Earl Kelley on standards, grades, and student voice

The following is a message from Jim Strickland, founder of ASCEND, on the Marysville ASCEND Mailing List. It is reposted here with permission from the author.

Here are a couple of very thought-provoking excerpts from Earl Kelley’s In Defense of Youth (1962) — highly recommended!  They point the way towards some potential projects and experiments we could take on in ASCEND.

On standards:

People who attempt to humanize education are often accused of having no standards.  This is nonsense.  Everybody has standards, just as everybody has values.  It makes a difference, though, whether the standard is outside of the learner or whether it is within him.  It makes a difference whether one cherishes his geometry or his youngsters.  If we abandon the concept that everyone has to learn the same thing, we then can have different standards for different people.  Scientific research indicates that this is not a notion but a requirement.  What teachers need is human standards, not material ones.  A standard to hold on to, it seems to me, is that every human being should have the opportunity to develop his own unique potentialities, so that the full meaning of being human can emerge.  This can never be achieved by applying a flat outside standard to everyone, accepting those who reach it and rejecting those who do not.


On grades:  (in reference to the Milwaukee Vocational School where Kelley taught back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  We live in a different world now, but the basic principles still apply!)

One remarkable feature of this school was that there were no grades, no graduation, no transfer of credits.  The school was not preparatory to any other school.  There was no separation of the sheep from the goats.  Nobody ever got anything from the school except what he learned.  We had students who did not do very well, but they just profited less from their time than the others.  We had no failures in the sense that we named them as such.  We did not need any, because we did not have any promotions..  Of course we gave better recommendations to employers for those who did well than for those who did not.  This is the nature of life itself.  It is surprising how many of the vexations of teaching are removed when we free ourselves from these extrinsic rewards and punishments.  If education is growth, it is hard to see how one can flunk a year’s growth, or, if he grows badly, how he can recover the time he has wasted.

On student voice:

What we needed was a spirit of cooperation between adults and youth.  But no one can be expected to cooperate in the absence of consultation.  If a person never has a chance to express an opinion on what is going on or what might be, he cannot see that there is anything to cooperate about.  We had to invent a way by which even the least of them would feel that he was a part of the enterprise and that in some measure what he thought was important.  To do this, we created a large and comprehensive system of student participation in school government.

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!