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Spare the red ink and spoil the job



Published: Sat, April 9, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By BRONWYN LANCE CHESTER

VIRGINIAN-PILOT

Anyone who was awake during high school English class will remember reading a story called "Harrison Bergeron." In it, Kurt Vonnegut describes society in 2081, when everyone is finally equal.

"Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else." All this equality was enforced by the Handicapper General so that average folks wouldn't "feel like something the cat drug in."

I was reminded of Vonnegut's story last week when I read about the latest target of child self-esteem mongers: red ink.

That's right. Red ink, as in the age-old color of teachers' corrections on student papers.

If handing out trophies to kids on losing teams and bestowing awards merely for passing to the next grade aren't surreal enough, some parents are now calling teachers' red marks on tests self-esteem killers because the color is too "stressful" and "harsh."

Never mind that the scarlet letters could be A's, as in "Nicely written!" or helpful suggestions for improvement. Red is dead. Long live self-esteem.

A school in Connecticut has gone so far as to ban red ink outright. Others are encouraging teachers to grade papers in "more pleasant-feeling tones" such as purple, according to the Associated Press.

It's not as if teachers don't have enough to worry about already. Now grabbing the wrong pen when marking tests could be a career killer.

This parental get-the-red-out campaign is part of a larger self-esteem-based movement in grading students. As one Alaska teacher described it, "It's taken a turn from 'Here's what you need to improve upon' to 'Here's what you've done right."'

I don't know about you, but pretty much everything I've learned in both school and life came from figuring out what I did wrong. And, truth be told, I used to live for red grades on returned papers. In fact, I felt let down if they were any other color.

Wrapped-around-the-axle parents should realize that the color red has no independent reality in itself. It's only pejorative by association.

Feel-good color

And it's only a matter of time before purple or green or whatever feel-good color with which teachers grade papers becomes the new red. At what point does a child learn he's not making the grade?

Under these parents' tortured logic, the kids should be writing in red and the teachers in blue, because the student is always right and the teacher reduced to giving helpful suggestions.

Most teachers aren't bent on making students feel worthless and weak. Just the opposite, in fact. When a teacher makes a mark on a student's paper, she's charting a course for future improvement, not giving demerit points.

Which brings us back to "Harrison Bergeron": These "concerned" parents, whose motto could be "no child left corrected," mistake uniformity for equality. Forget learning to spell, write five-paragraph essays or do long division: Yes, our children are all ignorant, but man, do they ever feel good about themselves!

Studies have shown -- and many child psychologists agree -- that too much self-esteem, which leads to rudeness, bullying and false expectations, is a far greater problem than too little.

Parents could do society a great favor by teaching more self-respect, which emphasizes doing for others, and less self-esteem, which emphasizes others doing for you.

Sorry, parents, it's a fact of life: Some children are better at certain subjects, sports and activities than yours. Your kids aren't dumb; they know that. To pretend otherwise, to say that all answers are correct, to reward them just for showing up instead of succeeding, is to set them up for a hard life in the real world.

Parents should be more worried about the comments on their child's homework than the color in which they're written. Red ink will be the least of his problems when, one day, he's handed a pink slip.

X Bronwyn Lance Chester is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.




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