BROOKSVILLE — Call it the softer side of failure.
Under a new policy up for a vote by the Hernando County School Board next month, the new grade for a missed assignment or test at the elementary level would be 40 percent.
Translation: no more zeros.
The goal, district officials say, is to give kids a statistical fighting chance to turn around their overall grade — something tough to do even with a couple of zeros or a few very low marks on the books.
If approved, Hernando would be the first in the area to set the kind of grading protocol that has sparked a feisty philosophical debate in the world of education.
In one corner are educators who say students deserve a chance to redeem themselves after missing some assignments or tanking on a test or two. In the other are those who contend that kids are getting more coddled every day, and a policy that lessens the consequences of failure only makes things worse.
"We already curve the grades enough, and now we have to curve their failures?" said Doug Bambauer, father of Philip, a fifth-grader at Spring Hill Elementary
"You should have to do the work to get any grade," Philip said.
But it doesn't take many zeros to decimate a student's chances of passing and prompt a child to give up, Hernando superintendent Wayne Alexander told the School Board last week during a workshop.
That's especially harmful early in the school year, he said.
"As you know, a zero or two and they're done," said Alexander, who supports the new policy. "Kids will shut off, and they're not recovering. You've already instilled a sense of quitting."
Hernando School Board member Sandra Nicholson gave the tough-love response to that.
"I'm sorry, if you don't do the work, you don't get a 40," Nicholson said.
Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, says Nicholson gets an A for her stance.
"It's easy to frame this as giving students another chance, but what schools need to remember is this is just lowering the standards," Petrilli said.
"In the real world," he said, "kids are not going to get to make excuses."
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The passion on the subject runs so deep that when a Texas school district proposed a minimum F grade, a Republican lawmaker (and former teacher) filed a bill to ban such policies, saying they lowered standards.
At least one school district in Florida has helped to blaze a zero-free trail: Collier County last year approved a policy setting the minimum grade at 50 percent.
Hernando's policy change, however, would do more than get rid of zeros.
Say a student does turn in an assignment or test and fails miserably. The lowest score that student could receive under the proposed policy is a 49 percent.
Both proposals trouble some teachers.
Students might be encouraged to game the system if they know they can get some points for doing nothing, said Jennifer Sisco, a reading coach at Eastside Elementary in Brooksville.
"It helps a child to see, 'I can blow this one off if I really pay attention the next time around,' and that's not what we should be promoting as educators," Sisco said.
Joe Clifford, principal at John D. Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill, says successful efforts to head off dropouts need to keep kids engaged and optimistic early on.
"We're trying to provide support for children to help them be successful, dig out of a pit they're in and get excited about learning," Clifford says. "It's more likely to happen with a 49 (percent) then an 8 (percent)."
"It was easy to sell the K-5 teachers on the policy," said Debbie Pfenning, the district's supervisor of elementary curriculum.
Pfenning said Hernando's principals have been convinced by the arguments of Douglas Reeves, founder of the Leadership and Learning Center in Colorado. In his book The Learning Leader: How to Focus School Improvement for Better Results, Reeves argues that the "emotional attachment" to zeros among educators is strong.
"Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is almost a fanatical belief that punishment through grades will motivate students," Reeves writes.
As for creating a minimum failing grade for work that is turned in, Reeves says it's only logical on a 100-point scale to continue the 10-point intervals to the F — where a score of 90 to 100 percent is an A, 80 to 89 percent is a B, and so on.
In an interview, Reeves cited studies that show grading policies, coupled with other strategies such as more aggressive intervention for floundering students, can dramatically reduce failure rates and even cut down on discipline issues.
"I think the problem is people are making this about grading," Reeves said. "The right consequence is doing the work."
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Dana Owens, a fourth-grade teacher at Floyd Elementary, agrees.
Educators have a responsibility to do more than tweak grading scales, Owens said.
Poor test scores and missing assignments often mean a lack of support at home, she said.
"As a teacher, if I notice a kid is just throwing something onto homework, that's a note home," Owens said. "Usually Mom and Dad are like, whoa, we didn't see that homework."
Teachers need to make sure that students who don't hand over an assignment are still mastering the skill, which means doing the work even if they do earn a 40 instead of a zero, Owens said.
"I would make another copy of the homework sheet and say, 'You can do this at lunch,' " she said. "It wouldn't be a free 40."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.