Equality and Competition in the Classroom

October 8, 2011


I still remember my first “F”.  It was devastating.  I was one of those perfectionists in school and when I received a 50% on a 4th grade math test from screwing up long division, I nearly lost it.  “My mom is gonna KILL ME!!!”  I’ve learned a few things since then: 1. Division is MUCH better on a calculator and 2. An F is really not that big of a deal.  When I went home that day, with butterflies in my stomach and ready to burst out crying, my mom looked at the test and smiled.  She simply said, “You’ll do better on the next one.  Just work harder next time!”  That F became motivation, it actually encouraged me to work harder and I was prepared to dominate the next test.

So, I only mention this because the other day my mom called me and told me that the middle school and elementary school I went to changed it’s grading systems to 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s, where 3 is the highest “grade” you can get.  Um, what?!  This sparked some curiosity, and it turns out, this is nothing new.  The program is called Z.A.P. (Zeroes aren’t permitted).  It gives students an “H” instead of an “F”.  The H simply stands for “Held”, meaning that the student can redo the assignment and turn it in again.  Z.A.P. gives a redo to students, students can’t “fail” anymore, and it’s more fair to some students.  Kids who struggle to understand the material can try again, and next time, they may understand the material much better and may be able to receive a better grade because of Z.A.P..  But, there are many critics to this:

They point to case studies in Grand Rapids, Mich., where public high schools are using the “H” grading system this year and, according to reports, only 16 percent of first-semester “H” grades became passing grades in the second semester.

It isn’t entirely effective and if you think about it, it actually rewards students that are not that motivated.  It tells them that everything is all right, you will get another shot to fix this mistake.  And in this world, when kids grow up, they don’t exactly get many second chances in the workplace.  Michael Petrilli, a research fellow in Stanford’s department of education, states in the article linked above,

‘If you’re getting a zero, that usually means you didn’t turn in the assignment or do the job correctly’, he said.  ‘All this does is create cynicism among educators and send signals to students that the education system is not serious about achievement’…’It does not take a lot to pass a high school course,’ he said. ‘If we have kids not meeting the standard, the answer is not to lower the standard.’

We keep trying to make a more fair environment for students, but as a result, these students are being rewarded for giving a minimal effort.

This isn’t the only thing that’s changing in the education system either.  Valedictorians may not exist for much longer either.  In high schools in Boulder, there are valedictorians instead of a single valedictorian, and they’re performing a skit, instead of the typical ten minute speech.  Getting rid of a single valedictorian will make things more fair, will reward more kids, and will reduce competition in the classroom.  Becoming valedictorian was an unfeasible goal for many kids in high school, but now it’s actually feasible to accomplish that goal.

But once, again, there are consequences for equity in the classroom.  Class rankings are becoming more and more meaningless.  Many schools are just getting rid of class rankings all together.  And, this is a problem.  In this article, William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt stated,

‘The less information a school gives you, the more whimsical our decisions will be,’ he said. ‘And I don’t know why a school would do that.’

Shain outright states that losing class rankings hurts students when applying to college.  Is this really fair to students who have worked hard all through high school?  These students cannot distinguish themselves from other students anymore.  At some point, there has to be a reward for the boy/girl who worked hardest in the class and wants to be the valedictorian, not a valedictorian.

Schools have to start thinking about what these new proposals are doing to some of the better students in schools.  Sure, kids may not fail anymore and sure, the classroom may be more fair, equal, and less competitive, but it’s all starting to feel like a sports league for small children.  Everybody gets a trophy, win or lose.  When these students grow up, they have to know there are winners and losers.  People get rewarded for being the best and the people who don’t try hard enough feel the consequences.

In the end, are these schools making the right decisions by making these policies?  Is it better to make everyone a winner or to reward the highest ranked?  Do schools reward the group as a whole, or the individuals who are the best?


About ngamin1614

I'm a sophomore at the University of Michigan. I'm originally from Nebraska, where the corn grows 6 feet high (there's a reason I came to Michigan). I think I'm gonna be a math and econ double major and hopefully after my undergrad, I can pick up a job and then get into business school. But, things change, so we'll see. I play tennis, listen to music, hang out with friends, and am always up for a good adventure.

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22 Comments on “Equality and Competition in the Classroom”

  1. ianbaker2041 Says:

    First of all, I really like this post. My former high school went to a “failing is not an option” approach my senior year, so I can relate to this. When the policy went into effect, I really wasn’t happy, not because it would affect me, but because it undermines the reason that educational institutions exist in the first place.

    To me, it seems senseless and silly to employ such a strategy that eliminates distinction between varying levels of academic and extracurricular achievement. While it’s a nice idea to give everyone a trophy and make sure that everyone passes, the reality is that this grossly ill prepares students for the real world, giving them false expectations regarding the future. When I get out of college (probably some time off, thanks to history and political science as fields of study), I understand that I will have to compete against students out of the Ivy Leagues and other schools at least on par with Michigan for jobs. If I am unable to get the grades and achieve at a certain level here, I’ll simply get swamped by the competition and may end up without a job at all. To create a fail-safe option in high school (and earlier) only convinces students that the real world (including college) works like high school where there are no “second bests.” This could not be farther from the truth.

