A recent column in the WSJ entitled ‘Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results’ spurred conversation with some of my friends about our national educational system as a whole. Then, on the heels of McKinney ISD announcing its new grading policy a few weeks ago, our discussion turned more specifically to our own school district’s philosophy about grading.
The school district announced a new policy that was recently adopted by the school board. (See video above for the Superintendent’s explanation) According to the policy, a student will be allowed a “reasonable opportunity to redo an assignment or retake a test for which the student received a grade of 80 or lower. A grade of 80 will be the highest possible grade on a retest or redone assignment.” The student may be required to attend tutoring before being allowed to retest or redo an assignment.
Evidently, prior to the establishment of this policy, there was no consistency across the district with regard to re-takes. Some teachers allowed students to retake tests, others didn’t. Some teachers gave credit for the retake test grade up to 100 percent, others allowed their students to score a maximum of 70 on a retake. Some campuses gave the students the opportunity to retake a test, regardless of the score on the first test, while other campus policies were that a test could only be retaken if a student scored below a 70.
While I commend the district’s effort to put a consistent, more eqitable system into place, I have to say, I’m struggling to wrap my head around the entire concept of re-takes, re-dos, etc. Yep, I have issues. The first words that entered my thoughts were entitlement, accountability (or lack thereof), responsibility, fairness, and so on.
How does this policy prepare students to excel in the real world? Am I being old school? I wondered.
I remember the days when teachers were respected. They were strict, and it was practically unheard of for a student to talk back to a teacher. It wasn’t uncommon to hear comments from kids such as, “If I get in trouble at school, I’ll be in more trouble when I get home.” We were expected to tow the line, to make the grades, to complete homework and turn it in on time, to prepare for tests. There were no second chances if we failed a test. Our only hope if we took a test that we didn’t study for was that others in the class would be in the same boat and the teacher would grade on a curve.
I reread the article in the WSJ and was reminded that author Joanne Lipman referred to the “wringing of hands” by educators and parents over the fact that our educational system isn’t what it used to be. Our ranking in science and math on a global scale continues to decline. The U.S. now ranks 17th among developed countries in overall educational performance.
As Lipman puts it, “It’s time to revive old-fashioned education…..strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works.” She goes on to cite that “praise makes you weak, while stress makes you strong and that failure is an option. Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better.”
A few days after I read the WSJ article, I saw that Keller Youth Association football directors made a decision to stop awarding participation trophies. The decision made national news as the debate about whether giving a trophy for participation teaches kids that they are entitled to a trophy no matter what the outcome of the game. It seems that in today’s world, even kids learn entitlement – on and off the field. Are we also teaching kids that they are entitled to get good grades with little accountability on their part?
These topics spurred vehemently opinionated conversation among my friends. Comments such as, “Too many of today’s kids expect to reap dividends for doing little or no work. They expect an `A’ for effort, not results. I was reminded of someone I know in the corporate world who frequently says to his employees, “We are not in the best efforts business, we are in the results business.”
But as one of my friends put it, “our system of accountability is lacking.” Another acquaintance said that it’s important for kids to understand that there are consequences for not preparing. If a student fails a test, he or she should learn that the consequence is an `F.’ Others in the group agreed that part of growing up is learning that there are disappointments, that we must learn how to take responsibility for our actions and that there are consequences for our life decisions.
All valid arguments against the concept of retakes and redos, I’d say. Turns out that none of the educators I spoke with, and some work for MISD, were in support of retaking tests. Sounds like a philosophical dilemma, doesn’t it? I can’t wrap my head around this either.
Paradoxically, I found studies that show that although GPA’s are increasing, test scores have remained fairly constant and are actually declining slightly. Would it be unrealistic to expect that if GPA’s are on the upswing, naturally test scores should reflect that same phenomenon? Obviously, there is a disconnect somewhere.
I realize that much is different today. Technology keeps us connected 24/7/365. Cell phones are part of the classroom. Kids are involved in a myriad of activities. Athletics have become something close to a job in some cases. Competition to get into college is fierce and grades matter. Kids are often under stress to make the grades to get into the top universities and grades become so important that parents pressure school administrators and teachers to give their kids another chance. But is this really in their best interest? The goal should be learning, not just grades.
Don’t we want to allow our high school kids (and younger) to experience failure? Isn’t this exactly the time in their lives that they should be learning that failure is part of life? I’d much rather my kids learn this concept at an early age when hopefully the consequences aren’t as dire as say losing a job at the age of 30.
