Grading Practices Are Wellness Practices (Guest Post for #100)

I started this blog in 2013; it’s been a place to think, reflect, share ideas (my ideas, others’ ideas…) and generate ideas (as Colette said: “Writing only leads to more writing.”). One thing I have done only once in these almost seven years is publish a guest voice. For my 100th post, I’d like to shift that paradigm and introduce the voice of a colleague and friend who has been instrumental in our work at Hall Middle School to shift a 123 year-old paradigm in education: A-F grading. As with any paradigm shift, we understood that there would be a wide range of perspectives, questions and emotions related to this change – from the very beginning conversations in the fall of 2017 to publishing our first standards-based report card in December 2019. Here are his comments from our Board of Trustees meeting, where we shared an update on our work to date.

Writing doesn’t just lead to more writing – it can also lead to tangible action out in the “real world.” The multi-year process we have undergone at my school to transform our feedback and reporting practices is, in many ways, a representation of all the many threads woven (or tangled) in this blog: organizational culture rooted in mutual purpose, creativity, charting education’s future (instead of staying mired in traditions from 100+ years ago), engaging in inclusive and open change processes, adult learning, well-being and happiness…all of these are inextricably connected here.

Over my 12 years in leadership I’ve had a few individuals (feeling spicy at the time) let me know their displeasure with me in the following manner: “All I hear you doing is talking – but what are you actually doing about it?” My polite (possibly spicy) response is: “Talk IS action. Words are actions. Words build understanding, those understandings create commitments across organizations and communities, those commitments then translate to the actions (and non-actions) we take as a collective – which then become the foundation of our culture. Words and talking are how we begin.”

Also – and I think this is a fair question: What was it all those dudes did for the weeks and months they were locked in a big room together in Philadelphia in 1787? Yep – TALK. I hope more educators take the time to put words down in any media that feels right: paper journal, online blog, etc. The long-form blog is probably out of style now – it might not even be hip anymore to click “like” on a blog entry. Say it in 300 words or less or it’s not worth it.

I disagree. Big things and big ideas don’t happen fast.

Guest post written by Nathan Beach – middle school Social Studies teacher

The reason that I wanted to speak today is to hopefully offer reassurance to those of you who have concerns about Hall’s decision to move away from traditional A-F grades and towards a standards-based approach to learning and teaching. I know and understand that many of you have significant worries about what this change means and will mean for your children’s educational progress, both now and after middle school. It is my hope that I can allay these worries. It is human nature to reject out of hand ideas that run counter to our current feelings, but I ask you, if you are upset about the change to Standards-Based Learning, to try and listen to my thoughts with open minds and hearts. 

In his seminal 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the concept of the “paradigm shift.” In short, paradigm shifts work as follows: 

  1. In any given field or discipline, there is a dominant paradigm, or model, for how we do things.
  2. As experts in the field engage in what is known as “exploratory research,” the paradigm begins to be challenged by new information.
  3. The field next enters a period of “crisis” during which people struggle to reconcile the new information with the old way of doing things, and finally,
  4. A new paradigm emerges that replaces the old and becomes the new dominant paradigm.

We are currently in this transitional, “crisis” phase here at Hall. All of us involved, administrators, teachers, students, and parents, are struggling to realign our understanding of education with standards-based learning from our old paradigm of A-F grading. And this is how it should be. Change is never easy. The staff of Hall Middle School fully understands how big of a change this is. But if, as professionals, we truly believe, (based on both a lot of research, discussion, and our informed, professional observations of how children learn), that A-F grading is harmful to learning, then we would be abdicating our responsibilities as educators if we did not make this change for OUR students (19 years after the California Department of Education recommended it and over a decade since the inception of Common Core). And I emphasize the word “our” because not only are we your children’s teachers, there are currently six Hall staff members who have children that attend this school. I am one of them. Hall also has other staff members who have children attending our district elementary schools, who will likely attend Hall in the future. I point this out to emphasize that we have made this change because we not only believe that it is the best thing for YOUR children, it is also the best thing for OUR children.

As John Lennon once said, there are two basic motivating forces in life: Love and fear. I believe (and again, this is just my opinion) that much, if not most, of the resistance to the change to Standards-Based Learning comes from a place of fear.  I believe that fear that this change will somehow harm our children, either by diminishing their learning today or by setting them up to fail down the road. Again, I assure you that not only is this not the case, the opposite is true.

First of all, I want to remind you that this change in how we are reporting progress is not weakening our day-to-day teaching. In fact, I would argue that it is helping our students learn better, because the focus (for the kids) has shifted from “not losing points” to improving understanding. Our children are still receiving incredibly high-quality education and this will continue to be the case, regardless of how we communicate progress to parents. The teaching and learning at Hall has NOT been diluted; rather, SBL strengthens both. Therefore, our students will graduate from Hall BETTER prepared for high school. In addition, even if there are some students who struggle to acclimate to A-F grading once they start high school, this will likely have no effect on college admittance. 9th grade grades are not factored into the calculation for GPA for both the UC and Cal State systems. Most other colleges give little to no weight to freshman grades. They are more concerned with freshman course selection and the overall arc of a student’s high school career than with freshman grades.

