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.

Stop “Assuming Positive Intent”

Image ID: A red traffic light against a cloudless blue sky.

Since the start of the school year is here, the tweets from districts and leaders about their values for the year are here, too. A common thread in many of these tweets is some form of the phrase “assume positive intent,” which is generally designed to be a banal, inoffensive way to talk about belonging or inclusion.  At best, “assume positive intent” is kind of boilerplate corporate eduspeak, but, at worst, the phrase stands in the way of the generative conflict and accountability schools and districts need to foster equity, justice, and belonging.    

“Assume positive intent” is an example of what Paul Gorksi calls an “equity detour,” an action taken to divert attention, resources, and sustained commitment to justice.  It allows us to stay “clean,” by avoiding questions about our own beliefs and actions and the beliefs and actions of the systems in which we operate.  “Assume positive intent” is an example of Gorski’s first detour: “pacing for privilege.”  In this detour, the feelings and needs of those least committed to equity and justice over those who are directly harmed by inequity and injustice.  “Assume positive intent” allows us, individually and systemically, to gloss over harmful actions, practices, and policies without naming them as harmful; it privileges the intent of the actor, not how the action, practice, or policy impacts people.  Put differently, meaning well isn’t enough; we must commit to doing well, and “assume positive intent” discourages that because there’s never any real accountability.  “Assume positive intent” creates a context where equity and justice are individually and collectively optional rather than required.  The list of harmful policies and practices implemented and supported because of “good intentions”—“responsibility rooms,” culturally unresponsive curriculum, traditional grading—is bottomless.

Accountability is an important component of systems that prioritize equity and justice, and “assume positive intent” allows people and systems to avoid taking it.  When we “assume positive intent,” there’s always plausible deniability for harm.  “I didn’t know” or “I meant something else” impede our ability to own the harm caused, make a genuine apology, and take actions to make that harm less possible in the future.  I’m grateful for Maha Bali and Mia Zamora’s words here, too, about making schools and classrooms intentionally equitably hospitable: “I didn’t know” is an insufficient response to systemic injustice or partial care.  Doing better is required.  In other words, accountability isn’t about—or shouldn’t be about—punishment, but it is about transforming ourselves and the systems that we’re in. 

Mariame Kaba, invoking Shannon Perez-Darby, says that accountability is “a process that we do with ourselves for ourselves.  When we’re being accountable to ourselves, we’re acting in a way that honors our values.  We’re acting with integrity by taking responsibility for who we are in the world and living in alignment with our values.”  If someone is harmed and then we ask the harmed person to “assume positive intent,” who is being seen, heard, and valued?  Who is accountable, and to what?  In a school setting, when teachers act in ways that harm students, students should not be asked to be the burden of “assuming positive intent” to make the problem go away for the powers that be.  Instead, we need to ask the person committing the harm to be accountable; someone was harmed, whether that was the intent or not.

This raises the issue of generative conflict, which is required for us to grow toward equity and justice personally and systemically.  “Assume positive intent” is a silencing mechanism that avoids conflict—and its possible fallout—at all costs. Again, the goal of the leaders using this term is to stay “clean.”  One of the major ways that “assume positive intent” avoids conflict is by seeing each instance of harm as a separate individual issue rather than as part of larger systems and structures that make harm possible.  Put differently, “assume positive intent” allows the “one bad apple” theory to thrive; it seems harm as an individual problem rather than seeing the systems that prop up, support, enable, and even elevate the harmer and others like them.  While individuals taking accountability for harm is important, it is as—if not more—important for systems, structures, and organizations to take accountability for their harm and work to permanently eradicate that harm.  Systemic solutions are generally preferable to individual solutions.   This is not a statement that people can’t grow and change, they absolutely can, but “assuming positive intent” isn’t a path forward to that growth.  If we’re truly committed to equity and justice, we can’t blame the victim and change the subject when harm occurs.  It’s time to get messy.

I want to make a quick distinction here between “assuming positive intent” and the concept of “unconditional positive regard,” which Alex Shevrin Venet writes about.  These are not the same: unconditional positive regard asks us to care for all those in our orbit relationally and building relationships with them not out of a transactional need, but a desire to genuinely connect with them.  The desire to stay in relationship and care for those in our organizations is powerful; accountability is not about exile, but about being in—and remaining in—community.  This is challenging work, especially since this isn’t our default mode of operation.  “Assuming positive intent” is different because it ignores the power plays at work and asks victims of harm to sweep their feelings away to avoid conflict and difficult conversations about equity and justice.

