Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Fifteen: Progressive Versus Regressive Grading Systems in Schools


This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

This series is appropriate at this time in Toronto and in Ontario, Canada, because of the recent almost general strike that was initiated by the strike of 55,000 education workers that officially began on November 4, 2022 and that spread through strike support by other unions, parents and concerned citizens, immigrants and migrant workers (for detals see the previous post  The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism).

The Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU) included in its demands an increase in staffing levels in schools for custodians, librarians educational assistants and so forth. This seems progressive–an attempt to encroach on the perceived inherent management right of hiring–and in some ways it is. The sanctity of the principle of management’s rights to determing staffing levels was questioned. However, this still is a purely quantitative question–how many workers are to be allocated to the given school system. There is no questioning of the adequate nature of the school system in its various aspects. The standard is still the present school system, and what OBSCU sought to vary was the staffing level of a presupposed fixed school system.

What is needed is a critique of the school system and not just quantitative changes. That was the purpose of writing this and other posts in this series.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The reference to Janet’s “intensive supervision” is to Janet Martell, superintendent of Lakeshore School Division at the time. Following a clinical supervision performed by Neil MacNeil, principal at the time of Ashern Central School (I will elaborate on this at a future date), Ms. Martell decided to place me on “intensive supervision,” which meant that I would be directly supervised by her.

Grading Systems and Equity in Schools

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
The attached article refers to the ritual practice of grading (marking) in schools.

Janet, during the conference that was to lead to my “intensive supervision,” indicated that she and I could have a debate about whether formative and summative assessment were contradictory later on during the conference (I had contended that they easily could be in my response to Neil’s exemplary assessment). I declined such a challenge—given the context. [Summative assessment is the typical grading system in school, with either letter grades or percentage grades. Formative assessment is feedback by the teacher to the student for the purpose of improving the work of the student.] 

The question that should be asked is: Would Janet have challenged me to such a debate outside that particular context? Would I have declined to debate her if the context had been different? The answers to those questions would be instructive about the nature of our society.

I prefaced the article with the following:

The following article, “An Amercian Ritual : Grading as a Cultural Function,” though dated, provides an overview of some of the equity issues surrounding grading. The author, N. Ray Hiner, points out that the grading system constitutes a constant experience of children and adolescents during their school years. It symbolizes, among other things, a reward system for students. Students become used to having their work quantified and, by implication, themselves quantified on a comparative basis.  Grades are the currency or money of the school system.

The distribution of rewards in American (and Canadian) society seems to be a function of two principles. On the one hand, individual achievement should be rewarded. On the other hand, there should be equality between individuals. Equal opportunity is seen by many as a compromise between the two principles.

The two principles, however, can easily clash, and different grading systems approach one or the other end of the two principles most closely. (A superintendent, Janet Martell, contended that formative assessment and summative assessment hardly need clash. This was in the context of the employer-employee relation, with her being a representative of the employer and I being an employee. Given the imbalance in power in such a relation, I did not think that a debate with the superintendent would achieve anything. However, if any principal or superintendent would care to enter an open debate with me (provided they do not represent an employer vis-à-vis me), I am open to engaging in such a debate. By the way, the superintendent evidently believes in outcome-based education and criterion-referenced assessment.)

The author argues that different grading systems are more or less egalitarian and more or less achievement-oriented. The least egalitarian but the most achievement oriented is, ironically, criterion-referenced grading systems (which the Manitoba Department of Education has adopted in the form of learning outcomes). The author does not elaborate to any great extent why it is the least egalitarian, but it can be surmised that students with more “cultural capital” at their disposal (based on family background and resources) will achieve more than those students with less cultural capital; there is no equal opportunity to counteract such inequality of cultural capital.

Slightly more egalitarian but still achievement-oriented is norm-referenced assessments, where individual students are assessed in relation to each other rather than to objective criteria. The author’s reason for claiming that it is more egalitarian than criterion-referenced assessment is that the bell-curve mechanism for assigning grades will ensure that those who achieve average performance will, on average, receive an average grade (or at least a pass of C).The majority will pass; in criterion-referenced assessment, there is no such guarantee.

