Rejecting IQ and All Labeling of Students

“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”

But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.

Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.

Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.

Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.

Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.

In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.

Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”

This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.

To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.

Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”

Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.

Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.

Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.

“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.

But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.

Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.

There simply is no right way to do those.


See Also

Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school, Tham Khai Meng

Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut

“Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano

John Merrow and the Delusions of Edujournalism

Veteran edujournalist John Merrow claims on his blog: “Education reporting has never been better than it is right now.”

Diane Ravitch mused on her blog about how I would respond to Merrow so here you go.

First, Merrow’s assertion can be true only if edujournalism was criminally horrible in the past to which he is comparing today’s journalism—which is negligently horrible.

Next, since Merrow mentions the Education Writers Association (EWA), his delusional post represents perfectly a central problem with edujournalism reflected in EWA: edujournalists are trapped within an insular norm of reporting that includes both traditional flaws in journalism (objective journalism anchored in reporting “both sides” dispassionately) and contemporary market forces that are contracting mainstream media, resulting in press-release journalism by journalists without the necessary expertise or experiences needed to report on a discipline or field.

In some of his most high-profile work, in fact, Merrow has personified a double failure common among edujrounalist: first, Merrow eagerly participated in the media’s creation of Michelle Rhee, and then, he fumbled badly and inadequately the media’s holding Rhee accountable for her horrible policies and inept (possibly criminal) leadership.

Merrow hangs his praise on several outlets that focus on education:

National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters).  Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business.  (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!)  There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.

Routinely, however, these exact outlets mangle reporting about schools, teachers, and all aspects of formal education (see, for example, examinations of Education Week and NPR).

The primary mainstream outlets for edujournalism are negligently horrible—unable to rise above press-release journalism, to see through the political manipulation of journalism and education, to listen to professional educators and researchers, or to critically examine assumptions about children/students, teaching and learning, and the purposes of school.

Merrow also celebrates: “When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!”

Setting aside we eschew all caps and exclamation points in the writing of middle schoolers, again, his celebration proves his delusion.

As I have examined in How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?, this award-winning series does represent the pinnacle of edujournalism, but that pinnacle is well below the level of “good journalism”: treating old news as new news (edujournalists as non-expert in the field have no historical lens about education) and framing educational quality within a simplistic and flawed context that outcomes are primarily about individual effort (students, teachers).

After listing a tired list of edustories needing to be told, Merrow ends with “In sum, education reporters are getting it right. Now keep on keeping on!”

We are left with a veteran edujournalist reporting very badly on edujournalism.

If only this were satire.

The Truth about “Good” Schools

When I posted about how political and media labels of “good” and “bad” schools are significantly misleading—more about race and class than the actual quality of the schools—I received a request to identify some “good” schools.

Here is the disturbing truth about “good” schools: Among formal schools, both public and private, there are no “good schools.”

Traditional schooling is mired in a number of wrong-minded approaches to children and young adults, to teaching and learning, and to what we believe the purposes of schooling are.

Formal schooling is mostly bad.

Good teaching happens when teachers take risks, work outside the norms of schooling.

Good learning happens for many students in spite of formal schooling.

In this last circumstance, consider how English classes tend to make students hate reading, that students who are avid readers often do so under the school radar—toting around huge books they choose to read (instead of doing school work), reading and collecting comic books (please read Louise DeSalvo’s Vertigo for some vivid examples of this reality).

That formal schooling is mostly bad, that good teaching occurs mostly by renegade teaching, that good learning happens mostly in spite of formal schooling—these are all made more disturbing because children in privilege (living in slack) suffer far fewer negative consequences in these realities, but children under the weight of poverty and racism (living in scarcity) suffer the double negative consequences of a bad life and bad schooling.

Children living in scarcity must be superhuman in order to learn in spite of schooling—especially since their teachers are under heightened pressures and even less likely to be risk takers.

We must stop demanding superhuman (and inhuman) expectations of the most vulnerable children and young adults. We must stop looking for and pretending there are “miracle” schools—outlier good schools—we can use to shame bad schooling in an inequitable society.

