Meritocracy or Aristocracy?

Ever since reading Rochelle Gutierrez’s article “Embracing the Inherent Tensions in Teaching Mathematics From an Equity Stance”, I see more and more hard questions in education in terms of the tension they create. In many cases there are two or more valid perspectives on a tough question, and exploring the inherent tensions — the importance of context, the impossibility of managing what is best for every student simultaneously, the contradictions inherent in many teacher choices — is a better approach than trying to come down on one side or the other. From my perspective, grading presents exactly that type of tension.

I see the pitfalls of grading every day. Grades create incentives for students to perform rather than to learn and to focus on individual tasks rather than big ideas. Grades perpetuate status issues, as some students perceive themselves as “smart” while others perceive themselves as “dumb”, perceptions that they often carry with them for their entire lives. Grades encourage measurement of what is easy to measure, and discount what is hard. Grades waste time that could better be spent focusing on learning. There may be better and worse ways to grade, but the constraints that schools put on most teachers are not well-designed for learning.

Then I read a recent blog post by Doug Lemov arguing that eliminating grades would bring back aristocracy:

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

There is the tension. Whether I like it or not, grades serve the function of sorting and ranking students for their future pursuits, and that sorting and ranking will continue regardless of my decisions as a teacher. I’ve had too many students from well-off backgrounds better able to advocate for themselves and figure out the system, or have their parents advocate for them. And I’ve had too many students who have fewer resources to draw on, unable to receive those same advantages. Would eliminating grades exacerbate those inequities, so that education will become one more place where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

I have no answers. But I do know that navigating this question requires navigating the tension between the damage grades can do to a learning environment with the damage eliminating grades would do to equitable student outcomes.

10 thoughts on “Meritocracy or Aristocracy?

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Lemov is wrong again. The way to eliminate aristocracy is to stop allowing a few people to accrue obscene amounts of wealth and a system where that wealth buys inordinate amounts of power and privilege. School grades didn’t stop elitism or plutocracy and never will. If anything, they allow the illusion of meritocracy. They also do the job of capitalism free: sorting people as middle-management and peons. The elite are already selected.

          1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

            A portfolio of work, student evaluation of what s/he did and how with analysis of how to do the next steps, improve, make connections, all with teacher comments. Details on what s/he read, wrote, explored, created. This was precisely what my college transcript looked like. My grad programs loved the information. It’s also at the heart of effective formative feedback as described by William &Black. And yes, students could fail at my college and did.

  2. Rachel H.

    My biggest issue with the grades debate is that it seems to focus on only a couple aspects of what grades do. Yes, grades rank and sort. Some view that as an essential function of schools–inherently (morally) neutral, and according to Lemov perhaps even necessary for equity; others disagree, some strongly.

    But grades serve other purposes as well. Any discussion of tossing them which doesn’t address their role in student motivation seems…well, incomplete. In my experience, very few kids take non-graded assignments seriously. I know some would argue that this is the result of conditioning–and I would agree to disagree. My predecessor had a “homework points for completion” policy. Lots and lots of the kids work was wrong–and often pretty sloppy. I also noticed that kids rarely, if ever, asked for help outside of class. I grade homework. I’m an easy grader when it comes to homework points–I don’t take much off for wrong answers, especially with newer concepts–but taking off a few points signals to kids that they haven’t “got this” yet. I have kids email in the evenings, come in early in the mornings, or stay in at lunch to get help. A lot of individualized instruction (and math learning) happens during those times. Grades incentivize that effort for students. For students from less privileged backgrounds, this kind of unambiguous signaling is especially important. It’s on us, as teachers, to make sure that a) our assignments are worthy of the time and effort students put in, and b) we do everything in our power to help overcome obstacles to getting assistance for students with fewer resources. Blaming grades for our failure to do those things seems shortsighted.

    It’s also difficult to disentangle the discussions about grading from the increasing emphasis on individualized learning–specifically, on the notion that more or less all time constraints, from timed-fact tests in elementary to hard deadlines for achieving proficiency (i.e. the “end of unit test”) in older grades–are detrimental to learning. I agree, in principle, that education is not a race, and that we need to think carefully about how to help students who need more time. And taking grades out of the equation doesn’t necessarily mean that the structure of classes has to change. But I think it would deemphasize the importance of kids being in class, learning together. (I also think the collaboration and communication that happens when kids study for tests together is undervalued.) It seems like most proponents of “everyone learning at their own pace” envision one of two scenarios. One is an endless stream of “low-entry, high ceiling” problem-solving tasks. It’s one thing to do those once in a while, but the practicalities of actually providing appropriate instruction to a class that did these tasks exclusively would be overwhelming. And that’s the more optimistic the two scenarios. The other is to more or less put everyone on something like Khan Academy every day. (And guess which one of the two scenarios I think would be more likely to predominate at schools with fewer resources?)

    So here’s what I wish proponents on both sides of the debate would do: I wish they’d clarify exactly how they think their position should impact what kids and teachers do in classrooms across the country every day. (And “this change would have no impact” isn’t allowed.) It may very well be that they don’t see issues I outlined above as important, or they have another vision of what classes might be like, or they have good ideas about how to overcome some of the challenges I identified. I’m certainly open to that possibility. But for me as a classroom teacher, the devil is usually in the details…I honestly don’t know whether it would be “good for society” or “bad for society” to throw out grades. But while that debate rages on, I do know that it’s “good for society” to promote learning the best I can in my own classroom. If I don’t have a practical sense of what exactly I should do differently, it’s hard for me to justify making radical changes to the status quo.

    1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

      Non-graded does not mean non-assessed. The fundamental fallacy begins with the idea that a letter or number grade tells anyone anything of value, including the student. Students get schooled into “studenting” rather than learning and thinking. School as we have created it is a waste of time. And a major institution for deadening souls.

  3. Rachel H.

    “School as we have created it is a waste of time.”

    Agree that that’s sometimes the case–and that we can and should do better by our kids. But that seems to me more a problem of curriculum. I doubt a narrative evaluation that says, “student x is still developing skills in factoring polynomials” replacing a test score that says “student x can factor polynomials accurately 60% of the time” would do much to help students think about polynomials or why you’d want to factor them in the first place. In other words, changing the form of assessment doesn’t imply that we’ll automatically get better at knowing what to assess (or teach)….maybe we will, but I don’t see that as being an inevitable result. What makes narratives an inherently better form of assessment? Or, a better question in the context of whether to abolish grades: why does addressing curriculum issues require that we also change our form of assessment?

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thinking about all of this, I wonder if grading and summative assessment more broadly is the wrong lever to push. I don’t think there’s a very high ceiling for how much we can improve assessment. I think curriculum, engaging and responsive pedagogies, an equity orientation, and effective and purposeful classroom management can make a much bigger difference. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to improving summative assessment, just that I think I will get more bang for my buck by putting energy into other areas of teaching and learning.

  4. benjamin

    I tend to agree with Doug Lemov in this case. For the 5% of students who are aiming for seats in competitive schools eliminating grades would tend to have perverse incentives. The ones I’ve worried about beyond just soft-influence are:

    Increased importance on standardized entrance tests.
    Increased value in portfolios from known elite institutions. This is my fear from the move by some of the high prestige boarding schools to go this way. Basically, given two portfolios of work its much easier for the halo effect of an “Exeter” transcript to outweigh “Unknown Public School” where the teachers have many more students and less time to create well formatted portfolios.

    Oddly enough, grades are a better predictor of college performance currently despite trepidation in giving them, than tests like the SAT. So I consider them the lesser of evils. (And as long as we have elite college seats people will try to game the system regardless of assessment type. The stakes are just too high.)


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