Work Inflation

By Douglas B. Reeves

Stories about dramatic improvement in student results often spark skepticism. “Grade inflation” is the most frequent accusation, along with charges that improvements in student performance are probably related to the lowering of standards. Indeed, the immediate reaction of some critics to test score gains is that any significant improvement must be the result of cheating.

Skepticism is a good quality, provided it is due to a search for truth and not a cynical refusal to consider the evidence. When skeptics ask tough questions, they can distinguish between grade inflation and “work inflation” -- the admirable result of students working harder, respecting teacher feedback, and earning improved results.

That is precisely what happened in Iowa’s Cardinal Community School District. After Cardinal High School was labeled as persistently low achieving in 2009, its leaders confronted their challenges. They didn’t fire everyone and start over. They didn’t close the school and privatize. Instead, they confronted the data, made significant changes in teaching and leadership practices, and worked their way to improved performance.

The program, called “Ketchup,” focuses on work ethic, persistence, and resilience. As the name suggests, it gives students meaningful and appropriate consequences and the chance to catch up on their academic work by taking personal responsibility and working harder. 

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