The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


May 7, 1998
10:30 PM

Grade School grades cool

One thing I am not inclined to do is to put down or ridicule public schools or teachers.  There is enough of that being done out there by a vocal faction of self-righteous know-it-alls, who probably couldn't decipher an Algebra I equation or name three 19th century poets, but who think they know better than professional educators how our children should be taught.  

But sometimes, I must admit, the public school administrators really don't make it easy for those of us who would like to defend them as doing the best they can with the restricted resources and competing agendas imposed upon them.  

There are at least three levels at which education policies and practices are created and revised: (i) big, national forums, trying to be all things to all people; (ii) state and local governments and school boards, trying to keep up with national trends while responding to community concerns; and (iii) the teachers themselves, who have to follow the rules, but also have to deal with real-world kids and classroom demands.

When critics blindly condemn U.S. public education as some kind of an abject failure (apparently our country's global economic, military, and ideological dominance has been accomplished by functional illiterates), they tend to lump all of these levels together, blaming the Department of Education for the fact that Tommy's science teacher let the frogs escape.  But there's really very little connection, other than the flow of money and grandiose ideas from on high.  

Criticism of federal education policy tends to focus on the lack of sensitivity to community and parental concerns.  Of course, there is a point to this: If the parents of Black Lung Memorial High School in Possum, Arkansas want to include in the local curriculum lessons on "The Evils of Darwinism" and "Jewish Conspiracies of the 20th Century", why should they be told that they can't by people in Washington who just happen to have more teeth?

On the other hand, criticism of teachers themselves usually singles out the most flagrant miscarriages of justice by the Tenure system: the octogenarian whose American History lectures haven't been revised since the Depression; the sadistic child-hater who still lives with his mother and seems always to be the one exposing misdeeds in the boys' room; the mousy English teacher who invariably breaks down and cries in front of a class two or three times a year.  It's a little confusing, however, to realize that most of these same critics will vehemently oppose local tax hikes and teacher salary increases, at the same time as they assert that the quality of teachers in the school system is inferior.  Class, can anyone think of a reason why highly talented, intelligent, and creative people might not want to enter a profession whose salary scale tops out at $45,000 per year, after 15 years of service?

The place where some of the more, shall we say, thoughtful criticism of public school policies can often be located is between these two distantly separated levels.  In all seriousness, education planners at the federal level pretty much know their stuff, and their main function is to dole out funding according to some vague notions of equity and encouragement of innovation and improvement.  At the same time, the vast majority of local school teachers are dedicated, caring people, who really do know a lot, if only through hard experience, about what it takes to get most kids to function reasonably well in society.

But when you look at the kinds of things that some state level policymakers, and often local School Committees, come up with to try to reconcile legitimate educational objectives with naive political motivations . . . well, let's just take a look at the Report Card.

I have here my old elementary school report card, third grade, Stanley School, Swampscott, MA, 1968.  We were given grades of A, B, C, or D on the following 9 (nine) items: Conduct, Effort, Reading, Language, Spelling, Penmanship, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science.  There could also be a check-mark in about 15 sub-topics on the card (e.g., "Vocabulary development"), if the teacher felt this was an area that needed improvement.

Apparently, however, over the years it has been determined by various educational theorists and PTA advisory committees made up of Certified Public Accountants and Dog Groomers, that this old way of evaluating the academic progress of 9-year-olds was inadequate.  It didn't give enough information about what they were really learning; it didn't pinpoint strengths and weaknesses clearly; and the A-B-C-D hierarchy was too linear, too judgmental.  In truth, I actually see their point. Hey, I wouldn't want to drive a car or watch a TV that still used 1960s technology, so why shouldn't teaching and evaluation methods improve with time, too?

But please, people.  Let's keep some perspective when we change things, okay?  I also have here my daughter Alexandra's most recent report card, 1998, also third grade, also from Stanley School, Swampscott, MA.  The school has explained that this is an "experimental" report card, that they are evaluating to see if parents find it more meaningful and useful.  I suspect that most parents will find it about as meaningful and useful as the Bhagavad-gita, in Sanscrit, but I'll let you judge for yourself:

Report Cards for the 21st Century

The grading system is no longer A-B-C-D; it is P-C-E-D.  These stand for "Proficient", "Consistent Growth", "Emergent", and "Exhibits Difficulty".  There are further descriptions of the four grades on the report card, which confirm that they are really just codes for the old A-B-C-D.  This is a quite confusing change for most of us. Granted, a "D" is still a "D", and we can confidently smack our kids on the head with a newspaper if they bring one home (just like Daddy did).  But whereas a "C" used to be leaning toward "bad", now a "C" is leaning toward "good", and is equivalent to the old "B".  To avoid unnecessary misperception, I suggest we refer to this grade as "New-C" whenever they show up, which, as with the old "B", is in something like 80% of the possible grades.

