City schools' new math: zero equals 50

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Pittsburgh Public Schools has been taking some flak lately for a policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score on assignments and tests. In other words, if you're a kid, and you take, say, a history test about the American Revolution, and you misspell your own name, identify George Washington as a Cuban boxer and draw a picture of a clam, you get a score of 50 out of 100.

Pittsburgh: Building a world-class work force, one wrong answer at a time.

Now, a lot of people are condemning this policy, on the grounds that it camouflages failure. But I think it's brilliantly cutting-edge -- School 2.0, if you like. It prepares children for the real-life modern working world. Most of us get the same paycheck every week whether we give 100 percent or 20 percent on the job. The earlier you learn this, the less effort you waste trying to "excel" or "compete" or "not poison the customers."

Besides, any score below a 60 is still failure. It's just that, for overall score averaging purposes, any score below 50 is still 50. So if you're taking a math test, and you write down that 40 + 2 = 50, and 31 - 5 = 50, and 1/2 x 3/5 = 50, you don't get a zero -- you get a 50. And if you learn these math skills well, you can probably get a job in the mortgage industry.

The district has maintained that setting the score floor at 50 percent is important because it keeps kids from getting discouraged and gives them a chance to catch up. Whether a kid is actually getting 50s or 17s on his schoolwork, he should feel equally confident that he is receiving a quality education and that everything possible is being done to help him seem more able than he actually is.

Discouragement should be postponed until adulthood, when it can be overcome with surliness and beer.

Some adults meet disappointment with resilience, grace and perspective because of childhood experiences getting cut from teams, failing exams and not being able to play the violin despite minutes of practice.

We call these people "losers."

If children can be insulated from failure, loss and discouragement, they learn they are invincible! They grow into confident, optimistic adults who do not accept defeat under any circumstances, even when they are in the wrong or completely incompetent. You know someone like that. You may even have voted for someone like that.

Besides, it's not just Pittsburgh that is cooking the schoolbooks; remember back in the '90s when the SAT was recalibrated because the scores had fallen too low? The average score was 500 when the test was instituted in the '40s, but by 1994 the average verbal score was 424 and the average math score 478. So in 1995, the College Board "recentered" the test and everyone immediately got smarter.

(At some point, we'll probably have to recenter the IQ scale too, and 85, which used to be "dull," will be the new average. Reality TV will become the new PBS.)

Naysayers who claim the district policy conflicts with the improvement campaign called "Excellence for All" are missing the point: All you have to do to achieve excellence is redefine excellence!

It works on the local and national level, in all kinds of situations. You can win wars by redefining "victory"; you can keep markets free by redefining "bailout"; you can be wealthy by redefining "recession"; you can fly by redefining "gravity."

(After all, gravity is only a theory.)

Are self-esteem and faith in yourself better than mere book learning? I say, you bet! And I'm not the only one. We have a whole industry in this great nation devoted to the principle that you can make things real by believing in them. Scads of gurus tell us that you can have wealth and love and success in your life by repeating some magic words into a mirror every morning, or by writing them down, or by never admitting to yourself that spending the rent money on Powerball tickets was a huge mistake for which you really kind of deserve to suffer.

Believe it, and you can be it. This is how I became an international juggling sensation and the first pastry chef in space.

You can also live in the country and world that you believe in, through the miracle of talking points. This is why it's silly to insist that children learn in school. This is America, and we don't need to know anything except that we're the best. In what other country does Joe Sixpack get to own a major bank? Maybe the Soviet Union, but look how well that worked out.

If kids were forced to learn in school -- if they were tutored and coached and encouraged to earn the best scores they could instead of being intellectually subsidized -- they might grow up with the math skills to put off buying a house until they had established good credit, or the critical thinking to tell a sound argument from emotional fluff, or the sense of history to elect leaders who make wise decisions.

And then where would we be? It's so much easier to go zero to 50 in nothing flat.

Samantha Bennett can be reached at or 412-263-3572.


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