Guest Blogger – School Without Grades in Jefferson County, Colorado

Today’s guest blogger, Rick Posner, was the assistant principal at the Open School in Jefferson County, Colorado, from 1999-2001, where he taught for 30 years. His new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope: How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning, describes the school, which unlike most others, has no set curriculum or course of study and allows students to set their own goals and be self-directed learners. Posner looks at what happened to Open School alumni and shows how the graduates of this 39-year-old school went on to lead productive, interesting lives. The book is well worth reading; those of us who don’t live in Jefferson County, Colorado, are left to wonder why this type of school doesn’t exist in every community in the country. Be sure to visit Posner’s website.

Free At Last: Living Without Grades
By Rick Posner Ph.D.

Believe it or not, there is a public pre K-12 school in a very conservative school district in Colorado that has thrived without grades or credits for almost 40 years. Yes, it’s true. There are hundreds of alumni from the Jefferson County Open School (a public school that is open to anyone who lives in Colorado’s largest school district) who have become happy, well-rounded, productive adults without one single A, F or 12.5 unit designation on their school records. It may serve as a further surprise to learn that most of them have gone to college and done quite well in conventional, graded systems, and that, more startling, their college completion level is twice that of the national average.

Here’s what they say about the inhibiting aspects of grades and credits:

Grades and credits kill the inherent love and joy of learning that we are born with by making the process of learning competitive and impersonal. With grades there are always winners and losers, and the standards are


really the same for everyone, regardless of individual learning styles or cultural differences.

Grades take everyone off the hook. Students don’t feel responsible for their own learning. They just learn how to “play the grade game”. Teachers do not have to respond to students’ learning in an in-depth, qualitative way, and even parents can end their meaningful inquiries into their children’s progress by simply asking for their report cards and not going any further. No one has any real responsibility.

What do grades say about someone anyway? Is a straight “A” student in Butte, Montana the same as a straight “A” student in Chicago, Illinois? What do we really learn about someone from his report card?

How do you grade the really important things like character development, personal growth and social skills? How can you place a grade on a three-week trip to Mexico where you are teaching English to Mexican teenagers or picking chilies with a Mexican family? How do you grade an internship or a self-directed project?

Here is what they say about the advantages of going grade-free:

You can develop a genuine love of learning by going as deeply as you want to in a subject without fear of disapproval or demerit.

You learn how to evaluate and assess your own work, which is a valuable life skill that you must use when you are working and living in the real world.

You learn to give and receive substantive feedback to and from teachers, peers and community members.

You learn how to demonstrate competencies and solve problems instead of just giving rote responses to single solution tests or assignments.

You learn how to write your own transcripts of all the important things you have learned about yourself in the intellectual, social and personal domains of your life in or outside of school.

You feel like you are part of an authentic community of learners where everyone, including the teachers, is a learner first and foremost, and not a competitor for the highest grade or test score.

You learn how to be intrinsically motivated and self-directed. Without a constant other-directed focus, you are forced to develop your own compass.

You become responsible for your own learning and eventually your own life.

You are free to see the inherent pleasures and meanings in learning and life.

You become a risk- taker, an adventurer and a lifelong learner when you see that learning is personal and relevant.

The alumni of the Open School think that living without grades and credits has been a liberating experience. What do you think? Could you or your children have lived without grades or credits?

29 thoughts on “Guest Blogger – School Without Grades in Jefferson County, Colorado

  1. As a parent of a child who also attends a school with no grading system up to the end of grade 6, I recognize the value of not placing children in Grade boxes that ultimately limit them. I was graded thoughout my education and getting A’s and B’s is as limiting as getting F’s and D’s because you get a label, that you then are constantly compared to.

    What I see happening at school is that everything the children do has value. They are encouraged to do their very best and are given the time to accomplish that…so ….big surprise…that’s what we parents see time and again when we go to look at their work. And while it drives me nuts sometimes that it’s so hard to get her out of there at night because she’s busy finishing something, that focus and “intrinsic motivation” that Mr. Posner mentioned is there.

