Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Do You Know? vs. What Did You Do?

As a teacher, I constantly question myself when it comes time to award grades and credits. This is particularly true in our non-traditional setting, where students sometimes go through a course very quickly, and I feel a little guilt associated with that old, traditional, 180-school-days-to-get-it mentality.

We have a student who came to us because he would like to graduate a year early. We don't encourage that, and the other two county high schools discourage the practice, because they don't want a mad rush of students coming to our school just so they can graduate early. This young man, however, is college material, driven, ambitious, hard-working, and very smart. Except for one thing. He got his girlfriend pregnant.

So he's working 30 hours a week, taking college entrance tests, trying to earn 8 units in a school day that normally accommodates 5 subjects, coming in early and staying late, and he does it all with a smile on his face. He says, "You gotta do what you gotta do" instead of "It isn't my fault and why did this happen to me?"

Then I get a report yesterday that says he failed AP Government at his home high school. AP. As in college-level course. He was genuinely shocked and said, "She told me if I passed the final exam, I would pass the course." He made an 80 on the final exam. AP final exam. As in college-level final exam.

I emailed the teacher to make sure the information I had was correct, and I received a VERY curt reply that of course it was.

This young man summoned all his courage and went by to see the old bit... the teacher.... yesterday afternoon. She was rude to him and said that he had failed because he turned in a project late, and she gave him a 50 on it. That was the difference in passing or failing the course.

That's not the part that made me the most angry, however. As he was leaving, he said to her, "Well I guess I'll see you at graduation."

Her reply: "I doubt that."

It. Is. On.

I'm damned determined he'll graduate. Short of doing his work for him (and he may be smarter than I am), I will do whatever it takes to help him get those 9....credits to graduate early.

Which leads me to the question about schools and teachers. What is our ultimate goal? What do we grade students on? How much they know? Or how much they do?

If this young man learned 80% of the material he needed in an AP Government course, why should it matter whether or not he did the required project? What lesson are we teaching him?

I know that in addition to teaching subject matter we are supposed to teach them work ethics and responsibility and fulfilling commitments and all that, but COME ON! I believe this young man could run circles around many a grown-up in every single one of those departments.

I'm guessing that many teachers out there would say, "Well it's not fair to give him the same credit as other students who actually DID all of their work."

Yes, actually, it is.

Because "fair" does not mean "equal." It is FAIR to this young man to give him the unit of credit he started working on before he learned that oh by the way, you're going to be a daddy. It is also FAIR to the other students who earn their own credits. I just don't think there has to be a comparison.

It reminds me of a Bible story, Matthew 20:1-16. And those of you who know me are probably sitting there with your jaws slack and your mouths gaping open. Relax -- I didn't know where the story was, I Googled it. Then I looked it up in my (dusty) Bible to make sure. And I'll be back in my regular seat at Happy Hour tomorrow afternoon.

Basically the story is about a vineyard owner who pays some men to work for him. Some men were hired to work all day and agreed on a fair wage. There's that word again: fair. Some other men showed up later and were paid the same amount of money even though they only worked one hour. When the first dudes got pissed off about that (okay, so that word is NOT in the Bible), the vineyard owner told them if they were satisfied with what THEY got, then what anyone else got was NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS.

That's my point. If the other students are happy with the credit they earned, it shouldn't bother them at all if my guy gets a credit for doing less than they did. I wonder how many of THEM made an 80 on the final exam? I'm not suggesting we just start handing out credits willy-nilly, don't get me wrong. There has to be some basis for assessment and some accountability. But I just think that anyone who can get an 80 on an AP final exam from a teacher who was obviously a B-I-T-C-H and made life hell for her students anyway deserves a break. Possibly two.

This rant has been brought to you today by the letters N and W and by the number 7.

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