Pass or Fail: Communicating Beyond the Classroom on Student Needs

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

One of the biggest challenges for students in the public education system is the system itself, especially the ongoing political and economic constraints under which it must operate. Although the opportunities for academic success depend critically on the appropriation of adequate funding, there are many examples in which funding was entirely inconsistent with the needs of students.

Assuming that the American public is willing to pay for the education of their children if they can be convinced of the efficacy of the programs they’re asked to fund, these appropriation-based educational failures show that inadequate communication can undermine even the best strategies for academic success. Failure to communicate with the public can thus result in students who are effectively disenfranchised or given less viable but more “cost-effective” alternatives.

Some schools have experimented with grading, making use of modified grading practices to try to address the quandary of students who dig themselves into an academic hole at the beginning of the school year. Often no amount of effort over the bulk of the school year can extricate such students from the catastrophically low grades they post in the first six to eight weeks of the school year.

As various studies have shown, such students typically have few options left to recover or to use the remaining school year effectively when they score so poorly on initial exams. It is also often the case that students do not know what options are available to them at all. For instance, Friess points out that many strategies for recovering from initially failing grades have been described in the popular press even though they are not available in most schools.

One of the most effective of the recovery strategies is the “zeros aren’t permitted,” or ZAP program, which has transformed homework patterns at schools across the nation. One of the students who experienced a turnaround due to the program is Nathan Harth, who attends Coons Rapids Middle School in Minnesota. On many weekdays after school, Nathan may be found sitting with up to 150 other students in the school’s media center. Nathan was “zapped” – meaning that a teacher handed him an orange “Zapped” ticket during school hours.

Students who receive a ticket must call their parents to inform them, and then spend an hour or more after school in a supervised study hall, completing their homework. Many of the students were zapped by teachers; many other zapped themselves, taking advantage of the quiet, supervised space to complete work that they know they would not get done at home.

The principal of Coons Rapids, Michelle Langenfeld, claims that ZAP has done more to improve homework completion than any other program she is aware of. The evidence is the astonishing rise in grades. According to Langenfeld, nearly half of the 1,500 students at the school have been zapped during the school year. The number of F’s has dropped from 500 to just 87; the number of D’s has dropped from 800 to 254. “We did not have a single student in eighth-grade math fail math in the first quarter,” Langenfeld says. “That’s unheard of!”

Social studies teacher Ryan MacSwain says he zaps students two or three times a week. “Many teachers were doing great things individually,” he notes, “but this has transformed the school culture a little bit. I would say that many teachers have seen a dramatic increase of homework done by students.”

As well as improving grades and keeping students from failing, the ZAP program has had another unexpected consequence. Before the implementation of the program, students would mill around the school property after class. Now, with ZAP, that no longer happens; students are either on their way home or doing their homework in the study hall.

Nathan Harth had been earning D’s and F’s on his report cards before the implementation of ZAP. Now he’s turning in mostly B’s and C’s, and he is thrilled. “If this program wasn’t here, I would be failing,” he says.

Unfortunately, ZAP and strategies such as “minimum grading practices” tend not to be a feature of most public schools. There is the added problem, with both strategies, of inadequate research to establish optimal standards for use.

In any case, it is important to establish open lines of communication between students, teachers, parents, administrators, and counselors as early as possible in each school year. Working to maintain lines of communication throughout the academic year ensures that problems leading to poor performance can be addressed as early as possible.

Teachers might encourage their students, for instance, to request additional support if they have trouble understanding a certain academic area, or if they appear to have social or emotional needs. Likewise, parents could have a regular point of contact with teachers and administrators to share and receive relevant information about their child’s academic progress.

Some lines of communication are obviously in place already. For example, most schools have systems that include progress note sharing and the development of academic report cards at key intervals. However, effective communication to ensure consistent academic standards requires two-way dialogue about the needs of the individual student.

Teachers might work with administrators to apply more transparent grading policies and more transparent standards in general. Sharing curriculum with students and teachers, and providing clear insight as to what students will be tested on, are practices employed by many teachers. The application, however, is inconsistent. Schools must emphasize the need for more targeted communications with struggling students and their parents as a means of trying to improve academic performance.


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