Is it fair for schools to throw parties during school hours that can only be attended by students who make good grades? According to Fox News, a brouhaha has developed over a party at a Maryland middle school for high-performing students. The party, also covered by The Washington Post, has apparently riled some parents and education observers who feel that students' self-esteem could be harmed by being barred from participating. Straight A-students got to attend the party during the last period of the day and got to enjoy pizza, a game room, and a DJ. B- and C-students got to attend after school when the pizza was gone.
Some 35 percent of the student body of 806 students were not invited to attend at all. Critics say that separating students by letter grades increases academic tension and could lead to bullying through the creation of a "caste system." Certainly, this is an issue of routine concern: When I was a high school student there were three tiers of classes - General, Advanced, and Honors - and now there are only two tiers. Somewhere along the line parents got upset with the idea that their children were in "General" classes, leaving Advanced and AP as the two tiers.
As a teacher I support the tiered system and the offering of incentives and perks, including parties, based on academic performance. And why not? We have a tiered system in athletics, after all, with student-athletes competing for spots on the Varsity, JV, or "C" teams.
Giving students something to strive for is important for academic motivation. A party is a good motivator. If you have studious friends who are likely to attend, won't you study harder to be able to join them? Won't you work hard to make sure you are not left out?
Critics decry this "stick" method of motivation, preferring that we offer only "carrots" to our youth. This, of course, is unrealistic and leaves students unprepared for the real world. In the real world there are painful "sticks," such as job loss or demotion, that have ramifications much worse than not being able to attend a party. In the real world people are motivated to perform so they will be able to enjoy social niceties and social acceptance...like at a party.
Students should feel a little bad about letting their grades slip. Removing any social sanction for bad grades, such as not being invited to a school party, leads to those bad grades being deemed acceptable. Junior high students, especially, are often not mature enough to feel ashamed of bad grades on their own merit. They only feel bad if there is an external consequence. Not going to a school party is an acceptable consequence: Strong enough to make the student want to try harder next grading period, but not so strong that it should negatively impact his or her life.
So if you want to go to the straight-A party where there is pizza aplenty, put forth the effort to make straight-As. If you want to go to the party at all, make sure you are passing all your classes. Just as we red-blooded Americans wouldn't want a bunch of lazy slackers to get to enjoy the Varsity team banquet, neither should we expect the same underperformance to merit entry into an academic banquet.