Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Three Proposals Regarding Catholic Schools

Applying the Bishops' Recent Statement to the Archdiocese of Mobile

The United States Bishops recently wrote a pastoral letter on Catholic schools, entitled “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools” (2005). In this statement the bishops commit to the goal “of making Catholic education available, accessible and affordable to all Catholics and their children, including the poor and the middle class. “ This commitment is the right one, the bishops say, because “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the fourfold purpose of Christian education: namely to provide an atmosphere in which the Gospel message is proclaimed, community in Christ is experienced, service to our sisters and brothers is the norm, and thanksgiving and worship of our God is cultivated”.

As a practical matter, if it’s true that our Catholic schools provide the fullest and best opportunity for the education of our children, how do we ensure the future health of these schools in our archdiocese? I would like to pull out three ideas from this letter and suggest concrete ways for making them happen here:

1) Under the section on finances, the bishops write:

"The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. This will require all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools, to focus on the spirituality of stewardship."

I agree, but this is too much of an abstraction to prompt a plan of action. In our diocese, most parishes with Catholic K-8 elementary schools spend a hugely disproportionate share of their parish tithe on Catholic education compared to those parishes without schools. Yes, the parishes without schools subsidize the Catholic school dependent on the number of children from their parish that attend the nearby Catholic school, but this subsidy doesn’t even begin to even out the parish resources being spent between the two.

Therefore, I propose: Establish a diocesan parish tax for our Catholic schools based on a percentage of the annual parish tithe. This is in effect how we run our chancery offices, levying a 5% tax on the total income of each parish. The monies collected could be used as an archdiocesan scholarship fund for needy families or used to defray operational expenses in our schools, keeping tuitions lower for all.

2) The bishops remark further:

"While we have made progress in opening offices for development, endowments, marketing, and institutional advancement, we must expand those efforts on both the diocesan and local levels… Diocesan and school leaders should continue actively to pursue financial support from the business and civic communities. Our total Catholic community must increase efforts to address the financial needs of our Catholic school administrators, teachers, and staff."

In our diocese, whatever progress we've made in development, endowments and marketing relative to Catholic schools has been a function of individual schools, and not the diocese as a whole. Schools with resources have hired development directors, but the schools who arguably need it most cannot afford such a "luxury". Therefore I propose an archdiocesan endowment fund for Catholic schools. This is hardly radical, as many dioceses all over the country have begun such funds years ago, some with great success. Once the fund has reached a pre-determined level, the interest can be used for the benefit of scholarships for needy families or to offset operational costs.

The advantages of a diocesan endowment fund vs. local school endowment funds are many: First, an archdiocesan fund allows the bishop to be a major actor in the solicitation of funds (perhaps through an annual appeal, similar to Catholic Charities). Second, poorer schools and parishes don’t have the kind of affluent connections which make fund-raising a success. Third, larger businesses are likelier to give a single donation to a single annual cause than to the thousands of small causes, which each of their employees may champion. Finally, we can entrust our diocesan funds to professional money managers, rather than expect our beleaguered principals or pastors to make informed investment decisions.

3. The bishops write:

“Our challenge today is to provide schools close to where our Catholic people live. In areas where there currently are no Catholic schools, we should open schools that have a mission to evangelize.”

The current configuration of our Catholic schools is the result of historical happenstance, with little system-wide planning since. This isn't so much a criticism of anyone, as a recognition that our schools were formed as parochial structures, serving the needs of individual parishes. But our parochial assumptions now need a critical re-evaluation. Schools in once thriving neighborhoods are now in poorer areas, struggling to say open. Three schools in our diocese have closed in the last five years, with several more hanging on heroically. Rather than allow a kind of Darwinian evolution to take place, I propose we commission the equivalent of a “Blue Ribbon Commission” (ala the BRAC commission regarding military base realignments) to study the needs of Catholic education through-out our entire diocese, recommending new Catholic schools where the evidence suggest they will thrive (a Catholic high school in Baldwin County? an elementary school in Autauga/Elmore County?) and recommending the regionalization of schools where appropriate. Of course, the bishop would have to approve any of these recommendations.

