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Anyone who has ever done even a rudimentary study into the history of grades will find that they are almost entirely a product of the industrial revolution - a time when western industrial countries began realizing the advantages in offering public education more widely throughout society.   

Before education became a universal right - grades were not generally applied.  Students would attend school for specific reasons {ie: to learn how to read (especially their communities bible), do basic math, learn a specific skill or (in some rare instances) prepare for a college board test} and thus students were motivated more by interest or by their families commitment - than by the abstract cultural ideal we all associate with education today.  Students would receive progress indicators that narrated performance and progress.  Passing and failing were the standards in these schools.

In your minds eye, think about the one room school house where one or two teachers worked with students of varying ages.  This was the dominant form of public education for decades and in this type of setting - a grade was not necessary up an to until the height of the industrial revolution.  How your son or daughter was doing with their studies would have been addressed with a letter or a one on one conference.  The students performance would be shared with any educational stakeholder in a similar manner.  If a college wanted to know whether a student was worthy of placement - they would give the student a entrance exam or use the college board's entrance exam.  

Grades were never an issue - because they did not exist.  You either passed the teachers exams and were therefore ready to move forward or when it came to college - you either passed the board test or college admission test or you did not.  

When society began to see education as a universal necessity, grades became a necessary tool to help stratify society fairly according to merit.  Before public education began to take off in the early 20th century - social stratification was organized around the landed and property ownership classes on the top and the professional class in the middle with the laboring class on the bottom.  Professional degrees were a ticket into the middle class for the laboring masses and for some middle class students, an opportunity to rise into the upper "landed" classes.  Before the industrial revolution this "ticket" was sold through prep schools. But when public schools came on line - how a college would offer admission to deserving students who did not attend a prep school became an issue. The answer -  they asked public and parochial schools to develop ways of identifying the more capable and deserving students from those who were less capable and deserving.  The result was our modern day grading systems where the infamous and ubiquitous"Bell Curve" was born.  The best colleges would seek out those students at the top end of the bell curve and those in the middle and bottom would filter into lesser colleges and/or the trades or laboring masses.  

Remember - this was a momentous shift from the pass-fail system the prep schools had operated under.  In time the grading system would become universally applied and the complex web and knots we find ourselves attempting to untie today were created.  

Today we find ourselves trying to make sense of a world that has made immense changes, while some things have remained the same.  

The following video is an excellent primary source from the 1950s which shows where public education as a tool for american social stratification was at mid-twentieth century.  Think about the people who are missing from this video.  Is there diversity?  Then contemplate how the institution of school was impacted by court rulings and state decisions to desegregate our schools.  Even think about today - where we are at with this movement for social justice.  How are schools still asked to segregate today?  What role do grades play in this "segregation"?   How does this expectation create a "catch-22" (complicated and competing expectations) situation for schools - especially public ones?




As you work your way through the resources provided in this folder - think about this larger history and the issues of continuity and change that we are grappling with.  How have we changed as a nation in terms of our ideals, especially the ones we have for schooling.  What has remained the same?  How does this continuity impact policy decisions?  How can teachers make sense of this complicated set of social and cultural realities?  How can teachers work with parents, students, educational leaders, and community stakeholders to serve the interest of every child and the whole child?  

Enjoy and please, as always - feel free to reach out to me to discuss.