On this blog, we have often discussed how easy it is to get drawn into accepting an intolerable practice. When it is first introduced, no one objects because it is worth trying, and over time, as this innovation becomes standard practice, those who don’t like it are ignored because it’s too late, it’s done that way and will go on being done that way.
Take the idea of giving letter grades to schools. My best recollection is that this idea started in Florida under Governor Jeb Bush, who thinks that testing and accountability solve all problems. Then New York City copied Florida. Now other jurisdictions are doing because, well, because Florida and New York City are doing it.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there is an excellent public school. One year it got an A, and everyone was happy and proud. The next year, it got an F, and no one knew why: Same principal, same teachers, same methods, same materials, same students. What was the point of the A or the F? The principal didn’t know. Neither do I.
Several readers sent me an article about how the state of Florida made a mistake in giving out letter grades and raised the grades of a number of schools in Palm Beach. Good for Palm Beach, but remember that the whole system of letter grades is stupid. Of course, there are mistakes, including many that will never be corrected. Just because you get an A doesn’t mean that the competition is valid. It is not.
One of the great things about fiction, especially science fiction, is that we see how people get trapped in a world that is not of their making, a world that offends their sense of decency. Most people accept that world as it is. A few don’t. The question is always whether the dissidents figure out a way to get others to see the world as they do or whether they die fighting an unjust system.
Giving a letter grade to a school is the height of absurdity. It’s one thing to create a report card, which informs the school about ways it can improve. Such a report card might have thirty different categories, each evaluated to show the school its strengths and weaknesses and to start a conversation about how to improve.
But a letter grade is a Scarlet Letter. It says “This is an A school” or “this is a D school,” whatever.
Imagine if we sent children home with a report card with a single letter on it. “This child is a D.” Parents would be outraged. They would immediately understand that you are branding their son or daughter, not evaluating their performance. The purpose of evaluation is to support and improve, not to stigmatize.
To change the world, which now seems so locked into bad and destructive practices, we must change our vision. We must spread our vision to others and help others to understand that schools, like children, are complex, not unidimensional. We stopped putting dunce caps on children many years ago. We should stop thinking that schools will get better if we put a dunce cap on them.