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Making Sense of Our Differences


Dear Diane,

NYC’s decision—for budgetary reasons—to forego mandatory intelligence testing of 5-year-olds this fall is worth celebrating. But it’s a dangerous idea that will be back again. The earlier the testing culture starts, the more it erodes the resilience of all children, but above all those raised in a different culture and language than such tests rest their norms on.

Some natives, hearing the accents or dialects of foreigners, treat them instinctively with disrespect. A good friend of mine, Florence Miller, had a talent for joining other cultures and languages. We traveled together to France, Greece, and Spain. She was already fluent in French, but even in Greece she had a way of connecting that made people think she understood; and she did! No doubt our new friends thought of me as the quiet, possibly stupid one. But she made worlds open up for us. I think of our differences often lately, since she died of cancer last week. It was a gift not only of language, but larger than that.

For many 5-year-olds, kindergarten is like entering a foreign country. They respond as I did abroad—silently. Some overcome the silence with physical rowdiness, or by being naughty. They need a Florence who can bridge worlds for them. They need teachers and peers who find their experiences every bit as significant as the more familiar ones, and who seek the common ground—the shared mysteries of life. Our shared puzzlement over the meaning of “up” and “down”, over the way sound travels (the idea itself is startling) become the bridge. Even our different ways of pronouncing words can offer delight, not shame. My 6-year-old son spent a silent year in a NYC first grade because his teacher (as she confided to me mid-year) was trying to rid him of his “bad” Chicago accent! I’ve occasionally met teachers who assume their students were deaf as they regale me loudly about the impoverished backgrounds and linguistic stupidities of their students. A loving hug cannot wipe away the insult. Some kids overcome. They succeed perhaps out of defiance, or because they switch allegiances, adopting the school rather than their home. Some come from families of unusual strength and confidence, enough to brush aside the school’s ignorance. Naturally, most don’t.

Native Americans have suffered from assumptions regarding their basic inadequacy as a “race” since the Europeans first conquered them. African-Americans for just as long. I was glad to discuss Charles Murray again, Diane, as a reminder that his assumptions are alive even in “well-educated” circles. We fool ourselves if we think these theories regarding intelligence have disappeared. The history of this kind of testing—past and present—plays a role in the perpetuation of such assumptions.

There’s a lot of work to be done in our classrooms and schools to level the playing field. Foremost is tackling how we—including above all the child herself—see, hear, and make sense of our differences. The task of schooling involves overcoming what child specialists call “infant egocentricity”. But it’s not only infants who suffer from it. The natural assumption that only “I” am real, all the others are instruments to enhance or endanger me, is appropriate as a starting point. That the “I” expands to others “like me” is a step forward, but a baby step compared to what is needed on the part of teachers and students.

As I drive through the countryside—particularly at night—and see lighted windows, I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my minuteness. In every window is an “I”. It’s cause for wondering. So, too, as a scientist reminded me recently, is lying outside on a cloudless night and seeing the universe unfold.

It’s that sense of wonder and awe that we can share across differences. It’s where storytelling—fast becoming a lost art—originates. Thousands and thousands of years of human history have rested upon our capacity to invent narrative “what ifs”. It’s at the root of literacy and science. Even our well-intended focus on written text—starting from birth—and the world of virtual realities threatens that heritage. Am I foolish in imagining that good schooling can unite us across our differences if we aren’t in a race to sort and label our children?

My naiveté has probably survived so long due to the fact that 43 years ago I happened to find myself teaching 5-year-olds. I acknowledge that it’s probably an absurd idea that we can create schools free enough and powerful enough to challenge an increasingly me-centered consumer-driven competitive society.

The other night we celebrated the 25th birthday party of one of the schools I started in East Harlem—Central Park East II. For a few hours, the idea that we could overcome the odds seemed utterly reasonable. Seeing old colleagues who love their work, seeing parents who are now grandparents of CPE students, and children I knew as kindergartners who now teach at our schools, took my breath away. I drove home that night determined to remain naïve.




How can teachers encourage in their students that sense of wonder/delight in learning when schools insist that their primary job is to grade and evaluate their students?

Erin Johnson

The talk of K reminded me of my experience. When I started teaching K, one realization was that the students came in with a 20% difference in physical development, mental development, life experience in addition to cultural differences. Assuming they are all the same (K standards) is like assuming that when I started as a mathematician for the Navy at age 21, I should be rated the same as someone who had 4-5 years experience. As for testing, that difference - if they do as is usual - means that they take a test in May and get the results in August. This is like a 40 year old taking an employment test and getting the results 2 years later! The 20% effects all the school experience, especially under NCLB, to the detriment of the child's self image. If you are declared a failure -no matter how they try to rephrase it - at k or 1st or 2nd, they never recover. And as they lose touch with their age cohort in school because they were retained, eventually they drop out to connect with their age cohort outside of school. I fear the industrial model of school has done almost irreparable damage and we may not recover, at least in my life time.


Thank you for a beautiful post. It made my day when I read it this morning, and it leaves me with lots to think about.

