewards of getting high grades. As a result, she learns to keep quiet and focus only on getting the good grades even at the expense of not learning anything. The problem is not the existence of a grading system. The problem is that we have shifted our priority away from C grades being ideal to A grades being ideal.

We have convinced ourselves that the entire cohort needs to be go to college. We presume that college education is essential to a good life. As a result, the job of the modern teacher is to assure that every student is prepared for college and scholarships.

I think colleges should demand demonstrated academic achievement for its admissions. The purpose of colleges is to further challenge students who have the potential to rise through those challenges. The reputation of a college rests in part on how high they can educate the bulk of their students. College is a learning institution, and they need to seek out learners.

Our real problem is insisting that college admissions measures the success of early education. In the past, a successful education would result in very few students going to college. These were predominantly C students. We considered them to have succeed in their early education and were well prepared for a life. More recently, there is a growing devaluation of college education even within the STEM fields. A C student who can take and pass relevant skill training and certification is more than adequately prepared to do most creative and innovative tasks. Companies still need college educated specialists to lead certain advancements, but the bulk of the innovative work that completes this vision can be done by the credentialed but not college educated C students.

I think education needs grades and that the grades ideally should be measured on a bell curve. The grades identify where to cut the tails off of the central cohort. The tests need to be challenging enough to expose those tails so that they may be trimmed from the cohort. Our problem is our failure to recognize that the C grade is the ideal grade.

The video makes frequent references to tangible rewards for high grades, or tangible punishments for failures. Usually rewards or punishments exists to counteract a natural reward. There is a natural reward for being a C student. That reward is belonging to the cohort that will offer benefits for the rest of their lives. People instinctively sense this natural reward merely by participating within the cohort. This natural reward could be the goal of education. The ideal grade in education is a C.

I had one experience where I repeatedly taught a training course. At first I used someone else’s training material. At the end of the course, I was bewildered by the evaluations. Most of the evaluations were basically blank in terms of telling me how much they appreciated the course. Of the remaining, half were very negative and they described what they would have preferred. The other half were positive but were vague about why they liked about it.

Based on reading these evaluations, I created my own material that addressed the complaints. My motivation was to get the negative reviewers to join the positive reviewers. What actually happened is that I got roughly the same results. By pleasing the previously dissatisfied, I ended up disappointed the previously happy customers. I made no progress in terms of numbers of students.

The curious thing was that the central group did not change. I can tell in the class who was in that central group. They were largely agreeable and they were eager to help each other out. This particular training did not have a test, but if there were, I’d expect this central group to be unconcerned if they got many questions wrong. They had a confidence that if they ran in to problems they would be able to reach out to others to help them out.

This central group were the super-powered C students. They are well-adjusted to their cohorts.

The problem with educational reforms is that they always obsess over the tails. Policy changes can only accomplish one thing, and that is to swap the memberships of the tails. In the video’s story of the stifled curiosity of a child, removing grades would have released her potential to excel. My prediction is that the elimination of grades would disappoint the student who wants to know what he doesn’t yet know. The video quotes sources that support her position. The problem is that we are discussing the tails of the curve. A successful policy includes the success of the previously failing tail with the central group that would pass any way. A disappointed high achiever would probably still pass. This looks like a winning situation even though the policy stifles the academically talented and motivated student who previously thrived on getting high grades specifically to set himself apart from the cohort.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on grading in schools

  1. Pingback: Climbing to stand on shoulders of giants | Hypothesis Discovery

  2. Pingback: Just in time learning and supervision | Hypothesis Discovery

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