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  2. I love the idea of a grade-free school. I agree that grades diminish intrinsic motivation and are artificial indicators of real learning. As a straight-A student who graduated at the top of my undergraduate class, my grades harmed me tremendously. I became driven to get an A at all costs, focused on studying for the test rather than for learning and feared taking classes that I might not ace so I would not ruin my perfect GPA. I was great at figuring our what teachers wanted and regurgitating it back to them, but I often lacked real understanding because my focus was so superficial. I look back with a lot of regret over wasted time and wasted college tuition! How I wish I had attended a school without grades….

    Now when my children bring their report cards home, I refuse to let them even see them. Other parents think I’m crazy, especially the ones who give their children money for their As and punishments for their Bs — as if the grades themselves are not enough to undermine intrinsically motivated learning!

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  3. Fairfax, I’m rushed so my answers today seem sophomoric. But I love the way you think. I do the same. Rewarding for A’s, dangling that carrot, is anathema to me. My daughter tells me repeatedly school is too grade focused, that although she likes her school, she is worn down by the incessant tests and quizzes.

    Why would I want to further damage her intrinsic motivation? And the grades you can check on line? I hear of parents who do this every day, sometimes all day, first thing in the morning. You read of parents who wake up and race to the computer. I do the same. But that’s to pray it’s a snow day so my daughter can sleep in! Do I want my daughter’s education reduced to a stock market race? Up today, down tomorrow? Good grief.

    My daughter attended seven CTY summers. She loves it. I was extolling its virtues to a friend last year. He asked, ‘do they offer grades?” Nope. “College credit?” Nope again. You can pursue credit at your school though. “Tests?” Nope again. Then why send her?, he wondered. I replied, the minute this program changes, the minute they start instituting grades and tests is the minute I pull her out. That’s what school is all about, I continued. Why would I want to extend that into the summer?

    If I took my daughter out of this summer program, she’d be heartbroken. Go figure. I’m not kidding. It’s been a major highlight of her life. Every essay she has to write to describe a seminal experience is about CTY. She is so hungry to learn.

    And they do work hard. But nothing like school. Interested motivated kids want to work hard! Hard as in engaged and in that magical state of flow of learning for hours, entranced by some discussion or experiment without the nagging worry that there’s always something undone, something hanging over you like a dark cloud.

    They learn and work together during the day, activities afterwards and very strict bedtimes. It’s not about being worked to death, it’s not about being drained and exhausted and worried constantly over grades and managing an ever growing homework load. It’s learning in freedom. It’s the only gifted program my daughter has ever participated in that actually cares about sleep and health.

    I’m not suggesting everyone run and do this program. I am sure there are detractors, and that’s okay. For my daughter, it’s been nirvana. And for three weeks a year, she gets a taste of the kind of learning she is so ravenous for and only gets three weeks a year.

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  4. I graduated from Jefferson County Open School. Before I entered in the 9th grade I was an almost straight A student. I got the last grade of my education in 8th grade – I never returned to a graded system despite several secondary and post-graduate degrees.

    We read of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, even 90s graduating from college or learning to read for the first time. But how often do you read about someone in their 70s learning social, interpersonal, self-direction, or critical thinking skills?

    I never got a grade in physics but since every time I put an object in motion it stayed in motion until acted upon by an external force, let’s assume I learned it.

    I can’t imagine one single class that I took in highschool that was intergral to my work life or personal life today. They were all foundations for future learning or exploration and I can’t imagine how an A or an F or anything in between could possibly have affected what I do today. I don’t even work in the field I received secondary education in or the field I did post-secondary education in – so had I pursued grades as the objective, they’d have come to naught anyway.

    I’ve often asked (and been asked) co-workers and new friends what they studied in school and we talk about shared experiences with prokaryotes and Socrates and phylogeny and prepositions and applied and discrete mathematics and logical (or illogical) reasoning. But never once has anyone asked me what grade I got. Apparently… it doesn’t matter.

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  5. I think that the comments so far have to be read in order to understand the real impact of “going gradeless”. Grades and credits are things that we just take for granted as necessary evils. Read or re read Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to get the real jist of of what the grading system is all about. Control of critical thought is essential in maintaining the status quo. Grades are the restraints used to keep students from realizing their consciousness and their full potential as full, well-rounded human beings. What do you think?

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  6. Rick, I think you make some very compelling points.

