We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part I

I guess I should start by saying that I do not grade.

What is the purpose of grades? I find myself questioning them more and more. At their heart they are supposed to show ability levels of above average to below average, with the majority of grades for an assignment being around a C. This makes our coveted bell curve that we are taught is ideal.

But what is average? Average compared to what? To just the other kids in their class? To all my students? All students in the school in similar classes? Or are we talking compared to state or nationally? In the end, what is the point in the larger context?

I am torn in far too many directions on this issue. I hear and understand the arguments of grades reflecting the ability level of students when compared to a rubric, especially a widely used one like an essay writing rubric. However, isn’t the goal of education to bring all students to mastery level? If so, why are we using a scale that claims average is a C. We argue this idea of mastery and approaching standards, while grading them on a system that argues average vs. above average.

I read an argument on this from Penn State where they had changed the definition of grades from the “average” scale to the “achievement” scale. In the view of the authors, it was still acceptable to receive a grade of C and students should still be considered for masters programs for a 2.00 as they had fulfilled the objectives of the previous courses to an acceptable level. Their goal was to limit the number of high achieving students who were making it onto deans lists due to watered down grading policies. The exclusivity of these lists was diminishing.

This argument reminded me of a class I had last year. In one of my AP World History classes, my sophomores were going through credit checks and one of the many excellent students I was blessed to have, came walking back in cheering how she was Ranked #1 for her class. It helps to know some about this student as she is usually never very openly confident in her abilities, even if everyone around her knows she is an excellent student and tries to remind her.

However, when she came in singing her joy of her accomplishment, another student in the class, a friend of hers and a very blunt child that I love, announced to her and the class, without hesitation, that she was in a class of #1s and they were all tied for #1 so she wasn’t special. While this scene was hilarious, as the laughing response from the now deflated child was to let her have her 5 minutes of happiness, it did speak to a larger issue of what exclusivity was there to rankings or honors distinctions.

Looking into this, I found that many school districts have begun the process of eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions and replacing them with the cum laude system. Reading many of these articles, the common theme was that it allowed for more students to achieve some type of top honors to help them in their collegiate pursuits and the competitive nature of the former system placed too much pressure on students. Is the goal then just to get all students into college or to inflate the abilities of students, making them feel smarter or more prepared for the future than they really are? As a colleague once said to me, we are no longer educators, we are now graduators. It seems that the end goal of education is to not only get the kids through the hoops to get a diploma but to get them all through with higher honors and GPAs, even if the ability level isn’t there.

Proof of this can be found in remediation rates of students entering into college.

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear. I DO NOT think it is the goal of primary and secondary schools to get students into college. College is not for everyone in my opinion and many successful, wealthy people either never went to or dropped out of college. I will get into this more at some other time though.

However, what the results show is that remediation in college is increasing. In 2001, the average percent of high school graduates that attended college who needed remediation was around a 33%. By 2010, the number has grown to about 50%. Two important places where remediation has skyrocketed are New York and Florida. Under the guidance of Gov. Jeb Bush and Joel Klein‘s data driven accountability education model, remediation rates rose to upwards of +70% (I wonder where DC schools will be once the dust settles from Michelle Rhee).

So what does this all mean? For me it means that grades are less and less important or even irrelevant. What do they really say? One view of this is the College Boards use of the AP test scores. The AP Board is very active in explaining that their scores and pass rates are not indications of standards assessments. They also adjust their results year to year as the tests themselves are not designed from one textbook or state curriculum. There just isn’t enough time to teach all the facts of world history in one year. It is not a test of facts and details. It is a test of critical thinking and analysis. It is a competition with fellow students and the AP Board strives to balance the successes of students on the exam while still keeping it difficult to promote exclusivity and rigor. The AP Board knows that if everyone who took the test and ended up passing the test, then colleges would devalue it more and stop accepting it.

