The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I think high self-esteem is overrated. A little low self-esteem is actually quite good…Maybe you're not the best, so you should work a little harder."...  ... Jay Leno.

Commentary of the Day - June 4, 2005: Fighting the Red Menace.

It used to be that the "red menace" referred to the expansionist goals of the "Iron Curtain" countries and the former Soviet Union, in particular.  Those of us of a certain age recall the John Birch Society and "duck and cover drills" when the words "red menace" are spoken.  But these days it seems that there is a new red menace, at least in the eyes of those educators who determine political correctness.  The "red menace" that these folks -- the same ones who brought us the self-esteem movement -- are talking about is the red ink (or pencil) marks that teachers put on students' papers to call attention to mistakes.

Those who teach in the elementary schools now are cautioned to use colors other than red when grading papers, because according to these experts students find red marks on papers too stressful.  In a recent CBS News report, Joseph Foriska, who is the principal of Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Pittsburgh, PA said "the color is everything."  "You could hold up a paper that says 'Great work!' and it won't even matter if it is written in red."  Foriska apparently feels that messages written in red on a student's paper come across as somehow derogatory or demeaning.  He is not alone in this movement towards a more politically correct hue for grading papers.  These days teachers across the country are ditching their red pens in favor of  blue or purple tones, which are perceived to be less threatening.

The Irascible Professor was somewhat taken aback by this revelation, because for decades he has been using red ink to write "Excellent" or "Very Good" on the exam papers of students who have come up with a particularly good solution to an exam problem.  Somehow, the IP thinks that the students who see these markings on their exams will get the message without being stressed out in spite of the red ink.

The shift from red ink to softer hues is but a part of a broader movement to make sure that elementary school students never have their young egos bruised by a negative comment about their work.  According to Vanessa Powell who teaches fifth grade at Snowshoe Elementary School in Wasilla, AK, grading has shifted from pointing out what the student needs to improve upon to telling the student what he or she has done right.

The IP would agree that bright red is an attention getting color.  That's why stop lights are red, why fire engines often are painted red, and it's also why driving around in a red convertible can get you a ticket for "intent to speed".  And, teachers have used red ink to get the attention of students from time immemorial.  The shift away from correcting errors with red ink towards using softer colors to focus on what the student has done right, may reduce the stress that little Johnny or little Susie feels about schoolwork.  But in the long run, the shift may prove confusing to students and counterproductive to educational goals, which should be to make sure that the student has learned what he or she needs to know to succeed.

For example, if a student gets his or her paper back from the teacher with no marks at all on it, the student might conclude that he or she did everything right, when in fact the teacher found that it was all wrong but didn't want to hurt the student's feelings by marking up his or her paper.

More than likely, most teachers will continue to point out a student's mistakes, albeit with blue ink or purple ink.  Indeed, over time students may well become conditioned to respond to the new color much as they respond now to the color red, and that could lead to another movement to make the new color politically incorrect.

Unfortunately, teachers at the K-12 level are being trained to worry more about students' self-esteem rather than about how well they are learning.  As a result, those of us who labor in the classrooms and lecture halls of higher education too often meet students who think that they are much better prepared for college-level work than they are in reality.

Perhaps, more red ink is needed in the K-12 grades rather than less!

Return to main commentary.

© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.