Having worked in our archdiocese for over twenty years now, I know these are unsettling proposals. I also know that unless we begin to think creatively, the magnificent gift to our local church which is Catholic education is in peril. Left on their own, our Catholic schools will die….one school at a time.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What accounts for Catholic School Quality?

Four Differences Between Public and Catholic Schools

What accounts for the quality of Catholic Schools? Nationally, this is a question which has been garnering more attention, as educational reformers look to our schools as a means of improving public education. Let me say at the outset that our schools are hardly perfect, and frankly, some of the public school teachers I've known are better than we are. They are often better trained. Still, I believe there are four differences at the structural level that account for the general quality of Catholic schools.

A. Market-Driven

I’d like to begin with an obvious comment, which is also true of all private schools—we must be market-conscious. The reality is if we begin to not do our job, if we are not responsive to the needs of our parents or students, they simply vote with their feet by withdrawing their children, and pretty soon, we don’t have any kids left and our school closes down. Competition is good for us, I believe, and it motivates us to work harder. If the local private school has a better athletic program than we do, does that affect our enrollment? Absolutely, and we better improve. If the other builds a new school building, does that affect us? If the third has National Merit Scholars and we don’t, that hurts us. Again, I think that one of the real dilemmas that public education faces, everywhere, is that if their families do not have the financial wherewithal to leave their school for area private schools, they have very little incentive to improve and they hold an educational monopoly. That can often make them unresponsive to parental concerns.

This theory is, of course, what is behind the move by some to push for vouchers for public education. Vouchers are a means to introduce market variables into the public school equation. I think they’re worthy of at least trying on a limited scale at first, but I am not convinced they are a panacea, because there are two caveats that we must watch out four being a school that is competing in the market place, and which public schools would also have to be wary about:

• The first is there is often a temptation to be focused on the wrong things. Does being “market-driven” force us to spend too much of our educational dollars, as an example, on marketing, using valuable dollars that could otherwise go into the classroom? Using my city in Montgomery, Al as an example, the amount of time, attention and money the area private schools are spending on marketing is becoming almost over the top—it is ridiculously competitive in Montgomery for students, due in part because there are too many schools chasing too few students. I was the United Way rep for private schools in Montgomery two years ago, and I was staggered to learn there were over 35 private schools K-12 or parts of K-12 in Montgomery. On the one hand, you better be good. On the other hand, you better be savvy in marketing—and I worry about this—could we be spending this money more productively on raising teacher salaries? Purchasing classroom supplies? Updating our technology?

• The second caveat is that when you are market driven, there is some pressure to relax standards or to give in where in principle we should not. If a child is struggling academically, one might guess that there is conflict in the home, and where there is no “domestic tranquility” there is often squawking to the school about a particular teacher who is too difficult, or a grading system which is too hard, or a teacher who “doesn’t like my child”. And if the school doesn’t handle these complaints well, pretty soon they begin to lose students—so there is a temptation to give in. I believe this partly explains grade inflation in colleges and universities, as well as in K-12 schools.

These two caveats aside, however, I believe on the whole that being in a competitive market helps create a dynamic for responsiveness and quality which is essential to Catholic school success. For this reason, I would think that vouchers would be a worthwhile experiment to try on a limited basis as a means of improving public education. Florida, for example, gives vouchers to families whose children attend what the Florida Department of Education declares are failing schools, and these families can use that voucher to attend a local private or Catholic school. I have a hard time finding fault with that, unless one wants to argue that the school’s fate, which may close if too many families leave, is more important that the children it is failing to educate.

B. Subsidiarity.

The organizational principle which characterizes Catholic schools is subsidiarity—This is an idea also stressed in our Catholic social teaching tradition, which emphasizes that “higher” organizations should never usurp the role and responsibility of organizations below it unless the lower organization is unable to accomplish the task. To put it more directly, things are best handled at the lowest level possible. So in the area of politics, Catholic social teaching would argue for limited federal intervention in state affairs, and limited state intervention in local affairs—only to the extent necessary. In the area of schooling, most Catholic diocesan school offices are set up to give broad oversight to schools, to establish broad umbrella policies within which schools work and set local policies, but then to encourage local school boards, principals and faculty to customize their school according to the needs of their various communities. Here’s how that plays out in practical ways:

1. Each individual Catholic school has its own school board which sets policy for local school
2. Each school board sets its own budget, tuition and salary rates (ratified by superintendent)
3. Each principal has relative freedom to interpret policy and implement policy at the school.
4. Monetary decisions are made, consistent with budget, by the local school principal
5. The local board hires/fires principal
6. The principal hires/supervises/fires faculty and staff.

