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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/18/2010

The problem with abolishing the 'D'

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Joe Bower, a teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, who has his own blog called “for the love of learning” on which he challenges “traditional' schooling.” This piece appeared on his site.

By Joe Bower
I read in the New York Times that Mount Olive School District in New Jersey has abolished the ’D’.

Sounds progressive. Their reasoning is: "Who wants to pay for ’D’ quality plumbing? Fly the skies with a ’D’ -rated pilot? Settle for a ’D’ restaurant?" Good intentioned if you ask me - they just want better for their children.

But there’s a problem.

I fear that the Mount Olive School District has just doomed itself to mediocrity, if it is lucky, or very likely something much worse.

Let me explain; it might not be what you think.

Let’s pretend Mount Olive School District accomplishes its ultimate goal and every single one of the 389 student who had a ’D’ before this abolishment ’pulled up their socks’ and achieved a ’C’. What would the reaction be? Is it plausible the media would run banner headlines giving props to the teachers and students for working so hard?

Or...

Let’s pretend Mount Olive School District successfully raises the bar but not one of the 389 students who had a ’D’ could meet the standards and they all received an ’F’. What would the reaction be? Is it plausible Arne Duncan would run a joint press conference with the student’s parents congratulating the school for maintaining such high standards?

Neither ’what if’ is plausible.

But that’s the problem.

If all those kids get ’Cs’ instead of ’Ds’, Mount Olive School District will be accused of academic inflation and lowering the bar to an unacceptable level. After all, the tougher standards movement is defined as much by the number of students who are proficient as the one’s who are not proficient - in other words, raise the bar means we can only measure successful children when others are made to fail.

If all those kids get ’Fs’ instead of ’Ds’, Mount Olive School District will be labeled a failure and placed on a kind of academic probation. Under the Obama administration, they may be forced to close down schools; replace public schools with charters; remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.

After all, look at all those ’Fs’! They’ve obviously failed to provide children with the necessary education to achieve an acceptable grade. (Then again teacher assigned grades play absolutely no role in assessing schools under Bush/Obama’s No Child Left Behind or in Alberta, Canada, for that matter- but then why is anyone worried about these grades in the first place if they’re not important enough to even consider when assessing the quality of our education system?)

If these are worse-case scenarios for Mount Olive School District, what’s the best-case scenario?

Despite good intentions, Mount Olive School District’s best-case scenario involves some of those ’Ds’ turning to ’Fs’ while others become ’Cs’. In other words, they’re best off if they fly under the radar smothered in a cloak of mediocrity while they regress closer and closer to the mean.

This is exactly why tougher standards, grading, test scores and competition don’t make schools better - they simply make schools more like their mediocre neighbors.

Alfie Kohn summarizes this whole mess up nicely:

Despite its sugar-coated public-relations rhetoric, the whole standards-and-accountability movement is not about helping all children to become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. Just the opposite: it is an elaborate sorting device, separating wheat from chaff. And don’t ask what happens to the chaff.

This entire debacle might be funny if it weren't so damn sad.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | August 18, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Grades, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  abolishing the D, grades, grading students, how to grade students, joe bower, mount olive schools  
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Comments

This Canadian educator better stay in Canada.

He would be out of place here in the United States where educators have abandoned common sense.

How else explain American educators accepting the idea in 2001 of the government mandating that every American child will be proficient by 2014?

The rule for American educators is not common sense but the ability to accept the absurd. They have been doing it since 2001 and practice has so far made them perfect at their willingness to accept the absurd. Witness their acceptance of Race To The Top.

Stay in Canada. Educators lose their ability to think in the United States. It may be the water.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 18, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Yet another example of sloppy thinking from yet another educator.

He writes "This is exactly why tougher standards, grading, test scores and competition don’t make schools better - they simply make schools more like their mediocre neighbors"

I get the impression that he doesn't understand what regression to the mean means and he can't seem to distinguish between 'average' as a statistic and 'average/mediocre' as a value judgment.

A Navy SEAL recruit is statistically likely to be 'average' with respect to his fellow recruits. After roughly half the recruits wash out a SEAL is still statistically likely to be 'average' with respect to the corps of SEALS. This hardly implies that the SEAL is 'mediocre' as the word is commonly used.

The link in the article leads to comments about hospitals being judged by mortality scores. While such actions may not lead to any positive outcomes, the medical world uses many standardized methods of judging therapies, medications, and training methods. Leave it to education to remain blind to anything that can be positively gained through standardized measurement.

As far as eliminating the D grade the author pretty much misses the boat too. Most schools 'frown' (to put it mildly) on failing or holding back students, no matter how little they know or how lazy they may be. Therefore, the lowest default grade is a D. Most students know this and that they can get at least a D with almost no effort or attention whatsoever. With just a little effort, a student of average intelligence can get a C.

By eliminating the D the minimum grade will now be a C, attainable with no effort.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 18, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Yet another example of sloppy thinking from yet another educator.

He writes "This is exactly why tougher standards, grading, test scores and competition don’t make schools better - they simply make schools more like their mediocre neighbors"

Posted by: physicsteacher
................................
Good schools system can be characterized as having good standards, fair standardized tests, and usually good test scores.

These grow out of a good school system over time and do not magically turn a poor school system into a good school system.

Tests simply measure learning. Having a difficult test by itself will not simply improve learning.

The military does not set up tests to produce good soldiers. The military sets up training programs to produce good soldiers. Tests are then set up to evaluate soldiers based upon the training program they have taken.

