ABC and 123: Author Spotlight: Ron Clark

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Author Spotlight: Ron Clark

Not Every Child Deserves a Cookie
By Ron Clark,

Author of The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck -- 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers

Last year one of our new fifth graders was really struggling. He entered RCA below grade level in every subject and he was failing several courses. When I met with his mom she defended her son by saying, "Well, he made all A's at his other school."  When I told her that was shocking, she explained that he had done so well because he had a really great teacher. Urgh!

There is a misconception in our country that teachers whose students make good grades are providing them with a good education. Parents, administrators, and the general communiry shouldn't assume good grades equal high academic mastery. In fact, in many cases those teachers could be giving good grades to avoid conflict with the parents and administration. It's easier to fly under the radar and give high grades than to give a student what he or she truly deserves and face the scrutiny of the administration and the wrath of an angry parent.

I have attended numerous awards ceremonies where practically every child in the class received an honor roll certificate. Parents always cheer, take pictures, and look so proud. I just sit there and think, Ignorance is bliss. Are these kids really being challenged, or are they only achieving mediocre standards set forth by a mediocre teacher in an educational system that is struggling to challenge even our average students? Yet, all of the parents look so proud and content.

The worst part about it, however, is that I am afraid most parents would rather their child get a good education where they received straight A's and praise than an outstanding education where they struggled and received C's.

At the beginning of every year, I give my fifth graders an assignment. They have to read a book and present a project on one of its characters -- specifically, they have to figure out a way to cleverly show such details as what the individual kept in his heart (what he loved the most), saw with his eyes (his view of the world), "stood for" with his feet, and held to strongly in his backbone (his convictions). I encourage the students to "bring it" and to use creativity and innovation to bring the body of the character to life.

Most of the students will bring a trifold where they have drawn a body and labeled the locations. Some will use glitter, and some will be quite colorful. I am sure in most classrooms the projects would receive high grades, mostly A's and B's. I, however, hand out grades of 14, 20, 42, and other failing marks. The parents and students are always upset, and many want an explanation.

I ask them to trust me, and I explain that if I gave those projects A's and B's, then the students wouldn't see a reason to improve their efforts on their next assignment. Some staff members have even said, "Ron, but you know what that child is dealing with in her home, and you know she did that project all by herself." I quickly tell them that society isn't going to make excuses for their home situations, and we can't either. If we make excuses and allowances, it will send the child the message that it's okay to make excuses for his or her performance based on circumstances, too. We just can't do it. We must hold every child accountable for high standards and do all we can to push the child to that level.

I recall giving one fifth-grade student a failing grade on her first project. She cried and cried. She had never made less than an A on her report card, and her mother was devastated, too. I explained that the low grade would be a valuable life lesson, and I gave the young girl, and the rest of the class, tips and strategies for receiving a higher score in the future. I showed them an example of a project that would have scored 70, a project in the 80s, and a project that would have earned an A.

I was pleased to see that her next project came to life with New York City skyscrapers that were sculpted from clay, miniature billboards that contained academic content, and streetlights that actually worked. The project was much, much better, and it received a 70.

As a final project, the students were instructed to create a time line that would contain a minimum of fifty significant dates in the history of a specific area of the world. The same young lady brought in her final assignment wrapped in trash bags. Removing it, I saw a huge, four-foot pyramid, a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The student had made it out of cardboard and apparently had used sandpaper to make it feel like a real pyramid. It was beautiful, but it didn't contain a time line, so I told her the grade would not be passing.
She grinned at me, walked over to the pyramid, touched the top point, and suddenly three sides slowly fell open, revealing the inside. She had carved her outline on the inside, using detailed pictures, graphs, and descriptions of 150 major events. She even had hand-carved Egyptian artifacts and placed them throughout the inside of the pyramid, just as you would find in the tomb of a great pharaoh. She had handmade mummies that she had learned how to make on the Internet. She looked at me and said, "Mr. Clark, I have worked on this for weeks. I wanted it to be good enough. I wanted it to be an A." It was miraculous and spectacular. I looked at her, full of pride, and said with a smile, "Darling, it's an A."

If her initial project hadn't been an F, she never would have walked in with that pyramid. That child is about to graduate RCA, and she is ready to compete with any high school student across the country. She knows what high expectations are, she understands the value of a strong work ethic, and she knows how to achieve excellence. If we continue to dumb down education and to give students A's and B's because they "tried," we are doing them a disservice and failing to prepare them to be successful in the real world. That young lady couldn't walk into an elite high school and compete with a glitter-filled trifold. However, she can walk into any high school with that pyramid and her overall knowledge of how to achieve that type of excellence and stand high above her peers.

I often bake cookies for my students. I tell them it is my great-greatgrandma's recipe and that she handed it to me in secret on her deathbed. (Okay, a stretch.) As I pass out the cookies, the kids who are working hard receive one with delight; the students who aren't working as hard do not. Parents will call and say, "Mr. Clark, I heard you gave every child in the class a cookie except my child. Why are you picking on my child?"

