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 Fourteen: A Critique of the Educational Nature of So-called Educational Reforms

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.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
Attached is another article that I sent for the ESJ Ning. I prefaced it with the following:

Daniel Rossides’ article, “Knee-Jerk Formalism: Reforming American Education,” provides a detailed criticism of various school reforms in the United States. Since it does not focus on reforms for high-stakes testing (which have not found general acceptance in Canada), much of his criticism is also directed to Canadian school reforms.

Rossides not only argues against the neoliberal reform effort at high-stakes testing but also liberal reformers of schools. In fact, he argues that all school reform efforts in their current form will lead to naught.

He questions the view that schools (he calls it education) produce good workers and good citizens. There is no evidence to support those two claims. He also questions the view that schools sort individuals into various hierarchies at work according to relative merit.

Rossides’ reliance on educational research to justify his conclusions is all the more interesting since educational research invariably assumes that modern schools constitute the standard for determining the validity and reliability of educational research. The inadequacy of educational research will not be addressed here, but on the basis of educational research itself changes in schools can do little to offset the disadvantages of poverty.

Rossides argues that the school outcomes of those children and adolescents whose parents are from the lower classes will not change unless we shift resources both to those lower-class families and to the schools where those children and adolescents attend. School reforms that aim at supposedly changing the outcomes for the lower classes have been shown to be historically ineffective. School reform focuses on—school reform and not in reform of the socio-economic conditions of the lower class families and their neighbourhood.

The modern school system is characterized by a class system according to socio-economic status (SES). [The adequacy of such a definition of class should be queried, but I will not do so here. For some purposes, SES is legitimate—but it is hardly an adequate characterization of class since the source of income and not just the level is relevant in determining class.]

It is the middle- and upper-classes who have aided in producing lower-class learners with disabilities, the mentally retarded and so forth—by defining children and adolescents of lower-class parents by defining the characteristics of such children and adolescents as learned disabilities, mental retardation and so forth and then treating the children and adolescents as learners with disabilities, with mental retardation and so forth.

The extremely skewed nature of wealth and income, the persistence over generations of middle- and upper class dominance and lower class subordination, an excess of workers over the demand for workers (especially at the lower levels) with corresponding  poverty-stricken families and the domination of social and political life by the middle- and upper classes aids in defining the children and adolescents of the lower classes as deviant and labelled according to middle- and upper-class standards (and not, of course, vice versa—except when rebellions break out).

Although Rossides referent is the United States, there is little doubt that much of what he writes applies to Canada.

The modern school system is characterized by what seems to be classlessness: all classes attend the same school. The facts belie such a rosy picture.  Features of the school system are biased towards the middle and upper classes and against the lower classes; such features as an emphasis on literacy, abstract knowledge and patriotism (one—white—principal had the hypocritical audacity to announce over the PA system that Canada was the best country in the world—when two thirds of the student population were probably living in substandard conditions).

The fact that children and adolescents of various classes attend the same school, given the emphasis on middle-class and upper class concerns and definitions of what constitutes and education (such as academic subjects and literacy rather than the use of the body in combination with literacy and academic subjects), along  with a grading and testing system that streams or tracks students, as Rossides notes, hardly leads to a meritocracy. Rather, it merely reproduces the status quo.

Furthermore, there has been a decided trend towards class-based segregation of schools, with inner-city schools for the children and adolescents of the lower classes and suburban schools for the middle- and upper classes. (Of course, there is an added racist aspect of this structure, but poor white children are also caught in the web—or trap).

Rossides notes that, when SES was factored out of the equation, school reforms had little impact on the academic outcome of children and adolescents from poorer families. (Note, however, the bias of defining “success” in terms of academic outcomes.) The author points out that what is needed is not just more resources at the school level but more resources at the level of the family. Without addressing the extreme inequality of family incomes, changes in school resources and school reforms will likely have little effect in changing outcomes (despite the rhetoric of school bureaucrats and liberal ideologues in universities).