    To be fair, I wasn’t the kid who needed the fail safe option in high school, so I admit to having some bias on the issue. I learned pretty early (freshman year of high school, actually), however, that I was definitely NOT the smartest kid in the class and would consequently have to work a little bit harder to achieve at the same level. Why should anyone have given me a “leg up” because Honors English 9 was harder for me than for some other people or any sort of fall back option at all? That wouldn’t have been fair to the kids who were just naturally good at English and would have distorted our class rankings and GPAs. One doesn’t have to be naturally brilliant to do well through high school; one need only apply oneself fully.

    It’s a sink or swim world, to use one of the biggest cliches in the book. It’s unlikely that my first boss will care too much about my well-being and happiness while at work; he’ll only care as much as is necessary to make me an effective employee. He or she will want results, not excuses or second chances. I’d be very happy if the world did work perfectly and harmoniously like this, but it doesn’t. Education exists to prepare students for the real world; to offer “fail safe” options completely goes against this purpose.

  2. mfriedlander92 Says:

    I grew up going to very small private schools that were extremely competitive. There were always the kids who strived to do more and get the best grade and take the hardest classes. Then there were the kids who tried, but were just dumb. Many times there were debates in classes about whether grades should be based on performance or effort. There were the smart kids who performed well, but put in little to no effort and the kids who performed poorly but put in an extreme amount of effort. Do they deserve to receive the same grade or no? Should participation grades still matter at this age?

    What I learned was that grades were an incentive. You didn’t just receive them, you earned them. Although it is not ideal to have students fail a class, if they don’t perform adequately to standards then in that case they don’t deserve a second chance. Yes, many classes have the re-do option (depending on the teacher or class);however, it seems ridiculous that schools need to revamp their whole grading system to accommodate those who can not perform. If I received a C on a test in high school it was the push I needed to try more. The lower the grade I received the more I pushed myself toward a goal of succeeding. If I had the chance to just receive a “H” on an assignment and re-do it, what is the point of even trying in the first place. It takes away the strive to achieve. I don’t think this Z.A.P system will effect students who are already over-achieving. It could potentially help the ones who struggle immensely, but I also think that students who lack effort would take full advantage of this system.

    I don’t know what is wrong with standard A,B,C,D,F scale. Schooling has started to cater to students well-being too much. In the 60’s and 70’s, if you failed a class you failed a class and had to retake it. Now there are options to get your grade up and re-do assignments before everything is finalized. It helps students achieve better grades, but what does it do for them in real life? Do you think that your boss will understand if you did an assignment half-assed because you thought that you would have time to re-do it? No. In the real world you need to do everything to the best of your ability the first time because there is no time to re-do.

    I think that these changes in grading systems are providing too big of a safety blanket for students. Competition is what drives people. If there was no competition for grades or rewards, why would anyone try in the first place? I think that these systems are allowing too much leeway for achievement. When in fact, shouldn’t only the people who truly deserve a reward get it? Not just the people who think it should be handed to them because that is what school has taught them?

  3. namin91 Says:

    To me, this post is reminiscent to the debate over what type of parenting is best. Lately, there have been numerous books and articles coming out about “tiger moms”, “helicopter moms”, etc. There was one article, in particular, I read in Time Magazine called “Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?” These are classic arguments that divide parenting into two sides: the “western”, liberal style of parenting and the sort of “hard-ass” style of parenting.

    What I took away from the article is that if you’re just one or the other, you’re probably being a little to extreme. To allow your child to consistently quit or fail at things and tell them everything will be fine is sheer insanity, if you ask me. You’re just instilling a sense of laziness and an “everything will work out okay in the end” attitude, which will certainly not always be the case. On the other hand, if you are so extreme that you don’t allow your child to have play dates and call them “garbage” every time they bring home a B, I would call that cruelty. Instilling a false sense that there is perfection in the world isn’t doing your child any favors, it’s just doing them a disservice.

    I think the same can be applied to the argument over grading. While I think the Z.A.P system is interesting and could potentially work, I think it strays too far into a coddling zone that allows students to just breeze on through without necessarily doing their work. Granted, there are children who try their hardest, and just cannot get the grades they work for, so I think this is a beneficial system for them. I went to a small private school and the grades you got were the grades you got. This did create competition that at times was unhealthy, but it created an incentive to earn your grades. Never did I think I could just get by on trying. I had to put in the effort and time to earn the grades I wanted. Z.A.P., on the other hands, tells the kids that simply trying is enough when that isn’t how life works. In addition, this system doesn’t seem fair to those who really work hard in school.

    On the flip side, I think the traditional A-F system can foster an unhealthy competitiveness amongst classes and is often too extreme. Education is a highly individualistic process. No two people have the same experience in school and the A-F grading system isn’t necessarily ONLY rewarding the people who work hard. A naturally intelligent person could put very minimal effort into studying and get an A while another person might study for hours and only get a B. So, while this system is reliable, it isn’t necessarily always valid.

    This is where the parenting argument comes back in. As I said earlier, being one type of parent or the other, isn’t doing doing your child any favors in the long run. I think the same can be said for the grading system argument. While both systems have their pros and cons, they seem to be somewhat ineffective on their own. Seeing a school employ a combination of the two would be interesting. I definitely think there is a way to reward students for their hard work, but also let students who work equally hard and don’t get ideal grades know that they too are deserving of merit and good grades.