I submit that is a very different organizational structure than is typical of public schools. Typically, public schools have one county or city school board which is responsible for as many as 30-50-100 schools. That school board establishes district policy, which principals then implement. The amount of revenue each school receives is set by the state on a per pupil basis. Budgets are passed for the entire school district by this board, and then the superintendent works with those numbers for each school. Individual principals have very little discretion over how money is spent in their school. I worked with a large public high school (+2000 students) in the metro area, and talked with the principal about what parts of his budget he exercised control over. His budget was over 7 million dollars, but the only piece of it he controlled was the revenue they made from the coke machines at lunch time!

I believe the principal of subsidiarity is a critical component to Catholic schools’ historical success in this country. By way of analogy, from 1,000 feet in the air, every farmer’s crop looks the same---little rectangular patches of farmland. The poor man’s fields look the same as the rich man’s fields. But at ground level, you can see the nuances between them. The wealthier farmer may have an irrigation system that insulates his crops against droughts, and resulting yields are much higher.

Relative to schools, the question is always, what are our greatest needs? Where do we need to spend money and how can we spend it to be most effective? Who should we ask to run this or that program? I have so much more discretion and flexibility to answer that question than my colleague at this large public school had.

I believe there are two very practical effects to subsidiarity, both of which turn out to be critical to schools' success:

1. Schools end up spending money more efficiently. Because public schools are so highly centralized, they have comparatively large central offices. There was a 2002 study which studied the organizational structures of several large public school systems and the three largest Catholic school systems in the country. The differences are staggering. New York public schools employed 2311 central office personnel per 100,000 students. Los Angeles public schools employed 1646 personnel per 100K. Chicago employed 983 personnel. By contrast, the New York archdiocese employed just NINE central office workers per 100K, whereas the Chicago archdiocese had 19 and LA had 24. New York public schools employ 256 times as many central office staff as New York Catholic schools per 100,000 students. Not surprisingly, then, the average per pupil expenditure in Catholic schools are typically MUCH less than in public schools. In the New York comparison, even after subtracting the government funded special programs and compensatory programs for children in poverty, bilingual education for non-English speakers, special programs for various categories of disability, the costs of transportation and the cost of food services, the average per child expenditure for Catholic schools was 46.8 % of the public school costs.

Our budgets are created at each local school, by a local school Council. We’re able to target that money to the point it is most needed on an annual basis. Circumstances sometimes change, and because budget decisions are made at the local level, we’re able to respond to changing circumstances quickly. In the long run, that allows us flexibility that highly centralized systems don’t have, and allows us to spend our money well.

2. Second, and this may even be more critical than the money—subsidiarity encourages direct parental involvement in the school. In our school, for example, our local board is made up of parents in the school. Our parents have the ability to set school policy. Our parents have the ability, therefore, to set tuition rates, create salary charts for our teachers, and create and pass the budgets. When you give parents real authority, you get involvement and you get ownership. I often hear public school advocates moan about the lack of community ownership, the lack of parental interest, in their schools. But I believe this is partly bred by the fact that if you are a parent at that school, you have very little power to effect change. You must go before a district board that runs 30-50-100 schools, and they often don’t have time or the inclination to get into nuances that may affect one segment of one school among the many they serve.

C. A Common Mission

One of the greatest blessings we have as a Catholic school, different, even, from private schools, is that our essential mission is a given, a non-negotiable, and this allows us a certain amount of freedom that some schools don’t enjoy. The mission of every Catholic school in America is to help children develop as faithful, educated people, helping them develop an integrated world view of faith and academics. To put it directly, our job is produce well educated, happy and holy children, and there are established philosophies, practices and doctrines that are defined by our Church as pivotal ways to do this. We don’t have to worry about questions that often tear other schools apart, like whether or not to teach about evolution, or safe sex—these are settled questions in Catholic doctrine/morality (we can and we can’t, BTW). We don’t have to spend an enormous amount of money on vocational programs, trying to be all things to all people, because our high school mission (and name) says we’re a college preparatory program. In an increasingly pluralistic society, it’s increasingly hard for other schools to define a mission specifically enough where it can weed out good ideas from bad ideas—this clearly plagues universities, which offer everything from degrees in Physics to degrees in the circus, literally.