Equalizing school expenditures will not address the inequities that characterize income inequalities.

Rossides points out that study after study has shown that school aspirations, school outcomes, expenditure per capita, regularity of attendance, scholarships, entrance into college or university and so forth correlate highly with social classes and class origin.

In post-secondary institutions, the proportion of members of the lower classes represented on governing boards is lower than their proportion in the population and, correspondingly, the proportion of members from the middle and upper classes is overrepresented.

The proportion of those young adults who attend university is class-based, with more than double, for example, attending a four-year college program than those from the lower middle and working classes. Scholarships are skewed towards to those already with high grades, and these are typically not the lower classes. Thus, young adults whose parents can more afford to pay for their tuition and other expenses receive free money whereas young adults whose parents cannot afford to pay for their children’s tuition and other expenses are excluded from consideration—all this under the cloak of equality of opportunity.

The divide between public universities and colleges and private ones has practically been removed in many instances, with public colleges and universities operating as private institutions, with high tuition and partnerships with private firms (but with no public accountability in many instances). Public universities and colleges function more like markets than public institutions and are accessible to those with money—or high grades (which often probably correlate).

Rossides pinpoints formal education’s simple role: to determine where one enters in the occupational hierarchy. Formulated differently, the primary role of schools and other formal institutions linked to them is to allocate people to positions on the market for workers. The rhetoric about learning is secondary to this role.

Employers certainly believe that more formal schooling results in better workers, so credentials are important for hiring. However, once hired, differences in levels of formal schooling, surprisingly, do not lead to increases in productivity. 

Credentials and class are correlated, so credentials form another mechanism for the perpetuation of class differences.

Rossides also criticizes the view that schooling leads to improved citizenship—increase in knowledge about politics and creative public service (active and creative political participation). Political participation in fact has declined. Furthermore, in the United States, schools have not led to increased integration of children and adolescents through civics and other courses. The rhetoric of schools as producers of good citizens hides a reality of schools that perpetuate class divisions and inequality.

Although Rossides’ point is well taken, he seems to miss something vital about what schools do when he refers to schools hiding the real nature of schools. Schools do in some ways serve to integrate children and adolescents into the real world of inequality and class divisions by—hiding those realities from them. (Besides, he implies as much further in the article, in relation to his explanation of why school failure continues for the lower classes.)

 Through the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, civics and other courses (such as history), children and adolescents learn the supposed equality of all and supposed meritocracy. Rather than having children and adolescents learn just how unfair and inequitable modern society is, schools cover up the reality through the administrative, hierarchical structure, with administrators frequently attempting to impose their middle-class will on working-class children and adolescents (who may rebel in school through various means, ranging from passive absenteeism to active “misbehaviour”) in the name of efficient administration and ”learning.” By redefining children and adolescents as pure “learners” (learning machines), administrators then often discipline them for not acquiescing in the unequal situation in which many working-class (coupled often with racially oppressed) youth find themselves.

Schools have also not led to increased knowledge of the world in which they live that they can and do use in their daily lives. The knowledge that children and adolescents learn in schools is often what could be called “inert” knowledge—knowledge that is never used. Even if children and adolescents learned abstractly what political participation involved, since they do not use such knowledge in their daily lives (perhaps they would use it against school administration), they do not really learn to become good citizens.

Schools also serve to depoliticize learning by focusing on abstract cognitive skills rather than skills that relate to the daily lives of children and adolescents. Individuals become, to a greater and greater degree, interchangeable non-political units. Abstract literacy, by failing to link up to the social experience of children and adolescents, is soon forgotten outside school boundaries. The environment in which it is learned is so artificial that children and adolescents cannot transfer what they have learned to any other environment.  Furthermore, we have one life, but the fragmented way in which we study the world in school and formal learning prevents any synthesis of our experiences in school. That too leads to rapid forgetting of what was learned in schools.

This fragmentation of experience contributes to the continuance of the status quo since those in and outside schools can focus on their limited activity within a fragmented, academic and abstract curriculum and ignore the poverty, oppression and devastation that the children and adolescents inside and outside the school experience.

