TED Conversations

Andrew Hecht

This conversation is closed.

Should public schools in the United States eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? And if so, what assessment do we replace it with?

In 5 months, at the age of 21, I will be graduating college from the University of Florida. Yet, it wasn't until recently that I began to realize how distorted my view of education has been for past 15 years of my life. From childhood, we are commonly "taught" (and indoctrinated) that when we receive "good grades", we are "good people" and "good students." Consequently, beginning around kindergarten, a child's self worth is defined on an "A" to "F" scale. From the perspective of a child, an "A" student is "good" and an "F" student is "bad".

This belief entirely distorts the real purpose of education. We are commonly driven to learn not for the sake of learning; but instead, we are motivated by the almighty grade. Growing up, rather than reading books for fun or curiosity, I commonly read only those books that were assigned. Rather than exploring new concepts, I stayed on the designated curriculum and track. And rather than creating new ideas after school, I completed my homework. By high school, my GPA became somewhat of a false deity, a barometer of self worth, and a ticket to future success. Sadly, a large number of my "academically successful" peers had an even more distorted view of education than I. In high school, I often saw students copying each others homework before class as a means to manipulate the system. School was not about learning, it was about recieiving high grades. In college, this same manipulation manifests itself every time I hear a student say "I'm not taking Professor X's class because it's hard and I need an "A" for grad/law/med school."

Moreover, not only does the "A" to "F" scale seem flawed but the standards we measure as well. Commonly, in public schools we measure math, science, and reading but deny the students who excel in dance, singing, painting, building, and poetry the self worth of receiving an "A" in their area of expertise.

Should pub. schools in the US eliminate the traditional A to F grading scale? Is there a better way?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • Jan 3 2012: My personal experience is probably different from that of most students. I spent the early years of my youth in Germany, studied in Grundschule and later in Gymnasium, and then moved to the United States where I became a Jr High School and High School Student. As a young person, I particularly liked the idea of having many choices in classes here in the States. In Germany, the only choices I (and my parents) had in my education mostly had to do with which foreign languages I was going to learn. Other than that, everything else was regimented - the entire schedule was exactly the same for me and my 29 other German classmates.

    But, there is a cost. And that cost isn't just the amount of money spent on education (I live in NY, and the average cost per student for my state is somewhere around $17-19 k, per student, per year). It also tends to lump excellent students with duds. Yup, you read right, I called some kids "duds". In every situation where a bunch of strangers are randomly intermingled, you will always have some "stragglers" and non-performers.

    We need to STOP believing that every student/person has the potential to become MIT/Harvard/Yale material. That's simply idiotic and gives way too much credit to our teachers and education system. No matter how much money you throw at a problem, no matter what grading system you come up with, and no matter how wonderful we all think our teachers are, we will *always* have students that aren't at the same level as other students.

    Unfortunately, I firmly believe that *once again* we are trying to accommodate for the lowest common denominator. Excellence is NOT that everyone is a rocket scientist. It's not that everyone becomes a physician or lawyer or military commander. There are many ways to measure excellence, but duping parents, teachers, and students into believing that we all should have the same grades, the same intellect, is not "excellent".
    • thumb
      Jan 4 2012: Herro, I appreciate your response but I could not disagree with you more. One of the biggest problems in the United States today is that millions of students are classified as "duds" (as you call them). You say that society will always have "stranglers and non-performers." This thinking is inherently at the problem of our education system today.

      I contend that ALL CHILDREN, yes I said it, ALL CHILDREN, have the capability to succeed. Unfortunately, often in society- families, schools, communities, etc.- we do not provide children the motivation, resources or capabilities to succeed. We commonly measure student excellence in a box that values only those students who become physicians, lawyers, or military commanders (as you mention). Unfortunately, when we teach the vital subjects (math, science, English, etc.) necessary to create these professionals, we do so in an UNEQUAL manor. It's time we admit to the existence of the million pound gorilla in the U.S.. Children born into poverty or poor neighborhoods have an unequal opportunity to succeed. Instead, these "duds" fall behind in school at a young age and never are given the attention or resources they need to catch up. Rich parents can send their children to tutors or can help them solve problems at home. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are not so lucky. A cycle of poverty continues from generation to the next.

      I'm not saying that all children were born to be lawyers or doctors (or to go to MIT or Harvard). However, we must recognize that MOST of those so called "duds" were duds because we as a society failed them. Do children have to take some personal responsibility? Absolutely! However, society also has to take responsibility for failing them since 1st, 2nd, 3rd grade and for not providing them fair opportunities to succeed. We also have to take responsibility for not recognizing, valuing, or cultivating their strength or passion, whether it be dancing, singing, poetry, construction, design, etc
      • Jan 4 2012: Both comments are deeply thoughtful and conceivable but as a response to Andrew, I disagree that society has failed the poorer population in general. This is of course, a multilevel issue, where several facets are much better than some have ever hoped and some obviously worse. Poorer kids do have a greater disadvantage although the current situation in the US, I believe (yes, this might be personal bias) is that most students can achieve most any degree with enough time spent in class and applying for scholarships. Rags to riches stories are not common, but I happen to know several personally myself. It is a careful combination of student loans, time in class, time on the job site, and time with family.