D. Legal structures

Private/Catholic schools and public schools operate under different legal parameters. Public schools are essentially controlled by constitutional law. In Catholic schools, teachers and administrators function “in loco parentis”, in the place of parents, which gives us much more freedom in our handling of kids. We operate not out of “constitutional law” parameters by through “contract law”, which means we must spell out policies in our student handbooks and then follow those policies very carefully. Should we get into a lawsuit, the ultimate question will be “Is the school following the rules it layed down and spelled out to all?” If yes, by the voluntary participation in that school, a family agrees to those rules and must abide by them. If we haven’t followed our own rules, then we’re in trouble.

What I personally believe, and the way we’ve tried to run our school, is that schools need to have maximum flexibility to do what it needs to do to help kids become the kind of people God wants them to be, so if we’re smart, we’re not going to define things too specifically in our policy handbook. In our public schools here in town, there is a disciplinary handbook that defines punishment depending on the type of offense, and there are level one, level 2, level 3 offenses with a certain punishment assigned for each offense. When I was much younger, I used to think this is the way we should run our school. Before I was a principal, I was critical of our previous principal because he didn't do it that way. Once, two students were caught doing the same thing wrong—something like cursing at the teacher. In one case, the principal gave the young man a 3 day out of school suspension. In the other case, he gave the young man a long list of summer projects in the early summer—weeding flower beds, dusting tops of fans. I thought that was unjust and unfair.

So, when I became principal, I vowed to be "fair". I created my own "disciplinary handbook" to help me mete out justice blindly., After three months, however, I tore up the handbook and threw it away, because it was forcing me to do things to students that I KNEW were ineffective for particular students.

Instead, I have come to realize that my ability to discipline kids is only limited by my imagination to help them get the message—I’ve had kids do volunteer work in the community, wax the school bus in my neighborhood, yes, the tried and true practice from the nuns of scraping gum from under tables, washing blackboards, picking up paper in the parking lot, shoveling gravel rock into school pathways….anything to help them take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Doesn’t mean we won’t suspend kids, if I think that is effective. Just means there is very little that merits automatic consequences. My mission as school disciplinarian is not to mete out justice, but to shape lives and do what is most effective, a child at a time, to affect that.

Shortly thereafter I wrote a brief parable which was autobiographical:

And it so happened that a new principal, wishing to make a good impression, said:

“I will treat all students the same for fairness sake”.

Shortly thereafter, two students were sent to the principal for the same disciplinary infraction. The principal said: “Policy dictates each of you receive a 3 day out of school suspension”.

The first young man, working closely with his parents, came back to school with a resolve to do better. The second young man dropped out of school.

And everyone agreed the principal was fair”.

What I have come to understand is that the essential ingredient needed for school success is the ability to do whatever I need to do for each individual child to help them grow into the people God wants them to be. In other words, an essential ingredient to a school is the ability of the school to love its students.

I do not suggest for a second that public school teachers don’t love their students—I think the good ones, like our good ones, really DO love the kids. But they are institutionally hamstrung by a legal structure that FORCES them to treat kids essentially the same, in ways that will meet constitutional and legal scrutiny. We are able, in contrast, to craft school policies in such a way that builds in flexibility. Here’s the sum of what our student policy handbook says about discipline:

“Disciplinary action will be taken with students who intentionally disregard policies and regulations”

I have left it deliberately vague so that I have maximum flexibility as a principal to do whatever I need to do for that student.

E. Summary

So, in summary, I believe there are four areas in which Catholic schools, and I am guessing some private schools, are able to insure quality:

• Being market driven, which forces us to be responsive to our student and parents’ needs

• Following the principle of subsidiarity, which allows local schools to have real authority for themselves, and set school policies and create budgets to meet their specific needs, and which also encourages parental involvement in the school.