If you’re a leader, there’s still time to rethink your messaging and your values before this year starts.  Instead of “assuming positive intent,” let’s lean back into generative conflict and the equity and justice work that’s in line with equity and justice values.  Help your people and systems be accountable to grow, change, and evolve to be safer for everyone. 

No detours, no distractions, no diversions.

Ungrading and Saviorism

first-aid-gce2f88335_1920In my previous role as an instructional coach and a department chair, I felt strongly about advocating for grading reform, especially given the multiple ongoing crises impacting students.  My students spoke openly about the negative effects of grading on their mental health, and a few even worked on a grading reform project that surveyed their peers and made recommendations to experts based on research they’ve done about alternative methods.  Unsurprisingly, the resistance was fierce, and some of the fiercest resistance was around whether ungraded classrooms could prepare students for the rigorous expectations of college professors and corporate bosses.  One colleague even said that ungrading encourages students to “want something for nothing,” as he vigorously defended traditional grading as way to instill notions of capitalist accountability, which he saw as vital to the work of schooling.  Ungrading was just a fancy name for low expectations.

I started taking steps toward ungrading about a decade ago because grades negatively impacted my relationships with students and students’ relationships with their work in the course.  While I’d encourage students to take risks in their work in ideas, genre, and form, my reliance on traditional grading sent a different message.  After all, we are what we do.  Because of the mixed messages, students often took the surest path to an “A,” even when they were encouraged to do more.  Who can blame them?  Over time, I grew resentful that students played it safe, and they were resentful that my words seem disingenuous based on my actions.  This mutual frustration wasn’t sustainable, especially if I was going to stay in teaching.

This story isn’t unique—I’ve told it before, and it probably mirrors the origin story of many other ungraders—but lifting again feels critical to make the point that, for me, ungrading wasn’t about what students couldn’t do, but what they could do when they weren’t, as Alfie Kohn says, punished by rewards.  Put differently, I turned to ungrading because I had higher expectations—not lower expectations—for both my teaching and my students’ learning.  One of my biggest realizations about traditional grading was how just how much pushing students toward a single standard that I created based on preferences, experiences, and ways of knowing was rooted in pervasive deficit orientations.

Problematically, deficit orientations combined with good intentions—“preparing students for college” “upholding standards”—is saviorism (Alex Shevrin Venet’s work is vital on this topic, especially for white teachers).  Part of my moving away from saviorism and restoring my relationship with students on healthier terms required me to also move away from traditional grading.  Imagine thinking so highly of yourself and so little of your students that you believed their only motivation is points.  This is, at least in some circles, and prevailing view, and to borrow from Jesse Stommel, if we believe that students need a reason as banal as points to do our work, then they’ll likely believe it, too.  For me, breaking up with traditional grading meant breaking up with my ego, and it made me a better teacher by compelling me to, with students, consider reasons for our work together that pushed beyond banal point accumulation; we leaned into purpose, into mission, into values, and into imagination and world building.  I had to listen, to be wrong, to be apologize, to repair harm I had caused, and to change my actions.

There are some things to acknowledge here: ungrading, like anything, can also be a weapon that causes harm (we might think of Autumm Caines’ work on the weaponization of care as an example); sometimes ungrading can also cross into savorism, especially if the shift isn’t rooted in high expectations or accompanied by changes to the pernicious pedagogies underlying traditional grading.  In other words, simply “going pointless” tomorrow isn’t going to change much at all, maybe except the window dressing.  We can ungrade and still find ourselves complicit with grading when our philosophies and core values are still doggedly rooted in compliance, command, and control, our practices still compel students to perform to a single standard, and our personal interactions with students lack relational care and are abundant in what Cornelius Minor calls “deservedness.”   Jesse Stommel, as usual, tells us what we might need to hear: “We can’t simply take away grades without re-examining all of our pedagogical approaches, and this work looks different for each teacher, in each context, and with each group of students.”  Jesse warns us to beware of the Zeitgeist.