Instead, we need to reimagine formal education that is unlike the inequitable society those schools serve—attending instead to the needs of all students, regardless of the lives no child chooses (whether one of slack or scarcity).

Corporal Punishment: A Reader

University study finds spanking harmful for children, Desiree Chew

The Stream: Should parents spare the spank

Here’s What Getting Spanked as a Kid Did to Your Personality, According to Science, Jordyn Taylor

Risks of Harm from Spanking Confirmed by Analysis of Five Decades of Research

Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses, Gershoff, Elizabeth T.; Grogan-Kaylor, Andrew

Follow Dr. Stacey Patton on Twitter and Facebook; and see Spare the Kids.

Patton keynote Part I:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstacey.patton.9%2Fvideos%2F10153633720951094%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Patton keynote Part II:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fstacey.patton.9%2Fvideos%2F10153633957876094%2F&show_text=0&width=560

There is no debate about hitting children – it’s just wrong

Corporal punishment leads to more immediate compliant behavior in children, but is also associated with physical abuse. Should parents be counseled for or against spanking?
WASHINGTON — Corporal punishment remains a widely used discipline technique in most American families, but it has also been a subject of controversy within the child development and psychological communities. In a large-scale meta-analysis of 88 studies, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, looked at both positive and negative behaviors in children that were associated with corporal punishment. Her research and commentaries on her work are published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association.
While conducting the meta-analysis, which included 62 years of collected data, Gershoff looked for associations between parental use of corporal punishment and 11 child behaviors and experiences, including several in childhood (immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of relationship with parent, and physical abuse from that parent), three in both childhood and adulthood (mental health, aggression, and criminal or antisocial behavior) and one in adulthood alone (abuse of own children or spouse).
Gershoff found “strong associations” between corporal punishment and all eleven child behaviors and experiences. Ten of the associations were negative such as with increased child aggression and antisocial behavior. The single desirable association was between corporal punishment and increased immediate compliance on the part of the child.
The two largest effect sizes (strongest associations) were immediate compliance by the child and physical abuse of the child by the parent. Gershoff believes that these two strongest associations model the complexity of the debate around corporal punishment.
“That these two disparate constructs should show the strongest links to corporal punishment underlines the controversy over this practice. There is general consensus that corporal punishment is effective in getting children to comply immediately while at the same time there is caution from child abuse researchers that corporal punishment by its nature can escalate into physical maltreatment,” Gershoff writes.
But, Gershoff also cautions that her findings do not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent. A variety of situational factors, such as the parent/child relationship, can moderate the effects of corporal punishment. Furthermore, studying the true effects of corporal punishment requires drawing a boundary line between punishment and abuse. This is a difficult thing to do, especially when relying on parents’ self-reports of their discipline tactics and interpretations of normative punishment.
“The act of corporal punishment itself is different across parents – parents vary in how frequently they use it, how forcefully they administer it, how emotionally aroused they are when they do it, and whether they combine it with other techniques. Each of these qualities of corporal punishment can determine which child-mediated processes are activated, and, in turn, which outcomes may be realized,” Gershoff concludes.
The meta-analysis also demonstrates that the frequency and severity of the corporal punishment matters. The more often or more harshly a child was hit, the more likely they are to be aggressive or to have mental health problems.
While the nature of the analyses prohibits causally linking corporal punishment with the child behaviors, Gershoff also summarizes a large body of literature on parenting that suggests why corporal punishment may actually cause negative outcomes for children. For one, corporal punishment on its own does not teach children right from wrong. Secondly, although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, when parents are not present to administer the punishment those same children will misbehave.
In commentary published along with the Gershoff study, George W. Holden, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, writes that Gershoff’s findings “reflect the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm.” Holden submits that the psychological community should not be advocating spanking as a discipline tool for parents.
In a reply to Gershoff, researchers Diana Baumrind, PhD (Univ. of CA at Berkeley), Robert E. Larzelere, PhD (Nebraska Medical Center), and Philip Cowan, PhD (Univ.of CA at Berkeley), write that because the original studies in Gershoff’s meta-analysis included episodes of extreme and excessive physical punishment, her finding is not an evaluation of normative corporal punishment.
“The evidence presented in the meta-analysis does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking,” conclude Baumrind and her team. Baumrind et al. also conclude that “a high association between corporal punishment and physical abuse is not evidence that mild or moderate corporal punishment increases the risk of abuse.”
Baumrind et al. suggest that those parents whose emotional make-up may cause them to cross the line between appropriate corporal punishment and physical abuse should be counseled not to use corporal punishment as a technique to discipline their children. But, that other parents could use mild to moderate corporal punishment effectively. “The fact that some parents punish excessively and unwisely is not an argument, however, for counseling all parents not to punish at all.”
In her reply to Baumrind et al., Gershoff states that excessive corporal punishment is more likely to be underreported than overreported and that the possibility of negative effects on children caution against the use of corporal punishment.
“Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use,” Gershoff writes.

