This is a series of clips from a South Park episode in which Cartman (for those who are unfamiliar with the show – he is the overweight one), for reasons I cannot remember, becomes a teacher for a class of underprivileged inner city high schoolers. While the portrayal of the students in this episode is arguably offensive, I believe the show’s creators hit a very real nerve regarding the U.S.’s education system.

Cartman is put in charge of these students, who as a result of their environments, are impoverished, defiant, and collectively do not care about school. He tells them that they should believe in themselves, that they should challenge the system, that they can get into college just like the privileged kids in rich schools! Their secret? Cheat!

Professor Cartman, who has stolen the answers to what we assume is the SAT/ACT, has students recite the answers over and over in class. Consequently, they all receive perfect scores and get accepted into college – as a result, he laments, “I reached these keeeds.”

Okay, so South Park is a crude, and at times quite disgusting show. However, the writers oftentimes portray the realities of our society, albeit in the most crass way possible.

Scores define educational success in the U.S., and money and privilege will give you a leg-up to that success. As a result, impoverished and minority schools suffer. Students lose motivation, become disinterested, and find purpose in unhealthy places. It’s a cycle that adds weight to people who were already born with feet encased in cement blocks.

Grades and test scores are how the government can measure schools’ success, and reward them with funding. However, as Dan Pink mentioned in his TED talk, incentivizing work may not necessarily translate to competence, performance, or understanding. In fact, schools that strive for higher grades may cut corners in their students’ education in order to do so.

“If we really want high performance…the solution…is not to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick.” -Dan Pink, The puzzle of motivation

What if all students from all schools had virtually no way to cheat? Remove grades, remove pressure, encourage creativity. Every person has a passion. Give them purpose rather than incentive, and remove unnecessary pressure. My art teachers always said, “You don’t have to be good at drawing, you just have to create and show you understand the process.” Grades in art class weren’t based on how well you could draw a vase of flowers, but how you approached the task.

Realistically, we do need concrete, measurable means of gauging student progress. However, I like Alfie Kohn’s suggestion of negotiation – at the end of the course, sit down and ask what grade they think they deserve (although the teacher does have the final say).

Make assignments, give due dates, offer feedback. But do not break out the ominous red pen.  Known for scratching harsh criticism into the skin of an assignment, the red pen is a killer of motivation. Fear of the red pen steers students to cheat. And contrary to what Cartman believes, a “keeeed” who is pressured to cheat is not a “keeeed” who has been reached.

-J