In the end, this is only a fraction of the national debate over grades. Universities have been in deep discussions over these issues and others, such as grade inflation or course rigor from discipline to discipline. There are other issues of community, culture, necessity, political motives of leaders both inside of and outside of education and countless others factors adding to the complexity of this issue. From a simple A-F system of 50 years ago, we have created a monster where the image of a student or a school trumps the integrity of the assessment and the true ability levels of our children.

Next post I will further discuss this issue and explain how I have begun to approach this Goliath in my own classroom. Until then, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. Also, send any topic ideas to me as well as i am always looking for things to spark a conversation about. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

House Rules


A couple weeks back while talking with a colleague about Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education, we found ourselves discussing the creative projects we had while in school. For me, one came up that I hadn’t thought of since high school. I remember never really caring for the teacher much so it wasn’t surprising that I had blocked out the memories of that class.

Unfortunately this has caused me to miss some great lesson ideas for my own class. The project in question was simple really. The teacher came in with about 6 different board games (one was more of a card game) that most of us had never seen before. They might have been long discontinued games, lost to history, or as some of us also believed, a Frankenstein collection of many games tossed together; the board of this game, the game pieces from another, the cards from a third. We were then put into small groups and told to come up with the name of the game, the background on the concept, create the rule book and demonstrate to the class how it would be played. This was a high school English class and we were making up games as if we were 6 again.

What I didn’t realize at the time, but have come to appreciate as a teacher now, was how deeply thought out this assignment was. We had to work as a team, present to a class, be creative, think outside of the box, and write out a story and rule book, testing our language skills. There were so many elements and layers to the assignment, especially for something that I think only took up three classes, or just under three hours.

What this memory really did for me was to get me to question many of my memories from my own education, I thought back to all those teachers I deemed “bad” teachers and forced myself to think of specifically what made them so bad. The surprising thing I discovered was that few actually exhibited any traits, outside of personality differences, that I would label as poor teaching qualities. Sure, some were controversial, but it was that controversy that drove the classes I was in to rise up, primarily because as a class we hated them so much that we wanted to shove it back in their face. In the end, the joke was on us because we would end up learning the most in those classes.

So to my current stint as a teacher and the national rhetoric over failing classrooms. Everyday I hear of this teacher or that teacher being a “bad” teacher. In my first two years, I made it a point to seek these teachers out to discover for myself if they were weak teachers. More often than not, they weren’t. They were just controversial or many times just socially awkward which gave the impression to other teachers that they were somehow flawed. This isn’t to argue that we don’t have weak teachers in schools. We do but I argue that many that we think are failing, might somehow be a quiet genius.

This came up as I began to question the running list in my head of teachers I knew that had been labeled as weak. Three shot to the top of the list so I began to do my own investigating. I would look at data, because that’s were we all turn to first, but I also asked current and former students their impressions, pressing them to see if they had learned anything, as well as taking into account the subject, grade and specific students they had, especially in relation to the data.

What I have begun to see is that while none of them, nor I for that matter, are great teachers, we are all good teachers. One of the general trends of them all is that they are all controversial, both in and out of the classroom. They will take unpopular sides of arguments to spur deep debate. When I would first ask the students if they were good teachers, one of the three was always a no and very unpopular but once I dug deeper, causing the student to evaluate what, if anything, they had learned, they all seemed to find out that they now knew both sides of the topic deeply.

While I am still not sold on the greater effectiveness of their methods or my own, I am reminded of a few platitudes, such as never judging a book by it’s cover and remembering that the rules and guides of teaching are are not written into stone. Sometimes we need to make our own house rules to fit our own personalities, classroom cultures and teaching styles. There is no one method to teaching. There is no golden playbook to mastery.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms

Well, I stumbled upon Sir Ken Robinson once I discovered Fora.tv. Fora has to be one of the greatest websites. I like TED but I have enjoyed Fora much more. Back to the point though. In the above video, a group called RSA Animate, take a ten minute clip of his longer talk (which you can find here) and add an animation to it.

