Let me tell you a sad story.
Frank, a student who has been out of school for months, came to see me. At first, I had no idea why. He asked for "anything that can get me at least an 80 in this class." Then I understood. Sadness came over me as it always does when this happens. And this always happens.
My school, like almost every school I know, is primarily focused on kids passing classes and graduating. The lowest grade we are allowed to give for the first three quarters is a fifty. Thus Frank, when he misses an entire quarter, still receives a fifty. There’s also a mandatory final exam in each class weighted as a kind of fifth quarter. This is all designed so the Franks can pass. I know of no requirement for seat time in New York State. I will gather the work for the past quarter, give it to him, grade what he returns, and likely put a passing grade on his report card. This is the sad part of the story.
Frank is a good enough kid for someone whose home life is completely fucked. When he's bad, he's bad, but mostly he's more of a houseplant taking up some space, head down, phone out, waiting for the bell. Today, he was energetic, saying, "I can do this, I can do this." He probably can.
The sad part is what he’s being asked to do which doesn’t have much to do with learning. It turns out that learning doesn’t have that much to do with grading. Grades, honest teachers will tell you, are mostly about work completed. (Really honest teachers admit that grades also have to do with race, gender, parents, and economics.) Frank is required to do the work but not to learn.
In the past I would have blamed my school, but it's not my school’s fault. To quote Pacino in And Justice For All, "The whole system's out of order!" But it's largely okay. Kids who play the game do well either by learning or just doing the work. Kids who don't play, usually fail, but some like Frank wise up near the end and take a bus to the marathon's finish line because there’s no rule saying they can’t.
To be honest, when Frank came to me today I rolled my eyes and felt myself getting upset. But I remembered the game we’re playing, gave him some work, and when he hands that in I’ll give him more. After Frank left, a kid asked, "doesn't it piss you off when a kid can blow off the whole year and you have to pass him?" I smiled and recited a line I have taped beside my desk:
"I have no thoughts about that which I care to express at this time."
This is the game we play in schools. It's a sad story for students, schools, and society, but that’s how schools are. As for me, I'm reminded of the scene in Bull Durham when they are going over cliches: "I'm just happy to be here, hope I can help the ball club." I don't make the rules; I just play the game. Sad story, but it's all true.