Why has it become such a negative for kids experience a failure? It’s ok to fail. As Ben Franklin said, “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” Kids can be taught that failure does not define a person. Parents and teachers both should send a clear message that failure, at times, is inevitable; it’s simply a fact of life. Let’s quit rescuing our kids and allow them the chance to live life. Parents, we can’t rescue them forever. Let’s face it, we won’t be around forever to do so. I know, as parents, we all want more for our kids. We want them to experience less heartache, less trauma, than we had growing up. But I think we know deep down that we are doing them a disservice if we don’t allow them to learn by experience. I think I’m stronger for my mistakes, for my failures and for my most difficult hurdles in life. I feel a sense of accomplishment at having navigated those failures and having come out on the other side. While I never got an `F’ on a test, however, had I done so, I hope it would have been a wake up call to spend more time studying, to get tutoring, or whatever the case may have been.
Failure is not something to demonize. We learn from it. We often learn the most from our failures. Failure teaches valuable life lessons. I failed my driver’s test the first time I took it. When the test required making a left turn onto a two-lane highway, I failed to pull into the closest lane, instead, making a wide turn into the far right lane. The Pennsylvania state trooper who was in the car with me said that making that turn was a dangerous move, so he couldn’t pass me. At 16, I remember the enormous sense of disappointment I felt at having to tell my dad that I didn’t pass the test, however, to this day, whenever I make a left turn onto a two or more lane highway, I remember those words and hopefully, I’m a safer driver.
I’ve heard the argument from some educators who support the concept of retaking tests and redoing projects, that test retakes are part of life. We have the opportunity to retake our driving tests, college boards, graduate school tests, and so on. While true, in my mind, that’s a different animal. First off, testing is a burgeoning industry, reaping somewhere between $400 to $700 million, according to PBS’ Frontline. The companies who benefit from the testing industry aren’t in it to teach kids responsibility, accountability and organization. No sir, this is big business.
I’ve also heard the argument that teachers need to give test retakes and allow projects to be redone so that kids learn. Practice makes perfect I’m told. We can’t learn unless we practice, thus, taking tests over gives students the practice they need. I buy this – I get it, and my brain is triggered by my years as an athlete, so here is my argument.
My college field hockey coach used to tell us repeatedly that “perfect practice makes perfect” on the field. Her goal was to get us to automatically transfer that perfect practice experience to game day situations. We would practice passing from halfbacks to forwards and between forwards, as we moved the ball down the field over and over. We wanted the drives to come as naturally during a game as they did during practice. But, come game day, we had only one chance to win or lose. No do-overs, no second chances.
Transferring that same perfect practice philosophy to the classroom means that homework, quizzes, class projects and extra credit are chances for students to practice, however, they must take the initiative to do so, sometimes on their own time. Teachers should, and usually do, have the mindset that they will do what is needed to help each student be successful. But that said, the student also has to make an effort to participate as a team with the teacher. Teachers can assign extra credit, extra projects, knowing that there are options to become a life preserver, but at the same time, students must not abdicate their responsibility.
I realize that in today’s stressful world of education, there are deadlines for curriculum completion. Teachers don’t have time to spend a week on each concept. But just as athletes spend extra time, often on their own, watching film of upcoming opponents, students may need to spend more time practicing on their own in order to really learn a concept. Perhaps compiling a compendium of work in a particular subject would be an additional aid.
I go back to the WSJ column and grasp the fact that I am a living example of the article’s title. One of my toughest teachers in high school was my English teacher, Mrs. Gavitt. She was a tough disciplinarian. She set the bar high as she presented us with a long list of novels that we would have to complete, and described the required notebook that ended up being about 6 inches think by the end of the year. I never got an A from her, (and I must confess I never finished reading Moby Dick) but I learned words like superfluous, purloined and hubris (and many others that I don’t use on a daily basis), and I learned how to write. As a result, I tested out of English comp my freshman year of college and thankfully, didn’t have to endure sitting through that class.
At the end of the day, perhaps we put too much emphasis on grades, and passing tests, and not enough emphasis on the learning. Who knows? I digress and that will be fodder for another discussion.
In her column ‘Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail’, teacher Jessica Lahey says, ‘We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.”
I couldn’t agree more.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from your failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s OK to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.” H. Stanley Judd