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Education Reform Eliminates Red Pens, F Grades

Education Reform Eliminates Red Pens, F Grades

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2008

Do you remember when we were kids, whenever our teacher marked our papers with a red pen, we became despondent, realized we were complete failures, and would spend the next three days in bed without showering or eating? And we would wail, "why can't she use a blue pen for once? Or even a black pen?"

Of course not. But that's what the Queensland, Australia state health agency thinks happens. They distributed 1,000 "Good Mental Health Rocks" kits to 30 schools, offering different tips to help build students' self-esteem. Useful tips like "don't mark in red pen (which can be seen as aggressive) – use a different color."

I was an emotional kid growing up, but I don't ever recall flying into a murderous rage, screaming "Red pen?! What are red pen marks doing on my paper? No red pens ever!"

But to hear Stephen Robertson, Queensland's Health Minister, tell it, red pens are at the root cause of most mental problems for Queensland's teenagers, not peer pressure, drug use, and whatever else causes teen angst.

"If mental health professionals determine that as one of a number of strategies teachers should consider, then I'll support them every day of the week," Robertson told the Brisbane Courier-Mail. "This is not a matter for ridicule, this is serious."

No, it's a matter for ridicule.

Better funding and teachers makes students do better. Doing better makes them feel better. But getting dozens of blue X's instead of red ones won't change a thing.

In the Queensland Parliament, Opposition spokesman Mark McArdle said pen color shouldn't be a priority when literacy rates are low.

"This is a kooky, loony, loopy, Left policy from a Labor Government that is out of touch," McCardle said.

"Mental health is a serious issue," Steve Ryan, president of the Queensland Teachers Union, said. "It is disgraceful the Liberal National Party would make fun of mental health." Then he apologized to McArdle for hurting his feelings.

Not really. What he really did was hang up on the Courier-Mail reporter after claiming the kit did not exist and the government would never give that advice to teachers.

Now who's the crazy one?

But before we Americans get too smug at Australia's kooky, loony loopiness, we've got something equally asinine over here. Surprisingly, it's not in California.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the school system has stopped handing out "F's," choosing instead to give them an "H." As in "Holy Crap, Can You Believe This?!"

Actually, it stands for "held." As in "held over until improved or completed."

School superintendent Bernard Taylor said the new system gives students several choices, like retaking a course, doing additional work, or agreeing on a new plan with teachers. But the student will get a real "F" if they don't do anything within 12 weeks.

"">I never see anyone doing anything but punishing kids," Taylor told United Press International. "If the choice is between letting kids fail and giving them another opportunity to succeed, I'm going to err on the side of opportunity."

Right, because kids will never figure out that H is the new F, and it means exactly the same thing.

Many teachers and administrators believe children become discouraged with bad grades, which has led to the high dropout rate in the country. Taylor says children need to "see a way forward."

Ooh, ooh, I know! Use a blue pen! There's a guy in Australia who says it works miracles with their kids' self-esteem. Grade the kids' tests with blue pens, they'll feel great, and you don't need to use this "H" business at all.

"The task is to change the reality, not the labeling of it," Alan Kazdin, a child psychiatrist at Yale, said. "The fact is children are failing, yet we don't want to call it that. It's this whole notion that everyone's a winner and everyone gets a trophy."

They don't give all the Olympians gold medals, only one NFL team gets a Super Bowl ring, and only one person in your office will get the big promotion. And if you slack off, it won't be you.

We need to teach our kids that failure is a part of life, that you have to work hard to succeed, and occasionally your jerk of a boss is going to mark on your life with a big, fat red pen. If we don't teach our kids this now, they're going to be in for a rude awakening when they're older.

Like when they're 30 years old and living in your basement.

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  1. Hmn. I think I disagree.
    If a student sees red pen, they instantly go 'ARGH I GOT SOMETHING WRONG'. If everything is written in the same colour, then there is no instant drop of self esteem. If kids already think they've done badly, they focus on that rather than looking at the good parts they did, or the advice for how to do better.

    This is a simple psychological trick that really does help kids quite often.

  2. @Chiara, but then doesn't a blue pen or black pen become the "self-esteem killer?" When I was in school, a wrong answer was a wrong answer, no matter what color it was. It was still annoying, regardless of the ink color.


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