  4. matthewlocascio Says:

    This post could not be more true to the growing trend seen in society. The idea that everyone wins has become a staple in schools and communities in today’s day in age. I have been involved in sports since I have been about 4, and this concept has been unfathomable to me since my childhood. To stretch this into the schools, everyone receives good grades now through, to be honest, illegitimate reasons: teachers offering extra credit, “high school” excuses to get another chance to complete an assignment, etc. And teachers permit these policies because they are driven by the rewards associated with having their students have high grades. It looks good for them as teachers if their students have good grades, particularly if the class is generally known as having challenging material.

    This brings me to the Z.A.P. policy referenced in the post. I feel like this is one of the worst ideas possible. Having a “hold” on an assignment? This teaches the children today that if you don’t put in enough work, don’t try hard enough, or aren’t good enough, that it’s OK and you will have another chance. I hate to break it to everyone, but that’s not how life works. Rarely do you get a second chance in life, and that’s why we have the phrase “given second life.” Children need to learn how to fail, especially at such a young age, so when failure meets them later in life they can overcome it without having a devastating experience. The post refers to the 4th grade “F”; this was a valuable experience learning that next time you need to try harder.

    I like to look at this in the sports venue too, because I was always around those particular environments. Learning how to win is just as important as learning how to lose, no matter how old you are. Rewarding every kid in effect nullifies losing, teaching children that everyone wins no matter what the result is. It reminds me of last year after an NFL game was postponed due to snow. The mayor of Philadelphia called it the latest event in the “wussification” of America. Keeping this in mind, teaching our children that everyone gets a trophy and that everyone wins will teach them again that even if I don’t try as hard I will be rewarded.

    The goal is to reward those that work the hardest, are the best at what they do, or stand out from the rest. Yes, it is not fair, but life is not fair. People win and people lose, what is important is what you take out of the experience. That desire for heroism, to stand out from the rest is one of the most influential motivations in people and will get the most out of a kid if they are motivated to be the best. Allowing everyone to “win” should never happen, ever.

  5. hjclec Says:

    I believe that the school system’s main job is to prepare student’s for the “real world.” I also feel that if school’s are operating on a Z.A.P. system, or creating too big of a safety blanket for students, then these students won’t be prepared for the real world.

    Failure is something to learn from. It’s something that can be valuable to each and every student. Without learning how to fail, a student will be unprepared to handle the rest of their life.

    For example, I came to the University of Michigan thinking that I was Pre-Med. I took all the standard Pre-Med classes, and I didn’t do very well in them. Calculus was a nightmare, and I barely made it through chemistry. But my fall semester freshman year was a really good reality check for me.

    After my fall semester, I realized that Pre-Med wasn’t the right path for me to follow. Doctors need to understand math and science well to do well in their fields, and math and science were not for me. But I did discover that english was for me. So now I’m looking to pursue and english major, then apply to law school. In law school I plan to study health law, so that I can still work in the health field. But now I’ll just work in a different aspect of the health field.

    My “failing” experience last fall changed my life, and it changed my life for the better. I am now more comfortable with where my life is going. I enjoy my classes more now, and everyday I appreciate the reality check I received at school.

    Last fall also taught me that we don’t always get second chances. I didn’t get a second chance to re-do calculus or chemistry. I had to stick with my G.P.A., and this motivated me to do better the next semester. And now I know to to handle situations in which I don’t get a second chance. I know that I have to pursue other routes if the first route doesn’t work. So now if like I don’t get the first job I apply for, then I’ll realize that I need to do something else to get where I want.

    I think the whole idea of a Z.A.P. system was made with good intentions, but I think the systems in unfair to students. I believe that schools should reward individuals who do the best in their classes.

    If I had had a safety blanket for calculus or chemistry, then I might be pursuing Pre-Med still today. But I’m glad that I have found an alternate career that fits me better now, thanks to the University of Michigan.

  6. danieltarockoff Says:

    This “ZAP” program is one of the dumbest things our school systems could possibly participate in. This is the completely wrong direction to go with things. As you mentioned, we should not be reacting to children doing poorly by lowering what’s expected of them. If anything, we should raise it. Expecting less is only going to lead to even more children doing worse. This is not proactive whatsoever. Competition has always been something that’s personally led me to do the best I can, even outside of academics. Throughout school, sports, and whatever else, I have always done exceptionaly better when competing against others. Everybody wants to come out on top, to be 1st place. Nobody is going to strive for that 1st place position if it doesn’t exist.

    The first thing that came to mind when I read this post was my high school Calculus class. We have an incredible Calculus teacher, the only one in the building who teaches the class and by far one of the smartest men I’ve ever met. Our teacher, Mr. Formanek, knew exactly how to foster exceptional work: through competition. He knew, more than any other teacher in the building, how to make us WANT to learn and how to make us successful in doing so. So how did he do this? Did he make sure everyone was on the same page, that the people who struggled could keep up with those who understood things right away? Perhaps he spent extra time reviewing things we’ve already gone over, and maybe he gave multiple chances to re-take tests that kids did poor on. Actually, he did none of this. Instead, after every test, we would come to class the next day eager to view the blackboard results. He would write up, in order of the best to worst scores, all of the people in our class who scored an “A” grade on the test. Only the “A”s. This drove everyone into an intense desire to succeed. People studied harder, tried everything they could to get their name on the board. So what were the results of this class and this teaching method? Calculus, being the hardest class (arguably) in our school, often ended with some A’s, lots of B’s and C’s, and a few D’s and E’s (if you really didn’t do your homework). So what’s good about that? Why is that impressive? The REAL test of the class came with the AP score results. Almost ALL 4’s and 5’s, some 3’s, and rarely any 1’s or 2’s. THIS is what matters. THIS is why Mr. Formanek has a great reputation. THIS is why competition is needed.

