In defense of the F-word in K-16 education

Recently I received an email from a student unlike any message I have received in forty years as a college professor. It is worth quoting for what it says not so much about this student as about the culture we have now created within K-16 education in America. Commenting on the failing grade I gave her in a course, the student wrote: “I have never received an F for as long as I have been in college, I complied with the paper and the two tests, and you mean to tell me I did not get anything from the class. I will appeal this because who is the failure? You are the teacher whom I relied upon to teach me about a subject matter that I had no familiarity with, so in all actuality I have been disserviced, and I do expect my money back from the course, you did not give me any warning that I was failing! You should be embarrassed to give a student an F.”

Fake diploma
It is no longer sufficient to hold a student by the hand. You must now literally hand them a diploma. 
Photo by gadgetdude

Never mind the punctuation errors and illiteracy of the email; we have all come to accept and endure such, irritating as it is, lest we be accused of lacking understanding of new media conventions. Never mind the fact that the student did not even bother to purchase the required textbook for the course, much less read it, or that she came to class only sporadically, or that she had received an F on the midterm exam (which normally constitutes a “warning” that you may be at risk of failing and which, combined with her F on the final exam and a D on the term paper, normally computes to an F grade); under the “new math,” a slate of poor grades during the semester (“formative assessments”) can be instantly wiped clean and the course grade (“summative assessment”) inflated simply by offering redo’s and/or extra credit, unless a teacher is as heartless as I seem to be. And never mind the fact that I even went so far as to copy chapters in the book for her when she claimed she could not afford the book, and gave her (and the entire class) an elaborate study guide prior to both exams, indicating the questions on the tests. I also appended to the course syllabus a “Writing Caution” about dotting i’s, crossing t’s, making sure the paper was proof-read before prof-read, and other common-sense tips. But where my student is coming from, evidently, it is no longer sufficient to hold a student by the hand. You must now literally hand them a diploma.

Starting in K-12, and now extending into higher education, we have been cultivating a mindset where the F-word (“failure”) is no longer permissible, even when a student exerts zero effort. It begins in the early grades, where, during the last several decades, academic standards have collapsed to the point that kids receive gold stars or trophies for nonexistent (or trivial) achievement and are advanced to the next grade if they have a pulse. There is a well-intentioned effort to help struggling learners especially, since in the past they were often overlooked by schools, but in the process all learners are reduced to the lowest common denominator. Many contemporary school administrators instruct their staff that “failure is not an option.” If you are a teacher who is told that, if you issue a failing grade, the fault lies with you and not the student, what are you to do, especially when such well-known professional-development gurus as Robert Marzano and Rick Dufour are constantly cited in the latest education “research” and have been hired by principals to reinforce this message? (For example, Marzano, who puts the onus entirely on the teacher rather than the student or parent and who believes the right kind of “assessment-intervention” regimen can allow “all” students to “succeed,” is the featured speaker at an upcoming school administrators’ conference sponsored by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)

Starting in K-12, and now extending into higher education, we have been cultivating a mindset where the F-word ("failure") is no longer permissible, even when a student exerts zero effort.

 
   
 

This model of education is now being transferred to the university level, as professors see many of the products of such K-12 training on college campuses in need of “support” (aka remediation), not only lacking basic academic skills and knowledge but also the most rudimentary understanding of what it takes to become an “educated” person. Thus, on my campus and many others, “retention” centers are proliferating along with “early alert” warning systems designed to help students by sending them regular reminders to come to class, turn in work by the due dates, and perform other basic obligations that can be gleaned if they simply read the syllabus. Thus, the “coddling” paradigm has been imported from K-12 into academia as we treat adults like children (while of course overlooking or excusing potentially harmful behaviors on grounds that these are adults and the college must not act in loco parentis). Many professors are trying to resist the decline in expectations—indeed, despite grade inflation there is still a high college dropout rate—but the combination of “equity” pressures along with cash-strapped colleges wanting to retain tuition-paying students is creating the perfect storm likely to lead to further erosion of standards.

Both left and right are to blame. On the left are those who push the “therapeutic model”—the idea that the student is a “patient” whose problems a school is supposed to fix and who is entitled to endless chances to mess up, redo work, and graduate to the next level in the name of  “access” and “fairness.” On the right are those who push the “business model”—the idea that the student is a “customer” who is entitled to a school’s best customer-is-always-right “services” in the name of “market-style accountability.” President Obama wants to see “college readiness for all,” and many Republican state legislators want to see “higher graduation rates.” Between them, I am getting ready for more emails telling me what a lousy teacher I am.

J. Martin Rochester is the curators' distinguished teaching professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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