Grades Are Currency

Imagine your job looked something like this:  Five days a week you are forced to go to a place and perform a series of tasks.  Sometimes you enjoy the work, often times not.  You have many bosses throughout a day of moving from job to job, place to place.  A great deal of your time is spent sitting and simply listening.  Your basic needs are met.  You have food and water.  There is shelter.  You arrive with clothing.  You have limited decision-making over your assignments.  Opting out, when an option, has serious consequence. You often take your work home with you.  

Both the product and the payment are…interesting.  Neither has much immediate tangible value, though you must collect a minimum amount of ‘reward’ in order to simply escape the cycle.  (For many of your coworkers, the only goal is escape.)  You are told that the payment is mostly internalized, that it’s built into the tasks, that the tasks themselves, the experience gained, is the actual reward. You are told that the built-in reward nature of the tasks will allow you, in some future, to continue doing such things for a currency that allows the purchase of an infinite variety of goods and services, but that is a world you are not yet allowed to enter.  You are reminded, repeatedly and with variety, that the longer you remain in THIS system, completing tasks and accumulating that strange reward, the greater your ability to accumulate a far more powerful currency outside.  You are working, in other words, for a reward that has extremely limited present day value.  If you like the work, that is the reward; if you don’t like the work, the reward is the promise of escape.   

There is a more specific ‘reward’, if one could call it such, and here is where things get even more complicated.  Periodically, you receive a mark for the quality of your work.  Some bosses are generous, others less so.  This mark has little immediate value at all – you cannot trade it for anything.  It cannot be used to purchase tangible goods.  Like the work itself, this payment is supposed to have intrinsic value, though it also bears the oft-repeated promise of future value.  The amount you can earn is capped, and the value is in how close you reach that cap.  

Most often, that product and reward arrive after a long period spent simply trying to get a handle on the material.  Sometimes, that product arrives after a long period of not doing much at all, with a brief spurt of furious activity just prior to the deadline.  You build your earnings slowly, and the formula for growth has an almost infinite variety within each job.  Roughly twice yearly you get a report outlining your savings and their value, though again it is assumed that the tasks themselves are a kind of reward.  This is so painfully NOT true for many of the tasks that it hints at conspiracy.  Enjoyment of the tasks is scattered incomprehensibly throughout your group, but it is expected that you perform to the best of your ability and with maximum enthusiasm to every task.  What happens if you do not, besides reduced payment, is a vague hint of some future painful consequence.  Should you fail to perform the task satisfactorily to the boss of the moment, you risk repeating the entire experience.

Competition varies from job to job, boss to boss, but mostly you are rewarded not for victory over another but for completing the tasks placidly, on time, in abundance, and with skill.   

There are some strange rules and contradictions.  For example, there is a vague promise that if you earn enough from performing the tasks either in abundance or with excellence, you can parlay your earnings into more of the same yet harder!   Your ultimate goal is to escape the job itself, by doing the job so well that you can then go do the job for a different currency, though just as often you are reminded that the job is its reward, and upon exit you should continue to do the job for the sake of the job.  Like string theory, nobody really believes this or understands it completely.  

You are fairly confused about the purpose, nature, and value of the whole affair, but you have no choice or voice so mostly you muddle along as best you can.  The work itself is often vague of purpose, and most of the time seems strangely self-referential.  Final products seem backward thinking, reflections of what was experienced rather than directed towards the future, even though the ultimate goal is leaving the job for someplace else.

And that, friends, is school.


As much as it might pain us to imagine schools as an economy, the reality is that they are.  How, in fact, can one even avoid the idea of school as an economy, when so much energy and attention IN school is purposefully designed to acquire skills and experience to function in one upon exit?  Do we imagine students will not internalize the final purpose of all that education?  Do we imagine that if we can divorce the purpose from its form, that somehow it will not intrude?       

Grades are currency.  They are the most powerful currency a school has to offer, and as such, they are treated as a currency by everyone.  Teachers use the currency of grades to get students to do the work..Students work for the payment of grades.  Moreover, taking away the currency of grades does not mean students will suddenly change their ideas about school.  

The other currency of school is the learning itself, but we have no clear way, in the present construct, of turning that currency into value.  Until we do so, we will continue to expect unreasonable engagement and investment from our students.

We would like to deny that grades are a currency, that the world of school does not function like the one we enter after leaving it.  One would like to assume that the structure of school, with its intrinsic motivation and teachers impassioned by the joy of their subject material, should not – cannot – function like a market.  One would like to emphasize that grades are not a currency, not tradeable, and that their value is connected to the skills of students and nothing else.  All true, yet not quite true at all.

It’s easy to anticipate many of the objections,  But I think most objections, like much of what we do in schools, blatantly ignores the fact that students are people no different from ourselves.  If we could not imagine ourselves abiding by such circumstances, then we ought not assume students are something different.