    Competition has long been a driving force in many areas of life. In today’s world, you better give it your all to succeed, or you won’t. And that’s the way things are. If Ross accepted everyone, it wouldn’t be such a highly-acclaimed business school with an enormous “job-out-of-school” rate. With its exclusivity, it forces students to do everything they can to stand out and be the best they can be. If they don’t get in to Ross, they still ended up accomplishing incredible feats during their attempt to get in. This system has always, and will always, deliver results. We should in no way, shape, or form, degrade the educational system we have in place to suit the needs of those who are too lazy to do well.

  7. beaurh Says:

    The Z.A.P. system completely rules out competition as a means of growth and development. Competition breeds the best, brightest and most hardworking students. Letting students redo failed assignments only facilitates laziness, and a loss feeling of accomplishment. These students who fail, but then later get a passing grade lose the sense of accomplishment that accompanies getting an A, or studying for a week straight and doing better than you could have expected. This sense of accomplishment drives the University of Michigan, one the most competitive schools in the nation. Allowing failure to be accepted may help the hard working student’s self-esteem, but in the long run, this is only a disservice. This student will be raised to accept initial failure because he has a second chance. In the field I wish to go in, failure is not accepted, nor is a doctor that got to where he is because of second chances. A surgery cannot be failed and “held” for a week later. And a doctor should not be able to fail exams and medical school, but pass because he passed eventually. The Z.A.P. system inhibits necessary competition that weeds out the unmotivated and if this persists, society will plunge into an unmotivated phase of mediocrity.

  8. srbarron Says:

    Coming from a small high school that valued equal opportunity and less recognition for those on top than helping those that were less academically successful, this post is very interesting for me to read after recently completely the college application process. My district spent one of the highest dollar values per student than most others in our state and they flaunted this. Most of this money was spent on remedial programing and very little energy was put towards the top of the class. This ZAP system seems like something that my high school may soon adopt as they want those who are not academically focused to pass state exams reflecting better on the school district. Those that don’t try as hard or express academic interest are given numerous chances to redeem themselves. The school’s attention was dedicated to having a 100% graduation rate and state standardized test scores. We had very few AP classes and multiple beginner level courses. If you are an average or strong student, there is less opportunity for advancement and improvement. Intelligent students were not recognized for their accomplishments and hard work. There was neither valedictorian nor class ranking. We sent one student IV this year and this was an improvement from the past.

    I think my high school experience would have been very different if I had the opportunity to succeed and challenge myself. Had I been able to take AP classes and publically view my class rank, I may have been more motivated to work harder. As much as I think that every student’s education is unique and should not be compared to their classmates, a little friendly competition does encourage students to try harder.

    I do think there should be a happy medium between driving fellow students through rankings and completely comparing work through curves. If everyone does well, why shouldn’t they be rewarded for their achievements instead of just the very top? If an entire class puts forth effort and does their work efficiently, why doesn’t the whole class receive a high grade? These questions are answered by individual professors everyday. Why can’t we be compensated for our work ethic and outcome even if someone else’s was better? The whole academic system serves as a competitive market preparing us for the real world and its complexities.

  9. marckarpinos31 Says:

    This post to me is very troubling to me. I think that it sends the wrong message to the youth of America that no matter what you do you can’t lose. I also went to a small high school in a very successful area in northern New Jersey. A majority of my graduating class never worked for anything that they had, everything was handed to them by their parents. While I had a very fortunate up bringing as well I decided on my own to get a job during my junior year and started paying for food and gas for my car on my own. Many of my former classmates never had a job and never used their own money for anything and becoming independent is a foreign concept to them. These individuals must be aware that their parents can not support them forever but they don’t appear to want to let you know that.

    I believe that this example ties in nicely to the subject of this post. There are many students that I go to classes with that have never had to work hard to receive passing grades. Many of us at Michigan are just naturally smart and everything we ever needed to succeed came easily to us. As a result of our natural intelligence, we are able to make the necessary adjustments to succeed at the next level but there are many students who can not. The students that are going to benefit from Z.A.P are the students that are lazy and unmotivated. While the program may encourage them because they will no long receive failing grades it is just another way that the youth is going to be sheltered from reality.

    In addition, on top of allowing the youth population to believe that hard work is not necessary to get ahead, the college admissions officer has a good point. At this point, college acceptance is a number game and taking away numbers from the equation just makes it more and more of a toss up. High schools like mine that have become infamous for receiving private sat tutors and inflated SAT scores will have lower acceptance rates to schools that we have become used to as “Pascack Hills Colleges”

  10. maryblee Says:

    I read an article in The Atlantic a few months ago entitled “The Cult of Self-Esteem” which addresses some of the same issues namin91 mentioned. Written by a psychologist with an alarming number of patients reporting feeling unfulfilled and lost despite having had nurturing childhoods, good jobs and plenty of friends, the article explores modern parenting’s tendency to set kids up to expect too much out of life.

