Confessions of a D-student

The Seattle School District is considering lowering its graduation requirements and giving diplomas to "D" students. I know first-hand that some good can come from a lousy grade.
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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

The Seattle School District is considering lowering its graduation requirements and giving diplomas to "D" students. I know first-hand that some good can come from a lousy grade.

The Seattle School District is considering dropping the requirement of a "C" grade average to graduate or participate in athletics. Under the new regime, a "D" student would get a diploma.

It's part of a juggle in how the district grades students. Teachers would once again be allowed to give students "plus" or "minus" grades, and kids who fail would have their "E"s factored into their grade-point average, instead of being able to write them off as they can now. The present system doesn't reward failure so much as allow everyone to pretend it never happened, a far cry from times when "E"s or "F"s were feared and had consequences. I guess pretending failure never happened is good preparation for employment on Wall Street.

Some worry that if a "D" average is okay, the bar is being lowered at a time when everyone, from President Obama on down, is trying to raise it. In education, we're in an era of measurements, accountability, testing, higher standards, performance indices, assessments, and benchmarks to get a handle of student achievement. Lowering the graduation target at a time like this sounds like cheating, or surrender.

The district argues that you have to lower the bar in order to raise it, which sounds like a John Kerry quote. A principal who worked on the new proposal told the Seattle Times that "We are, in fact, increasing rigor." It turns out some students have been getting dishonest grades: The district has been giving out "C average waivers" to students who fell below the standard. We also know of examples in the recent past where some teachers and administrators regularly altered grades in order to make their schools and students look better and move them through the system. An honest "D" is better than a dishonest "C" I suppose.

I am not unfamiliar with the "D" grade. I have benefitted from high bars that have smacked me in the face. An academic high-jumper I was not.

I went to a mix of Seattle Public schools and local private ones. My long, tedious relationship with grades began at John Muir Elementary in Mount Baker. I have to say that from first grade on, I regarded grades not as something I could control, but rather like the weather, as something that simply happened to me. Sometimes, things would be sunny: a report card full of "B"s and "C"s, along with the usual notations such as "Disturbs others, Needs Improvement." Other times, storm clouds gathered or a tornado hit. Despite parental lectures about living up to my potential, occasional tirades and even rare rewards (my father once promised me 50 cents for every "A," but I don't think he ever had to pay out), I never understood that grades were something I could control. They were something the teachers did, an act of arbitrary (and often angry) gods.

I was helped through the academic minefield by Mrs. Branum, my 6th grade teacher, who treated me tenderly like a WWI doughboy blinded by mustard gas. She had previously taught both of my older sisters, and my mother insisted I be assigned to her class, which featured an over-abundance of smart kids, a few hard cases, and some mediocrities to add the appearance of egalitarianism. Mrs. Branum would review my "D" grade spelling tests, kindly amending them with reasonable explanations for my ignorance. "Well, the word was 'led' but you spelled it 'lead,' and we know what you meant, so we'll call that correct," she'd say, and miraculously, error by error, we'd find our way to a passing mark, not to mention a tutorial in the art of the rationalization.

Mrs. Branum was no softie, no indeed. She was academically demanding, but also a nurturer. She not only didn't give up on me as a speller, she encouraged my writing and reading. I wrote misspelled poems, cowboy songs, and appeared in the school talent show having co-written a "comic" script satirizing the evening news (on the same stage with a child flamenco dancer named Mark Morris). She steered me into non-academic productivity by anointing me to class audio-visual monitor, by allowing me to be on the School Safety Patrol, by frequently sending me to vacuum the chalk erasers. She made me useful, if not an academic all-star.

I finished school at Lakeside, the north Seattle prep academy that has graduated numerous billionaires and city council members (Peter Steinbrueck, Tom Weeks). When you're being graded along with Bill Gates, someone has to anchor the opposite end of the Bell Curve. I did that job ably, holding the fort in the bottom 10th percentile in SAT math.

At Lakeside, I once received a "gentleman's D" from my French instructor, Dennis Dunn. I had been sent down to Dunn's class after an "inauspicious start" in third-year French. I struggled back in second-year French too. Dunn tended to grade on quiz results, and at the end of the term, I'd earned a "D." He tenderly made it a "D+". I don't know what the plus was for, perhaps effort or a kindness. Maybe the plus sign simply looked jaunty, like an Izod alligator on a preppy's polo shirt. It didn't calm the bad weather on the home front, however. The doppler indicated I was screwed.

"D"s are useful, if shameful. First of all, they indicate that you passed! Good news. Second, they can be humbling calls for help, a rallying point for a cause that's not quite lost. A Mrs. Branum, if you're lucky enough to have one, can push you toward big picture success or steer you toward a janitorial career. Third, if Mayor Greg Nickels had given himself a "D+" for the snowstorm response, I think he'd be headed to a third term. His self-given "B" was not credible; an honest "D" (or my gentleman's "D+") would have gained him points for honesty and humility.

My high school "D"s were balanced by a few better grades. My last term, I received straight "A"s for the first and last time in 12 years plus kindergarten and summer school. I graduated with a "C" average, enough to graduate from any public school. I felt a bit like Ernest Shackleton must have after his Antarctic expedition catastrophes. The triumph wasn't discovery but endurance and survival.

Yes, I was a slow starter, but not only did I learn from good teachers, but from bad grades. The school district is probably on the right track. A "D" student is a terrible thing to waste.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.