Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
When we walk past a school, we might think we can assume things about it just by looking at it: nicer schools might have more opportunities, better appliances, and students who are getting better grades, test scores, and college acceptances. But the way a school appears certainly doesn’t guarantee these things. In education, there are countless inequities beneath the surface.
Some students and their families can afford extra tutoring, SAT preparation books or Advanced Placement exams — which cost $97 apiece — all for college preparation. Other students have to work a job to support their families instead of participating in extracurriculars and intensive classes, where they could likely excel if given the opportunity.
Simply put, some students certainly have the capabilities to succeed in the academic world — but financial barriers keep them from reaching that success.
It seems as a collective society, we are well-aware of this disparity but seem to struggle when it comes to actually finding ways to fix it. But there is a way to take steps toward solving inequity in the classroom, and that’s through implementing labor-based grading. Because labor-based grading allows for students to be recognized both for the work they put into their classes as well as the merits of their work, we must start embracing this method of grading if we want to make education more equitable.
The first time I took a class that used labor-based contract grading was here, at the University of Maryland. I knew how many assignments I had to complete to achieve the grade I wanted — and they didn’t have to be perfect, but simply completed. As a result, I had much more time to spend doing the course readings and thinking critically about them, opposed to obsessively worrying about how to study for an exam or going over a paper for the billionth time to make sure it was flawless.
While “grading for completion” might seem like a way for students to get away with misunderstanding the work but never having that reflected in their grade, that isn’t the case. In some cases, such as the class I took at this university, if a student doesn’t fully answer a question or demonstrate thoughtful engagement with the work, labor-based grading counts this as incomplete. Some people certainly may read the headline of this article and fear our future doctors and lawyers will be graded on work rather than accuracy — labor-based grading doesn’t throw away the idea of accuracy, but simply places the emphasis on a student’s will to learn more.
And I would argue hard work and caring about the material behind what one practices is just as important as the mastery of the material itself.
Some may be immediately aghast by the idea that merit or intelligence could go unrecognized. And as a student who largely thrives off of academic validation and praise, to a degree, I understand this sentiment. But instead of looking at labor-based grading as taking away a student’s opportunity to excel, it’s more accurate to look at it as adding room and opportunity for underrepresented groups and students from low-income backgrounds to succeed.
One student who works just as hard as another, but doesn’t have the finances to pay for helpful academic resources, is likely to be at a stark disadvantage compared with their peers who are able to afford all these advantages. If a large part of a student’s success comes from the affluence of their family, then is grading based on outcome an objective measure of merit at all?
Rather than focusing the entire worth of a student on letters on a transcript, it’s time to start valuing their efforts just as much. On principle, labor-based grading extends more opportunities for success to students who don’t have the resources to make academic success their first priority. But even greater, it would likely ease the burnout students often experience — which, in turn, would extend more opportunities to students struggling with their mental health to succeed, too. Whether teachers and professors start to implement the entire labor-based grading framework or even just parts of it, the system will help make education and academia accessible to all.
When I think about the fundamentals of what school is and what it was designed to be, I think of true equality of opportunity, where students work hard to achieve success and find fulfillment in what they study. However, this ideal is not being reflected in our current education system. By teaching students that their hard work is valued and that learning is more than just memorization, labor-based grading can help us bring back the heart of education.
Rebecca Scherr is a junior English and government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.