Latin Grade Culture: What’s the Alternative?

Johnny Gross Co Editor-and-Chief

At Latin, school is a lot like a game of basketball. The fast-paced, urgent movement in the hallways is like movement on the court. The recipe for success is the same; at Latin, too, only after several passes to teammates and failed cuts to the basket, is there an opening for a shot. And the nonstop academic culture is reminiscent of the back-and-forth of a basketball game, that after making a shot we cannot sit back and rejoice, but must get back immediately to play defense. And then score again right after. This process repeats for a whole year with only a handful of timeouts.

Perhaps the most important similarity is the aspect of being in a team-oriented environment; both working together with your teammates and against the other team.

Collaboration and competition, together in the same space.

We are constantly encouraged to work together with our peers to succeed as a group, but are simultaneously working to be better than them. In other words, we are told to focus more on the learning process, but in the end often only care about how the “score” compares.

To Upper School history teacher Mr. Marshall, this logic is backwards, both in school and in a basketball game.

“[In basketball], talking only about the score makes no sense. What about who played well or tried hard, what about the personal and collective victories not reflected by the score?” said Mr. Marshall. “and similarly, if a school is all about grades, learning suffers and education becomes a negotiation instead of a joyful enterprise. It’d be a terrible shame in school, as in basketball, if only the score mattered.”

This message is one we’ve all heard before, that grades are not nearly as important as the learning process. But to students at Latin, caught in the cutthroat culture of classmates versus classmates, this message is often like water off a duck’s back. The prevailing rhetoric is that good grades lead to a good college, which leads to a good job. Not to mention, the competitive culture in such a high-end private high school can be infectious. With such few students, who are all very talented, it is hard not to compete.

For a snapshot, look at the traffic around the mailboxes. It seems that after a test or essay is handed back, the Latin student jumps immediately to how their grade compares to that of their classmates. If they did better, then they must be a better student. If they did worse, then they must be worse, and should focus on beating their classmates next time.

But this, at its heart, is wrong. No one test can determine aptitude, and even if it could, being the best student in every subject just for the title is an unrealistic and ultimately meaningless venture. Working hard to master the subjects that we are passionate about should be the ultimate goal of every student. And the grades might follow, or they might not.

This may sound hypocritical, since I often fall victim to the grade-crazy, competitive mentality. But, not to totally justify it, the issue is systemic and one that is embedded deep in Latin school culture. We are told to embrace the learning process, but are rewarded for excellent grades with the Cum Laude Society and GPA award. Not that these cannot go hand in hand, but by giving such prestigious awards to so few, Latin encourages a drive in students driven by prestige. That’s not to say that everyone has this mentality, because that is certainly not true, but many students do, in part because the brand of school at Latin prevents them from actually understanding the purpose of school and learning. Still, many contend that this mentality isn’t such a bad thing and that striving for a high grade enhances the learning process. In a school filled with already talented students, offering rewards for outstanding accomplishments might encourage them to work harder and consequently achieve greater feats. After all, what other motivation is there?

Mr. Marshall dedicated much of his sabbatical last year studying this very element of learning: what motivates students to work hard and learn? He observed how various prestigious high schools approach learning differently, visiting twelve high schools across the nation and interviewing home-schooled students as well.

“[the schools] ranged from alternative format schools—like Tallgrass Sudbury School in Riverside Illinois—to schools very like Latin only without grades—like St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. Some schools had different grading techniques, such as offering grades for behavior or completion—like Valor Academy in Nashville—and some were charter schools just starting out and trying to figure out what to do with grades.”

By visiting these schools, Mr. Marshall got a better understanding of extrinsic motivation (offering a reward for performance) and intrinsic motivation (an internal desire to learn).

It is remarkable how much genuine learning can get done in a school without grades, a surprising reality that is backed up by “psychological research that indicates that extrinsic motivation often undermines intrinsic motivation” according to Marshall.

But, this is not to say that he thinks that Latin should eliminate grades. “Good grades are a scarce resource in schools like Latin. The inevitable scramble for those resources, for me, isn’t surprising.”

Still, Marshall considers the outcome of a Latin without grades, or perhaps just a Latin with students who are more intrinsically motivated. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just wanted to learn as much as he or she could?”

Many other teachers, like fellow Upper School history teacher Mr. Cruz, are attempting to redefine what it means to be a learner in a place like Latin. Growing up in a school system where students valued education more than anything else, Mr. Cruz is disillusioned by the pervasive grade-culture at Latin.

“It feels unhealthy and counterproductive” said Cruz. “I was educated in a system where the students valued their educations more and their grades less, and we were just as driven and just as high achieving.  We just viewed the world differently.  I think the culture here wants the grade much more than the knowledge or the skill and that’s troubling to me.”

One of the ways that Mr. Cruz has tried to change this intense grade culture is through Standards Based Assessment, a method of grading that doesn’t focus on one arbitrary assignment of a letter grade, but rather providing direct feedback on the strengths and weakness of students. By breaking down a “B,” for example, into the different components that constitute it, students get a more thorough and meaningful evaluation, and can better apply their learning.

In his non-9th grade classes, Mr. Cruz has used some of the principles of Standards Based Assessment, designing the curriculum off of “formative and summative assignments. Formative ones are meant to serve as practice for the summative assessments. You don’t grade formative assignments, you only give feedback as necessary to prepare students for the summative assignment.”

But teachers can only do so much to encourage students to cherish the learning process. It is ultimately within us to understand that grades don’t dictate happiness, and often don’t even dictate intelligence. In the grand-scheme of things, it is passion and hard-work that leads to success, a lesson that is so important in life, but that unfortunately seems to fall by the wayside at Latin. From my current experience In Junior-year especially, with the new pressure of college, learning for joy is a rare commodity.

And the system is to blame, it really is. And we need to change the constant clutter to be better than him and her. Getting rid of a few awards is not going to do it; these awards are simply a face for age-old Latin values.

We can only make so many changes to a private high school that is already considered one of the best in the nation. It is our responsibility to embrace school for ourselves, to help us achieve our personal goals, just as it is the player’s responsibility to work hard to improve, no matter the amount of playing time the coach gives him.

“Teachers are working hard to create a kind space for students,” said Mr. Cruz. “But I’ve also been around long enough to know that faculty and staff can open the door, but ultimately students need to walk through that door.”