Is it possible to be naive and savvy at once, without sacrificing one for the other? That's a big question in my life. To the extent that I have either one, I would not want to lose it.

Your discussion of kindergarten brings up many thoughts. A few months ago I was at a dinner in Massachusetts where someone remarked somewhat disparagingly that a kindergarten teacher would be giving the commencement speech at the nearby college. Not knowing the kindergarten teacher, I objected, asking why anyone would assume a kindergarten teacher had nothing to tell college graduates. The discussion took an interesting turn, and we talked about kindergarten for a while.

Just recently, the person who made that comment (a lovely, courageous, and accomplished person, by the way) asked someone else to tell me that this kindergarten teacher had blown the whole commencement crowd away.

I say this not to make myself a hero, because I make thoughtless comments like anyone else. I can be judgmental about people I have never met as well as people I have. Often I have been proven wrong, and am glad. We never know when we will be surprised--when we will suddenly see the universe unfolding. I think of that beautiful story "A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver.

Perhaps to be naive is to let oneself be surprised, to let oneself be wrong, to let the world be vast. In that sense, it coexists with knowledge.


You are so right in that it is the "industrial model of school" that has done so much damage to our children's education.

Why do our schools insist that our students are widgets to be sorted/graded instead of children who need to be encouraged and supported in their learning?

Erin Johnson

"Why do our schools insist that our students are widgets to be sorted/graded instead of children who need to be encouraged and supported in their learning?"

This brings to mind an idea I've played with for awhile. In an age of value-relativism, love of learning, that sense of naive wonder inspired by the night sky, imagination, questioning--these represent one portion of the many values that free persons may choose to adopt as their own. Consumer values begin as material values and meeting one's basic material needs: food for one's family, shelter, etc. An education system that promotes economic self-sufficiency is unobjectionable from the standpoint of value-egalitarianism, since fulfilling economic/material needs is the precondition for fulfilling other needs (think Maslow). So, by sorting and grading and teaching kids that learning is for the sake of getting a good job and making money, we do not fall into accusations of elitism that come with privileging love of learning to other goods.

It’s ironic. Beautiful, nurturing, imaginative schools (which aim to turn students into lifelong learners, of course) would be the kind of schools that turn out citizens fit for participation in a robust democratic society, but are incompatible with certain democratic ideals (namely, the freedom to not love learning, if one chooses). What we Americans want in a society, after all, is a blank canvas where people who value different things can peacefully coexist. Preferring love of learning to other values (and especially codifying this preference into policy) is incompatible with the very idea of freedom. And so, in our attempt at neutrality, we’ve settled for schools that form the citizens who composite the “me-centered consumer-driven competitive society” that Deborah complains about.

Plus, it’s quick and easy to assess how well schools sort and grade. It’s inefficient and costly to hold schools accountable for creating nurturing, meaningful environments. And the latter would mean relying on (gasp) non-quantitative forms of evaluation. Heaven forbid that our policy-makers would have to read a report that didn’t have all the important statistics congregated in the introduction…


Why do you think that it is costly to hold schools accountable for creating nurturing environments that encourage student learning?

Our current school system is organized to sort/grade students and it is the most expensive system (per student) in the whole world. Other school systems that focus on student learning cost less per student.

Why would re-organizing our schools to focus on student learning necessarily mean that it would cost us more?

Erin Johnson


Do the educational systems you speak of share our country's the obsession with student data?

I guess I made the assumption that sort/grade goes along with one-size-fits-all standardized tests, that accountability would look quite different if we tried to measure the extent to which a school creates a nurturing environment. With the latter, we'd actually need real-life individuals coming into schools, and not just sending multiple choice tests as their proxy. This is where the added cost comes in.


Other countries do test their children but not in the convoluted way that we have managed to create.

The countries that have developed highly successful learning environments use tests differently. Their tests are closely aligned with the classroom learning expectations/curricula/teaching and not some vague "grade level" expectations that are built into our "standardized tests."

What gets expensive for us is that we are trying to layer multiple, redundant, poorly designed tests on top of our very poor school system. When the test scores fail to improve, it seems that our solution is to test more!

But there is little/no connection between the development of the tests and what actually happens within a classroom.

We can never test for all those qualities/learning experiences that we would hope for for our children. But external exams that are well designed (that is specific in both skills and content and most importantly aligned completely with classroom instruction) can help to clarify learning expectations and give timely feedback on whether the broad learning goals were met.

Additionally, in those school systems that use highly delineated external exams instead of teacher given grades, the classroom environment is dramatically better because the students see their teacher as a resource, a help and an advocate. Too often in our country, the relationship between teacher and student is confrontational and adversarial. For a quality classroom environment to flourish, students need to trust that their teacher is their advocate and not their judge.

Our difficulties do not lie with just with our tests. For honestly, if the test scores were going up we would all be patting ourselves on the back for developing a great school system.

Our greatest problem lies in a school system that has no way to improve teaching, curricula or the quality of the tests that we give our students.

