What's in a Grade?

Our final project for my grad school course this semester sounds an awful lot like a teacher invented it.  It's called Problem Based Learning.  Basically, the students have to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it, and then solve it.  The teacher hangs around and answers questions if they have them, but doesn't volunteer anything except for the premise.

As I said, it sounds like a dream come true for a teacher, and it sure is applicable to real life, but I don't think it would ever work for the demographic I teach.  In fact, considering how many questions I have after assigning half a page of homework, I could probably guarantee myself a migraine.

In spite of myself, however, I'm starting to enjoy the project.  The premise, which is loosely based around the professor's other teaching job, is that an inner-city school is struggling to make state-mandated standards.  They have decided to create a yearlong tutoring program for the approximately 25% of the student body that has failed the last achievement tests, and they've given us $200,000 to plan and execute it.  My job is to write the budget: snacks, transportation costs, teacher salaries, materials, etc.  I've talked them into using Music Mind Games as an enrichment activity and to improve reading, math and test scores (all of which are proven to happen, by the way!)

So during class last week, I suddenly realized why the activity was so enjoyable, and so unrealistic, all at once.  We were coming up with the best strategies, the coolest ideas, the most enthusiastic instructors, in order to help these struggling students gain their footing and succeed.  And the one conspicuously-absent factor was GRADES.

As you may have read recently, grades are more controversial than ever: should teachers grade effort, achievement or both?  Presentation, content or both?  Are tougher grading scales, like the one we use, better or worse than the standard 10-point scale, or do they cause grade inflation?  Should we let a student volunteer for extra credit if she wants to bring her grade up, or deny it on the basis of fairness?  What if the parent calls, irate and demanding?  How much do we care, really, about the grades we assign?

I love teaching, but I hate assigning grades.  It seems so counterproductive to the work we're trying to accomplish: the betterment of human hearts and minds.  How does a number on a piece of paper help with that?