Forbidden failure

Forbidden to fail students, a fourth-grade teacher in Baton Rouge has filed suit against the principal, superintendent and school board.  Sheila Goudeau, a teacher for 20 years, says teachers were told to make 60 percent the lowest score and D the lowest grade, no matter how poorly students had performed. She claims the principal harassed her for protesting the policy.

Setting a minimum score at 60 percent (or 50 percent) is becoming common. The theory is that students will try to improve a 60 percent but will give up if their average is so low that they can’t possibly raise it to a passing grade. On the other hand, why try if you’ll be passed along anyhow?

My honors chemistry teacher let us retake tests to raise our grades, if we thought we could do better. My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite assignments to raise their grades. It seems fair to let students wipe out bad marks by proving they’ve mastered the material. Pretending they’ve learned fourth-grade work and are ready for fifth grade is setting kids up for failure, as Goudeau says. That’s failure with a D, I guess.

In checking out Downtown College Prep’s new web site, I saw the story of Pauline Fernandez, who moved in with neighbors in 12th grade after her mother’s death from a brain tumor. “Pauline wants to learn; not just earn credits. In fact, she asked one math teacher to fail her so she could take the class again to get a better grasp of the concepts.” An ’08 DCP graduate, Pauline goes to community college and works two jobs to support herself. She plans to transfer to San Jose State to complete a four-year degree. That was her mother’s dream. (The book is here.)

About Joanne

Comments

  1. i can’t tell if all this lying about grades crap is a result of the “build their self-esteem” nonsense that started in the 90’s, and therefore educator driven, or if it’s because parents these days can’t handle hearing that their kid failed at something.

    perhaps it started out as one, and has now morphed into the other.

    personally, i’m a strict grader and rather unforgiving about the grade students earn once report cards are out. parents complain that it isn’t their child’s fault — it’s mine.

    i feel that if a student has an entire quarter to do the work, make up the work (which i have a clearly laid out system for), see me for help, etc. and they do not utilize those resourse/oppurtunities, then they deserve whatever grade they got. there comes a time in every student’s life where they have to realize that they are responsible for their own grade. it is not randomly given out on the teacher’s whim.(at least in my classroom.)

  2. Another data point in support of my contention that in the public education system education doesn’t matter. That there’s nothing about the public education system that makes education everywhere and always the top priority or even an important consideration.

  3. i would disagree with you, allen. but only on a small scale because for the teachers i know, education is the top priority – it’s just not the administrators’, or school boards’, or policy makers’ top priority. and teachers are powerless right now. we don’t have any decision making power on what counts for students.

    so, resent your statement b/c it is not true of me personally. but, i have to agree with what you said as it pertains to the people in charge.

  4. Miller Smith says:

    Please see my school system’s grading policy here (http://www1.pgcps.org/grading/) and then go to the link for high schools here (http://www1.pgcps.org/grading/index.aspx?id=113758) and then go to how final grades for a class and final overall GPA is calculated here (http://www1.pgcps.org/uploadedfiles/Offices/Academics/Grading_Policy/5121.2_Secondary_1.5.10%5B1%5D.pdf#page=7). You may need to put a pillow on the desk to protect your jaw.

  5. Thanks for providing the link to DCP.

    DCP and KIPP appear to be wonderful.

    Too bad I’m not younger….

  6. Sorry Julia but you’re wrong. Teachers are at the bottom the hierarchy which means plenty of teachers take their cues from those above them. If education’s not important to the principal or the school board then it’s also not going to be too important to quite a few teachers.

    That’s not so much a knock on teachers as a reflection of the unremarkable humanness of teachers.

    If you’d like to believe that teachers are a special breed of human being, endowed with substantially more compassion and empathy then the average run of humanity then feel free to do so.

    But an assertion isn’t the a fact and this assertion has a self-serving aspect that undercuts the hypothesis.

  7. Don Peck had an article about “the new joblessness” in the March Atlantic. Among other things he points out that the “high esteem” generation has now hit a society that can offer them very little in the way of “high esteem” starting jobs. The past era I write about was one in which there was little mercy for failure. Good or bad, that might at least have had the effect of strengthening the ability of the ego to withstand assault.

