Let’s just raise all the grades

Winner of the 2008 Associated Press Managing Editors competition

Never never never did I have the parent of a student hassle me about a grade. That was when I taught at the college level.

Always always always was I confronted by parents who thought I’d been unfair to their child. That was at the high school level.

My sister-in-law, Donna, an elementary school teacher, envied my autonomy and my ability to do my job at Highlands without needing permission slips from parents, without notifying parents that their child had missed class, or spending half my teaching day on playground or cafeteria duty.

But what Donna warned me about, more than 20 years ago, ruined my day. “One of my former students is at Highlands now and signed up for your class,” Donna said. “And you can expect for her mom to be dropping by your office regularly.”

I wasn’t looking forward to hosting a helicopter parent, one sure to swoop down to rescue her child from the machinations of a professor who required that students write papers and read books. “Isn’t there any way my daughter could write down her speeches and turn them in, instead of having to stand in front of all those students?” I expected her to be asking.

So solicitous was this mother that if her daughter had played basketball and been awarded a couple of free throws, the fans would have expected the dote to swoop down to the gym floor and negotiate a deal with the refs to allow her, the mother, to attempt the free throws for her ‘Jita.

A scheduling glitch kept the daughter out of my freshman-level class and saved me from having many chats with the mom. Sigh!

As I plan to re-enter teaching, part-time, this fall, I run tapes through my mind concerning this profession. Much of the introspection is prompted by the recent news that Elsy Fierro, an administrator at Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, over-rode an English teacher’s grade, changing it from an “F” to a “D” in order to allow a student to graduate.

Ah, would that every student could earn straight-“A’s,” in an era when anything lower is taken as a punishment.

A third-century of teaching has left me with many observations, among them:

  • Students at all levels have implied they deserve a higher grade.
  • No student has ever complained that the grade was too high.
  • Every semester, at least one student insisted he or she was a graduating senior who needed to pass Freshman Comp in order to graduate, and my class was the only thing standing in the way.
  • Every semester, a failing student attempted to play the “extra credit” card. Yeah, right. Catch me on the last day of class and offer to fill my office with reams of hastily gathered information in lieu of original work that ought have been submitted two months ago.
  • Once a year, a student, unhappy over the grade for a particular assignment, would say, “I showed this paper to another teacher, and he thinks it should be at least an ‘A.’
  • People say grades don’t matter, but we never hear that from an “A” student.

The reason we meet so many middle-aged people who say, “I used to be a teacher” results from the stress that inheres with the job.

How discouraged must Anita Forte be after having the leader of the Rio Grande High School cluster convert an “F” to a “D,” to allow a student to graduate Tuesday night? Forte is the English teacher who dared to assign the “F.”

Why’s it so easy for some parents to complain to the teacher that the ‘Jito (pronounced “Hito”) “wasn’t warned that he was failing”? Why must teachers, counselors and principals need to explain in copious detail and in the eleventh hour that 18 absences from a class do not a passing grade guarantee?

Students learn of expectations the first days of class, usually in the form of assemblies and a student handbook which spells out the number of classes students can miss, work expected and any related consequences.

So what does the Rio Grande debacle say about the uneven playing field for countless other students who fail classes? If marginal students can raise their “F” to a “D” by doing extra credit, does that mean every other student should be accorded that honor? Will every “C” become a “B” and every “B” an “A”?

The senior for whom rules were broken got to walk across the stage — to cheers and applause from his friends — likely because of his connections.

Although the media failed to identify the boy, we know his mother is Teresa Cordova, a Bernalillo County commissioner, and his father is Miguel Acosta, a former school board member — how conveeenient.

The most telling justification comes from the boy’s mother, Teresa Cordova, who implies her interference with the school process had nothing to do with the grade change. Oh no, it wasn’t for her son but for much more magnanimous reasons. She said, “I hope I opened up the door for other parents. And I hope I have called attention to the problems of graduation rates at Rio Grande High School.”

Well, that explains it: graduation rates at RGHS aren’t ideal, so, by Cordova’s logic, if every teacher inflated each grade by a letter or two, just think how many more kids would graduate and how much more educated everyone would be. Remember, a high tide raises all boats.

The kid who graduated did get an early educational bonus of a sort: he learned what most fair-minded people realize but nevertheless deplore — it’s not what you know, but whom you know.

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