“B” is the new “F”

I’m not a fan of letter grades for many reasons. For one, in my entire career I’ve never met a single student who I believe actually became more motivated as the result of an “F.” More often than not, the “F” is demoralizing, and gets logged with all the other evidence a child might use to prove to himself he is worthless and can’t learn…despite how hard we might try to convince him otherwise.

I’m not a fan of the terminology applied to our evaluation. In many meetings and trainings, I joke about the fact that the terms (U, B, P, and D) are in fact adjectival labels…that at the end of the year I plan to have my summative label embroidered on my school polo, right below the school logo and “STAFF.” I’m a believer in the potential of our evaluation model, but I see it being undone by four little words. One word, actually: “Basic.”

Because I understand our framework, the law, and our model very deeply, I’m not personally too concerned when I have a “Basic” here or there. I also have a few “Distinguished” here or there, and I’ve said flat out to my evaluator that I never choose to aspire to anything more than “Basic” in 8.4. That one, with all respect due to Dr. Marzano, represents someplace I don’t intend to devote my personal and professional energy. (It’s true: I’m arrogant. I am good at my work; for me it’s not about being bulletproof, it’s about knowing my own professional weaknesses before my evaluator even has the chance to point them out.)

As summative conversations are happening in my district, my role with our teachers’ union and as a Marzano framework trainer means I have received many emails per day from both teachers and principals about the “Basic.” It is quite clear, that despite my hopes, “B” is the new “F.”

Despite all the talk of this being a growth model (and while it is now too cliche to use the term “growth mindset,” I am still a big believer in the essential premise of mindset as a deciding factor in success, happiness, and professional improvement), I realize that the labels themselves don’t walk the growth mindset talk. The labels are static. They “define” a teacher. As adjectives, they imply a fixed state. Thou art “Basic.”

But here’s the kicker: Almost none of the conversations I’ve had with principals and teachers have been about a summative overall “Basic” score. In almost every case, the teacher is set to receive an overall label of “Proficient.” In some cases, every one of the major criteria is set to receive a “Proficient” rating, while one or two components here or there is labeled “Basic.” The “Basic” is intolerable. It is a professional affront. And it is, very possibly, an accurate assessment of the practices taking place. The reality is that some students do perform at an “F” level, and some teachers do perform at a “B” level.

A teacher who “gives” a student an F will no doubt argue that the student “earned” the score. There will be evidence (or an absence of evidence) to support the rating. Nevertheless, I still contend that the “F” label serves to demoralize rather than motivate. The “Basic” has a similar impact…but the action I too often see motivated from the “Basic” isn’t a motivation to take action and change practice, it is a motivation to challenge the label. Just as when a student (or parent) challenges a grade with little regard to the learning it is supposed to represent, I see many of us challenging the label without much regard for the practice it is supposed to represent. In my interpretation, it isn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault for this reaction. The fault stems from  terminology the connotes a state of being rather than a description of actions.

The problem is the meaning that our system, our whole culture, applies to those labels. I know a syntactical shift won’t change everything but moving from an adjective to verb, from label to action, from fixed to fluid, could be one way to shift perspectives. An adjective defines what we are, and definitions (in our world) are fixed. A verb describes what we do, and once we’ve done what we do it is in the past; we always have the choice do something new or different in the present and future.

Word changes, you say, won’t change the fact that we are as a culture intolerant of second-places, B-minuses, and not being treated as exceptional. That’s a bigger issue. But the words we choose shape how we see ourselves and the world around us.

And I’m just pollyanna enough to believe that a student getting a rating of “Emerging” rather than a label of “F” will sense that there is perhaps hope. I believe it because I’ve seen it in my own classroom with my own students. I believe that a teacher being told his skills are “Developing” will respond differently than if he is given the label “Basic.” As it is, the “Basic” shifts our focus to the label, and away from cultivating better practice.

6 thoughts on ““B” is the new “F”

  1. Jasmine Lawrence

    Dear Mark,

    Last week Monday I started my first graduate school class at The City College of New York in NYC. One assignment that the professor wants us to do is to follow an educational blog and write about our thoughts. I researched this blog and decided to pick this one. The “B” is the New “F” title caught my eye so I decided to read it.

    This resonates with me because as a first year middle school Social Studies teacher, for my first evaluation from my AP I received some developing. I was not upset, I was not sad, I believed that at that time I was developing. Like you said, developing gives hope that as long as I fix my work, some practices (for me it is classroom management and time management), then I can move on to efficient/effective. To me basic seems like a white plain T shirt, which can sometimes be ok, because sometimes you just need that dependable white plain T shirt on a hot day!

    On my last evaluation from my AP, she said that she was happy to see me grow and move from developing to effective in some areas.

    1. Mark Gardner Post author

      Welcome Jasmine! I’m glad to hear that your experience with your AP was framed in such a way that you were able to take the feedback as a starting point for growth…it also shows that you are realistic in your self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. I have some teachers I work with who are far too hard on themselves, and others who are not familiar enough with the evaluation tool to really be accurate in self-assessment. In some cases, they’ll assess themselves as proficient even when they admit their practice doesn’t align with the descriptors for proficient—there’s simply too much discomfort in the idea of labeling oneself “basic,” particularly mid-career, after a MA degree, or even after earning NBPTS certification.

      Your note about the white T-shirt is interesting. They are a “basic,” and in many cases exactly appropriate…that’s what I believe more of us need to recognize.

      Best of luck as you embark with City College of NY! I hope you return (and bring colleagues) to add your voices to our conversation here. Much of what we post is centered on issues in Washington State, but those same patterns exist all over, I’m sure!

  2. Annette Weeks


    I like how you think.

    Where I have trouble with this TPEP rating system is when I ask the question, “What would you like to see me change?”

    For 2 years of the 3, the answer I have received is, “There is nothing. I am happy with what I am seeing. ”

    How does this instill conversation? How does this improve teaching? I know there are places where I could improve, sometimes I would like to have ideas from the instructional leaders about what they think would make my lessons or my classroom more efficient. I have respect for their big picture view of the educational process.

    I find find this frustrating. If an evaluater is going to find a teacher less than distinguished or proficient, it seems that there should be some very specific reasons given and ways that the teacher can improve, after all that is what the TPEP is supposed to be all about.

    On the flip side of this…my grading, the TPEP keeps me mindful of being able to give students ways they can improve if their scores are less than they wanted them to be.

    1. Mark Gardner Post author

      The response to your question is a situation that still concerns me… my gut says that we’re dealing with administrators whose jobs end up being so much more about managing a building than instructional leadership, and the result is they don’t have the time or opportunity to develop the kind of leadership/coaching skills necessary to help teachers chart a course for improvement.

      In my coaching of principals, I encourage them to use the language of the rubrics to have that conversation… If P rates T as “proficient,” then in our conversation we take a look at the language of “distinguished” and collaborate around what it might look like in practice to achieve that level. Collaborative brainstorming is the first step…and I’d argue that if a teacher has to be given a directive (checklist, how-to, series of admin-identified tasks, whatever) to move from proficient to distinguished, then that teacher isn’t really there yet anyway. Kinda like with my own students, the kids who perform at the highest levels perform that way because of what they do, not what I do.

  3. Tom White

    I’ve chosen to interpret my TPEP evaluations as formative assessments. Therefore, whenever I get a basic in a certain area (and I do) I use that as an area to focus on for growth. It’s as simple as that.

  4. Gabu

    In some areas grading system believed to be the way out and this kinda bring competition among students

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