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The Cultural Power of Report Cards

The evolution and significance of report cards in the American education system
Report Card

Questions about the power of report cards led high school history teacher Wade Morris to dig deep into how these pieces of paper came to carry so much weight in the world. In his book, Report Cards: A Cultural History, Morris uncovers the evolution and significance of report cards. “Since the birth of report cards, report cards have had critics and they've had reformers that have tried to create alternative systems,” he says.

He traces the origins of report cards to the 1830s and 1840s, revealing how teachers in common schools grappled with the challenge of gaining parental support and controlling unruly students. Morris emphasizes that the emergence of report cards was a grassroots development, with teachers documenting their intentions and experimenting to find effective means of control. Over time, report cards have come to be more than just academic assessments and carry profound impact on students, parents, and teachers. 

“[Report cards are] effective at motivating students even though it's an extrinsic motivation that has all kinds of unintended consequences like anxiety and sometimes bitterness and neurosis and self-loathing.” Morris says. “And it's also extremely effective at still today winning over the support of parents. … I still save report cards of my kids. Now they're digital. They're in a Google Drive now, but we still save them. And because there's something deeply rooted about our psyche … report cards are a great way of controlling people because we like it.”

Morris says reports cards are instruments of documentation and surveillance, having a unique role in shaping power dynamics within the educational landscape and also influence college admissions, job applications, and even juvenile corrections systems. 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Morris shares how understanding the historical context of report cards can provide a sense of wisdom and perspective. He encourages parents and educators to navigate the complexities of the educational system with a deeper awareness of its evolution and the inherent challenges associated with grading and assessment.


JILL ANDERSON: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Wade Morris knows few pieces of paper from school hold more influence over us than report cards. He's an experienced educator and researcher whose journey into understanding the evolution of report cards started with his own struggle as a parent during COVID online learning. Report cards have a long history in the educational landscape, beginning as a teacher's experiment to control unruly students in the 1830s to their current role as influential documents that impact college admissions. I wanted to learn more about report cards interesting past. First, I asked Wade to tell me what interested him in report cards. 

WADE MORRIS: As we were transitioning to online learning, which you've written about, how difficult it was to be a parent in the age of COIVD online learning, my own kids were going through the challenges. And my middle daughter in particular was having a hard time with online worksheets and my wife and I considered, "Okay, let's just drop the worksheets and let her go outside and play." But then we concluded that the missing work would appear on her report cards and that would ultimately impact her long-term prospects. And she's only in second grade. And that's when the light bulb went off that these pieces of paper have a strange power over us, and that could be the literary device through which I try to engage in the nearly 200 years of formal public schooling in American history. 

JILL ANDERSON: You call report cards tools of control. What do you mean by that? 

Wade Morris

WADE MORRIS: I'm sure a lot of your listeners are familiar with Michel Foucault, he is this French intellectual in 1960s and seventies. He argued that the last 200 years of Western civilization had seen this shift. The shift was how power was exerted. Prior to the 1700s and early 1800s, power according to Foucault would've been exerted through force. But then Foucault noticed and he particularly focused on prisons, and he focused on insane asylums. He noticed that power now was exerted through documentation and surveillance. He dabbled in talking about school, but I'm not aware of him ever mentioning things like report cards. But to me it was just an obvious Foucauldian disciplinary tool, as Foucault would say. And essentially what started the whole process of this project was trying to figure out if Foucault was right, trying to figure out if these pieces of paper that emerged in the United States in the 1830s and forties, if they actually were intended to be a tool of control as opposed to a tool of learning and a tool of tracking progress. 

JILL ANDERSON: I love the beginning, what you uncovered about where these came from because when you reflect on the way people are about assessment right now, and there's a lot of strong disdain for it, even among teachers, it's interesting to see that report cards essentially began with a teacher, it sounds like. 

WADE MORRIS: Yes. This is one of those empirical, historical arguments that I'm trying to make. That this is not me projecting onto the intentions of teachers. This is teachers documenting their intentions themselves. And teachers in the 1830s and 1840s and 50s in this antebellum period at the birth of the common school, these are these new public schools in which the government, state governments were trying to encourage kids whose parents had never experienced school to try to enroll. And these teachers in the trenches of these new common schools were dealing with this common problem across different states, which was teachers and parents were not getting along and the kids were resisting teacher control. It was sometimes violent, it was sometimes deeply intense, even more intense than you could argue than it is today in this period. Because fundamentally parents at this time, most of them are rural farm workers, do not understand what the purpose of these new public schools are. 

And you have these teachers documenting in education journals, documenting in the minutes of their meetings and letters to each other, even in their journals and their diaries, the personal journals that they wrote. They're documenting about experimenting with different ways to try to win over the support of the parents in an attempt to try to control the students in the classroom. It's very explicit, it's very tangible. It's not a lofty, abstract purpose to the origins of these things. And it's invented at the grassroots. It's not pedagogues, it's not administrators that are coming up with this. It's just the daily interactions that teachers had with students experimenting, trying different things. And then fundamentally, as the decades progressed, they coalesced around this one idea of report cards is really the thing that works the best. 

