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The Problem With Rubrics

By Roy D. Follendore III

Copyright (c) 2006 by RDFollendoreIII

September 14, 2006

We all know, or should know, that teachers and Professors are bombarded with teaching requirements. Modern teachers are not provided the administrative or physical support that teachers were once given. What they are given often comes in the form of greater communication through computers and devices, which do not directly translate into greater ease, efficiency or effectiveness of the teacher doing their job. To maximize the number of students being taught for the least amount of overhead, educational institutions are not investing in human resources, instead they are investing in technologies which will be outdated in less than two years. Teachers, who once were given their own room, now are given a cart with a computer. They often work in tiny corners while at schools or must take their computers home and work on their own time. The Internet is supposed to take the place of facilities, but it does not.

In the minds of many administrators, teachers are like students. They are to be graded on explicit outcomes of their products and then averaged in with an overall statistical curve. The environment and the specific kinds of students that a teacher may be given is not up to them. Regardless of the conformity of educational requirements and the conformity of testing that takes place, every teacher soon learns that every class is different. No matter how administrators may attempt to package their academic products, students are always first and foremost human beings, with all of the benefits and baggage that comes with that. Students are individuals not widgets and overall many have a tendency to catch on and then resist the notion of having their knowledge manufactured in terms of production. Every student does not learn at the same rate. They are each independently evolving. Students reach points of intellectual and emotional plateaus. They change their opinions, are affected by social conditions and unlike widgets they tend to reject being classified and being put into a box. Teachers are fundamentally students too so this applies to them as well.  

Unfortunately there has evolved a very real but wrong minded sense that the philosophy of teaching and the conditions of teaching are not connected. The fact is that formula teaching, whether that is centralized or at the classroom level is and always will be counter to performance teaching. Just as every class is different, every student is different. No formula is going to be functionally fair. What seems to work for ten percent of the class may not work for thirty percent and only sometimes work for the rest. Change the formula to teaching and you get a different arrangement of success. Formula teaching is just another way to playing with grading statistics. Moreover, the reality is that formula teaching is not just a way of manipulating statistics; it is a blanket statement that teaching is a science and not an art. To this one need only consider that the manipulation of statistics is in itself a form of playful art.

Regardless, in the minds of many otherwise well educated individuals, Science is something that is the intelligent because it has been represented as logical, repeatable and predictable investigative process, while Art is intuitive and therefore has been characterized as unstructured, random, indecisive, inferior and not well understood or thought-out and chaotic. But an arts approach to education need not be defended because it's tremendous contributions to both Science and Education speaks for itself. The best mathematicians are artists and the worst are simply statisticians. Numbers and the statistics that arise from the application of numbers seem more real than the students and in a very real sense, where we like it or not, when the end of the year school terms are over, they ultimately do replace the students. 

One way of proclaiming teaching in a consistent scientific way has come about by the institutional use of the Rubric. Having said this, I am sure that some teachers will insist that the purpose of a rubric is to be more subjective. I personally have problems with this explanation because the fact is that it is the nature that every experience is both objective and subjective. It is impossible to make any experience more or less subjective or objective, because when you do you are always changing to a different experience. We can change the nature of an experience, because we can only switch to a different experience.  This is where the art of the teacher comes in. The superior teacher is there to direct and orchestrate the experiences of the individual students as well as the students as a whole.

Having said this, I have no problem with teachers using rubrics when they need them because they can be a useful guideline for the creation of a general syllabus. But what a rubric should not be is a stated classroom or school system policy. As a teacher the thing that I have trouble with is the communication of the explicit criteria for grading. By telling precisely what is to be on the test, the teachers are limiting the both the capability and potential of students. By depending on the rubrics teachers are teaching the test and not the subject. Moreover, they are also changing the nature of the test. A test should not only measure what has been taught, but also how well the students can organize their thinking. This is a fundamental part of the learning process which has somehow been lost with computerized notion that knowledge is data. Students who depend on the rubric are not taught the principle that it is data which makes up information and information makes up knowledge. They are being taught that the sound bites of data is knowledge. This is what the modern testing process demonstrates to them. This is wrong headed approach to education, because this is consumerism, not a scholarly methodology for a quality academics.

What teachers should take issue with is the institutionalization of requirements for explicit conformity in the creation of rubrics. In particular, what I and other college professors like me are seeing is that the use of rubrics is having decidedly detrimental effects on the performance of a significant cross section of students. By tying the grades to such a tightly predetermined set of expectations, students are not excelling, they are intellectually patronizing and conforming to the statistical system of what is expected of them. Some students become completely unable to function in classrooms where they are not absolutely guaranteed to make a specific grade for specific production. In other words, students become so engaged in the grade, they completely lose sight of the importance of the larger and more significant educational experience. Rubrics instill the false notion that grades are real world requirements for obtaining knowledge.