Lead authors can be reached at:

Elizabeth Gershoff

University office: (212) 304-7149

Home office: (212) 316-0387

Robert Larzelere

402 498-1936

OR

402-559-2282

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Good Schools, Bad Schools: More Codes that Blind

On the first class of my May X course on educational documentaries, we watched the short and really powerful film Crenshaw by Lena Jackson.

The film introduces students to many of the key patterns of educational reform over the last thirty-plus years, including how we talk politically and publicly about good schools and bad schools as well as how we have chosen to address inequitable opportunities and outcomes among identifiable populations of students by race and social class.

Crenshaw specifically addresses the political strategies of closing so-called bad schools—often including takeover policies and cosmetic renamings of historically important schools for communities.

The morning of the second class, I read Why the board is closing Lincoln about the same dynamic in Charleston, SC, my home state.

Beyond the disturbing pattern of trying the same approaches over and over while expecting different results (the most blatant failure of the accountability era in education reform), this editorial support for closing a school exposes the problems inherent in how we talk politically and publicly about schools.

The editorial describes the school being closed, Lincoln Middle-High School, with “inadequate,” “shortcomings,” and “under performing.”

As a rhetorical and policy strategy, the editorial frames Lincoln against nearby Wando High, characterized as “academically one of the top high schools in the state.”

So we have Lincoln as “bad school” and Wando as “good school”—making this seem more than credible: “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?”

Let’s examine that more carefully.

As the editorial notes, “Lincoln’s students are predominantly black, and some people who have felt the brunt of very real racism over the years see shuttering Lincoln as motivated by a lack of regard for a minority school and its students.”

Both Lincoln‘s and Wando‘s state report cards document how test-based data seem to reinforce that Lincoln is under performing and Wando is a top school.

However, a key element of how these schools are characterized is omitted—the poverty index for each school:

LINCOLN HIGH 94.67
WANDO HIGH 24.08

The editorial is mostly wrong-minded throughout—except for its concession that race and racism lie at the foundation of why SC has refused to address adequately our investment as a state in “other people’s children.”

“Bad” and “good” contribute to our coded political and public discourse that reflects our collective unwillingness to do what is required: reform directly education so that all students have the sorts of opportunities that we do guarantee to the most fortunate children among us.

Lincoln as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not “failing” but overburdened and under-resourced.

Wando as a school, the students it serves, and the community within which it sits—these are not academically “top” because of the school, but because this context is far less burdened, gifted a tremendous amount of slack within which students and by proxy schools can succeed.

Of course, students at Lincoln deserve the same opportunities as the students at Wando—but to act as if this somehow has something to do with the physical plants, the school buildings, is inexcusable.

If we truly believe “Why shouldn’t students from the McClellanville area get an education as good as students 25 miles down the road in Mount Pleasant?” (and I am pretty sure we do not believe that), then we simply need the political and public will to make that happen right there in Lincoln—and there is nothing hard or magical about that.