JILL ANDERSON: Can you talk a little bit about the period over the 20th century when we start to see report cards become this broader tool where we start to see them being a part of college admissions process, job applications? They really took on a life of importance it seems for people. 

WADE MORRIS: It's crazy. And I think it even starts before the 20th century. In the post-war era, 1870s, and even during the Civil War, you saw a lot of things. You see advertisements from private companies trying to sell these new standardized report cards. People are making a buck off of this. And then in the 1870s with the growth of institutionalized school, you see superintendents, you see districts starting to get more organized. If you're curious more about this, David Labaree talks about this a lot in his great books. But anyway, you see these superintendents emerge and the superintendent starts to impose the report cards from the top down, and then all of a sudden the narrative switches, these teachers who invented it 30 or 40 years before start to resist it as an additional part of their workload. To your point, the audience, the intended audience of the report card expands at this time. 

Also, you start to see in the 1880s and 1890s that employers were looking at report cards. It's not just about the parents who are looking at this. And then in the early 1900s, juvenile corrections systems start to use them. Teacher written report cards being submitted to parole officers and to judges to decide about whether or not a kid should be incarcerated. Now all of a sudden, these report cards have a lot of power and dictate whether or not a kid actually has literal freedom. And then in the 1910s and 1920s, with the growing importance of college admissions and the growing competition for college admissions, then it starts to be a litmus test for getting into university. 

At first, it's not really for the kids who have wealth. In the 1910s and 1920s, what you typically see is that if a kid can pay for college, if a kid comes from a family that's been going to that college, there were no college admissions department, but the universities and colleges would essentially just look for completion, not necessarily for specific grades. They don't care if you have A's or B's, just, "Did you pass?" But then the kids that want scholarships, that's when it becomes really, really important for the working class kids looking to get into university. And that's when you see this new era of anxiety about these documents, the anxiety that we still live with a hundred years later. 

JILL ANDERSON: Do you think report cards are effective? 

WADE MORRIS: Yes, Jill. Yes, they're incredibly effective. That's why they never go away. Since the birth of report cards, report cards have had critics and they've had reformers that have tried to create alternative systems. Really look into this with the alternative school movement, the 1960s and 1970s when there was this wave of zealotry to try to get rid of grades and get rid of report cards. And a lot of your listeners may remember this era. They may have come up through school during this era, but you had at the peak of the alternative school movement, the United States had 5 million kids enrolled in these schools that were supposed to be more democratic, more inspired by Dewey with student interest driven. And the big one is to eliminate grades. That was a universal principle for a lot of these alternative schools. But fundamentally, the alternative school movement burned out, and then it gave birth in the 1980s and 1990s to the testing movement and a return to the basics of traditional school. 

And there's a lot of reasons why alternative school movement ultimately failed to change the mainstream American education. One of those reasons is that grading in systems of reporting is just really effective. It's effective at saving time for teachers, who don't have to write narrative reports, who don't have to make home visits. 

It's effective at motivating students even though it's an extrinsic motivation that has all kinds of unintended consequences like anxiety and sometimes bitterness and neurosis and self-loathing. And it's also extremely effective at still today winning over the support of parents. And I don't know, Jill, maybe you're like me, I still save report cards with my kids. Now they're digital. They're in a Google Drive now, but we still save them. And because there's something deeply rooted about our psyche, this all gets back to Foucauldian stuff, that report cards are a great way of controlling people because we like it. We fundamentally want more of it. We want more data. We want more rankings. We want more surveillance of ourselves. The inward gaze that Foucauldian disciples talk about that a lot of education does, it forces us to look back on ourselves as opposed to pausing to reflect on the bigger system. 

JILL ANDERSON: What you're saying is you can't really imagine or fathom a world where report cards wouldn't exist in the traditional school system? 

WADE MORRIS: Maybe one of the big flaws of history is that we're not very good at imagining things. You've had a lot of great guests, Jill, over the years that can imagine a better system. But what history does is look at the evidence from the past, and fundamentally, it makes us reject any sense of nostalgia that there was any alternative that we should live up to. But secondly, we also in the history field, look at the attempts that have failed in the past, and we fundamentally conclude that a big drastic change, a big revolution that'll remake all of American education, which a lot of your brilliant guests have talked about, isn't really practical because it's been tried before and it hasn't worked. Now, that's not to say that we can't reform the system and make it marginally more humane. I hope we can. 

And Ethan Hutt and Jack Schneider have just published a new book that's brilliant on this. It's called, Off the Mark, and they come to the same conclusion. They suggest that maybe we can make report cards less permanent, can go back and change a grade after a kid shows progress. That's a creative solution that maybe deserves some more exploration. There's things that have been tried before that might help, narrative reports, teacher comments, more narrative driven report cards that maybe either replace grades or supplement the grades. 