    I am forcing myself to stay off the blog and away from these provocative comments because I’m battling a personal “crisis” right now. Okay, take away the quotation marks. It’s a real crisis. Or a real panic deadline hurricane. Unrelated to DD but when she finds out, she’ll be hugely affected by it.

    Hard to stay away. Rick, excellent points. Keep the discussions going. I’ll be reading.

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  7. I haven’t read Pedagogy of the Oppressed…I will look for it. And until recently I never ever questioned the value of grading…and I never considered how it got started. Who would have ever thought that classifying children’s school work would be of benefit to them. Some might say that it’s the kids at the top who benefit, but do they really? The ones at the bottom certainly don’t benefit from it…..they’re doomed.

    So, some teacher somewhere decides that you deserve A’s in 5 subjects. What does that really mean?

    I used to believe that that meant that this student was a good student who would do well throughout school, and basically had a meal ticket for life. Not only did I see the glass as half full, I saw them as guaranteed to always have an overflowing cup because they knew how to access the source.

    But now, I wonder if the glass is even half full for them, and half full of koolaid….little nutrition and only a quick sugar high. Many of them only know what the system wants them to know and they know nothing about themselves, who they are, and where they fit in in the world. They finish grade 12 exhausted and fed up and they haven’t even begun.

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  8. Robert Pirsig writes about a college professor who decides to stop using the grading system in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

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  9. I remember being “confronted” with a truly progressive approach to assessment in college at the University of Wisconsin in the 60s. I was given a choice to take some student-run classes and to grade myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t acculturated in this kind of thinking so all I could think of was : How can I take advantage of this to beat the system? I gave myself “A”s and never even showed up for the classes. It just goes to show that you have to buy into the value of self-assessment early on, and it sure helps to grow up in a family/culture/school that values the love of learning for its own sake. It wasn’t until I came to the Open School as a transfer teacher that I fully understood the value of living without external assessments and appreciating the inherent joy in learning as a way of life.

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  10. Rick, I raised my daughter with a love of learning and learning for its own sake and not just for extrinsic rewards.Consequently she has told me often that her high school is much too grade focused. On those rare times I’ve shared this tidbit with school brass, they always look surprised and some teachers tell me they’d love to focus more on literature than the test, for example, but that the kids wouldn’t do the work unless there was a reward or punishment attached. Brilliant insights but I still come away thinking, but what did I just tell you? I’m refuting your entire thesis!

    My daughter is a senior now and is applying for a gap year overseas. I hope she gets in but it’s very competitive. The first six months they have the following choice: they can either study at a world class university for credit or some other program that is pure love of learning with no tests, homework or grades.

    It’s her choice, I am giving her that autonomy. But she comes to me for advice and input. Should she go to that reputable university or do something amazing, just learn? And I am imagining it. She would come to class, refreshed after a good night’s sleep, eager to learn. I see her as a starving student at a buffet. During the day, as contrasted with this stressful high school year, she wouldn’t have that incessant pressure of homework clouding her day and robbing her of sleep.

    I am envisioning it. She wouldn’t cut class, we’ll talk about that, she can’t. I know her. She won’t. Just think. She would go to class each day and just learn. Finally. For once. For six months. It should have been this way all along. I feel she got robbed of a real education and childhood. Let her get a bite of it, six months. And a year later,she’ll start her college career. But for six months, she’ll have a hiatus. Not from learning, just from pressure. I salivate at the mere thought of it. I am thinking that is how I shall advise her, go for the love of learning choice! You are young only once. Homework and all its pressures can wait a year.

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  11. Rick- you taught me well. What else can I say.

    To the others out there- I graduated in 1984. Since then I have gone on to not only get college degrees, but have travelled the world, experienced things I never thought possible, and have lived a pretty full life. A note to those out there that think grades are everything- as a part-time judge I don’t get asked what my grades were- be it in high school, college or even law school. I do get asked how I THINK about things on a daily basis. That is what I learned from Rick and others in HS.

    Prior to going to the Open School, I was an out of control kid that was smart as hell but didn’t have the skills needed to get along in the world. More importantly than getting grades or passing some exam, school was a holistic experience where I grew in a lot of different ways, and learned the skills to keep on learning.

    Any kid I may have in the future will have as similar an education, as early as possible. I only wish I would have had the opportunities sooner than 10th grade.

