A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Sigh. Some people just make me shake my head

I discovered this little gem while I was reading my October 2005 issue of NEA Today magazine in the "Talkback" section:

Zero Inspiration
Ignorance they say is bliss, but that is no excuse to take it out on students because of your antiquated, outdated rules on giving a zero. ("Talkback," September) Every time you give a zero, you skew the results negatively. To stop the skewing because of a large difference between a 64 (a D-grade) and 0 you should never give a grade lower than 10 points below your lowest passing grade (say, a 55). With that, the student can work to improve his numerical grade and that equates to "fairness." Russell Cadman, Union Gap, Washington

Wow. Where to begin? There's so much there with which to amuse oneself.

First, Russell, let me say that your use of punctuation and mathematics indicates that you were one of those-- cough-- 55 percenters in these two fields. How lovely that you are inflicting your ignorance upon a helpless generation a member of my profession.

Second, let's examine a hypothetical situation.

Student X does no work during most of the semester, for which he receives a 55% in Russell's class. He turns in 3 assignments in the last week of the term, thus making his final grade a 70- a C.

Student Y has difficulty in the subject at hand, but he busts his hump, staying up late at night, going to tutoring after school and so on. Sometimes he earns a 60%, sometimes he earns an 80%. At the end of the semester, he has earned a 70%- a C.

Student Z has great mastery of the subject, works diligently, and earns a grade of 100%-- an A. (Student Z could take over for the teacher on days he is absent.)

So here are a few questions for you, Russell:

1) Would you want Student X wiring your house, collecting your garbage, teaching your children, or performing surgery upon you?

2) How does it feel to make students Y and Z feel like the stupid ones in this scenario? Have YOU succeeded (I assume that your numbers racket will eventually be justified as a quest for self-esteem) in whatever it was you wanted to accomplish here?

3) Student X did 15% of the work and got the same grade as student Y, who showed mastery of 70% of the material. Why should student Y drive himself or deprive himself from pleasure-seeking for the same result as student X?

4) Does everybody get 55% added to their grades, or is it just the lazy? If so, how do you still base your grades on a 100 point scale?

5) Does anyone pay attention or even bother to show up to your classes most of the time? Do you actually care if anybody learns anything?

6) Why are you in a classroom, Russell? What is your purpose? Please think long and hard about this before you waste another minute of another student's time.

F has a range of 59% in most grading systems because we want people who "pass" to demonstrate that they have learned a majority of the material-- even a supermajority. It's not just to be mean.

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At 10/2/05, 12:22 PM, Blogger Fred said...

Basically, you got it right. This encourages kids to do nothing because they'll figure out how to manipulate the system to pass.

I'm glad you posted this. I knew I didn't like the NEA, I just didn't have a tangible reason. Now I do.

Stay out of my classroom, Mr. Cadman.

At 10/2/05, 6:10 PM, Blogger The Mad Teacher said...

It's not that I don't get what you're saying, Ms. Cornelius. And it's not that I don't think the NEA writer was anything but arrogant and condescending in how he made his point. But there _is_ another side to the story...

For instance, consider the plight of a teacher like me, in a school like Smallville. We're on a long block system, with most courses running for a half a year...but my course--freshman English--is a full year course. Which is lovely, and not the point, but please bear with me.

Let's think of a student--I'll call him Solomon, just to be ironic. Solomon is a total slacker. In fact, this is Solomon's second try at freshman English, because he did absolutely no work the first time he took it. Needless to say, Solomon is not likely to be a model student in his, ah, day-to-day comportment. But I'm a dedicated teacher, and I keep plugging away, attempting to engage Solomon in actually giving it some kind of effort. It's an on-again, off-again thing for ol' Sol... some weeks, he kinda shows up willing to work; other weeks, he doesn't do jack.

Come midyear, Solomon's numerical grade may be so low that he cannot, mathematically, pass my course. This is not an unusual scenario... nor, you will say, undeserved. And, as far a Sol is concerned, let's say I agree with you.

But now Sol is signed up for another full semester of a course he knows he _cannot_ get credit for. And Smallville High is...well, small. We do not have any elective courses we can transfer him into at midyear. So there he will sit, until June, with no motivation at all to even try in my class.

