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The hidden war on academic achievement

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted July 16, 2001

The purpose of the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act seemed clear enough to the sponsors -- Congress merely sought to bar public schools from releasing students' academic records to third parties without parental consent.

At least, that's what the congressmen thought their bill was for. But that was before the trial lawyers got involved.

Now comes the question: If teachers ask kids to pass their papers to each other after snap quizzes in the classroom, instructing each child to grade the paper of his or her neighbor, does that constitute a "release of academic records" in violation of federal law?

It sounds like a joke, but it's not. In 1998 Kristja J. Falvo sued the Owasso, Okla. school district, contending her three children were embarrassed when classmates graded each other's work and were instructed to call out the grades to the teacher.

A federal judge initially rejected Ms. Falvo's suit, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver last year ruled the practice did indeed violate the Education Rights and Privacy Act.

So -- incredibly enough -- the U.S. Supreme Court will now hear the case, ruling whether it violates federal privacy law for teachers to allow classmates to grade each others' papers.

"The quicker the reinforcement, especially if the kid is not mastering the concept, the better it is going to be for remediating that," explains Maureen Pontarelli, a sixth-grade teacher in West Greenwich., R.I., who sees merit in this method of quick-checking whether kids are grasping the material.

"If in some cases there's going to be immediate feedback, it has to happen in the classroom," agrees Shannon Fornes, an eighth-grade history teacher in Bismarck, N.D. With 130 students a day in five classes, "The kids are either going to have to correct their own work, or exchange papers and do some correcting," Fornes told The Associated Press.

It would be a mistake to consider this case in isolation. Even though the national convention of the NEA voted last week to enter this case on the side of the school district, the teacher delegates were nonetheless split on the issue.

The premise underlying such suits is that it's somehow abusive to the sensibilities of the lower achievers to award grades ... at all. All across the nation, we see steps to eliminate any acknowledgement in the schools of the achievements of superior students, lest those who fail to make the mark suffer psychic harm.

The "student of the month" used to be the student who achieved a better grade average than any other student in his or her grade or class over a 30-day period. Today, whole committees of "students of the month" are handed certificates and free chicken dinners for meeting such minimal requirements as showing up each day and refraining from felonious assault.

Even playground games are being censored to eliminate the slightest risk that a child's sensitive soul might be damaged by being branded a "loser," by being named the metaphorical prey in a game of dodgeball or "tag," by being forced to face up to the fact that some kids have more native athletic ability than others.

Yes, children can be cruel, and being wrongly dubbed a "loser" can leave emotional scars. But few can afford to hire one-on-one tutors for their children. So long as kids are taught in groups, a teacher must be allowed some method to quickly ascertain, on the spot, whether each individual child has understood his lesson -- temporarily embarrassing or not.

Shall we also now ban the calling up of children to the blackboard to demonstrate their skills at long division? (Or have we stopped teaching that, anyway?)

A thoughtful teacher will remind students that we can't all excel at everything -- maybe little Johnnie will turn out to be better with animals, or with engines. But in the real life which these children are being trained to someday face, some will succeed and some will fail, and the struggle does indeed involve competition, winning and losing, and some standard for measuring success. They will not be admitted to medical school or the Air Force Academy for "a good try."

"Privacy" is being used here as a mere smoke screen to advocate a cult of uniform mediocrity -- to assert that allowing some students to achieve and excel is itself an inequity, violating the "right" of the dullards to retain a high measure of self-esteem neither earned nor warranted.

What would be best would be to keep the federal government out of Ms. Pontarelli's and Ms. Fornes' classrooms entirely -- to repeal all federal meddlings, even as well-intentioned as the "Family Education Rights and Privacy Act," and let local communities (or, better yet, individual families) educate their kids as they see fit.

Until we can get to that point, let's at least hope the high court makes short work of the "embarrassment" of Ms. Falvo's children.

Because the correct remedy, Ms. Falvo -- other than getting your kids out of the government welfare camps entirely, which I highly advise -- is to help your kids with their homework, until their grades are no longer anything to be "embarrassed" .... about.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter by sending $72 to Privacy Alert, 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503 -- or dialing 775-348-8591. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at 1-800-244-2224,.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Illiterate America by Alan Caruba (February 5, 2001)
    Alan Caruba is frightened by how dumb graduates are today. Judging by the numbers, people are plenty dumb
  • "Change-Agents" change American education by Charles A. Morse (February 12, 2001)
    Public schools do have an agenda, writes Charles A. Morse, but it isn't simply teaching. They are trying to "mold" your child as well

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