When I began teaching high school in Washington, DC, I was shocked by how many of my bright, talented students were satisfied with C's, D's, even the occasional F. I'd grown up in a family where an A- on my report card merited a stern talking-to, and B's were simply out of the question.
That's part of why I'm so excited about the Mount Olive (NJ) school district's decision to eliminate D's from their schools. If we're preparing kids to compete in a twentieth-century economy, D-quality work is essentially failure. Removing D's is a cheap and simple way of raising standards. It tells kids, quite clearly, that D-level work is unacceptable.
However, it's only part of the reason I'm so excited about their plan, and if Mt. Olive was just cutting out D's and failing more kids, I would oppose their changes. Here's why:
We need education reform because most American schoolchildren suffer two injustices. The first is that they're not held to high academic standards -- what George W. Bush famously called the "soft bigotry of low expectations." The second is that in most schools they're not all given the resources they need to meet high standards. These resources include well-run schools, great teachers for all kids (particularly those who come from low-income and minority families), and extra help for kids who need it.
Mt. Olive's plan is so exciting because it addresses both problems. It raises standards, while it simultaneously creates new systems to help students who are failing: notifying parents immediately of low grades, giving kids opportunities to make up their work, and providing extra classes after school and in evenings for struggling kids. This is exactly what our children need: a high bar, motivation to reach it, and the resources to help them on their way
I speak in part from personal experience. In my second year of teaching I tried something similar, perhaps even a bit more draconian than the Mt. Olive plan. I gave my students weekly essay quizzes for which there were only three grades: A, B, or zero.
At first there was a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but once the parents realized that 1) I was at the school every afternoon to help the kids who were struggling, and that 2) the kids had unlimited opportunities to rewrite those essays, every single parent backed me up. After a few painful months the kids figured out that they had to study and get that A or B, and they bought in, too. Not coincidentally, that was also the year when my kids' AP exam scores rose from abysmal to among the best in the city.
The truth is this: if we as adults tell our kids it's OK to graduate with C's and D's, we shouldn't be surprised when they do. I believe we owe them something more -- high standards plus support -- and I can't wait to hear the one-year results of the Mount Olive experiment.