There's problems with that. There's trade-off. One is teacher time. The second is teacher ability. Do we have the ability to actually convey specific meaning and dig into each child's psyche in just a single paragraph? What ends up happening with a lot of narrative reports is that they turn into lacking substance and wrote copy and paste kind of things. There's portfolios, there's been generations of schools that have tried to create portfolios of student work. It could be written, could be art, could be math portfolios even. But the problem there is on the receiving end of this information, do the universities and do the parents have the time and the patience to actually look at the portfolios and try to understand the gradual growth that a student or a learner actually shows? And back to your point, report cards are efficient. They convey specific meaning very quickly, and it saves us time. 

JILL ANDERSON: It sounds like report cards aren't going to go anywhere, even though this tension exists between assessment grading, people love this topic, love to hate it, and report cards. It just seems like this will always exist in some manner in modern schooling. 

WADE MORRIS: And that's why I get very bored with the Foucault point very quickly. After I researched the Antebellum period, it was clear to me that, "Okay, Foucault is onto something here." Then the question was, how do ordinary teachers like me and parents and students carve out meaning or try to carve out meaning within the classroom and even joy in the classroom? And this is an existential question for me as a career teacher in the middle of his career, I got another 20 years left of teaching. What's the point? Is it just about control? Or can I live with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance and still try to give my students space to actually love what we do even within this system that is fundamentally about discipline, I think? And that's what the rest of my research has tried to be about is how people in the 1870s, a formerly enslaved person in the 1870s, carves out meaning during reconstruction in the classroom, how do parents balance the neurosis of and the anxiety of having children come home with report cards while also trying to encourage their children to love learning? 

How do parents do that in the 1880s? The turn of the century juvenile corrections, how does a kid who really hates the system in Colorado fight back against it? And then can he actually resist the system all the way through his adolescence? And then you get all the way through the alternative school movement, which ultimately is a tragic failure, I think. But there is still a kernel of alternative school movement idealism that's still out there, and there is still space for these schools to exist. It's just really hard. It's really hard for parents and students to find them and then find the resources to actually attend them. This is what I think is more interesting to me than just the question of discipline and control. It's the existential question of how do we find meaning in all of this? 

JILL ANDERSON: How do you balance something like grading your students, which is something everyone has to do in most teaching professions, and that what you just mentioned, the joy of learning, because the two don't always feel like they are aligned? 

WADE MORRIS: I hesitate to ever suggest to teachers what they should do, but I know what I'm trying to do. It might not work with other teachers, but one of the things I do is just admit it, name the thing that grades are with the students, and maybe turn it into a discussion. As a history teacher, I can incorporate into the content of the course. 

I teach politics also, there's a lot of political theory that this stuff is relevant to. You can turn this into a metaphor. And by naming it though, by describing it to the students and the students instinctively feel it, a lot of times the fact that this is reductionist, it's fundamentally reducing human beings to numbers and letters. The fact that we can name it for them, maybe it helps them a little bit. Maybe it helps them understand that they are normal and they're responding in normal ways to an abnormal system. And the abnormal system hasn't been around for centuries. It's been around for almost two centuries, but it doesn't go back millennia. And then this is what a lot of pedagogues say is critical consciousness, the self-awareness, the awareness of how we got where we are today. And maybe that helps. 

JILL ANDERSON: Have your personal and professional views of report cards changed as a result of doing this research? 

WADE MORRIS: I'm at peace with it now. I'm at peace with report cards. I went full circle. I spent 15 years in the classroom before doing this research, and I hadn't really paused to reflect on the context of where the system emerged and how it emerged. And then I went through my critical theory phase where it's about oppressed and oppressors. And then there's the crisis where you think, "I'm part of the oppression." And now I'm at peace with I can be a really good teacher. Maybe not the greatest, not the greatest for every kid, not the one that every kid needs, but I can be a good teacher that can help kids balance the pressures and anxieties of grades with a genuine joy for learning. The thing I figured out is that I've got to demonstrate it myself and also admit and explain that what they're going through in the broader context of how they feel, feeling oppressed by grades, is normal. It's essentially like this middle age cognitive dissonance that maybe a lot of teachers like me might feel. 

JILL ANDERSON: Do you think parents should look at these documents a little bit differently knowing the history of them? 

WADE MORRIS: Yes. This might sound cheesy, and it's also self-serving as a historian and a history teacher. Learning about the context of how the system emerged gives you a sense of self-awareness and wisdom. And what comes with wisdom is knowing that twas ever thus, and therefore, I'm not going to overreact. And I think we do need some more wisdom amongst parents in perspective. It doesn't necessarily mean that I know the answer of how to manage any given situation, but I do think that that's the great gift that history gives us is just to take a deep breath. We are living through a 200-year epoch and we can't control it, and we can deescalate when things don't go well for our children. That's my instinct at least. 

JILL ANDERSON: When you see that D come home on your kid's report card, not to panic… 

Or Google "American History of Education" read a little bit and then go confront your kid. Sorry, Jill. I'm being sarcastic. 

JILL ANDERSON: Don't put as much weight into them basically. 

WADE MORRIS: I suppose so. We will get through this, and we're all going through this together. 

JILL ANDERSON: Wade Morris is a high school history teacher at an international boarding school in Moshi, Tanzania. He's the author of Report Cards, A Cultural History. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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