A more egalitarian model of grading is based on effort and less on individual achievement. Those endowed with superior cultural capital or resources may rest on their laurels and so make less effort and, accordingly, receive a lower mark than someone who makes a greater effort even if achievement is wanting. There is a greater possibility for equality of opportunity based on effort in this model.

Blanket grading is even more egalitarian but much less dependent on individual achievement since all students receive the same grade. Minimum requirements are specified, but they are set so that everyone can achieve them. This form of grading is rare.

The most egalitarian grading system but least based on individual achievement is a no-grade system. The reasoning behind such a grading system includes the view that irrelevant distinctions among individuals arise that have no place in a democratic society. Furthermore, grading results in class distinctions, with an arrogant minority considering itself to be superior to those below them on the basis of grades (and future life opportunities). Grading also alienates a large part of the student population and leads to low self-esteem among many students. Finally, those who advocate a no-grading policy do not denigrate achievement. Achievement is its own reward and does not need an external reward system.

The no-grade policy, as far as I can determine, was instituted in the Dewey University Laboratory School from 1896 to 1904 in Chicago. Grading only came into consideration when college entrance examinations came into question:

The oldest members of this united group (who normally would have been classified as Group XII) were given special tutoring and review courses in preparation for their college board examinations, which were complicating the program. Had the group consisted solely of those who had followed the consecutively developing program of the school, and had it not been hampered by the demands of college entrance examinations, the various courses for the oldest children doubtless would have followed a far different and more logical plan, hints of which appear in the records” (K. Mayhew & A. Edwards, (1966).The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903. New York: Atherson Press. (Original work published in 1936, p. 237).

The author argues that a particular grading system will undoubtedly generate vigorous debate. After all, it is a cultural instrument.

Hiner was too hopeful. The shift to outcome-based education in Manitoba, for instance, does not seem to have generated much debate.

A particular grading system is indeed a cultural instrument and, indeed, any grading system is a cultural instrument.

Is not a grading system needed when there is a market for workers? If there were no grading system, how would students be restricted from entering university? How would employers be able to differentiate more easily different kinds of potential employees? If all who attended obtained a high-school diploma or a university degree, how would allocation of workers to different employers be effected?

A summative grading system seems to be tied to a market for workers. Without a market for workers, would there be a need for a summative grading system? If so, why?

There are many questions, but educational researchers rarely ask such questions. Most educational researchers are more concerned with asking questions that relate to the present school structure (or a variation within such a structure) rather than questioning the premises of such a structure and engaging in research related to questioning those premises.

Educational research needs to become more critical. Education, after all, is supposed to generate critical thinking.

What kind of grading system, if any, would be most equitable and just? Under what social conditions?


Grading systems form an essential oppressive aspect of the experiences of hundreds of millions of children throughout the world–and yet you would not know it when reading leftist literature, which often ignores such daily experiences. Janet Martell, the superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, where I worked, implicitly understood the importance of the grading system by attacking my characterization of summative assessment to be in contradition to formative assessment.

The left should take note, should it not, about what the representatives of employers considers to be important and what such represenatives conceive as a threat? Such observations would permit the left to focus on fault lines in the point of view of such representatives in order to attack them since it is a weak point in their defenses.

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Thirteen: A Critique of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE)

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

In previous posts (see for example A Principal’s Evaluation of My Teaching Basic French, or: How to Oppress a Worker Through Performance Evaluation, Part One), I have implied that the principal of Ashern Central School, Neil MacNeil, used, among other methods, outcome-based education as a method of oppressing me when evaluating my performance as a teacher. He wrote:

We discussed whether students should have learning goals identified for them. I pointed out the research backing doing so; Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them. I also encouraged Fred to at least ensure that the learning goals were clarified in future preconference meetings.

In my written response, I replied to this:

If there is indeed research, I am certainly willing to read up on the issue. In fact, I indicated during one of the conferences that I would appreciate references so that I could read such research (especially articles since I do not have the time to read many books these days). He claimed that the specification of learning goals was the single most important variable in determining learning. As a philosopher of education, I am skeptical of such wide-sweeping assertions. My understanding of the learning process is that it is much more complicated than that. However, I am certainly open to such a claim and would enjoy reading up on the matter. I wanted to know more.