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  12. Reading some of these cogent comments reminds me of a time when I was consulting for schools in Arizona. After extolling the great pleasures and benefits of designing your own projects, I asked the students if they had the choice of taking a class with a teacher that they hated or designing their own projects which would they choose. Grades reared their ugly heads! They all said they would take the class because it would be easier! At least they would know what it would take to get a “C” or even a passing “D”. They didn’t want to do all the work that it took to do the projects, especially if they would be graded by a teacher.
    Your responses to this ingrained dilemma?

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  13. Hi Rick- I’m pondering this ingrained paradigm (thanks for soliciting our responses). I’m curious, were these college students?

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  14. Those have got to be kids who have been in the normal usual, public system. Anything to escape !

    I think starting an “open” system at the high school level is way too late. In fact our whole society is based on “A”‘s and speed and getting A’s as fast as possible is the only way to go.

    Learning and anything associated with school is seen as HARD. I think kids are equating boredom and frustration with HARD so they do what’s necessary to get out as fast as possible, hence the result you saw.

    Isn’t it the same as asking an adult: Would you rather have a job you hate with guaranteed wages, than be working for yourself (happily and inspired) with unpredictable wages?

    That’s why most of us are doing jobs we aren’t enthusiastic about.

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  15. I agree with PsychMom. One issue is “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” We all tend to stick with what is familiar rather than taking a chance on something new.

    Another issue is the way that progressive ideas have infiltrated the classroom. True progressive education (which I have never actually seen or experienced, btw) is extremely rare. But quasi-progressive claptrap is everywhere. Believe it or not, those ridiculous “project” assignments (build a diorama of a scene from the book, “character in a can”, etc.) are given because of half-digested progressive ideas. (“They’re fun! They’re creative!”)

    Our kids have been turned off to progressive ideas by exposure to mush-headed implementation. A lot of parents have been turned off too (see kitchen table math).

    The truth is that all the schools I know were designed in the traditional mold. Recasting them as real progressive schools would require such deep thinking and change that it seems just about impossible. At this point, it might be easier to try to get our schools to do a decent job of traditional education.

    We’re applying to a Montessori elementary school for younger dd to start next year. Stay tuned!

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  16. Those “kids” were high school level, and, yes, they were acculturated in that system that tells them that playing the grade game is always easier than creating the curriculum for yourself. Like someone exclaimed when a teacher asked him to design his own project: “You mean we have to think!?”.

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  17. Rick, the phrase that immediately came to mind upon reading your post was: Garbage in, Garbage out. A couple of generations now, mine included, have been conditioned to be good students and to think very little. It pains me to admit this but I didn’t go on to get my Ph.D. because I didn’t think I could come up with an original research idea. Talk about limiting oneself; too afraid to make a mistake.

    Give me rote work to do, where there’s a clear task, with neat and tidy outcomes and I’ll go to town and it actually makes me feel good doing it because that’s the reward system that’s been instilled. Follow steps 1 thru 6 and you get a cookie, mark, grade, praise, paid.
    But ask me to design something, ask me to plan and create and I’m at a loss. For that matter, ask me to dream and figure out what I want……I’m at a loss.

    Maybe that’s just my personality, but I’m beginning to wonder. Maybe it’s not so much that thinking is hard, but that there’s been no reward for it, so it’s hard to associate good feelings to it. Whereas, marks and grades are pretty clear cut and highly rewarded….to the exclusion of all else.

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  18. Ric, I heard your report on early Sunday morning radio on the way to National Guard weekend. I’m still very intrigued. The more I heard, the more I thought most parents would want their child to learn this way if they truly understood what it would mean for them in the long run. After all, don’t our children take care of us when we get older?
    I meet people everyday (including myself sometimes) who can’t or won’t think for themselves because they have not been in the atmosphere where thinking/dreaming/creating is encouraged or fostered as the normal way of life. I have to force myself to “think outside the box” and make life work on my terms because no else will live my life but me. Too many of us live our lives by rote since we know “do steps 1 thru 6 and get an A, praise, paid,” and so on.
    The less actual thinking, creating and putting our dreams into action means a diminished quality of life. It’s not so much that we use 10% of our brains, it’s the education grading system failing to encourage us to use our God-given intellect much more than 10% of the time.

