The great graduation rate debate

I’m just kidding; there is no graduation rate debate. But there should be.

On Thursday, January 30, 2014, President Obama visited McGavock High School in Nashville, Tenn. In his speech, he praised McGavock and the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system, or MNPS, for the improvement in graduation rates. What he can’t commend them for is the school’s or district’s ACT scores or the college matriculation rate of its graduates. The average ACT score for the district hovers around an 18. The minimum ACT score for the Hope Scholarship, Tennessee’s lottery scholarship, is a 21. The graduates of MNPS are not ready for college, and if they manage to be accepted they are looking at years of remedial courses.

So, if their graduation rates are steadily increasing, why are their national college entrance exams stagnant? The real answer is that the graduation rates are fabricated. The graduation rate is the only statistic under complete control of the district. If they are going to be measured by a graduation rate, then why wouldn’t they just graduate everyone? And that is exactly what they are doing. If they can manage to get a student to show up for some portion of each of the four years, that student will graduate, and no lack of knowledge or ability will keep that student from graduating. Teachers and their antiquated grading system be damned! As I mentioned in a previous post, now teachers will give no grade lower than a 50 for any student on any assignment, regardless of whether or not the student even attempted the assignment. So, a student gets a minimum of a 50 just for showing up, well, actually, he or she doesn’t even have to do that.

MNPS is one of the districts following this aforementioned grading system. Local education writer, Andrea Zelinski, wrote about the new district-wide mandate in August 2013, but many teachers have been following a similar structure for years. One teacher with whom I spoke last week was frustrated by how his gradebook has become worthless. He said he carefully developed a system through which he would code student grades in order to communicate to himself, students, and parents to what degree the grade was earned. He assigned a 50 to grades that were given with no attempts (i.e. student did not complete or even attempt the assignment). He assigned a 51 to incomplete assignments. He assigned a 52 to assignments on which the student completed the assignment fully but mastered fewer than 50% of the measured standards. That way, he would be able to see whether or not the student needed reteaching or other interventions. Apparently, this system was not approved because they had been instructed to give 50’s and not 51’s and 52’s. The grades in his gradebook have been rendered meaningless.

In MNPS, teachers are being forced to pass students who should not be passing. In their system, at any given point, a teacher should not have more than a 10% failure rate. Unfortunately, more than 50% of their students are failing standardized tests. By that measure, teachers should, on average, have a 50% or higher failure rate. The students at MNPS should not be graduating; they should not even be passing classes. Instead, they are graduating with a tremendous lack of knowledge and skills and a meaningless participation certificate that should say, “I was passed along by my teachers,” but instead reads, “Diploma.”

We need to stop measuring schools by graduation rates, or we need to ensure that graduation rates mean something by instituting a high school exit exam. But hey, at least the unfortunate, underserved students of McGavock High School got to see the president of the United States. I hope they can look back on that fondly as they serve french fries through a drive-thru window.

On accountability

Recently, major changes have become widespread throughout the urban school district in which I used to work. Certain policies that were once left to each individual teacher’s discretion have now been forced upon all teachers.

  1. Homework can’t be graded
  2. Students will not receive grades below 50

While I adhered to both of these policies voluntarily, I never thought that they were good policies. They were terrible policies, but they were necessary policies. They were necessary because if we did not adhere to such policies, more than half of our students would fail. And it would be our fault.

Teacher accountability is a touchy subject. I am not really touching that touchy subject. I want to talk about student accountability and the fact that there isn’t any.

Those teachers who work in nice little rural and suburban school districts like the one in which I currently teach will instantly argue that all of their students are held accountable, and that is absolutely true.

Where I work, students with one or more missing assignments are assigned detention during which they must make up the missing work. If the student misses a detention, he or she is automatically assigned Saturday School.

When it comes to grading, any work that is missing is assigned a zero. Not only is missing work assigned a zero, but tests and quizzes, which are weighted in the 50% and 30% grading categories respectively, will become zeroes if not made up within three days of returning from an absence.

These policies are in stark contrast to those set forth in the neighboring urban district. As I mentioned before, teachers can’t give zeroes—only 50’s. Additionally, teachers can’t assign detentions because students are unable to secure transportation home. And finally, it doesn’t matter whether or not students complete homework because teachers aren’t allowed to grade it, which pretty much guarantees that teachers will stop assigning homework if they haven’t already.

Then, when a student does no homework, no classwork, misses class, and fails tests, it is the teacher to whom the principal goes wondering why the student is failing. Under no circumstances would anyone ever hold that student accountable for his or her own learning. The teacher is always responsible. Why is that?

We can’t hold the students in urban schools accountable because there are too many factors beyond their control. Sometimes they aren’t being fed. Sometimes there isn’t any adult at home during waking hours. Sometimes they have to take care of younger siblings. Sometimes they have to work to help support the family. For whatever the reason, we see the students as victims. We failed them earlier in life when we let them get behind in school, so we can’t fail them again.

What really happened is that we failed them earlier in life by not holding them accountable for their learning and by passing them along with major gaps in understanding. And by continuing to pass them along and refusing to hold high expectations for these students, we are still failing them. We are failing to teach them the self-discipline they will need to survive when they leave our schools. So we don’t hold them accountable. And they don’t learn. And we can’t assign failing grades. And we can’t assign homework to try to take advantage of the many hours of potential gap-closing achievement time. And we create many more problems than we aimed to solve in the first place.

