Grades: Understanding, not Obedience

The New York Times got me thinking, in its November 28, 2010 article "No More A's for Good Behavior."  The Potsdam, NY Public Schools, led by Superintendent Patrick Brady, are right on.  As I concluded in a previous blog post, "Extra Credit: The Downfall of America?", grades must be a reflection of knowledge learned, information synthesized, skills demonstrated, not a reflection of behavior.

I have opened up the following conversation individually with teachers, but have not yet taken it on with the staff of the whole school in which I work - yet.  Grades must not be a reflection of behavior, but of understanding.  This includes the a big piece of student responsibility: homework.  The excuse that "if students do not homework and are not penalized for not completing it, then won't ever learn to do it!" is simply hogwash.  We should be creating homework assignments that are essential, and if it uncomfortably illuminates our own homework policies, then guess what: maybe it's time to change!  To the nay-sayers of no-zero homework policies, creating a clear system in one's classroom begins with ensuring that homework assignments are essential and worthwhile to learning and understanding.  Next, follow this If --> Then Equation:

If Then
No Homework Complete HW + Reflection*
Still no HW Complete HW during lunch + Reflection*
Still No HW, again Complete HW before/after school + Reflection*
* Reflection should be age appropriate and in lieu of deducting points from homework grade; teaching responsibility and follow-through may come in ways beyond just subtracting points.

Creating a no-zero homework policy and minimizing the amount that homework counts in one's grade really does allow the conversation to shift from behavior to understanding.  Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, though: conduct, effort and responsibility all still count, and are important to be teaching, especially in the middle school level.  These important values and academic characteristics may still be taught in a plethora of ways, but should be absent from grading and homework practices.  Values should still be taught in classes on a daily basis, as well as advisory, reflection, extension time, lunch, clubs and classroom management, to name a few. 

We must shift the focus of our classrooms from obedience to understanding.  Yes, we should teach students important values, but not at the expense of content understanding.  Making sure that students are provided with every opportunity to understand is essential.  I'm all for democracy, but let's not forget that children are still children: they should not get to decide when and if they want to complete homework (assuming it is worthwhile and essential).  Grades should be a reflection of understanding, not obedience, and it is simply not an excuse to claim that "students need to learn responsibility."  While this is true, it cannot be at the expense of understanding.

The New York Times is right: grades should not reflect behavior.  I believe our schools should do the difficult work of making sure that our grades (and subsequently, our homework assignments) are a reflection of understanding, not obedience.



You are right on with your reaction to this piece. I was fortunate to attend a conference with Thomas Guskey last spring. In his latest book, he makes many of the same arguments that both you and the schools in the article make. I wrote my reaction to the book, conference, and subsequent discussion last March:

We started the big discussions last year. I hope you make progress on this.
Sarah said…
I completely agree with you and can't actually believe that the two things are actually linked in some places - I've never heard of that!

On a separate note, how about doing away with the grades altogether!!! There is a lot of research out there that suggesting that grades actually impede performance rather than make it better (Dweck, Black, Wiliam etc.) How does giving a grade help that child to improve their understanding and reach the next step/level. Surely it would be better to do away with the grade and give some form of feedback that helps the child reach that next level.
LeeAnn said…
A thoughtful post. I would argue that many times grades do not reflect learning. If a student receives a B in class because they had lower scores on a concept when their learning began, but then they mastered the concept, how does the B show that? I have also recently blogged about homework here:
Another blog you might find thought-provoking is Joe Bower is a grade 6 teacher in Canada.
And I am sure you know that Alfie Kohn will also really push your thinking in regards to homework. :)

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