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Problems With Contract Grading

Traditional grading, which, like so many of our so-called traditions in the US isn’t actually very old, has a lot of obvious problems. It’s been rightly called racist, classist, and eugenicist. The conventional grading structure likely causes more harm to students than good, and yet teachers are forced into it by administrative demands that benefit from sorting and labeling students and reducing them to a GPA.

Many teachers, following the recommendations of anti-racist scholars such as Asao Inoue, have turned to labor-based contract grading as an alternative, as a stop-gap measure that affords more agency to students while still resulting, ultimately, in a mark that fits the institutional databases’ needs. This semester, I’m one of those teachers.

Reader, I’m not loving it.

Three apples on a wooden surface
Oh hey the apples are back. Must be Thursday

If I’m entirely honest, it feels like replacing one bad system with another, and I don’t think it’s caused any revolutionary shifts in either my or my students’ thinking about the course.

It still feels like grading prison. I don’t feel like I’m empowering my disadvantaged students in any special way. My students still behave like they’re getting traditional grades, because, well, they basically are. And it did absolutely nothing to assuage the near-crippling grading anxiety that has been building up in me over years like coffee stains in a poorly washed office mug. It has, in no way, repaired the broken relationship I’ve been feeling with students.

In some ways, the pass/fail almost feels more judgmental. There’s no room for partial credit here. Sure, I built in nearly infinite ways for redemption and revision, but somehow marking something as a fail because it doesn’t check every box on a list feels worse than marking it a 68.

I acknowledge some of the ways that contract grading addresses problems with traditional letter grades. Letter grades always had a mystery on the student side: “Why did my teacher give me a B?” rather than “I know what I needed to do better now.” The grading of quality over labor meant that the student, who is not trained yet enough to recognize quality even where quality is pretty consistently measured, means that the power was entirely in the teacher’s hands. Contract grading does distribute that power a little bit more into the students’ hands, and it does make it easier to say to a student “If you do X, Y, and Z, your grade is definitely A”.

I also acknowledge that contract grading reflects more accurately the work conditions students are likely to be under. Most work in our job market is measured in hours or deliverables, not in relative ranked quality.

But the alignment with labor practices in what’s obviously a broken and exploitative capitalist system is probably exactly what’s wrong with contract grading in the first place, and why it feels little better than traditional grading. It just isn’t radical enough.

I don’t have to tell you that modeling “real-world” labor practices isn’t exactly going to be anti-racist and healing when “real-world” labor practices are, themselves, racist, exploitative, and soul-crushing.

And students are still not focusing on the content, on the skills and knowledge that are the goals of the course. They’re focused on completing a task list. It’s still extrinsic motivation over intrinsic motivation. It’s still being more focused on earning the gold start than it is on learning the concept. At a very real level, it teaches students that there is no value in the content of the course, but rather there is only value in fulfilling a contract to get something out of the other party that can be leveraged elsewhere to get what you want. That is, the only value is in earning capital, whether material or social.

That isn’t going to heal much. It’s just going to dress up the same problem in a prettier garment. It does only incremental work and doesn’t really radically re-imagine learning.

An apple on a book
Maybe learning can’t happen when the goal is a grade, whether a letter grade or a complete/incomplete.

I don’t lack a model for this radical imagination. If I’m entirely honest, most of my most familiar pedagogy comes from a deeply radical model of teaching, or at least what, implemented at an institutional level, would look like a deeply radical model of teaching that would completely destroy a lot of our educational system. The dream of what teaching should be that I’m chasing is actually always just a phone call away for me: my mother.

My mother is an art teacher. I’ve mentioned this before. As the youngest child, I have followed her to lessons and even assisted her as long as I can remember. She taught me how to make lesson plans, and we regularly have deep discussions of pedagogy. It’s she who taught me to assess every classroom activity by setting a clear goal of “What should students be able to do at the end of the lesson that they couldn’t do before?”

But here’s the thing: she doesn’t teach inside the behemoth education system, which means she’s free to actually teach. She teaches in settings most people don’t think of as classrooms (and often they aren’t even rooms): senior centers, after school programs through a local park system, renaissance fairs, anime conventions, festivals, etc. Her teaching is seen, at least by the people who provide her space to teach, as entertainment or, at best, edutainment or enrichment. But it’s very much teaching. Probably better teaching than what I do, honestly.

There’s no grades. When I ask her how she evaluates a student, she answers confidently “Improvement.” But it’s not measured with scores or numbers or any of the assessment apparatus that we use to arrive at grades, whether by weighted rubrics, curves, or contract grading. It’s measured solely in the student’s performance over the run of the course, whether that’s 20 minutes or 10 weeks or, in some cases, years.

There’s no sorting of students, not for entry and not for exit. I have never seen her turn away a student. Sometimes she has to ask a student to wait for the next session if a session is full (keeping a small class size is important), but she usually finds a way to squeeze them in. I have sometimes seen her ask a student to sit out when there was a behavioral issue, but only until the student was calmed down and ready to participate again. It’s she who taught me that there are no problem students, no “problem children,” only students who aren’t being taught appropriately for their needs. But the system I teach in, the system that pays my bills, tells me that some students simply “have aptitude” and some don’t, and helpfully tries to sort them out for me before they get to my class.

My mother wastes no effort predicting which students will be successful or not. But in my world, that’s an entire industry and field of research. But in her world, she simply adjusts her pedagogy as she goes to accommodate the students who, by most formal educational measurements, probably shouldn’t be in her class. And those students do indeed learn something toward the course goals.

What happens in my mother’s classes is, honestly, what I want for my own students, but I still don’t know how to make it happen. In much the same way that my mother’s students are learning how to tie knots and sew and about different cultural art forms without a traditional classroom, I didn’t learn how to write in a classroom; I learned to write outside of the classroom, sometimes in direct defiance of what was happening in the classroom, and then brought that knowledge into the classroom to achieve traditional educational success. I often told my parents that “school is getting in the way of my education,” and I still believe it to this day.

But I don’t know how to bring that energy to my students, since my learning was largely self-driven. I don’t know how to get school out of the way of their educations. I’ve been chasing after it for over a decade now, but the fact of the matter is that my students don’t choose to be in my class and I don’t choose how they’ll ultimately be assessed in that database that they’ll use to assess themselves, and I genuinely don’t know how to undo the literal decade of trauma my students come to me with from having been graded constantly for everything. I’m not sure that, so long as they’re paying tuition in a university system and I’m taking a paycheck from that system, I even can undo any of that trauma and truly just teach.

What I’m sure of right now is that contract grading isn’t a magical panacea, and it won’t fix the problem of grading. It just puts most of those problems under a different label.

One thought on “Problems With Contract Grading

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