  8. I suppose the next development is employers being prevented from firing underachieving employees.

  9. If district officials supported a no-fail polcy, so would I. As Milton Friedman remarked in a different context: “I’m on your side, but you’re not”. Abolish grades, classes, and grade levels, and let students work through a Chinese menu of self-paced curriculum options. Measure progress with tests which students could take at any time, and release students from any compulsory attendance requirement upon completion of sufficient education, defined as performance at or above some level on some range of tests. If you incentivize academic performance by allowing students who graduate early to use the taxpayers’ age 6-18 education subsidy for post-secondary tuition or a wage subsidy at any qualified private-sector employer, you will see performance from poor and minority kids that you will never see in the current system.

    Motivation is key. Students will work for freedom. Training an artistically or mechanically inclined child for an academic career using a transcript as the incentive is like teaching a cat to swim using carrots as the reward. Schools give to many students no reason to do what schools require. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery, black or white, male or female, young or old.

    It does not take 12 years at $10,000 per pupil-year to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively onthe job than in a classroom. State (government, generally) provision of History and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers would be (is, in totalitarian countries like Cuba and North Korea).

  10. allen, i never said teachers were a special breed. you incorrectly inferred that. i just said that more of them care about academics than you give credit to. also, i’m not wrong. i said i disagree with you based on teachers i know — i didn’t make a sweeping generalization that every teacher in america is all about academics. in your original comment you made a broad statement about how nothing in education makes education a top priority. you can’t prove that to be true in every case of every person or classroom.

    now, when you said “plenty of teachers. . .” yes. there are plenty of teachers that lack integrity and will follow every new trend and make grades meaningless. i’m just saying. . it’s plenty. not all. which is the same thing you’ll find in every field of work. plenty of workers will take cues from their superiors and some will not.

  11. Cynical says:

    Training an artistically or mechanically inclined child for an academic career using a transcript as the incentive is like teaching a cat to swim using carrots as the reward.

    THAT quote is a real keeper.

  12. Here’s what I wrote:

    Another data point in support of my contention that in the public education system education doesn’t matter. That there’s nothing about the public education system that makes education everywhere and always the top priority or even an important consideration.

    The first sentence is amenable to misinterpretation but the second sentence makes clear that I’m contending that institutionally there’s no explicit priority placed on education in the public education system.

    Board members, principals or teachers may make it their personal crusade to elevate the priority of education but as part of the institution of public education there’s no such priority.

    That’s why teaching skill isn’t professionally worthwhile.

    Perfecting your teaching skills is strictly a matter of pride since there’s no professional recognition of those skills. If you work for a principal who values teaching skill then there may be some rewards but if you don’t work for such a principal then satisfaction had better be sufficient because there won’t be any other rewards.

    As to “there are plenty of teachers that lack integrity”, I disagree. The flip side of rejecting any claims on special compassion or concern is that most ordinary people would rather do a good job if doing a good job is allowed and encouraged.

    Life’s just easier when you don’t screw up a lot and a bit of honestly-earned pride in accomplishment isn’t a trifling reward. But when the message from up the hierarchy is that moving the kids along while causing as little problem as possible are the primary organization priorities then personal rewards get shoved to the side.

    Compare and contrast the way budget and educational issues are treated. One’s deadly important and no one ever forgets that. The other’s vulnerable to fads of dubious value when it isn’t simply ignored.

  13. CarolineSF says:

    A San Francisco-based charter chain that is showered with praise by charter advocates — Envision Schools — has a policy of giving no grades lower than a C. Charter advocates think this is a good thing — when it’s done by a charter school. Can anyone clarify why it’s innovative when Envision charter schools have that policy, while it would be disapproved of as grade inflation if a public school had such a policy? It does give Envision students a nice big boost in getting into colleges.

  14. I hate grades. Give the kids end-of-course exams and see if they learned what they were supposed to. If not, have them repeat. So much wasted time and energy talking about grades.

  15. tim-10-ber says:

    I like Ben F and Malcolm’s comments.

    However, talking with my 20 year old yesterday about challenges and a basic definition of failure (not trying again and learning from one’s mistakes) I cannot understand why schools are not wanting teachers to give kids zeros. My kids got them in public school and in private school. You better believe it got my attention. Sadly the teacher of my younger son that gave him his lone zero in 8th grade could have cared less…

    If school is suppose to be “safe place” to learn from failure I don’t know where else kids will learn what it takes to succeed post school.

