"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Thursday, July 29, 2010

No more "Gentlemen's Ds" in Mt. Olive

Doctors in a small New Jersey town have decided that patients may no longer be "very sick." Starting next week, all patients must be either "fair to middling" or dead.

That may not be fair, but that's how illogical the decision to eliminate "Ds" which was announced by the school board in Mt. Olive, NJ sounds. Look, I understand the problem. I admit, that when I taught some marginal seniors, I may have been part of the problem. There were people who received Ds, who were entitled to Fs, but I was not prepared to stand up to the maelstrom hat would ensue if a student did not qualify to graduate. So I hope first of all, that this superintendent is ready to back up the teachers who are ready to say that a student has failed to fulfill the qualifications of the course.

And perhaps this policy is more honest about what the grades mean than the official line usually is. Officially, an A is "very good", a B is "good", C is "average," and D is "adequate." But we know in fact that, in most cases, B means "mediocre", C means "pretty poor considering your abilities, young lady" and D means "I should fail you but your parents are nuts and I can't deal with the hassle." C is simply not an acceptable grade for the children of middle class parents who expect their child to attend a four-year college. So at least Mt. Olive's new policy acknowledges what a low mark C really is for most families.

I note that the passing mark will move from 65 to 70. Interestingly, at my first school, a charter middle school which took grading pretty seriously, 70 was a D, not a C. So much for charter schools lowering standards. A "D" to us did not mean, "get out of here and stop bothering us," it meant "we had all better figure out what this kid needs."

So what grade will Mt. Olive use to indicate a student is in trouble? Is a "C" mean trouble, or will they have to earn an "F" in order to get Guidance or the Child Study Team involved? And most importantly, what is the remediation plan? If the plan is to fail more students, there better be an infrastructure in place to pick up these kids and help them develop the skills they are lacking. The news stories (naturally) say nothing about that. Mt. Olive may have a great system in place--they better, or this decision will have made the problem far worse. Do they have instructors who are expert in alternate modes of learning and different types of intelligences? Are they prepared to everything necessary for success, or must we cut our losses? And what does that mean in the era of No Child Left Behind?

And does any of this address the student who underperforms due to emotional problems? Can we get parents to agree not to have fights, get divorced, get grandparents to agree not to get sick or die, get classmates to agree not to tease or harass students, or get the media to quit lowering the girls' self-esteem while making the boys narcissists? Or do we have to give these kids a failing mark until they work through their issues of maturity and personal development? Are we prepared to put them on hold academically until they grow up? I don't know a lot of families that will go along with that plan.

One thing I will guarantee the Mt. Olive plan will produce: students who used to know precisely how much and how little to do in order to earn a 65 will recalibrate so as to earn a 70. And some proportion of those students are completely brilliant, who reject the conventional demands of our schools for a multitude of reasons--they may be oppositional, they may have contempt for the system or the curriculum, they may have their own agenda for growth that does not permit time for As in schools. Yes, some of them are just plain lazy, but in my experience that is a very small group. Most young people understand the rewards inherent in pleasing adults, and displeasing them with poor marks is most often a deliberate choice. (For the purposes of this paragraph, I leave aside the question of genuine learning difficulties, which are often compounded with emotional difficulties.)

I wish Mt. Olive well in the effort to raise standards. But I hope they won't go the way of those Texas school districts who improved their grade averages by kicking out poor students and cooking the gradebooks. Some of those provided the falsified "success stories" that helped get NCLB passed in the first place.

It's a bit like declaring a cure for leprosy by calling it advanced acne.

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