Throwing more tests, more teachers or even more money will not improve our children's learning, because not one of these ideas has any affect on the classroom learning environment.

For children to learn well, they need high quality teaching, great curricula and external tests that are closely aligned with classroom instruction.

A school system obsessed with "seat time", "grading and sorting" of our children, and "fill in the bubble test-prep" will ever fail to improve the quality of our children's education.

Erin Johnson


You've convinced me on the external testing / teacher as an advocate instead of an adversary thing. It's a point that I've never given much consideration, but you're absolutely right about the positive impact it'd have on classroom culture. Thanks for your insight.


I agree with you that Erin raises a good issue, JP.

Yet, in another way, it's rare that kids see adults who make important decisions--decide on standards, for example. For many kids schools are their first introduction to this kind of discourse. I think there's a case for a combination, which was our approach at Mission Hill and Central Park East--with a "committee" that included insiders and outsiders, but whose names kids knew and who were thus "accountable" to the community as well as to their own standards. Only one member of the committee was their own advisor. Oddly enough when kids chose to have someone from their family on the CPESS committee, they were often the toughest critics. It was required a Mission Hill because we wanted parents of 7th and 8th graders to be ultimately involved in understanding the school's standards and their child's capabilities.

I've seen schools with outside external graders in which kids distrusted their teachers and the outsider, and I've seen the reverse. It may also differ for K-8 and 7-12. Erin has a good point but I think it's more complicated if one is trying not only to have kids have high standards for themselves but also develop an understanding of how powerful adults make decisions, are accountable to their communities. So it gets back, in the end, to the purposes of education!

The combination - in both the setting and judging act - of people who count is worth studying. Today the only people who set "official" standards are test designers (with input from experts in subject matter) - anonymous Experts. Part of preparing kids for any entirely external exams is to get kids to "think like" some black box, Mr X or Ms X. My friends who have taught AP courses tell me they do a lot of that. "What would Ms X want you to say?"

It's better than learning how to think like the designers of standardized multiple choice tests, but it also has its drawbacks. It, of necessity, prepares kids for the conventionally accepted answer, and--if done well--hopefully keeps alive their own not always aligned answers. The CPE and MH methods, variants of which exist at many Coalition of Essential Schools, help kids to see that there are, in real life, conflicting views, and judgment is just that. Developing such judgment is part of what it means to be well-educated!~ . Part of our task as teachers is then to prepare kids for this complexity. To invite them and their families into the process while still holding the school's faculty and governing body responsible for the school's reputation.


Your illustration of the drawbacks of standardized tests is very well stated.

One of the great problems of our school system is that these "standardized tests" are put out as the gold standard of learning and yet who is really examining whether they are good tests, whether they reflect what we want our children to learn or whether they are good instruments at evaluating that learning. The people developing the tests have no stake in student learning, only in making sure that the tests are valid statistically. This type of testing is not used in school systems that focus on student learning.

Student evaluations need to focus on what we would want our students to learn. This can be done at the school level (as you did at Mission Hill and Central Park East), the district level, the state level or even the federal level. But the critical aspect to high quality assessment is that it must be directly related to what the child is learning in the classroom.

These vague "grade level" tests that overemphasis skills to the detriment of content and analysis would hardly qualify as a quality assessment.

For children to learn well, they (all) need a teacher that they can trust to be their advocate. That student-teacher trust outweighs every other logistical issue with schools (grades, assessment, attendance, etc...). This is particularly so for disadvantaged students who may not have an extensive network of trust-worthy adults.

So while high quality external assessments can take many flavors, our children will learn better in an environment where the teacher is focused solely on teaching and not on assessing their students.

Erin Johnson


Aha. I see where it is we begin to disagree in an interesting way. Teaching and assessing are not different avenues--they go together. One cannot teach well without constantly "assessung"--engaging in interactions that help both teacher and student understand each other. Back to David Hawkins "I, Thou and It". I and Thou must keep looking at that "it" together.

That's also why the curriculum can't be set somewhere else beause what I'm going to do tomorrow is determined by what I discover today--for both teacher and learner.

The nature of--vs the details- these kinds of assessments could well be set at "higher" levels; for example: that it must contain more than one sample of work, that it must include opportunities for questions about and defense of work, that the judgments must be based on publicly available criteria, and that the judges must include a range of potential "experts". I'd want the faculty to have final authority. (You, I'd think, would want some branch of the State.) But what allowed this to make sense at CPESS was that the paticular papers, preentations, experiments, books about which one was assessed rested on a negotiation between the faculty and the students. They allowed both the school's course of study and the student's interest to play a role. Once that was agreed on, various judgments were brought into play.

But along the way, the teacher is always judging too, even as she' also the adocates for his/her student. The teachers is always a source of comment, feedback, standard-setting. In a addition to her own judgment (which after all rests on years of attending to other people's judgments) it's her responsibility to remind the student about the other hurdles that lie ahead--the other judgments that will come into play in the process of obtaining his or her degree.

