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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Defanging the F Grade

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's letter was, of course, an accusatory A. Damning for her, but I'd have been very happy had I received more of those when I was in secondary school.

For me, the scarlet letter that lent its shaming tinge to my academic career was the F. Ms. Prynne suffered greatly because of her letter, but I had my share of angst dealing with more than a few of mine.

As it happens, by dint of luck and a good enough mind, I've done better than some of the teachers whose courses I failed might have predicted. Yet I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the terrible shadow cast over my life by an F in math, or physics, or chemistry.

Whatever else I might have accomplished during a given marking period -- excellent records in English, art, and social studies, solo singing parts with the choir -- all it took was one F to cast a near-permanent pall over my school experience (not to mention a foreboding quiet over the supper table on the evenings after I brought my report card home).

I'm convinced that a feeling of inadequacy brought on by those scarlet letters lingers still, decades after they torpedoed my grade point average. I hadn't yet heard the saying that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Clearly, the failing grades didn't kill me, but instead of making me stronger, they just made me feel inadequate. My teachers' moving hands had written, and I had been found wanting.

I'm not going to claim I didn't deserve those failing marks, but they weren't from lack of trying. I simply couldn't bend my brain around the mysteries of algebra, for instance, and it took weekly tutoring just to get me to raise my F to a D. So, compiling my test scores and my homework demerits and my generally glazed expression in class, what could my teachers do?

But that was then, in an academic era with few gray areas, when failure represented -- well, failure. I have since seen that failing can be a beginning, rather than an end, a source of encouragement instead of a crushing blow.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a national business magazine covering the technology boom in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time reporting on paradigm-shifting start-ups, interviewing such famously successful entrepreneurs as Oracle's Larry Ellison, AutoDesk's Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo), and Netscape cofounder James H. Clark.

What I discovered was that almost all the successes in the Valley had been preceded by failure, and that an F on an entrepreneur's business report card was generally understood to be just a rite of passage. (Clark, who became a billionaire when Netscape went public, was a high school dropout, by the way.)

Paul Sappho, a well-regarded futurist in Silicon Valley, neatly summed up this attitude in a recent speech: "We know how to fail," he said, and he went on to joke that the reason high tech company headquarters in the area are surrounded by lush grass is so that when people jump out of high windows, "they only sprain their ankles."

Of course, there have always been dedicated teachers who help students use a failing grade as a catalyst for progress rather than a reprimand. And Edutopia's recent coverage of multiple intelligences spotlighted the widening understanding that difficulties with one subject need not overshadow a kid's abilities in other areas.

Realistically, there are students whose failures indicate attitudinal and social problems difficult for teachers to remedy alone. I'm no fan of grade inflation, and I'm not suggesting that failure be euphemized out of existence. But it should be seen as something of value, even if its impact on metrics is negative. After all, failure is inevitably part of everyone's life after school -- relationships fail, businesses fail, the best-laid plans go awry -- and we move on smarter, if we've learned anything at all.

So, if the goal of school is to prepare students for future success, failure needs to be understood in a broader context. There are ways, as Sappho says, to "know how to fail," to turn the stark finality of an F into part of a continuity, a bump in the road, not a blowout, the prelude to a comeback -- something that can be counterbalanced with successes and used for motivation instead of frustration.

I'd love to hear your ideas on how to accomplish this.

Comments (56)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cindy Fuhrer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with several of the postings that the teacher and the student are responsible for the failing grades. I believe that there are two issues here:

1. Is our goal passing or learning? I know teachers that pass students or make there classes so easy that no students should fail. However, will these students ever pass a standardized test? Have they really learned anything?

2. A teacher needs to try everything possible to help the student learn. The teacher needs to contact parents, try different teaching strategies, and continue to try different methods to reach the student. Offer before and after school help, retakes on test if the student comes in for help and does additional work to show mastery of the subject. I know that some teachers do not believe in retest but I believe learning is our ultimate goal. Also, consult other teachers or experts for help.

Finally, if the teacher tries everything and the student still fails maybe the student was not ready to learn the material. The teacher cannot force a student to come in for help. The teacher can only try to show the student and the parents that they care and they want to help the student.

AEMiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always had difficulty with Failing grades, but I will admit that there have been times it has felt good to record that "F" for a studnet. That student who just refuses to put in any effort and actually seeks to fail, truly earns that F. However, the F that student receives looks an awful lot like the F a hardworking student who just doesn't grasp the material has on their transcript, assignment, or report card too. To me this is not adequate. Those two failing grades are not the same. The first absolutely represents that student's "failure" to be a student, but the second is not deserved because that student did not "fail" as a student. The psychological damage done to a hard working student who gives it their all and is rewarded with the same "F" as the student who gave it nothing, is so easily inflicted, but not so easily repaired.

The simple solution seems to be to say that no student who really tries should end up with a failing grade, but in today's world of standards and accountability if a student has not "passed" your class they should not earn a passing grade merely for trying their best. Promoting a student who is not academically ready is no more fair or beneficial to that student than is a failing grade. Tutoring and remediation are wonderful tools, but not all students are able to take advantage of them at the higher levels. I teach high school seniors, many of whom are working when not in school to help the family get by.