    Employers fire those employees that don’t perform as expected. I doubt this will stop. Thank goodness we can RIF any one including minorities…for a long time it was next to impossible to RIF a minority that was not doing their job. Not any longer…everyone is on a level playing field.

    We need schools to give kids the foundation to succeed…to mean this means getting a zero, being held back a year, losing privileges such as extra-curriculum activities as long as students are not truly earning a C and above..

    Please please please stop giving kids major grades from effort that produce nothing…

    Just my view as a parent. I need teachers/educators to be consistent with the way I have raised my kids…remember they get zeros in college…

  16. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    My dumbass ex boss claimed that kids would “shut down” when confronted with bad grades. I’m not even talking F’s here. I found just the opposite, that the kids would start paying attention when their grades fell below what they themselves found satisfactory.

    Sometimes “failing” is the best thing that can happen to someone.

  17. Every Marking Period my principal would look at the grades of all the students in my class, and conference with me if my students had any bad grades. This was a sign that “I was failing them as a teacher”, not that they were failing as a student.

    Eventually we were “encouraged” to raise our minimum grades to a D- for the first half of the year. Under this system, parents had the joy of seeing their children passing, the principal didn’t have to listen to as many complaint calls from parents, and students quickly learned that they didn’t have to do anything to pass. In none of my conversations with this principal were concepts such as standards for learning, high expectations, or actual academic achievement and teaching discussed.

  18. Genevieve says:

    I think that it is very important for students to learn that when they don’t do the work, they don’t succeed. It is far better to learn this in middle school than in high school. It is better to learn it in high school than in the work world or college.

    From my own personal experience: I was often allowed to get away with all kinds of crap in middle and high school. It was a rude awakening when I went to college. I wonder if for some high schools they are worried about damaging their students transcripts and thus their college acceptance rates.

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    “A San Francisco-based charter chain that is showered with praise by charter advocates — Envision Schools — has a policy of giving no grades lower than a C. Charter advocates think this is a good thing — when it’s done by a charter school. Can anyone clarify why it’s innovative when Envision charter schools have that policy, while it would be disapproved of as grade inflation if a public school had such a policy? It does give Envision students a nice big boost in getting into colleges.”

    I don’t know how Envision does this, but the details can matter (of course, in this case it may also just be “if charter, then good, if non-charter public, then bad” …).

    So … my mom taught Middle School for a few years. She mostly taught English, and she had a policy of not giving out grades lower than ‘B’. But it doesn’t mean that a zero was a ‘B’. It meant that any score below 80 resulted in the student getting to skip recess and lunch while studying to take the test again. And if the new score was also below 80 … again.

    My Mom’s basic premise was that the kids were perfectly capable of learning the material, they just chose not to do so. Once they realized that they either *WERE* going to learn the material, or they were going to lose their lunch for the rest of the year, they started getting scores of 80 or higher on the first try most of the time.

    Since one of the things being scored was spelling words (20 per week … not a lot of room for “interpretation” of the grade), I don’t think my mom eased up in grading over time. The kids just buckled down and learned the material.

    What was amazing was that while the students did complain at first (a bit … but only a bit), she had *parents* calling in to complain that their kids didn’t need to get Bs. Cs and Ds were acceptable. Why push the kids any harder?

    Mom did a few other things as well (5 100s in a row meant a coupon to the snack shack, as an example) and was, in spite of her grading policy, a popular teacher. Students were voluntarily signing up for her class, even knowing the grading policy.

    So … all “no grade lower than X” policies are not created equal. The details count 🙂

    -Mark Roulo

  20. Mark Roulo says:

    If school is suppose to be ‘safe place’ to learn from failure I don’t know where else kids will learn what it takes to succeed post school.

    I’m someone who did not participate in after-school sports but has a child who cares a *LOT* about sports. This is my child’s fifth season of little league, for example.

    I’m coming around to the conclusion that sports may be one of the more important parts of school, precisely *BECAUSE* the kids have to confront failure.

    If the other team wins, you don’t get an “A.”

    If you screw up, there isn’t any room to hide and pretend that you did great (yes, the kids can and will make excuses, but that isn’t the same thing as telling them that they did fine … they know that they didn’t even if they are protesting).

    Practicing and working hard result in more success (or less failure) than not practicing and slacking.

