Category Archives: rubrics

Resisting Efficiency in Literacy Instruction

“Third grade reading proficiency matters—enormously,” declares Mike Schmoker in How to Make Reading Instruction Much, Much More Efficient for Education Week.

When I saw this piece from 2019 pop up on my social media feed this week, I immediately noticed the subheading: “Scaling back small-group instruction would have dramatic improvements in literacy.”

Since Schmoker’s article fell solidly in the current “science of reading” crisis rhetoric and misguided reading policy being passed across the U.S., it certainly was poised to create even more harmful classroom level decisions for students and teachers.

Two aspects of this argument are compelling and misguided—the standard but false appeal to “third grade reading proficiency” and the prioritizing of “efficiency” for making instructional decisions.

Of course there are well documented correlations between third grade reading achievement and later negative educational outcomes for students (low reading achievement correlated with dropping out and low overall academic achievement, for example), but the traditional response to those correlations has resulted in over-reactions that do far more harm than good.

One of the worst over-reactions has been states adopting grade retention based on third grade reading assessments—despite grade retention having a causal relationship with students dropping out.

Doubling down on practices that increase students dropping out to address misunderstanding the research on third grade reading achievement is a profound failure in logic.

Some of the motivation for making these policy mistakes is that U.S. cultural norms are too often grounded in punishment. Many affluent and privileged people embrace the concept of grade retention as a way to insure that children are taught lessons about achievement and effort, but they also embrace punitive measures because they suspect grade retention, for example, will only impact “other people’s children.”

There is more than a little bit of racism and classism in the urge to embrace punitive schools and aggressive policing and legal systems.

But another source of making terrible policy decisions, especially about reading, is the core of Schmoker’s argument—determining instructional practices by prioritizing efficiency.

Although an enduring Urban Legend criticizes U.S. public education as essentially progressive (which it isn’t, and has never been), scholar Herb Kliebard detailed that by the early twentieth century U.S. public education had become driven by efficiency.*

One powerful example of that commitment is the use of standardized testing, primarily multiple choice tests that can be quickly scored, such as the SAT and most state-level accountability testing.

Despite decades of research showing that standardized testing is often a weak measure of learning, is most strongly correlated with status (socioeconomic, racial, gender), and creates inequity, standardized testing has persisted in the U.S. because it is more efficient than what we tend to call authentic assessment—essays, performances, projects, etc.

In fact, our blind commitment to efficiency is so strong that when we do use authentic assessment we now demand highly structured rubrics to insure that the grading is efficient (which erases the authentic nature of the assignment).

Formal education in the U.S. has structures that, of course, create the need for “efficiency”—grade levels around biological age and courses provided through a format that requires one teacher to serve the largest number of students possible (in K-12, typically 1 to 25-35, but university-level ratios can be 1 to hundreds of students).

Although universal education is a public good, we are bound by market forces when providing education for all children.

I do recognize that efficiency must be one concern for instructional practices, but I have witnessed across five decades of teaching since the 1980s that we overemphasize efficiency, especially in literacy instruction.

For 18 years as a high school English teacher, I struggled within a system demanding efficiency while attempting to teach writing authentically—a workshop method requiring students to write multiple drafts that I provided ample feedback on throughout the process.

This experience was physically and mentally exhausting; I left K-12 education with my right wrist in a brace from writing on about 4000+ essays per year for almost two decades.

Could I have implemented something identified as writing instruction more efficiently (and less taxing for me)? Of course.

But that would have been a lie (many efficient approaches, such as direct grammar instruction, is simply not writing instruction) and would have cheated my students.

Teaching first-year writing at the college level has further cemented my awareness that efficiency is extremely harmful for writing instruction effectiveness.

For example, teaching 100-125 students at a time (more efficient and the reality of high school English teaching) is far less effective than my current obligation to classes as small as 5 students and semester loads including no more than 3 or 4 dozen students (less efficient, more effective).

So this brings me back to the misguided “scaling back small-group instruction.”

As long as we are committed to current teacher/student ratios (one-on-one tutoring/mentoring is, of course, the ideal teaching/learning context), the best instructional approach to managing effectiveness and efficiency is balancing the whole-class, small-group, and individual instructional practices.

If anything, most K-12 teachers need to reduce whole-class instruction and increase small-group and individual instruction.

Why? Whole-class instruction is often the least effective of the three, particularly with writing instruction. For example, my first-year writing students continue to struggle with whole-class assignments and instruction but thrive in our face-to-face conferencing (even in comparison to the individualized instruction they receive from my comments on their essays).

But also, small-group and individualized instruction can often be, ironically, more efficient because that instruction is targeting identified need and allows student choice (instead of the teacher making all decisions for students).

