“Only in education.”

This year I was selected to represent my department at a six-day training seminar for a program that we’ll call “Not A Thing,” or “N.A.T.” This was not exactly an honor, because I loathe having to miss school days. The kids take advantage of the substitute, I lose a day of instructional time because I can’t trust a sub to teach the curriculum, and usually, no matter how idiot-proof I make the instructions, the sub manages to screw them up. These training days simply put me further behind my schedule.

So I try to look on the bright side of these affairs: it’s a change of pace, I’m getting paid to get away from my little cherubs for some time, and hopefully I can get some good ideas out of it.

The first two days of the training were in September; the next two days were this past week. I’d say that we’ve spent half the time so far discussing the need to get other teachers at the schools to “buy into” the NAT program, about a quarter of the time on useless miscellany, and about a quarter of the time on interesting ideas and suggestions. One day’s worth of useful stuff, three days’ worth of crap, and I’m four days off the pace I set for my curriculum.

Back in September, the presenters stated that you should not let students fail, that you should never give zeroes, that you should never stop trying to get kids to learn.

It’s a beautiful sentiment, but then the Dismal Science comes into play. The more time and effort you spend on trying to teach Student X, the less time and effort you have remaining to teach Students Y and Z.

I asked the presenters, “What do you do when you come across a kid who, regardless of ability, refuses to do the work, absolutely refuses to learn?”

The response was some variation on, “That’s a good question. I don’t have the answer.”


One of the presenters, in trying to convince people of the need to adopt the NAT, paraphrased a professor from Harvard. This is not an exact quote, but it’s close:

If I have to show you any more than one piece of evidence that this program works, then you’re just making an excuse to avoid it.

My immediate reaction was, “If that professor was in the law department, he should be stripped of his tenure.” I wrote it down as quickly as I could, but it was so absurd on its face that I thought I must have misheard him—but the next day, the other presenter referred to that same Harvard professor:

Asking for more than one piece of evidence means you’re looking for an excuse.

Try that “logic” in a court of law, or a physics lab. If the first piece of evidence or data supports a claim and the next ten pieces do not, was I merely “looking for excuses” to reject the claim? Or was it reasonable to believe that the claim might be no good?

This is not to say that the NAT program is bad—but it suddenly reeked of hucksterism. They were trying to pitch a program without letting anyone look behind the curtains.

One of the presenters examined problems with the structures of various academic grading systems. His biggest complaint about the traditional grading system was that a grade of zero could destroy a student’s chances of passing a course—and because the student knows that, it destroys his incentive to perform better.

He ignored the fact that the very difficulty of recovering from a zero also provides an incentive to avoid zeros in the first place.

He then went on to attack the idea of using averages. He complained that the most commonly used grading systems do not have equal intervals—for example, using intervals of 10 percent for A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s leaves a 60 percent interval for F’s (i.e., a grade below 60% is an F). He went so far as to call it “ridiculous,” “absurd,” and claim that “mathematicians know this is invalid and unreliable.”

Well… no. It’s not invalid and it’s not unreliable. It’s a simple statement that you want your students to learn at least 60% of what’s taught to them.

He complained that averages are used as measures of performance “only in education,” and that nobody else “in the real world” used them. He said to imagine that that in football, you had to run four consecutive plays from a particular line of scrimmage, and at the end of the four plays you could advance the line of screimmage by the average gain. For instance, if you started from your 20 and ran plays of 8, 10, 12, and 14 yards, you’d take the average gain (11 yards) and begin the next series from the 31 yard line.

Football coaches would call you crazy, he claimed, because it’s absurd to use averages! Which is absolutely true, unless you’re looking at completion percentages, rushing averages, kicking averages, punting averages, receiving averages, average yards-after-catch…

Can anyone provide examples of using averages “in the real world”?

