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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.

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MJB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had many conversations over the years with colleagues about the difference between "can't" and "won't" students. They are different, but the bottom line is that they don't have or haven't shown they have learned what they need to learn. If we pass a student on when they don't have the learning, we do them a disservice for their future education and career. However, to just let the "F" stand and do nothing about it is also a disservice.

When there are clear standards (or objectives or outcomes or targets) for a class, students and the adults who work with them can get specific feedback for the grade. They know what to work on. The challenge is to make sure that this discussion is held not just at the end of a course, but through out.

Another consideration is that an "F" be viewed as a not-yet rather than the final judgment. One student I had two years ago had made some of those poor choices that teenagers often do. He was trying desperately to get caught up and to graduate on time with his class. In mid-May he knew he wasn't going to make it in a couple of classes and began to miss class and not finish work. When we talked he said he was going to come back in the fall and finish up. He might be able to get a D in my class, but he wanted to actually learn something not just get by. His F was truly a not-yet and he knew it. (He did return and graduate.)

The bottom line is that a grade, any grade, is suppose to communicate a level of learning. This is not just for transcripts for colleges or employers, it is for the student. Teach them to reflect and analyze their learning and the impact of a low grade will be less damning.

Lisa McNeely's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was intrigued by your final question. I work every day with students who appear to not care about school, and I've found that guilt and putting the responsibility on them works well--most of the time. I use statements like "I know you don't care about Math, and really, I can't make you care, but you need this class to graduate, so how about we try and get there so that we don't have to be together yet another year?"

I've found that kids will do things for me, just because I'm their teacher, so when they moan and groan, and act as if they don't care, I make up something like "ya know, this might be stupid, and might not work, but I've got to try it because admin/state(some higher authority)suggested I teach this way. I've also gone as far as "could you do it for me?" Now you're moving towards caring about them, and kind of de-emphasizing content--for the time being, anyway. I've even gone as far to compliment them on a failing grade, if its a higher percentage than the previous one, and I DO NOT do it sarcastically--I am proud of them for improving, and I encourage them to keep improving

Individual conversations--short--not lectures have also worked for me. I just question them about what their fears are about the class, and how we can work through them.

Good luck, just focus on the student first, and the content will come.

Keith Lavigne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching technology / computer science for 5 years, now entering my sixth. Prior to teaching, I managed technology in various information systems roles for 7 years. I greatly enjoy teaching and am thrilled when students expand their horizons and accomplish something they truly believed they couldn't succeed. In the work force, any position that is going to stick around in the US over the next century is going to place the employee, as it did me, in situations where the outcome is very much in doubt.

Here in lies a fundamental flaw of our politically motivated objectives for our education system. Students learning to be employees in 21st century professions will not be completing a finite set of tasks with clearly defined instructions. As teachers, we must absolutely give students clearly defined goals and appropriate supports so that they develop the necessary reasoning, problem solving, deduction, and communication skills. While in progress of developing those skills, students are going to experience incremental failure and success. Yet, in the end, some students won't master those skills, in part because we demand that EVERY student master all of those skills and do so over nearly the same schedule (approximately 13 years).

Schools and teachers can be creative and revolutionary. We can expose students to the trials and anxiety of possible failure. However, it will be only when student outcomes are measured in a variety of rigorous yet flexible ways, whether students succeed or fail is not going to adequately or accurately reflect the realities of the professions, careers, and workplaces in which they will find themselves upon completing education.

A. Lopez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read postings this subject I still do not know what to do with my son who has only received D's and F's for the last 4 years. We make him sit at the table and are present as he does his homework. We helped him many times in support, supplies, a loving home, etc. But, when the progress report comes in we are heartbroken that it does not match the work he does at home. We have talked to him until we have to walk away with frustration. What is mind boggling is for the past 4 years, he passed the AZ AIMS test! He is very intelligent young man. He is 14 years old. Will he out grow this?

Kira's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Finding a balance between grading effort versus grading content has been a major discussion in my building. Our principal creates a list of D's and F's and teachers must defend the grades. Students must be given multiply opportunities to make up the work and parents must have been notified prior to the end of the reporting term. Although I don't agree teachers should have to defend grades like we are currently required, the policy does require teachers to consider what the grade truly means. The discussions that are happening in our building will help all teachers improve and help us prepare our students for high school.
I am also a firm believer in allowing students the opportunity to retake assessments and quizzes. I require students to prove they have done something to learn what they didn't know on the test they failed. Students must attend a study session during lunch or complete tutorials online. After they have completed this they are allowed to prove they have learned new material. I am always amazed at the amount of effort students will put into studying if they truly want to improve the grade. Students that earn an A in my class have to prove they really deserve the grade. Failure is not an option in my room but A's are not earned without really working hard.

amber harrell-tobey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my eighth year teaching math and it still boggles my mind how students get an "F" and don't know why. They think that one assignment will magically raise thier grade from the "F" they have had all year. They are under the assumption that they start off with an "A" at the beginning of the year and that thier grade drops from there. Many parents make the same assumption as well. Most students don't have a concept of points earned versus points possible. If teachers keep the grades of the students in thier faces constantly, then students begin to have a better understanding about which assingments effect their grades the most. Getting an "A" in a class doesn't mean that a student is the smartest, however it means that they have mastered how to perform in that subject area. We would be doing our students a diservice to give them a passing grade just because they tried, when the work place doesn't give us a paycheck for just "trying" on our job. We have to produce otherwise we are fired with an "F".

amber harrell-tobey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my eighth year teaching math and it still boggles my mind how students get an "F" and don't know why. They think that one assignment will magically raise their grade from the "F" they have had all year. They are under the assumption that they start off with an "A" at the beginning of the year and that their grade drops from there. Many parents make the same assumption as well. Most students don't have a concept of points earned versus points possible. If teachers keep the grades of the students in their faces constantly, then students begin to have a better understanding about which assignments affect their grades the most. Getting an "A" in a class doesn't mean that a student is the smartest; however it means that they have mastered how to perform in that subject area. We would be doing our students a disservice to give them a passing grade just because they tried, when the work place doesn't give us a paycheck for just "trying" on our job. We have to produce otherwise we are fired with an "F".

Anna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator, the F grade is controversial. I know some teachers who will fail a kid with a 69 and some who will give the child the extra point in order to pass the class. I like to grade students on effort as well. Not all students will be A students. I like to reward a student for putting forth the effort. Sometimes this will make a difference whether or not a student passes or fails my class.

Ross Walker's picture

I have changed my stance on failing grades over the years. When I first started teaching, I gave F's with regularity and never gave retakes. I found that most of the students I was failing were doing very little to correct their mistakes or work to better comprehend the material. Most of those students readily excepted their failure and often would shut down for the remainder of the unit or even year. I was quick to judge them as lazy, when in reality, I was the one being lazy. I have learned that if I invest more time into my "failing" students and find ways to work around failing grades, students will be more willing to work to master the material. I have tried to find creative ways to differentiate learning so that students can find a better way to grasp material that they may have struggled with the first time around. I have also looked for ways to circumvent failing grades in the grade book. I want to show students that they may have been unsuccessful, but their opportunity to succeed has not totally passed them by. The results have been mixed, but I am seeing more students willing to work to overcome their deficiencies.

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