Why does every child have to get the cookie? The parents claim that I will hurt the child's self-esteem. Has it really gotten to the point that we are so concerned with our children's self-esteem that we aren't realistic with them about their performance and abilities? If we give "cookies" when they aren't deserved, then we are telling our young people that they don't need to work hard to receive rewards. We are sending a message that the cookie will always come. That is why we have so many young people in their twenties who have no idea what it means to work hard. And that is why they are still looking to their parents to provide support (and to give them the cookie).

I tell my students who don't receive a cookie that I will be baking cookies the following week. I tell them that I will watch them until that time and that if they are trying hard they'll earn their cookie. It is shocking to see how much effort kids, regardless of their age, will display to get a cookie. And when it is earned, it means something. The students will glow with pride, and they will explain how they are going to eat half the cookie then and save the other half for later. Also, it tastes better than any cookie they have ever eaten, and it sends the message that with hard work comes rewards. If parents and teachers are just rewarding our kids without cause, we aren't teaching the value of personal effort.
We all need to teach our young people that not everyone deserves a pat on the back just because we are attempting to make everyone feel good. Giving praise that isn't earned only sets up our students for more failure in the long run.

If you are a teacher who wants to increase expectations but is afraid of the backlash from giving failing grades on assignments that will cause your parents and administration to freak out, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself When you give an assignment, show your students beforehand what you expect. Show a detailed description of what would earn a failing grade, a passing grade, and an outstanding grade. Share that with your administration as well to make sure it meets their approval, and then make your parents understand the expectations. Letting everyone know what is expected beforehand will leave no opportuniry for complaints after the grades have been given.

If you are going to give rewards, such as cookies, let the parents know the classroom behaviors that will earn the reward and the behaviors that will not. When students are struggling, let the parents know specifically the areas that need to be addressed. If the child still does not meet the criteria, you have been clear about your expectations and therefore negative conflicts can be avoided.

The above is an excerpt from the book The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck -- 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers by Ron Clark. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2011 Ron L. Clark, Inc 

Ron Clark, 
author of The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck -- 101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers, is a New York Times bestselling author of The Essential 55, has been named "American Teacher of the Year" by Disney and was Oprah Winfrey's pick as her "Phenomenal Man." He founded The Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, which more than 10,000 educators from around the world have visited to learn about the extraordinary ways that teachers and parents of RCA have helped children achieve great success.

For more information please visit and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter


  1. As a former teacher (jr. high, 3rd, 1st grades) I see truth here, but also some harshness...UNTIL he made it clear to the reader that the students, parents, and admin understand in advance what would be a failing, passing, and outstanding project.

  2. I was originally going to write that I thought this was horrible, it was too harsh. Then I read that it was by Ron Clark, who I had heard of before, and know he does wonderful things. So now I this really feasible in a public school. His academy is amazing, but it is also not the traditional public school, where parents ( a lot of times) don't care. Where the kids, (a lot of times) don't care. I taught 5th grade, many students don't have the money or the help to purchase and make these projects he describes.
    I am interested in hearing other people's views.

  3. I am a former public school elem. teacher and I agree with everything he has said here.

    My daughter, seven years old, is being homeschooled for the first time this year because of her zoned school's inability to challenge her. As much as I love teaching and as much as she enjoyed school, it was beginning to damage her. I'm glad I caught it early.

    She was deemed smartest in every subject, out of the whole grade level every single grading period making perfect scores on everything all year (and truth be told she probably was). However, it was completely ridiculous how little she had to do or think to receive that title. In addition, she was starting to think she was a whole lot smarter than she is and that she's so smart she doesn't have to work hard...ever. I couldn't take it any more. People can't fathom why I would take my daughter out of school since she was "flourishing." And assume that because she was doing well, the school must be awesome at meeting her needs. In fact, her 1st grade teacher told me, "We don't know what to do with her."

    She has been working hard here at home and has come to realize mom's standards are much more stringent than the school's.

    And you know what? She's fine with that...she's as proud as can be. She understands that when Dad praises her over something she's done that it's genuine and deserved. Kids know when it's just fluff and artificial. Or at least mine do.

    I'm glad to see this. I haven't heard of Ron Clark before, but I'd like to read his book (and send a few copies to my daughter's previous school). Thanks for sharing it.


  4. Thank you for your thoughtful conversation here ladies. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on what Ron has to say. ~Katie

  5. I don't agree wiht everything he says, but many if Ron clark's comments are very true. I have not read his book but now it is on my list of books to read.
    My husband and I were commenting the other day on how every child in our daugher's dance class got an award just for going this year. We are not sure what it teaches them or what the point is, to get an award for simply going to dance class for a year.