“[W]hen performance is judged by a single measure, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a raise, raising the stock price at the times when stock options are vested), people will focus on satisfying that measure often at the expense of other, more important organizational goals that are not measured. The result is goal displacement, where the metric means comes to replace the ultimate ends that those means ought to serve.”
Forgive the meme. It was the obvious choice, but grades are also the obvious place to start when writing about the unintended consequences of measurement in school. Grades are the measurement in school. They are the only metric that the average person on the street associates with school. How are you doing in school? Is little Johnny smart? Is Susan a good student? Is Jefferson High a good school? The first, instinctive answer to all these questions–and so many more in education–is a grade. If you’re smart, you get high marks; if you’re a good school, your students get excellent grades. The general public wouldn’t consider a letter grade an inadequate answer to these questions. Grades and school go together like pen and paper, preferably on a test.
Teachers don’t need convincing that many students care more about grades than learning. Every educator has a story or a general complaint about students who want to know how many points an assignment is worth before they complete it, or who want help calculating what score on the exam will achieve their desired final mark. But, while blaming students or even their parents for prioritizing grades, educators have contributed to the problem.
First, teachers unintentionally helped establish grades as the focus of school by using metrics to defend their profession. When questions about results arise, when concerns about teacher bias are levelled, teachers have often used grades as a seemingly objective, airtight defence. The numbers don’t lie. And this tactic makes some sense because parents and students understand the language of grades, but the objectivity of grades is illusory and by appealing to them as the final authority, teachers have helped establish the supremacy of grades.
The tyranny of the grade grows when teachers use them as the primary motivator in school. You better write this down; it’s going to be on the test. I’m sorry, but this is late, so I will have to deduct marks. When teachers wield grades as an all-purpose carrot and stick, they communicate that grades are the valued currency in school.
Grades have become so entrenched in the culture and structures of school that many teachers have become resigned to the situation. I believe this is the biggest way that teachers contribute to the problem of grades taking priority over learning. Even when a teacher agrees that grades have replaced learning as the focus of school, they often don’t know that there is anything they can do to significantly change the situation. They can’t imagine their school operating in the real world without grades dominating.
Teachers, we need to reignite or refocus our collective, pedagogical imagination in order to re-establish joyful learning as the focus of school. We also need to take a long view on the situation because grades displacing learning didn’t happen suddenly; it is a generational problem that will take generations to reorient. Rather than be discouraged by slow change, we must be encouraged by building momentum and be mindful of succession as we share our vision for the future of a learning-centric education with the next generation of teachers, students, and parents. And momentum is building with groups such as Master Transcript Consortium and Teachers Going Gradeless, so while it may still seem obvious that grades have replaced learning as the goal they were meant to serve, from my vantage point, the future of learning is bright and promising.