    The author explains that parents want their children to be as happy as possible. That’s why elementary sports give trophies to everyone, that’s why parents run to catch their toddler before they fall and that’s why kids of that generation grow up without knowing anxiety, competition, or how to get themselves out of a difficult situation. And as adults, these formerly coddled children find themselves in a world that doesn’t cater to them and they don’t know how to deal with it.

    This is exactly what the school system aims to mimic. By attempting to remove competition from the classroom, schools may believe they are helping their students, when in fact, without learning to work hard and learn from their mistakes, the students are set up to expect too much from a world that will undoubtably confuse them when they really do experience it.

  11. Obada Ghabra Says:

    This post is very interesting and relevant, but both the opinions expressed in the post and in many of the comments make the assumption that the goal of pre-undergraduate education is to separate between students based on intelligence and hard work. This assumption corresponds to the first of Louis Menand’s theories which he explains in his article Live and Learn in The New Yorker. This presupposition simplifies the conversation on this topic. I agree with the author that if the goal of education is to separate out between the intelligent and unintelligent or the competent and incompetent then the Z.A.P. grading system is detrimental to education. However, if one examines the Z.A.P. grading system from a different lens, the conversation shifts. Thus, if the purpose of education is to actually teach people and make them well-rounded, knowledgeable citizens (a view closer to Menand’s second theory), Z.A.P. seems like a good idea.

    Consequently, if one favors the latter conception of education, then it would be better to give students another chance. Handing a student an “F” without providing the means and motivation for him to learn the material that he failed has no benefit from this perspective. Thus, giving a student an “H” and allowing him to redeem himself can be very beneficial. Instead of the student failing and becoming disheartened, the prospect of an “H” may be the motivation the student needs to go back to the material and actually understand it. Therefore the Z.A.P. system can be successful in this way by motivating a greater number of people (even if only 16% more) to learn the material. Since, from this perspective on education, increasing people’s knowledge is the goal, Z.A.P. certainly has its place in schools.

    Furthermore, I do not think that the Z.A.P. system has to necessarily eliminate competition. I am not familiar with the Z.A.P. system, but as long as universities have access to documentation of H grades and the system is explained, I think they can still view students competitively.

    I understand why the authors of the posts and comments do not agree with Z.A.P. based on their perspective. However, I do not think this kind of program should be discredited without a more holistic view of the issue.

  12. marydahm08 Says:

    I read an article in The Atlantic over the summer called “How to Land your Kid in Therapy” that discusses the same issues as this post. Specifically, it reflects on the way our “everyone gets a trophy” motto is creating a generation of youth that will have more difficulty finding meaning and happiness in their lives. I know that this was probably not one of the consequences of Z.A.P. that the author had in mind while writing this post, but I’ll try to explain.
    The article brought up the example of a girl who knew she was bad at math, but whose parents insisted that she simply had a “different learning style.” “I didn’t have a different learning style,” the girl said. “I just suck at math! But in my family, you’re never bad at anything.” In my opinion, this girl should get some credit for having the self-awareness to know her strengths and weaknesses. But instead her family tried to convince her, essentially, that natural strengths and weaknesses are irrelevant. I see this happening all the time, when kids push themselves to take honors classes in subjects they should not be taking honors in, when they take the ACT 7 times to get that reading score up by 1 point, when a kid, under the Z.A.P. system, gets a “2” instead of a C, which, somehow, sounds a lot more innocuous.
    The result of all of this is not just that it is detrimental for the individuals who are led to believe they are extraordinary when in fact they are average (when did the word “average” become such a pejorative anyway?) but for the individuals who actually possess great talent, and are unable to stand out from the pack. Even worse, these individuals may never even realize the extent of their talent if they are receiving the same grade as half the kids in their class. If we have a system that doesn’t distinguish between a kid with an extraordinary gift and a kid who is average, what does that say about the value our society places on talent? I understand that people believe effort should be rewarded, and it should, but only to a certain extent. If all the emphasis is placed on effort, kids can skate through the entire high school system and never have to deal with the unpleasant task of sorting out the areas where their talents meet their passions and the areas where they might have to accept that they are below average. And it is this problem, I believe, that leads to the preponderance of 20-somethings in therapy, wondering why they feel unhappy when they had such a good childhood.
    Because, in my opinion, this “give everyone a trophy” generation does not allow youth to find themselves. Creating an artificially even playing field doesn’t make us feel proud of ourselves; it just makes us feel lost. Without the outside validation of a tough teacher telling you that you did good, without the pride of knowing you really accomplished something, how are you supposed to discover who you are? And since that is at the core of what gives a human being meaning in their life, this is how I bring my argument to the conclusion that Z.A.P. is a contributor to the dysfunction of this generation. Give the kids A’s who are deserving of A’s. Period.

  13. blakesimons Says:

    My immediate reaction to this wall post, like most of you, is that this Z.A.P. program is utterly pointless, meaningless, and wrong. As a student of public education throughout my life, I didn’t necessarily go to the most competitive schools; however, competition still existed, and it became an absolute necessity to have, especially throughout the college admittance process. Without determinants of success, such as letter grades, class rankings, and a valedictorian, the college admittance process would become an even more unbelievably strenuous process. At a top, competitive school, such as the University of Michigan, it has become absolutely essential to have means of sorting the best from the great.