        "Poor people have poor ways." Is this true? Living in a society that feels so entitled to the riches of the world and with a large (although minor statistically, the dependent population I speculate is bigger than ever before in historical societies) population living on welfare and government benefits that lobbying politicians have been pushed into passing by an ever increasing crowd?

        One way to mitigate the effects of generational "non-progression" or the passing down of slum characteristics is to introduce the sciences/arts more steadily to a wider population. How do you get a scientist or a large group of them to tour the country talking to kids, inspiring them to move on? It isn't an easy problem easily fixed by money either, since those scientists have jobs, families, and educations to pursue. This contributes to the multilevel idea, like a graphite sheet with layers of information needed for each area of interest. Age, interests, capability, motivation, home-life/family, commitments, morality, education, religion, gender, all play a part in this system.

        Amanda, 17, kindergarten-sophomore year, catholic, interested in music and graphical design is pressured by her parents to drop out and make money for the family so they can raise kids. Argument? not so easy
      • Jan 7 2012: Andrew wrote: "I contend that ALL CHILDREN, yes I said it, ALL CHILDREN, have the capability to succeed. " ... if you lower the standards low enough.
        But when you have general measures (objective written tests) with "grades" deemed having the "Basic Skills" (or not) and being "Proficient" (or above) people are surprised that low standards mean students DO NOT have even the needed "basic skills" for that subject, content area, or grade level.
        If you want to abandon grading why not abandon grade levels? Why not group children by age? (Oh yes, that's what the social promotion policy does, while hoping the child will learn in the next year what they didn't learn in the prior year.) Letting students learn without structure, without standards, and without grades, leads to the society of the barnyard.
        • Jan 7 2012: I strongly disagree that lowering standards is the only way to allow all children to succeed.

          I myself, was a successful student. Analyzing what it was that made me successful and others not, I cannot honestly conclude that there is something inherent in me that is superior to others. All I see are chains of events and conditions that have led to, for example, my wielding a certain way to think that was amenable to academics.

          I interpret Andrew's assertion to mean that all children have the same basic tools. And that the events and conditions that surround and nurture them in their life determine their proficiency at certain tasks and therefore their success.

          I agree with this interpretation.
        • thumb
          Jan 7 2012: Larry, if you re-read any of my previous posts you will notice that I never once advocated for the lowering of standards. In fact, I think we should have higher expectations for our students than we currently have.

          "Letting students learn without structure, without standards, and without grades, leads to the society of the barnyard."

          Larry, I respectfully disagree with this statement. This is the baseless argument many people revert to anytime someone propose structural changes to our education system. I am not promoting a structureless education system without evaluations where kids run wild. I am simply arguing we focus more on LEARNING than judging and evaluating. If you think we should raise standards I'm all for it. However, standards are a waste if all we do is focus on how we will measure those standards and fail to give attention to how we will TEACH those standards.

          Maybe its just my perception, but if you listen to the rhetoric surrounding public education, you hear the words TEST, ACCOUNTABILITY, EVALUATION, STANDARDS, and MERIT more than you hear the words TEACHING and LEARNING.
      • Jan 7 2012: Andrew wrote: "Children born into poverty or poor neighborhoods have an unequal opportunity to succeed. Instead, these "duds" fall behind in school at a young age and never are given the attention or resources they need to catch up. Rich parents can send their children to tutors or can help them solve problems at home. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are not so lucky. A cycle of poverty continues from generation to the next."

        Being poor doesn't mean you can't pick up the trash around your house, can't work hard in school, nor that you cannot learn. You equivocate low income with poverty of thought and bad habits (vices that suck up ones income).
        • Jan 7 2012: If I were to reframe what I understand to be Andrew's assertion, it is that being poor makes short-term interests more important than long-term interests because if you were rich, you'd have more options to invest in longer term interests. When you're poor, you can't afford to invest long-term because it's too expensive right now.

          I don't think there was an equivocation of low income with poverty of thought and bad habits. If anything, I think your comment was insensitive to what it means to be poor.
        • Jan 8 2012: Hi Larry, here is a thought. I grew up in the military. I landed in Hawaii, awesome! It was high school. They grade on a scale. I would get a B, ( in said class ) My grade controlled the scale! Needless to say, I got a lot of cr---p, from my peers. There needs to be a basic, fundamental aspect of education. Grade a student, for their progress. I was poor, I was bullied, I was not an idiot. YET, I received cr--p for being poor and smart? We are putting too much emphasis on the public schools. Public schools su--k! Grade a human for their ability to learn. :) ( I will stop the rant )
        • thumb
          Jan 8 2012: Larry, I think we can both agree that regardless of their economic backgrounds (poor, middle income, high income, etc.) all students have the capability of learning and succeeding. That is without question. But you are severely mistaken if you think a child born into poverty receives an equal education and has an equal opportunity to succeed as their more affluent peers.

          I am all for capitalism and meritocratic values. However, it is unfair to expect a sprinter to win a race if he or she is a mile behind and their competition is given a car (solely an analogy). The unfortunate reality is that often low income does in fact equate to poverty of thought as well. Not because children born into poverty are not capable. But because they commonly lack access to good role models, good schools, good computers, and resources that aid in the cognitive development all children need.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.