I have no idea what the solution is other than to come up with a new way to measure individual student progress that can not be done with a standardized grading scale and stand alone standardized testing. We receive our students at diverse academic levels with diverse attitudes and beliefes both about education and about themselves. On the flip side of the failing grade is the "A" grade. How many times do students who are successful in school get rewareded with an "A" but did not have to extend themselves to earn it? For some, school is easy and requires little effort. Is an "A" a true academic representation of that student's effort? I don't believe a grade should be recorded or given just to make a student feel better about themself, but I do believe we teachers need to realize how grades do make students feel, and what those grades truly reflect. Maybe this way we can find solutions to fair and accurate grades.

Laura Murillo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching seventh grade math for four years. My students never earn a grade lower than a D. I should tell you that in my classroom students get credit for the work they do in class. I usually teach for 50 minutes out of the 55 minutes we have every period. There is much interaction between studnets. They work in groups of three. Doing classwork alone will give them a D regardless of the grades they get on the tests. For this reason in my classroom students and only students are responsible for their grades. I have heard from many of my students the comment "you gave me an D" and I make sure I make it clear to them that I do not give grades they earn them. I provide them with plenty of opportunities to improve their grades and many of them just don't do anything to help themselves. I understand that everyone is different and that each of them have specific needs but I give them extra time to complete assignments, I volunteer my time before and after school as well as during lunch to provide them with extra help and many times not one student shows up, I reteach as many times as needed, I perfom formal and informal assessment to check for understanding and so many other things. After a test I also allow them to re-do the problems, sometimes I work out the problem on the board, and all they have to do is copy it and turn it in for some extra points, many choose not to do it. I have come to the conclusion that in my classroom the students who fail do so becasue they want to. I know it sounds very harsh but I have no other explanation. I do not, by any means, believe that I am the best teacher and that everything I teach should be learned by all students, but I do my part and it is up to the students to do theirs.
Many times they use excuses to make us feel bad for them, but even if we do feel bad how does that help their learning and their grades. We have to be realistic, I always share my experience with my students. I was born in Mexico, we were very afluent, and at the age of eleven my father, an alcoholic, passed away, we lost everything. We had to immigrate to the US and start over. This was definitely traumatic but I did not let this experience put me down, on the contrary I thought if "I" don't take charge of my life no one else is going to do it. I had plenty of excuses not to succeed, but I decided that I wanted to.
Even parents make excuses for them. During parent conferences I have heard many parents say, "yes I know he has a D but ___ has never been good at math". I beleive that many students come in believing that they are not good enough and that no matter what they do they are never going to succeed. Many times as I give back their tests I see many of their surprised expressions because they got a passing grade. I do not only teach math but I also teach them about real life struggles and responsibility. They must be responsible for all their actions.

Justin Hahahj's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, you didn't fail the student. I teach middle school PE and there are a couple students every year that just don't want to participate. It doesn't matter what I try they still won't participate and most of the time cause problems. As educators what else can we do? I think it's just as appropriate to fail a student who doesn't show any effort as it is to award an A+ to a student who goes above and beyond. Students earn grades!

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was always a "good student," regularly seeing A's and B's on my report card and hearing glowing comments from teachers at conference time. Then sixth grade happened. I still don't know how or why it occurred, but I started to fail science. Was it the teacher? Extracurricular distractions? The material itself? I can't tell you, because I didn't know myself. My parents were equally baffled by the D's and F's on my science tests, compared to the A's and B's I achieved everywhere else. I was in a downward spiral... for the first time, I felt stupid in school. Since I felt stupid in that subject, I avoided it as much as I could. I put in the least effort possible in homework and studying. I just didn't want to think about it. With a lot of help and support from my parents, I managed to claw my way up to a C in the class, but I'll never forget that feeling of failure.

It was an awful experience, but it is also one of my most valuable memories as a teacher. I know what failure feels like; therefore, I am able to feel empathy for students who don't excel at school. Remembering that experience makes me patient. It motivates me to reach out to my students when they have given up on themselves. I am a better teacher because I have experienced failure.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too try to design my classroom to where every student will be able to succeed. If they do the classwork, then they should pass the class (despite the test grades). I agree with you when you say the the students that fail are the ones that want too. I have seen many students that have the ability to perform well enough to pass, but they do not want to put any effort in at all. They would rather sit there and do nothing. I think that it would be way less boring to just do the classwork. Students do need to be responsible for their actions; if they do nothing, they should not pass. If they had a job and didn't work, they wouldn't get paid. They would be fired.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had students that have failed my class, but those students failed because they wanted too. I have never had a student put forth their best effort and fail my class. The students that have failed, did not just fail my class. They failed almost every other class that they were in during that grading period. Usually, I would say that if a student fails, then I fail with them. I did not get my subject across to them effectively and I should have tried different methods to teach them math. But if a student is putting forth little to no effort and fail, should I think that I am to blame? Or would it be their fault? Or their parents for letting them think that failing is acceptable and its fine to drop out of school because they did?

