Pressure to Pass

Nov 19, 2011 by

Dr. Kathleen Loftus –

As our nation’s teachers now face ever more stringent teaching requirements, in the form of minimum standardized test benchmarks, common core standards, and universal design for learning, (all borne of the idealist premise of “No Child Left Behind”), the fact remains that nearly 1/3 of high school students still fail to graduate. High school teachers and administrators, in particular, are increasingly frustrated with the annual influx of students from their feeder elementary schools whose reading skills are below the 3rd grade level, and whose math skills are significantly limited. This, despite numerous additional controls now placed on elementary teachers and what they teach.

It is not as though teachers of under-performing students are less qualified, less educated or less skilled. On the contrary, teachers in under-performing schools are often required to receive more additional training, and to attend more supplemental teacher workshops than their counterparts in more successful schools. No, it is simply naïve to simply blame students’ failures on substandard teachers who do not, coincidentally, all happen to work in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods where student achievement is historically the worst.

A number of environmental factors play a significant role in so many of these students’ inability to learn. ADHD, so commonly attributed to students’ being too unable to focus to absorb any new knowledge, is now being linked to both in-utero drug addiction and also to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The State departments of child welfare are simply too under-staffed to even begin to rescue all of the children living in significantly unsafe conditions, and so limit their responses primarily to those with visible physical injuries.

So, then despite so many students’ failing to meet State learning standards at their respective grade levels, why are do they continue to be promoted to each subsequent grade until finding themselves in high school, where virtually everything is way over their heads, and where teachers’ grading is suddenly far less forgiving?

There are several key reasons, all which are easily apparent to anyone who views the current school structure with a critical eye. First, in any typical elementary classroom in a predominantly under-privileged area, approximately 50% of students are performing at least one full grade-level below expectations, despite their teachers’ and schools’ best efforts. Doesn’t this mean they should all be retained and required to repeat their current grade for another year, or until they manage to meet the standards? Unfortunately, the reality is that this almost never happens, and surely never for more than one or two students in a given class, student performance notwithstanding.

This is due to two unrelated factors. First, there is a guiding principle in modern educational literature that strongly discourages “retention” as being significantly detrimental to students’ long-range achievement and esteem. However, this is largely because, despite suffering the humiliation of not moving ahead along with their peers, they often still fail to be helped with their learning difficulties, resulting in their failures only being more compounded. Too often, despite the grandiose efforts in the 1990’s to enact very broad but underfunded legislation to compel schools to provide Special Education to all students who need it, the reality is that students who need more specialized supplemental assistance are too often denied some or all of the assistance they actually need. This is the result of highly unrealistic and arbitrary ceilings on the number of students that can be “identified” for these services in any given school system, based on national estimates of the occurrence of given disabilities.

This is particularly unfair to students residing in schools with significantly higher than average numbers of parents who are unemployed, homeless, abusing drugs, or prone to violence. This is not meant to stereotype or to blame. The fact remains that students growing up under these conditions are receiving inadequate nutrition, medical care, and responsible parenting, all leading to measurable deficits in their ability to learn.

However, the second reason why so many under-performing students continue to “pass” their elementary grades, only to then fail miserably once entering high school, is due to a well-known, but rarely articulated aspect of teaching in grades K through 8. The reality is that teachers in these grades are often held accountable for the success or failure of all their students. If a student is identified as not passing most of their subjects, the responsibility is tied far more directly to their individual teacher, rather than merely to their Math teacher, as is the case in high school. As such, rare is the elementary teacher who would ever dare to “fail” more than a very small handful of their students in any given school year, if any. To do otherwise would simply raise too many “red flags” about their own teaching, resulting in serious risk to their very livelihoods.

It’s not that they’re being deliberately dishonest. Elementary grades are often based as much on compliance as on actual achievement. Further, in virtually all cases, elementary teachers are led to believe that “retaining” all of their students who failed to meet State standards would be too damaging to their psyches, and also seriously frowned upon by their principals, not to mention to their elected school board members, who would surely be barraged by angry parents, most who prefer to forego the embarrassment of having their child “held back,” despite how little knowledge they managed to absorb from the previous grade.

The unspoken reality is that it is far easier for high school teachers to maintain the “academic integrity” of their respective courses without fear of any reprisal from either the parents or school leadership. Because, at this level, each subject is viewed individually, these teachers are more removed from whether or not their awarding failing grades ultimately results in their students not progressing to the next grade level, while parents seem more willing to accept their children’s failures in a particular subject, rather than an entire grade level. Failing Algebra, alone, is not as noticeable, and so not as humiliating, as is failing the 2nd grade.

At the high school level, students’ actual grade levels are more fluid, with more opportunities to make up or replace failed courses to still be able to graduate on time. Nevertheless, for students who have been continually passed along to the next grade level despite producing annual achievement scores far below their classmates, high school represents a very harsh and cruel “reality check,” from which many never recover. Once discovering that their best efforts now produce only multiple failures, placing them so far behind their classmates, in terms of course to be repeated in order to graduate, most simply give up and get out as soon as they are legally permitted.

They have been duped, although few are able to recognize or articulate this fact. Sadly, unlike in generations past, these academically-challenged individuals can no longer expect to go on to earn an honest living working on a farm, in a factory, or as a construction laborer, from where they can move up based on hard work, rather than high grades. Instead, today, too many wind up on the streets, homeless or in prison.

But, this tragic cycle can be prevented. Schools can start by no longer imposing unrealistic expectations on teachers instead of getting all students with learning problems the help they really need. This means affording them small class sizes with much intensive instruction, not merely expecting their teachers to solve their serious learning needs with “differentiated” and “multi-modal” instruction in classes of 25 or 30 students.

It also means eliminating unrealistic grade-levels and learning standards, and instead, instructing and assessing students at their current academic performance levels. It also means not encouraging teachers to mis-report or “sugar-coat” student progress, setting students up for failure by propelling them toward classes they will eventually be far too unprepared to pass.

Dr. Loftus is a graduate instructor of Special Education and School Administration for Concordia University, and the author of “Set Up to Fail: 100 Things Wrong with America’s Schools.” AmericasSchools/dp/0615134742/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321065647&sr=8-1

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