Toward Fairness and Equity: Labor-Based Grading During and After COVID-19

eoq_jwiwaaar5uxIn “Our Pandemic Summer,” a recent article in The Atlantic, Ed Yong argues that framing the future in terms of “going back to normal” is a wasted opportunity to think about what a fairer and more equitable world might look like going forward.  There have been so many changes in a relatively short amount of time in education that imagining simply returning to the status quo—which was deeply inequitable and unfair—seems as untenable as ever.  One of the most substantive changes in many districts is changing the way grades are given—some districts have even removed grades entirely in favor of a credit-no-credit model—and it feels disingenuous at best and immensely damaging at worst to return to systems of ranking and sorting that have created incredible tension, anxiety, and disparity.  Grading is a space where we, collectively, need to reimagine a different future, and returning to “normal” undermines the commitments to equity that should be at the center of our work.

My district has essentially moved to a labor-based grading model for students, where learning and judgments about quality, which are always-already biased because of their roots in single standards, have been separated.  This separation, which radical for some, is a welcome relief to others, including many students.   Students earn credit when they complete 10 of 18 assignments, permitting students to make some choices and allowing for grace in the midst of a pandemic where tens of thousands of people in Michigan are sick.  If a labor-based grading system is what’s best in terms of equity and fairness for students now, it’s also best for students when they return to brick-and-mortar classrooms in the future.

In our English department this year, we reflected frequently this year about the inclusivity of our spaces, and one of the most crucial realizations that emerged was that most of the writing that was presented to students as “good” was rooted in dominant culture notions of what that means.  This couldn’t help but have an effect on who sees themselves as a writer and what counts as “good” writing during grading and evaluation.  I’ve previously talked about the ways grading is rooted in whiteness here.  One of my colleagues, who I discussed in a previous post, used this year to experiment with a new grading system as a result of some of our reflections and our one-on-one coaching sessions, and a few others are starting to make some important shifts, too.  That said, my own shift away from traditional grading took years of fits and starts, so patience with ourselves is in order.  Working against “common sense” and engrained notions of things like “rigor” take time; there’s tons to unlearn.  Even with all of those caveats, fragility remains, but attacks on grading aren’t necessarily personal, but questions about grading do force us to consider systems in which we’re complicit in upholding somehow.  Asao Inoue reminds us, “in all schools, grades are the means of discrimination, the methods of exclusion, not inclusion, no matter what we think they might do for our students.”  One of the biggest pieces of pushback that I get when I talk about grading is how it doesn’t “prepare students for the next level,” and it’s important to remember that just because other environments are oppressive doesn’t mean we have to replicate them.  Remember: we’re imagining a different future together, not attempting to reinscript what existed already and served only a privileged few.

Rightly, much of the current emphasis has been on building relationships—Maslow before Bloom—and student wellness and safety, both mentally and physically.  While our mouths may say these things, sometimes our actions indicate that these might not be the foundations of our classroom, even if we might like them to be or think that they are.  There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter that school is a student’s “job” and that grades are their “compensation,” and that, to me, seems like that end result overemphasizing outcomes and underemphasizing. relationships: we start to see students based on the products they produce rather than as human beings with a complex set of circumstances.  In these environments, students start to only judge themselves by the products they produce, and often devalue their really thoughtful, important work when it doesn’t reach certain graded outcomes, which, again, are rooted in center with no accounting for the margins.  Put differently, a system that rewards labor only when it meets a pre-defined outcome is going to be exclusive rather than inclusive.  It’s really important to teach students to identify, talk about, and, most of all, value their labor outside of any external validation.   The idealist in me hopes that this awakens students to start valuing their work more and that teachers help them do so.  Inoue takes an important point from Friere, which we sometimes forget: we can’t liberate our students—we’re not saviors—but we can set up structural conditions where they can liberate themselves by moving away from compliance and toward agency.

In addition to rethinking some of the ways students work and evaluate work, labor-based grading has also had other important byproducts, especially forcing teachers to think more carefully about what they assign and how they design assessments, especially when grades can’t be used as currency or, worse yet, a weapon to compel compliance.  This moment of reconsideration is important: what now?  Indeed, assignments and assessments need to be meaningful, authentic, and compassionate if we want students to complete them in the midst of a pandemic.  This means that students need to be able to make choices about what they learn, how they learn it, and the modalities in which they demonstrate their learning, and, without the daunting pressure of grades, they have expressed a certain freedom to take intellectual risks, share their own thinking rather a reheated version of a teacher’s lecture, and marry their funds of knowledge to their academic work in ways that didn’t seem possible—or weren’t deemed valuable—before.  In other words, teachers are getting a crash course in the amazing things that come from trusting their students.  Grading often interferes with the relationships we want to have with our students, and removing the barrier can help us start to rehumanize our classrooms.

We know that returning to “normal” is going to be impossible, but we might also think about what “normal” has cost us. We frequently hear talk about a “new normal” as negative, but we have the potential to reimagine parts of it as positive.

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