Without learning how to fail, how will students learn how to deal with the ups and downs of life?
By Jeff Woodburn
The best kept secret in education today – from kindergarten to college, public schools to private academies – is how well students are doing. So well, in fact, that more students make, than miss the honor roll. Some 50 to 60 percent of all grades are B or better. Schools have become like Garrison Keller’s fictitious, Lake Woebegone, a place where “all the children are above average.”
All the while, national studies and local standardized test results beg a troubling question: How can classroom grades be going up while nearly every other statistical measure shows student achievement is going down? I put this question to one of my finest honor-level Economic classes as a way of applying the laws of supply and demand. I announced to them that on this particular assignment, I was limiting the supply of As and Bs. By raising the price of top grades, I would be making them more valuable and harder to get.
For many years, this was how grades were determined. It was known as the bell curve because of the shape of statistical distribution: the majority grouped in the middle with higher and lower achiever on either side. Society came to associate Cs with being average. That all changed in the late 1960s, when low college grades became a free ticket to Vietnam, and later, in primary and secondary schools, when pumping up students’ self-esteem became an obsession. One of my colleagues summed up the trend as, “feeling good… doing bad.” Most veteran teachers will tell you the quality of student work has declined dramatically since.
Sadly, I went to a relatively poor, behind-the-times school, where I was a solid C student. But then, I went off to a fine institution of higher learning with an enlightened, modern pedagogy (and grading system), where my GPA and self-confidence soared. Eventually, I graduated cum laude and left college smart and ready to take on the world.
But as is often the case the world handed me an equal amount of ups as downs. This is life’s ultimate lesson. Setbacks, poet James Russell Lowell said, “are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or the handle.” Most of us learn by our mistakes, not our achievements.
Back in the classroom, I struggle how to convey this message. My cocksure students are offended by my plan. I press on finding myself annoyed by their sense of entitlement. I ask my students, many of whom play competitive sports, how many of them have failed a class. Not a hand goes up. I then ask how many have lost an athletic competition. Nearly, every hand goes up.
Coaches have a valuable tool that eludes classroom teachers; it’s called a cut – low supply, high demand. In many ways sports and other competitive extra-curricular activities closely resemble real life. In my classroom, the arguing continues until one student bursts into tears and out of the class presumably off to the office to a comforting counselor.
Grade inflation robs our young people of authentic feedback, fills them with false praise and leaves them with few skills on how to deal with misfortune.
The system – parents, administrators and students – encourage teachers to give good grades. But good teachers resist, Matt Papas, a social studies teacher at Oyster River High School in Durham, said.
In the short-term, this makes them unpopular, he added, but as years pass the students realize “their hardest teachers were their best ones.”
Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a teacher and writer. He's taught in middle and high school settings. Previously, he owned an award-winning real estate firm and was prominent in state politics. He and his wife and four children live on a small hill farm, where they raise poultry.