I had a good turnout at Parent Teacher Conferences this year. As always, the parents of the “A” kids showed up in droves. I had a parent whose students have been to class only three times this semester come see me as well. Students who are earning C’s and D's in my class are rarely represented at conferences; their parents just don't seem to show up.
Most of the kids earning less than seventy five percent in my class don’t want to be in class with me. It could be me, or maybe the subject, that they are not interested in. They make up about thirty five percent of my total student load. They show up, but they are not interested in learning the subject matter. They go through the class in a daze, doing what they think I want from them, but not wanting it themselves. There is something else they would rather be doing with their time. The grade they are earning in the class does not serve as motivation, but it does work as punishment. A good grade means you are a good and smart person; a bad grade indicates, well, that you are not that.
I understand that the public school system works well for many, and that grades are an inherent part of the traditional American education. I am not convinced that the form of education we are most familiar with is the most relevant system for all our children.
The goal of rewarding and punishing with grades is very different from what we have done in my family. Although I am part of the standard educational system, my two children are students in a democratic free school
. My two spend most of their time doing what they want to do, and not face judgment in any form, from their advisers -- except for when the decisions the make impinge on the freedom of others.
For my son, age 11, this means a lot of games, creating weapons from paper, and a few science classes. I think he is going to do some creek bed restoration today. We work on reading, spelling, math and history at home, because that is how my son has decided to use his time. It works for us. There is no forcing, no extrinsic reward, and no punishment. He is just learning.
My daughter has spent the last two years at the Free School getting ready for college. She is sixteen, and has academic goals she set for herself. At the Free School, she took writing and researching classes, history classes, and a comparative religion class. There were no grades given in these classes. My daughter received constructive criticism and used the feedback to improve her products. As her parent, I would like to think that she understood that the act of learning was the goal, not an extrinsic reward. These classes prepared her for the classes she is currently enrolled in at the local community college. She tested into college level course work in all but math. She understands that she did not prepare herself to place in college level math, and is willing to do the remedial course work. She knows what working for a high level product means to her, and how she feels when she learns the subject matter. I would argue that she is aware of the grades she is earning in her class, but the grade is not the goal. Her goal is knowledge.
There are students in the public school system that are driven to learn, rather than earn. These aren’t always the kids with the best grades, but usually the best attitude. Too many of the students are disinterested, or totally tuned out.
There are ways public schools can fuel this desire to learn: focusing on the passions of each student, allowing students to create their own course of study, allowing for more flexibility to meet state and national standards, in short, allowing the students to take the lead in their own education.
There are progressive public schools that are achieving amazing results by handing the reins to the students, but all children deserve access to them.