Breaking the Insidious Link Between Grades and Morality

Perhaps the most insidious part of grades is how casually-yet-deeply they are linked to a sense of morality.  Grades function as a kind of semiotic shorthand for how teachers and caregivers are supposed to view students and how students are supposed to view themselves.  As a thought exercise, we can consider what comes to mind about a student when we hear they have all As and Bs versus what comes to mind about a student who hasn’t passed a class yet this year.  If we’re honest with ourselves, the former, the student with the high grades, is seen as compliant, industrious, future-oriented, and an overall “good kid,” while the student who hasn’t passed yet is seen as unserious, uncommitted, and unworthy of our time.  After all, we can’t care about their grade and their future more than they do, as a recent tweet with more than 600 likes reminds us.  This sentiment commonly plays out on Twitter, in copy rooms, and in how schools communicate with caregivers each day because our language is saturated with the verbiage of competition that compels us to rank, order, sort, and judge.  Language is never benign, it incites action against those who are always-already vulnerable, and, worst of all, it makes us believe that they deserved it.  Those with the “bad” grades need to be placed in an intervention, sent away to that alternative school, or expelled entirely because they are poisoning the well and making it difficult for those “good” kids to learn.  All the while, these same schools will tell you how invested they are in restorative justice. Grades don’t just communicate how good someone is at something, the insidious links between grades and morality mean that they communicate how good someone is and what they deserve as a result.

I’ve written before about Cornelius Minor’s concept of “deservedness”—“I’ll agree to teach you if you show me you deserve it”—which is, bluntly, one of the most substantial roadblocks to any change in schools, but especially changes around grading.  Deservedness is pervasive.  It allows us, individually and systemically, to disinvest from some kids because they aren’t worth the time; they haven’t, based on our construction of it, earned our attention and expertise.  I think about all the conversations I’ve had over the years with teachers, especially in AP and honors classes, who vehemently argued for students to be removed who they believed didn’t meet some mythical standard; they didn’t “belong.”  Pushing students out of these environments, either overtly or covertly, was an act of violence, but, under deservedness, that violence was justified.  Put differently, the rationale is that while these students didn’t “earn” the time, expertise, attention, or seat in the class (“they haven’t ever gotten above a C- in English”), they did “earn” the harm resulting from being pushed out by virtue of their metrics and what those metrics signify.  It saddens me to think about how far we are from Jesse Stommel and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s seemingly simple statement: “We must teach the students we have, not the students we wish we had.”  Unsurprisingly, the narratives of deservedness become self-fulfilling, as our actions create conditions where students on the margins are denied dignity, opportunity, and care because they aren’t the students we wished we had.  The link between grading and morality has impeded our construction of humanized classrooms and schools, and it has given us permission to not ask any questions about those who we disinvest from because based on our ranking, sorting, ordering, and judging, they don’t deserve it.  Mariame Kaba talks about the way that we have been conditioned to look away from “profound harms,” especially for those we think worthy of harm, and that’s at work here.   These students that were casting off only deserve what they’ve got coming to them, right?

Breaking the link between grades and morality is imperative if we hope to build restorative schooling environments, and breaking that link requires us to rid ourselves of deservedness.  This isn’t about us being nice or kind, a trap that Cornelius Minor also warns us about, and it isn’t about shifting toward some list of “best practices,” but it is about taking fundamental steps to reorient ourselves and the systems in which we work toward the intersection of equity and care in ways large and small.  This means divesting ourselves and our systems from deservedness and untangling ourselves and our systems from practices like grading, which are manifestations of deservedness.  Our endless celebration and valorization of “good” grades and the “good” people that get them has limited the field of possibilities.  Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s equity-care matrix helps us imagine what it can look like at the intersection of equity and care, pushing us beyond the limitations of our imagination:

“Socially just care” lives at the intersection of equity and care in the upper right quadrant of Bali and Zamora’s equity-care matrix.

Per Bali and Zamora, “Socially just care, rather, promotes social justice and parity of participation in its designs and planned processes, and is enacted with care such that it always iterates to nurture self-determination, agency and justice for all involved, in whatever manner meets their diverse care needs, and addresses the multiple dimensions of injustice individuals and groups may face.” Deservedness asks us to remove those who we think are undeserving, but operating at the intersection of equity and care asks us to design spaces with the fundamental goal of ensuring people can come as they are without having to be someone or something they’re not.  When we rid ourselves of deservedness, we stop looking for off-ramps and installing trap doors, and we start installing nets, handrails, and guideposts.  We stop looking for reasons for people to leave, and we start considering how to help them stay.  No one has to “earn” their place by living up to standards that we invent.  In this, grading, as a manifestation of deservedness, cannot exist in any traditional way at the intersection of equity and care.  We can’t have both ways: either we lean into restorative and transformative principles, or we continue to lean into deservedness and its offshoots.

Unraveling our ties to deservedness and its manifestations is a process often slowed by feelings, especially the feelings of the most powerful.  I mentioned Mariame Kaba earlier, and one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from abolitionists is that personal feelings are less important than the transformation of material conditions to reduce and prevent harm.  When we engage in endless “change management” to protect feelings, we lose sight of the need for a vision, a comprehensive set of core values, on which our work needs to rest.  Relying too much on our personal feelings—and notions of emotional satisfaction—have led us to deservedness, and, now, we’re required to take a different path if we’re committed to humanizing schools, especially if we want to claim were as committed to practices restorative justice as we say.

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