Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mark the Date

Today I finally received the first of what are sure to be many similar inquiries in the coming two-plus weeks until classes end. One of my students, who has basically done no work since October and whose grade average is somewhere in the mid-teens, came up to me this morning and asked, "What can I do to bring my grade up?"

"Let me make sure I understand you correctly," I replied. "Today is the 29th of May. You've spent the past nine months doing no work, sleeping through every class, coming in 20 minutes late, chewing gum, talking to other students, showing no interest in anything we've been doing. And you are coming to me now to ask how to bring your grade average up?"

"Well," came the inevitable platitude, "I really need to pass your class."

I told him bluntly, "You are not going to pass this class."

Most teachers, I imagine, would not have been so frank. Many would probably be inclined to actually give this student a chance to pass the class for the year, even though he did almost no work for nine months. I myself have never been inclined to do that; neither am I any longer inclined to give students like this the illusion that they have a chance to pass (in order to get them to keep coming to class and maybe do their work from now on) when in fact they do not.

I have discussed in earlier posts the fallacy of students thinking they can make up for nine months of inactivity and willful negligence by writing one essay or taking one test in June. Take another look at the Twenty Questions Common-Sense Quiz, particularly Question 18. It is high time students are compelled to accept that the choices they make from day to day are what determine their academic outcomes. Where kids are conditioned to believe that they can do nothing for nine months and then "make up for it" in June, they have no incentive to do their work throughout the year.

I had another student like this three or four years ago, a senior, who came to me with tear-filled eyes on the next-to-last day of school, while I was taking my posters down and closing up my classroom, and said, "Umm...Mr. Braiman, umm...Can I talk to you about my grade?"

"I don't see what there is to talk about," I replied.

"See, umm...I really need to graduate, so, there any way I could get a 65?"

"You came to class seven times this semester. You wrote a grand total of four entries in your notebook. You did none of the four writing projects. Your actual grade average is twelve. You are not going to pass."


"End of discussion."

Some readers will surely accuse me of being insensitive, cruel, cold-hearted, etc. Others will immediately demand to know what I did over the course of the semester to get this student to come to class, do her work, and pass, and will doubtless be dissatisfied with my answer and tell me I should have given her what she wanted, or at least given her "another chance."


Even disregarding the fact that this student had been in my class the previous year, and therefore knew precisely what the requirements and expectations would be, she chose not to meet them, or attempt to meet them. She chose not to come to class and not to do her work. That is, and should be, the extent of the discussion. She made the wrong choices, and those choices led to the bad result. Same for the boy who approached me this morning.

Students like this need to have their bad choices come back to bite them. I have never accepted and will never accept that every student should have a chance to pass the class right up until, and even after, the end of the school year. Some students choose to fail almost immediately, and continue to make that choice day after day after day until they reach the point of no return. No good can come from rewarding such bad decision-making by rendering it moot.

I've been saying for years that most students only care about their grades on the day they get their report cards. Students should care about their grades every minute of every class, every day. Anything less than that, and they forfeit the right to complain.

Of course there are apologists out there who will tell me I'm wrong, that I'm being mean and unfair and I should be more "understanding" about the children's "issues."


Maybe it makes me a bad teacher. Maybe it's better that I am leaving the profession, so kids don't keep getting their feelings hurt. Fine. But as long as I'm here, I refuse to feel sorry for kids. I refuse to coddle them, to tolerate their self-indulgent excuse-making, to un-do their mistakes for them, to send them the message that it's OK to make irrational, counter-intuitive, negligent, destructive and downright stupid decisions from day to day throughout the year, as long as they wake up at the end and pretend to care.

Just recently I finally saw the highly-regarded Brad Bird animated film The Iron Giant. One of the central themes in that film is, "You are what you choose to be." Students need to be much more conscious of, and much more careful about, the choices they make. As I've written previously, we do them no favors by teaching them that their feelings matter but their choices don't.


f.x. said...

the only thing more disturbing and more pathetic than the student's groveling, is the groveling of the adult/parent (defined chronologically & biologically rather than maturationally)...i was never as much concerned about the decisions my students made as i was concerned about their process of making them...probable consequences always need to be examined before any decision is made...the last 2 1/2 weeks of school is a bit late to be awakening those consequences...

on a somewhat related issue; the current movement to "round up" failures to a grade of 50% is totally "over the top"'s akin to believing that should one decide to jump off the empire state building; one should only fall half way so one has another chance... it doesn't work in nature and shouldn't work in academia!!!

most certainly don't believe that you are a "bad teacher" because you have rational and consistent standards!!! the profession could use more like you...try to enjoy (if not tolerate) what little time is left...there is a light at the end of the tunnel...