• Having a non-negotiable mission, which allows us to be selective in how we use our resources

• Being able to operate within a legal structure that allows us maximum flexibility, which I claim is a necessary component in handling each student with love. As with all of us, what we ultimately need is love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Home-Schooling, Canon Law and the Catholic School Apostolate

In the interest of disclosure, I should say at the outset that the rise of the Catholic home-schooling movement is a personal issue for me. I have been a Catholic school teacher, principal and president for over twenty years, while friends whom I admire greatly have opted not to send their children to any of the Catholic schools available to them, choosing instead to home school.

Using these friends as an example, this is the dilemma for our Church: They are wonderful, creative, well-educated parents--in other words, fully capable of educating their children well. On the other hand, it is precisely these kind of parents that Catholic schools depend upon to be leaven for the school communities they serve.

Reflecting on this issue has led me to re-read many of the documents of our Church regarding parental responsibilities and rights and Catholic schools. The materials are voluminous, but I believe I can fairly present the essence of our Church's teachings in a couple of statements from the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law:

"Parents and those who take their place are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances." (Canon 793);


"Parents are to entrust their children to those schools in which Catholic education is provided; but if they are unable to do this, they are bound to provide for their suitable Catholic education outside the schools." (Canon 798)

The first canon recognizes a long-standing principle in Catholic theology and educational philosophy, that parents are the primary educators of their children and as such have both a right and duty to educate them in the faith without undue interference from the state (see also canons 226, 1136, or "Gaudium et Spes" #50, Vatican II). Thus our Church gives parents wide latitude in making educational decisions they believe are in the best interest of their children, including, when necessary, the right to home-school, as long as they are making a sincere effort to educate their children in the Catholic faith.

At the same time, canon 798 indicates that Catholic schools should be the presumptive choice of Catholic parents to educate their children in the faith, unless these parents are unable to do so (see also "Gravissimum Educationis" #8, Vatican II). Obviously, "unable" would apply in the case of parents who find themselves in areas without Catholic schools, or those who, if their parish or school doesn't provide financial assistance, cannot afford a Catholic school. But in light of the latitude parents enjoy as primary educators, might the meaning of "unable" be extended further?

In a widely circulated article over the internet ("Home Schooling in Canon Law", see www.catholiceducation.org) Benedict Nguyen, chancellor of the diocese of La Crosse, WI, a canon lawyer and home-schooler, argues that "unable to do so" could either mean physically or morally unable. Thus, if parents believed that a Catholic school misrepresented the faith, or wasn't "Catholic enough" or even if parents had no religious objections to a school but instead thought the school could not academically challenge their child, they would be "morally unable" to send their child to the Catholic school and acting within their rights as primary educators, in accord with both canons 793 and 798.

I find Mr. Nguyen's position ultimately persuasive, but with the following considerations:

First, our teachings do make clear that Catholic schools are to be the presumptive choice of parents absent compelling or serious reasons to the contrary. Catholic schools are not to be regarded as one choice among many options, but the preferred choice of our Church for our children. To argue to the contrary is to render canon 798 and other like statements meaningless.

Second, in the event that parents exercise their right to choose to home-school their children, they have a duty in conscience to be well informed about the serious reason they reject the Catholic school option. Frankly, as a Catholic school principal, I am often astounded how many good, well meaning folks are willing to judge a school on the basis of a rumor, an impression or an isolated incident. Often their impression is formed by recurring myths, like "Catholic schools don't challenge the top students" or they "don't teach the faith" or they "accept too many problem kids" or whatever else might be said. They would never buy a car or an investment property on the basis of such scant information, but they're willing to render judgment on the local Catholic school with almost no facts. As a principal, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with these parents, talk directly about their concerns and invite them to talk with other, informed parents prior to their decision to home-school. I'm sure many pastors would feel likewise.

Finally, while I believe Church polity gives parents both the right to choose and benefit of the doubt in making these choices, there is an other layer to this question beyond "rights" which ought to come into play, reflecting back to my comment that Catholic schools need parents like my friends as leaven. Specifically, Vatican II makes it clear that as laity, we share in our Church's apostolic mission to bring Christ to the world (Apostolicam Actuositatem, Vatican II). This is a mission that extends beyond the mere reaches of our family. When Catholic families embrace our schools and become active within them, when they become board members, room mothers, coaches, team moms, guest speakers, lawn cutters, cafeteria workers, PTO representatives and all the other hundreds of things they can become as a school parent, they participate in a very concrete, powerful way in our school's apostolate--our Church's apostolate--to bring Christ's healing and wholeness to a broken world.

