John Taylor Gatto, a one-time New York State Teacher of the Year turned fierce education critic, proposed an education system built around "independent study, community service, adventures in experience, large doses of privacy and solitude, [and] a thousand different apprenticeships." Schools built on these values have flourished in the margins of state-funded, graded education throughout the 20th century. The most famous example is the Montessori schools, noted for their lack of grades, multiage classes, and extended periods where students can chose their own projects from a selected range of materials. The schools have educated many of today's wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Google's Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, business management legend Peter Drucker, and video game icon Will Wright.
A 2006 comparison in Milwaukee found that Montessori students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math; they also "wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school." Some contend that Montessori schools attract more affluent and successful parents, who give their children an inherent advantage, but the Milwaukee study was built around a random lottery for Montessori enrollment. All the children in the study came from families with similar economic backgrounds, with average incomes ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.
Free schools have taken the gradeless structure even further, treating the school as an open space where students are not only allowed to self-direct but are given equal responsibility in the organization and rule-making of the school itself. The Summerhill School in England is one of the most recognizable and longest-running, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill. Summerhill is built around the idea of creating stable, happy, and compassionate humans capable of filling any role in society—a janitor being no less a success than a doctor. In place of dedicated courses, students are free to follow their own interests while teachers observe and nudge them toward new ways of thinking about what they're drawn to. Students with an interest in cooking, for instance, might learn the basics of chemistry by way of thickening a sauce. Those drawn to playing soccer might learn to improve their game with some fundamental principles of Newtonian physics.
Schools inspired by the Summerhill model have flourished in recent years, with free schools operating around the country from Portland, Ore., to Sudbury, Mass. The Brooklyn Free School has earned attention for its open structure and regular democratic meetings, where students debate how to handle problems like boredom and whether playing video games on the school computers should be considered a learning activity. The higher tuition costs do tend to attract wealthier families with well-supported children, but many go out of their way to provide assistance to low-income families, favoring diversity over bill-paying. The Manhattan Free School in Harlem makes do on an annual budget of $100,000 and collects full tuition from only 20 percent of its students. The Brooklyn Free School operates on a sliding scale of tuition, collecting full payment from only half of its students, with some paying as little as $20 every few weeks.
It’s a common misnomer to assume no student evaluation happens in environments like these, but in most cases free-school environments require more teacher attention than traditional classrooms. Instead of testing for comprehension of a select group of facts or ideas, teachers constantly monitor a child’s behavior, support an array of student experimentation, and subtly encourage efforts that best match the student’s abilities. In free schools failure is not a punishment for bad study habits but the sign of students testing their knowledge to see if it holds true in practice. In our soccer analogy, success wouldn’t be evaluated by students scoring goals but in gradually learning how and why the ball curves in some cases and goes straight in others, a process that would surely produce many more misses than scores.
And free schools perform reasonably well. A survey of former students at Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts found 80 percent of its students went on to college or professional school, and 20 percent enrolled in graduate programs. In 1998, 75 percent of Summerhill students who took Britain's certificate-qualification exams passed.
Abandoning grades would be a massive shock, but holding onto them has not forestalled decay, from waves of school closures for poor standardized test results to the trillion-dollar debt guillotine awaiting college students who'll struggle to win unpaid internships for all their hard work. Eliminating grades would not singlehandedly bring salvation. There is a whole new world of challenges and complications in a classroom without pedagogy and rank. But it would be an ideal place to start anew, to stop motivating students, teachers, and underperformers with the fear of being flunked, fired, or shut down. Without that dysfunctional ranking we could instead form a child’s education around his or her eagerness to discover, contribute, and share. An A-to-F grade scale is only a distraction from that process and in many cases an outright deterrent. It’s time to admit that system has no place in our future.