LAST WEEK, fed-up teachers at South Philadelphia High School complained to the

Inquirer

of being pressured by the school to give passing grades to students who've not done passable work.

We're talking about students who can't calculate three-digit numbers and who've missed school 100 times.

And how did school principal Alice Heller defend the promotion of kids who, academically, don't merit the bump?

"It's a good thing for self-esteem," she told the Inquirer.

Heller is being replaced as principal at South Philly - a move in the works before the Inquirer story.

But that ridiculous self-esteem remark alone should be enough to boot any principal to the curb.

When it comes to schoolwork, healthy self-esteem isn't something granted to a child by a teacher willing to pretend a kid knows something he doesn't.

It's a proud feeling that students earn on their own, the by-product of accomplishment.

A principal who doesn't understand the difference - or dismisses it - is a principal who doesn't deserve her title.

Because the only thing that unfairly promoted students at South Philly High have "accomplished" is the getting of something for nothing.

And, oh, won't that skill set serve them well in the big, bad, world of competitive real life?

As for the kids who actually earn their passing grades at South Philly, they've learned that they're chumps for sweating over grades they could've gotten for free.

What miserable lessons to teach our kids.

The thing that many educators don't understand, says Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., is that self-esteem isn't a rigid state of self-worth. It's a flexible tool that lets kids know how they're doing.

"Think of self-esteem as a motivational-fear program that's been plunked into our nervous system and that pushes us to master our environment," says Phelan, Chicago-based author of the excellent Self-Esteem Revolutions in Children: Understanding and Managing the Critical Transitions in Your Child's Life.

"When a child masters something or gets a good grade or makes a new friend, he feels good. He wants to repeat what he did so he feels good again," he says.

"When he doesn't do well, he feels bad and won't want to repeat the actions that made him feel bad. It's nature's way of training us to be competent and to master our world."

The depressing truth, of course, is that so many district students have no interest in mastering their school world, because they're being raised in homes where education isn't valued.

So they skip school, blow off homework, ignore the projects that might deepen their academic understanding.

Teaching these kids is beyond challenging. And yet many city teachers try mightily to do just that, to make school meaningful enough that students might be inspired to do more than just show up - if they show up at all.

But it's hard, given that the district's class sizes are too big for the kind of intense attention these kids require if a teacher has any hope of turning them around academically.

"There's no question we could do more with students if the class size was smaller," says a veteran teacher at another tough city high school (who didn't want to be named, for fear of retaliation).

"No one wants to pay for that. Yet we're still expected to get [results] that we'd get if we had better resources."

And if they don't, adds her colleague (who has also requested anonymity), some principals will actually change a student's grade, just to get them out the door at graduation.

"I have a student who I failed for the year, and yet he's graduating this week," he says. "How is that possible, unless someone changed his grade to passing?"

Yesterday, Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sent a letter to all teachers clarifying their responsibility to give students the grades they've actually earned.

"While we must work to ensure students receive the instruction and supports that will help them be successful in the classroom," she wrote, "we must also be clear that grades are earned by the student and not just given based on an arbitrary practice."

So if a student fails, he fails. That's how things work in the real world. We do kids no favor allowing them to think otherwise. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly. com/ronnieblog.