To many his and hers here!



I agree with Deborah that teaching well involves formative assessment. This information then informs instruction so that the teacher is on the academic and social-emotional pulse of each child. In my opinion, all learning begins and sustains itself through the power of the relationship between teacher and student. Achievement ignites at the intersection of assessment and relationship.

Deborah, Kim,

There is a world of difference between professional judgement and external assessment. A teacher should always use his/her "assessment" of their students knowledge/capabilities/interests in determining how to tailor their teaching to the child.

This is dramatically different than telling the rest of the world that your student is a "C+" student. It is this external judgement that should be made by external reviewers.

Deb, I disagree with your assertion that I think that the State should make those external evaluations. My contention is/has always been that the focus of schools need to be on student learning and that evaluation should be external to the classroom, whatever form that may take (local school, district, state, fed or some other board.)

Quality teaching should be focused on matching external goals (i.e. learning how to calculate an average) with student interests (i.e. slugging averages for their favorite baseball player). Shouldn't the goal of every teacher be connecting the interests of their students with interesting knowledge that will be beneficial to their future selves instead of judging their students for the external world by giving them grades?

Also, Kim,

I agree that the relationship between student and teacher is critical for quality learning. But that relationship needs to be positive and non-judgmental in the sense that students see their teacher as their advocate.

The focus here, of course, is on what the student thinks. When students think that their teacher is their judge, the relationship is dramatically different/adversarial and not conducive to quality learning.

True achievement ignites when students take ownership for their own learning.

Erin Johnson


Have to agree with Deborah on this issue when she states, "Teaching and assessing are not different avenues--they go together. One cannot teach well without constantly "assessing..."

This was especially true for me with the individualized/customized classroom I had. I made decisions on kids progress (or not) not just on a weekly or daily basis but hour by hour, even minute to minute. How could I have waited for some outside bureaucracy to mandate to me whether I should move a youngster ahead or have them spend more time on a particular lesson? I couldn't.

I really appreciate something I learned from traditional education. The Standards, or the canon which is my preferred term, are deeply engrained in my pysche. Its like boxing out for every rebound, or running out every hit. In sports we call it "respect for the Game." Those Standards did more than create great respect and love of the Life of the Mind. They provide confidence and a structure that allows for improvisation.

I plan my lessons by walking the dog, and afterwards drinking beer under the oak tree, and reliving the day's classes. I visualize as many faces of students, especially the body language of quieter students who I didn't address. For years I would work through Socratic reasoning, and plan out how I will react and what materials and aids I should have handy if the next day's lessons take various routes. Now I just make a couple or three basic plans and get my head straight for tommorrow. I should stress, however, that pacing is determined more than anything else by physical and other outside circumstances (when students AVERAGE more than 30 hours of work per week, we can't ever forget Vince Lombardi's maxim on fatigue and TRY to teach some balance to teens who aren't ready for the message.)

I nail down my lesson plans while taking my morning shower, and after listening to NPR on the morning drive, I make adjustments. Conversations with students often change my plans. Then each class starts with Government in the News or History in the News (or for the younger students, the Seniors favorite lesson of the day) and that discussion can change everything. I may start with the same lesson for every class, but every class developes its own personality.

Granted, without a deep grounding in the Standards, it would be easy to get lost. But it is those Thou and I and It relationships that make teaching so wonderful.

I rely heavily on the real "gold standard" of assessment - humor. When a concept is embedded in a joke or witicism or pun, you can't fake the response. Laughter and its aftermath reveal more than anything what the students understood or didn't understand. You can't fake a real laugh any more than any othe real "ah ha" experience.

Its pretty amazing that we are still having this discussion during the 21st century when everyone seems heading toward their own "niches." We should provide a moral anchor, and teach enough fundamentals so that youing people develop the respect necesary for whatever game they choose. Just as we have a responsiblity for social justice and our students' welfare, we have a responsibility to "the Great Chain of Being" (or at least that's what we called it in our History programs).

But the kids will chose. Our debate won't change that, nor should it.


Adding another layer of mindless bureaucracy to our very ineffective school system would hardly be an improvement.

Your professional "assessments" that tailored the instruction to your individual students is wonderful teaching and is sounds as if your students benefited highly. This is not the same thing as issuing grades to students for the benefit of the external world.

But what if your professional judgment as a teacher was asked to extend past the classroom?

What if you were asked to use your judgement in evaluating the tests that were given to your students and the curricula that you were asked to teach from? What if instead of bureaucrats checking boxes, you had to interact with curricula/test developers whose own evaluations were dependant upon your professional judgment?

Your collective experience (as well as many great teachers) is completely lost outside your classroom (or possibly your school). The voices of teachers need to be heard on the quality of curricula and the quality of the exams. For who else beside the teachers truly know if the materials/tests work for their students?

In our current system we have no way for the collective wisdom of experienced teachers to be shared, outside a few blogs. :) And unfortunately these discussions will never penetrate into the vast majority of classrooms without a substantial re-organization of how we do school. That is our schools need to be organized to support/encourge student learning, not in monitoring "seat time."