And, in my experience at least, when the Solomons of the world have given up on a class, they decide the best thing to do with it is to sabotage it for everyone else. Yeah, Sol is gonna be in ISS or on an external suspension for a good portion of the time. But whenever he is in my class, he's going to be doing his utmost to disrupt it, to justify himself in his own mind for his failure by showing how stupid the subject area is.

It may not be "fair" to students X and Y to allow Sol a chance to raise his grade to a passing one via a last minute effort. But how fair is it to them to make them share a classroom with someone whose sole focus in my class is to annoy everyone else around him?

Though there are limits to such a policy, a lower limit on how far a student's grade is allowed to drop does allow students to rejoin the class even at a late date. And not only does that offer Solomon himself a chance at learning a little something in spite of his initial bad attitude, it makes it a lot easier to protect the rest of us from his bad attitude grown much, much worse.

Admittedly, adequate funding for Smallville and other schools wouild be a better option. But that's not one I've got any degree of control over. I do have _some_ control over how I grade individual students. And, in spite of the validity of the points you make against it, I may yet, uh, shall we say "lean into" a student's grades where I think it may be in all of our best interest to do that.

Hope that doesn't lose me all respect in your book... But, at the end of the day, I'm a bigger fan of what I can make work than I am of "fair" in any abstract way.

And I kind of doubt that Sol is going to get into Harvard Med with his D- in my class, anyway.

At 10/2/05, 8:12 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

He may not get into Harvard Med with a D-, but he may end up an electrician, or a garbageman, or a mechanic, or a cook at McDonald's. And in all these positions, a belief that you don't have to meet requirements-- like, say, even something simple like washing your hands after going to the crapper or being able to use math to determine if you will overload a circuit which could possibly set a house on fire when they put Christmas light up-- are hardly liable to make society a better place.

And what kind of a sad commentary is it when teachers have to use fake grades to deal with classroom behavior?

So what happens in the next class when ol' Solomon doesn't want to be bothered? Will he get a bribe grade just to keep him quiet?

We in the education profession are getting hammered by the public when they see illiterates with diplomas. And rightly so.

I also don't get how English is not taught by the semester in your school, but I am totally ignorant of this kind of block system. But why don't you have the right to refer students who disrupt the class to the administration? They have a part to play in the denigration of public schools if they are more concerned about keeping Solomon's troublesome body on the premises than about holding him accountable for his choices. He is not a victim. He has made a choice.

And what really looms before me is the vision of Solomon, a decade frokm now, claiming that he didn't have the opportunity to a quality education. And in this set-up, he may be right.

Giving him his grade that he has earned is not giving up on him. Giving up on him is passing him along, because the teacher is saying that he can never learn the material. By not holding him accountable, he never will. And I believe that an ability to read and write and think-- as demanded by a good English class-- is something that is not just a nice frill, but a vital component of an education, as well as a skill for life.

Yes, the country needs ditch-diggers, too. But you can't make a living at it, especially if you are undercut by illegal immigrants who are willing to work for two bucks an hour. Schools should make sure kids have options in life. Giving up on a fourteen or fifteen year old is tragic, just so he will behave. How sad.

Please do not think I am picking on you. I am deeply distressed by your situation. We all have to decide what we have to do to get along-- you, Solomon, his guardians, the administration. But if the scheduling is the cause of the failure of Solomon to learn the material, then the scheduling needs to be challenged and changed.

At 10/2/05, 9:57 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Good comments. WHAT do you expect from NEA Today? (or any other touchie-feelie union rag?)

At 10/5/05, 10:47 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

In my school district, we have a 50% minimum rule. We can give a student a zero for not handing in a given assignment, but at the end of the grading period, if the student's average is actually 23%, they are automatically assigned a 50%.

Yes. A student can do literally nothing and receive 50% for that effort. I've actually had students who were virtually never in my class, being sent off for disciplinary reasons having nothing to do with my class, and they've received 50% for sitting in detention.

Why do we do this? Why, we can't discourage our students? If they get less then a 50% their self esteem might be bruised and they might give up. But wait; there's more!

