Graphic designed by Roger Peet
Grading As Punishment
Authored by Jennifer (Jenna) Queenan
I began my teaching career in 2013 as a high school English as a New Language (ENL) teacher at Sunset Park High School (SPHS) in Brooklyn. During the new teacher orientation, I remember reading an article titled “The Case Against Zero,” where Reeves (2004) argues that teachers should not give out zeros as grades. In response to teachers who feel the need to give zeros as punishment for students who do not complete work, Reeves argues that a zero is not the appropriate punishment nor is it mathematically accurate (a 55, which is a failing grade, would be). Reeves also, albeit briefly, questions the motivation to punish students, stating that, “evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is an almost fanatical belief that punishment through grades will motivate students…. Rewards and punishments are part of the psyche of schools” (Reeves, 2004, p. 325).
I remember being struck by the article, and feeling uncomfortable with the idea of using grades to punish students, but not knowing what to do instead. In my first few years of teaching, I co-taught with four content teachers who all graded differently. How to grade was not always clear to me, which certainly meant that students probably did not understand their grades either. Grades, at times, reflected student skills, but often they were just about completion. And then there was the decision about what to grade. It wasn’t until my 11th grade school team applied to and joined the Competency Collaborative, a group that supports teachers in moving to competency-based grading, that I began to feel that my grading practices were transparent and provided substantive feedback to students on their learning.
As a Ph.D. student in Urban Education at CUNY, we often talk about the hidden curriculum in schools. The “hidden curriculum refers to the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school. … [It] consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school” (“Hidden Curriculum,” 2015). In addition to the formal curriculum, the hidden curriculum also impacts a student’s experiences in school, and yet, because it is typically inexplicit, there is less awareness of its messages and the impacts of those messages. As Paris & Alim (2017) argue in the first chapter of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, the purpose of schooling has been a “largely assimilationist and often violent White imperial project” (p. 1). In many ways, this is an argument about the dominant hidden curriculum that has been prevalent in U.S. public schools since their beginnings. The hidden curriculum often aligns with values that come from those in power.
What is the hidden curriculum of grading? Beyond what is taught and graded, I argue that in many schools grading serves as a form of control and a way to rank students in a capitalist society. A student’s worth in the eyes of the school system is portrayed through a number. Students implicitly learn their worth based on the grades they get, whether they fit into the binary of “good” student (i.e. a student who behaves and gets high grades) or a “bad” student. This is also true in post-secondary institutions, where grades determine jobs, entrance into specific majors like nursing, and more. Grading has material consequences.
Beyond ranking, grading often serves as part of a larger system of discipline, punishment, and surveillance. “If you don’t do x, you will fail.” Scholars and organizers, including Erica Meiners (2007) and Savannah Shange (2019), have used the term “the school-prison nexus” to highlight the similarities between schools and prisons, particularly schools with majority marginalized (poor Black and Brown) student populations. The concept of the school-prison nexus is rooted in an abolitionist analysis that explores the ways in which the logics of the prison industrial complex (PIC) are pervasive throughout society.
In 2019, I began to learn about the concept of school abolition through conversations with comrades in the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) and books like We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. In 2021, I co-facilitated an Inquiry to Action Group (ItAG) through NYCoRE on school abolition with a close friend of mine, Pam Segura. For six weeks, and again in 2022 and 2023, we met with other educators to explore the ways in which punishment and policing show up in our schools and how we can move toward educational freedom. We collectively developed definitions of school abolition, including this one: “School abolition means creating educational spaces where everyone can thrive and is not treated as disposable (accountability, not punishment). It’s a visionary process of tearing down and building up, similar to definitions of abolition.” Conversations in the School Abolition ItAG led me to believe more firmly that grading – the process of assigning a number to students in an attempt to measure their learning – is a form of ranking and punishment that does not actually serve students.
When I joined the Graduate Center, I sought out conversations about abolition and pedagogy. I found these conversations in various CUNY spaces, such as a Teaching and Learning Center workshop on ungrading, which moves away from number grades (similar to competency based grading). I know others at CUNY have questioned grading, such as this argument for A’s for All during and beyond the pandemic and a piece written by activist students at the Graduate Center that similarly argues that grading is one of many surveillance technologies used in universities. I also participated in a study group on university abolition, which explored ways in which universities are both punitive and have the possibility of serving movements for freedom. All of this is to say, I know these conversations are happening across CUNY and in other university spaces.
When I began the Humanities Alliance fellowship in the fall of 2022, I wondered who was talking about grading at CUNY community colleges and what they were saying. As a CUNY Humanities Alliance fellow, I have had a chance to observe classes and work with the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hostos Community College. And while I have seen a deep commitment to learning and a desire on the part of the faculty to engage and support students, I have not come across conversations that question the practice of grading at Hostos Community College. That is not to say that they are not happening, just that I have not heard them. With all of the thoughts outlined in my blog post, I am left wondering: What would (or do) conversations about grading, freedom, and university abolition look like on community college campuses?
Alim, H. S., & Paris, D. (2017). What is culturally sustaining pedagogy and why does it matter? In D. Paris & H. S. Alim (Editors), Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World (pp. 1-21). New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.
Hidden Curriculum Definition. (2015, July 13). Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum/
Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon.
Meiners, E. (2007). Right to be hostile: Schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies. New York, NY: Routledge.
Reeves, D. (2004). The case against the zero. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(4), pp. 324-325
Shange, S. (2019). Progressive dystopia: Abolition, antiblackness, + schooling in San Francisco. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.