I'm Not Sure I Want My Students To Succeed

UbermenschI’m not sure I want my students to succeed.

How’s that for an attention-grabber? Now I'll skillfully jump back and lay the foundation for such an outrageous claim and hope it’s enough to keep you reading until we reach it again further on.

Four-Point Scale or Back Hoe?

The question of how to grade, what to grade, or even IF to grade isn’t exactly new in the world of public education. Sometimes it’s set by building or district policy (although enforcement is problematic at best). Other times it’s at least discussed within departments. By and large, however, it’s something no two teachers seem to do quite the same.

Many of the differences are cosmetic. Categories or total points? Are quizzes worth 10% or are they worth way more points than daily work and the math ends up with pretty much the same results? Other differences are philosophical. Completion or accuracy? Effort or quality? Improvement or achievement?

Things quickly get messy. If I grade entirely on objective standards, the kid who rarely shows up and never participates but has a great memory might pull a solid ‘B’ in my class without actually learning anything or becoming less odious to the world at large. The girl who does everything I ask and shows massive improvement still fails if she started off with less knowledge and fewer skills. On the other hand, points for effort sometimes seems like we’re rewarding mediocrity – or worse, giving pity points to kids who have no business moving up a level academically.

In other words, you don’t have to go very far before you realize several things about grades in high school. First, they don’t usually mean everything we hope and pretend they mean – particularly not from one class to another. Second, they’re almost impossible to get rid of. They’re so baked into the system that even districts bold enough to try alternatives usually end up using some form of an A – F, 4.0 scale when communicating with the state or post-secondary institutions.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, any discussion of grades or grading quickly becomes a discussion about priorities and overall teaching philosophy as well. It reveals our assumptions about kids, about education, about “the system,” and about our own ability to accurately observe and assess specific skills or chunks of learnin’ in otherwise complicated beings – teenagers.

Our Rubric, Which Art From Heaven...

I’ve worked with amazing educators who believed that a 59.4% was the highest ‘F’ you could earn, so congrats on that. This wasn’t some sort of revenge for being bullied as a child; it reflected a larger conviction regarding expectations, opportunity and responsibility. I’ve heard anecdotes about teachers who announce on Day One that everyone’s getting an ‘A’, so let’s just focus on learning! I can’t imagine this actually working very often, but it’s not founded on laziness; it’s founded on a set of ideals about what education should look like.

Emphasizing quizzes and tests over daily work is more than a calculation; it reflects a philosophy about how things work (or should). The opposite is equally true. Prioritizing completion and effort and showing up every day over performance on formal assessments is about underlying beliefs. The whole “standards-based grading” movement is merely a variation on this theme – are we actually measuring whatever it is we think they’re supposed to be learning?

This means, of course, that we can’t really talk about grading until we talk about what it is we’re trying to measure. This is standard edu-blogging clickbait; I’m not breaking any new ground here. But it’s always worth revisiting the question of what, exactly, it is we think we’re supposed to be teaching. Only then can we wrestle with whether or not our grades actually correlate.

Birth of the Blue

My very first blog post opened this way:

If you want to completely derail any meeting of three or more educators - teachers, administrators, curriculum coordinators, outside consultants, or whatever - ask what our priorities should be.

You know, as educators - what are our priorities for the kids? It's hard to make a good plan without a clear target, so what are we trying to accomplish - you know, ideally?

It was a relatively brief post (hard to imagine now, I know) addressing the difficulty of actually narrowing down our goals as educators. Do we prioritize content? Academic skills? Mindset? Grit? Job skills? Personal hygiene? The ability to work with others? Reading? Writing? Critical thinking? Citizenship? Not putting your entire email in the subject line?

Schools are expected to be at least three dozen different things simultaneously, plus whatever else people think of along the way. (That way, no matter how many things we’re doing well, there are always something for which we can be labeled complete and total failures.) Let’s assume we’re already doing our best with legislative mandates and district goals. These things are generally insufficient, however, to shape the day-to-day details of HOW we teach, let alone WHY we teach.

That’s what I’m wrestling with at the moment.

Success Secession

One of the top 3 or 4 reasons commonly given by teachers for why we do what we do is our desire that students succeed – not just in our classes, but in the so-called “real world.” We have this idea that success outside of school requires the sorts of mindsets and skills we traditionally value. Personal responsibility. Professional appearance. Work ethic. Good citizenship. Effective collaboration. Subject knowledge. Appreciating other points of view. Communication skills. Not smelling weird all the time.

I’m not sure these skills are as universally useful as we’d like to think.

I love Amazon, but is Jeff Bezos insanely rich because of how much personal responsibility he takes for his employees or his commitment to interacting fairly with other entrepreneurs? Does Mark Zuckerberg’s success demonstrate a commitment to good citizenship, honesty, or owning one’s choices? Are the Koch Brothers doing so well because of how respectfully they tolerate other points of view, or is it mostly their belief in democracy and the fundamental equality of all citizens?

Was Donald Trump elected President because of his work ethic, or was it more about his impressive command of relevant facts? Has he been so wildly influential because of his professional communication skills and ability to work well with others, or because he’s learned to show up on time and meet deadlines? The most powerful individual in the world has absolutely none of the skills or basic knowledge we push in public education – and shows zero interest in learning any of it. He is the personification of printing off your essay from Wikipedia then arguing vehemently that you wrote it even though the URL is still at the bottom of every page. The only difference is that Trump essentially became valedictorian as a result and half the school board is now questioning whether your teaching certificate is even real.

He may be the most outlandish example, but he’s hardly alone in his approach.

Studies suggest that overly confident (but largely incompetent) men get promoted far more often than counterparts who actually know stuff and demonstrate effectiveness at their jobs. It’s increasingly difficult to argue that political leadership requires real historic or legal understanding. Our cultural and political trend-setters and thought-leaders may include a few of the best-and-brightest, but they’re hardly the norm. Classrooms still hold up Abraham Lincoln and MLK as American heroes, but real success stories in the 21st century are about Übermensch more than emancipation.

“I have a scheme today… Me at last, me at least, like God Almighty, all for me at last!”

The Better Angels of Our Pedagogy

If we really want our students to be successful, perhaps we should be teaching them complete and total shamelessness – how standards, ethics, or consistency are merely chains to hold them back. We could offer lessons in race-baiting, gas-lighting, and general sophistry. We could teach them how to focus so intently on money and power that they don’t care who they use up or discard to get there, and that legal limitations are for poor people. At the very least, no child should be given a high school diploma without first demonstrating basic competence in manipulating the fears and insecurities of others to sell products or secure influence.

I’m not suggesting that all business owners are evil – merely that being responsible and smart and hard-working aren’t exactly requirements for success in the 21st century. (They may actually be disadvantages if taken too seriously.) Aren’t we doing our students a severe disservice if we refuse to be honest or practical about what success too often looks like in the “real world”?

The alternative, of course, is to continue inflicting our own narrow, idealistic views of how things should work, in hopes they might eventually come true. If that’s what we decide, that’s fine, but let’s be honest about what we’re doing. If what we’re actually teaching is a higher ideal for how society could be, and how capitalism could work, and what success could look like, let’s own that instead of hiding behind “real world” rhetoric. We may not win that argument, but we’ll at least be striving for something better.

I don’t love the real world at the moment. I don’t want to be responsible for preparing kids to “succeed” in it if that means they become more like those currently at the top. I’m willing to risk criticism from the powers-that-be and the perpetually victimized right wing to promote a higher ideal – one built on our founding documents and our national potential more than our Fortune 500 or modern politics.

So… I guess I do want my kids to succeed. I’d just like them to first question what they believe counts as “success.”

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