Closing schools, renaming schools, taking over schools, changing standards and tests—these, and nearly every education reform policy we embrace, is so much foolishness, the indirect but fake change that reveals beneath the codes that we simply don’t give a damn about some children and some communities.

“Bad school” and “good school” keep the accusatory gaze on buildings, educators, and even children. What we need is to spend some time in front of a mirror—where the real problems lie.


See

An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement

A growing number of educators and scholars are confronting the essentially racist and classist roots of “grit”—not just that Duckworth’s research and popular books are misused, but that “grit” narratives and research are grounded in racist and classist biases that conflate effort and engagement with race and class privilege. [1]

When I maintain my position that this is not just about misusing “grit,” many—especially those invested in and profiting from “grit” publications and teacher training—refuse even to consider my claims, but a few who seem willing to step away from their own biases invariably ask a very important question: How does an educator reject the “grit” movement but maintain an atmosphere in the classroom that encourages effort and engagement, especially for our most vulnerable students (black, brown, and poor)?

I think I have failed to address this important question fully so let me do so here.

The first step is to set aside the assumption that low student achievement is primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is a consequence of mostly effort and engagement.

Resources for this change in perspectives can be found here and in Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Next, you must resist fatalism in two forms: (1) the fatalism at the root of “grit” being racist and classist—that life for black/brown and poor people is going to be hard so we need to make them extra “gritty” to survive and excel (washed through by the racist/classist assumptions black/brown and poor people are inherently less apt to have the effort and engagement we associate with white privilege), and (2) the fatalism of life is inherently unfair for black/brown and poor people so why bother to try at all?

Finally, to that second form of fatalism, the key is to honor effort and engagement as ends unto themselves and not means to some other ends or as a magic elixir for overcoming social inequity.

The very ugly consequence of championing “grit” with uncritical missionary zeal is that the students most often targeted—racial minorities and the poor—are soon to learn that their “grit” will get them less than the gift of white privilege for other people who show even less effort and engagement as they have worked to acquire:

fig_2Table 2 copy

rich black poor white prison

 

access to good jobs race gender

The “grit” movement is racist, classist, and counter to the very effort we seem to be making to support the value of effort and engagement in a meritocracy (which isn’t even close to existing).

However, in admitting these facts, we must not then slip into an equally corrosive fatalism that allows teachers and students simply to throw up their collective hands and give up.

While rejecting the “grit” movement, all educators and anyone working with children must remain committed to giving the young a fair and honest perspective on the inherent value in effort and engagement while resisting the urge to make promises we cannot keep about the outcomes of effort and engagement in an inequitable society.


[1] See Ethan Ris at The Answer Sheet and his Grit: A Short History of a Useful Concept, in which he details:

This paper seeks to apply longitudinal discourse analysis to the AngloAmerican conversation about grit. Examining the history of grit reveals more than the simple fact that this character trait has had a long life. The “usefulness” noted in this paper’s title refers to the way in which language and rhetoric are employed to “legitimize relations of organized power” (Habermas, 1967, in Wodak and Meyer, 2009, p. 10). In other words, the grit discourse allows privileged socioeconomic groups to preserve their position under the guise of creative pedagogy. This phenomenon does not require malevolence on the part of its enactors. In fact, it can coexist with perfectly benign intentions.

While I think his claim that a historical analysis of the use of the term “grit” discounts arguments the term has racist implications is flawed, his analysis is excellent and important in this discussion.

“A new study shows,” Education, and the Media

As I continue to document, the mainstream media believe everyone is an expert on education (except educators, of course).

In today’s two-experts-collide, know-nothing David Brooks comes out against GPA while latching onto Angela Duckworth’s “grit” sequel that is poised to maintain her racism/classism train to fame and fortune.

As John Oliver has now confronted (see below), the mainstream media love “a new study shows,” but almost always gets everything wrong.

Educational research continues to suffer this fate in the mainstream media, where, for example, the elites maintain our focus on students struggling just need more “grit,” and the self-serving counter to that: high achieving, successful people are so because of, primarily, their “grit”! (Ahem, and not their enormous privilege.)