For sure, it's quite possible that a home-schooling family can be actively involved in some other parish apostolic activity outside of their primary mission to educate their young. But let's also recognize this reality: there's only so much of us to go around! When our child enters kindergarten, as parents we begin a journey that for the next 13 years will consume our time, energy and passion. Choosing a school will not only define our child's fate, but will also determine who we are by our friendships and the commitments of our time to our children's various causes. By joining a vibrant Catholic school community and becoming active within it, we are able to simultaneously and seamlessly contribute to the education of both our own and other families' children.

Or, to put it in another way, speaking as a Catholic school principal, directly to my friends and other home-schoolers across the country:

We need you!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Grading "Rules of Thumb"

The Problem: Grade Inflation. All of us give grades as teachers. Students have a tendency to see them as the purpose or the “end” of their studying, but as teachers, we should view grades as the “means”. We use grades as carrots, really, to inspire the kids to learn. They are powerful motivators if we use them well, making A’s truly representative of superior achievement, making F’s the “earned” grade for students who are not working, and reclaiming the “B” as a grade indicative of above average achievement or effort.

There are many theories as to why our educational system is wanting, and perhaps there’s an element of truth in all of these theories. One contributing factor, for sure, is grade inflation. If obtaining good grades is easy, then it’s obvious that there is less motivation to work hard. In the self-reporting section of the ACT test, Alabama students intending to go to college report an average high school cumulative average of 3.1. At the same time, the average ACT score is 20.2, or .7 points below the national average. Most grading scales would claim that a “B” is “above average”, but the fact of the matter is a B is now the average grade, and perhaps even more alarming, the “A” is the mostly commonly given of all grades in our nation’s high schools.

What’s true of the high schools is true for our colleges. One university professor I know, so disturbed by the grade inflation at his school, wrote an open letter to the university, suggesting, tongue in cheek, that the grades of B through F be eliminated entirely from the grading scale, and replaced with A+++, A++ , A+ and A, with an A being the lowest passing grade!

Rules of Thumb: If then, this is the environment in which we work, what are some reasonable “rules of thumb” we ought to consider when awarding grades to students? By “rules of thumb”, of course, I don’t mean rules which are inviolable, as every class is unique, and some more talented than others. However, I would argue the following guidelines are about the right balance for high school teachers:

1) First, the grade of an “A” ought to be for superior achievement alone. A’s ought to be reserved for the purpose of stretching our most intelligent students. To be blunt, average ability kids, even those who work very hard, should not generally be able to “earn” an A, as the level of thought and sophistication required to earn an A is beyond their intellectual ability.

There will be some teachers who balk at this, claiming it smacks of intellectual snobbery or elitism. Shouldn’t every child, unless impaired by some learning disorder, perhaps, be able to earn an A? My answer is simply “No”. Here’s why: If you show me a class where the average ability student is able to earn an A through effort, I will show you a class where the top students, frankly, aren’t challenged intellectually. Over the long term, we do a tremendous disservice to these students, who are never challenged to work at their potential.

2) A “B”, on the other hand, ought to be representative of EITHER “above average achievement” or “above average effort”. An average ability child who works very hard ought to be able to earn a B and a bright student who works on an average level ought to be able to receive a B.

A “B” needs to be reclaimed as a good grade, not the average one. Students of average ability who graduate from our high schools with cumulative GPA’s around a 3.0 ought to be recognized as solid citizens and extolled as hard workers. If the student is very smart but doesn’t work particularly hard, it’s possible to demonstrate “above average” performance. Similarly, an average student can earn a B through sheer, consistent effort.

3) A “C” should be an indication that students have learned what is “minimum and essential” in the class.

Put in a different way, a student who receives a grade of “C” in an Algebra I class should have the minimal tools to be successful in Algebra II. No, the student doesn’t have a superior grasp of the material, or even an above average one, but they know the basics.

4) A “D” grade should be rarely given, except as a semester/trimester/yearly average.