I use this video in my own classroom to spur discussions on history and how we use or don’t use history to learn about our current world. I usually begin by stopping the video immediately to discuss the artist drawing in the clip. I will take a second to see if I have any artists in the room and if I do, I ask them what class they hate the most. This usually makes them uncomfortable but after making sure they know that whatever the answer is, including my own class, I just want honesty, even letting them know that I didn’t particularly care for history when I was their age.

However, what I usually hear is that Art is their least liked class. When I ask them why, a general response is that they don’t get to draw or paint or design what they really want. This is the response I am looking for. I explain to them that in my opinion, Art class in high school has less to do with turning them into artists or refining their skills and more to do with having them learn the skill, beauty, thought and power found in art. It is more about an appreciation for art.

So this leads me back to the video where I ask them how the artist in the video became so good. They usually agree that it takes time, practice, dedication and passion. We will then have a conversation about whether higher education would be the best route this gentleman should have taken in life. We will discuss the financial costs verse the long term benefits of those costs. We will discuss who they would higher if they owned RSA Animate, the artist with a portfolio of work or the artist with a degree. There may also be some other side conversations around this whole discussion but remembering them all would be a nightmare.

Finally I will play the film. However, I will never just let it run, I must stop it occasionally (I developed this horrible habit from my first Master Teacher, Mr. Madnikoff). Even though it is drawn out for them, I want to make sure that they understand what is being discussed so I will stop it occasionally to make sure they are all still on track. By the end I will begin another class discussion and have them talk about the purpose of learning history, the value of a college education, a debate over what students should and should not go to college and what careers are connected to those students and what is the current state of public education.

I’ve enjoyed doing this in my classroom for a couple years now and I am wondering all of your thoughts on Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas. Share them below and continue the conversation. If you enjoyed this video, watch his full talk here.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Also, please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

The Godmother of Education

I linked this video as my first post but I feel it needs to be addressed again. This quick ten minute video is a MUST watch for everyone, no matter their background. It needs to be shared and pushed more by all of us to all of our friends and family. Its TEN (10) minutes. If you can’t spare that much time, you might be putting too much on your plate.

However, after you have watched this quick ten minute video and you feel like you need more, maybe a plan of action, then plan out a couple hours to watch her extended talk at the Chautauqua Institution for Fora.tv. In this video she details the current trends in education and solutions we must take to overcome our disparities. I have tried my best to change what I do in my classroom towards these solutions and so far I have found great success and have only seen the results increase.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The Flat World and Education


Linda Darling-Hammond: The Flat World and Education from Chautauqua Institution on FORA.tv

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The State of the Public Schools

Recently I have been trying to piece together my educational ideology. I remember doing a couple of these for education classes. Unfortunately they were all from before I had even set foot into a classroom.

Reflecting back on my education it still astounds me that the most important part of becoming a teacher, the class time, is reserved until the last semesters. Nevertheless, I came across one of my old educational philosophies the other day. Curious, I read the grade I received, a B, then proceeded to see what ideas I had come up with. After getting a third of the way through and reading far too many power words and popular theories that I was sprinkling throughout the paper, I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore and placed the document in the trash can.

My curiosity didn’t subside however. I sat back trying to think of what my educational ideology was and ended up in an argument with myself. What I found was a broad scattering of ideals and theories, but little in the way of a weaving pattern that complimented each other. I realized that I needed to nail down my own belief systems on education into something tangible. I needed to bring together all of the experts, research studies, books and theories that I had been collecting all these years and see what bigger narrative I had.

What I found was that there are four main influences to my educational ideology. These different aspects come from a variety of sources and in the future I hope to share them and their authors with all of you. But to begin with, next post I will mention yet again the greatest influence I have ever come across as a teacher: Linda Darling-Hammond.

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My Castle.


My classroom is beginning to take shape. My former and current students are slowly decorating with personal items and the year is beginning to settle down. Soon I will finish the five posts I begun. I’m formulating my educational beliefs after four years of this. Let’s see how it goes. Until then, stay happy and strong.