Culture change takes times, especially when accompanied by practical systems and structures that need to change.  People set emotional and habitual dependencies within patterns of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration which has worked well enough to be considered valid.  To wit, our world could not make an instantaneous shift to alternative fuels despite the benefits. Among the many necessary transitions, first on many people’s mind would be to solve “How would all the current gasoline based cars on the road run?” So, too, for schools pursuing change.

When a school considers a new system for reporting student learning in Judaic Studies that does not use traditional grading as the barometer for success, one may see this as the domain of the professionals alone to make. The movement toward an unfamiliar definition of accomplishment, despite the overwhelming benefits, requires not only buy-in, but support from all groups in the Jewish Day School Ecosystem.

The ubiquity and long history of traditional grading systems snows many of our stakeholders into believing that this form of comparison and evaluation produces fair, honest outcomes worthy of continuation. It convinces people that self-worth, success, and evaluation should be based on a grade derived only from results attached to data limited by time conditions and formats for demonstrating knowledge or skills in a particular avenue.

The overwhelming amount of research on this topic suggests otherwise. Evidence from behavioral science indicates that extrinsic motivators typically weaken and damage internal motivation. Therefore, perpetuating a system that ascribes judgment to students’ Jewish learning experiences can undermine students’ potential for internally motivated, lifelong interest in pursuing Jewish learning.

Traditional grading defines success with an “A,” ensuring that motivation originates in a predefined win (often over a peer) and not how you play the game. Grade calculations typically exclude effort, well-being, interest, passion, ethics, personal growth, and commitment to learning.  The exclusions make up the bulk of our Jewish inheritance. As the grading norm corrodes our successful passing on of our ancient wisdom, the stakeholders (elements of the Ecosystem) should find this norm unacceptable.

To create culture change, stakeholders (educators, consumers, funders, and influencers) must get in sync by exploring their underlying assumptions. One  essential question will uncover a myriad more: “What is the ultimate goal of Judaic Studies?” Is it about tracking a series of results generated from tools that produce a comparative, judgmental grade, or is it about developing the next generation of Jews committed to learning because that creates strong, healthy Jewish identities? Are we comfortable with the notion that comparing students to one another in Judaic Studies means that half the group is already considered “below average”?

So how can we create change in a system so entrenched in a school culture? Multiple maps arrive at the same place, since most in the Ecosystem agree on this underlying assumption. The challenge lies in how to start the journey and which travel partners to bring along.

While the best group to take the lead will depend on each school’s Ecosystem, success grows from building alliances with a few key people in other segments of the Ecosystem. In the first step, each segment of the Ecosystem has to unfreeze its current thinking about grading.  Once the norm stands unacceptable, change begins by agitating like-minded allies to directed actions. Shifting away from the unacceptable toward new ideas and underlying assumptions causes a paradigm shift. In truth, the new reporting systems and structures evolve slowly. Again, many cars on the road would stop working without gasoline even though we see a growing number of new vehicles getting around efficiently using electricity.

.Regardless of role in the Ecosystem, many stakeholders will grapple with these questions as they unfreeze their thinking about grading in Judaic Studies.  This results in a necessary and important phase of wrestling with existential questions such as:

  1. Without grades, how could Judaic Studies classes have gravitas compared to General Studies classes?
  2. Without grades, how would students be motivated to learn in Judaic Studies classes?
  3. Without grades, how would schools, parents, or students evaluate progress?
  4. Without grades, how would school be school?

The good news is that there are research-based answers to all of these questions that point to the benefits of moving forward in the change process.

Of greater complexity are the nuanced concerns of each group within the Ecosystem.  Those leading the no-grades journey should consider these practical and emotional concerns when working with allies to unfreeze the conversation. Here are some examples:

Educators may think about class control, unwanted scrutiny, and limited time.

  • Some may be wary of losing the hierarchical nature of the classroom that relies on the extrinsic motivator of grades.
  • Some may assume that a no-grades initiative feeds into the concern about students not being resilient and not knowing how to handle real world pressure.
  • While not all grading systems follow a bell curve, teachers know that classes with grades strongly skewing in one direction draw unwanted attention from parents or administrators. Therefore, it behooves them to control the number of students succeeding at the top level.
  • Based on the historic use of grades in recent generations, teachers may be conditioned to think that everyone expects tiered results - administrators, parents, and even students.
  • Reformulating curricula, lesson plans, assessments, and evaluation standards is an immense amount of work that overwhelms teachers’ capacities and schedules.
  • In traditional grading systems, teachers report on results and not the students themselves. A system change will require: a) more teacher time to develop individualized reports b) more personal time with students or smaller classes to ensure teachers get to know individuals and c) new and different teacher training.

Funders and board members may think about perception and financial resources.

  • This group needs to feel proud about representing a school and feel confident that major decisions are in the best interest of the students and school overall.  They may not understand how the school will evaluate student learning or course rigor without grades.
  • The financial resources often needed for staff time or developing a paradigm shift weigh on their minds, as well.

Consumers may think about leverage, pride, uncertainty about progress, and college.

  • Some parents may not know how to partner with the school to encourage student learning if they cannot leverage grades. This can result in increased friction at home.
  • Parents feel pride when their children bring home good grades -- regularly or even occasionally.  Look how many cars (fueled by gas and electric) boast the bumper sticker, “My child is an honor student at…” Some parents thrive on their child being among the “top tier” of peers and would lose that gratifying feeling if grades were not a means of comparing students. The same is true for some students whose positive self-esteem comes from earning good grades -- regardless of how much they did or did not learn.
  • Many consumers don’t believe they will understand what success looks like because they primarily understand learning evaluation through the traditional grading system they experienced themselves.
  • While most colleges and universities pull out Judaic Studies grades when computing a GPA for admission review, some consumers may worry this will impact their competitive edge.

Influencers may think about incongruencies with their work and role.

  • Those who sell products may not have the right support material.
  • Those who give support and advice may not know how to support or advise schools in this setting.

In short, the struggle to resist change has driven the Jewish people through very difficult times to continue as a people. The struggle and questioning go side by side with eagerness

and zeal. The questions deserve proper answers. However, the fact that questions and resistance exist does not prove the idea good or bad, just necessary for investigation.

In 1959, Volvo introduced the three point harness seat belt.  It was criticized as too constraining and not “normal.” In 1963, Volvo gave away the rights in the U.S. to anyone who wanted to put seatbelts in cars, a potential loss of millions of dollars in patent agreements. Volvo’s managing director, Alan Dessell, explained: “The decision to release the three-point seat belt patent was visionary and in line with Volvo’s guiding principle of safety.”  This changes saved countless lives. The same is true of transforming the way we think about and administer Judaic Studies in Jewish Day Schools. Over the span of years, it will become clear that it is visionary and in line with Judaism’s guiding principles.

This article is an expanded version of the article posted on eJewish Philanthropy titled, "Gas or Electric Cars? Grades or No Grades in Judaic Studies? Shifting Paradigms."