Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Still Not Just Me

I don't know who this anonymous science teacher is. I don't know anything about his school. Here's what Mr. Lawrence noticed with a glance at the grade book:
This, however, really caught my attention: out of 23 students in the one science
class, fifteen were given "F"s. That means there were eight in the entire class
that actually were passing, and their grades ranged from "A" to "C."

As I said, all I know about this situation is what you see quoted above. What I can say is that the experience is familiar, and at least somewhat typical, at my own school. I don't know about every teacher's grades, but occasionally, from time to time, a coincidental peek can be arranged.

I've often wondered what to call this sort of distribution. The traditional bell curve doesn't seem to apply so much these days. I flirted with "hockey stick," shades of global warming and all that, but there's that dip that Mr. Lawrence noted. The no "D" dip. You get a majority of F's, and a scattering of A's, B's and C's.

How does this happen? Isn't it common sense that there are a few exceptional people at both ends, with the majority in the middle? Maybe it's time we accept that our society is changing, and the old rules don't apply. The old rules don't apply because the old values don't apply so much in many places. Some places where old values don't apply include inner city schools, and one of the values that doesn't apply is getting an education.

Enough with the philosophy; let's try something a little more tangible. How can fifteen out of twenty-three fail? You might as well ask how less than half of kids will do an assignment as simple as "Tell about your favorite movie." Is it getting clearer? The simplest, most basic assignments often have less than 50% completion rates. Mr. Lawrence asks if they are lazy. My answer is yes. How lazy? What if you have thirty-two kids in your class, and twenty-six of them refuse to bring their textbooks? Mr. Lawrence asks if the teacher is a hard case (or perhaps a head case)? My answer is still no.

Students often ask, "Hey teacher, why did you give me an F on my report card?" The answer is simple: students earn the grade they deserve. That's all there is to it. Students earn the grade they deserve. You can say it too; it doesn't hurt. Students earn the grade they deserve.

Let's start with a sample class of thirty-two students, with eighteen failing. One common cut-off point for grades is that 60% is a D- and anything below that is an F. The average failing student is not some poor struggling soul who turns everything in and is getting 55% on each assignment. A student like that is rare, with probably only one or two of them in our sample class. The majority of failing students, let's call it thirteen out of eighteen, are likely to be failing with something less than 30% on their grade. These students also do not turn in everything, and just get 30% on each assignment. These are students who turn in a few things here and there, but when you look at their line on the grade book, you notice that they have thirty to forty zeroes out of fifty assignments. They have turned in only the simplest assignments, almost exclusively assignments that were done in class and turned in the same day. Of course, for the student who refuses to bring backpack, book, pencil and paper, the notion of them being able to actually carry something home and return it the next day, or even the next week on longer term assignments, becomes rather laughable. Then you have the very special student who does bring paper and pencil in his backpack, but can't be bothered to take them out in class. Suddenly a fifteen out of twenty-three, or eighteen out of thirty-two failure rate doesn't seem so outlandish.

Students earn the grade they deserve.

Now, thirteen Do-Nothing F's, plus one or two Bell-Curve F's, still leaves me with three or four F's in our sample class. We might call them the High Functioning Lazies. The HFL's are kids who do most of the work, and would likely get C's or D's, with an occasional low B thrown in, except for one thing. They won't turn in an essay or term paper or long term project that counts for fifteen or twenty or twenty-five percent of their grade, and suddenly that comfortable 73% C becomes an uncomfortable 53% F. Please let me be clear. With the exception of the Bell-Curve F's, and I'm probably overstating their numbers, all of these other F's are just people who didn't feel like turning things in.

Now you'll say, "But Professor, little Billy says the work is too hard." Well of course he says that. And as any parent knows (and most non-parents, for that matter), kids will lie to get out of trouble. Mom and Dad sit Billy down to demand why he isn't doing his work. Billy knows which way the wind blows, and he's not about to tell them he didn't do the work because he was playing video games. So he says he didn't understand it. He says it was too hard. But if you ask Billy anonymously, he'll tell you he didn't feel like it. I will also submit to you that if you could secretly monitor students, you would find that "too hard" is equivalent to "didn't make an honest effort to learn, practice, and study." It's high school folks. Any kid that makes an honest effort will pass every class.

The wonder of it all is that we don't have more people like this science teacher. We've heard reports recently that SAT scores don't seem to correspond to GPA's anymore. Mr. Lawrence mentions grade inflation, which plays a part in this disconnect. Would you want to be stuck explaining why you gave Billy an A in math, only to see him get 300 on the math SAT? In this age of chronic lawsuits, do you want to be on the stand being questioned about how you passed Billy even when he can't read?

Just because many students honestly expect that by showing up, they deserve to pass with a D (after all, that's what we taught them with eight years of social promotion), doesn't mean you're obligated to give them that grade.

Science is, well, a science. It's not so much about emotions and expressing yourself and feelings as an art class or a language arts class might be. I will submit that while some (many? most?) teachers have some sort of a nurturing, nanny, mothering attitude about the kids, science teachers, being a little more grounded in the rational world, might suffer this effect to a lesser degree. Passing Billy because you feel bad for him doesn't help Billy. Passing Billy because your class is the one class he needs to graduate doesn't help Billy either. I know it sounds cruel and painful and horribly unfair, but the truth is that some kids simply will not pass.

And sometimes the truth hurts. No matter how much it hurts, pretending it doesn't exist doesn't make it false.

One of the things you don't want to hear the kids say about you is that you're nice. Why? Because after "nice" comes things like "that teacher lets us talk all the time" or "we don't do anything in that class." It's the mean teachers who "never let us talk" and "make us do work all the time." Which teacher do you want your kid to have?

Let's look at an honest opinion about the teacher from a B student in the class:
He told me it was just "really tough" and the teacher doesn't "hand out" good

Which do you think this student will value more, the B in this science class, or the easy A he gets in basket weaving class? Mr. Lawrence notes that if he were a student, for the sake of his GPA he would transfer to another class rather than take this teacher, which seems to lead to this unfortunate conclusion: your GPA is more important than actually learning something. Hmmm. Isn't that one of the roots of grade inflation?
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