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  19. Good point Tom! I recently re read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere. He always contended that it was intentional-that the powers that be didn’t really want people to think critically or feel free to “own” their education. Grades seem to help solidify that “banking system” of education where teachers “deposit” information with their students instead of set them free to take control of their own lives. What do you think about this?

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  20. To me there seems a disconnect between learning and grades. Learning would imply to me that you have to be involved…motivated to acquire a skill or knowledge in order for it to have any meaning for you. Then, attaching a “grade” to it seems to imply that you’re doing this “learning” for someone else’s benefit and that they are entitled to hand out a value on whether you’ve learned it to their satisfaction.

    How can kids possible learn how to connect to information that way????? It clearly is just a “reinforcement of behaviour” tool….doing what you’re told gets you the grades…and has nothing to do with actual learning.

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  21. I do agree with Chomsky and others that the grading system sets up a necessary scenario where there are always winners and losers. The people need to put in their place so to speak instead of feeling confident to challenge the system. The winners feel rewarded and the losers feel helpless. Neither group feels in a position to cause any “trouble” by going up against the established order.

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  22. Interesting post from an interesting guy – I have some funny stories about Dr. Posner – but will save them for another time.
    As for the specific question posed by Posner, I personally, could not live without grades for long. I was able to get into the Colorado Community College system without grades but to transfer to Metro State and eventually to grad school, good grades were necessary.
    The flaw of the JCOS system may be that after JCOS grades are critical for higher education progression and the skills necessary to get the grades may be absent. Also the lack of an objective evaluation system (grades & testing) can lead to a situation where subjective evaluations by advisers can hinder the progress of students. As an aside I would like to know the college grad rate of JCOS grads v. Lakewood HS.

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  23. I’m heavily in favor of a school without grades, but the only issue about not having grades for high school students, is getting these students into college. If there are no grades to base the students’ achievements on, how will they be able to get into college? Colleges ask for the students’ resumes and GPA but in this school, the students don’t have GPA’s so how would they get into college? How will each student be assessed by the colleges?

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  24. There are lots of homeschooled people who get into colleges and universities…having grades should be the least consequential criterion to meet.

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  25. Tom, to add. I did homeschool my daughter for one year but not high school. Grades were an issue since she applied to a selective magnet so I produced them. I didn’t grade in our homeschool program but I submitted grades for the sheet the prospective school mailed me. I based it on mastery and knowledge of content, analysis, creativity, and ideas.

    What happens when there are no grades? Portfolios. Homeschooling families do this all the time. It can be done. You produce work, show mastery. It absolutely can be done.

    For example, some progressive schools do not send home the traditional report card. They do Narrative Comments instead. Institutions that eschew that (most do) do so not because an absence of grades is not effective (indeed we have ample research to show that an emphasis on grades diminishes learning) but because Narratives for each student are simply too much work. I have a friend who teaches at a progressive school and groans each marking period. She has to write up long reports instead of merely filling out a report card.

    Still, she’d rather work there than a traditional school. She has to work harder because she evaluates kids differently. Indeed, she doesn’t “evaluate” them. She works with them, gets to know them, talks to them about their passions and strengths, knows whether they are mastering or faltering. It is the BEST kind of formal education out there, short of homeschooling. I happen to adore unschooling.

    It is harder. You need a much smaller class size. But it’s so much more rewarding. In the end, it’s easier. The teachers aren’t bogged down with endless tests and grade sheets. They focus their time on teaching and learning rather than grading stacks of papers each night. You either devote time to the student or the paperwork. This school chooses the former. Shouldn’t we all?

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  26. I know of five unschooled homeschoolers who got into college without grades. One is at Harvard, the others at Stanford, Princeton, MIT and Brown. Can’t do much better than that, can you? :).

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  27. So i guess then this is not an issue. Also I assume that the colleges take the SAT scores of these students and use the scores to asses the students.

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  28. I’ve read that some colleges don’t use SAT’s either. They rely on interview and essay writing and portfolios.

    Hopefully someday we’ll realize that how many questions a person was able to answer correctly on a multiple choice test tells you absolutely nothing about the test taker and far more about the people evaluating that score.

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