Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A grade is a grade is NOT a grade

More screwed-up policies in the public schools

This is another saga that makes me thankful I teach at a very well-run community college rather than in the public schools.

It all began with a senior in high school who flunked his English class, so he wouldn’t be able to graduate. His parents, one a former school board member and the other a current county councilor, pressured his English teacher to change his grade. She stood fast: The student had earned score of 59 percent on his assignments, and he needed at least 70 percent to pass.

The parents took the issue to the principal. The principal looked at the student’s records and upheld the teacher’s decision – the student hadn’t completed sufficient work to pass the class, and therefore the student didn’t have the requisite credits to graduate.

The parents then took their case to higher officials, who ordered the student’s F to be changed to a D so he could graduate, on the grounds that the parents hadn’t been given sufficient notice that their child was in danger of failing the class.

This is a very bad precedent. I will agree that the schools should be sure to inform parents when their children are falling behind; we have had the occasional very bad negative surprise – during his freshman year, Tadpole was assuring us everything was fine, when he wasn’t completing much work at all, and we didn’t learn about the problem until we got a report card (which the schools couldn’t afford postage to mail, so Tadpole was supposed to bring it home, and of course he “lost” it, so we had to have the school issue a duplicate that we got two weeks later).

BUT forcing the school to change the kid’s grade to something he didn’t earn, no matter how valid his parents’ complaint about notification, is just plain WRONG. OK, if the parents, in spite of being highly educated and connected, never learned that their child was failing his English class, well, yeah, the school system has shortcomings. If the kid didn’t do the work to pass the class, he shouldn’t be given a passing grade. Period. If the problem was that his parents didn’t get the right notification, I don’t see anything wrong with giving him an “incomplete” and letting him finish up the work in summer school.

The way this situation was handled is a lose-lose-lose proposition for everybody:

The school in question has been working hard to shed a reputation of being academically weak. The administration and teachers have been working on programs to improve student achievement and to reward students for excellence. Giving a failing student a grade he doesn’t deserve devalues everything that the hard-working students have earned. When a student from this school applies for a job or for college admission, the employer or admissions officer is going to see that this particular applicant is from the school where grades are based on parental influence rather than merit. So the student who actually earned a B+ average might not get recognized for it, and the employer or college admissions official might just toss the student’s application.

Teachers lose out big-time. In order to do our jobs, we, as teachers, must be able to grade students on the work they do. Yes, it is good to have an appeals system in case someone makes a grave mistake that needs correcting, but this particular situation didn’t involve a grave mistake. The teacher made a decision based on the student’s performance (or lack thereof) in class, and the teacher issued a grade. The teacher’s principal backed her up. While I teach in the community college rather than in the public schools, I face the same issues: I get students who believe (or whose parents believe) that since they have paid the tuition, they should automatically get the passing grade – it should be a money-back guarantee. A lot of them have a hard time with the concept that a college degree comes from doing academic work.

But now, if a teacher makes an academically sound decision to give a kid a flunking grade, that teacher might be in for extra heat. I wonder how many teachers, already stressed by the demands of the profession, might decide to avoid controversy by simply not flunking any students, no matter how much they deserve it.

Perhaps the biggest loser is the student at the heart of the matter. He has now learned that he can slack off and not complete tasks he has been requested to do. There will be no negative consequences. His parents will fix everything for him. That’s not going to be the case in the real world.

The teachers’ union has filed a grievance on behalf of the teacher in this case. I don’t always agree with what the union does, even if I am a member, but I’m totally behind this particular action.

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Blogger Carol Anne said...

Update: The school principal reports that he had two face-to-face meetings with the student's parents, and the teacher also had multiple meetings with the parents. So the parents' claim that they had no notification of their son's failing grades was totally bogus. Thus, the grounds upon which the higher-level administrator changed the student's grade were fraudulent.

Fri May 18, 12:38:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous Mom said...

There was an incident in Los Alamos very similar (parent on school board) but it didn't involve graduation.

And the situation gets worse. Four Students at the Catholic High School were caught cheating on a theology exam. Oh, well, it wasn't an ethics exam!

Fri May 18, 09:15:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Lydia Manx said...

Wow, I know something about this since my sister-in-law is a kindergarten teacher and says that the politics of telling parents about problems is beyond complicated. In California if the school diagnoses a mental illness or special needs student the school assumes the responsibility of the cost of teaching the child for life. There isn't proper funding for this naturally. And you all probably know where California ranks on education - picture a white fixture in the restroom and you have an idea.

Well, as the first teacher to see children my sister-in-law gets to identify and work around the system. She has to guide the parents carefully with comments like, "Hmmm, has you child always touched everything in the room twice before she sits down?" and wait for the parent to ask if that can be odd. Most parents don't want to see that their child isn't perfect so she is torn.

Sat May 19, 08:43:00 AM MDT  

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