Sunday, March 25, 2012
Read this rant about the pointlessness of grades.
The author is a recently retired physics teacher who says that grades have replaced learning as the primary objective in grade schools, and that they are not a good reflection of mastery. The author makes a lot of good points, but in the end I can't fully agree. My main reasons for not hating grades are:
1) Students are actually motivated by them. Grades are a way to transmit the necessity of learning. In the end, we don't just learn because it is fun but because it is useful. Students are not really in a position to know what skills will be useful so we have to tell them somehow.
2) Students are not very good at achieving mastery goals, so giving them credit for behavioral goals (which the author calls "completion credit") is a way to motivate them to take the small steps necessary to master necessary skills. One interesting study in this regard involved making small payments to students. When students were payed for long term, abstract objectives they were motivated but didn't really know what to do. When students were payed for more concrete inputs (like the number of books they read) they knew exactly what to do.
So, I agree that right now grades are pretty arbitrary. Students and parents get stressed out about them and try to influence teachers. They aren't that great at reflecting mastery. But what would we have without them? How could we indicate to students that learning is actually important?
Of course, this contradicts my view that a lot of things taught in school actually aren't important. Maybe we should be more selective about the things we choose to grade.
Next item: The Algebra Project.
The premise of this project is that everyone needs to have access to algebra because it is the gateway to more advanced math and science classes, and ultimately, college. It is run like a grass roots organizations, trying to get struggling communities to pull together to support algebra in the way they came together during the civil rights era.
I don't think everyone needs to know algebra. I don't think everyone needs to go to college. Pulling a community together in support of math is a great idea, but it is also a utopian one. The fact is that our economy doesn't really need people with basic algebra skills. The economy needs people who actually really like math and science and can motivate themselves all the way through a graduate degree in engineering because on some level they think it is all very interesting.
Organizing a community to teach 8th graders algebra will have positive results, I am sure. Hopefully a few of the students gain enough confidence to keep going with math and science. And organizing a community seems like a better idea to me than passing a law like No Child Left Behind. It seems more organic and less of a top down institutional solution.
But programs like this mostly just remind me of how messed up our system is at the very foundations. We try to force kids against their will through a factory/day care system with an endless series of curricular goals with little evidence that these goals are actually useful. Why? Because this is what people need to get into college. And why do colleges take high school so seriously? Because if they just had placement tests they would have to admit a bunch of 12 year olds (honestly, a motivated 12 year old could easily surpass a typical high school graduate). This would interfere with our idea of college as a coming-of-age party.
So why do we care about college? Because employers take college seriously. Again, why? Employers are perfectly happy to let people waste 4 years in college because 25 year olds (especially ones that have been jumping through educational hoops for 20 years) are a lot easier to manage than 15 year olds.
Anyway, the point is that for most jobs you don't really need to know algebra, or anything else that is taught in high school or the vast majority of college courses. High school and college just give us time to grow up. I personally am not too upset at having spent the majority of my life in mostly useless educational settings because I actually enjoy learning. But lets not be too idealistic about the impact of teaching kids algebra.