The professional judgment of experienced teachers is mostly ignored by our school system.

Teachers should be assessing the quality of curricula/tests and not undermining their relationship with their students by issuing grades.

Erin Johnson


You write,

"Teachers should be assessing the quality of curricula/tests and not undermining their relationship with their students by issuing grades."

I agree with you wholeheartedly about part 1 and continue to disagree about part 2. The discrepancy baffles me.

I don't understand why you insist that assessment undermines a student-teacher relationship. Deborah Meier makes an excellent point when she says that it's the teacher's responsibility "to remind the student about the other hurdles that lie ahead."

Is it a question of definition? I thought so at first, but I'm not sure. You object to calling a student "a C+ student." Is that what assessment is about? We have lots of room to assess the work without passing judgment on the student. We can even issue grades without judging the student. In fact, it is good for students to learn, early on, that they are not the same as their grades. They will not learn this if they receive no grades at all.

Do you really mean that teachers should not give grades to students? That the evil job of grading should be left to the outside agencies? That they should do the mean work, and the teachers should be the kind and caring advocates? That sort of split could cause all sorts of adversarial relationships instead of preventing them.

A bunch of thoughts.

1) Test-makers et al claim to listen to teacher's voices--but in ways that are in fact (I think) explooitive.

2) The word "judgment" is a multi-meaning word. We are teaching people about how to exercise judgment, so we shouldn't be so afraid of the word. But we are juding Work, not People when we teach. Erin is trying to find ways to prevent kids from seeing the judments we make of their work as a reflection on them as people. No one is a C+ stuent. But their work is. I think she has an important idea here--but I think there are more imporant answers to it tyhan just switching who gives the grades. (Read, Robert fried's book on the GHanme of Schooling, for more on the impact that grades have on the ay kids ac in class; adults too.)

Ditto for "critique"--which we too often use only in the negative sense and yet it too is at the heat of emocracy and becoming and being educated.

My relationship with my editor (when it works well) taught me a lot about what good teaching night be like. We were so obviously on the same side. And yet it was his job also to be tough and critical. But if I gave yup my judgment it would cease to be my book and if he gave uyp his I'd have slost a lot.

Of course, the analogy runs into trouble when our students have less power than we do, by age, etc. My editor and I had, in our way, "equal" power, and different but equally important expertise.

How do we prepare kids to welcome dsagreement, critical judgments, advice, commentary??? I think Diana is right that it isn't done by simply sending it to "outsiders" to do the "dirty work". That's not the way to break a bad patterbn.

How do lawyers, doctors and architets do it--to peers and up-and-coming professionals? If we thought of our students as up-and-coming intellectuals then we'd recognize that we have to model this for them--in our relationship with our peers, "superiors" (bosses) and them.

Still, as erin might ay, what about those judments that effect their getting in to their heart=desired college??? Is that too much to ask of us?


Diana, Deborah,

I greatly appreciate your willingness to dive in.

Part of the conundrum may be in the content and part may be in our language.

Great teaching always involves feedback. The type of feedback that Deborah received from her editor. The type of feedback that asks students to reach for more within themselves and to do better.

That type of feedback is not at all the same as a grade.

Of what use does a student make of a grade "C" on their paper. The paper is over. That student stops working on it anymore. That grade only is a teacher imposed judgment on the quality of the work, and thus the quality of the student. Students do not separate the quality of the work from themselves.

Once a grade is issued there is no path forward to improve their work. Students don't even notice the very valuable feedback if there is a grade attached.

Why wouldn't you have the student work on something until it was something that he/she could be proud of instead of leaving it half-written.

One might say then that a grade can be used as a motivator. (ie I got a "C" this time and next time I will work hard and get a "B".)

But there are two problems with this. First is the assumption that the student didn't work hard in the first place. What if this was the absolutely best work that he/she had ever done. How demotivating would it be to get a "C" on that work? Second, you are substituting the judgment of the student for the judgment of the teacher. For quality learning, students must take ownership of their own learning. They must see their work as a reflection of themselves.

Learning by definition is changing oneself. Adults do not separate their work products from themselves. Do you not treasure your own teaching? Is not your work a large fraction of how you see yourself? Why would we ask children to separate their work from themselves when adults never manage to fully do so?

The assessments that interfere with the student-teacher relationship are the summary grades given to the external world. It is those assessments that should be done by external reviewers.

Also note that school systems that use external evaluations are able to encourage their children to learn more. At least a 1-year advantage by 8th grade.

Erin Johnson


You wrote, "Adults do not separate their work products from themselves. Do you not treasure your own teaching? Is not your work a large fraction of how you see yourself?"

I agree with the rhetorical questions and disagree with the first sentence. I do treasure my teaching. My work is a large fraction of how I see myself. Yet I do separate my work from myself at some point.

On my own time, I write songs, stories, essays. I do not bring those in to my students. They are separate from my work life, though in some ways connected.