    But why is that? Why is it that school has to be this competitive, “do or die” type of environment teaching kids an immense importance of competition from their early years of schooling? I want to take a moment to play devil’s advocate. All of us, as students of a top-tier university, are biased. Gaining admittance to this university, it is clear that we (most of us, at least) can handle, and perhaps, strive on, competition. Some of us have been at the top of our classes ever since the first grade, some of us were valedictorian of our schools, and some of us have never gotten a B or lower. As students of a top school, this competition that the Z.A.P. program is striving to deplete is something we have been trained to value.

    Maybe, just maybe, competition really isn’t needed at such a high level that we are accustomed to. It’s hard for us to imagine, but try putting yourself in the shoes of an average student. This student could be one who puts in immense effort in school, but fails to reach the top. Should this student be granted the feeling of success that many top students are granted ever-so-often? Can the argument be made that fairness isn’t being achieved with the current system of competition? I’m not trying to make the argument that this so-called Z.A.P. program should be implemented into every school across America. I’m just suggesting that we, the students of a top-university, think about issues from a more open perspective. I know it’s hard. Personally, I’m one of those competition-yearning students, and when I read this article, the first thing I thought about was how much of a necessity competition is in schools, and how ridiculous of an idea the Z.A.P. program is, but hey, maybe I have some bias in me, too.

    • ngamin1614 Says:

      What you mentioned certainly is one of the reasons these policies are being implemented by schools across the country. It was definitely one of the things I thought about when making this post, and I think it deserves attention. This viewpoint is something my post is missing, so I’m happy you brought it up.

      Unfortunately there are kids, like you said, who will struggle in school even though they try hard. This definitely is a benefit of the Z.A.P. program because if a student really struggles to understand something and still gives it their best shot, they get a do-over. So, let’s say there’s a student in a calculus class for example, and he/she can’t understand derivatives. This student has tried their best: they read the book, did some practice problems, and went in to talk to the professor. But, unfortunately, they fail the assignment because they just don’t get it.

      In a school without Z.A.P., the class would just leave this student behind. Especially in my example. Calculus class moves fast. This student would still be wondering what a derivative is while the rest of the class had moved on to more complicated stuff, leaving this student in a bad situation. Basically, this student is screwed, unless they somehow turn it around really quickly.

      However, in a school with Z.A.P., this student doesn’t get an F, he/she receives an H. So, this student can try this assignment again, and this time is probably more likely to understand the material because they get a second shot at it. Now, this student is not lagging far behind, nor is he/she suffering the consequences of the F that he/she received before. Students who are in this situation surely do deserve this Z.A.P. program. They put in hard work, so they ought to receive a reward for hard work.

      So, is this benefit worth it? While the hard working student is being rewarded for their effort, so is the student who doesn’t try hard and gets an H despite not putting in any effort whatsoever. And, as I and a few other comments mentioned, in the real world, once you get a job, if you fail, you suffer the consequences. Like you, I believe competition is ideal. And, much like many of my fellow umich students, I push myself to “win” this competition so I can receive the reward in the future. So, I’m biased towards this issue, like you said. This opposing viewpoint is definitely one to consider when thinking about this topic. I don’t think anyone here has the right answer to this question, but I guess that’s the fun of it!

      • marydahm08 Says:

        You have brought up an interesting question. Is it fair to reward a kid who didn’t try at all with an “H” instead of an “F” in order to give the benefit of the “H” to the kid who deserves it? Although I understand the perspective you are coming from (believe me, I spent twice the time on math as my peers and still never got an A) I still have to argue that the Z.A.P. program is far less beneficial to these students than it seems on the surface.

        Maybe the hard-working student would be happy to have a second chance. I know I would have been. But if, as you said, the student had already studied hard and met with the teacher to get extra help but they still just didn’t get it, is having a second try really going to help them? Some people are simply never going to be good at math. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try to do the best they can, but it does mean that they don’t necessarily have to enroll in classes that are beyond their capabilities. My best friend struggled alongside me in pre-calculus our senior year of high school. She is currently at Stanford University, not taking any math classes:)

        So I guess what I am trying to say is that while it is important to sympathize with students who put in lots of effort and still don’t see results, it does not mean that we have to resort to a system that coddles them. The only thing this will accomplish is rewarding slackers who deserve to fail and encouraging students to take classes beyond their capabilities because they will have a second chances at them. This only teaches them that life will have the same second chances, and it doesn’t. Maybe instead we need to
        accept that it is okay to not be in the
        most advanced track for every subject, that it is okay to not be good at everything! School should teach students to accept their weaknesses with grace so that they can work on their strengths. An “H” given to a student who tried their hardest simply
        teaches them that they can do better. But sometimes, the cold, hard reality is that they can’t.

  14. Alexandria Novo Says:

    In the long run ZAP will not help our country – as people mentioned earlier, competition is a HUGE motivator towards success, and rewarding those who don’t work hard doesn’t help our communities either. However, ZAP does make a school’s statistics look better. Instead of failing a child they created a new grading scale where no one really knows what an H stands for. Instead of saying a child failed, a parent or the school can say this person received an H which sounds a lot prettier than failing.