But the teachers in the suburban schools are assigning failing grades right and left (and I actually believe some of them find a little bit of joy in it). The students rise to the occasion. They make up their missing work. They come in after school to make up tests. They study for hours a night on top of the hours of homework they do. Because when they fail, it’s on them—not their teachers. But we can ask that of these students. They are well fed. They have emotional support. They have parents who care about them. Because they have all of these good things, we can give them school responsibility. After all, they aren’t dealing with anything else. And they never will be. They will graduate high school, college, and grad school. They will get good jobs and have upper-middle-class homes and children of their own for whom teachers will continue to hold high expectations. Meanwhile, those students we never gave any responsibility will be ill-equipped to merely survive.

Some policies sound good and fair in theory but are evil and unjust in practice.

On racial discrimination

With the recent decision by SCOTUS concerning college admission, race has been in the news. Social media sites were littered with frustrations over the ruling concerning race and its role in college admissions.

Ultimately, as I understand it, colleges may still discriminate based on race in favor of minority applicants if other race-neutral means have failed at the effort of achieving diversity as an educational mission.

Those “race-neutral” means referred to are the means used to admit students based on merit. If schools fail to meet the desired level of diversity with minority students based on merit, schools may choose to allow less-qualified minority applicants into the school. This is not doing minority students a favor. If students are less-qualified, they are less likely to be successful. The lack of success then perpetuates the myth that they can’t succeed.

But they wouldn’t be less qualified if it weren’t for the fact that public K-12 education is failing them. And I don’t mean giving them failing grades, I mean failing to educate them to the level of their white peers. But if they are sitting in the same classrooms and learning from the same teachers, how are they being failed? The answer is in lowered expectations.

It’s a game of numbers. A school looks bad when it has a high minority failure rate. A school looks bad when it has a high number of minority discipline referrals. Because the schools can’t control the real factors causing the high occurrences of minority failure rates and minority discipline problems, the schools fix what they can control: grades and discipline referrals.

Work that would earn a white student a failing grade, earns a black student at least a D. Behavior that would result in an office referral for a white student, is ignored or dismissed in order to keep the number of minority referrals down.

These actions are racial discrimination. Teachers and school-level administrators are forced to employ racial discrimination in order to beat the numbers and make it look like educational equality is being achieved.

But what the schools are really achieving is the creation of an underclass. We end up with students who not only never learned the standards but also never learned self-discipline. They have an expectation that no matter what they can’t fail. Racial discrimination at the K-12 level leaves them crippled and less likely to succeed in college.

Are they unsuccessful because of inherent inferiorities? No. But they are unsuccessful on account of race—on account of the fact that we fail to look beyond on it when we educate them. If we were truly race-neutral and blind to race, there would be a high minority failure rate, especially among black students. There would be a high number of behavior issues and office referrals. But those numbers would start to decrease as more and more minorities rise to meet the expectations to which they should have been held all along.

But that isn’t going to happen. As long as minorities fail to see that the discrimination hurting them the most is the discrimination intended to help them, all their failures will be blamed on racism and they will not step up to the plate and achieve what they are capable of achieving.

There is a reason why minority graduation rates are higher at more prestigious schools than at state schools. Admission requirements are tougher. The people who get in deserve to get in. They meet certain requirements, and even if those requirements are lowered a bit for minority applicants, they are lowered from really high standards and are, therefore, still high standards.

Race doesn’t matter. The color of someone’s skin is not an indication of anything. There are intelligent and not-so-intelligent people in every race. So, when we talk about race, what are we really talking about? Culture.

Culture is what really matters. And it’s somewhat racist to believe that culture does not transcend race. Race alone does not introduce diversity. A black student adopted by rich, white parents is every bit a part of the so-called “rich, white” culture. In fact, a black student raised by rich, black parents is part of that same culture. Race is not the issue. The issue is privilege.

I’m still waiting to cash in on my white privilege. Unfortunately, it’s non-existent. I’m not rich. My parents aren’t bumping elbows with important decision makers. I’m just white, and I would never have considered an ivy-league school because I could have never afforded it. And I graduated high school with a 3.7. I had two different jobs when I was 15, and I don’t mean babysitting neighbor kids. I mean wearing-a-uniform-and-reporting-to-work-with-my-shirt tucked-in kind of jobs.

I used to go on long rants about how the students at my predominantly white and middle-to-upper class school were buying their grades because they could afford to study and complete homework. I could have taken more AP classes if I hadn’t been working.

People thought I was amusing and clever. I didn’t say the things they expected or do the things they expected because we belonged to different cultures. But the black people at my school did belong to their culture. They didn’t have to work. They wore expensive clothes and drove expensive cars and lived in expensive houses. But they got minority scholarships in college.

Socio-economic status trumps race any day when it comes to true hardships. I’m not going to say racism is gone. Resentment is alive and well in the hearts of people who are bothered by the fact that individuals are getting by on race above merit. While such a system of discrimination exists, there will always be resentment and hatred. No one will ever believe that minorities are capable so long as there is a system to promote less-qualified individuals on account of racial discrimination.

Standards don’t need to be lowered unless someone genuinely believes that standards need to be lowered. Let’s truly abolish racism. Let’s promote the idea that minorities are every bit as capable as whites are. Let’s get rid of lowered expectations and show the world that racial discrimination is an unnecessary evil.