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Student Achievement Opinion

Grades Are Lousy Preparation for Life

By Starr Sackstein — June 30, 2019 4 min read

Guest post by Douglas W. Green, Ed.D.

In 1976, my school got its first microcomputer. After the top students taught me how it worked, the math department chair and I invented the school’s first programming course, which I taught. That was a real eye-opener, as I quickly realized that a program either worked or it didn’t. Students could have 95 percent of the code correct, and the program would be useless.

As a student, your job is essentially to get grades for a living and grades in the 90s are very good. When students are turned loose in the real world, doing 90-plus percent of most jobs means it’s not done and may be worthless. Even teachers must post 100 percent of their grades if they want to be considered competent. You can’t build a car with 99 percent of its electrical components without expecting short circuits.

A musician who hits 90 percent of the correct notes won’t go far. Success in a video game usually requires correct moves far above 90 percent of the time. Even checkout cashiers had better scan all of your groceries if they want to keep their jobs, as supermarkets have small profit margins.

There Are Some Jobs Where Your Batting Average Counts

If you are a baseball player, you have the luxury of only getting a hit every third trip to the plate to be considered first rate. You can even make an occasional error or two in the field and still keep your job. In manufacturing, you are likely to have a few duds roll off the assembly line, but it better be very few (way less than 1 percent) if you want to stay in business.

Lawyers who argue cases in court have batting averages, too, but those who take high-risk cases will have a lower win rate. In their case, all they need do is put in the time, argue the case, and send the bill to stay in business as long as a losing reputation doesn’t result in a lot less work.

It’s easy for surgeons to know how many people survive after their operations, but the quality of the work will still have a subjective element. In some fields, the idea of fail and try again comes into play. If you are an engineer or an inventor, your first efforts are likely to fail. Thomas Edison was famous for the number of failures he had on his way to inventing the light bulb. In essence, these people either score 100 percent if it works or 0 percent if it doesn’t.

In the art world, you are successful if people like your work, and the only number that applies to a work of art is the price someone is willing to pay for it. When it comes to animators, they need to consistently create video that moves smoothly in either two or three dimensions if they want to stay on the payroll.

Some Jobs Have Numeric Metrics and Some Don’t

In manufacturing and sales, it’s easy to know how many products you have produced and sold. A bricklayer will know how many bricks have been laid at the end of the day. Many jobs have deadlines, and it’s easy to know if you have hit them or not. A mail carrier is done when all of the packages and letters have been delivered.

Unfortunately, the business and political class want teachers and schools to have objective numeric metrics that they can be judged by. That’s why we are currently stuck with standardized tests that are unreliable, invalid, and widely misused. As a principal, department chair, and consultant, I have been evaluating teachers since 1976 (43 years). In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that there is no numeric way to judge the quality of teachers.

That’s not to say there are not things you can look for while observing someone teach. You don’t have to spend a lot of time doing an observation to tell if a teacher is doing a good job. I look for signs of respect between students and teachers and good working relationships.

  • Are the students engaged in a lesson or are they bored or acting out?

  • Are students allowed to work at their own pace and pursue their own interests at least some of the time?

  • Are they taking advantage of the available technology?

There are other criteria, but these examples should give you the idea. Schools that use criteria like these often come up with some kind of numeric rating, but there is still room for subjective judgment.

Some metrics are subjective. Many sports have subjective scoring. Gymnastics, figure skating, surfing, and diving come to mind. Judges in these sports need to have experience watching and looking for aspects that imply quality efforts just like the classroom observer, but I don’t hear politicians arguing that these sports should eliminate subjective judgments.

Let Students Analyze Which Jobs Need Objective and/or Subjective Scores

Consider asking your students or children to scan the real world for jobs they might be interested in. Ask them to pick some jobs that require college degrees and some that don’t. Once they have their lists of jobs, ask them how they would determine if someone is doing the job in a proficient manner. Ask if there are any numbers that can be used and ask if any of the jobs need to be judged subjectively. If so, what would they look for?

This would be a good way to help connect school with the real world, and it might help some students find a career direction. This is important, as too many students have no idea what they want to do after school, which is due in some part to the way school makes them endlessly strive for grades. By analyzing how to judge job performance, they may be better prepared to succeed when they get a real job. You can also ask them how they would judge teacher quality.

*Picture made using Twitter: @DrDougGreen Blog: https://DrDougGreen.Com Book: Teaching Isn't Rocket Science, It's Way More Complex: What's Wrong with Education and How to Fix Some of It.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.