Submerging Standards to Boost Self-Esteem

PETER A. JAY

November 29, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Every time you think American education has finally bottomed out, here comes another loony development suggesting that the worst is yet to come.

Last week's example was Baltimore County's decision to start phasing out meaningful grades for elementary students on the touchy-feely grounds that grades can damage the kids' self-esteem. The new system is supposed to go into effect next year.

The gradeless school, like the values-free curriculum, is a theory that's been fermenting quietly in education circles for some time, erupting in the form of experimental programs whenever school administrators and parental opinion will allow it. This has happened mostly in public schools, but private schools have not been immune.

Although those pushing the idea usually present it as a routine reform, nothing to get excited about, it's still highly controversial. A great many parents aren't persuaded that giving up traditional letter grades and class rankings will be in their children's interest.

In Carroll County, parents agreed to accept the public schools' replacement of A and B grades with O, S and N (Outstanding, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement) -- but only through the second grade. Like Carroll, Baltimore County is a bit removed from the cutting edge of political correctness, and it remains to be seen whether it will sit still for the latest tinkering proposed by the schools.

Classroom teachers, being a diverse group of human beings, aren't anywhere near unanimous on the merits of eliminating grades. But the big teachers' union, the National Education Association, thinks the idea is wonderful. All sorts of sensitive and compassionate reasons why this is so have been advanced.

A cynic might note, however, that the teachers unions have for years been hostile to any meaningful measurements of individual students' progress. Ever since Scholastic Aptitude Test scores began to decline, for example, the unions and their intellectual associates have blamed the tests. It's much easier than challenging the students' preparation.

A school system which does not make sharp distinctions between winners and losers, which blurs the lines between excellence and mediocrity and between mediocrity and failure, remains the goal of much of the educational establishment. Getting rid of grades is another step toward that goal.

It was about 30 years ago when American education began to emphasize equality of outcome over individual achievement. That was also when test scores measuring the whole range of academic skills began to slip and when schools began to move away from the old practice of grouping students by ability.

At the time, of course, this had a lot to do with race. Schools saw a disturbingly low percentage of minority students on the highly-competitive academic fast track, enrolled in the most demanding programs. This was a real problem, but the schools tended to reach for a phony solution. Their common response, for which minority students in particular are still suffering the consequences today, was simply to dilute the curriculum.

Those policy-makers were the intellectual forebears of those who are campaigning today to get rid of letter grades. If success in education were to be measured by the number of honor students produced, they concluded, then standards should be degraded until the desired result were achieved. If that meant that calculus or Latin had to go, so be it.

Disputes of this sort have been around a long time. In the early days of this century, there was an intense debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois over the kind of education that should be offered to black Americans. Washington favored industrial training, to teach marketable job skills. Du Bois had a loftier vision.

It was far more important, wrote Du Bois, to focus on the top ten percent -- what he called "the talented tenth" -- of black students and give them the most rigorous, demanding education possible. For they, and not the carpentry graduates of white-run job-training schools, should be the leaders in the struggle to come.

Du Bois, the radical in that long-ago debate, was the elitist -- a position that would today earn him the hostility of the politically fashionable. Perhaps, irony of ironies for a brilliant black polemicist with a Harvard Ph.D., his writings would even be denounced as racist.

Booker T. Washington thought education should concentrate on producing contented workingmen, Du Bois that its highest priority should be identifying and challenging each generation's

brightest people. A reasonable person might conclude that they each had a point, and that education should strive to fill both roles.

But what do you suppose the two turn-of-the-century thinkers would have thought of a proposal that grades be eliminated in the interest of the students' self-esteem? My guess is they wouldn't have wasted much time on it. They took education seriously.

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