Killer Bs

I forget, every year, that we’re going to have to go over the concept of grades. A was no different this year; he’s often brought me work with the same eager question that H and E had for the first few months of their own homeschooling: “what do I get?”

I’ve answered him, honestly, as I’ve answered all of them so far: I have no idea. It’s not done yet.

I don’t exist in a world of grades. Most professionals I work with don’t, either. There is one grade – suitable – and the potential for compliments that live above the line of pure actionability. Solutions can be elegant, or quick to the point, or cleverly designed to perform under budget, but those are frosting terms, sprinkle terms, atop the concept of suitable.  The hurdle for workability varies by functional area and by project; some work most definitely needs to correspond to an academic A-plus, and other work simply needs doing at a C level. (No pun intended.) Moreover, picking the wrong execution level is a sin in its own right, so taking an extra week or ten days to do something at an A level that needed C work isn’t just a quality surplus; it’s a different kind of mistake. It’s not only important to be able to trade quality for speed of execution, it’s important to be able to correctly read the circumstances that demand each.

What A provided me wasn’t workable – not yet, anyway (he was close) – so off he went to make it workable. I also informed him that he was on the hook for the work he would have started if what he’d turned in had been workable the first time through. That’s life’s C-minus: you get to do it again, while you’re taking care of everything else that needs doing. The machine neither grinds to a stop while you rework your mistakes, nor does it shrug and move along the next task with this one still undone to spec. But that’s the school system, in which the most dangerous grade possible – a B – somehow lets students move along without ever mastering the concept. (No wonder school districts are slowly beginning to insist on mastery.)

It’s new to him, just as it was new to E and H prior, and there have been teary moments when work piled up, but they slowly, gradually, came to understand how it worked. Then the other questions started coming. What kind of evaluation spec will this assignment be on? What are the evaluation criteria going to be? How long do I have to do it? How long before deadline will you look at work in progress?

Grades, as they are currently constituted, are bullshit, and don’t do a thing to prepare kids for the life that exists for them beyond the walls of academia. Even venerated institutions like our college testing system can’t actually tell a kid whether he or she can write anything meaningful or compelling.  Even graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, as employers both here and abroad complain that staggering numbers of graduates – half, by consensus – aren’t ready for real-world work. How bad is it? We’re now seriously talking about having a post-graduation test to determine if graduates learned anything.

So we’re starting over with the concept. In here, tests and essays and projects aren’t due by the calendar; they’re due by when our kids feel they’re ready to tackle work at that level with the confidence of skill mastery in hand. They’ve got responsibilities to get that mastery done on a reasonably timely basis, and we’re happy to excuse them from secondary responsibilities that are less important. (I’d rather have my kids spend twice as long on the reasons for the rise of the Maurya Empire than the dates it fell between.) But ultimately, we’re moving in a direction that’s more goal-oriented than grade-oriented, and that goal is ability (as we’ve discussed previously).

We’re also increasingly aware that there’s just more to education than can really be measured by a single number or letter at a single point in time.  As such, we’re much more about concepts like cross-disciplinary application and skill re-acquisition, so we carefully watch their ability to apply what they’ve learned creatively in a variety of learning settings than simply cramming and dumping knowledge sequentially (kind of what this kid is doing). We’re looking, long-term, to see if concepts like the rise of the state show up in critical reading, or whether knowledge of geometry shows up in entrepreneurial work. We’re also watching to see how quickly they can re-learn lost skills; that’s going to be important over time, too.

In the end, I hope I’m readying them for the world they’re going to live in, one in which a series of unsuitable work deliveries (that came oh-so-close) are just greasing the skids toward the inevitable exit interview, and blowing the quality peak off of a midweight project is just costing everyone time for other work. Bs and Cs where As are needed, and As where Bs and Cs will do, are among the many and complex forms of error their world will challenge them with. They’ll need to be ready for both.

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