Even the best whole-class instruction is addressing only some students’ needs. And another irony of whole-class instruction is that it tends to more effective after students have submitted authentic artifacts of learning that they are then required to revise (as opposed to giving great deal of instruction up front before students perform).

The ugly truth about prioritizing efficiency is that we are valuing coverage of prescribed instruction over student need or student learning.

Finally, we must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Current teacher/student ratios of 1/25-35 are cheating teachers and students. Yes, we should address those teaching/learning conditions.

But until that political commitment occurs, we must support teachers managing well the tension between effective and efficient. The trick, despite Schmoker’s claim, is maintaining our commitments to small-group and individualized instruction that targets identified student needs.

In fact, we we pull aside the curtain of efficiency, we discover that whole-class instruction as effective is a mirage.


Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Was There Really a Social Efficiency Doctrine? The Uses and Abuses of an Idea in Educational History, Thomas Fallace and Victoria Fantozzi (2013) (H/T Jennifer Binis)

*NOTE: From Fallace and Fantozzi: “For Callahan (1962) and Kliebard (1995), social efficiency educators diverted progressive education away from the democratic ideas of John Dewey and Harold Rugg” (p. 145). As a critical scholar of the history of education (curriculum and instruction), I think we must make distinctions between the scholarly world (philosophy and theory) and the “real world” of day-to-day education. While I agree with the claim above, I also understand that nuanced and complex philosophy/theory often finds its way into practice in reductive and distorted ways (consider “behaviorism,” “whole language,” “progressivism,” etc.). My argument here is not about the actual social efficiency movement, but that some of the elements of that movement have manifested themselves in powerful and enduring ways (consciously and unconsciously) in how we “do” education in the U.S., one of which is prioritizing “efficiency” in harmful ways. My best example, again, is standardized, multiple-choice testing.


Grades Tarnish Teaching as well as Learning

Recently on social media, a professor asked if others used rubrics with graduate students. Since rejecting rubrics has been a central component of my career-long efforts to de-grade and de-test teaching and learning, I chimed in.

My posts in the comments explaining why I don’t use rubrics were significant outliers because the thread of comments was overwhelmingly endorsing rubrics, almost entirely in terms of making grading easier or more transparent as well as providing teachers/professors protection against (hypothetical) students challenging their grades.

One immediate response to my comments is also worth highlighting since a person who doesn’t know me made fairly nasty assumptions about me being like the professors they had in grad school, the “gotcha” professors who use grades to ambush and punish students.

While most of my public (see here and here, for example) and scholarly work rejecting the use of rubrics—especially when teaching writing—has focused on their negative impact, along with grades, on students and learning (see this example), the recent social media thread highlights that grades also tarnish teaching.

Early into my first 18 years as a high school English teacher, I stopped giving tests; a bit later in that position, I also stopped grading assignments (although I had to assign students quarter and course grades). Over my on-going 19 years as a college professor, I have always delayed grades (feedback but not grades on assignments but course grades assigned) and never given traditional tests (midterms are often class discussions, projects, or reflections; and final exams are always portfolios of the work over the entire course).

My syllabi have no grade scales or policies, no weights for calculating grades, and no late policy even; I do have an explanation of my no grades/no tests approach to teaching, and I do share with students some broad patterns often correlated with course grades. [1]

While reading the thread on social media, I recognized a pattern of fear and a need among teachers/professors to justify grades but also to guard against a hypothetical complaining student.

This pattern struck me as a non-grader because over the 19 years I have been teaching in higher education full time, I have zero official complaints by students about grades. And only one student has ever confronted me about a course grade, a student who failed their FYW seminar for not participating in the minimum requirements (the student submitted all four essays once at the end of the course without submitting them throughout the semester and fulfilling the drafting and conferencing requirements).

That student left our meeting with the understanding that they in fact earned the F by not meeting the minimum requirements and expectations listed on our syllabus, and never pursued any official complaint.

While I remain deeply concerned about the negative consequences of grades, tests, and prescriptive structures such as rubrics on students and learning, I am also convinced more than ever that grades, tests, and rubrics detract significantly from effective teaching and actually create the problems many teachers/professors seem to be inordinately worried can occur in the hypothetical.

Rubrics as a subset of the traditional grading culture are often justified in terms of transparency as well—a very compelling argument.

As I have examined before in terms of the backwards design movement associated with Wiggins and McTighe, I have taught for almost 40 years while the focus on teachers and students has shifted from learning objectives to student assessment, and I do recognize that the shift to backwards design was in part an acknowledgement that students deserve transparency in expectations and goals for learning and student behaviors (artifacts of learning such as essays, projects, or performances).

Grade policies, rubrics, and templates are one type of transparency, prescriptive and authoritarian, but they all prove to be teacher/authoritarian-centered and to be mechanisms that reduce student autonomy and engagement in their own learning. Codified transparency is demanding compliance over student agency.

