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Mastering Mediocrity: Are we really passing kids?

By Samuel Reed III on Jun 21, 2009 11:05 PM

Kristin Graham, The Inquirer’s education reporter, has recently written articles about the pressures of passing underperforming or de facto, failing students in the school district of Philadelphia. In her most recent June 21st article, Graham notes “the pressure to pass students- even those who rarely go to class or can’t read – is pervasive…   So I beg to ask, are we really passing students?”

If we could really be honest with ourselves, most people live in a state of mediocrity. Mediocrity is as close to the bottom as it is the top. This is reflective in the School District grading structure where a 65 is considered passing. Grades of 64-60 can’t even be entered into the report card online grading system.

At my son’s KG's school, Mastery Charter, they make a deliberate attempt to push students above mediocrity. Students have to master the subject with a grade of 76 or above. Any grade below 76 is considered incomplete and the student has to repeat the class. KG balked at this standard. When he was in the 10th grade he received a 71 in his Algebra I class; he had to repeat the class and not move on with his cohort.

He protested, “Dad, if I was at a regular public school I wouldn’t have to repeat this class… I hate this stupid school”. 

I am glad Mastery Charter sets high standards. KG is not atypical of most school age students, or most people for that, matter. We want to do enough, to just get by. To pass. But how do we move students beyond from just wanting to pass to working to exceed. How do you set higher standards for achievement?

Paul Tough, in a New York Times article “What It Takes to Make a Student” describes the failures of many public schools, “the evidence is now overwhelming that if you take a average low-income child into an average American public school, he was almost certainly come out poorly educated."

Raising standards alone is not the answer. I have pointed out in professional development session(s), that we need to figure a way to get students to meet us half way in the teaching and learning process. We can raise standards all we want but if we do not get student and parent buy-in, it will be an uphill battle. In Graham’s piece “Teachers cite intense push to promote" she points out how the responsibility of learning has shifted more on teachers. “Students use to be responsible for showing up prepared, learning the material and passing. Now, teachers say it’s their responsibility to make sure students pass.”  

At the time when KG had to repeat his Algebra 1 class and not move up with his cohort, he thought he was the most unlucky kid in the world. I said, to myself it's better that he learn to deal with failure now, when it‘s cheaper, than go to college unable to deal with the academic challenges and drop out. -I won’t talk about my older sons’ college smorgasbord experiences.-

Now KG is entering his 5th year at Mastery Charter as a senior. He has matured and I believe benefited from not passing his Algebra I class. He will be taking 2 Advanced Placement courses next year. This summer he will be saving his money -this might be news to him- from his cool summer job at the Constitution Center, for college expenses.  

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Helen Gym on June 22, 2009 2:06 pm

Samuel: In your opinion, where is the pressue to pass students coming from? The Inky stories implied that they are coming from individual principals (citing a lot of high school ones). Or at one point is the teachere making individual selective decisions that tend to add up to this larger dysfunctional system we have? Ron Whitehorne had an interesting analysis over here.

Submitted by Philly HS teacher (not verified) on June 22, 2009 8:59 pm

I've taught in the SDP since the early '90s. There has always been a percentage of students who "must pass." In the past, I used to be able to justify a student not passing based on attendance but that is no longer acceptable. With CSAP (see Ron Whitehorne's post), we are required to complete 4 pages of paper work for each students, each marking period who is in danger of failing. Then, every 14 days, we (teachers) have to compete "progress reports" on our (teachers) interventions. (The every 14 days lasts for 2 months before the students moves to CSAP II which then involves the counselor.) The math is easy - if about 1/2 of the class "is in danger of failing," and a teacher has 5 classes with 30 - 33 students, that is an enormous amount of paper work and follow up. The past two years, I was told I had to have CSAP complete, which includes all of the follow up, if a student fails. We were also suppose to submit the CSAP for level II evaluation. Not all counselors follow up on CSAP Level II. CSAP is one reason teachers say "forget it" and pass students with "D's." I've heard this not only in neighborhood high schools but also magnet schools.

The teacher is also responsible for "interventions." At the high school level, there are few interventions other than calls home, conferences with student, etc. There are not many academic supports unless a student is willing to stay after school for tutoring. There are more academic options for K-8 students that are not totally dependent on the teacher. Nevertheless, if a student will not come to school, leaves early, comes late, cuts class, etc., there is little I can do. Ideally, there should be more options for high school students who aren't going to benefit from the grind of 50 minutes classes.