There’s nothing particularly heroic or sexy about ungrading; it’s comprised of small-yet-intentional changes—what we might call “micro-moves”—over an entire career to make learning environments more humanizing and relationally caring.  There’s no seismic shift, shining spotlight, grand pronouncement, or enduring fame, and that’s okay.  I just wanted better relationships with students and students wanted to have more freedom, so I had to figure out, in my classroom, how to make that happen, and I’m ever grateful for a network of people that helped—and continue to help—me, whether they know it or not.  I hope that the might help someone else in the same way I’ve been helped.  Each time we model just practices and relational care, help create conditions for students to feel safe taking intellectual risks, or see students advocate against harmful systems and structures, especially those based on flawed foundations like rigor, accountability, ranking, sorting, and exclusion, we’re pushing against the traditional system, urgently, even if it might feel like we’re moving in slow-motion.

Ungrading doesn’t make you a savior, but, if you’re like me, it might stop you from trying to be one.

Meeting the Moment: Equity and Care at the Crossroads

Last week, Maha Bali and Mia Zamora gave an incredible keynote on the intersections—or lack of intersections—of equity and care in our learning and community spaces.  The crowdsourced talk was a meditation on what happens when we one exists without the other—when we have equity without care or care without equity—and the answers aren’t great.  One of the most powerful slides in the keynote was an equity-care framework that works to uncover what happens when the relationships between equity and care aren’t symbiotic:

I’ve been grappling with the equity-care dynamic in the spaces that I’m in for a long time without much success.  Since virtual learning started back in March, my questions have become more insistent and persistent about the work we’re doing and how we’re doing it in classrooms, schools, and districts.  Prior to Maha and Mia’s keynote, I haven’t really found anything that allowed me to say much about what I thought was happening in the spaces I’m in on a day-to-day basis, so I’m really grateful to them for giving us some vocabulary to talk meaningfully about what we’re seeing.

From my perspective, there’s a strong focus on equity, its presence is undeniable and there are people doing the hard work to ensure the rhetoric matches the reality even if that promise remains distant, but the work around building a culture of care is more sporadic, episodic, and misunderstood.  In other words, my space is one of emergent equity and nascent care.  In some ways, this isn’t surprising. The backlash to care is somewhat predictable at this point:

  1. We need to prepare students for the so-called “real world,” and being “soft” isn’t going to steel them for what’s next.  If we’re talking about adult care, we assume that professional life really doesn’t contain care, which is both a systemic problem and an institutional one.  Sometimes the lack of care shown to teachers finds its way into how teachers treat students.
  2. The common refrain of “I’m not a babysitter,” a phrase which got a lot of use when schools were trying to decide how to handle the fall.  The problematic racialized, gendered denigration of the labor reveals why care fails to take root: many seem to think it’s just not that important.  The idea that “babysitter” is pejorative and takes away from the other parts of work is an interesting assumption that speaks to why care is so difficult to enact and why it generates so much resistance when enacted.
  3. Care can’t be quantified or measured by any traditional metric, which makes it difficult to square with an institutional desire for quantitative data.  Doing the long, slow work of care can seem “unproductive” by traditional measures, and it can seem, much like “babysitting” above, that it’s taking away from the “real” (academic) work of school.

Maybe it’s worth pausing here to define care, at least as I see it.  My definitions of care come from Press Press’ Sanctuary Manifesto and Be Oakley’s take on it in Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance.  In both cases, there is an emphasis on making space for marginalized folx to design and enact sanctuary for their own comfort rather for the comfort of those in dominant positions, as Oakley makes the point that spaces marked “safe” by privileged people might not be.  They write:

The premise of inviting people to define sanctuary for themselves allows for folks to dictate the terms of what spaces can be safe for them.  In building up these places of sanctuary, they may or may not be a physical site, communities dictate their own parameters for these spaces.  These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.

In the equity-care matrix, equity without care is defined by “tokenism” or by the idea of “diversity theatre,” initiatives that look good for cameras and on pamphlets, but that aren’t rooted in the very careful, deliberative work of building the trust-filled relationships on which care depends.  One of the things that drew me into Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius so deeply was her insistence throughout the book on prioritizing care before anything else:

Before we get to the curriculum and standards, our students need to know that they are loved.  bell hooks said that love is always knowing that we belong.  But we don’t just need love, but a critical love that works to disrupt and dismantle oppression.

