Originally posted on July 28, 2014
A while back, the Internet was all aflutter about a child’s T-shirt proclaiming "I'm Too Pretty to do Homework”. Advocacy groups launched an immediate response and the item of clothing was pulled from the racks shortly after it had arrived. The protest centered around the complaint that if girls believe they are too good looking to work hard, they will devalue themselves and their abilities and others will quickly follow suit. While true, we must not be satisfied by only discouraging a store to carry one message tee. This is an issue that has been floating around for years that needs to be challenged every time it rears its ugly head.
Now, there is nothing wrong with looking well put-together and being a social person. Over the years, I have had students whose fashion sense and social skills range the gamut from geeky to graceful. Some come to class like they recently rolled out of bed while others appear to have just left a magazine cover shoot. It’s true that some families cannot afford nice clothes for their children, but that is different than the student who is dressed slovenly but has the latest smartphone in his pocket or her designer purse. All this is to say is that teens present their outer selves in many ways that may not be all that reflective of what’s inside.
The problem I have with the idea of being too pretty to work is that it simply is not true. No matter how good-looking they might be, teens will never have a job where they have no responsibilities other than looking pretty or handsome. The question is not whether the student is college-bound or has another reasonable pathway to success. What we’re talking about here is when student play dumb because being smart causes unwanted attention and differentiation. Our society might elevate the latest hottie or hunk to Greek god-like status, but that doesn’t mean we should. We must fight this urge with passion and vigor. While praising someone who is wearing a nice color or who is well dressed overall is one thing, we cannot allow the next generation to believe that looks are all that matter, because looks will not file reports or balance a home budget.
I get the temptation to want to be revered for appearance or athletic skill, but to hide behind them will only help in the short run. In addition to the wide swath of “regular” students who have sat in my class, I have had those seem to think their looks or some particular ability will exempt them from the responsibilities of life. What is interesting is that the ones who did achieve fame and success also worked fairly hard. My students who went on to be everything from professional sports players to a Rose Parade princess didn’t think a wink and a smile would make me give them a grade they did not deserve. Everybody has different skills and not everyone can get an A, but if they think they can build a life out of letting their looks pay the bills, they won’t have much to fall back on when those looks fade.
So, in response to the claim “I’m too pretty to do homework”, I would offer the following reply: No so much.
The Fault IS in Our Stars
Originally posted on June 20, 2014
As a society, we are quick to praise products, places and people. Whenever we buy something, read a book, go to a movie or restaurant, people ask us to rate our experience. More often than not, while we are willing to issue a poor rating, we are loath to give an average one. If we see a five-star rating system, we will give an average product or experience an above-average rating. If something is above average, we will mark it as outstanding. If it is outstanding, we think extra exclamation points will make our case.
This practice of doling out excessive praise has been in education for years. In our field, we call it grade inflation and teachers have bemoaned the trend ever since it arrived on the scene. Once upon a time, we noticed that children felt better when they received a gold star or a higher grade so we started to dispense them more liberally. This boosted their general happiness and, of course, pleased parents as well. Those who criticize the trend said we never stopped and thought out whether the sometimes-unmerited praise established a false sense of excellence when the student in question would not, by objective standards, be considered superb or better than most of his classmates.
The foundation for such concerns rests upon two underlying assumptions. First, a teacher should never issue grades students do not earn. I often give praise when I am impressed by a student’s work. I also will offer advice and encouragement to students, sometimes in response to a request and at other times when they appear to need it but are unwilling to ask. But a student begging to be given a grade that is unearned is like when she petitions a parent for a gift, opportunity or privilege she has not merited. You know it is easier in the short run to give in, but you will be paying for it down the road when she expects more and more. The same is true with grades.
Which leads to my second point – letter grades have an agreed-upon meaning forgotten by some in today’s world. A-level work declares your student’s effort and the quality of his final product is outstanding, meaning that it stands out as being superior to that of the others in the room. When your student earns a B, her work is above the average quality of work in the room. Receiving a C, therefore suggests the work your student completed for the class was not significantly better or worse than the majority of students in the room. Following this trend, D and F grades tell us your student performed below the average or failed the course requirements outright.
Perhaps it is helpful to borrow an example from the world of politics to best understand the approach many teachers have to grading. Political scientists make the distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcome. For example, everybody has the chance to get a job, but not everyone is guaranteed they will be given employment. In a similar fashion, teachers give every student the opportunity to earn an A, but are well aware not all in the room will merit such a high mark. If they see a disproportionate number of students earning As, they likely will consider reevaluating the expectations they have, as the A grade no longer means the work of a particular student stands out from his classmates.
While it feels better to give a gold star or high grade for average work, doing so on a regular basis, gives students a false sense of confidence and does not prepare them for a world that may not judge them so generously. I would be doing a disservice to your student if I let her think she is better, or worse for that matter, than everyone else when that is not the case. Having support and understanding from parents that honesty is the best policy in this regard is crucial.
Failing your student by telling him he is outstanding when he is only above average or average sends him straight to outer space when he should only be in low-earth orbit. And when he comes crashing back to Earth in the next class or the next year, the fault will belong to all of us.
I have been a public high school teacher in Southern California since 2005 and writing since junior high. I have an affinity for chocolate, photography, sarcasm and well-written TV shows that refuse to talk down to their audiences.