The so called sloppy thinking of the author is quite clear to anyone that understands that tougher standards, tougher grading, and tougher test scores in themselves are meaningless.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 18, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

The SEALS have a 50% washout rate. One class is reputed to have had a 100% washout rate. Yet the SEALS are regarded as the best trained in the world. By the reasoning of Bower and Kohn only a training program that admits everyone and washes out no one is good.

Is everyone who wants to be a surgeon cut out to be one? Is everyone who wants to be an engineer cut out to be one? Is everyone who wants to be a rock/tv star cut out to be one? If you answered 'no' to any one of these then you implicitly think that some people will flunk/wash out. Bower and Kohn live in a fantasy world where everyone is above average at everything.

Perhaps you don't think some people should be teachers. Perhaps you think I shouldn't be one. This raises an important point: If I don't belong in a classroom then I should have flunked out of my Ed school masters program. Yet I got A's. Ed schools practice what people like Bower and Kohn preach. They accept everyone, give degrees and credentials out like Halloween candy, and then let the school districts do the dirty work of weeding people out. If Kohn had his way all professions would work like this.

Sometimes getting an F or a D is the best thing that can happen. It lets you know that A) this subject isn't your forte, B) You need to do a complete "reboot", and/or C) you really need to put your nose to the grindstone.

By taking the F, and now the D, off the table, schools are doing students a great disservice.

The sad thing is the Bower doesn't even see that.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 18, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse


A grade of 'C' is an honorable grade: the student did everything required to get full credit for the class.

Grades of 'B' and 'A' are honor grades, indicating that students did everything required and did it with distinction.

The grade of 'D' is useful: it tells the student, parent, teacher, employers and so on that the student did work deserving partial credit for their effort - but did not do everything to get full credit for the course.

The grade of 'F' indicates too little performance to give any credit for the class.

And that's the way life works.

Viva D!!

Posted by: practica1 | August 18, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

By taking the F, and now the D, off the table, schools are doing students a great disservice.

The sad thing is the Bower doesn't even see that.

Posted by: physicsteacher
................................
physicsteacher appears to be reading a different article.

I do not see an author that is in support of removing the grade D but see the reverse.

"I fear that the Mount Olive School District has just doomed itself to mediocrity, if it is lucky, or very likely something much worse."

To my mind the author is talking about the ideas of tough standards, tests, grading, etc., that in reality simply leads to the mediocre and no improvement in education.

Look at the supposedly toughness of large numbers of local standardized tests that have simply lowered the standard of proficient to basic when the results of these tests are compared to the results of national tests. School systems are claiming rates of 30 percent proficient when national tests show rates of 11 percent of proficient or above.

Removing the grade D over time will simply shift all the students that would receive a D to a C, thus lowering the standard of a C.

The adoption of standards does not improve education.

Look at the insanity of Race To The Top where states with high standards are forced to accept the inferior Core Standards. This does not improve public education in these states but simply lowers the standards in these states to the mediocre.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 18, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

To my mind the author is talking about the ideas of tough standards, tests, grading, etc., that in reality simply leads to the mediocre and no improvement in education.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

I see what he's claiming and he has no evidence or logic to back it up.

At my school the students scored miserably on the earth science SOL exam because they only need to pass 2 science test so they blew off the third. Once the teachers made the SOL part of their grade, increasing the students' actual chance of failing the class and not graduating, the scores shot up and the students took the class more seriously.

When my students saw the very real possibility that they might actually fail they became immediately attentive and took the subject seriously.

Tougher standards and putting an F on the table DO work. The education world simply refuses to implement them.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
Look at the supposedly toughness of large numbers of local standardized tests that have simply lowered the standard of proficient to basic when the results of these tests are compared to the results of national tests. School systems are claiming rates of 30 percent proficient when national tests show rates of 11 percent of proficient or above.
<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

One word: supposedly.

Without sane standardized tests, and the willingness to make people repeat grades/courses, education will fall further into arts and crafts "creativity"

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 19, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

At my school the students scored miserably on the earth science SOL exam because they only need to pass 2 science test so they blew off the third. Once the teachers made the SOL part of their grade, increasing the students' actual chance of failing the class and not graduating, the scores shot up and the students took the class more seriously.
Posted by: physicsteacher
..........................
You make the typical mistake about standards.

Standards are developed over time by school systems and adopting "tough" standards will in themselves not improve education.

The results of national tests show 56 percent failing in poverty public schools for 4th grade reading. Tough standards in themselves will not improve the ability of these students to read.

Educators are talking about "tough" standards with no regard that students in poverty public schools are already failing the existing standards.

This is simply the charlatans who are avoiding the high rate of failures in poverty public school on national tests.

Imagine adopting tough standards at your school of standardized tests when the overwhelming majority of high school students can not read. Now imagine firing you and other teachers when your students can not even read the tests and of course they simply fail.

Your school is totally of no importance to the real problem of public education in this nation where large numbers of poverty students can not read and probably will never be able to read if this problem is simply ignored.

Even if all the students that fail reading tests were forced to redo the grade were they failed reading, this will not guarantee that they will learn to read. You would simply have 16 year old students in the 4th grade.

The problem is poverty public schools with large numbers of students who have great difficulty in learning and tough standards will not improve the ability of these students to learn. These are not the lazy or take it easy students, but instead the students that will never be able to read.

The politicians have diverted attention to the leaking faucet when the toilet is continuously overflowing.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 19, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Educators like to postpone news about failure as long as possible, so that when students find out their work is inadequate, they will be long gone from their classrooms, but lying to students by giving them higher grades than their work deserves is doing them no favors. We don't prohibit losing in sports, at least at the HS level...we shouldn't do it in academics either.

Will Fitzhugh; fitzhugh@tcr.org; www.tcr.org

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