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The grading system debate

HD: PRO & CON

PRO

Editor's note: Paula Lester's letter reached the desk of Mary Giella, Pasco's assistant superintendent for instruction. She asked Robert H. Anderson to respond.

Anderson heads a non-profit corporation that promotes educational change. He lives in Tampa with his wife, Karolyn Snyder, a professor of education at the University of South Florida. Both have had consulting roles in Pasco's school reform efforts.

Anderson, for 19 years a member of the faculty at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has done research in numerous educational areas, including the concept of non-graded schools where children learn in multiage groups. He advocates a move away from the traditional method of grading youngsters.

Yours was a thoughtful letter and it expresses concerns that do

need to be addressed. Although what follows is perhaps too elaborate a reply, I hope that within it you will find ideas worth examining and, we hope, respecting. We are especially hopeful that you will recognize that our concern, no less than yours, is to do the right thing for Pasco's children. Our job is to help every child to thrive in school and to enter the adult world well prepared in every way.

Over at least the past half century, educators and others all over the world have been struggling to improve educational services to children and to create school environments in which all children can find challenges and rewards that motivate them to high levels of achievement. No school or school system, including the Pasco school district, has ever made any changes or adopted any policies and goals with the intent of reducing student motivation or causing students to work less earnestly or less industriously.

On the contrary, such changes as we have made in the educational program and in assessment and reporting practices are intended to increase motivation, to cause more learning to occur, and to prepare children for their eventual entry into the adult world with maximum competence, maximum enthusiasm for contributing at a high level, and maximum awareness of their talents. To have lesser goals for ourselves, as your letter seems to imply, would be both irresponsible and immoral.

Along with school districts all over the country and in most of the industrialized nations (such as Japan and Germany) with whose schooling systems America's schools are being compared, Pasco schools have been carefully examining the literatures of child growth and development, of effective schooling, and (specifically) of the assessment and reporting practices to which your questions relate. In that literature, there is overwhelming argument and evidence to the effect that the deeply entrenched competitive/comparative grading system with which today's parents worldwide have personally had experience is both unproductive (of achievement results) and damaging (to personal/emotional/social growth).

We know of no body of research or valid evidence that supports the familiar grading system, especially with respect to children below secondary-school levels, and on the other hand we can find ample evidence to the effect that the direction in which we are now trying to move is absolutely necessary and defensible.

Sadly, we are also aware of the difficulty that many parents, and even some teachers, are having in adjusting to certain changes in philosophy and in practice. Among the most uncomfortable of the teachers are those who have used fear of failure and control over the A-B-C-D marking system as, in effect, a controlling mechanism and a form of psychological weaponry against children. Among the most uncomfortable of the parents are those whose children, under the old competitive/comparative marking system, were mostly successful in gathering the "rewards" to which you refer, and who feel that now they and their children may be deprived of appropriate status, rewards and satisfactions.

When a changeover to new school practices is taking place, providing sufficient and persuasive information to both the teachers who must carry out those practices and the parents who will be affected by such changes is a challenging task. It is clear, from the protests received, that we need to accomplish this task more skillfully.

We are attempting to provide guidance and information about the new reporting system to the teachers in the schools, and similarly we are attempting to help parents to understand and accept what we are doing. We are doing this because of our intentions, as stated at the outset above, to improve the quality and the quantity of learning for all children. Were we not convinced that the old system is in fact bad for children and their families, and were we not equally convinced that children and their families stand to gain from the new system, it would, of course, be foolish for us to proceed in the face of complaints such as yours.

There is an important difference between extrinsic rewards, which are valued for their own sake rather than for what they symbolize, and intrinsic rewards, which inspire learning for its own sake rather than for the prizes attached to it. It may be, as you say, that adult lives are built around rewards, but we ask you to consider the extent to which intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards govern your own actions and inspire future actions. We ask you to consider that the "outcome" of your child's learning should be acquired skill and knowledge, which in and of itself is worth working toward, rather than a paper symbol or a ranking or some other "reward" that has little relationship to life enhancement.

Among the things we are trying to promote in the Pasco schools are collaboration and cooperation among children, and our goal is to create an environment within which children will teach each other, coach and help each other, explore problems and questions together, and in the process become more effective learners as well as more effective social beings. The message from adult employers, again in most of the world's most important nations, is that employees bring too few social-interaction and problem-solving skills into the workplace; and it is recognized that the type of competitive environment that we have had in schools all over the world are partly to blame for these defaults.

This does not mean that employers are seeking non-competitive workers, however. What you say in your letter about the importance of competition (especially within each person), motivation and self-esteem is basically correct. It does not follow, however, that motivation and self-esteem are decreased when conventional competition in classrooms is reduced. It might interest you to know that among the most vocal opponents of competitive/comparative marking systems in the schools is W. Edwards Deming, who helped turn Japan's industry into such a power, and another is Peter Drucker, who is probably the best-known analyst of effective business management. Young children in Japan, incidentally, do not receive competitive report cards, because they are seen as detrimental to intrinsically meaningful learning.

And so we ask you and the others who have expressed their concern to accept the new approach to reporting in more optimistic spirit, and to let us move forward with changes that we think are long overdue. We see them as totally consistent with the goal expressed in the last line of your letter: to help our children become responsible, successful citizens. Surely the old system has served American families poorly, or American schools would not be the object of so much national concern, even agony. What schools have been doing has not worked well enough, even for the gifted and prize-winning children in our schools, and it is time to move on to ways of assessing and reporting that promise to do a far better job for American society.

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