You Can’t Spell Effort Without F

Mike Golz, Commentary

There are the A’s and B’s, then the C’s and D’s, all followed by… F? F. That monstrous character which I assume ate E at some point in the planning of our educational system. But here at Minnetonka, the district has implemented a program to drive out this unsightly letter. Academic Intervention, or what is known to most of us as Mr. Adney’s No Fail Initiative, is in its fourth year of intensive application at the high school. The results are impressive.  Still, I am left with a lingering sense of unease for a system lacking the drive that the F instills in students.

First, a quick refresher for anyone unfamiliar with the initiative. It is designed to eliminate F’s by utilizing additional counselor-parent-teacher-student contact to establish why a student is struggling. The idea is to address these needs, avoiding an unfortunate stain on the report card. This can include a range of interventions, from supplemental worksheet plans to additional teacher-student lessons. Though it is clearly beneficial, criticism runs high in the student body.

Let us first unravel an unfortunate delusion. One student famous in her circles for a caustic wit complained to me that “the [administrators] just want a shiny talking point.” Don’t we all! It is hardly fair to throw around such claims when considering the compassion Mr. Adney shows for his students. Any principal willing to give personalized attention to his students deserves a shining reputation.

This issue runs deeper. Can we really get rid of the F? Grades operate as incentives, encouraging students to work hard and master the material. If we force out the bottom rung of the achievement scale, we run the risk of eliminating the consequence for not understanding how to thrive in a competitive environment. I fear that too often teachers permit students to achieve a grade by means that do not reflect the necessary knowledge for true success in the course. How does passing a student off to a new class unprepared fix the problem?

I spoke with Mr. Tuthill, a Higher Algebra teacher beloved of his students. “It communicates the importance of every kid,” he says with a grin, “and encourages teachers to stop and smell the roses, you know, remember that the kids are the focus.” The words of a dedicated teacher, no doubt. He confided in me that the initiative has relit a fire, allowing him to utilize a network of parent and administrator support to refocus students whose achievement is not on par with the goals of the school.

This message of hope was one I saw reiterated time and again. In a sit down with the new assistant principals, Mr. McIlmoyle and Dr. Steiner, I was enlightened to some of the misconceptions of Academic Intervention. Dr. Steiner insisted that “we want to get to the students before the hole is too big,” essentially creating an action plan to fix F’s before the semester’s end. Mr. McIlmoyle further emphasizes that when it comes down to it, the initiative has a “laser like focus,” addressing a range of issues that could yield student failure. It truly allows teachers to take some context into consideration.

Yet, even for all the positive feedback I found among adults, I left these encounters troubled by our obsession with grades. If indeed our goal is true understanding and good work ethic, as it ought to be, it seems rather counter intuitive that such stress be placed on a student’s grade. For me, it’s about student responsibility. The initiative fails, I think, to hold students accountable for a degree of personal motivation and self-sufficiency.  We students have an obligation to work hard to achieve at the highest level. I see necessity in the F to help inspire us to this end. Many disagree. Regardless, we ought to remember that school is as much about learning how to succeed in a competitive setting as it is about a grade.