EVERY teacher faces a daily dilemma: Should a student be challenged - or encouraged? Which works better in the learning process, a stern ``You can do better'' or a gentle pat on the head?
Ever since the 1960s, the conventional academic wisdom has leaned toward flattering students by inflating grades and building self-esteem. If students look good, the reasoning goes, teachers and the school also look good.
Now Stanford University is rethinking that approach. Students and professors are debating the possibility of deflating grades by reinstating - horror of horrors - a failing grade, which was dropped in 1970. Although students remain divided on the issue, 3 out of 4 faculty members favor a return to the F, according to the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement.
Supporters of the change, expressing concern about declining standards, point out that last year nearly three-quarters of undergraduate students earned A's and B's.
Those who want to keep F out of Stanford's alphabet argue that a transcript should serve as a record of achievement rather than as a list of classes taken. It should be a ``positive transcript,'' they say, not a record of work students didn't do.
Richard Zare, a Stanford chemistry professor, counters that view. Speaking for those who favor a return to the F grade, he told a campus newspaper, ``I believe that we teach the wrong lessons to students if we continually forgive everything they do.
``We have a system that's so lenient that it doesn't prepare students for life. Life's not that lenient,'' Zare says.
Soft grading in colleges - giving A's to a C student - may, in fact, lead to a rude awakening when a graduate-turned-employee receives a more realistic kind of report card - a corporate performance review.
Employment experts encourage managers to begin and end performance appraisals with positive comments - giving a worker an A for effort, in effect. But they also emphasize the need to be specific about shortcomings in an employee's performance.
In the business world, the temptation to be lenient and the desire to build self-esteem take a back seat to the reality of the bottom line and to accountability for one's own performance.
Yet a double standard sometimes exists. Just as students wouldn't necessarily reward all their professors with straight A's, if employees were allowed to turn the tables and grade their superiors, they might be tempted to give an occasional F to those at the top whose management decisions necessitate massive layoffs as part of downsizing and restructuring.
As one example, employees might agree with the head of the 24,000-member machinists' union at Northwest Airlines, Tom Pedersen, who pronounced ``outrageous'' the $2.3 million in bonuses the company's top five executives received in 1993. That was the year, after all, when the airline managed to avoid bankruptcy only by persuading other employees to take pay cuts totaling $886 million.
Included in the chief executive's bonus was a whopping $750,000 for arranging those wage concessions - the equivalent of an A-plus grade that must do as much to build his self-esteem as it does to pad his bank account.
Cases like this raise a question: Shouldn't an accurate appraisal of performance in the boardroom be as much a demand of the times as true accountability in the classroom?
Apart from the false signals inflated grades send to students, there is a high risk for everybody, in and out of school, when respect for accuracy is lost.
To reward the mediocre is to punish the true achievers - an injustice conducive to general cynicism. And to say that everything is relative is to deny the very concept of excellence.
Stiffening up grading, whether in the academic or corporate arena, will not resolve the intellectual and moral uncertainties of a wobbly world.
But what Stanford's reformers may well be recognizing is that if education gets defined as the search for truth, the reverence for truth should be reflected in report cards.