Mr. Jones looked patronizingly at the teacher standing resolutely before his desk. “I see, Mrs. Smith, that Johnny received a ‘zero’ on his social studies project. Can you explain to me how that happened? Surely his project was not that poorly done.” Having been in this situation before, Mrs. Smith replied with grit and determination, “Actually, Mr. Jones, Johnny did not turn in a project at all. I have worked with him to make sure he understood the assignment, met with his mom to ensure they had all the materials they needed for the project, and given him three extra weeks to turn it in. He received a ‘zero’ because he did not do the work.”
“I respect your position, Mrs. Smith, but surely you understand that a grade of ‘zero’ is demoralizing and discouraging to a child.” The principal stood and walked around his desk to stand face-to-face with the experienced educator. “Let’s give him a 50 instead. That will do wonders for his final grade.”
“But what will Johnny learn if he is simply handed a grade that he does not deserve? What about the students whose projects were not very well done but at least were turned in? They received a 50 based on their effort and proficiency. Why should Johnny receive the same for doing absolutely nothing?” As she spoke, she was ushered to the doorway.
Mr. Jones made a cutting gesture with his hands as if to say this conversation in general, and her rebuttals in particular, were a waste of time. “Now, now, let’s don’t make a big deal out of this. I’m sure he’ll do better next time, and it really makes things simpler to give his grade a little extra boost. Imagine how much work it would be to fail him!” That being said, he closed his office door with finality.
Defeated yet again, Mrs. Smith released a long sigh and turned to walk slowly towards her classroom, required to do as bidden, and destined to regret it.
While the scenario above is fictional, the situation is one that has become all too common in today’s public education system. It is, I believe, one of the major issues currently affecting education. Low-achieving students are passed year after year, from grade to grade, in an effort to portray a picture that is not quite what it seems. Reasons, when given, are typically offered in sharp, defensive tones. “If we let so-and-so student fail, it will look bad on our school.” “It will take mounds of paperwork to let so-and-so student fail! We already have too much work to do!” “We can’t let so-and-so student fail; how upset his parents would be!” The hastily delivered explanations usually have a ring of truth to them. In reality, there is little to be said for sending a failing fourth-grader to be successful with fifth-grade work. Or a failing Algebra I student to pass Algebra II. Inevitably, these are the children who will fall through the cracks. And that is where the real trouble begins.
Do not misunderstand me. I absolutely am not advocating the attitude that says, “Oh well, I’ve done all I can do for so-and-so student. She’ll just have to repeat this grade.” Such is the teacher or administrator who should not be in a position of authority to begin with. My argument with the current trend is the following: if a child is completely unsuccessful at producing grade-appropriate work after numerous thoughtful, reflective, and continuous attempts by the school community to help him or her learn in the way most effective for the student, he or she should fail. Period. The pupil’s grades, passing or failing, should reflect nothing more or less than the student’s performance.
When a student is consistently performing below level, the classroom teacher should reflect on his or her teaching methods and make adjustments based on what is most effective for the child. Other plans of action and interventions also may be suitable. The objective is to meet the student where he or she is and work from there with a mutual goal of success. But in the event that a student, such as “Johnny,” has been offered every assistance available, yet refuses to put forth effort, what other recourse is there but to allow him to reap the rewards of what he has sown? It could be the greatest lesson he will ever learn.