Our school system is sorely outdated, and it’s far past time we begin to change it.

Despite the fact that the school system we have in place has been around for over 100 years, the foundations of the American education system and the way in which students are taught have not changed drastically since its creation. “Even though the curricula have developed, the essence has stayed the same,” reports Paul Boyce for Fee Stories. “Children are still taught in a standardized and industrialized way. As with anything that comes from centralized control, it is highly inefficient, bureaucratic, and wasteful.”

Matt Brisbin, a teacher at McMinnville High School, said that, “…grades were really more motivating to students than the learning that was happening. For me, that changed my perspective on education… It shouldn’t be about getting grades on a transcript, but it’s become that.” In classrooms across the country, students focus solely on jumping through hoops to earn a grade as opposed to truly learning.

As a way to combat this trend, Brisbin decided to change the way he structured his classroom, de-emphasizing grades through a “nontraditional” grading scale that takes into account not only assignment scores, but student effort and drive to learn. “It’s a hard change, depending on what grade [students] are in high school,” Brisbin commented on the transition between the typical grading structure and his non-traditional grading system. “They’ve had years of playing the game to get a grade.” And, according to Brisbin and the growing number of teachers throughout McMinnville High School that have adopted his new grading method, the school system shouldn’t be about playing a game—instead, students should be nourishing a love for learning, taking risks, and discovering how they best function in a classroom setting.

But for many students, it’s been hard to flip the switch from chasing a grade to simply trying to learn. “You have to teach [students] and kind of help them to become more aware about the difference between being successful and getting a good grade, and the actual learning that’s taking place there, because those two don’t always line up.”
Brisbin’s nontraditional grading system was designed to teach students that their worth is not defined by a grade—a message that, after years of the school system telling them otherwise, many students find jarring to adjust to. It’s a necessary adjustment, though; the grading system as we know it deteriorates students’ mental health and fosters an unhealthy sense of perfectionism in students.

When a strict definition of a “grade,” is taken out of the equation—as it is in a system like Brisbin’s, which de-emphasizes grades and instead centers real learning—students are more likely to set goals for themselves, make a conscious effort to improve their learning, and thrive. “I think it’s freeing for students to know that, like, ‘I can experiment and I can be creative, and I can go out on a limb and try new things that may fail spectacularly,’ and that’s okay,” said Brisbin. When not confined to aiming for a grade, his students can genuinely take part in what he describes as the “learning journey,”—creating, growing, and being students.

However, reformation of the school system as we know it can exist in more ways than just re-defining how students view a grade. After McMinnville High School started a couple of school days two hours later than its usual start time, many students were hoping for late starts to become more common, as the extra time allowed them a little more sleep, or even time to eat breakfast. “Research shows that students do better later—when school starts later in the day,” said Brisbin. Late starts—even just once or twice a week—would not only give students the ability to catch up on homework or sleep, but likely allow them to perform better in their classes.

Countless McMinnville High School staff have also hoped that the district would bring back asynchronous Wednesdays, as they instilled in the 2020-21 school year. Similar to late starts, an asynchronous day once a week would give students the chance to work with their teachers, catch up on missing work, and have just a little bit more time to relax than they normally would. And—as a 2021 study done by Frontiers in Education revealed a 25.7% increase in anxiety levels amongst high school students from past years—time to relax is vital for students. In a world where students are overwhelmed with various jobs, clubs, and sports, time feels increasingly out of reach for many high schoolers.

Brisbin also believes that, “the other thing we need to get away from is this idea that subjects need to be learned separately. You don’t need to just go to a science class and an English class and a math class—they should blend together,” he said. “I think that’s really the next phase where our education system needs to change.”

In the real world, subjects bleed into one another; they aren’t separated into compartments. Allowing students to work in multiple disciplines at the same time and learn in a realistic way would prepare them for success in their next step of life. “Living life is messy,” Brisbin remarked. “In the world, you take on projects… it requires you to do all these different things at once.” Nourishing skills like communication and teamwork is just as important as teaching students technical skills, and allowing all sorts of knowledge to work in tandem will better prepare students for post high-school life.

Allowing students to learn and explore various subjects in a more realistic way, free from the looming pressure of a grade, gives new meaning to school for many students. And though Brisbin’s non-traditional grading system isn’t a school wide practice—as he hopes it may someday be—many teachers throughout McMinnville High School have adopted it in some form, with positive results. Giving students the ability to truly learn, as opposed to forcing them to chase a grade, leads to a better classroom experience for students and eases some of the immense anxiety they face.
It’s a necessary change; our school system is outdated, and it’s failing its students. But, as Brisbin has shown, it’s not unsalvageable. The movement to better our school system and to give students the space they need to genuinely thrive is growing rapidly. For many students at McMinnville High School, this is exactly what they need to be successful—to truly learn.