Jay Braiman said...

on a somewhat related issue; the current movement to "round up" failures to a grade of 50% is totally "over the top"

In my school, the lowest grade I can give is a 55. In another school I was allowed to go as low as 40, but only for truants. Believe me, I really wish I could use the actual numbers of kids whose grade averages are below 20.

I had a student a couple of years ago who did not come to class and did no work in the first two months of the semester, and got a 55 on her first report card. After that she started coming to class and doing her work, but on the second report card she also got a 55. Naturally, the student and parent came storming into my classroom to demand why the child's grade had not gone up; how she could possibly get the same grade after doing all that work.

"Your average has gone up," I explained, "just not enough to pass. Your average at the end of the first marking period was about 8. It's now about 45. But I can't give you an 8, or a 45, on the report card. The lowest I can give you is a 55. You've raised your average about 40 points, but it's still below 55."

I don't think they understood. They naturally went and complained to my supervisor, who thankfully understood and took my side. Most supervisors, I imagine, would not have; I had two in particular at other schools who certainly would not have.

One factor here is the "entitlement grading model" I wrote about at length in earlier posts. Read these:

Redefining Failure
Fish Story

f.x. said...

let me see if i have this your current school, you could get a grade of 75 in the first semester and then disappear the rest of the year and still pass??? school policy average (75+55=65) versus true average(75+0=38)...YIKES!!! and i thought the "sub-prime" debacle was scandalous!!!

Jay Braiman said...

No, no, of course not. First, second and third marking-period grades are submitted by teachers; the school does not compute the average. In fact, there is no separate grade for the third marking period and the whole semester; the former counts as the latter. (NYC high schools reorganize in February; the Fall and Spring terms count as separate classes, e.g., 10th graders have English 3 in the fall and English 4 in the Spring).

Your comment does, however, bring to mind an important point: That most people (meaning parents and students, and even teachers in some cases) do not know or understand exactly how the report card system works, i.e., what the individual marking period grades are supposed to mean and how they are each arrived at. Students therefore develop their own (self-serving) ideas about what counts toward what, hence the declarations I have heard from kids over the years that "the first marking period doesn't count," and the arguments I get from kids that they shouldn't fail because the work they didn't do was "in the first marking period."

I've always used cumulative grading in my classes; i.e., calculating the average in a continuing fashion from day 1, making the first- and second- marking period grades whatever the average is as of that point. (For example, the first marking period grade is for work assigned in Sepember and the first part of October; second marking period grade is for Setpember, October, and most of November; third marking period grade is for the entire semester, September through January.)

The problem is that not all teachers do it this way. The main misconception concerns the third marking period; many teachers don't realize that the third marking period grade goes on the student's transcript as the grade for the ENTIRE COURSE. Whether consciously or not, students take advantage of this misperception, do little or no work in September and October, and still expect to pass if they show up and do their work in January.

I try my best to educate my students on my grading policies and dispel these kinds of myths at the beginning of the school year. It doesn't always work.

f.x. said...

sometimes grading policies just make my hair hurt!!! in essence, report cards and grades should be a means of showing (both objectively and accurately) the progress a student has, or has not, made in a particular gift a student a "50" (no matter the good intentions) is to corrupt the process for both observer and becomes an exercise in dishonesty...

continuing today's rant, i have watched my former school district "devolve" from delivering an educational package to delivering "warm fuzzies"...several years ago, a "gifted and talented" (okay, so it does smack of elitism, but then again, some students are gifted and talented)program was instituted for our most able students...later, in an attempt to be more "inclusive", eligibility standards were lowered necessitating a name change to "enrichment" (always thought that was our part of our job anyway), our most able students are excluded because their presence in the program is too intimidating to the others' just boggles the mind...

please forgive the length and passion of this "comment" (in my defense, i will admit to three cups of coffee this morning!!!), but it seems that we have lost our way in education and no one is out there looking for "the yellow brick road" and we're sure "not in kansas anymore"...

Jay Braiman said...

The self-esteem movement has definitely taken over public education. That's the underlying premise of most of my blog articles. You are absolutely right that schools are no longer in the business of actually educating kids. When everything we do is ultimately directed toward making children (and parents) "feel good," we often have to cast logic, reason and common sense out the window.

In today's schools, children are essentially being taught self-indulgence instead of responsibility and citizenship. This became especially clear when I visited my alma mater, the New York Military Academy, last month for my 20th-year Alumni Weekend. In talking to some of the cadets I found them to be much better-behaved and respectful than typical high-schoolers, and I explained to them that the most important thing they would get out of a military academy experience was that sense of responsibility that their public-school peers would wind up lacking.

All these ridiculous buzzwords and euphemisms ("inclusiveness," "encouragement," "enrichment," "deferred success," &c), as well as the "Enron accounting" so many teachers are compelled to use to compute grades, really are of no help. All we are doing is promoting short-term self-esteem at the expense of long-term intellectual and moral development. I don't see the cycle ending any time soon.