Rossides then explains why, despite the failure of schools to make children and adolescents better workers and citizens, by noting that the situation accords with the interests of the upper class in maintaining the appearance of a meritocracy; in other words, the present school system aids in hiding its own oppressive nature of the working class. Those who have an economic and cultural interest in maintaining the present system of inequality limit access to credentials to their own children while presenting the present system as the very embodiment of equality and meritocracy. Much of what is studied, the author implies, is irrelevant, but it serves to weed out the lower classes from occupations that pay higher incomes.

The claim that schooling (or “education”) is the key to ensuring equality, social justice and equity serves to divert attention, as well, from the social inequalities, social injustices and social inequities rampant in our society.

After briefly looking at the invalidity and unreliability of mass testing suggested by conservative proponents of school reform, the author makes an interesting and important point about how conservative school reform has pushed for student outcomes based on so-called objective norms (outcome-based education again). Since Rossides considers this a conservative reform effort, it can be concluded, if his analysis is valid, that the NDP has instituted a conservative performance system provincially without many people, including teachers, even raising objections to this conservative trend.

He mentions in passing that parents of the upper class oppose any attempt to eliminate the grading system since the grading system is integral to the children of the upper class “inheriting” the same class position—a very interesting observation that warrants much more analysis and serious discussion. Unfortunately, it seems that educators do not want to discuss seriously such issues.

Rossides does maintain that the push for outcome-based education has no objective basis since there is no agreement on what constitutes objective standards. It would be interesting to have the Minister of Education, Nancy Allen, in the spotlight in order to determine how she defines such objective standards and how she developed such standards—along with other conservatives, of course.

The author argues that there are two real reasons for the poor performance of the United States (and, I might add, Canada). Firstly, there is the belief and practice that an unplanned economy, including unplanned capital investment, will lead to the good life. Secondly, there is the belief and practice that the antiquated political-legal system will enable most people to live a good life.

The back-to-basics movement (reading, writing and mathematics) typical of the present trend in the school system substitutes what should be means to ends into ends in themselves. (The same could be said of the so-called academic subjects.)

Rossides does contend that schools do matter, but he then commits similar errors as the views that he has criticized. He outlines what a good school is in purely conventional terms, such as a strong administrator who emphasizes academic subjects and reading. Rossides takes from one hand and gives with the other. He further argues that the main problem with schools, as learning institutions, has not been historically and is not now at the elementary school level but at the high-school level. Such a view deserves to be criticized.

Elementary schools focus mainly on reading—without many children (especially those from the working class) understanding why they are engaged in a process of learning how to read, write and do arithmetic. There is undoubtedly pedagogical process, but such progress applies just as much to high schools as it does to elementary schools.

The main function of elementary schooling is to have the children learn to read, write and do arithmetic, with the primary emphasis on reading. Elementary school teachers are specialists at best in reading.(It would be interesting to do a study on how many reading clinicians started out as elementary school teachers and how many taught only at the high-school level.) There are many problems with such a conception of learning. I merely refer to the many articles on Dewey’s philosophy and practice of education.

The author vastly overestimates the efficacy of elementary schools as institutions for real learning (as opposed to learn to read, write and do arithmetic—often for no ends than to read, write and do arithmetic. In other words, elementary schools, instead of teaching reading, writing and mathematics as means to an end, generally reduce them to the end of elementary school education.

Of course, the lack of inquiry into the world, a lack so characteristic of elementary schools and contrary to the nature of young children, becomes a burden that eventually distorts most children’s minds. The wonder of childhood becomes the boredom of formal learning rather than an expansion and deepening of our grasp and wonder of our experiences of the world.

Rossides` article, therefore, does have its limitations. Despite these limitations, his article contains an incisive critique of the neoliberal movement towards educational reform—and, more generally, the rhetoric that surrounds educational reform.

Should not those who attempt to achieve equity and social justice expose the rhetoric of educational reform?