Without care or critical love, equity can easily get distilled to a box-checking exercise rather than a commitment to rethinking how we teach and how we live our lives, especially if we inhabit privileged identities. I have a colleague who uses the phrase “love to understanding” to talk about relationships with students, and it’s brilliant and difficult.  I see this happen somewhat frequently in our line of work: having an inclusive classroom library is important, building a representative curriculum that everyone can access is critical, but if our relationships with students are still rooted in command-and-control power dynamics or we don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully facilitate conversations around students’ identities and sociopolitical realities in our class, we really haven’t instituted care as much as we’ve performed a role.  Putting a picture of a Black mathematician on the wall is good and important, but not if your pedagogies remain such that students don’t aren’t safe or cared for within that space.  The discussions and chats, particularly on Twitter, get caught in the equity-care asymmetry sometimes.  In a tweet from Maha and Mia’s keynote, Cate Denial puts it better than I can:

Equity without care reduces structural changes to a set of technocratic procedures or a blunt-force outcome that doesn’t consider the actual human beings impacted.  Equity without care can make the very people we’re trying to build with seem wholly abstract.  This happens a lot in schools: programmatic needs win out over people needs.  Kids before content is something we’ve been hearing about lately, and it may seem like a saccharine slogan, but there’s something to it. I’ve seen it on Twitter, I’ve heard my principal say it, I’ve heard some colleagues say it, and so we’ll have to take some time in our own reflections, with our departments and schools, and in our districts to determine what and how that means in our contexts.  This work is both urgent and ongoing; it is both immediate and always.

One issue at the forefront for me is the ways in which we put marginalized students into various equity-minded programs that don’t account for their safety or well-being, which sometimes happens because of a savior mentality and other times because we care more about the data students produce than the students themselves.  This also becomes true when we tie ourselves to standard grading and assessment mechanisms that are largely defective; we become so tied to a system or a program that the numbers mean more than the person behind those numbers because there are real lives at stake right now: students are isolated, depressed, angry, tired, and simply doing everything they can to do another day on Zoom.  Punitive grading isn’t going help.  This means that a large part of the intersection between care and equity means letting students make the important decisions about the spaces they are in and why; it’s about them telling us what they need, not us telling them what they need.  If we’re honest, students are going to do work in classes where they feel affirmed and cared for, but they’ll check out of spaces where content and control seem to matter more than they do.  As Maha and Mia say in their keynote, “maybe someone needs care more than apples today.” 

Maybe a student needs care more than math or science or English or social studies today, too.  Care doesn’t alleviate the need for students to learn important skills, but it does make more learning possible for more students. We learn when we are safe, comfortable, and cared for.

Working with students and our larger communities to determine what care means in our different contexts is really important because care can come under fire.  Care is an act of resistance, and resistance means its counterforces.  Our advocacy needs to be ready when that happens, and our core values need to meet the moment.  When we sit down to determine how and why our environments are or aren’t caring, we rarely have a discussion about our core values–sometimes we don’t know them, and sometimes they’re difficult to dig up and confront–so we try to build systems, programs, schemes, and initiatives instead. From where I sit, there isn’t a way to “programmatize” care: we’re can’t set up elaborate systems of extrinsic reward and think that the homework pass or the t-shirt make students feel like we care about them.  No amount of what Jerry Muller calls “metric fixation” is digging us out or bringing us together. Incentives can’t replace the difficult and diligent work of care.

I’ve often wondered what might happen if teachers saw themselves more as community organizers first and content experts second.  Community organizers, more than any group of people, know the value of personal relationships built over a long series of trust-building interactions, they know what happens when people feel safe and trusted, and, maybe most importantly, they know the value of small victories. This is what some of Marshall Ganz’s and adrienne maree brown’s best work is about.  Great community organizers don’t worry too much about metrics, but they definitely understand scale: we have to start small to dream big.

Care happens at granular, individual levels; it’s enacted in small, personal ways that add up.  The responsibility of care is heavy—it’s on our shoulders to enact or to refuse—and that’s scary because it’s immeasurably different, requires sacrifice of control and content, and a rearranging of core priorities, but care is the work of sanctuary, and sanctuary is what students are telling us they need now more than ever.

We can only meet this moment of danger, uncertainty, hate, and chaos with care; we won’t meet it with cruelty.