Lou Steigerwald, Ed. S.

  • School Superintendent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
  • Plant Wrangler/Gardener
  • Middling Gamer

Point Based Grading Systems are Often Unfair!

Years ago while I was still in the classroom, I used a point system for grading that many folks will be familiar with.  100-90=A; 89-80=B; and so on until a 59 where a student scored a failing (F) grade.  Like many of my peers, I also recorded the exact grade a student “earned.”  Meaning if a student scored a 35 on a test or essay, that is what I recorded and then used in calculating the student’s overall grade.  I used this system until a fellow instructor demonstrated to me how this system is unfair and punitive to students.

First though, let’s review what a grade is supposed to communicate.  A grade on any assignment is supposed to be representative of a student’s ability to perform on a given set of standards (usually the Common Core nowadays).  In other words, when I assigned my students to write an essay on how an author uses specific word choices in order to influence our feelings about a character and to provide examples to demonstrate how this has been done, I would score the essay on the writer’s ability to use the writing conventions we’d discussed in order to complete the assigned task.  Students who earned an ‘A’ demonstrated competence well above expectations, a ‘B’ paper would demonstrate above average competence, a C would meet expectations, but no more than that; a ‘D’ had failed in some manner to demonstrate competency; an ‘F’ had failed entirely to fulfill the assigned task.

That’s it.  Clean and simple.  I often used rubrics to more clearly communicate to students what they had done well and where improvement would help them to bring their grade higher (they were also allowed to rewrite, except for on timed essays in A.P.).

I think it is also important to point out that grades are not a reflection of a student’s behavior.  Because our definition of a grade is that it is a measure of competency on a standard, they should never be used as punishment.  Academic competency and behavior are two separate things.

So what is wrong with a points system?  If we look again at the standard point system with its ten point segments we understand that grades below a sixty are rated as F on a letter grading scale.  If an instructor stops at 59 as being the lowest possible score, or 50 as I have conceded to some staffs, then all is well within this system.  Unfortunately, especially for students, when grades of less than fifty are recorded, the logic of the grading scale must also be continued.  Thus 49-40=G; 39-30=H; 29-20=I; 19-10=J; 9-0=K.  No school records grades in such a manner.  After all, what is the point?  If anything below 59 is an ‘F’ and if an ‘F’ means absolute failure to demonstrate competency on a given group of standards, what the heck is an ‘H’?  More failingure?  Is a ‘J’ more failingurest?  And what is being communicated to the student?  You are less than failing?  You have to look up in order to see students who cannot even perform an assigned task?  Ouch!

One thing for sure though, students with grades that are in reality less than failing end up in a hole for a struggling student to climb out of.  I am frequently met with the argument that the instructor wants grades to reflect what the student actually earned.  I offer, well we don’t record H, J, etc. grades so your grade is not accurate.  This usually leads to the assertion that no, the grade is not an H or a J, that anything below 60 is an F and all those numbers are the same grade.

Let’s test that theory.  Remember that we are not talking about kids at the top of the grading scale, we are talking about kids who struggle just to pass a given class.  For this model let’s say our student’s actual scores were: 70, 35, 60, or letter grades of C-, F, D-.  Based on straight points we then have 165/300=55%.  Now let’s calculate with 50 as our lowest possible score: 70, 50, 60=180/300=60%.  Recall that the argument for grades below 50 is that all Fs are somehow the same.  Note that the letter grades are the same in both examples, C-, F, D-, but one student is not failing (barely) and the other is failing and gaining no credit.  What happened?  All Fs are not the same as was claimed.  In order to accept that all Fs are the same we must also accept that 35=50.  Clearly this is not true…unless the world of mathematics is about to be turned on its head!  Because schools do not record a letter grade of less than F (and I am definitely not arguing that they should!), using a score that is in reality less than F is the equivalent of tying an anchor around a student’s academic ankle.

The more grades a student has of less than 50, the harder it will become for the student to pass.  Kids are not stupid.  They understand when things are hopeless.  Recall also that the students we are talking about often struggle anyhow. 

Point based grading scales that allow instructors to record grades of less than 50 (and I am again conceding that as it can reasonably be argued that the lowest score should be 59 based on the logic that 59 is not equal to 50) are unfair, untied to their own reality mathematically, and demoralizing for students.  If a point based grading system is to be allowed, it must be applied fairly.  This means students should not be given grades that are in actuality letter grades below F.  It is long past time for schools to stop allowing grades that are unsound and punitive to students.