His solution to the problem of averages was to use a total points system with a twist. For instance, if there were 1000 points to be gained in a quarter and there are five possible letter grades, you divide 1000 by five to get 200 point grade intervals:

A: 800 to 1000 points
B: 600 to 799 points
C: 400 to 599 points
D: 200 to 399 points
F: 0 to 199 points

So a student earning 500 of a possible 1000 points would earn a C. Think about that: 50% is a C.

His justification: “If I’m taking a class in Chinese, and I get a 50%, that means I learned 50% more than what I knew at the beginning. How can you call that ‘failure’?”

Now, never mind that he’s still, in a sense, using averages, except that in his system you can average 20% and still pass the course. The first flaw in his reasoning is that if he knew nothing at the beginning, then “learning 50% more” would mean he still knew nothing. Half of zip is still zip.

The other flaw in his reasoning: that 50% figure doesn’t mean he learned “50% more than before,” it means he learned 50% of what he should have learned. And maybe in his courses, he’s willing to pass kids who learn less than half of the material. That’s his business.

If there are better grading systems out there, systems that are better at encouraging student learning, I’m all for them and I want to hear about them. But to attack the concept of using averages, and to attack 60% (or 65%, or 68%) as a minimum passing grade is a red herring. It leads us nowhere. Worse, it’s not like he was leading us toward a solution—we have to find those on our own—so it was pure, meaningless nonsense.

I have two more days of this to look forward to in January.

7 Responses to ““Only in education.””

  1. Gerton Says:
    November 15th, 2007 at 8:17 PM: A substitute teacher deserves so much more credit than what they receive currently (if any). For the simple fact that anyone who can be fairly dim, unskilled, and untrained and still maintain a sense of order in the classro… actually nevermind.But as far as the grading system goes, its a great idea… Just imagine if all the teachers at Paxon adopted it, most of the students could finally pass those mentaly challenging courses (@Paxon *gasp*). Notice the use of the word “most”, you know you will still have the few handfull of students that just …don’t try.

    On a serious note when dealing with “0″s and when/how to give them out, the teachers discretion should be used on a student to student basis. If you see a student struggling but he turns in his homework daily and participates in class fully (adding to the overall educational value of the lectures), the student should receive more points (or have less deducted) when submitting a “subjective” assignment.(not turning in work always = “0″) This of course will instill hope into the sad hearts of that handfull students…

  2. Andrew Jackson Says:
    November 16th, 2007 at 3:42 PM: I really hope all public high schools adopt this NAT program. Kids these days are getting smarter and smarter. (My baby nephew has already developed a sense of sarcasm.) I don’t want to have my steady job in 10 years taken away from me by some young, brainy product of a good public education system. I say, let my generation be the last smart one!
  3. BluePairJeans Says:
    November 19th, 2007 at 6:07 PM: Personally I believe kids these days have it too easy as it is. I’m appalled by some of the students we unleash on society with high school diplomas. I remember a time when an A was 94 of higher and below 69 was an F.
    The The Florida Department of Education, with all of its infinite wisdom, has had quite an effect on our rising youth. Teachers nowadays seem forced to teach for the sole purpose of passing FCAT and similar tests, while little or no real life instruction is given.
    So basically what I’m getting at is: change is needed, but this guy’s ideas are plain lunacy…
  4. BluePairJeans Says:
    November 19th, 2007 at 6:08 PM: hmmm, it doesn’t appear as if my last post actually posted…
  5. VDV Says:
    November 19th, 2007 at 8:25 PM: I have to approve the posts before they are posted, to ensure as much anonymity and as little profanity as possible.
  6. xion09 Says:
    November 20th, 2007 at 8:05 PM: Well as BluePairJeans says kids do have it easier now a days compared to past generations but shouldn’t that be thought of as a good thing like progress towards a better society. Just because todays kids don’t have to worry about war and poverty as much as past generations doesn’t mean their going to turn out as pompous idiots.
  7. Que si Says:
    December 5th, 2007 at 11:52 PM: I don’t really have much to say but since everyone else was posting I decided to conform. Maybe now people will like me…