Unlike what Sam is advocating - students, parents and teacher each meeting half way - the CSAP process puts 95%+ on the teacher. I can make phone calls, meet with the student, provide "incentives" other than the dreaded "packet," etc. but the students know the game. They know they can't get below a 60% the first marking period and 50% the 2nd - 4th, and they know the teacher has to justify the failure. This year I printed and handed out grade summaries to my students every 2 - 3 weeks. I had them circle/underline what was missing. I followed up on what they needed to do. The last week before grade were turned in I had a "marathon" with some students. I refused to do "the packet" and had them complete what we did in class and/or was assigned. Most did it but I was exhausted and my children (the ones I live with) asked me what was wrong.

Yes, the pressure is from principals who tell us they get pressure from Regional Superintendents. There is enough pressure that students who aren't in school are marked present to boost attendance numbers. It is all a numbers game which, in the long run, creates very hostile and detrimental school environments.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on June 23, 2009 6:28 am

Philly HS teacher...thank you for this detailed and thoughtful contribution to this important discussion.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on June 23, 2009 3:00 pm

Ditto! And I am curious about this baseline percentage thing. My high school did something similar when they moved from letter grades to percentages so if someone completely bombed a quarter it didn't make it impossible to pass the year. I think that makes a lot of sense. But if kids are gaming that system is there maybe another avenue to try?

It seems like there are some root issues that are the real problem, but I was curious about this particular point since it has come up a few times.

This post did such a great job articulating the many facets of the burden put on teachers to deal with failing students. It would be great to hear from Ackerman about how the District will work on the points laid out here.

Submitted by Philly HS teacher (not verified) on June 23, 2009 10:19 pm

I don't know the solution to stop the "gaming" of the system. I also don't want a student who has difficulty during one marking period to lose the year. Students also know summer school is very short - 18 days for 2 hours - and very easy. Saturday School is a bigger joke. So, students need an incentive to want to be at school.

At this point in my career, I don't think accumulating credits works in high school. Instead of focusing on learning, we end up focusing on numbers. This is partly a result of NCLB and market based "accountability" applied to education. It is also easier to "crunch numbers" than develop learning environments that are challenging, community building, etc. and have a connection to life outside of school. (Sure, there are select schools which provide alternatives, like Science Leadership Academy, but it is a magnet school. Students who don't pass their interview, presentation, score requirements, etc. do not get through the door. )

I do know the CSAP process does not work in high school other than to increase the "pass" rate because of the burden of the paper work. At Mastery Charter, students and parents must agree to 76% as passing or it wouldn't work. I can't imagine the same thing happening in SDP schools. Dr. Ackerman is quoted in today's Inquirer stating if teachers pass students who shouldn't pass, it is "insubordination." This is "double speak." Does this mean the burden of CSAP will increase? I can't imagine it getting much worse.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 24, 2009 10:01 am

The district has schizophrenic policies...for years they have been urging teachers to pass dead-beat it is insubordination...

What a joke...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 22, 2009 8:30 pm

Surprise...surprise...I wonder where the pressure is coming from...???

Can it be from the very top...from the leader? Nooooo...

Of course, the pressure is coming from the top...the fish is rotten from the head down...go figure...

The Inquirer story is a big mystery...what is more disturbing is the editorial in the Philly Inquirer...that talked about students threatening to rape other classes...and doing other highly inappropriate things...ON THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS can imagine what is happening in the wonderful high schools...

Big mystery...corruption...that is what it is... kudos to the Philly Inquirer for telling us the emperor has no clothes...

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 22, 2009 7:47 pm

The principals have been doing this for years!! Where have you people been? Yes, I'm sure certain students are passed on by particular teachers for various reasons, but the bulk of it is done during the summer in that joke of a summer school program. However, principals often change grades themselves and then blame the summer school program for their dirty work. They are suppose to write a letter explaining why they are going against the teacher's wishes, but never do. The district lets them get away with this just like everything else. Why is this suddenly such big news?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 22, 2009 8:08 pm

Enuff...can you believe it?

Can you believe it?

It reminds me of stories of World War II...the citizens had no idea there were death camps in their backyards and behind their farms and villages...give me a break...

If there is smoke, there is fire...big surprise...

Changing grades in Philly is no secret...everyone knows about can't keep a secret hidden for long...sooner or later the you know what is going to hit the proverbial fan...hopefully the scrutiny the district is getting will outlast the budget deliberations...I think that is what this all about...'

People in Harrisburg are getting ticked off about the corruption...and why should they pay for the baloney going on at 440...?

