"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My New Mantra

One of my favorite puzzles in our daily paper is called cryptoquotes. The quote from Charles Kettering included at the top of the blog was featured a few weeks ago. It triggered a cascade of thoughts that ended in an epiphany of, "Maybe I should do a blog with that as my header." So blame Mr. Kettering by way of my last official board meeting in which high achievement and lack of high achievement were both addressed.

One of the first assignments the board had after I joined in 2007 was to review the Middle School and High School Handbooks. The board has to approve the handbooks annually prior to distribution. I was stunned to find out that the minimum GPA requirement for co-curricular participation was only 1.5 : Between a C- and a D+. Being a scientist can be a bit of a liability when dealing with statistics, because we instinctively know the meaning of the word AVERAGE, and that grades below 1.5 were earned as well as grades above 1.5. There isn't really much of the grade point scale left below a 1.5. Once a student gets an F, the GPA minimum for participation is raised to 1.75, just above a C-. This effectively forces the student with an F to get a B to offset the F.

The explanation I was given for maintaining this abysmally low GPA requirement was that the WIAA allows competition with one F. The GPA of a student in a block schedule with 3 Cs and one F is 1.5. But this excuse is counter intuitive because Evansville, like many of our conference schools, raises the GPA requirement once a student earns an F.

The next excuse for keeping the GPA so blinking low is that some students are only engaged by their co-curricular activity and taking away that one connection to the school community in which they revel will only serve to further alienate them. My answer to that is that the district has failed that student if they cannot engage them in the process of learning something that will serve them in their adult lives toward becoming a productive citizen. Hitting a ball, singing or being in a play will not ultimately become a career for the vast majority of Evansville students. If educators cannot find a way to make learning fabulous and fascinating for the students who don't fit the profile of the "average" student to whom they are instructing, it is their solemn duty to find a way to reach said students.

I have always believed that co-curricular participation is a privilege, not a right. Privileges must be earned, and telling students that 1.5 GPA is acceptable is simply giving them permission to be mediocre. I sincerely doubt that the coaches and advisers of the co-curricular activities would accept that level of effort from any of their athletes or singers or HMV participants.

The board directed creation of a co-curricular ad-hoc committee in 2009 on which I served. The primary purpose was to compare our co-curricular advisor/coach contracts with our conference. I once again raised my concerns regarding the low GPA requirement for co-curricular participation and once again I was shot down. This time when administration emphasized the challenge of maintaining a 1.5 GPA with one F in the framework of the block schedule, my response was that, while the block schedule makes it more challenging to achieve a GPA above 1.5 if one has an F, it also is easier for the students to focus on each class as there are only 4 of them instead of 7 or 8 as in the 8 period day schedule. There should never be a question of having an F in the first place. I was told that we weren't there to discuss the pros and cons of the block schedule vs. the 8 period day. I suggested if one invokes the downside of the block schedule in one's argument, one ought to be prepared to rebut the upside as well.

The bottom line for 2008-2009 school year was that all but one sport had an average GPA of participants above 3.0, with the last one being 2.9. This screams that the magnitude of the problem is minuscule, if existent at all.

When the handbooks once again came up for discussion in March of 2010, I reiterated my position, stated that everyone was abundantly aware of what I thought about such an abysmally low expectation for our students and invited the rest of the board members to state their case. One stated that if there is a chance to keep even one kid engaged in the school community, he'd rather err on the side of a low GPA. Another member said that in light of the fact that we have essentially the second lowest GPA requirement in our conference, and all other schools face the same kind of challenges as Evansville faces, he thought it was worth taking a look at changing it. Those were the only board comments made after three years of repeatedly addressing this issue. One lone administrator, Mr. Everson, injected a glimmer of rational thought into this debate. He said that they have a Grading Protocol Committee addressing the topic of grades and uniform standards. Until the work effort required to meet each grade of A, B, C, D and F is standardized across the High School, any discussion surrounding GPA requirements is moot. This is a true statement.

I attended one of these meetings and it was a real eye-opener. The staff grouped at tables of 4-5 people and proceeded to define "What does an A look like, a B, a C, a D, an F in your classes? I was at a table composed of a Spanish teacher, a Special Ed. teacher, a Science teacher and an English teacher. They all had different answers for each category. One department even said it was possible to get an A in their department on effort and attitude alone. I was floored by this statement. I asked rather pointedly if they didn't, as a department, believe that this was a terrible disservice to the students in their classes to set up a false sense of excellence. What will happen to them at UW, for example, when their previous A-effort earns them a D in college? According to anecdotal reports I receive around town, it is not a pretty sight. But I digress...

Fast forward to the end of the board meeting in which the last item up for discussion was the policy for criteria for inclusion in the National Honor Society (NHS). The National Charter GPA is 3.0 and above for consideration. Each local chapter may set their own criteria, the minimum of which must be 3.0. Our current policy states that students with 3.5 GPA and above will be considered for inclusion in Evansville NHS. Apparently, the practice for several years, despite having reviewed the policy back in 2006, has been to consider only students with a 3.6 GPA and above for inclusion in the NHS Evansville Chapter. Since Evansville defines High Honors as 3.6 GPA and above, they now want to "match the policy with the practice." I said that any kid who has been denied consideration "in the last several years" between GPA of 3.5 and 3.6, inclusive, should be reevaluated and included because they have a legitimate grievance. You can't simply violate your own policies with impunity. A specific parent wanted their child to be considered because the kid has a 3.53 GPA. Yikes. It must be emphasized here that GPA is not the sole criteria for NHS membership, especially in this day and age. But the first cut is GPA and if the policy states 3.5, until the policy is officially changed with the third reading, any student in the "gray area" should automatically be considered for inclusion in our local chapter of the NHS. I listened to all of the conversation regarding this policy change and finished with the following observation: "Does anybody besides me notice the inherent inconsistency between this approach and the GPA requirement for co-curricular participation included in the handbooks? Must you always stick it to the smart kids?" Our district policy already exceeds the National requirement of 3.0 GPA by 0.5, and administration wants to increase it to a difference of 0.6. Yet that same administration insists that raising the GPA requirement for all co-curricular participants (not just those with an F) from 1.5 to 1.75 is too onerous for the students on the edge. If you raise your expectations for student achievement, the students will meet or exceed your new bar. It is one of the constants of human behavior, especially adolescent humans. The converse is also true. If you expect that they can only achieve at a certain minimum level, they will not exert one iota more effort than that required to meet your standard. Go figure.

And that is how we discussed excellence and lack thereof in my last official board meeting. Skirting the bare edges of sanity on a wing and a prayer...

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