COMMENTARY | First of all, let it be known that I blame nobody except the politicians. I do not blame the assistant principals, head principals, directors of secondary education, or even the superintendents – their hands are effectively tied. I blame George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and the myriad of other federal politicians who have never been teachers. And I mean real teachers, not graduate school TAs or grad assistants or college adjuncts. Being a high school teacher at a large public school is a whole world removed from being a TA or adjunct at a ritzy Ivy League.
Right now these federal politicians are all aglow with recent data that U.S. high school graduation rates have topped 80 percent, reports Politico. They’re pontificating at how we need increase these rates still and get everyone into college. They say it means performance gaps between groups of students are not inevitable.
And, as an aside, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan mentions that we shouldn’t just be handing out diplomas.
But that’s what is happening. And schools are punished if they don’t play by these secret rules.
For example, let me tell you the steps I have to go through in order to fail a second-semester senior:
First, if a senior has an average below a 70, I have to notify his or her parents and speak to them about the student’s failing grade. It does not matter if the parents are difficult to contact. It does not matter if the student is 18 and has a car and a job. I have to notify them many, many times about the failing grade. I must offer to do whatever it takes to help the kid pass. All of this must be thoroughly documented.
If I have not notified the parents enough, they can claim they never knew their student was not passing. The assumption, therefore, is that the student would be passing if the parent knew about the failing grade. Therefore, I cannot fail the student.
This function serves to improve and increase teacher accountability…but it also leads to massive grade inflation as teachers lack the time and energy to deal with incessant parent contacts. Many high school teachers get tired of making countless phone calls when the calls accomplish little, and especially when parents may know how to “game” the system at the end of the school year. Duck and dodge calls from the school and you can later claim that you never knew about your child’s failing grade – meaning the kid passes by default.
Secondly, I must sign my name to a document positively asserting that I am failing the student. This can be a downright abusive practice: It places undue stress on the teacher by making it seem like the school and school district are not backing you up and that you are personally responsible for the kid not receiving a diploma and ending up broke and homeless. It also feels like you are making yourself a target for angry parents. “Hey, this teacher right here failed your kid! Sue him! Sue him!”
If I do not sign the document the student passes by default. As a young teacher I am hesitant to put my name on any sheet of paper that might prompt a lawsuit by an angry parent, even if such a lawsuit is completely unfounded.
Third, I must demonstrate that have offered every failing student every possible opportunity to turn in make-up work and/or retake any and all low grades or missing grades. This means making myself available before, during, and after school, from 8:00 AM until after 4:30 PM, for whenever the student finds it convenient to show up. I must provide study notes to cover any and all notes the student did not take. I must exhaustively help the student complete every question.
If I fail to do any of these things, even one time, the student and his or her parents can claim that I was unhelpful. Therefore, I cannot fail the student.
Essentially, the only way a student fails, short of being suspended or expelled, is to accept the failure. If a student challenges the failing grade, perhaps by claiming that he or she turned in some of those missing assignments but that the teacher lost them, the school will likely cave rather than back the teacher. Why risk the ire of angry parents? Bad press, lawsuits, and being accused of hurting “children” convinces many school districts to turn a blind eye to grade inflation.
Let the kid pass, hand over the diploma, and take the easy way out. Let college or his or her first boss sort things out, right?
What we need to do is remove these tacit threats hurled at teachers. Teachers should not have to be “on the hook” and without administrative backup for providing honest grades. Teachers should not have to be made to feel guilty or threatened by having to apply their signature to each and every failing grade. I challenge Barack Obama and Arne Duncan to teach the last six weeks of a spring semester in a classroom full of high school seniors…in a real high school. Not Deerfield Academy.
Then we’ll see how successful they think “Race to the Top” has been.