Entirely Secondary: The Subject of Behavior

Should grades be used to control behavior?

(Editor's note: Entirely Secondary is a column by English teacher Jerry Heverly. The title is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do a science experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)

By Jerry Heverly

Grades are important. They can get you into college. They can, indirectly, get
you into jail. They can get you put in a classroom with loud, obnoxious people or one with future lawyers and physicians.

In some cases I can manipulate student behavior with grades—although not
as much as you might think. Even kids who care about grades often won’t change their behavior to affect their grade point average.

I keep a numerical record of my students’ performance in a computer at
school. Any parent can use the school’s ABI system to track, day-by-day, how their child is doing in my class. In theory the number in the computer is only a guide for me in establishing a letter grade on the report card.

I could, if I wanted to, give an A to a student with a 50 percent average or give an F to a student with a 90 percent average if I saw fit. I don’t do that, of course, because it would undermine people’s faith in the system.

I do, however, make alterations in the computer to sometimes increase or
decrease a grade to reflect factors that the number might not capture. A brilliant student whose work was exemplary but who missed many classes because her beloved grandmother died in Texas might see her 63 percent grade miraculously turn into an 85 percent.

In other words I use grades for various purposes. Which brings me to my question. Should I use grades to control behavior?

That isn’t exactly the same thing as grades that reflect behavior. That always
happens, sometimes unconsciously. The student who tried and who cooperated gets a break where the miscreants don’t.

I’m talking about something I’ve never done—but have been tempted to do
for years: include some behavior component in my calculations when I compute the number that goes into the ABI system.

I’ve always felt a moral aversion to the practice. I get visions of Clockwork
Orange or 1984 when I see myself judging a child’s habits or conduct. And what
could be more subjective? Wouldn’t I inevitably identify more with the quiet docility of White and Asian kids?

The test-driven world that I live in now says that ‘college readiness’ is what
should be measured, not cooperativeness, or helpfulness, or, especially not a
student’s work ethic.

What about tardiness? That seems to be the most tempting and the closest to
objectivity. Why not give extra points to students who arrive on time?

But maybe “on time” isn’t enough. Better “on time, sitting in your seat, with
materials at the ready”.

You’d be amazed at how difficult it can be to ‘measure’ whether 35 people
are sitting in their seats with materials ready.

Let’s suppose I was willing to put the time and energy into toting up scores
for tardiness and adding it to everyone’s grade. What about more subjective criteria?

“Quietly listening to the teacher”? That’s really where this urge to use grades
came into my head.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could gain quiet in a room simply by holding the
grading cudgel over their heads?

It wouldn’t work. The kids who disrupt class don’t care about grades. The
obstreperous students always have three to five F’s on their report cards.
Having written this I find that my reasons for not grading behavior are still
strong: it’s impractical, open to legitimate charges of prejudice, and not reflective of what I believe school is about—effort and intellectual growth.

(New to the column? Read other installments of Entirely Secondary.)