LGBTQ and Inclusivity

This week NPR aired a story about a student newspaper in Grand Island, Nebraska that was shut down because students published articles under the names they chose for themselves rather than their birth names. According to the article, using a byline of their own choosing was somehow “controversial.” Per the report, neither the superintendent, board president, nor the school’s principal would provide comment on the story.

I feel sorry for the folks in Grand Island who are led by such a group of cowards.

The only “controversy” of allowing a person to publish under their chosen byline is the one wholly created by the weak-kneed leaders of the district. Public education and public education leaders are to provide a welcoming and safe place for learning for all students and staff.

Rather than welcome all students into their community, the leaders in Grand Island instead choose to send the message that, “You are welcome to be in our schools so long as you conform to the narrow ideas, values, and orientation supported by the superintendent, board president, and school principal. We, and we alone shall determine whether or not you and your preferred existence is acceptable. If you challenge our worldview we shall insist you stuff yourself back into the closet and toe the line of the lifestyle we have decreed as being acceptable. If you do not, we shall do our best to erase you and your point of view from within the walls of our publicly financed institution.”

How shameful.

It would be interesting to know exactly what the lily-livered leaders fear could happen by simply allowing the students to publish under their preferred bylines. Would the world stop revolving? Would day become night? Would the Detroit Lions have a winning football team? Or maybe the problem is that they would actually have to do their jobs and stand up in order to provide a welcoming place for all of the students they are paid to serve rather than cower behind the flimsy excuse that an author publishing under a pseudonym is controversial.

You may or may not recognize the names: Samuel Clemens, Charles Lutwidge Dotson, Eric Arthur Blair, and Mary Ann Evans. It’s likely you are familiar with the names: Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, and George Eliot respectively in the list above. Publishing under a name other than one’s birth name is common. If the leaders in Grand Island needed an excuse to allow high school students to publish under the name they desired, they quite simply could have referred to the use of alternative names being a long tradition in the history of writing. This would ignore the fact that the writers consider their chosen names to be their names, but that would be far better than spitefully shutting off free speech, eliminating a worthwhile class, and identifying their schools as, at best, craven places in which students who are not of the majority are squashed in order to make life easier on district leaders.

There is not one thing lost by allowing a student to be called by the name they prefer to be called. Many people are known by their middle names, by nicknames, and yes, by pen names.

William Shakespeare aptly pointed out that, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The Grand Island leadership team clearly believes they are the ones who should determine what names others will be known as. Their attack on student identity would have them trampling not just the name by which a rose is called, but the roses themselves. Sadly, the roses in this case are the students they are paid to educate, welcome, and protect.

There certainly is something that smells in the leadership team in Grand Island, but it isn’t roses.

Teacher Shortage Causes

What’s the Deal with the Shortage of Teachers Nationwide?

Schools across the U.S. are facing tremendous challenges in filling teacher vacancies.  There is little doubt that there will be children in classrooms across the United States who will begin the school year without a teacher in place in their classroom(s) or with teachers who have been placed in subjects outside their area of certification, or even with folks placed in the classroom because no one else was available.  You may have heard about this crisis, but you may not have heard what is factoring into this critical problem.

Teaching is not the only field where employers are having a hard time finding suitable employees.  We have all noted the many help wanted signs on businesses throughout our communities.  While many have blamed the pandemic and the “great resignation” for the problem, there is more to it than that.  From a demographic standpoint there is a problem baked into the number of employees available to hire.

For the longest time the Baby Boom generation was the largest generation in U.S. history.  The generation that followed the Boomers, Generation X, is smaller than the Boomer generation.  As the Boomers began to retire, it was thus a given that there would be fewer available employees in the talent pool.  It just stands to reason that one cannot fill vacant jobs when one has fewer folks entering and in the system than those who are leaving the system through retirement or death.  The Millennial Generation is now larger than the Baby Boom generation due to the natural process of decline in the number of Baby Boomers via death.  The Millennial Generation is considered to be those born between 1981 to 1996.  The youngest of the Millennials then are near the start of their professional careers and just beginning to be available to fill the roles being left behind by the last of the retiring Boomers and the beginning of retiring Gen Xers. (Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/28/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers-as-americas-largest-generation/)  More specific evidence as well as child population projections can be accessed through the U.S. Census website (https://www.childstats.gov/AMERICASCHILDREN/tables/pop1.asp).

