Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 30, 2011

‘No F’ policies are predicated on fantasy, ignore reality

Crackeleur Capital Letter F On Glass (Silver Spring, MD) from the Flickr photostream of takomabibelot

I applaud the Morgan Hill Unified School District’s trustees for indicating that they will remove a policy that bars students from participating in extra-curricular activities if they receive a failing grade in any class. I wish the Gilroy Unified School District’s trustees had done the same when this issue came before them in March. GUSD trustees voted to implement a “no F” policy effective this school year.

The MHUSD will retain its requirement that students maintain a 2.0 grade point average to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Proponents of “no F” policies often paint those on other side as softies who want to coddle students. It’s an easy and sadly predictable reaction, but it’s also wrong.

Those who support “no F” policies often seem to confuse messy reality with idyllic Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional Midwest paradise where “all the children are above average.” (A hint for the mathematically challenged “no F” policy proponents among us: That’s impossible.)

A “no F” policy tells students that if they merely struggle with a subject, if they try and fail, that they deserve harsh punishment. Worse, the punishment is not rehabilitative in any way, as something meaningful like required tutoring might be. I suspect that one reason that “no F” policies are popular is that they are cheap. It costs nothing to bar a student from extracurricular activities (at least in the short term), while providing tutoring is expensive (again, in the short term).

Those who support “no F” policies also forget that the failing grade is itself a punishment. Failing grades lower students’ GPAs and force students to retake failed courses to earn credit. Why heap on more punishment by barring participation in extracurricular activities? It smacks of sadism.

Those who support “no F” policies encourage students not to stretch, not to take risks. They ignore the fact that failure is often a very good teacher.

Those who support “no F” policies ignore, as Sam Smith wrote in Progressive Review in 1986, the fact that “no F” policies teach students that “society discriminates against those who do not fit its mold — either because of ethnic background, economics, physical or mental idiosyncrasies, or inclination.” Smith noted that because “extra-curricular activities are too often used as early imprimaturs of success, the very student who is failing in the classroom will be forced to fail a second time outside the classroom.”

Worst of all, those who support “no F” policies pretend that the policies encourage students to make academics their top priority, when evidence shows that “no F” policies instead encourage students to drop out of school. The University of California Santa Barbara’s California Dropout Research Project reported [PDF] that participation in sports and other extracurricular activities increases the likelihood that a student will finish high school, labeling it “one of the most important” predictive factors.

Dropping out of high school is bad for everyone: for students, who will earn less and face high unemployment risk; for businesses, which need skilled labor; for families, which rely on strong breadwinners; and for our country, which needs productive citizens.

I wish we had a perfect world like the one Keillor created in Lake Wobegon. I wish that no student struggled with any subject; that every parent had the time and expertise to tutor their kids themselves in every subject, or at the very least the resources to hire private tutors; that no student needed to work to supplement family income; that no student dealt with physical or mental illness, or physical, sexual or substance abuse.

Sadly, that’s not reality. What’s more, even absent those kinds of difficulties, students can struggle in one subject without deserving banishment from every school dance, every team sport, and every club.

A policy requiring a 2.0 GPA — a C average — ensures that students are paying attention to their studies while allowing some room for students to challenge themselves academically and to risk struggling in one class.

We don’t live in Lake Wobegone, and implementing policies that are predicated on that fantasy won’t make it so. I’m glad that MHUSD trustees understand that, and hope that GUSD trustees will remove their rose-colored glasses and face reality before their implementation of a “no F” policy has real and lasting negative effects on the lives of students and the community.

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