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Larry Smith August 02, 2012 at 01:46 PM
I think there should be a place for the students who continually disrupt class...oh wait a minute - there is; it is called the U. S. Army and positions are opening up all the time. Our inability to control our children in the classrooms is very sad indeed, and it should not fall on the shoulders of the teacher to enforce good behavior. Have the parents pay for the extra care required of housing troubling students in alternative settings. They bought the child into this world, raised him/her to be the person they have become so it is only fitting that they pay the costs associated with the special needs of their unruly children. And, if there is gang involvement, place them in a pre-need, organ donor program.
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Thank you for this wonderful series. My daughter attends St. Paul's Episcopal School in Oakland. They give two grades on their report cards - one for approach and one for result. The educational philosophy behind this is supported by work like that of Stanford University psychologist Caral Dweck. From her website "in decades of research on achievement and success - a simple idea that makes all the difference. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports." Mindset website http://mindsetonline.com/ The Talent Myth (Read about Carol Dweck in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Talent Myth.") http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_07_22_a_talent.htm
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 03:50 PM
The nut: "Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Columbia University, has found that people generally hold one of two fairly firm beliefs about their intelligence: they consider it either a fixed trait or something that is malleable and can be developed over time. Five years ago, Dweck did a study at the University of Hong Kong, where all classes are conducted in English. She and her colleagues approached a large group of social-sciences students, told them their English-proficiency scores, and asked them if they wanted to take a course to improve their language skills. One would expect all those who scored poorly to sign up for the remedial course. The University of Hong Kong is a demanding institution, and it is hard to do well in the social sciences without strong English skills. Curiously, however, only the ones who believed in malleable intelligence expressed interest in the class. The students who believed that their intelligence was a fixed trait were so concerned about appearing to be deficient that they preferred to stay home. "Students who hold a fixed view of their intelligence care so much about looking smart that they act dumb," Dweck writes, "for what could be dumber than giving up a chance to learn something that is essential for your own success?" --Malcolm Gladwell In other words, "results" based grades aren't the whole story. There is a very convincing case to be made for incuding an "approach" based grade like at my daughter's school.
Robert Marrujo August 02, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Behavior in the classroom strongly correlates with parent expectations. Sadly, this is an era where a lot of parents are as immature as their children and are more prone to cast blame away from themselves and their kids. It's a real mess and it doesn't look like things will get better as time goes on.
David August 02, 2012 at 05:20 PM
It would be much more interesting if students of all socioeconomic backgrounds had the option, through vouchers, to attend your daughter's school. Then we would have a better idea if such an idea "works." right now I have the feeling that most kids who live in families who. An afford $15-25k in tuition would do pretty well in most schools. Catholic schools like Kessler in Milwaukee of course use traditional grading metrics with students who are nearly all poor and minority, drawn from the same families who used to be warehoused in government-run schools. Graduation rates approach 100% a Messmer, with 90% going on to 2-4 year college or the military. The local government-run school is lucky to graduate 50%.
David August 02, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Stupid autocorrect. It's Messmer high in Milwaukee.
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 08:22 PM
I don't disagree that it is interesting to consider parent choice and the positive impacts of having a diverse socio-economic student/family mix. The voucher question is virtually a non-starter though, in terms of winning support, but good luck as it seems you are convinced, David. The Catholic K-8 schools in our area did not appeal to us - by and large the facilities and programing are just not up to snuff, as far as I can see. The Catholics have a long way to go before I'd support my tax dollars bank-rolling their private schools. The little hiccup a few months ago regarding publically supported Catholic hospitals and women's reproductive health care only give further indication about how wide the gap is. I don't know where SLUSD's policy is currently regarding intra-district transfers, but the year that my daughter was entering kindergarten was the year that the district halted them. I wasn't convinced that the San Leandro public school we were interested in was the best fit for our daughter, but the district's 2005 policy was a decisive factor in our decision to consider independent schools. And yes, once we were in the "school shopping" mode, we became annoyingly discerning, which is a good thing - I believe.
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 08:22 PM
While I appreciate the positive aspects of having neighborhood-based schools, I am rather appalled by the idea that one's zipcode determines enrollent eligibility, and often the quality, of k-12 schools in many cities. All kids should be able to attend good public schools, period.
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Vouchers by themselves do not do the things claimed by their proponents. Good schools (and some that aren't that great too) tend to have long waiting lists and selective admissions policies. The tuition is steep (much higher than a tax payer voucher by itself can meet) and without exception our area independent schools have vigorous development departments whose purpose is to raise charitable funds through parent gifts and foundation grants. These monies are used to cover tuition gaps and facilities upkeep and improvements.
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 10:18 PM
Berkeley Parents Network is one place where parents shopping for schools tend to look first or eventually during their search. Thought I'd include this link by and for parents looking at private parochial schools, though no parochial schools in San Leandro are reviewed. Bishop O'Dowd High School, which is nearby, does get very impressive reviews. Our Lady of Grace K-8 in Castro Valley is listed and has only 2 parent reviews - but they are both positive. http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/catholic.html
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 10:30 PM
BPN Parents on the SLUSD: http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/sanleandro/ The most recent parent review posted was in 2008... Happy SLUSD parents and alumns, consider giving your neighborhood school a well deserved shout out!
Leah Hall August 02, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Almost forgot...A shout out for St. Paul's Episcopal School too from lots of happy parents: http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/stpauls.html