My work is inseparable from myself, yet in some ways I have to separate it. At work I am continually evaluated. So far the evaluations have been positive. But say I received a U ("unsatisfactory") rating one day. It would be a shame if I let that devastate me. I would have to look at it carefully, separate it from myself, and decide what steps to take. If I had no experience in this, I would be at a loss.

On the other hand, my self-evaluations (more critical, generally, than external evaluations) remain somewhat private. I think over my day, examining the tiny and big things I did, and thinking of ways to do better. This is connected to my work but separate from it. We can and should teach students to develop their own critical voices. Evaluations do not have to obstruct this.

I am fortunate in that I grew up being graded, yet my parents and teachers advised me not to give too much importance to grades. Grades were important, but there was always something more important, such as learning. My relationship to grades changed over time; sometimes I cared more about them, sometimes less. That came to be my choice. Students who receive no grades may be unaware of their choices.

There's much more to say about this--and I'm not even fanatical about grades! I can see situations where grading is counterproductive. But that doesn't mean teachers should eschew grades or set up some kind of dichotomy between advocacy and evaluation.

As for the systems that use external evaluations--you pointed us a while ago to an article by John Bishop (see comments to Diane's blog of April 15). I read the article, and it suggested that teachers evaluated the students frequently with tests and quizzes. I saw no evidence that the evaluations were only external.

I share your concern over the dangers of evaluations, but don't believe that we address those dangers by avoiding or relegating them. To the contrary: we can teach students different ways of responding to evaluations, through and alongside the evaluations themselves.


The dichotomy between advocacy and evaluation arises from the students not the teachers.

Evaluations are not always negative. They can motivate and clarify how to be successful.

But we are talking about student learning. If grades were good for students (in and of themselves) surely this would show up in the international studies. But it does not. In fact the opposite is true. School systems that use external evaluations as their primary evaluation tool are better at encouraging student learning.

So the question is of course why.

Why is it that taking the evaluation phase away from the classroom, enables learning to increase?

Again, this does not mean the type of assessment that teachers NEED to do in their classroom, that is evaluate where their students are at for planning purposes.

While there are better feedback mechanisms, the teachers cited in the Bishop article were using the quizzes as feedback for their students. Feedback is very helpful at allowing the students to recognize that they still need to learn something.

Timely feedback allows students to quickly incorporate the new knowledge. If teachers wait too long then the moment will have passed and the motivation by the student to incorporate that feeback will be gone. (On to the next topic.) Thus, Bishop citation that frequent quizzes were better than spaced out ones.

When teachers give grades, students do not look at the feedback. What is more important, the feedback or the grade? Is it more important that the students self-reflect on their work and try to make it better or just accept that they did a bad job this time?

We should not avoid evaluations. They are a critical element in every classroom. (Personally, I can't say I learned much from any class that I surveyed!)

But when we are focusing on what enables students to learn well, they learn best when they have a warm, trusting relationship with a teacher/advocate. Critical, summative evaluations from the teacher regarding student performance do not help that relationship.

Erin Johnson


The main problem with external evaluation, as you describe it, is that it would have far too much weight in a student's school career. You write about not giving students a grade--this undermines the student/teacher relationship, etc., but what message does an external evaluation send to a student? Does it help that the evaluators are impersonal? I don't think so. The student may take the grade even more "personally"--particularly if high stakes are associated, such as retention decisions, college entrance, etc. Perhaps you have more faith in the possibility of constructing a "perfect" exam--one that accurately measures student learning, but I do not share that faith. The teacher should offer evaluations (even to the "external world") because it is the teacher who knows the child best--can offer a more fair evaluation, based on many factors, and not just performance on an exam. The way that a teacher/school does this is important, however. I agree a grade and nothing else is relatively useless. But there are many ways schools and teachers can offer evaluations that are much more specific and helpful to the student and parents--including using specific rubrics when assigning a grade, evaluating work habits and not just knowledge of particular content, descriptions of change over time, and perhaps most importantly--asking the student to be self-reflective and describe their change in understanding, work habits, and interests over time. The portfolio defenses at Deborah's schools, like PhD defenses, include not only homeroom teacher evaluations, but include the evaluations of other teachers, parents, and community members as well. This is a much more serious form of evaluation, where perhaps a fuller picture of the student is made visible, and where accountability, and democratic process, is practiced for "high stakes" decisions. Of course, the student needs to be properly prepared for such an evaluation, which takes a lot of work on everyone's part, and demands a very trusting relationship between the student and his/her teachers.


You are thinking like a teacher. Not a student. Students (no matter how old) always take their grades personally.

And they do so because learning is such an intrinsic part of one-self. There really is no way to separate out what you know from who you are. There is no way that a teacher, no matter how caring, can change that.

The point of external evalutions is to to allow the student to feel supported/championed by the teacher, not for a completely "accurate" assessment.

If our goal is to have the best possible assessment of the student's strengths and weaknesses, I would probably would ask his/her parents, not their teachers. Wouldn't the people who know him/her the longest truly know him/her the best?

