Fifty Is The New Zero In TUSD

First published on the Wake Up Tucson Blog:

One of my father’s favorite quotes is from Woody Allen. I’ve heard it a couple ways but he always related it as “90% of life is just showing up.”

The older I’ve gotten the more I have come to find this an astoundingly important and fascinating insight. It (rather unexpectedly) says that doing the minimum or close to it is really a big deal in most of life.

In my firm I write insurance contracts for clients. What my client is looking for, and what they will pay me to do, is fill out forms and file them with insurance companies. There is a lot more that we do in addition to this, policy reviews, competitive bidding to ensure the best price, custom marketing, employee services, etc. But at the end of the day, the client (AT MINIMUM) just needs that paperwork done.

The flip side though, is I get NO credit, NO payment, if I fill out the application to 10%, 30%, 50%, etc. If that minimum standard is not met, I get ZERO credit.

For my job, Woody’s adage certainly applies. 90% of what I do is meeting that minimum effort requirement. Everything above that is icing, but anything below that is worth nothing, nada, zip, zilch.

The important lesson here is that 1% effort doesn’t normally give you 1% of the results. It generally gives you 0%.

If I complete 28% of my insurance paperwork, I get $0 in return for my effort.

If a swimmer is 37% as fast as Michael Phelps he gets 0 gold medals for his efforts.

In real life, effort itself is not what counts, it is only effort that meets the standard of whatever you are trying to achieve.

If you climb 64% of the way up Mt. Everest, you just didn’t reach the top.

Heart surgeons don’t stop 91% of the way through your bypass surgery; pat themselves on the back and say, “Great job!” It’s 100% or you are deceased.

This idea of minimum effort and standards of achievement is crucially important in society, work, and family, everything in life in fact. However, it has been under repeated attack for decades, particularly in our schools.

Just two days ago, The Arizona Daily Independent, reported on a new grading policy being implemented for the start of the school year at Pueblo High School in TUSD (read here). From the ADI News Service:

We will not be using zeros for any purpose. If assignments cannot be counted because of plagiarism and/or cheating, please assign a 50 to the assignment rather than a zero which may have been past practice. Any assignments where students have a D or F can and should be ‘do overs.

Though it pains me in the extreme, I am going to ignore for the moment the total moral abrogation of the cheating/plagiarism comments (this is already too long) and focus instead on the general principle of giving credit where no or little work has been completed.

Very simply put, Pueblo High School will now be spotting students 50 points at the beginning of the year and disallowing them to fail.

In response to this article several related interviews with teachers and administrators, including board president Miguel Cuevas, have been held on the Garrett Lewis radio program as well (listen here and here).

Vivi Watt

While these officials are not necessarily in favor of the new policy (listen to the interviews for more detail), they are at least familiar with the reasoning most often given for the change. The implementers, including the school’s principal Vivi Watt, have stated that they want an F to count the same as an A. They find that it is wrong (or detrimental to the student) that missing, incomplete or poor percentage scores disproportionately affect a student’s overall grade. They want each letter grade to weigh equally.

Basically, if a student puts in 1% effort they want the student to get 1% credit.

As mentioned above though, that simply isn’t the world we live in.

We have for decades already given our students a fairly large margin for error in their studies (30% – 40% depending on the school). However, we have always used systems of grading which still imposed some minimally acceptable standard. Below this you were afforded an F, a 0%, and possibly required to repeat your studies in order to obtain an acceptable performance.

This is an incredibly important lesson for our youth. It is a part of life that they must learn, and for a school in TUSD (and some administrators at the district level) to abandon this teaching is grossly unacceptable and frightening in what it implies about the educational philosophy which underlies school officials.

I have a daughter who is entering 8th grade this year and while I pay attention to most of what she does, and will work on quality and other issues when I can, I have only ever had one absolute school rule.

No missing assignments. Ever. Period. You’re grounded right now if I find you didn’t turn something in.

I don’t know if that seems harsh, but I do know that if at minimum, she just does the work assigned by the teachers she will learn what they are trying to teach. They aren’t pulling assignments out of thin air. Papers, projects, readings, quizzes, tests and everything else are designed by classroom educators to make sure she leaves the class at the end of the semester or year with a basic understanding of the material.

How do I know this? Because I was a terrible student when it came to completing my assignments and it haunted me through high school and through college. I never learned the basic crucial discipline of at least getting the minimum done.

Years after I left high school, my brother was in the first day of English class with one of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Jones at Catalina Foothills. As my brother relates it, Mr. Jones was working his way through the attendance sheet and as he got to my brother’s name he paused, looked up and said, “Davidson? Are you TAYLOR Davidson’s brother?” He answered, “Yes.” Mr. Jones replied simply, “Smart kid… Never did his homework.”

My experiences taught me the consequences of failing to complete the work and I am now relating that lesson to my daughter as best I can. I want her to know that the first and most important thing is not, how “smart” you are, or what your “potential” is, but whether you showed up, listened and got your work done today.

That is the minimum required in life, but more importantly it is the starting point. It is the jumping off point from where you can then show all the extra-special, super-great things you can do. But with any race, competition, project or journey in life the first thing of importance, the first requirement is to know the correct location of the start line.

Does anyone else feel like our kids are lining up for a 100 meter sprint but we’ve put them on blocks 50 meters behind the true start line?

I hope TUSD will turn around and make sure we start showing our kids where the real starting lines are in this life and stop the incessant drive to push them farther and farther back until none of our students will have any chance at meaningful journeys and significant achievements.

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