I'm telling you about my son Mark, not because I want to humiliate him, but because I find it useful in discussing public-policy questions to ask what I would advocate if the people affected by my policy proposals were members of my own family.
Mark, who is not quite 12, is a good kid: friendly, bright, a good athlete and (potentially) a very good student. But he has a tendency to be lazy about his studies.
So at the beginning of the year, I issued an edict: He would perform acceptably well in school or he wouldn't be allowed to play organized sports outside school.
He talked me into a modification: Rather than penalize him for last year's grades, earned before the new rule was announced, let him sign up for the Boys Club league now, and take him off the team if his midterms weren't up to par.
Well, the midterms came out, and the basketball team is struggling along without the assistance of my son the power forward.
All of which is a roundabout and perhaps too personal way of saying my sentiments are with the Prince George's County school officials who, confronted with angry parents, disappointed students and decimated athletic teams, are under pressure to modify their new at-least-C-average-or-no-extracurriculars policy.
I hope they will resist it. The new policy may not be perfect, but it reflects a proper sense of priorities, which is one of the things our children ought to be learning. It may turn out to be a very good thing for all concerned -- including the 39 percent of the county's students who are temporarily ineligible for such outside activities as athletics, cheerleading, dramatics and band.
I've heard the arguments on the other side, and while I don't dismiss them out of hand, they fall short of persuading me that the new standards are too tough or their application too rigid. I know that for some students, the extracurriculars are the only thing that keep school from being a complete downer. I know that some youngsters will be tempted to pass up Algebra II, Chemistry and other tough courses in order to keep their extracurricular eligibility (weighted grade points could solve that problem). And I know that for students whose strengths are other than academic, success in music or drama or sports can be an important source of self-esteem.
Still I support the C-average rule -- partly because of my assumption that it isn't all that tough a standard. We're not talking here about bell-shaped curves that automatically place some students above the median and some below it. I suspect that we're talking less about acceptable academic achievement than about acceptable levels of exertion. I find it hard to believe that Prince George's teachers will flunk kids who really do try: ho pay attention in class, turn in all their work, seek special assistance when they need it and also bring athletic glory to their schools. (If it turns out that some youngsters are being penalized for inadequate gifts rather than insufficient effort, I'd support some modification of the rule.)
The principal value of the new standard is that it helps the students, including those in the lower grades, to get their own priorities right: to understand that while outside activities can be an ego-boosting adjunct to classroom work, they cannot be a substitute for it. Even the truly gifted, whose nonacademic talents might earn them college scholarships or professional careers, need as solid an academic footing as they can get.
Pity, which is what we often feel for other people's children, says give the poor kids a break. Love, which is what we feel for our own, says let's help them get ready for real life -- not by lowering the standards but by providing the resources to help them meet the standards.
As Thomas Kirby, principal of Laurel High School, where more than 38 percent of the students fell below the eligibility cutoff, put it: "I don't see any point in having a kid who can bounce a basketball graduate from high school and not be able to read."