But try telling that to a parent. Try defining what the ‘A’ stands for and convincing the determined kid who didn’t meet the definition but feels he did. Try convincing the kid who busted her ass on that assignment but still lacked the skills to produce an excellent product; or worse, try saying that when there’s another kid standing alongside her who spent 20 lazy minutes on it and DID produce excellence. Throw a C at the kid who NEEDS to go to college because it’s the only way to escape the environment responsible for the lack of skills producing the C; a C that will, incidentally, keep her from going to college. Try giving that A to the genius class smartass who makes your life miserable every goddamned day. Try giving that A to the kid whose mom did all the work but you can’t prove it.
What DOES the A mean anyway?
Does it mean you are the best? Does it mean you can do the work? Does it mean you fulfilled the specific expectations on the rubric? Is it even something that can be defined on a rubric? Does it mean you exceeded the expectations beyond most of your peers? Does it mean you really, really busted your ass, regardless of the result? Does it mean you progressed from complete ignorance to passable understanding or from passable understanding to brilliant insight? Or does your progress not matter at all?
We give out grades as a matter of ritual habit, relying on some decent rationale, but ignoring a whole host of other complications.
In commerce, grades may work. When we place a comparison value on one thing over another, with a clearly defined set of criteria, then grades work. Thus, the best is “grade A’ — and we provide a list of specific factors that make an A — flavor, less tough, etc. Its VALUE is greater. Its importance is greater, Its inherent, internal quality is greater.
But grades don’t work so well with people.
Still, in this commerce-centered world, we ought to be able to say: ‘You are better than him.’ Or should we?
As a teacher, you WANT every kid to get the A.
Teachers — today’s teachers, anyway — are by and large compassionate optimists. We enter the field because we care for students. But this care bumps up hard, very hard, against the grade. We want every student to get an A, because if they don’t, the nature of a grade implicitly or explicitly states that student is inferior to another. It is our JOB to want every student to understand so completely to earn an A and to care so deeply that they deserve it. If we are doing our job well, then everything we do in the classroom is intended to help this student or that one or all of them to reach the A.
But not every student can get an A. In fact, no teacher is successful whose students all get A’s.
And while it’s easy to SAY that a C merely means ‘average’, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. For one, nobody wants to be average; average is bad. For another, the effect of a C far outstrips any immediate purpose. Ostensibly, a C merely states, ‘You can do the work.’ But in reality, a C closes doors, invites shame, brings on punishment. No parent wants his or her kid to get C’s, particularly if the final goal is college.
Recently, we’ve seen an attempt nationwide at increasing our expectations of students. We know that ’high’ (whatever that might mean) expectations yields better results than low or none. We know that asking — or taxing — work of students gets results.
But for what? On what criteria and what motivation and what pressure? We live in a society where grades DO matter, but we aren’t going to change the system until grades stop meaning much in the first place. It’s not that grades are inaccurate –it’s that we value them so much. Because we really have little sense in the moment of what the grade actually means.
Our students live in a state of perpetual, heightened, ferocious anxiety over their grades. The best students are driven to succeed entirely by that grade, and every time we increase the Standards, create a mark of perfection that excludes most of them, we reinforce that anxiety, nudge the pressure higher, create more fear.
It’s unfair to have expectations so high that only a few students can reach them, even though this is exactly the kind of system we have.
We have a problem in America. We don’t really believe what we say we believe. Or at least, we don’t act like we do. We say we believe — in America — that ANYONE can, with hard work and attitude and a certain kind of relentless upbeat confidence, make it. Make It. As in: achieve that kind of success that shouts to the world ‘Yes! I am now Exceptional!’ Get the A.
And then the rewards will come — the success, the money, the homes and beautiful lovers and fame and….
But we don’t really believe that.
And how do we know we really don’t believe? Because of what we do.
Here’s what we do. We put 20 or 30 or 40 people in a room on the basis of age. We set before them a task of sufficient difficulty that we know — through past experience with similar groups — that only a few will master in that moment. They have no choice in the matter and the task is specifically designed for only a few to master. That’s what High Expectations ARE. At the end, we take a measurement and provide an evaluation of whatever skill or understanding or human accomplishment has been achieved or gained. If everyone in the class succeeds, we don’t count that as success; we count that as a failure of the content itself. It’s too easy, not challenging enough.
Now, those who do not succeed, we call names. We call them lazy, or slow to develop, undisciplined, rebellious, or just average. We call them C. We can’t help it. That’s the system. It groups. It evaluates. It reports.
And in that report, not everyone can get an A.
And that’s what you have to tell every student, every day, in every class.
Not everyone gets an A.