100 miles from Chicago

Grades kill students’ motivation, suggests this Maclean’s article, which deplores the return of letter grades in Canada.

I give the story a C-. It muddles several issues: What should students be taught? How should performance be evaluated? How should results be reported to parents?

Grades are a reporting mechanism that’s easy for parents to understand. Descriptions of developmental stages are simply a more complicated way to say the same thing: Your child is below or at or above the average for comparable students.

I remember when San Jose Unified introduced “developmental assessments” of students. Parents, many of whom had trouble reading in English, were asked to wade through educationese to figure out how their kids were doing. For example, “developing” reader meant “can’t read.”

I’m also dubious of Alfie Kohn’s argument that grades lower students’ motivation to learn for its own sake. Yes, that can happen. But when students are evaluated only by themselves, they don’t really know whether they’re progressing. It’s very useful to get objective feedback from an outsider who knows more about the subject than the student.

Grades aren’t measures of intelligence or potential; they’re sign posts on a journey. If the sign says you’re 100 miles from Chicago, that’s where you are right now. You have to decide whether you want to go to Chicago or Peoria or somewhere else. You can take down the sign. But you’re not in Chicago.

About Joanne


  1. I nearly choked on my coffee when I came to this gem: “On the other hand, if a teacher emphasizes what the child does well — writing “elefant” isn’t necessarily evidence of failure but of successfully sounding out a word — the child knows she’s on the right track.”

    She’s not on the right track – in fact, she’s not even on the bus going to the right track. Pretending any differently is nothing less than infantalizing and insulting to young minds.

  2. If the goal is being able to sound out words phonetically, then the child has arrived. If the goal is correct spelling, then the child is on the right track: Just learn that the “f” sound is spelled with the “ph” variation, and there you are in Chicago. Which happens to be my home town. My mom’s name is “Phyllis” so I knew why our first grade book wasn’t titled “Fun with Fonics.”

  3. And if they spell it elefaunt, they’ve been reading too much Chaucer…

  4. The idea that “grades kill motivation” is highly dubious. Most people *like* to be measured…this is one reason for the popularity of sports and of competitive games such as chess.

    I suspect that a certain number of the people who go into education (I’m *not* saying “all” or even “most”) are people who *don’t* like to be measured, and that this dislike is one reason they went into the field, as opposed to some field where score is kept daily. Perhaps what is going on is that they are projecting their own dislike of “scorecards” onto the kids.

  5. How many elementary students like to learn math for its own sake? They are out there (my son had fun with the multiplication table I gave him, go figure), but the fact is, most students would rather play games than exert the effort to learn difficult concepts. I’m glad that my teachers and parents didn’t let me coast, or I wouldn’t amount to anything.
    The fact is, hard work is necessary to achieve difficult goals, and grades are a way to evaluate progress. To paraphrase my grandpa, “Quit yer’ b*tch*n and get to work.”

  6. Like everything else in the human experience, it depends on the person. Some kids are very driven and seem to live for their A’s. Others care only insomuch as they get rewarded or punished at home. Most kids would like good grades, because they get that it means they’ve done a good job, but don’t always connect the pain of doing hard or unpleasant stuff with that grade. And, yes, those kids who never seem to earn good grades for one reason or another do see them as an imprimatur of failure. In general, these kids ARE failures at school for one reason or another (home life, ability, personality, learning disorder). It’s a tough thing to tell an 8-year-old they’re just no good at math, though. At some point, most kids tend to just quit giving it any effort — they figure they’ll never get it anyway. The truth is they’ll get *more* math if they keep plugging away at it, but they’ll just never be very good at it. The idea behind those kinder-gentler marking methods is to keep them motivated enough to keep trying. I don’t follow the studies to know whether it works or not. I issue traditional letter grades, and I had to have my kid’s report card explained to me like every other parent (and it was made clear where she wan’t “making the grade” fwiw). I think Alfie Kohn is off the deep end of common sense, though. I hate it when the kooks are presumed to be speaking for all of us.

  7. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Even as a adult, taking night classes because I wanted to learn the material, I studied a little harder when I knew I would be tested and graded. Even though the grade didn’t have any effect on my life.

    Of course, this may be because it was drummed into me as a kid that grades matter.

    I find an essential component of loosing weight is going into the diet clinic and being weighted in once a week. Is the “grade” on the scale more important than my health? Go figure. But for some people, grades work.