    You don’t die if you lose. You can pick yourself up and keep trying. A real world example: Last season, my son’s little league team went to the playoffs because in his division *everyone* goes to the playoffs. The regular season is essentially one long spring training. The seeding in the playoffs is random, there were six teams, and the tournament is double elimination. Because of his team’s seeding, they could win the whole thing by winning four games in a row. They won the first game, but lost the second. Now they need to win *five* games in a row to win the whole thing. The odds are bad, but you only have two choices:

    1) go through the motions and give up, or
    2) buckle down and try anyway, knowing that you are still probably going to lose.

    He was fortunate to have some very good coaches and his team did (2). They won the required five games.

    I’m pretty sure that there is a very important life lesson in here somewhere! I also suspect that there are some very important life lessons for kids on the other teams, too (like, “it isn’t over until it is over”, and “sometimes you can be talented, but your team isn’t … your team can lose even if you do well.”).

    The league can have an “everyone is a winner” policy, but one team goes home with the biggest trophy (at the older levels … the younger kids divisions don’t work this way).

    If this isn’t being taught in an academic environment, it can still be taught during athletics (and, of course, for things like chess, too). So maybe this is the answer: If it isn’t taught in school, it can still be taught on the playing fields.

    -Mark Roulo

  21. Someone recently cast upon the internet an essay arguing that “I don’t know” is far more often the correct answer than we care to admit. My memory fails, so you get no link.

    (Ben): “I hate grades. Give the kids end-of-course exams and see if they learned what they were supposed to. If not, have them repeat. So much wasted time and energy talking about grades.”

    I considered grading the least pleasant aspect of classroom teaching. Seems to me we grade students more to demonstrate to administrators, politicians, and taxpayers that we are doing our job than for any effect on students. In that case, however, it’s a clear conflict of interest for teachers to grade their own students. Ambrise Bierce (or was it Mark Twain) said the teacher is the only student who grades his own exams.

    “End of course” makes sense, if the only purpose of the grade is to inform future readers of the transcript. If one purpose of grading is motivation, the issue gets complicated. Emotionally secure students can fail repeatedly and keep plugging away. Repeated failure can damage emotionally insecure students, while small successes can enhance confidence, and heal.

    One problem with a single end-of-term exam is we are all pretty good at lying to ourselves, and students will study “later” but later never arrives. One compromise strategy between the end-of-term exam (with failure) strategy and the no-grades+self-paced curriculum strategy that I tried in my pre-Alg and Alg I classes was to use the “play” in the meaning of “course”. I broke the entire course of instruction into two-week blocks. If I see students four times per week in one-hour classes, I would give a quiz after three days of class. Anyone who got a B or better after the first week of any two-week block got a pass to the library or his favorite teacher’s class for the next week, since we were going to cover the same material again. Anyone who missed the first quiz got a zero. Anyone who missed both end-of-the-week quizzes had the option to try again after school. The grade for any block was the better of the two weekly quizzes in that block. The end-of-quarter grade was a sum of the best end-of-the-block quizzes and the better of two end-of-quarter tests. This strategy is very forgiving and simultaneously very clear and rigid, so students know what they have to do. It provides gentle, incremental feedback to students and to me.

    I don’t see how Science, English, or History teachers could use this strategy, though.

  22. Mike Curtis says:

    As soon as you let students know that they can “do over” to raise their grades, you’ll have condemned your classroom to inattention to lessons and double testing. Knowing that no matter what happens, your students will be allowed a second chance, makes your assessment a pretest or study guide; nullifying any reason to pay attention to the lessons. Teachers condemn themselves to being ignored.

    Fear of failure is much more of a motivator to learning unpopular material than removing the responsibility to learn from the student.

  23. Mike,

    We disagree. Ever hear of “beginners slopes” for skiers? How ’bout finger exercises for piano students? People normally pick the level of challenge that they find comfortable. Competence is motivating. On balance, fear degrades motivation.

    Note that my system was forgiving up to a point, and then was quite rigid. I based grades on test performance in class. I did not grade participation, homework (I don’t know who really does it, anyway), classroom behavior, attendance, or anything but performance on the tests. This saves work and reduces ambiguity in students’ minds.

    You may be right. As usual, “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment can answer. In public policy this means a decentralized (fedreal) system of government agencies or a compeitive market in goods and services.