Excuses Don’t Make the Grade

Christine Baron is a high school English teacher in Orange County. You can reach her at or (714) 966-4550

Last week in my senior College Prep English class, as part of a study of eyewitness accounts, I asked the students to read a firsthand description of the Great London Fire. The section was only three pages, and I even gave them two nights to read it.

On the day the reading should have been completed, I asked the students to write a response to what they’d read, how a witness’ account differs from a historical one. I always ask anyone who seems unprepared to explain why he or she didn’t do the work, rather than faking an answer. Given the length of the assignment plus the amount of time allowed to do it, I figured there wouldn’t be many in this category. Boy, was I wrong.

Twenty-five of the 31 students present that day had not so much as opened the book. Their reasons for ignoring the homework were frustrating: “I had to work till 11 p.m. both nights.” “I had baseball practice.” “I left class early and didn’t know we had anything to do.” “I lost my book a long time ago.” “I was absent [again] the day you assigned this.” “I started to read it, but the phone rang.” “The first paragraph was not interesting, so I quit.” “I did my math and government homework instead.” “I’m not really into reading.” And certainly the most honest comment: “I guess I’m just irresponsible.”

These responses tell us a lot about why so many capable students are doing poorly. With the possible exception of working (which may be an economic necessity), all of these excuses involve choices.

When students then fail because of these choices, they still look around for someone to blame. Some get mad at the teacher. “You just grade way too hard,” one girl told me accusingly. Some blame it on the class. “I’d be doing good in English if we didn’t have to read.” And some take it out on long-dead authors. “The problem is that Samuel Pepys is a boring person.” After a number of such failures comes the mad scramble to raise low grades before a report card or progress notice goes home. For far too many students, school has turned into a passive “do nothing” affair with occasional bursts of energy and extra credit to stave off a D or worse.


Clearly, school doesn’t have to be this way. One need only look at successful students to see a different scenario. Although there are obviously such students at all levels, there tend to be more in the honors classes. However, I have always maintained that the difference between honors students and everyone else has more to do with motivation than brains. Obviously there are some flat-out geniuses in the top track, but the vast majority are there because they have clear goals and know what they need to do to achieve them. Period.

This leads to an obvious question: How can we encourage a lot more kids to care about their education? Quite frankly, it’s too late for many of my current seniors to somehow redeem what might have been, but is there anything to be done for the masses coming behind them? The solution has to come from three sources: the teachers, the parents and the students themselves.

Let’s start with teachers. We need to teach what’s significant about our world in order to graduate informed, capable human beings who can think and maneuver their way through the complexities of life. We should try to present this information in an interesting and engaging way. We also need to come up with meaningful assessments that are fair and provide students with an accurate measure of where they stand. Above all, we need to resist “dumbing down” the curriculum. To meet lowered motivation with lowered standards is tempting. It’s both pragmatic and easier, but in the end it serves no one.

Because a teacher sees a student less than one hour a day, parents obviously still have a huge role to play. As hard as the task is, they must continue to monitor everything about school from attendance and homework to behavior and academic schedules. Young people make choices in high school that will affect the rest of their lives. They need all the adults in their lives, teachers and parents, to hang in there with them.

Lastly, we come to the key players here. No matter how well we teach or how involved parents are, students still have to meet us halfway. Caring about their education will benefit them in ways they might not even imagine. Skipping homework and cutting class might sound like carefree alternatives to studying, but academic slacking actually adds more stress to a student’s life. There is increasing pressure from teachers, parents, counselors and attendance deans. Poor students often become ineligible to play sports or participate in certain activities. College and career choices are sharply reduced as mediocre grades stack up. It’s a losing proposition all around.

These years will never return, and it makes me sad to see so many kids coasting through classes as if their education were a joke. High schools are not perfect institutions, but they have the potential to provide critical knowledge. For many students their U.S. History class may be the last time they ever encounter the fascinating process by which this country came to be. Senior English may offer their only exposure to Shakespeare.

We fought long and hard to get kids out of the labor force and into schools in an attempt to guarantee a universal standard of education for everyone, regardless of social class. When I encounter bored, unprepared students, I wonder if any of them realize how preferable school is to working in a coal mine or a textile factory. But they probably didn’t read that chapter on the Industrial Revolution.