For the education field though, it’s more complicated than just demographics.  Not only is the education profession faced with the same demographic realities as other employment segments, fewer young people are choosing education for a career.  Per an EdWeek report in March of 2022, between 2008-2009 and 2018-2019 traditional teaching programs saw a 35% decline in enrollment.  No doubt some of this was due to the aforementioned demographic reality; however, it is also true that there have simply been fewer people choosing education for a career (https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/fewer-people-are-getting-teacher-degrees-prep-programs-sound-the-alarm/2022/03).

Combine the unavoidable facts presented by a demographically smaller workforce (temporary though that may be), fewer folks choosing the profession, and a rise in the number of children in the U.S. and you have a perfect storm of factors that have resulted in the teacher availability crisis.  Based on demographics alone, it is not surprising that there is a short supply of teachers or workers in any field for that matter.  This reality is being borne out in the current labor marketplace.  Add in folks not choosing education with a rising school age population and you have an accurate account of the headwinds facing schools.

But the factors above are not all of the story.  While the teacher employment crisis is finally getting attention in both the media and from some government agencies, it cannot be said that no one was sounding the alarm on the now present crisis.  Education associations, state committees, and individuals have warned that this crisis was imminent for a long time now.  I have personally warned thought leaders and politicians that this day was coming for over a decade now.  The public should not accept any public official whose been around for any length of time claiming this day could not be seen on the horizon.  They were duly warned.

In Michigan there is finally money in the budget to help grow the teaching profession.  Whether this will draw young people into the profession is unknown.  Teachers regularly site low pay and stress as two of the leading causes for walking away from the profession.  Programs to forgive college debt and to provide stipends for student teachers do not directly address either of those two challenges.  Thus the medicine concocted by the state may be directed at the wrong source of the malady.  Only time will tell.  

Time, however, is not something today’s students have.  Even if the approaches being tried are successful, there is at least a four or five year delay in improvements to the teacher availability pipeline.  That is potentially another half decade of schools struggling to find teaching staff and endlessly poaching one another for qualified adults in classrooms.  We must be prepared to adjust rapidly and realistically to this crisis if we are to provide the education children need and that our society and our businesses require to thrive.

White guilt

While driving back to the U.P. from a meeting in Lansing last week, I tuned into a radio station on which there was a discussion of replacement theory. During the discussion a commentator defended Tucker Carlson and Fox News from having any responsibility for the recent murder of Black Americans in Buffalo by a racist, white supremacist who was influenced by the awful lies and dangerous conspiracies often spun by Mr. Tucker on his Fox News white power propaganda program. The speaker chalked such allegations up to liberal white guilt. As a white, liberal, fella I want to say that I’m not familiar with the epidemic of liberal, caucasian guilt to which the speaker refers.

My relatives replaced Americans

I am only the second generation American citizen on my grandfather’s side of the family. My grandfather came through Ellis Island, where they changed his first name for him to Louis.

My grandfather’s family was poor and my great-grandfather moved his children to America one by one whenever he had saved enough money to do so. My grandfather knew no English on arrival and had little schooling. He became a tool and die maker by telling prospective employers he was a tool and die maker, working just long enough to learn a little of the trade and getting fired until he finally learned enough to earn his journeyman’s card. While this tale is spunky and spirited today, no doubt in his day many looked down on the lying fellow from Eastern Europe. Just another dirty devil replacing good American workers by lying his way into the automotive industry!

I am married to a naturalized American citizen. My wife came over from Germany with her family when Volkswagen sent her father to the States to open a U.S. auto plant. Yet another foreigner taking American jobs!

At the same time though, both my grandfather and my father-in-law are no doubt more acceptable immigrants because they are, get ready…white. My father-in-law came over during the Nixon administration. Imagine that! A Republican president opening up the border to terrifying immigrants and giving away American jobs! And yet, the country managed to endure.

Today’s Republican party is the party of hatred and bigotry. Collectively the party is a clear and present danger to democracy in the United States. From the seditionists who tried to overthrow an election, to the white nationalists who drive party dogma today, the Republican party is as dangerous as any other party organized around hatred and fear as has ever existed.

There is no equivalence on the other side of the aisle. Republicans who claim there is are only lying in order to spread fear and hatred. There is a grand difference between disagreeing as to whether or not health care should be free and accessible to all and lying about the attempt to overthrow an election and preaching replacement theory and not minding the violence it brings.

Democrats and the few Republicans left who refuse to kowtow to the MAGA thugs must, perhaps ironically, do whatever is necessary to defend democracy from those seeking to destroy it from within.

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