As for "P" and "E", I don't know what to make of these. "Proficient" seems such a wimpy, half-hearted kind of praise (synonyms: "skilled", "able", "competent", "apt", "crackerjack"). Have we sunk so low into mediocrity as a culture that the pinnacle of academic achievement is merely Proficiency?  Can they at least give out a P-plus?

I'm kind of glad that "E" is getting a chance.  It never seemed fair in the old system that they skipped right over "E" to get to "F", just because it stood for "Fail".  I would only warn teachers around the country, however, never to make the mistake of trying to be nice by splitting some hard-working kid's grade down the middle between E and C.  Picture the excited young pupil calling his overstressed mother at the office with the good news: "Mom, it's an Emergent-C!  I got an Emergent-C at school!"  Oh, the lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the real innovation of this Brave New Report Card isn't the grading system, but the subjects to which the grades are applied.  In this experimental system, these grades are issued in no fewer than 128 (that's one hundred and twenty-eight) different areas of evaluation!  I kid you not.  My daughter is not merely graded on "Reading"; she is graded in 4 main categories of Reading (Reading Behaviors, Reading Strategies, Comprehension, Oral Language/Listening), with a total of 22 sub-categories among them; concepts like:

See how helpful this is?  In the past, if your child got a C in "Reading", you wouldn't know if her Inferential Comprehension was the root of the problem, or if it had more to do with her inappropriate self-correction strategies.  Today, we're much better informed.  (My daughter got 20 New-C's out of the 22 subcategories; in other words, she got a B in Reading.)

Then we have Mathematics, which offers an impressive 33 grading items, some of which sound ominously like some kind of New-Age cult membership evaluation, rather than basic arithmetic education:

Now here, I can't help wondering if we're given the whole story, even with all these categories.  I mean, what if she's Proficient at Sorting, but only Emergent at Classifying?  Or what if she can organize and interpret data with the best of them, but really needs extra help collecting and describing data?  Also, call me old fashioned, but if these are the kids who'll be pumping our gas and serving our cheeseburgers in a few years, I'm not sure I want them to be learning how to "measure using non-standard units".

The other major categories of grades still mirror the old report card.  There's Writing ("Writes in different genres"); Social Studies ("Respects individual differences and divergent points of view"); and Science ("Makes skillful observations").  They're also graded on Phys Ed, Art, and Music as to whether they "apply skills" and "put forth effort" and such.  Unfortunately, the card gives you no idea if they're any good at any of these things, but I think that's the whole point.

On the last page, we come to what used to be called "Conduct" and "Effort". This is where the teachers in the old days could always reward the kids who still couldn't spell their own name with at least one or two A's, so their parents could pretend to be proud. It was also their chance to slap a C in the face of the straight-A students who found their classes so boring that they couldn't sit still, but still aced all the exams.  (Do I sound bitter?)

These days, Conduct and Effort have transformed into "Inventory of Growth", with 22 different line-items by which to judge the little brats' behavior.  They throw a curve at us here, too, because instead of P-C-E-D, there is a numeric scale: 1 ("consistently"), 2 ("usually"), or 3 ("needs improvement").  No fractions allowed, however.  I guess we all know what kind of kid gets All-Ones in Inventory of Growth, and who the All-Three monsters are.

But it's again the subtlety of distinctions among the different Growth qualities that makes this Report Card so, um, special:

And so forth.  Can anyone tell me what "makes transitions appropriately" means?  Does it mean when a kid knows how to stand up and sit down properly?  Does it have something to do with altered states of consciousness?  Are they teaching these kids to metamorphize without telling us?  Honestly, I have no clue, but Alexandra only got a 2 in it, so I feel that I should probably work with her at home on her transitions.

Finally, in spite of its already formidable length, I might suggest one additional grading item for this 21st Century Report Card:

But I suspect most parents would themselves Exhibit Difficulty in that subject, so maybe we should skip it.


1998 David N. Townsend

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