My op-ed in the Charleston Gazette, Sunday May 13, 2012
Aww that Perry Mann he is a good one. A smile sweeps through my mind when I see that he has another Gazette op-ed. His latest entitled “So Much Potential” in the Sunday, May 6 Gazette-Mail, rang true for me. He spoke of the importance of social promotions. I did some of that as a science teacher at Duval High School.
In my first few years at Duval, students were tracked based on test scores. The top test-takers in the ninth grade were in the class labeled 9-1 and the bottom in class 9-5. My first 9-5 group had all flunked science the previous year.
My second year there were five students in 9-5 who could barely read and write. At the end of the first grading period I gave that group higher grades than their work showed they deserved.
The day after grades came out the 9-5 students were excited about their high grades. One student spoke up in class–“Mr. Martin, that was the first “B” I ever got in my whole life. How can I get another one?”
I told him and the class to participate in the hands-on activities and class discussions, to work safely and respect the rights of other students and me. If they did that they might not always get a “B” but they would get no lower than a “C”. We had fun in that class. there were few discipline problems. They were happy to be able to do something right.
I did not have the heart to give a D or F to kids who gave it a good try. The 9-5 students were tracked low because they were not considered academically smart, so why should I hold them to the same high standard as the 9-1 class? Should I flunk the entire class as their academic abilities showed? Should I punish kids who made a decent effort with the same disappointing evaluations they had always received? What would be the point in convincing them that they should feel bad about themselves and could never expect success? A self-fulfilling prophecy of failure results from putting the “bad” students in one class together.
I didn’t like tracking students because there is a certain kind of learning that doesn’t take place when groups are exclusive or segregated. Chance for friendships developing across economic and social lines is less possible if there is segregation based on test taking. Feelings of resentment and inferiority by the lower tracked groups and snobbery and superiority by the “smart” kids are real outcomes from segregated classrooms.
In a 9-5 class I was demonstrating electrical circuits with live 220 volt current and was about to touch a “hot” wire to a wire on a circuit board. A student warned me, “Mr. Martin don’t touch that live wire there, it will short out.”
I said are you sure and did what he said not to do. There was a loud noise and sparks flashed. I nervously reset the breaker. That grading period I gave the boy who knew it would short out an A. This was a boy with limited reading and writing skills who had helped his father and uncles work on cars and tractors at home. Students in groups tracked academically higher would benefit from being in a class with him.
The school counselor came to me about a boy who was not going to be eligible to play football. If I could change his C to a B, he could play. This was the only time I was asked to change a grade. I thought about it. I didn’t want to be a teacher who would pass athletes who didn’t deserve it. The boy was well behaved in my class, participated in the activities and discussions. I figured sports were probably the main reason he stayed in school. I changed his grade. His success might not have depended on that B but he now owns and operates two successful businesses and is a donor to good causes in the Kanawha Valley.
When it comes to youth I think it wise to temper justice with mercy.