Published January 14, 2015
An F is an F, but failure seems so much friendlier when it comes in purple.
A growing number of the nation’s educators are stocking up on purple pens (search) for grading papers and passing on the traditional red, which they say can be intimidating and damaging to a student’s self-confidence.
"Teaching should always be a positive practice. Red seems to stand out in such a negative way," said Dorothy Porteus, school support specialist with the New York Charter Schools Association (search). “Little guys internalize the red and it doesn’t make them feel good.”
Porteus, who taught elementary school for 20 years, said a teacher should coach kids to do their best, not scare them into thinking they’ll never be good enough. She equates using red ink with drawing a frowning face on a student’s work.
"They put all this effort into something and by marking it up with red, in some ways it is like tearing their hard work to shreds,” she said. “They look at the red and think the teacher is upset with them, and this greatly influences their attempt to do their next paper.”
Critics of the move toward a kinder, gentler color say kids have lived with red ink for decades and aren’t helped by teachers going easy on them.
Michael Barone, author of "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future," (search) said the push for purple is an example of American teachers going soft on students.
"This is ridiculous, because the only reason we associate red with bad in a classroom atmosphere is because that is the color that has been used to correct papers for decades,” he said. “If teachers now switch to purple, in time purple will become negative, and then what?”
According to Barone, young people today exist in a "soft" culture, which emphasizes self-esteem and protects them from the realities of adult life
Some parents, too, argue that changing the color of an F doesn’t alter its meaning, and if it gets the student’s attention, it has achieved its purpose.
Keishla Erdelyi, whose daughter Kylie is entering the fifth grade this fall, says the most important thing is for her daughter to know what mistakes she made on a test or essay.
“It really doesn’t matter what color the ink is, it’s just the grade itself,” said Erdelyi. “She’s aware of what her grade is, if it’s good or bad. No matter what the color, she is upset with herself if she gets a bad grade.”
But Porteus isn’t alone in this purple approach to marking papers. The retreat from red is even affecting some pen distributors’ fall color scheme. Barry Calpino, Paper Mate's (search) vice president and general manager, estimated that the company boosted production of purple pens by at least 10 percent.
Office supply superstores are also getting the signal as the $15 billion back-to-school retail season kicks off. They say focus groups and conversations with teachers have led them to conclude that a growing number of the nation’s educators are switching to purple because it is not as intimidating as red. Staples (search) and OfficeMax (search) are adding purple to multicolor packs and selling all-purple packs.
Nevertheless, critics warn a purple reign is pointless.
“Children can figure out if they’re being corrected even if they’re not being corrected in red ink or red pencil,” Douglas Sears, Dean of Boston University School of Education, told FOX News. “They know when they’re being criticized, and by the way, they should be criticized when they’re not spelling or punctuating correctly.”
Still, Porteus stresses that educators should draw attention to the progress students make rather than their downfalls.
"Highlight the good and students will work harder," she said. "Some educators think if you punish the kid it will make them do better. It just doesn’t work that way."