I think that every student can succeed IF they want to and are willing to work at it!

AEMiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In all my years of schooling, the grade I am the most proud of is the "D" I earned in college in Multivariate Calculus. I was a math major at the time and this class hit me like a load of bricks; it was the first class I really struggled in. I remember looking at the midterm exam and thinking to myself that I must be in the wrong room and must have made a mistake on what day I was supposed to take the midterm because nothing on any of the eleven pages looked in any way familiar to me. Somehow I managed to score a whopping 11% on that exam. I finally understood what all my friends who hated math felt about the subject. I was overwhelmed and frustrated, but I did not give up. I stuck with the class and with the help of tutoring and long hours studying I managed to bring my grade up to a "D". This experience did teach me empathy for others and it taught me something about myself - that I have the choice when it comes to failure. I can choose to accept it or fight it and work against it. I chose to fight and struggle, and in the end gained confidence and pride not because I learned the material (one week later I was a declared literature major), but because I had faced a challenge and did all I could to overcome it. If I could do this with Multivariate Calculus, I could do this with any challenge that might come my way. So I agree that unless you experience failure, you do not understand the impact, positive and negative, that failure can have. You also gain credibility with students when they know you really do understand becuase you really have been there.

Dalinda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel your pain! I have been teaching for 13 years and each year I embrace the challenge of a student who has been nothing but trouble for past teachers. The 2008-2009 school year was no different, I had my mind set on that one incredible challenge. The principal, myself, and the parents of this child even sat down during the summer, before school even started, to discuss the impending success of their child. This student was reentering my class after withdrawing from our school due to dissatisfaction and being supposedly home schooled for 2 years. I was confident that I could reach this student, my success rate was flawless. We started off not too bad, 3 years behind academically, but not too bad. After a couple of weeks this student would just shut down, like he was ready for vacation, and begin to disrupt the learning of others. Our enrollment is just around 200 and he was literally supported by every staff member and support staff member at our school. We all tried everything with this student, but in the end he just didn't want to, and didn't feel like he had to learn. Sometimes the forces fighting you in the other direction are too mighty to conquer. Even though I don't want to, I have to admit I didn't conquer this challenge. The new year is coming near and I am looking for that challenge again. After last year, this one will be a breeze, and one defeat in 13 years isn't so bad. Never give up on the challenges and remember there will be plenty more.

Jannah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"After reading the original posting, I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback. The idea that an 'F' should be looked at as a stepping stone in this game we call life is so simple; yet so complex. I personally have only one experience receiving this grade and it changed my life in a huge way. While in a teacher alternative preparation program in New York City, I received an 'F' in a course titled, "Science and Music for the Elementary Student." Performing Arts has always played a major role in my undergraduate and adolescent life (I taught it at an after- school program for ten years), so I knew that I would be successful in this portion of the course. Science, on the other hand, had always proven to be a subject I had to work hard at and, for someone who had not completed course work in this area since my junior year of high school, just hearing that I would have to complete a course in science instruction made me extremely nervous at first. Because of this (combined with the fact that I am an over-achiever), I went above and beyond to ensure that I was actively involved while in class, sufficiently studied for the mid-term and final exam, and successfully completed all of the assigned homework. I never received less than a B+ on any of the course requirements and was shocked to find that I was given an 'F' as a final grade. After talking to other students who had also received a failing grade, we realized that the professor, who was Caucasian, only failed the nine African American students in his class of twenty-two. A friend of mine who is of Hispanic origin had even received a high grade for the course, which was alarming to me because I allowed her to use MY notes to study for a re-take of the final exam she had originally failed. I was not only livid, but hurt that something like this could happen after all the gains we have made in this country in terms of race. But, instead of fighting for my rightful grade, I allowed the professor to have the last laugh (no pun intended) because I chose to drop out in the last semester of a two year program that I had been working so hard to complete. I was only one course shy of obtaining my Master's degree-paid for by the city of New York. I quit teaching at the end of that year as well.

Since relocating to Georgia, the only job I could get was within the public school system and I found myself once again having to complete a teacher alternative preparation program in Georgia. Had I not let the science professor get the best of me, I would not have had to complete the aforementioned program and would probably be making at least $10, 000 more per year due to my master's degree.

I could have deemed this a negative experience, however, like Owen Edwards, the author of the original post, I looked at the 'F' grade and the circumstances that followed as a learning experience and did not make the same mistake of letting someone else have that kind of power over me again. I am proud to say that I am 3 days away from finishing my final requirement of the Georgia TAPP program and will be a certified teacher in a few weeks (once my application for certification is accepted by the GA Professional Standards Commission). Had I not had my experience with the racist science professor (who by the way resigned from his position and changed all of his contact information the day after he handed in his grades for my cohort) I may not have gained the diligence and perseverance required to try again to obtain my original goal of becoming a licensed teacher. If I see this professor in the future, I will extend my hand to thank him for the role he played in making me a more professional person who does what I have to in order to accomplish my goals and never backs down from adversity.

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