Don’t hold your breath, but let’s imagine a world in which Brooks and Duckworth hold forth on this truth:

If you are black/brown and/or poor, your “grit” will still get you less than those gifted white privilege at birth.

Or how about:

Instead of the fatalism of saying that life is going to be hard for black/brown and/or poor people, and thus we need to make them extra “gritty” through abusive “no excuses” schools, why don’t we eradicate the social forces making their lives suck? [1]

Nope. We’ll just keep getting the sort of breezy hokum John Oliver brilliantly unmasks here:


[1] Also, imagine a world in which we discover lead in paint is dangerous for children so we conduct a study on children who survive exposure to lead pain in order to equip all students with that quality—instead of eradicating lead in paint. That’s the “grit” research in a nutshell.

2016 Furman University Graduation Speeches

I am no fan of ceremony—especially ones that trap you for hours in a false setting of formality—and I am equally no fan of what is often a hollow part of the graduation ceremony experience, the graduation speech.

I am a fan of one of the masters of graduation speech as satire and brilliance, Kurt Vonnegut.

At the 2016 Furman University graduation, however, I witnessed two wonderful addresses—one by a student and one by a university board member. I invite you below to read the transcripts:

Read W. Randy Eaddy’s address

Regardless of the activity, the key questions are these:  Who will you call (or text) to invite?  Who will accept the invitation and come?  Who will not?  And, in each case, Why?

Will you invite, for example, any of the following people who may work at your company, or who may be enrolled with you in same graduate program, or whom you otherwise see frequently and with whom you are cordial, but who are not part of your circle for personal social interactions:  the woman who wears a hijab?  The man who speaks with a thick foreign accent and is sometimes difficult to understand?  The woman whom you saw wearing a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt?  The guy who has a buzz cut and likes to wear cowboy boots?

Imagine the answers if you are working, affirmatively and purposefully, to achieve a deep, first hand, understanding of the self-defining perspectives of other people.

I realize that interacting with people who appear to be different makes most of us uncomfortable and uneasy.  “What will my friends think?”  “How will they react to these unfamiliar other people?”  “How will they react to me for inviting these other people?”

Read student Nathan Thompson’s address

President Davis also suggested in her inaugural address that, “maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place.” Put simply, we must become women and men who are not just for others, but with them. Our work and service aren’t acts of resume building and self-congratulation; they are the foundation of relationships between equals.


See Also

My Speech to the Graduates: Don’t Listen to Graduation Speakers

Not How to Enjoy Grading But Why to Stop Grading

I have spent this morning carefully placing copies of the revised edition of De-testing and de-grading schools: Authentic alternatives to accountability and standardization in envelopes to mail to chapter authors.

313058_cover

It is a bittersweet task since we lost my co-editor Joe Bower during the process of creating a revised edition.

Concurrently as well, I read a post from John Warner, in which he opens with a confession: “Like a lot of college instructors, I have, from time to time, expressed my dislike of grading.”

First, let me urge you to read Warner’s blogs, especially about his work as a teacher of writing (he is a professional writer as well). But this post in particular has hit home because of my own 34+-year journey as a teacher of writing and a much less successful life as a writer as well.

In my updated chapter of our de-testing and de-grading book, I examine in detail my own reasons for and approaches to not grading student writing, but instead to focus my time and energy on giving ample feedback while students brainstorm and then draft original essays they find compelling. In part, I explain:

Along with the pedagogical and assessment autonomy I experience as a professor (now tenured), the university’s transition to first-year seminars has influenced greatly my practices and offered ample evidence about how de-grading a writing classroom works, and doesn’t. In all of my university courses, in fact, I refuse to put grades on assignments throughout the semester. Instead, I have two practices: (1) I provided ample feedback as well as require and allow students to revise most assignments until students are pleased with the work, and (2) I invite and urge students to arrange conferences as often as desired throughout the semester to discuss their grades (what their grades would be if assigned, what they would assign themselves, and what I anticipate they will be assigned at the end of the course).

