It’s hard for reward systems to be fair

My junior year in high school, the national debate topic was “Resolved that all governmental financial support for all public elementary and secondary schools should be provided exclusively by the federal government.”

I first want to point out, that was the topic in 1972, but it was so drilled into my consciousness that I can still repeat it off the top of my head. I could also recite the topic from 1971, but then I would just be showing off.

I think of the debate season often when I hear stories about school finance. I also remember the phrase which was uttered in virtually every round of every debate throughout the season: “Money does not equal education.” Simplified, it meant there was no evidence you could simply throw more money into education and automatically see improvement.

I also think of the phrase every time I hear anyone say, “(Fill in the blank) guarantees better education.” It has been filled in with lots of phrases, including better facilities, shorter school days and longer school years, but most commonly, still, is money.

I heard such a phrase Tuesday night at the Harrisonville R-9 School Board meeting when the HHS Principal Mark Weigers said, “There is a correlation between academics and attendance.”

I will admit I cringed. It is not that I doubt his experience, knowledge or sincerity, and he obviously knows much more about education than I do, but such correlations are usually merely anecdotal. I would have to agree that logically, if a student shows up more often, even if that student is a total dolt, he or she likely will pick up more simply by attending class.

But there is always equal anecdotal evidence countering such claims. There are the geniuses who dropped out of school or the students who are frequently gone, but because of study habits they excel. Equally, there are students who could be taught 24 hours a day, seven days a week and just never get it.

Weigers was using his remarks to justify a rewards system, whereby students who have perfect attendance can opt out of three finals. Students with nearly perfect can earn one or two opt-outs.

I respect the predicament Weigers finds himself in. State money is based on attendance performance, which is where the problem lies. The state is seemingly at a loss as to how to identify schools’ successes, so in attempt to define an intangible, it uses an easy-to-measure tangible: attendance. It is sometimes humorous, the steps schools will take to gain the attendance bonus. I remember a few years ago, the school held summer school classes for virtually all students. The classes were mostly a farce and students who completed the month-long program earned $100. No one really learned anything, students were bribed to attend classes, but still the school district made so much money from the program, it was profitable to provide.

Now the district is again looking for creative ways to boost attendance. Weigers came up with the idea to allow students with perfect attendance to opt out of three finals. Student who come close also get rewards.

Last week several parents addressed the school board, complaining about the program. With all due respect, I share their feelings and actually take it a step further. They complain that good students who get sick or have another activity or family issue are penalized, even though they have perfect grades.

Conversely, poor students can gain an academic advantage simply by showing up.

I always have issues with people who come to work or school sick, because that is how illnesses spread. And kids pick it up, take it home and suddenly a whole family can be impacted because one student who shouldn’t have been in school was.

But my objection is this: The purpose of a final exam is to measure a student’s learning during the school year. No one likes them, no one ever has. But the point of school is not to learn how to show up, but to learn.

Tests are a measurement of that learning and, in that sense, the school has determined learning is secondary. We don’t know what you learned, but we know you showed up and that’s all we care about.

Again, I am not throwing stones. This is an institutional problem at the state and national level, not just in our local district. But sometimes good ideas don’t make for good policy.

OK, you pried it out of me, the national debate topic in 1971 was “Resolved that the jury system in the United States should be significantly changed.”  I can give you a whole bunch of ideas from that one, as well.



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