Books: Excerpts

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Two years ago, Emily Sachar, an education reporter at New York Newsday, took her investigation of the city's school system to the front lines. Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach chronicles her eye-opening year as a teacher at Brooklyn'sWalt Whitman Junior High School.

In addition to perpetually littered and undersupplied classrooms, antipathy from fellow teachers, and an underserved and underprivileged student body, Ms. Sachar found policy directives that were often unclear, incomplete, or unenforceable. In the following excerpt, she discusses one of these--grading policies--with an assistant principal:

Still wholly in the dark about how to generate a meaningful grade, I approached Mr. Newman at the end of the session. Though not a particularly commanding presence physically--of medium height, thin, and balding--his stern demeanor and deep voice always compelled good student behavior. Dutifully, he walked the third floor during morning homeroom, looking for miscreants chewing gum, wearing caps, eating, drinking, or playing radios.

He knew the names of nearly all 500 8th graders and they certainly knew him. "Damain, the cap," he would bark down the hall and, before the second syllable was uttered, Damain would yank off his cap and tuck it into his pocket. Students respected Mr. Newman like a firm father, yet I rarely heard him raise his voice in anger.

Several weeks into the first4term, he had reviewed my Red Roll Book, that critical attendance document, and in a matter of seconds he found five errors, steering me gently through the maze of rules until I saw my mistakes. He had 17 years of experience, 15 as a respected Whitman social-studies teacher. Surely, he had developed sound ideas about how to grade and what standards to apply. So, after his presentation, I waited until he was alone to express my quandary.

"I need some tips on what criteria I should be using to grade my students. I've got some kids who have failed tests, who don't do the work. But I know they care, and I just don't know what to do about their grades." Mr. Newman asked if I had read the 1983 memo on this very topic. It suggested that 10 to 15 percent of the grade be based on homework, 40 to 50 percent on tests and quizzes, and the rest on class participation and performance in class projects.

"Yes," I replied, "but what if a student has done failing work? Should he still pass?" I described Pedro's case: Ignorance of long division and the times tables, all his test scores under 45 (plus one strange 95). "He's a sweet kid, and he thinks he's trying," I finished. "Should I pass a kid like that?"

"That's a decision you have to make," Mr. Newman responded. "What would you do?"

"Well, what exactly do you accomplish by failing him?" he asked.

"It's the truth, that's all," I said. "He's doing failing work, so I think I should fail him." Indeed, failing in work that he should have mastered years before, I wanted to add.

"It's up to you," Mr. Newman repeated. "But maybe you should pass him to encourage him."

"Isn't there some sort of standard, some definition of what a passing grade is, what sort of work a kid should be doing to pass? Doesn't the school or the board of education have some guidelines we can use?"

"We can't tell you how to set your grades," Mr. Newman concluded. ''That's up to you. That's part of being a teacher." That is, part of being a teacher was getting no help whatsoever. Passing kids who failed was not a policy--just the absence of any.

He seemed to be talking around the real issue. I was all for latitude and flexibility in setting grades, but what I wanted was some objective standard of what a high mark of 90 meant, and what a mark of 65, the lowest passing mark, meant, as well. To what degree should discretion, kindness, compassion be part of the grading? If they should indeed play a role, I still didn't see how that would ultimately benefit a student like Shereeza. In the lastel10lterm, she had passed every class, yet all of her 8th-grade teachers knew that she could not read.

Even using some subjective notion of "improvement" as the criterion for passing led to blind alleys. Some kids, like Sherwin, came to class and turned in homework every day, yet never had the correct answers, and failed every single test and quiz. In his case, like so many others, not even concentrated effort yielded improvement. How to distinguish between the failures who cared to try and the failures who didn't, especially when I knew a boy like Sherwin would be emotionally devastated by a 50 on his report card?

Good grades were important to the kids, but the work necessary to earn them often wasn't part of the equation. Grades having been exposed as arbitrary, they just wanted their share of the payoff. And Pedro wasn't even after high marks; he wanted merely to pass, to answer his parents' sole demand: "Did you pass, Pedro?"

A kid like Pedro clearly did not really care about school, not enough to come to class regularly or to do homework or to study at all. Yet he wanted keenly to move on through the system with his friends. School was a sort of obstacle course, with no pride taken in the technique one used to negotiate it as long as one surmounted the hurdles; to be passed was to get past them.

I could understand the arguments against harsh judgments that might crush frail egos. But exactly who really was served by the ritualistic fraud of passing kids on, and up, and out who for eight years of such tender loving care remained as incapacitated as the day they began?

I passed Pedro for the first marking period. I rationalized my decision by telling myself that a failing mark might turn him off just when he might be willing to give math a chance. I was bribing him and kidding myself. And I passed Shereeza--for trying. After painstaking review, I ended up failing only 28 of my students. Although we had been told not to take behavior into account in evaluating academic performance, for me the two were strongly linked. Most of the kids who were flunking were the worst classroom offenders--not so much dumb as mean.

The grades were a sham, devoid of meaning, and I knew it. And I resented the board of education for giving me so much freedom to deceive, however well-intentioned my lenient marks may have been. Weeks after the report cards were out--and the kids I had failed almost over their resentment--I was still tormented by many of my decisions. In nine weeks' time, I had become just another cog in the insidious machine of education in New York City, doling out to students with virtually no skills some bogus stamp of competence.

Children weren't the only victims--we duped their parents, too. Shereeza's sister told me later, "When you pass Shereeza, you make her think she knows it. She goes around saying she passes in school, when we all know she can't read or do math. That's not fair to a person."

From Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach 1991 by Emily Sacher. Reprinted by permission of Poseidon Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Vol. 10, Issue 32

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