One of the common themes that I have seen in comments expressing concern about Standards-Based Learning is that it will end up causing our children to struggle with the change to A-F grading once they reach high school. This smacks of what the author and educational researcher Alfie Kohn calls the “Better Get Used To It” (BGUTI) principle. In his article entitled, “Getting Hit on the Head Lessons: Justifying Bad Educational Practices as Preparation for More of the Same,” Kohn states: 

Traditional grading has been shown to reduce quality of learning, interest in learning, and preference for challenging tasks.  But the fact that students’ efforts will be reduced to a letter or number in the future is seen as sufficient justification for giving them grades in the present.” 

Kohn goes on to say, “Even if a given practice did make sense for those who are older – a very big if – that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for younger children.  Almost by definition, the BGUTI defense ignores developmental differences. It seems to assume that young children ought to be viewed mostly as future older children, and all children are just adults in the making.” 

This article, by the way, was published in the Education Week journal way back in 2005.

As an educator, and as a parent of five children ranging in age from 12 to 25, here is how I see it: Why should we assume that our children are better prepared for A-F grading entering 6th grade than they will be entering 9th grade? One of the repeated arguments that I have seen against Standards-Based Learning by parents in this community is that it is too complicated to understand and therefore we should switch back to A-F. Well, if A-F is so simple to understand, then why should we be concerned about a 9th grader’s ability to understand it? The truth is – and this comes from my perspective of 18 years as an educator, both in general education and in special education, as well as of a parent with three adult children who have graduated high school and gone on to higher education – if a kid fails in an A-F system, it is NOT because they don’t understand A-F grading. Figuring out how a system based on percentages works is not difficult. Figuring out how each teacher weights their grades, which ones count homework and which ones don’t, which ones round up, which ones grade on a curve, etc., however, may be…which helps to illustrate my point that A-F grades, while on the surface appearing to be standard, are anything but. 

Another common worry that I have encountered amongst our parent population is that of motivation. I know that many of you are afraid that without the carrot of the “A”, your child will not work as hard. Again, from my perspective as a teacher who is deeply involved in the change to Standards-Based Learning, I see the opposite happening in my classroom. I have had more students willing to revise their work this year than I have ever seen in my career.  I emphasize to my students over and over that my goal is for them to learn, not to earn a grade, and the only way to learn is to make mistakes and then try to improve upon these mistakes. I have been blown away by my students’ willingness to do this this year. 

In my experience as a teacher and as a parent, under the A-F system, I have seen very few, indeed almost no, students whom I believe have been truly motivated by a desire to learn more rather than to earn a certain grade. Instead, I believe that under A-F grading, most students are motivated by fear. Fear of losing points, fear of getting less than an “A”, fear of their parents’ and teachers’ disappointment or anger. But fear does not make a kid learn more. It just makes him or her stress more. I honestly do not think that you are seeing a lack of motivation under this new system. I think you are seeing less fear and less stress.

Finally, speaking of stress, I want to talk about this change from a mental health perspective. We live in a very affluent, very high-achieving community. Demographically, we here in Larkspur-Corte Madera are quite similar to Palo Alto, where I went to high school and where I began my career as an educator. Unfortunately, with high academic achievement comes high stress and pressure to perform, and this manifests in dangerous, even deadly ways in communities like ours and Palo Alto’s. 

Gunn High School in Palo Alto had a well-publicized “suicide cluster” in 2015 which followed on the heels of another cluster five years earlier at Palo Alto High School across town.  Suicide clusters are rare; “echo clusters,” meaning a second cluster within ten years of a suicide cluster, are extremely rare (Rosin 2015). At the time, both schools were annually listed amongst the best in America in various publications when it comes to student achievement and 4-year college attendance following graduation.  These were terrific high schools for parents to send their kids to; however, such high levels of academic success go hand in hand with elevated levels of both external and internal pressure for these students. This pressure was a major factor in Palo Alto’s ten-year teen suicide rate being four to five times the national average (Rosin 2015).

Not only have I been impacted as a teacher by this, but I have dealt with the issue of severe teen depression and anxiety in my own extended family. Because of this, I ended up deciding to conduct my Master’s Thesis research into ways to reduce stress and anxiety amongst middle-school students. The mental health and wellness of my students is of paramount importance to me; in fact, there is literally nothing more important to me as an educator than doing everything that I can to reduce stress and anxiety amongst my students. Decades of research tells us that Standards-Based Learning does this. Even without all of the existing data on how it improves learning and performance, this is enough for me. As a professional with 18 years in education, as a person who has done years of research into both the mental health of young people and into standards-based learning vs. A-F grading, as a parent of five wonderful children, and as a human being who has dedicated his life to helping our children become the best versions of themselves possible, I 100% believe that this shift is not only the right thing to do, but it is years late in coming. 


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