The Economics of an ‘A Culture’

Non-educators discuss education by using the language of an economics lesson—analyzing the material impact of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Public decision-makers assess a school’s value and teacher performance on ratings attached to standardized test scores. The political community seeks to reform education in terms of funding, privatization, policy, vouchers, and budget cuts. While recognizing these concepts have no connection to kids, educators also use business-related diction when referring to educational trends, college and career readiness, stakeholders, ownership, investment, portfolios, risk-taking, and assessment. Educators must be intentional and learner-focused, understanding how words and actions communicate core values.

Despite positive intentions, we have created a competitive, high stakes culture of success or failure. When we rank by grade point average or add merit to weighted grades, we assess students’ educational “worth.” Transcripts keep score but fail to identify what students know and can do. Online gradebooks turn reporting into nauseating stock market games.

We live in an ‘A Culture.’
In an A Culture, when students sense Assessment they respond with Anxiety or Apathy. Reassessing our culture of learning is serious business…

My son, a seventh grader, anxiously awaits the posting of his first score of second quarter, knowing he likely answered a couple of questions incorrectly. An 8/10 on his social studies quiz means he is now trending at a B-, an average below his first quarter performance and unacceptable according to his personal expectations. Right now, my son cares. I know he will work hard, study, and prepare for the next opportunity. But by the time he enters high school, will he focus on learning concepts and improving skills or care more about getting a grade?

Financial Analysis of an A Culture

“Be sure to study for the unit test this Friday…”
With student heart rates increasing, the teacher routinely asks, “Are there any other questions?”

Without hesitation, the typical four hands go up, poised to represent the organization.

Student 1 – The Actuary: “Does this count?”

The Actuary analyzes the situation, wondering, “Should I care? How does this impact me right now? How does this fit into my long term goals? Does the risk outweigh the reward? If so, why would I pursue this venture? Does this test determine my ultimate fate in life?”

Student 2 – The Investor: “How much is it worth?”

After assurance from The Actuary, The Investor weighs the options, knowing time is money: “If this counts toward my grade, I have to determine how much time to spend on this investment. Do I get credit for the effort I put into preparing for the assessment? Can I still get the grade I want without trying?”  

Student 3 – The Accountant: “When will you post our scores?”

The Accountant actually means, “With my trusty mental calculator, I will analyze my numbers and play the market. In some twisted way, I love the rush of seeing new numbers posted. I know my stock could depreciate, but I still have to witness the current trend. Only then, can I determine how much I owe before the fiscal year ends.”

Student 4 – The Insurance Agent: “Can I retake the test?”

Insurance Agents always assume the worst, but have a protection policy for times of disaster. Keep in mind, this is prior to taking (or even seeing) the test.  

Student 5 – The Bankrupt

One hand is not raised, but that does not mean there are no more questions. The voice of The Bankrupt is unrepresented but deserves to be heard. This student thinks, “Whatever. I don’t get it…and I don’t even care. What’s the use? My grades are too low to pass, anyway. So why try?” The Bankrupt’s silent apathy screams, “What’s the use?”

How to Avoid a Learning Recession


Yes, it counts. Everything. We. Do. Counts. Actuaries are risk managers. Let’s make sure they know assessment is not a risky financial venture. Instead, lead the Actuaries to ask themselves, “Am I prepared for assessment?” Allow them time to create responsible plans toward success. This requires increased transparency in communicating expectations and consistency in rewarding growth.

Throughout the learning process, I check understanding with “celebrations of knowledge.” Typical celebrations (such positive connotation) answer the questions: “What am I learning today?” “Why am I learning this?” and “How will I know I have learned it?”


If I have communicated clear criteria of what it means to be proficient, students should even be able to self-assess. When empowered to self-assess, learners verbalize their readiness in terms of Not yet—Almost there—Got it! From here, I invite students to co-plan the next steps of practice and instruction. When Actuaries reach the “Got it!” level of understanding, they recognize a low-risk opportunity to show what they know.


It is important to distinguish between Investors and Traders. Traders are looking for short-term trends to make a quick profit. To keep Investors from becoming Traders, emphasize the potential long-term rewards of learning. Revisit standards throughout the course to reinforce the value of understanding over memorization. Over a period of time, replicating proficiency leads to mastery. But classroom Investors are always calculating potential outcomes. If teachers average scores from early in the learning process against summative evidence, Investors will find a better use of their time. They need to know what they create as a result of learning will pay dividends and be reinvested in the future.


Accountants also think in terms of numbers. They want to know the bottom line. Educators cannot allow school to become a points game, especially considering the inaccuracies of a 100-point scale. Scores posted need to have value, communicating specific credit toward increasing assets (not averages). Naturally, control of assets leads to educational ownership.  

Insurance Agents

The ‘redo/do-over mentality’ is often what fuels surface-level criticism of standards-based grading. Critics (some of whom are teachers) twist reassessment into an excuse to not try. While acknowledging the benefits of second chances, if we want the best effort in preparation and performance on the first attempt, we must be cognizant of our word choice. There is often confusion and resistance by teachers concerned about the time it takes to create another version of the entire test. But rest assured, reassessment needs to focus on one standard at a time, and students can show learning in many ways. And let’s be clear. Assessment is not about catching students unprepared. Grading should never be punitive. 

The Bankrupt

Who knows what qualifications The Bankrupt used to possess? What skills or passions were apparent before apathy set in? This student is no longer in the market. At some point, The Bankrupt stopped buying stock in school games and teachers can no longer use grades to leverage compliance. We have to look deeper to allow empathy to combat apathy. The Bankrupt may simply need to feel respected—have a voice—an exchange of trust resulting in productivity. When learners are ready, ask, “What can you create to show evidence of your learning?” If we teach learners, not curriculum, we honor learning with respectful tasks.

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Banking on Reassessment

Educators live up to their professional title when they recognize learning never ends. While a school calendar may suggest times to report progress, the learning process is not a race, nor a winner-take-all competition. A criterion-referenced approach to learning validates the curriculum and makes sense of reassessment opportunities. When targets are clear, goals may be set and progress monitored. This mindset teaches students to be patient, trust the process, and celebrate growth. Embedded reassessment practices give students a voice in seeking opportunities to demonstrate new evidence of learning.

By definition, power standards are prioritized as essential for students to learn; therefore, they deserve to be assessed multiple times. A student may demonstrate early proficiency on one assessment, but show inconsistencies with the standard on a future assessment. When we embed the skill or concept in later assessments, we allow multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of the standard. This also holds all students accountable for learning and retaining, not a simple one-and-done measure of success. Students who consistently show proficiency elevate their performance to a level of mastery, while late learners earn the opportunity to show new evidence of growth.  

Sometimes, performance on formative assessments does not match outcomes of the summative assessment. I first question the summative assessment to be sure the questions match the learning. Maybe, what was perceived as understanding was far from mastery; the student has relied on help from a teacher, partner, or notes (not quite ready for independent demonstrations of learning). Maybe, the summative assessment caught the student on a bad day—external factors such as lack of sleep, trouble at home, multiple tests on the same day, health issues, relationship crises. All of these circumstances are life obstacles; they validate our need for second chances. In such situations, we have to be willing to adjust our reporting. Summative may become formative until additional practice and instructional interventions take place.

The Bottom Line

While analogies are fun, we must remember our purpose. Education is not a business; decisions should focus on the best interest of kids, determined by conversations within schools. I’m reminded of the wisdom shared by my high school economics teacher. His favorite lesson and motto: “Education is income.”

Let’s invest in learning.


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