The New Role of Grading to Increase Discipline and Scholarship

There was a time when the City of Lowell did not have grades on student’s papers. This was not because we were out-of-touch, or imbecilic. Grades were new and we had not implemented them yet. Students were judged for their penmanship, writing talent, and mathematics skills, but they were not graded. Grading came about in approximately 1860. The period between 1860 and 1870 was a time of great change in the Lowell school system. Teachers were asked to study the idea of grading, and they whole-heartedly supported it. The new Pawtucketville Memorial School was one school that saw many of these changes and embraced them.

The Pawtucketville Memorial was built in honor of those men from Pawtucketville who gave their last gasp to hold the Union together. It was the site of the names of those men from Pawtucketville who gave their all to preserve the Union. I had the opportunity to interview the last Principal, who noted that the school had been renamed “The McAvinnue” after one of the most well-loved principals in educational history in the city. When it was built, grading was a new concept. Grading involved following the curriculum, and charting progress. Curriculum requirements were met yearly, not quarterly as they are now. There is ample evidence that the educational community felt that they were on the cutting edge of a new educational innovation; the graded school. By grade, we do not mean the grades in place in schools already, First through Twelfth, for instance. By grade, we are talking about a graded system of checking whether or not the student understood the lesson by establishing a system from one to one hundred and using A, B, C, D, E, and F to show understanding.

In his first notice to the School Committee on the new practice of grading, the Superintendent noted that;

“This (grading each student)…has already justified itself and proved its own wisdom. The actual advantages gained by thus grading our schools have far outrun all (of) our theories and exceeded highest anticipations.” Grading was here to stay. The School Committee in the same meeting established the practice of grading.

Grading performed a valuable function, he wrote. It increased classroom discipline and decreased the need for each school to inflict corporal punishment from an average of ten times to one. In a classroom where the pupil/teacher ratio could be as high as two hundred to one, this innovation greatly increased the time the teacher could keep the student on task. The Superintendent used his role and standing in the community and early Lowell school administrations used their influence over the citizenry to dictate new educational progress. “The wear of nervous energies was greatly reduced.” he noted.

Curriculum exhibited a heavy emphasis on English as the primary language. “Spelling” was an important course. In Lowell, which had a centralized school system, control was exercised predominantly by the City Fathers. Curriculum was by the city, and implemented by a heavy planning process. As stated, it was measured by grading after 1862. “Idle hands,” the Superintendent noted, “will not remain idle heads.” Citing studies, as well as the experiences of students in the city schools, both younger and night school students, the Superintendent could only compliment the system that saw the use of grades to teach more quickly and determine the abilities of the students through grading.

Every evening, thousands of mill workers were able to take part in adult educational classes (Lowell School Committee Minutes, 1862). Lowell educators saw each mill girl’s life carefully dictated by the clock, the supervisor, and the like. That seemed to influence the curriculum in the classroom. Students were expected to be on time and prepared. By 1862, Lowell’s citywide school system consisted of forty-seven primary schools, one intermediate school which was widely criticized, eight grammar schools and one High School. (ibid.)

The mill owners had a strong interest in the Lowell educational system. They maintained a constant vigil, were pleased with the grading system, and hired more educated persons. Since we are primarily looking at 1862, it is helpful to determine the effect to the city of the lack of cotton from the South. The city was in the midst of a depression. Education was seen as a means of keeping women working. Men, in many cases, went to war.

In the next blog, I will attempt to show a relationship between the city and school department.

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