    In another way, I can identify with Rita C.’s post. I was the “special Ed” student in Phys Ed classes. (And a perpetual white belt in martial arts schools as an adult.) I never was any good at anything physical. Nothing schools could had done would have made me Chuck Norris. But I might be in better physical shape if I had been encouraged to do what little I could. As it was, in school, I just gave up. Conservatives will say that was all my fault, and I concede they may have a point.

  8. I feel adults today are more sensitive than children about scoring systems. The soccer league my kids play in doesn’t keep score–but the kids do. In the same manner, the kids know who’s on top of the material taught in class, and who’s struggling.

    The people most likely to be “out of the loop” are those with whom the kids spend most of their time outside of school, namely, the parents. Any marking system should be clear and easy for a parent to understand, because parents can do a great deal to help their kids. Closer supervision of homework, decreasing the number of extracurricular activities, selling the t.v. and gameboy (my favorite solution), arranging for tutoring, all of these things are possible for a parent to arrange. A “C” in a subject which a child should have mastered will get a parent’s attention; many of the euphemisms employed to spare a child’s self-image will not. One of the hardest parts of teaching must be telling a child that he hasn’t met expectations, but a child attends school to learn certain neccessary skills.

  9. What Julia said.

    You’re right: even when the adults don’t keep score, the kids do. My daughter comes home with lots of info and opinions about who is doing well, who is failing, who is sucking up to the teachers, etc. She also manages to both observe and overhear lots of juicy stuff about the teachers, other kids parents, etc. that she loves to pass on. She started this in kindergarten.

    Most recently, she came home with an announcement from the school about changes they were making to class schedules. “Oh, we’ve all known about it for a long time” was her comment. “We’ve all been talking about it, and we decided we don’t like it.” When I asked her who ‘we’ was, she said “The other kids in my class. Also a bunch of kids in other classes. We talk about it at recess, and sometimes in P.E.” Then she surprised me. “The teachers don’t like it either.” When I asked how she knew, she said “Well, partly because of the way they told us about it. You could tell they didn’t like it ’cause they just gave us the information. And partly ’cause we heard several teachers talking about it in the cafeteria during lunch when they were monitoring the tables.”

    Little gossips. But kids know a lot more about what’s going on than many adults, including their teachers, realize.

    She also picked up some good gossip about one of her classmate’s parents having an affair with one of the administration staff, but that’s another story…

  10. Kids do observe everything. I have kids who can tell me what shoes I’ve worn every day this week. However, they often get gossip wrong. In many cases, I hear kids gossiping about an incident where I was present and they have it completely wrong.

  11. D. Cooper says:

    Dave wrote … I suspect that a certain number of the people who go into education (I’m *not* saying “all” or even “most”) are people who *don’t* like to be measured, and that this dislike is one reason they went into the field, as opposed to some field where the score is kept daily. Perhaps what is going on is that they are projecting their own dislike of “scorecards” onto the kids. ….. I’ve taught for 35 years in a high school and your analysis is a bit off … I’d agree that there are some teachers that may not wish to be measured, but this is about as far from the real reasons for this ‘feel good nonsense’ as possible. This is a top down philosphy that is shared by few if any teachers, even those who my not be fond of being measured.
    You want self esteem … fine, but it comes from within not from without … I don’t want to knock 4th graders over the head (not too hard anyway) but when you get to high school, it’s time to get ready for the ‘real deal’ …life, work or college then work. When you get a job … they’ll be keeping score. I’ve known many many a student who comes back from a semester at college (some don’t get that far) and they’ve gotten their first wakeup call, ..well hello … welcome to life ..carry on !!!

    You tell me, when do we start the wakeup process ?

  12. Social promotion seems to taper off in high school (unless you are a talented athlete). I find the wakeup process to be surprising a few of my freshmen right about now (“Um, no, there really is no way to pull up a 42% average to passing two days before final exams. Sorry. Next semester, you may want think about writing your papers.”)

  13. Ah, good ol’ Alfie Kohn. I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly what there could be in schools that DOESN’T harm kids, at least according to his reckoning. He doesn’t like tests and he doesn’t like grades. I think he has a hard time with the idea that any sort of academic hierarchy whatsoever is allowed to evolve in schools.


  1. Alfie Kohn is not insane

    Time, Quantity and Quality. If you can manage to avoid these three animals, then you will have no use for grades in school. Alfie Kohn has made quite a name for himself with his “No Testing, No Grades” mantra, so we can only assume that he hasn’t had a…