Despite the assumptions of at least one person commenting on social media, I am not a “gotcha” professor, and I am transparent about learning goals and student behaviors. However, I see transparency as a conversation in a learning community and an evolving, not static, state of any course bound by the limits of the academic calendar. That transparency must support my authoritative role as a teacher (as opposed to authoritarian).

I have posted many times that my transparency is in the form of minimum requirements (see below) and providing for students a wealth of resources that include detailed models of their assignments with instructional comments and checklists for preparing and revising their work.

By not grading assignments, I provide students low-risk environments that remove the “gotcha” element entirely since students are required and allowed to revise their work as well as engage with me in an ongoing conversation (conferences, feedback provided on the assignments) that helps them construct their own learning (individualized rubrics, in other words).

And since course grades are linked to a final portfolio of their work, assigning a grade occurs after students have had the entire course to learn, and considering the amount of feedback and conferences students have experienced along with class sessions grounded in their artifacts of learning (I teach based on the strengths and needs their assignments reveal), neither students nor I are surprised by the final course grade assigned.

I must emphasize again that I have been de-grading and de-testing my teaching since 1984 (the first year) and that these practices have been implemented in a rural public high school as well as a selective university. I developed and practiced not grading assignments and not giving traditional tests while teaching public school in a right-to-work (non-union) state and during my non-tenure years as I began my career in higher education.

I fully acknowledge and have worked in the so-called “real world” of traditional schooling that requires grades. Therefore, I have conceded that at best I am delaying grades, but I must emphasize that I also forefront significantly student learning and my teaching while complying with assessment, evaluation, and grades last, as a mandate that must not negatively impede student learning or my teaching.

Many justifications of rubrics are placing grades first, sacrificing learning and teaching.

Once we prioritize student learning/agency and teacher professionalism as well as teaching, structures such as rubrics can be recognized as traps that center the authority for a course in those structures (rubrics, templates, grading policies) instead of in the teacher/professor.

A syllabus is a legal contract, and once we codify how grades are determined, we as teachers/professors are bound to those codes regardless of how valid they prove to be for each student.

Well designed rubrics must be highly prescriptive (see Popham, Chapter 7), and thus, they do much of the work for students, choices and experiments that would better serve the students as learners; poorly designed rubrics (open-ended, vague, etc.) are neither fulfilling the goals of using a rubric or satisfying the standard justifications for using rubrics.

In rejecting rubrics, I am not rejecting transparency or fairness.

I am advocating for teachers and professors to step outside those traps and to make commitments to transparency and fairness grounded in student learning and teaching, not assessment, evaluation, and grades.


[1] [First-year writing seminar example; detail vary by course]

Student Participation in a Course without Grades or Tests

While you will receive a grade for this course per university policy, I do not grade individual assignments, and I do not administer traditional tests in any course I teach. We will comply with university expectations for midterm and final exams (see the assignments in the course overview), and I will submit either an S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) for the midterm grade to designate whether or not you have fulfilled assignments as required through midterm.

Instead of traditional grades, I expect students to meet minimum requirements; in this course minimum requirements include completing all assignments (see the final portfolio sheet) fully and on time, and submitting, conferencing, and resubmitting all four required essays (a first full submission and a revision after receiving feedback and/or conferencing).

Assignments in my courses are not designed primarily for assessment (grading), but are designed as learning experiences. By completing and revising assignments, you are learning, and thus, you should expect to receive challenging feedback, and should also embrace the opportunity to revise work when allowed.

If you could complete an assignment perfectly the first time submitted, then there would be no reason for me assigning the work. All academic work can (and should) be improved through multiple efforts and feedback.

Since I require all work must be completed, and even though the expectation is that students meet due date deadlines, I must accept late work if and when students are unable to turn in work when due (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work). However, students should strive to be punctual with work unless circumstances beyond their control interfere (note that there are reasonable excuses for work being late, and I appreciate honest and upfront communication when students are unable to meet deadlines, even if the excuse isn’t urgent).

All four required essays must be revised at least once, but you are allowed and encouraged to revise as often as you wish to produce a high-quality essay.

At the end of the course, once you have been given ample opportunities to learn and can do so while taking risks and not worrying about your grade, I evaluate the entire portfolio of course work to assign a grade for the course.

Completing all work and submitting that work in the portfolio are mandatory (incomplete portfolios will be assigned an “F” for the course) and your course grade will be impacted by completing work fully and on time as well as the quality of the assignments (notably the four required essays). Proper citation (APA), quality of references, diligence in revising, and the sophistication of the writing and thinking in your assignments ultimately inform that final grade.

I recommend you read some or all of the following to understand my approach to grades and tests:

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning


When I think about final grades, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.