Thomas Clarke August 02, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Jerry, once again you evidence so many traits of burn out you should do your fellow teachers, students and staff a favor and retire, quit or go somewhere else and taint their little pond. There are kids, and I was one, who really hate high school and the inept teachers doing the instruction. I took 6 AP courses, scoring three fives, two fours and one three, all of which allowed me to enter Cal as a junior, completing and receiving credit for all undergraduate requirements in math, science, English and language. On the way through the same public high school I earned Regents Scholar, National Scholar, life membership in CSF as well as being highly recruited and gaining admittance to Harvard, Princeton, Uiversity of Chicago, Northwestern, Stanford and Cal. I chose Cal in 1970. In high school I also collected Unsatisfactory in citizenship each year. I excelled in grades, adgitated teachers, disrupted the idiots that supported the draft and in general made the school miserable. No one cared then and they do not care now. Academically I excelled. The teaching staff were all failures. So many small minds running the schools. They are still there. Do not underestimate the true distaste that so many well adjusted and well to do adults have for high school in general and pathetic teachers like you. Quit. Please. Spare the future.
Leah Hall August 03, 2012 at 03:28 PM
"I’m confused. How much of my success is me, and how much of my success comes from forces outside of me?" --Confused in Columbus. "Dear Confused, This is an excellent question. It has no definitive answer. There were many different chefs of the stew that is you: parents, friends, teachers, ancestors, mentors and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. It’s very hard to know how much of your success is owed to those people and how much is owed to yourself. As a wise man once said, what God hath woven together, even multiple regression analysis cannot tear asunder." The Credit Illusion - David Brooks http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/03/opinion/brooks-the-credit-illusion.html?smid=pl-share
Elisabeth Huffmaster August 22, 2012 at 05:59 AM
YOU mirror my father in 1962. Very high IQ, disdainful of all his teachers, even cruel to them, a gifted, bored kid who flunked enough to have to take summer school to get his high school diploma. He felt like no one appreciated his talents. He claims to have had only one teacher who understood him; this teacher let him read whatever he wanted and talk about it - the tutor model - and gave him an A for this method. My father was reading college level literature and studying classical music by himself. We would call that unschooling now. Unschooling was not cool then except if you were wealthy or off the cultural grid; it is gaining popularity for the self-driven learner. The result was enlisting to avoid being drafted due to low grades and serving in the U.S. Navy, including Vietnam for 4.5 years. The Navy was bright enough to send him to language school and that was the first place that truly pushed him. Fast-forward 5 years and he was at Stanford for graduate school in engineering. I am so glad you could navigate the system as a gifted person. Not everyone can. It is hard to serve diverse needs in one classroom. Being gifted may require as much intervention as any other special learning style. A child needs at least one advocate. Ideally it is the parent, but that is not always the case. A strange detail of this story was my father's father was a beloved high school teacher and later a principal. One size never fits everyone well, not in clothing, not in education.
David August 22, 2012 at 12:51 PM
"Berkeley Parents Network" doesn't realize San Leandro exists.
Leah Hall August 22, 2012 at 03:30 PM
David, I think we are agreed that BPN it is a fairly Berkeley centric interactive website resource, but it is one of the widest known and used in the East Bay area. The cities, schools and businesses covered through parent reviews and recommendations are not limited to Berkeley; in fact, a quick Google search suggests that the combined entries for subjects concerning cities near Berkeley (SF, Richmond, El Cerito, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, Union City, Hayward, Fremont, etc.) exceed the number of entries for Berkeley by a substantial margin. Going back to the original comment, I do feel that parent school choice was very important for my soulmate and I. We did not feel comfortable placing our daughter in our neigbhorhood SLUSD elementary school in 2000, nor was there much school choice. We were required by SLUSD policy to enroll her there or at a year round school in another neighborhood. Between the factors of low spending per pupil (1/2 of independent school tuition) lack of school choice, and even greater uncertainty about middle school and high school, we decided to shop independent schools.
David August 22, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Leah, so what? BPN still doesn't know SL exists. As you point out, there are only 2 entries for OLG, a quite fine Catholic school over in CV. The fact that some Berkeley parents go down to Union City and review the restaurants or shopping malls is not really relevant. Anyway, yes, of course you shopped around and put your kid in a school you like. And you would continue to deny that opportunity to those less well off than yourself, even if it cost the same amount in taxes (i.e. a voucher to a kid for the same amount spent on a public school student). Just admit it and move on. As for per pupil spending, again, been over that. If you think that more pay attracts better teachers, California public school teachers rank #1 in the country in terms of pay. They are paid more than many, if not most of their private school counterparts in cash comp, and certainly have far more lavish benefits. Yet the schools continue to churn out less than mediocre students. More money will not solve that, it hasn't over the past 40 years of spending more per pupil and it won't over the next 40 years. Again, you're willing to embrace change supposedly through your "progressivism." Yet you vigorously oppose any change to the standard "Pay more more more for the schools and maybe they'll get better" Teachers' Union propaganda of the past decades. Try some real change for once, what are you afraid of?
Leah Hall August 22, 2012 at 03:49 PM
David, as mentioned many times before when you and I talk about schools, I believe school vouchers are pretty much a non starter anywhere in the Bay Area these days, but I also am fine with looking at the voucher campaign, when and if one is developed by you or anyone else. As they say, "show me the money."
David August 22, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Vouchers were brought up for a proposition in 1993, 2000. The public school teachers' union spent tens of millions of our tax money to oppose it; they won.
Leah Hall August 22, 2012 at 04:57 PM
David, it sounds like we agree that California school voucher proposals are a dead horse - 2002 was 10 years ago. (According to an op-ed in the LA times, in 2002 the CTU spent $26 M to defeat a school voucher proposal.) School vouchers California Prop 38 School Vouchers (2000) $31.1M spent in favor $32.3M opposed For perspective (wikipedia) Prop 8 Same Sex Marriage Ban (2008) $44.1 M in favor* $38.7 M opposed** * ProtectMarriage.com sponsored the initiative and continues to support the measure. The measure also attracted a number of political figures and religious organizations including the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church. **Equality for All was the lead organization opposed to Prop 8. As with the measures proponents, opponents also included a number of political figures and religious organizations.
David August 22, 2012 at 05:02 PM
So then you agree gay marriage is a dead issue too?
Leah Hall August 22, 2012 at 05:04 PM
Yes, quite. ;-)
David August 22, 2012 at 07:14 PM
The voters have spoken. No to gay marriage. Glad you support the will of the people, Leah.
Leah Hall August 22, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Whatever you say, sweetheart. ;-)


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