Stop failing our kids

Apparently, the number one thing you can do in school is Fail. Not “fail,” as in the lowercase meaning of “missing a standard.” No, I mean “Fail,” as in “make a particular grade that comes with a negative connotation.”

I was talking with my friend K., whose child is close in age to mine but goes to a different local school system. We talked about the ridiculous nature of the modern science fair — and about my belief that they have become ridiculous pageants to appease the parental ego. The percentage of school science projects actually done by the children is beginning to fall even below the percentage of Pinewood Derby race cars that aren’t built by Dad. (If soccer started allowing the parents to do all of the work, the games would be more entertaining, if only for the fistfights.)

Type casting

Anyway, K. and her little R. (age 9) have been struggling all week with an assignment to develop a new book cover for a short story. Instead of just asking for a brief book report, a synopsis, the teacher is asking for a selling point. Show us the blurb that would sell others on wanting to read it.

I actually like that twist on the assignment. You have to read the book, and then figure out how to pitch it. Anyway, the kids were given a template page, and told to ‘neatly print’ their synopsis on the cover.

Yesterday, one of the moms turned in the assignment, and the teacher showed it off as an example of what to do.

It was in PowerPoint.

Now K. is freaking out, because R. has been working on improving his penmanship, and practicing writing his words very carefully. Because, as it turns out, the “printing neatly” part is worth 20 percent of the grade.

Failing to measure

This is where I have a problem with the assignment. As you might know, I am a huge fan of incentives/disincentives. If you reward the proper things, you will get the proper things in the future. If you punish good things, you get less of them.


Clippy is hear too help!

In this instance, you would hope the grade would be based upon what R. learns this year. Just three weeks into school, I don’t believe any teacher has the expectation that his handwriting will have improved. So if R. just has ordinary penmanship for a nine-year-old, he will be penalized. Yet, if R. (and his mother) type and print the entire thing, then by all means award the full 20 points for that part of the assignment! Never mind that when it’s typed, you lose all grasp of who actually did the work. Did R. type it? Did K.? Did R. catch the spelling errors, or did Clippy?

This sends a number of clear messages to students:

  • It doesn’t matter what you learn.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you improve.
  • We are going to base today’s grade on things you did or didn’t learn in previous grades.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you do your own work.

Lord knows we have enough issues with helicopter parents. Teachers, I am looking at you for this one. Stop rewarding the obvious meddling in a child’s education. If a kid is obviously turning in Mommy’s work (or Dad’s,) then call them out on it. Stop celebrating the “genius” of a child who isn’t learning anything!

Encourage the kids who try. Not with bogus participation ribbons, but how about reserving the A grades for kids who do their own work? Stop failing our kids. Not with the assignment of a silly letter – but by giving up on making them do the work themselves.

If you like this rant, share it. And tell me you liked it, so I might be encouraged to write more of them. Because I believe that incentives matter.

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  1. SPOT ON! I am a great supporter of allowing children to fail and learn from their mistakes. I am quite an expert at failure myself 😉

    I appreciate your call for teachers to take action – most pieces I’ve read are from teachers begging parents to back off. Honestly, everyone needs to do a reality check.

    When I was an elementary school administrator, my least favorite project was the first grade Pumpkin Parade. Students were to decorate a pumpkin to look like a character in their favorite book. With less than 25% of the students actually being allowed by their parents to do their own projects, the quality of work was jaw dropping — 6 ft long T-Rex pumpkin, airbrushed little girl pumpkins complete with perfectly coiffed pink wig and long false eyelashes, helicopter pumpkin with operating lights, sound and propeller…nauseating