De-grading the writing class and encouraging a conversation about grades instead of labeling assignments with grades have combined to lift the effectiveness of my writing instruction significantly because these practices reinforce the autonomy and agency of the students and shift the focus of the classes to the quality of the compositions and the growth of the students as writers and away from courses as credentialing.

I want to stress again here that I began de-grading my classroom while still a K-12 teacher without the protection of tenure (I have always worked in a right-to-work state without union protection) so I am not suggesting that de-grading is reserved for the rarified air of high education [1].

I urge all teachers of writing, then, to set aside the urge to grade essays, and instead, to embrace a process in which the teacher/professor is a collaborator in helping novice writers grow through drafting their own work as real-world writer do—as Warner details:

The final assignment is different. It asks them to craft an argument of their own design aimed at an audience of their choosing. Their is to use the skills they’ve practiced earlier, and I am instead reading to discover what they have learned about the subjects they’ve chosen.

Instead of a teacher, assessing skills, I am a reader, responding to ideas, and in many cases the students are presenting ideas and arguments I wasn’t aware existed.

The path to de-grading the classroom is difficult because we face traditional hurdles of teaching being inseparable from evaluating students, and then we must help our student shake off the shackles of being evaluated students in order to explore the opportunities afforded being an apprentice.

Teachers/professors too must cast off the shackles of grading. Consider Warner’s epiphany that addresses how he has taught and graded essay writing in his first-year courses versus how he has taught and responded to writing in fiction courses:

By accepting the flaws as inevitable before I begin, my fundamental orientation changes, both in how I read and respond to the work, but more importantly, my own emotional experience when grading. In fact, I’ve never even called what I do in a fiction class “grading.” It is simply reading and responding, which is a lot more fun.

Finally, then, from my chapter in the de-testing and de-grading volume, I want to share here a few “guiding principles for de-grading the writing classroom”:

  1. Reductive responses to student writing (grades, rubric scores) fail to enrich the writing process (see Gould, 1996, regarding singular quantification of complex processes). Teacher feedback must be rich, detailed, and targeted to support revision. The most powerful feedback includes identifying key strengths in a students work (“Do this more often!”) and questions that help guide students toward revision (“Why are you omitting the actual names of your family members in your personal narrative?”). To share with students the specific and contextualized characteristics that constitute an evaluation (such as an A) provides students as writers the evidence needed to build their own rubrics of expertise for future writing, and learning.
  2. Teacher and student roles in the de-graded writing classroom must be revised—teachers as authoritative, not authoritarian; teacher as teacher/student; and student as student/teacher (Freire, 1993). The de-graded writing classroom allows a balancing of power that honors the teacher’s agency as a master writer and master teacher of writing without reducing the status of the student as beneath her/his agency and autonomy, both of which are necessary for the growth of any writer.
  3. De-grading the writing classroom increases the importance and impact of peer conferencing by removing from the teacher the primary or pervasive role of evaluator. Feedback from peers and from the teacher becomes options for students as they more fully embrace their roles as process writers.

The teaching of writing, in my opinion, is not unique compared to teaching anything—so I am a strong advocate for de-testing and de-grading all education.

However, as Warner has discussed so well, the teaching of writing as authentic practice is impossible to separate from the corrosive impact of grading on both the teacher/professor and the students.

The de-graded writing classroom seeks to honor the sanctity of teaching and mentoring, the autonomy of students as writers-to-be, and the act of writing itself as essential to human liberation.

[1] Please see this post and below from my de-testing and de-grading chapter:

I want to emphasize, also, that these are not idealistic practices or claims; I do practice concessions to the reality of grades in formal schooling. The “de-” in de-grading of my classes is best framed as “delayed” because I do invite students to discuss the grades their works-in-progress deserve throughout the process and, of course, I do assign grades at the end of each course.

While delaying grades, however, I am increasing the quality and quantity of feedback my students receive and of student engagement in learning for the sake and advantages of learning