I say...the Philly Inquirer is reporting what we all have known all along...we good Germans...we know about the corruption...that is why teachers...are quoted in the Inquirer quite freely...but notice that...I wonder America, yet...too afraid to be on record...discussing what we all know is true...

I feel like we are in 1945...a utter disgrace...

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on June 23, 2009 12:36 am

Thank you all for your comments. Part of the point of my blog post was to problematize what it means to really pass students. Hence, I used more of my personal experience as a parent,  as opposed to my teacher lens. My son was not just "passed", and the consequences were not so dire.

In my personal experience, the pressure to pass students has been more implied- CSAP, documentation, and not offering students adequate supports. But if mediocrity is the norm, it's not too difficult to pass most students? So I guess, I am complicit in this “Mastering Mediocrity", dilemma.


Submitted by fuming_teacher (not verified) on June 23, 2009 4:01 pm

At my school I know for a fact that the principal is under immense pressure to keep her failure rate low. When she returned from her annual review, she told me in confidence that her English failure rates were to high. Right before the year ended, there were tons of memos and individual "support folders" to be turned in for each individual student. The principal went a step further and called people down from their classrooms to change grades if they were failing what she saw as too many kids. I was one of those teachers, and I had no choice but to pass 17 additional students--these are students who I had not seen in months, and others who did nothing the entire year. My large comprehensive high school is guilty of passing students along in its most blatant form. Just because, the principal must keep failure rates in the single digits.

The most terrible part of this is that, we as a school will look bad with 85% of students passing classes, when they can't even score proficient on the PSSA.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on June 23, 2009 7:39 pm

Until there is some sort of pressure put on the students themselves (and their parents) this sort of crap will continue. It's time to stop punishing teachers and principals for what the students did or didn't do in class. Growing up I knew I would have to answer to my old man if I did not produce good grades. Blaming the teachers, principals, society, the war in Nam, etc. did not float. Some politician had to come up with that one.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 23, 2009 9:32 pm


Teaching in the Philly neighborhood schools is like being in ' know that as well as I...

Submitted by Kathryn (not verified) on June 23, 2009 8:20 pm

Passing kids who don't deserve it because the number who "pass" is regarded as
an important measure of school "success" seems like a great example of
"Campbell's Law", which says:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." (Social scientist Donald Campbell, 1974).

Corruption. Distortion. If principals face pressure to improve their "passing"
rates, then the "statistics" will indeed tend to "improve" somehow or other, while the number of kids who actually do the work and actually earn passing grades may not, in fact, change a bit.

Philly's school administration needs to understand that it's set up a classic
environment for fostering corruption among its principals this way. Does it realize this? Probably.

But does it care? That's the question.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 23, 2009 9:57 pm


Corruption? In the schools?...nahhh...test scores are up...violence is are playing the violins in orchestras...and MIT and Stanford are offering scholarships galore...the grain harvests are up...the war on the Western Front is being won...there is nothing to worry about...follow the leader...Ackerman...soon people in the suburbs will be clamboring to send their kids to the Philly neighborhood just wait and see...

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 23, 2009 9:09 pm

I have seen the disruption in one of the Mastery Charter schools...sorry...that ain't going to wash...the one I was a witness to...was out of control...and chaotic...

Submitted by Heiwa_kid (not verified) on June 24, 2009 1:00 am

Hello Bloggers & Bloggets! I am the infamous Kagiso Reed (Samuel Reed's son). I'm still unaware of how badly my father thrashed my name in his blog. As you know after reading this "roast session" I do indeed attend Mastery Charter High School. The grading at Mastery is based off of "M"'s and "I"'s. I's represent incompletes and M's represent mastery. The passing grade at Mastery is a 76%. This is very high in comparison to public school rankings. This does give children the motivation to exceed the expectation but then again it's all about what the kids want to do. It's all about a person's mindset, based on if they mind failure or not. Teachers want all students to make it but not all students care. Just goes to show "you can't bring every horse to the water and make them drink." It's very hard seeing people around me fail and drop-out but I can't live their lives for them. I can only be me.

P.S My whole dramatic "roast" bit is not meant to be taken seriously!

Submitted by Difficult Children (not verified) on September 14, 2010 2:37 am

Children who are suffering from learning disability or intellectual problems feel under-pressure. Such teenagers are unable to perform well in academics. This makes them stressed, anxious and socially isolated too. This develops continuous negative thinking in kids that make them out of control. If teenagers are affected from mental or emotional disorders then therapeutic schools are good for them.

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