Our final semester tests count for as much as 25% of a student's average for the semester. I've had bright kids game the system by doing nothing at all and then doing well enough on the final to pass.

Yes, we're surely teaching them something, aren't we? It has always been my feeling that if a student is absolutely determined to fail and is willing to expend enormous energy toward that goal, who am I to stand in his way? Yet, sadly, I must.

We don't do any student a favor by encouraging them to do nothing and be nothing. Another tragic consequence of the self esteem movement. May it find its way onto the ash heap of history yesterday.

At 10/6/05, 12:13 AM, Blogger Kirk Parker said...

I did appreciate the fact the Mr. Cadman used scare quotes around the word "fairness." Heh.

At 10/6/05, 4:55 PM, Anonymous Frau E said...

Well, if you hate the idea of giving a 50 for 0 work, you'll really hate this. A few years ago our foreign language department adopted a policy which says that if the student scores higher on his/her final exam than the average of the three grading periods plus the final exam, the student receives the final exam grade as the final grade for the course. So theoretically a student could have three Fs, then make an A on the final and receive an A for the course.
To the other departments this is absolute craziness, but it works well for us. It prevents students who make an F in the first grading period and from becoming disruptions for the rest of the semester, because there is ALWAYS still a chance of passing. No excuses for giving up. Our final exams are cumulative in that they test all the language skills that should have been acquired during the course, so we feel fairly confident that if the student passed the test they have the skills.
And as to the question of why disruptive students are not simply removed from the class, our principal would love to do that just as soon as NCLB isn't tracking our graduation rates. Until then, we have no choice but to make sure that every student who comes in as a freshman graduates somehow. We won't just give them a diploma, but we'll give them every chance we can.
Oh- and I've never actually had a student make all Fs and come out with an A on the exam. In fact, I've never had any student to improve by more than one letter grade and those who did were on the borderline to begin with (a high C became a low B, for example).

At 10/6/05, 10:47 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

So if a policy never is applied, is it a real policy, or are you just kidding yourselves and the kids? It's a rare kid who can ace a final after blowing off the hard but mundane work.

I do not believe in tricking kids. That's why they believe my weird stories-- because they know I don't lie to them.

I had a chat with a mom tonight at parent conferences. I have her son in class and he has a 49%-- which in MY world is an F. Period.

He is a very nice young man. He is polite. He is respectful. We have very nice conversations. He is in no way interested in doing his work or learning the material.

He will not pass my class as long as this is his M.O.

I do not simply read the book to them. We engage in deep thinking and deep reflection. Even kids who fail know I care deeply for them. But that doesn't mean I shelter them or lie to them about the consequences which must needs spring from their choices.

Here's a little secret: I actually have far fewer failures than anyone else teaching US history in my school. Last year, I had a total of six semester Fs among the 110 kids in my regular classes last year over two semesters. All but one of the kids who earnede semester Fs readily admitted that they had completely eqarned their Fs. The other one thought shen could give me a leather purse in exchange for a D-.

Students know when they are on the receiving end of a great big lie, even if it's a lie that will benefit them, and they WILL NOT RESPECT YOU FOR IT!!!! Consider:

1. Kids know in their hearts when they haven't done the job.

2. Kids depend upon you to tell them the truth. Their parents will obfuscate. We should not dissemble when it comes to assessing a kid's progress. And that's what a grade should be: an assessment, not a "self-esteem" builder.

At 10/8/05, 7:34 PM, Blogger Sean said...

I have a year of experience as a public school teacher (I have since gone to grad school), so I am familiar with the pressure to assign grades higher than earned, even if that grade is still an F. The justification given by "the mad teacher" here in the comments section is the most common one I have heard. I have a better solution: break up the credit given for the course into smaller (marking period sized) chunks. In such a situation, the student who fails the first quarter of Freshman English still has 3 quarters for which to earn credit, no matter how low his first quarter grade was. This would be a minimal change for the teachers (they already keep, and usually report such grades anyway), good students would not be penalized, there would be less pressure for "dumbing down", and the administration could work out creative ways to make this work in the context of their own school. Basically, I think credit should be given for work that is done at a satisfactory level, even if it can not be sustained by the student over very long (2 semester) periods.


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