    More and more schools are having to ensure that everyone who attends graduates, and if people don’t the school’s statistics drop and the school starts looking bad. In our society importance is placed on going to a “good school” which usually means that kids graduate and continue onward to more “good schools.” Schools are blamed if students don’t meet graduation requirements so they are forced to dumb down the curriculum, and no one blames the students who don’t graduate.

    We as a society need to change so that the school system can change. Currently if a student doesn’t graduate high school, they have less opportunities in the workforce and overall will probably earn less than those who do graduate high school and college and beyond. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we need to change how we feel once we realize someone never graduated high school or never went to college. We don’t know why these people never went farther, but just because we’re going to Michigan doesn’t mean we’re better than them. We need to take the pressure off of schools so silly programs like ZAP don’t exist to ensure that more students pass.

    As for having multiple valedictorians, I think that’s a silly idea too. The valedictorian at my school worked HARD every single semester of high school, and ended up going to Columbia while the salutatorian went to Princeton. My high school was really competitive, and I have a lot of respect for those who work hard enough to be called valedictorian, and I believe that only one person deserves that honor. At my school not just the GPA is considered, but also extracurricular activities and classes taken. The salutatorian was the captain of the cheer leading team, captain of the mathletes, and school body president. She deserved her title and it wouldn’t have been fair to share it with someone else.

  15. lnk72792 Says:

    I enjoyed this post because I can relate to it. I went to a very strict high school, with a double curriculum. The educators constantly stressed the importance of succeeding, and how failure was not an option. That, coupled with a tremendous workload, was a recipe for disaster. It took me almost two years to finally understand how to “do” high school. Freshman year, I was new to the whole system. I entered very eager, wanting to tackle everything at once. At the same time, I thought that I could handle the stress easily, and I would always push things off to the last minute. As a result, I’d always have to cram to turn assignments in on time, and study for tests. I did not do well at all Freshman year. I didn’t necessarily receive “F’s” but in my head I was a failure. So, here comes the question of doing away with the current grading system. I believe that there are pros and cons to leveling the playing field.

    With less competition, students will be able to work at a pace suited to them. They will have more motivation to be creative and share with the teachers things they would be afraid of showing beforehand in fear of receiving a bad grade.

    I believe that with no competition, students will always choose to do the bare minimum. They will have no reason to go above and beyond, because they will be receiving the same grades as students who do the minimum. Therefore, the students who have the ability to be better, are not given the opportunity.

    In my opinion, the cons outweigh the pros. I do not approve with this new system, especially the part that gives students the opportunity to redo failed assignments. That promotes laziness.

  16. amgille Says:

    In theory, the idea behind ZAP is great. As noted a previous comment, it allows for students to actually learn material, instead of just being told they didn’t understand and moving forward in the lessons. However, as only 16% of students take the opportunity to do so, it seems that many of the students that would have failed anyway, are okay with the knowledge that they do not understand the material in the first place. Which is what leads me to the problems that I see with ZAP in practice. The program seems to limit those with intelligence, refusing to allow them to excel above others in areas of their expertise. While they may receive an outstanding grade the first time, they must live with the knowledge that someone who may have received an “H” can also achieve the same grade that they worked hard for in the first place. The ZAP program takes away the incentives of hard work, promoting the idea that less work will still pay off in the end.

    At the same time, it limits those that do receive “H”‘s. As bad as it sounds, they are being told that if they don’t do their best work the first time, they always have a second chance. While this seems nice, this is sadly not how the real world works. While one will maintain their self-esteem, it does not teach the student anything overall. One will not be given a second chance in college, nor will they be given a second chance in their occupation. As stated above, the system undermines hard work and effort, instead promoting the idea that it is okay to fail, but there will always be a second chance. There is not always going to be a net under someone when they fall. Work should be done well the first time, and this is what is taught by the A, B, C, D, F grading scale.

  17. Michael Wagner Says:

    Although I agree with some of the above sentiments and a large majority of this post, I think a major point is being overlooked. It should be emphasized that this ZAP system is being incorporated in middle schools and elementary schools, according to the original post. I feel that this is an appropriate age level to instate ideals such as persistence, motivation, and positivity, and avoid competition, punishment and labeling. The ZAP system does well to serve those points.

    At the younger grade levels, lessons cover basic material that lays a foundation necessary for any student’s future. Basic math, reading, writing, and science are all staples of any grade school curriculum. However, psychological studies such as Stevenson, Chen and Lee (1993) and McClelland, Morrison and Holmes (2000)….


    …show that early factors such as home life, social skills, and work-related skills have large impacts on the ability of students to perform with academic success later in life. A child’s poor performance on his 1st grade science project does not indicate that he is destined to bomb his biology or physics exam in college. Basic math, although arguably more important and relevant to later academic work, cannot serve as a reliable indicator as to the child’s performance in high end calculus or abstract math. Early lesson plans and homework assignments are meant to not only lay a good foundation of knowledge, but also to instate good study habits, motivation, positivity and teamwork. These skills, developed at home and in the classroom, I would argue, will be more vital to the child later in life.

