An Educational Shell Game
by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Little children do it all the time. When playing “hide and go seek” they cover their eyes with their hands and firmly believe they have become invisible. When my grandchildren do this I find it adorable. When a school does the educational equivalent in order to make failing grades disappear I am not amused. But just such a plan is being implemented at a large suburban high school (2,000 students) in the Washington D.C. area. According to Donna St. George in the Washington Post:
“The dreaded F has been all but banished from the grade books (at this school). The report cards that arrived home late last week showed few failing grades but instead marks of "I" for incomplete, indicating that students still owe their teachers essential work. They will get Fs only if they fail to complete assignments and learn the content in the months to come.”
The plan, which was announced in a letter sent to the parents in October of the current school year, places all of the pressure for implementation squarely on the classroom teacher. Ms. St. George continues:
“Now, the thinking goes, learning will trump grading. The emphasis is on what students know. Teachers, working as a team, will be on duty more afternoons and Saturdays. They will be mentors, too. If students fail to finish work to clear up "incompletes," they may have to attend a last-chance summer session.”
By some measures the program is already a huge success. At the end of the first grading period there were virtually no failures at the school. On the other hand there were 600 scores of “I”. One sophomore English teacher reported more than half of her students were in such a status and added, "I don't believe it's an extra chance. It's an out. The root problem is motivation. The root problem is not that we're not teaching them."
Bring on the talking heads
One of the most interesting aspects of this discussion is the clarity of the battle lines. In the article the primary sources of opposition came from students, teachers and parents. In fact, not a single member of any of those groups offered up a supporting voice. The advocates were the school’s principal, the district’s superintendent for instruction and a series of outside advisors whose credentials are listed as “grading experts”. Perhaps the most intriguing and disturbing endorsement came from the district instructional leader. He said “If we really want students to know and do the work, why would we give them an F and move on? . . . I think the students who are struggling should not be penalized for not learning at the same rate as their peers.” The first part of his statement is an insult to teachers. Educators do not issue failing grades to students and then simply “move on”. When asked which of their students receive the most time and energy any teacher will respond “the weakest”. The second part of his comment is both misguided and ironic. The issue being addressed is missed assignments not a lack of time. His concern with time is particularly baffling since this individual is part of the establishment that was adamantly opposed to the double block classes that were implemented at my former school.
Let me count the ways
I would like to present my concerns with this policy in the form of a list of the most flagrant flaws.
This policy demonstrates a lack of understanding of adolescents. A large number of students will do the right thing. Unfortunately these are not the individuals who are the focus of this discussion. For far too many teenagers an announcement at the beginning of the year that late work will be accepted with no deadlines or grade repercussions is an open invitation for very bad decision making. By nature human beings are procrastinators (check out the post office on April 15th); for many high school students such behavior is an art form. What these adolescents need for success is structure and rules not vague requirements and inappropriate rewards.
This policy will place teachers under enormous pressure. Successful students will also present uncomfortable decisions for teachers. One component of the policy is that if students “master” material a teacher has the “discretion” to assign a “NM” (no mark) for missing quizzes or assignments. Due to this administrative directive students can now lobby teachers to disregard missing work without penalty.
This policy will cost schools good teachers. A plan that enables students to submit unlimited amounts of late work at any time during the school year is a formula for turning a teacher’s job into a bureaucratic nightmare. In this brave new educational world our best and brightest will no longer be able to set firm deadlines on required work. They will be denied the ability to give inferior work appropriate grades. Instead of using time to lesson plan and work with all students, they will be mentoring intractable students after school, Saturdays and in the summer. Would it surprise anyone if they departed for other opportunities that would better utilize their talents?
This policy is unfair. While I do not know all of the intricacies of the plan it would appear that students who do all of their work at a 58% level (setting 60% as passing) will receive an “F” while those who do little or nothing will be given an “I”. Likewise, those who do reasonably good work but because of one or two missed assignments have an aggregate grade of “C” will have that mark on their report card while students who would fail because of the same missed work will have the “I”.
This policy will ultimately hurt student performance. Information learned in the first quarter of the school year is the foundation for what will be taught in the second. This sequence continues throughout the course. Classes move forward every day. It is disingenuous to imply that by giving a grade of “I” that all that needs to be done to remain on track to succeed is to complete a few missing assignments. While those issues are being retroactively addressed, students will fall further and further behind.
This policy ignores that quarter grades are only guidelines. The only grades that appear on a transcript are the ones given at the conclusion of a course. Consequently an “F” on a report card is designed to serve as a warning to students and parents that if the current level of performance continues there is a strong possibility of failing the course. A grade of “I” can convey a very different and inaccurate message. There are a few other questions that spring to mind. What is the plan for senior semester grades if they have grades of “I”? How is second semester athletic eligibility determined? How does an “I” work in calculating GPA or the Honor Roll? But these are minor points when dealing with a school-wide “head in the sand” approach to failing students.
Students fail when required work is done either poorly or not at all. The best solution is to demand that all such assignments are done well and in a timely manner. Downgrading the importance of such efforts by extending or deleting deadlines may ultimately create an artificial reduction in the number of failures but it will not create more learning.