There is no benefit in trying to constructing a perfect exam. It is not possible. But there are horrible exams (the ones we have now) and better ones (those aligned with classroom instruction.) Exams will never be a "perfect" assessment of a student's strengths and weaknesses. Even teacher given exams have their flaws.

But well developed external exams can clarify to the students that it is indeed necessary to learn what the teacher is teaching and to be very specific about what they need to do to be successful. Quality external exams should not be much different than the ones that the teacher developed. But the fact that the exams are external to the classroom makes a world of difference to the students. And isn't it what the students know/think/believe the critical element of any quality school system?

If the external exams are aligned with instruction (notice that instruction is primary and exams are secondary), then the path towards success should be obvious.

What is possible is setting up a school system wherein the test designers are "graded" by the teachers. That is if the test is poorly designed and does not work well with their classroom instruction then the teachers should be harsh and critical towards the exam, never towards the students.

There are many elements to a quality education that can not be captured by an external exam or even an external evaluation board. And any quality system would need to be set up to emphasize those elements as well. Certainly, requiring un-graded projects or performances for credit could fulfil that role.

But our system now, where the teachers shoulder the burdens of teaching, evaluating students and admin work coupled with distant test makers, curricula developers or administrators who have no vested interest in student learning, certainly does not define a quality educational system.

And unfortunately, our students suffer from that lack.

Erin Johnson

Hmmm...so if I understand you correctly, you are describing an "in house" (in school) set of assessors, who are accountable to the teacher. I've never heard of such a thing, but it is admittedly intriguing. Or, do you mean a set of assessors at the district level, while all of the teachers at each grade level teach the same thing in lock-step?


The use of external evalutions could take many forms; in school, district, state or even fed. It sounds as if you might vote for the 1st one over the latter ones.

The key element of the use of external evaluations is enhancing the student-teacher relationship. The evaluations should always be secondary and subject to specific teacher agreed-to learning goals (not to some distant test-maker who has no vested interest in student learning!)

I would never advocate a lock-step approach to teaching. What a depressing thought!

Quality teaching can come in many forms while enabling students to learn the material that will help them to be successful in their future lives.

Coming to a specific agreement about what children need to learn is difficult. But first and foremost is setting up a school structure that is focused on encouraging student learning, not in monitoring seat time.

Erin Johnson


Agreed about avoiding a "lock-step" approach! But I'm still skeptical of the idea of external evaluations, for many reasons. I'm not convinced it would benefit the teacher-student relationship, unless you view the role of teachers as being friends with students.

Why can't teachers champion students while also communicating as clearly as possible with students, parents, and even the "outside world"--with documentation (whether grades, narrative evaluations, or other reports) that is officially sanctioned by the school?

The way schools and teachers do this is important, of course, and it makes sense to have very clear expectations and achievable goals. But I'm skeptical of making someone outside the classroom, someone who does not know the student, the expert external evaluator, with the institutional endorsement. How does this benefit the student? You seem to have a unique view of an ideal teacher-student relationship. Talk more about that. Are they "equals" in your view? Is that why teachers should reserve judgement?


Teachers do not have a problem with the dichotomy between teaching and evaluating. Students do.

I wouldn't exactly say that student and teachers are "equals." How I would characterize the relationship is that the student needs to take ownership for his/her own learning and needs to see their teachers as their primary resource. That is: it is student learning and preception that drives the process.

Imagine if you will your students asking for your opinion or perspective instead of you having to convince them that you have something important to say?

What external evaluations do for the student-teacher relationship is align both teaching and learning with what the student wants: that is to be successful in this class. The teacher knows something that the student needs to know and thus the student sees the teacher as an advocate, a resource and a source of knowledge/wisdom. Addionally, when the evaluation phase is external to the classroom, the competition for grades (from the teacher) disappears and the relationship between the students becomes more collegial. Students then see each other as resources and disruptive students as pariahs.

The student and teacher (along with the class) are in it together, struggling against the world (or the test or the external evaluation however we set set it up). That dynamic is so much more positive than the student trying to get away with as little work as possible or competing against their fellow students for grades that the teacher is issuing.

How often does this happen in our country? How often do teachers struggle just to get kids to behave, let alone learn?

If you take the evaluation phase outside the classroom, it is no longer the teacher's fault (from the student perspective) if the student does not do well. It is the lack of effort from the student, the poor tests, problems at home etc..., everything but the teacher. And that is a good thing because quality learning necessitates a strong trusting/advocate relationship between student and teacher. The teacher may not need that trusting relationship, but the student most certainly does.

I realize that this is completely foreign to most of us in the US. We grew up with our current system and seeing past its great limitation is difficult. It is inherent in our culture that teachers are the sole grading authority.

But what is the downside of having our teachers try to teach, control behavior, and evaluation in addition to all their other responsibilities?

The downside is the poor teacher-student relationship, the excessive amount of time spent in class controlling behavor and the lack of time available to improve teaching.