I did search for an hour at the resources on learning goals that the administrator provided me the day before I received the clinical evaluation report. I found no specific research that justifies the assertion that the specification of learning goals is the most important determinant of learning. Attached is a copy of evidence that I did go on the sites referenced by the administrator. I received the sites for resources only the evening before I received the clinical evaluation, and in effect only read them a little while before receiving the clinical evaluation.

Re: “Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them.”

The use of “ ” marks in this observation may be a sign of a lack of respect for my ideas. The administrator has shown little empathy for my ideas.

OBE, therefore, has political implications.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
I sent another article to the ESJ Ning.

Colleen Capper and Michael Jamison, in their article, “Outcomes-Based Education Reexamined: From Structural Functionalism to Poststructuralism,” find that outcome-based education (OBE), though in a few respects empowering to students, generally reproduce the same oppressive school structure as before.

The immediate relevance of the issue of the extent to which OBE is empowering or oppressive is the push in Canadian circles for having teachers specify learning on the basis of outcomes (or “learning goals”), with the design of units to be a process of “backward design”.

The idea of specifying outcomes and then specifying the means to achieve those outcomes seems at first glance to be logical. The authors question, however, whether OBE is really as liberating for students (and teachers) as its advocates imply.

OBE has at least four aspects: the focus is on student success, with schools controlling the environmental conditions for success; curriculum design and pedagogy are a function of explicit learner outcomes; outcomes are differentiated into core (or essential) outcomes for all learners and extended outcomes (for the more gifted); mastery learning (based on Bloom’s concept of mastery learning), or the learning of prerequisite skills before moving on to more complicated or advanced skills with time constraints of the traditional curriculum being loosened (credit recovery, for example);  a management information system that permits the teacher to monitor students’ progress in terms of prerequisite skills learned and to group students according to skill sets already achieved; and, finally, an assessment system that tests the whole range of skills required for mastery learning a loosening of traditional time constraints, with an incomplete being assigned until the student has completed the set of defined skills.

Advocates of OBE imply that it enables a clearer conception of the curricula, permits the use of better pedagogical techniques and satisfies the need for more reliable and valid assessment measures of student achievement.

There are at least three forms of OBE. Traditional OBE involves the use of the same curriculum, but with clearer focus on learning outcomes. Transitional OBE specifies essential learning outcomes. Transformational OBE, being the most advanced form for some, in addition to specifying the essential outcomes to be learned for success, emphasizes attitudes and skills that have broad implications for success in their future in the modern world, such as critical thinking skills; it requires a reworking of the curriculum to satisfy those broad implications for success.

Ironically, one feature of OBE seems to have been at best only partially adopted in modern school systems in Canada—constraints of time. Traditional schooling has operated according to instructional time distributed over a set curriculum. OBE permits the breakdown of learning into outcomes that students can master at their own pace. Mastery of the material rather than ploughing through the material in a set period of time becomes possible; results can be the focus rather than the inputs from a set curriculum in a limited period of time. However, in Canada OBE the use of credit recovery, for example, only partially offsets constraints of time.

In addition to learner outcomes, a complete OBE program includes, among other things, a core and extended curriculum and criterion-referenced assessment. Its watchword is student success, and it assumes that all students can succeed.

The authors then analyze OBE from various theoretical lenses: structural-functionalist, interpretive, critical and poststuctural. Structural-functionalist and interpretive paradigms aid in reproducing the status quo; the difference between them is that structural-functionalism considers the status quo to be objective whereas interpretivism considers the status quo to be constructed socially and subjectively. Critical theory, by contrast, seeks social change by intellectually grasping and criticizing social reality that is largely oppressive. Critical theory is grounded in pure reason, considers a universal consensus among the oppressed to be possible and focuses more on class rather than on other forms of oppression; Capper considers these aspects of critical theory to be limiting factors.

Poststructuralism shares with critical theory a concern for social change but casts suspicion on any claim for universality and objectivity through reason given that people have multiple identities. Like interpretivism, it views the social world as a product of subjective reality.

The authors examine the language of OBE, its construction of personal identity and the extent to which OBE reproduces inequities from the point of view of the various paradigms.

