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Sunday NYT Celebrates a -ubious New Policy

In its inimitable style, the New York Times yesterday featured a page one ed story celebrating an aimless new district policy and the superintendent responsible. In a story headlined "Little as They Try, Students Can't Get a D Here," NYT's Winnie Hu enthusiastically hailed the new "no D's" policy adopted by New Jersey's Mount Olive school district.

The notion is that, well, the district will no longer issue D's. "D's are simply not useful in society," explained superintendent Larrie Reynbolds. While Mount Olive students could previously pass a class with a 65, and earn a D, they will now pass if they get over a 70. If students do get less than a 70, Mount Olive will henceforth allow students to repeat work or tests on which they fail to get a C. It will then provide tutoring and extra help to students who continue to fail. And students will make up a failed course by paying $150 per class to attend an evening school.

Surprising was that the editors put this on page one after reading the in-story quotes, which seemed to pretty clearly illustrate how vapid this deal is. Chris Radler, age 13, explained that he disliked the new policy because, "If you're a little bit less than a C, but not quite an F, you're still going to fail." I can only imagine Hu hurriedly scribbling that gem down, saying, "Hold on, let me be sure I get that." Sean Robinson, age 17, perplexingly told Hu, "Normally, I just wouldn't try, but I feel like if I did badly, I'd bring down my school's G.P.A. My mom will be happy." I'll admit, I spent five minutes trying to decipher Robinson's take. Do 17-year-old's really worry about bringing down their school's GPA. If so, why? Is he more worried about it now than he was when D's were legal tender? And what exactly will his mom be happy about?

Mount Olive's new policy is likely to prove a pointless, distracting exercise. I'll make a series of predictions right now. First, teachers seeking to avoid unnecessary headaches (and the wrath of parents) will issue a lot of C's where they once would have issued D's. Second, knowing that all papers can be rewritten and all tests retaken within three days, slacking students will put forth even less energy on the first go-round, figuring they'll go ahead and then pull an all-nighter if they have to. Third, in order to avoid having to re-grade too many papers or arrange to make up new versions of the test and then re-administer it, teachers will loosen their grading policy or seek to dial back the amount of graded work. Fourth, some families will plead lack of funds when it comes to paying $150 for the evening make-up classes, forcing the district to adopt a hardship waiver and eat the cost.

A policy sure to create implementation challenges and headaches for faculty, only to ultimately prove pointless. What would possess Reynolds to do this? For one explanation, check out "policy churn" in my 1998 Brookings volume Spinning Wheels. What would prompt the Times to feature it on page one? That's a question only the NYT can answer.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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