Fixing Failing by Predetermining Passing

I haven’t written much about educational issues lately, but this story in the Dallas Morning News is a striking example of an educational trend that is deeply troubling: ensuring that students pass not because they have mastered the content, but because the system is designed to make failing impossible.  Concerned about high dropout rates, the Dallas School District has developed the following mandatory policy for all classrooms”:

  • Homework grades should be given only when the grades will “raise a student’s average, not lower it.”
  • Teachers must accept overdue assignments, and their principal will decide whether students are to be penalized for missing deadlines.
  • Students who flunk tests can retake the exam and keep the higher grade.
  • Teachers cannot give a zero on an assignment unless they call parents and make “efforts to assist students in completing the work.”
  • High school teachers who fail more than 20 percent of their students will need to develop a professional improvement plan and will be monitored by their principals. For middle school the rate is 15 percent; for elementary it’s 10 percent.

There’s one good idea here. Teachers should intervene when students are struggling and try to talk to parents. Occasionally, letting a student re-take a test or do an assignment again can be valuable as an educational tool. As a policy, however, what the Dallas School District is doing represents a trend across the country: schools, desperate to improve their graduation rates now that they have become publicly promoted because of NCLB, are developing strategies to ensure completion of classes, no matter how little the students learn, or even try. 

The Dallas policy represents the logical extreme of a movement that seems bent to concede that some students can’t learn. The last provision is especially egregious; punishing teachers for students who fail will only encourage teachers to pass more kids, not authentically teach more. The net result will certainly be more students passing—and less students achieving.

The New York Times describes the abuse of another form of this mentality, credit recovery programs in which students acquire credit for classes they have failed by working for a short period of time to make up semesters worth of work. Consider this example:

A teacher at another Bronx school, who did not want the name of his school published for fear of retribution, said a program there let students earn a year’s worth of science credits by responding to 19 questions on 5 topics. “Research and list all the global environmental issues that science focuses on,” read one, under the “environmental studies” category. “What are some ways that you, as an individual, can help?” read another.

All of these interventions to increase the rate of students passing classes are probably good-intentioned, or at least, only slightly tinged with self-promotion and self-interest of administrators eager to burnish their credentials. Ultimately, though, they represent a profoundly troubling ideology—the idea that struggling students can’t be reached, or encouraged to achieve. Rather than doing the heavy lifting of helping students develop work skills, self-confidence, and the tools to make choices in their adult lives, districts and schools are abrogating that responsibility in pursuit of sham statistical gains. The damage done to students is incalculable, as Mel Riddle, former principal notes:

“This is a stopgap measure at helping these students get a high school diploma. It’s certainly not going to help them go onto post-secondary education, which really should be our goal.”

We don’t do any favors to students from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds or with weak academic preparation with the paternalism of low expectations. Giving them credit for limited work and expectation undermines the value of a high school diploma and severely limits what these students can achieve as adults. Truly reforming American education means going beyond finding ways to artificially boost numbers; it means committing to authentic, earned achievement—not to appease the right wingers who want to destroy schools, but to truly empower students to change their own outcomes and the communities in which they live.