Just Show Up, And We’ll Give You Better Grades

Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said jokingly that most of life was just showing up?

At Grand Rapids Union High School, students who attend classes regularly — or at least 95 percent of the time — will be handed better grades, with no further evidence of academic achievement.

Principal Janice Johnson recently sent parents a notice informing them of this irresponsibly generous policy. Students going to 95 percent or more of their classes during each 10-week grading period will be granted a higher grade automatically. Administrators came up with a euphemistic title for this: "grade enhancement."

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Under "grade enhancement," for instance, a student with a C-plus will see his grade magically rise to a grade B.

Joel Raddatz, Manistee Area Public Schools superintendent, said, "I like the idea of teachers making school policies, but that (raising grades merely for attendance) appears unrealistic and excessive…."

John Van Bonn, Big Rapids School District superintendent, said, "I never heard of such a thing (as raising a grade to boost attendance). I’m sure it wouldn’t work here. It sounds peculiar to me. We do have an attendance policy, but it certainly doesn’t involve raising a grade."

All is not inflated-grade heaven to the students of Union High School, however. The new policy does limit students to nine absences during each grading period. In other words, about one a week. If Johnny fails to make it to school more than nine times in any grading period, he will receive no credit for the days missed.

Union High Assistant Principal James Vidro explained that the bizarre idea of the bounce in grade for simply going to school regularly was the "child" of a committee of teachers and administrators fretting about lack of student attendance.

"Attendance is a cause for frustration, and we wanted to come up with something that would make a difference," Vidro said. "Maybe it’s something they can do in other schools in the district," he said optimistically.

Let’s hope not.

Incidentally, absences because of school activities or hospitalization would not be considered absences under the new rules at Union High. And if a kid misses school to attend the funeral of a friend, for instance, this would not count as an absence if the student made up the absence by attending a Saturday session.

Of course, a policy to get kids to do what they are supposed to do anyway won’t help the A students. If they showed up 95 percent of the time, as they probably already do, how could their grade be raised any higher? But it would send a message to the less scholarly, namely that working hard to make good grades isn’t any more important than just showing up.

Tragically, America’s public school system — with notable exceptions — is notoriously underwhelming academically. Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president and famous in her own right as a scholar and author, has noted for years the deficiencies in public education — especially the teaching and learning of American history.

"Sadly, we found through national surveys we conducted that most young people couldn’t distinguish the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence," Cheney told me. There’s a paradox particularly in learning history in the schools, she pointed out recently. We have an abundance of web sites and glossy textbooks on one hand and an ignorance of basic facts on the other.

The attendance rule at Union High in Grand Rapids ranks on the same level as the ever-popular policy of trying to inspire school kids to do well by having the school principal shave his head or kiss a pig. These sorts of antics may get chuckles from the students. But they neither aid the academic process nor heighten respect for educators.

We wonder why so many American kids in public schools don’t take school seriously. Certainly attendance is important. But when a school district’s academic standards are compromised to entice students to show up, the district begins to look like what public schools’ worst critics say they have become — a vast exercise in babysitting.


Note: Tait Trussell writes a weekly column for the Pioneer Group in Big Rapids, Mich., and collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the former managing editor for Nation’s Business magazine and was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.