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.
- Homework can’t be graded
- 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.
An excerpt from the chapter “Who becomes a teacher?” in Education Exposed: What teaching taught me about America’s failing education system by Kelly Matthews, M.Ed.
…Some teachers are bad because they just don’t teach. The students enter the room, and there is a book chapter and question numbers written on the board. The students come in, read the chapter, answer the questions, and do whatever they want when they’re done. The teacher may have his standards on the board, and those standards match up with the textbook chapter—but the students aren’t learning. Most of them are just copying the answers from the first student in the room to finish. But the teacher doesn’t care. He’s just chilling at his computer watching YouTube.
Some teachers are bad because they can’t admit that they are wrong, but they are usually wrong. These teachers got their degrees from cruddy state universities who graduate anyone who pays them. They don’t know their content, and they confuse the students with misinformation. But they do the bare minimum of what is required of them, and they coach a sport—their jobs are secure.
Some teachers are not necessarily bad, they’re just not good. These are the teachers who honestly mean well and are trying their best. These are the teachers that administrators and teaching coaches are generally willing to work with. Their real problem is that they know their content but are bad at explaining it. They don’t know how to break a concept down and anticipate opportunities for misunderstanding. They get the material, and they can’t understand how anyone couldn’t. They don’t know how to help students make connections. They understand the basics of teaching but not the craft, and they have little patience for student misunderstanding.
Some teachers are bad because they can be. These teachers have leverage in the system. These teachers don’t even go so far as to list a chapter and questions on the board. They may pass out a 10-minute worksheet for a 90-minute class and sit at their desks. These teachers are protected by a combination of tenure, ethnicity, or some other protected class. One of the worst teachers I have ever seen was still teaching because she was a minority and had a physical disability. If you talked to her about the fact that she needed to improve her teaching for she was on the brink of being fired, she replied, “I am three years from retirement, and it will take them that long to get the documentation together to fire me.”
Some teachers are bad teachers because they are good teachers. These teachers hold to the fact that teaching should be about learning and thinking. They refuse to pander to the masses and teach to the test. They refuse to debase their content area by teaching useless information and instead teach big, universal, thought-provoking ideas. Then their students fail the standardized tests. Sometimes they are hailed as fine teachers and put on curriculum committees, but any system that punishes low test scores will not allow one of these teachers the status of “good teacher” when all is said and done.
There is little motivation for teachers in inner-city schools to be good teachers. They start out putting their all into developing amazing lessons, but they eventually realize it is not worth it. Slowly over time the teachers start to see that all of their time and effort starts gravitating toward the worst students who, despite the time and effort, continue to be terrible students. They become bad teachers because they know they have job security and have more respect for themselves than to kill themselves working hard for undeserving students….