    The ZAP system serves to teach children that getting an “F” on a paper is not a sign of inherent incapability. As seen in the story of the original post, poor academic performance is a big deal in the mind of a young student and can serve as catalyst for negative attitudes toward a subject for the rest of their lives. I stated earlier, young students are being taught time management and effort. They should be granted a grace period and given time to develop these necessary skills before they are placed into a position to be labeled “bad math student” or “bad science student”. These negative labels can dominate their psyche for the next 12+ years and indirectly have a larger impact on a student’s future performance than that middle school lesson plan ever could.

    The ZAP system should NOT be applied in high school, where competition and performance are paramount. However, the Grand Rapids school system is integrating ZAP into their middle schools and elementary schools, a place where second chances and positive reinforcement can provide a student with more than just knowledge.

  18. madisonkraus Says:

    Coming from a competitive high school, at which only those who were extremely talented athletically or academically were successful, I can see why people would be interested in a no fail policy. Competitive schools cause stress and anxiety, and push students against each other. It creates an environment in which you don’t want to collaborate with others because you want to get a better grade than them. While our society does focus on individual achievement, this kind of environment doesn’t allow students to learn important teamwork skills that are needed in the real world. Even in elementary school, it is clear in each class who is academically the strongest and weakest. For children who may not be in the top category, each poor grade and failure hurts their self-esteem more and affects their future performance. Many of these kids eventually get discouraged and develop a negative attitude toward academics in general.
    At the same time, in a system in which there is no consequence for doing poorly, where is the motivation to do well? If all students pass a class, and there is no distinction between who did excellently and who did just enough to get by, there is no reason for someone to try and achieve better than the norm. Also, a system like this, even if only implemented in lower school, doesn’t prepare students for a realistic future. If a child transitions from a Z.A.P middle school into a high school with real grades and penalties, the effects may be negative. Students will be unprepared for the harsh grading many high schools implement. While I do agree that grading may have gotten overboard in the last couple of years, it’s a system that is in place because it works. For most students, poor grades motivate them to work harder next time. If they know that the worse thing that happens is that they get a 1/3 or a chance to try it again, they’re not going to be as motivated to work hard. I agree that there are problems in our educational and grading systems, but I don’t think that creating a Z.A.P system will remedy them. Instead, it is important to identify weak students and give them more attention and practice in the subjects they struggle with. This allows them to improve their skills instead of simply eliminating the motivation to try hard in school.

  19. remiforster Says:

    I found this post very interesting. I went to a very competitive, cutthroat high school. Although my high school was ranked very high among the nations top public high schools, my high school was recently involved in a very big cheating scandal in which students hacked into the grading system and changed grades. Although this was just one severe incident of cheating, it still occurred on much more minimal levels everyday. Students felt so much pressure to do well on every assignment that they felt the need to cheat. We did not have class rankings and anyone who got all A’s in all honor/AP classes in high school was a valedictorian (which ended up being about 30-40 students). Also, my school did not give out pluses, minuses, or percentages; students were only given A, B, C, D, etc. Teachers could not give students anything below a 50%, so if you simply turned in an assignment you were given at least a 50%.

    Similar to the Z.A.P. grading system, it was hard to tell students apart from my high school when applying to colleges. Students weren’t motivated to do as well as they could because someone who gets a 99% and someone who gets an 89.5% are both given A’s on their report cards (yes, 89.5% was an A). This grading system only really hurt students in the end because one of the only things that colleges could use to tell us apart was our test scores. Everyone had a million extra-curricular and amazing essays that their expensive college counselors helped him or her write.

    Despite all of these grading policies, students were still very competitive and succumbed to cheating. This is why I believe that the Z.A.P. program is not going to be effective. This type of program gives students no motivation to do well. It tells them that even if they don’t feel like doing the assignment or going in for help, they still get another chance. With our 50% rule students would turn in work in which they simply guessed every single answer and they would just say “whatever” because they knew they would at least get a 50%. In the real world it doesn’t work like this. People aren’t given second chances and told that everything will be alright. Minimal effort on assignments is not acceptable in most workplaces.

  20. tchung22 Says:

    I do not agree with these newly enacted policies. The Z.A.P program seems to reward slackers since they can redo any assignment. Sure, kids who struggle to understand the material can try again, yet only 16% of “H” grades became passing grades in the second semester. It seems that educators decided to lower the standards to help students pass. The educators seemingly took the easy way out instead of motivating the kids to put in more effort. Instead of mandating extra study sessions or review time, they have lowered the bar allowing students to slack off. This policy does not bode well for when these students enter the real world. Suddenly, they are going to be in an environment where they cannot make mistakes or decide to turn in work months later.

    Additionally, the policy of hiding class rankings hurts the brightest and hardest-working students. Suddenly, the top students are no longer distinguished from mediocre students, hurting the brightest and hardest-working students in the admissions process. Now, admissions officers can only base their decisions on their essays and extracurricular activities, rather than four years of academic excellence. With the elimination of class rankings, the sense of competition among students in their academics is also scaled down. This means that all students as a whole will put less effort into their schoolwork because there is simply no point to being ranked first. There is no incentive. This is completely contradictory to the real world. Incentives exist in all workplaces in the real world, including bonuses and potential promotions. However, these educational policies eliminate incentives. These schools are rewarding the group as a whole rather than the high-achieving individuals. In the end, these policies are not good for any of the students since they send a negative message that being a slacker is completely fine. These students will be in for a rude awakening when they enter the workforce or even take their next step into college.

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