If in fact the C represents what is minimal and essential, then what does a “D” really mean? If a student hasn’t learned what is minimal within a specified grading period, he or she should generally fail.

I can think of one exception: when a teacher has an extremely weak student who is working very hard. Because the student is weak, they may not be able to complete work at the “C” level. But because they are working hard, it’s inappropriate to fail them. That’s when I would give a student a D. It tells the student that hard work matters.

Schools that adopt this “D” policy can honestly say to its weakest students and their families that “If the student works hard, he or she will not fail”. That’s a powerful statement for weak students--their ability to pass all core classes in the school is in their hands. Coupled with better grades in P.E. and lighter electives, it's possible for these kids to be successful.

5) An “F” should be given for students who don’t do homework or don’t work in class.

We are reluctant to give F’s because, we say, we are afraid of hurting kids’ self esteem. This is nonsense. The worst lesson we can teach our kids is they can get away without doing what is required of them. Frankly, in any random mix of kids, we probably should have a percentage of F’s in our grades, at least initially, because there will always be a couple of students who will test to see if it really matters if they do homework. It should! In many school systems, despite teachers' rhetoric to the contrary, it doesn't, because those same teachers are unwilling to fail the student.

A typical grading distribution: What, then, would a school’s grading distribution look like if it adopted these principles? That depends on the school and the students within that school! For a school like ours, which is an archdiocesan school that accepts students from the highest to lowest abilities, yet which has an average ACT score of 23.1, I suggest that the following distributions would be the norm for early in the year:

A’s (10-20% in core classes)
B’s (30-40% in core classes)
C’s (30-40% in core classes)
D’s (5-10% in core classes)
F’s (10-20% in core classes)

The average GPA in those core classes would be close to a 2.5 Once other classes, like P.E. and some electives are added in, the GPA might be in the neighborhood of 2.7 –2.8, or a B- average.

As the year progressed, and as students understood that not doing homework yielded a failing grade, I would expect the percentage of F’s to go down, with most of those grades becoming C’s or better.

An anticipated objection: Would a school that graded this stringently hurt their students’ chances of getting a scholarship? If grade inflation is the norm, won't it hurt our students to grade in a manner inconsistent with the norm?

It is hard to convince parents, but the truthful answer is “no”. Here’s why: Colleges understand that grades are inflated around the country. They also understand that different schools have different standards, such that a 4.0 in one school is in no way equal to a 4.0 in a different school. Even further, a GPA within the SAME school may mean something very different—for example, as in the case of two students, one of whom takes an honors curriculum, and the other who takes the easiest classes available. Faced with these myriad problems in comparing GPA’s, most schools base scholarship (and admission) criteria on nationally standardized tests. The ACT and SAT are the great “gate-keepers” for our colleges because they are equalizers in the assessment of abilities.

But aren’t some scholarships contingent on certain test scores AND GPA’s? Yes, but read these criteria closely. For prestigious universities, the typical scholarship criteria would be something like “32+ on the ACT and 3.5+ G.P.A. The reality is that the 3.5 GPA is not a particularly high standard (in most high schools, fully ¼ of the student body would have a 3.5+). But the 32 eliminates just about everybody except the most elite of students. In other words, the GPA's as stand alone criteria really don't matter that much--test scores do.

What some universities have begun to do is pay much more attention to class rank, which in most schools is a combination of GPA and difficulty of courses taken. But because that is an internal number, where students are measured against each other but not relative to other schools, the student is not penalized if the school "grades hard". In addition, schools look at other factors, like involvement in extra-curriculars, leadership positions held, service rendered to others, unusual responsibilities--all of which are grade neutral.

In reality, far from hurting students, if a high school insists that students from the freshman year forward must demonstrate truly superior work for an “A”, that stretching will actually HELP students for college admissions and scholarships, because it will yield higher test scores.

I promise! As an anecdotal story, my oldest son graduated from our high school last May. His GPA was a 3.7— good, but not great. However, his mother and I insisted he take every AP course and honors course our school offered, and his teachers were stingy with the A. The result? He did well on the SAT test, and because of that, was not only accepted to Notre Dame, but received a generous scholarship.

Grades are carrots, and little more. Let’s use them to stretch our kids as far as we can.