Teachers should reserve "judgment" because it does not benefit student learning. Again, this "judgment" is not the specific feedback that is essential for quality learning, but the summative grading that is given to the rest of the world.

There are better ways to motivate students than the threat of grades and external evaluations is one of the better ways of doing so.

Erin Johnson


I share many of the same goals you do (trusting teacher/student relationship, the harm of competition when learning is more powerful if cooperative, the overwhelming amount of work teachers are expected to do with little support, among others) but I do not see how external evaluation, as you describe it, will solve these problems without creating many more new ones.

Take motivation, for example. You write, "That dynamic [of ext. eval.] is so much more positive than the student trying to get away with as little work as possible or competing against their fellow students for grades that the teacher is issuing." What shifts with ex. eval.? Why would students work harder if those who "grade" or "evaluate" them are impersonal and external? What is motivating about that?

Mission Hill, the Central Park East Schools, and other schools Deborah has founded and written about use an "external evaluation" body in the form of graduation committees--consisting of teachers, parents, community members, and peers. This set up creates an evaluation that is largely "external" to the teacher-student relationship, but the members are (mostly) people who have a close relationship with the student. The motivation for the student, I believe, is inherent in the relationships--the appearance that "everybody" seems to be pulling for the student to reach a very high standard (and students create and defend incredible work!)

Erin, I'm still not sure what you visualize as external evaluation. I picture a test each time you describe it, and much has been written here about the problems and limitations of tests as the main form of evaluation. But you also write, "or the external evaluation however we set it up." What are thinking of in place of tests?


From the standpoint of the student: external evaluations could be successful taking many forms; evaluation boards, tests, combinations of the two, etc....

The key elements are: evalautions external to the classroom and clarity about expectations.

If we set up an external board and told the students nothing about what the board expected, how nervous/prepared would they be? How productive would the process be?

The process of learning and the expectations from the class needs to be clear for students to feel like they own their own learning. If the teacher is changing expectations throughout the class or the external board's expectations are different than the teachers, the student will be frustrated and unprepared for the evaluation (test, oral presentation, written work, etc...).

But teachers and evaluators must be completely aligned for this type of system to work. It could be that the teacher writes the expectations and the external review board sets up the criteria for passing and the teacher either rejects or gives comments to the evaluators.

What is primary for quality learning is a classroom sitution where the class is focused on the student and this necessitates fostering a positive, supportive, trusting relationship between the teacher and student. The focus in the classroom is on quality feedback regarding the student's learning and not summative grades.

The difficulty arises with regard to external players that are interested in student performance. How do colleges evaluate whether students should enroll? How do parents evaluate whether the school is doing a good job with their children? How do taxpayers view their schools and support them by their willingness to pay more taxes (or not support them by paying less)?

While this external accounability is critical for schools to foster a sense that they are doing a good job with their students, communicating how well their students are learning can be very problematic. A "just trust me" approach from schools does not fly with the general public.

So how would you communicate quality learning?

Erin Johnson


I agree with a lot of what you just wrote. Students really do need to know what is expected of them. At Mission Hill School, when students defend their portfolios before a panel of teachers, parents, and community members ("outsiders" to the school, but neighbors and volunteers, interested in how the school works), there is also a younger peer present--someone who is a sort of apprentice to the student, who observes the portfolio defense so they can see what the process looks like, in preparation for their own portfolios in the coming year. That is one way Mission Hill prepares students for this very difficult process. The portfolios have many requirements, with specific instructions and deadlines. Each student also has an "advisor" at the school, a staff member who is not their primary teacher, who also assists with clarifying instructions and guiding the student (although, of course, all of the requirements are also written down and available far ahead of deadlines). The advisor is also on the evaluation committee. I agree that it does no good to have unclear expectations, and in this way, set students up for failure.

As for college entrance, that has to be up to the college. The graduates of Deborah's Central Park East Secondary School have gone on to college at a rate of about 90 percent, and stayed in college, when this data was collected by David Bensman. I think if you saw the work of these students, perhaps by sitting on a graduation committee as a community member, as many people have, you might see how stunning these students' work really is. I don't think that's a "just trust us" approach. Parents also gush about the work of their children/students/school.

Nevertheless, there will be skeptics, I know. There are those who insist on test scores as the only "objective" judgment of students. Some believe all students should be measured by the same stick. Some college admissions committees think this way. But not all. There are those that look at the many parts of the application where students can show strength--whether in the writing samples they provide, activities they've been involved with, jobs or internships they've had, auditions they've done well in, narrative reports from the school, test scores, or other evidence that can be provided. I don't believe schools should "standardize" grades or teaching to provide the appearance of an "objective" ranking of students for the benefit of colleges (or skeptical taxpayers). But schools should be able to defend their practice. This is one reason why Boston's School Quality Review boards spend several days every several years visiting and evaluating many aspects of individual schools and offering feedback (and official evaluations, that can impact school licensing). This is a useful practice, I think, that addresses questions of community knowledge and accountability for schools.

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