OBE shares much with the structural-functionalist paradigm. For instance, knowledge is treated as a summation of its parts rather than the whole being more than its parts.  Discrete bits of learning are determined beforehand, dissected and distributed, often through a central agency. Control by others is the watchword despite the rhetoric of student success. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices are centralized (controlled from a central bureaucracy), and learners are organized according to predefined skill sets.

Transformational OBE does share with the interpretivist paradigm a concern for cooperative structures of learning. However, the interpretivist paradigm also holds that students learn best when what they are learning connects with their own interests—something which OBE, transformational or otherwise, ignores.

From the point of view of critical theory, there is little in OBE, transformational or otherwise, that leads to greater social equity and equality of opportunity. OBE does not aim at social change in such a way that oppression is lessened. Tightened control over the teaching process is hardly equivalent to real social change that leads to more equitable results.

Advocates of OBE may reply that, by removing time constraints for achievement, students are indeed empowered to a  greater extent. They may even suggest that they are concerned with fighting against oppression and for social justice.

However, Capper and Jamison question such advocates claims since OBE’s underside involves authoritarian structures of power—as poststructuralist analysis reveals. In particular, OBE does fails those who are disabled, especially the cognitively disabled. Furthermore, since OBE grounds its assessment on performance of set achievements, if a person cannot perform adequately even if understanding of the material is present, then failure will ensue.

A more telling criticism of OBE, even in its transformative form, is that the skills and knowledge specified in advance as required for success are assumed to enable students to succeed in current society. Current social structures within mainstream society are assumed to be the standard; there is little criticism of that standard itself. OBE is therefore conservative in its very nature and hardly progressive. One can imagine a white, male principal defining OBE in terms of student success—as defined by the experiences of the white, male principal and not in terms of the student’s own background and experiences. In the end, as the German philosopher wrote of Schelling’s philosophy—all cows are black (or white, male and middle class in this instance).

Mastery of the curriculum outcomes typical of OBE leaves little room for co-evolution of the curriculum and the students’ experiences. Furthermore, those who determine the outcomes are little different from earlier, state-mandated curriculum: policy makers, curriculum consultants and a few teachers. The outcomes are externally determined and controlled and defined according to what this minority deems to be worthy and relevant to have learned by the time students have finished high school. There is little flexibility in terms of the content of the curriculum. Related to this issue is the lack of control by most teachers  in determining outcomes; OBE is a way of increasing control over teachers by rigidly defining what they are to teach and by assessing them on that basis.

Differentiation of the curriculum into core and extended components also easily leads to a continued division of students into average students and an elite set of students destined to university or other, more prestige post-secondary institutions.

Finally, criterion-based assessment, in practice, results in students in the same age-level working on  substantially different outcomes as some require to spend substantial periods of time in attaining the minimal level of achievement specified in advance for advancement to another level of skill. Some may never be exposed to the extended curriculum since they must demonstrate mastery at a certain level before they can advance. OBE, together with criterion-based assessment, merely reproduces the inequities that already exist between different sets of students—despite the rhetoric of success for all students.

OBE, in whatever form, essentially relies on the structural-functionalist paradigm, which merely reproduces the status quo of injustice and inequity.

The authors then argue that what is required is participation by students and community in the determination of their own curriculum and education. They then note that poststructural and critical theory may be wed in some fashion by critical theory providing the direction and poststructuralism providing the deconstruction necessary for reason to be continuously challenged through tension and disagreement.

Such a view, though, is so general that it provides little guidance in practice. For example, school bureaucrats, who are also representatives of the employers of teachers, are so certain that they are right in instituting OBE and criterion-referenced assessment (currently characteristic of Manitoba public schools) and all others who question them are wrong, that the question becomes: How are we to struggle against such authoritarian impositions?

Indeed, why is it that teachers have not engaged in such struggle? An answer may lie in the deskilling of teachers and their becoming more like the rest of the working class: cogs in the economic  and school structure. In other words, an answer may lie in what teachers also are: employees, or things to be used by employers.

Should we as teachers and as employees not query whether OBE leads to just outcomes and is educationally sound?