Regardless of all of the educational hype given it, rubrics are not part of our natural real world experiences. Life does not grade us the way that educational institutions do. In the pragmatics of life we do not have an omnificent instructor to tell us how we must respond to get rewarded and regardless of what our Mothers might have told us, most of us will donate our most significant contributions to society without a shred of recognition. It is not necessary, and nor is it beneficial for students to go though life thinking that life itself is composed of a rubric. It is simply not true that as human beings, in most areas of our lives, there is a rubric which will allow us to conform to be better and more knowledgeable thinkers. In fact it is easy to think of the best of human potential in terms of rubric breakers, not rubric thinkers Our best intellectual minds were nonconformists who relied upon personal intuition and a love for their work. In a very real sense of the term scholar, the best of us has always been rubric breakers, not rubric conformists. That discipline of thinking valid but original thoughts is the kind of genius that can and should be supported within our school systems. As teachers we should validate the originality of our students. The reason why students attend our best schools is to explore the potential of knowledge, not to conform to constraints of educational institutions. This means that rubrics are most realistic to experiential reality when they are less visible, less oppressive and open to interpretation and imagination. If these sentiments are true then the dilemma that we face is that the tightest structured rubrics are functionally counter to the often stated objectives for having rubrics. Obviously it only makes sense that in such cases rubrics should be abandoned. The trouble that we face in doing this is that the numbers associated with our ability to grade students have become too ingrained into the educational school systems. School systems may have lost those teachers who are capable of teaching without the aid of a rubric. 

But how does this fact affect the statistical orientation of grading? For those logicians who insist upon a purely logical defense of this orientation, you should be reminded that it is impossible to statistically ignore the importance of outliers. The trouble is that all students in one way or another are outliers. In one way or another, a given population of students can not as individuals fit a normalized curve without some error arising from that false promise that exists within the very nature of a rubric. Grade scores can not exist without the presence of some (subjective/objective) form of error within the rubric and therefore they themselves become the logical basis of grading error. With respect to grading, the tighter that one begins to construct the rubric, the less control that the teacher is able to assert over the course being taught. By relying so much on rubrics, we have become the messengers that grades have become the justification of obtaining knowledge. Students are put into a competition for success on the basis of the notion that rubrics are real world experiences. They are not being taught that it is they themselves who are inherently responsible to themselves for the quality of their work.

This is all part of the failure of our competitive testing dependent philosophy of education. We want our students to bring in higher test scores, while we create a matrix of testing in every thing that we do. What students are being taught through our insistent feedback about what is right or wrong is that economics does not allow them the luxury of originating the rubric of their own independent opinion. Students who come from academic environments where rubrics are institutionalized experiences are unable to cope with problems that involve inherent complexity, problems that have no right or wrong answers or problems which requires creative intuition. These students are not interested in the best solution but the solution which is best for them. They are consumers of solutions without the unnecessary notions of altruism. For them the teaching rubric is tantamount to the conditional rules of a competitive race course because they are consumers and they have bought into the philosophy.

In some cases is can be quite possible that teachers who choose to adhere to the notion that the rubric helps them because they then spend less time evaluating student work is true. Perhaps those educators who treat teaching as science can  understand the universal laws concerning this sort of conservation of energy. It is far easier to push the more difficult problems to the dustbin of the educational process and simply deal with what is expected by the system. One might as well also say that it is also far easier to teach in a perfect universe where we are telling the mass of students just those things that we know and expect and say nothing about those things which we can not do, do not know or may not expect. It is easier to teach students that the universe is completely predictable. Such notions have historical religious slant. Some predictable all powerful God made all things, but somehow that same God is unable to create and deal with unpredictability, because we can't; another error in logic.

On the other hand, perhaps those teachers who choose to approach teaching as an art understand that their larger purpose. Teaching is not about the creativity of visualizing statistical numbers arising from rubric enhanced grades but about the individual students to whom the knowledge can make a true difference. Teachers who understand that the criteria of their teaching is far more complex than the formula of their syllabus also instinctively know that a rubric should not be allowed to be the focal point of their students. Perhaps the ultimate truth is that educators may not get better feedback from such use of a rubric but what they do get is much more specific feedback about things that probably will mean less to them and their students in the long run.      

The rubric buzz word has seemed to sweep through educational systems without question. Many teachers are almost religiously fervent about the logic of creating and distributing them to students. They believe in the notion of some perfect relationship in cause and effect. Some feel the need for a rubric for every activity and interaction that they have with students and their parents. But the truth is that the notion of rubrics needs to be carefully scrutinized because like machines they are simply logical constructs; and like all machines can be used to undermine both the objective, flexibility and the creditability of the teacher. But whether you agreed or disagree with these ideas I sincerely hope that this paper has at least stimulated your thinking about the fact that there are other differing and potentially legitimate opinions about the notion of depending on rubrics in schools. Rubrics may not be the precious jewel that many of us may have thought it once to be but if such an idea is to maintain any sense of value then it should at least be able to sustain criticism as this. Just because a jewel glitters in the light does not mean that it is not made of paste glass.   




Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved