Flunking the slackers

A Teach for America teacher blogs that 38 out of 105 students are failing her science class. Most don’t attend regularly.

I was surprised at the backlash I got from some teachers. One teacher actually suggested that I take the ones who only have 15 or 16 class cuts and give them 65s. HOW IS THAT FAIR??? I have one girl who has cut class 18 times, and when she does show up, is usually 15 minutes late (class is only 47 minutes long). She has a 39% and is missing 16 out of 24 graded assignments. How is it fair to give her a 65, when some of my students are in class, working, every single day to get a 65?

The same teacher also told me that if my ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students really want to learn, they can do that when they go to college — that I should make their tests embarrassingly simple, so that I don’t look bad for having lots of failures. I explained to him that my ESOL students who actually try (ask for help, go to the free tutoring center at the school, attend every day, attempt homework, etc.) have B+s or higher. . . . He said, “Well sure…the kids who want to try can do well. But what about the kids who don’t want to try?”

She plans to fail all students who finish the term with failing grades.

About Joanne


  1. Don Bemont says:

    First, I am stunned that it is her colleagues, not her administration, which is exerting this pressure. Around here, it is almost entirely the district office responsible for the “pass them no matter what” message. Teachers’ reactions range from furious to demoralized.

    Either a) she and I teach in drastically different school districts, or b) she is misunderstanding her colleagues’ advice, that they only mean to warn her of wrath from above if she hands out failing grades to such students.

    Second, regardless of the source of this poor educational advice, I have found that it is now the main cause of disarray in the public education I know about, both first and second hand.

    Students who do not attend school are supposed to pass, or, at the very least, to stay with their class and graduate on time. Same for students who come to school several hours late, students who are obviously under the influence, students who repeatedly refuse to do assignments, etc.

    Two arguments are given for this practice: 1) These are disadvantaged kids, who we just do not understand, and 2) The school district is being held accountable for their numbers, so we must graduate a very high percentage of students at the end of their fourth year, because that is what is being measured.

    The first argument appeals to the left wing, and the second is a response to the center-right group that puts its eggs in the accountability basket. Both groups mostly mean well, but, in practice, this “no standards” movement is devastating to education.

    In an affluent area where many students aim for admission to competitive colleges, there are other forces which put a damper on the spread of this problem. Most policy makers come from and send their kids to such districts, so they tend to miss the point…

    … which is that, in a population not thinking about Ivy League admissions, when a significant group of students can get away with doing nothing and still pass, another, even larger group of students becomes dramatically less motivated. One soon passes a tipping point where it is no longer normal to attend regularly and make a reasonable effort.

    The irony is that what started out as an effort to help children from terrible situations turns out to seal the educational doom of the many other disadvantaged students who attend the same school.

    The end result is that we end up teaching irresponsibility far more effectively than any part of the formal curriculum.

  2. There’s a certain pressure in many schools, to give below-standard students at least a 50, lest they be mathematically eliminated too early in the semester. Nonetheless, several students got 1st quarter grades (in a semester class) in the single digits.

    They really deserved it. They worked hard to get that low a grade.

  3. Don Bemont says:

    Linda F makes a very good distinction.

    Many intelligent people (often administrators and often teachers) will try hard to avoid extremely low grades for the first marking period. Maybe it would be better to give an Incomplete and push the student to make up the work. Maybe it would be better to cut a deal with the student and the parents to make up/redo important learning and bring that grade back up to the point that the student is not mathematically eliminated from passing the course.

    However, these things are best left, as Linda F implies, up to the teacher on a case-by-case basis. A student who “really deserves it” (for example, not attending, refusing to make up work, etc.) gets the single digit grade.

    When policy dictates a minimum grade, many students figure, “Hey, I get an automatic 50% for doing nothing, so I always take off the first marking period. I only need to get 70s the rest of the way to pass.” Trouble is, once a student has done nothing for a marking period, chances are he/she really cannot understand the work the next marking period, and frustration sets in. Thus, this kind of official policy turns into a trap laid for students by adults who thought they meant well.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    As a parent I want and expect the truth from teachers about how my child is doing. Choose to drop the lowest grade of the quarter but don’t ever, ever give them a minimum grade because you feel sorry for them or you are covering your failure to teach them (yes, this happens more than teachers care to admit). If they are not doing the work and I am not an engaged parent then there is a bigger issue. If you, the teacher, are not doing your work and I feel you are inept (I have only had four such instances in my kids K-12 years – not bad) I will challenge you face-to-face and to your administration all the way up the ladder. I will steer people away from your school even if you are at a nationally ranked school. Yes, I am an involved parent. Sadly, I know I am an exception but…my kids can handle the truth and do whatever it takes to bring up their grades. They have done it before. They will do it again…Now, they have the foundation to seek out their professors/teachers when they need help. Mom does not have to do it…thankfully…

  5. I’m all for “high expectations/standards”; if you don’t attend and you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. Period. As a teacher/principal relative said, “learning is an active process, not a passive one.”

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    The irony is that what started out as an effort to help children from terrible situations turns out to seal the educational doom of the many other disadvantaged students who attend the same school.

    The end result is that we end up teaching irresponsibility far more effectively than any part of the formal curriculum.

    Be careful, Don. Keep saying things like that and people might start calling you a neoconservative.

  7. I am going to ask my boss for a couple extra days off every week. And I will suggest that on the days I do work, that I can come in late, don’t have to meet deadlines or complete all my responsibilities. I will let everyone know how this goes over.

    Hall Monitor

  8. This, alas, is the soft white underbelly of accountability. When it becomes an article of faith that a “good teacher reaches every child” and that when a student fails to achieve the fault is the teacher’s not the student’s, it becomes axiomatic that if a student fails to show up or do good work it’s [all together now] the teacher’s fault. This ties the teacher’s hands. Fail a student and you’re admitting you’re a lousy teacher. Pass an undeserving student and you send the signal to those who are doing the work that they are suckers.

    It’s not rocket science, folks. It’s the inevitable result of people behaving rationally in a system that is predicated on irrational expectations. Unfortunately, everyone loses. The nonperformers have their poor learning habits validated; the capable students have their good habits unrewarded and eventually graduate unprepared.

    Homilies can’t drive policy. Period.

  9. The grades I give my students have no impact on my paycheck or my job security.

    The lower grades I give, the more phone calls I get from unhappy parents.

    In order to give a student a D or an F, I must show that I have put in a lot of extra work at intervention. If I don’t have that documentation, I set myself up for real trouble. Grades of C- and above are never questioned.

  10. To second the above:

    1) Giving a student a failing grade he earned is much harder than giving him a passing grade. Much much more paperwork is involved.

    2) Teachers are judged by the grades their students earn. I countered this by meticulous documentation, both of student performance and parental notification.

    3) I too came under huge peer pressure to change grades when I failed large numbers of students who did no work.

    4) Students definitely abuse the soft bigotry of low expectations.

  11. Actually, how we did this when I was in high school is that a student who got an “F” in the 1st quarter had to pull at least at “C” in the 2nd quarter to get an average GPA of 1.0 for the entire semester (which is passing). If you base it on the percentages, then there is no way the kid can pass unless he or she has at least 20% in the first quarter and 100% in the second.

    I’m in agreement, they turn in NO work, they get zero for a grade.

  12. I wonder if this attitude in the K-12 schools explains why the attendance in my college classes – EVEN ones where I hold them accountable for attendance (with points docked for unexcused absences) has jumped greatly in the past couple of years.

    It’s frustrating because you have people having to repeat classes. They get hostile about it, it takes them longer to graduate, sometimes you have to re-teach material because so many people were absent one day….I would like to see more accountability for attendance in the lower grades, to instill some good habits in the college-bound kids.

    I’ve had a few days when 2/3 or more of the class was just absent. What do you do in that case? Dismiss the rest of them? Teach material you KNOW you are going to be re-teaching in office hours? Or, (as I have been tempted) give out answers for questions on the next exam to “reward” the few who bothered to show up?

    I’m beginning to have problems with exams. My policy is “if you’re sick or hurt, call me before the test so I can let you make it up” This semester, I have people just blithely missing the test and then expect I will drop everything two weeks later to write a make up just for them.

  13. For college classes, I don’t allow makeups (although if they contact me ahead of time, I’ll sometimes stretch it), but have a system for replacing missed exam scores with the final. Something like that helps avoid the “drop everything two weeks later” problem, and more and more of my colleagues are going to a similar system.

  14. Everhopeful says:

    To Ricki:
    Reteach in office hours? You’ve got to be kidding. These are adults we’re dealing with (I teach at a state university). If they miss it, they miss it. I have a line in my syllabus that I will not give repeat lectures/fill in lecture notes for those who miss class. Never. No exceptions.

  15. Back in the dinosaur era, when I was in colllege, a student who missed a class was expected to get notes from a classmate. Under no obligation to share, students who attended class were usually unwilling to help those who often skipped. I know I wouldn’t do it and few instructors would allow lectures to be taped, except in the case of a disabled student, unless by prior arrangement for a good reason – on the order of appendicitis, funeral, flu etc. For the often-absent, good enough reasons were hard to find AND some other student had to be willing to tape the class. Some instructors cared about attendance and penalized absences and some didn’t, BUT the latter tended to count quizzes, exams, papers etc. heavily and in-class material was heavily represented.

  16. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s impossible to talk about school policies as if they are universal. You can predict school policies by the population.

    Schools with predominantly underachieving students will pressure their teachers not to fail anyone. That’s because credits, not ability, are important. There’s not a big enough difference between the best and worst students in a class, so it doesn’t matter to class composition.

    High achieving suburban schools with tracking have lots of low achieving students in the lowest track. Standards are low, they are only going onto the next low achieving track. On the other hand, these schools have an alternative school nearby where the kids can go if they lose too many credits, so there’s an equally good incentive to flunk them out.

    Now, in the schools I’ve been teaching at–mixed SES with pressure to keep standards high–there’s no problem at all in giving Fs. In fact, the teachers I’ve worked with in the past two years say that the stigma from an F has been removed. Half the kids in one of my math classes failed at least once class before–and these are often middle class kids, often white. They just didn’t do their homework. Failure rates of 30% or higher, particularly in math classes, is completely normal, and no one even wonders at it.

    These schools are at risk of white/Asian flight, and they know they can’t put too many unprepared kids into classes where at least half the students are prepared to work at ability level. Hence, kids are flunked if they can’t do the work.

    Again, it makes no sense to talk about schools in total. The student populations and school incentives vary widely.

  17. To all of the above: whether they are college, high school, or elementary students, give them the grade they have earned depending on the standard you have set. No exceptions.

  18. Excuse me, but isn’t the whole point of Teach for America to actually improve the academic performance of struggling students? If over a third of the class is failing, what are the issues behind this level of student disengagement? Are there underlying reading or language problems? Are the students discouraged because of a history of academic failure? As a veteran teacher, I bust my hump trying to make connections with struggling students, pinpoint the reasons for academic failure, and help them improve. It irks me when Teach for America teachers are presented as saviors who parachute in for two years and show the rest of us how it’s done. Anyone can fail students. The real test of a teacher is in making a difference in student achievement.

  19. So what do you do with students whose dysfunctional, and sometimes bizarre, family life keeps them depressed, angry, and generally unproductive throughout the year? I cut them a lot of slack because I’m a bleeding heart conservative.

  20. Bill Leonard says:

    Count me in the clan that says, if you don’t show up and don’t do the work, you most likely will fail.

    Yeah, BadaBing, there are kids with bizarre and dysfunctional family lives — and yes, that is a cause for sorrow. But keeping them afloat when they don’t deserve it is, a.) patently unfair to those who are actually there every day and trying, especially if those kids are struggling; and b.) long term, does those from the dysfunctional situations no service, since it reinforces the idea that someone always will roll over for them. The reality of the world is, you make your own breaks. That may be a harsh lesson to learn young, but that is the reality.

  21. I’m with Bill BadaBing.

    When compassion results in you having an easier time of it, and let’s be honest, even bizarre and dysfunctional parents are liable to show up and cause a fuss if you don’t stamp their kid’s passport not to mention principals who don’t want too many failures in their school, it’s a poor sort of compassion.

  22. Part of the problem is that we are so pressured to “retain” and to “serve the students.” And I have a lot of students with major family issues, things I probably would have dropped out of college for a semester to take care of.

    The good news is it doesn’t look like I will have to reteach; with a few exceptions, people didn’t do as terribly on the exam as I originally thought. And the people who did are people who have been “phoning it in” all semester – which means they get the grade they earn.

    One of the challenges of having a largely non-traditional student base is that it’s easy to forget what looks like “okay level of engagement” vs. what looks like “being over-demanding of the prof.” I have one very demanding student this semester and my interactions with that person tend to color all my other interactions.

  23. This strikes me as an argument for having some exams external to the school giving out the grades, for at least one of the years.

    BadaBing – would you favour driving examiners passing students who struggle with their driving skills because of a dysfunctional and bizarre home life?

  24. In economic terms, you get more of the behavior you reward, and less of the behavior you punish. I think it’s an open question as to whether students who don’t bother to show up for class value grades at all.

    Passing students who don’t do the work punishes those who do, because their performance appears the same as the slackers. It compresses the grade scale. It also serves to pass on to the next grade students who aren’t prepared for the next level of science. The TFA’s peers may favor passing the slackers, because they don’t want to see their faces in their classes next year.

    Some of this behavior is tied up in grading practices, isn’t it? Don’t run a year-long grade. Divide the year up into four grading cycles, and, assuming 5 subjects per year, require students to present 80 credits for graduation.* Don’t allow students to get so far behind on grades that they can never catch up, but don’t reward them for slacking, either.

    *Obviously, some administrators don’t want these kids around, so they’ll fiddle with the requirements.

  25. Margo/Mom says:

    Many good comments, many points of view. From my, parent, point of view, let me share a few questions and observations.

    These discussions frequently lack a whole school point of view. While Robert, and others land heavily on the side of student, rather than school or teacher, responsibility for failure, when there are large numbers or percentages either failing or being given a pass of some kind, this begins to smell like a school problem. Teachers tend to fight for their individual right to respond to individual students according to their individual best judgment. In a school this results in a cacophony of expectations, not to mention conflicting sets of classroom rules and grading systems.

    Personally I prefer a 50% minimum grade so that failures do not weigh more heavily than successes. A few students may be incredibly savvy and play the game of balancing an F with an A. I see those students as fairly isolated problems, however. Far more usual are students who quickly become overwhelmed by failure–or who lack the basic mathematical skills to even figure the odds of passing at any given point. However, when the numbers of kids not making it to class are as high as the TFA teacher and others are indicating, this is neither an individual student, nor an individual class problem. It is a school problem and must be dealt with as such.

    The common teacher viewpoint of “I’ll take care of my class and you take care of yours,” does not help to solve this problem. It leaves the classrooms covered (at the individual teacher option), with large holes in the accountability: the hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias, transportation, grounds. These are frequently defaulted to “the administration,” which means that the principal and assistant principal(s) is supposed to maintain all order there. When students begin skipping class–these are the first places to find them. And without a holistic examination of where weaknesses lie and who is sneaking off, what they are doing and why, and how to impact that situation, generally all improvement bets are off. A staff of two, charged with other (major) duties cannot possibly succeed at chasing students back to class.

    Last night on the news there was a feature about a successful college prep high school in Detroit. That in itself is something of a miracle. Yes, it was a charter, which implies students and parents who are active enough to seek out a better place. However, admission is by lottery, which tends to minimize the “creaming effect.” One thing struck me–and it will make Robert cringe–but the principal said that at this school, they accept responsibility for student failure. They have organized around ensuring support for each student. And they push their students to succeed.

    I had an opportunity to hear some successful high school students from other countries who are studying in the US this year. Among the things that they noticed about our schools are 1) the lack of respect that students pay to teachers, and 2) changing classes. In their countries, they all agreed, students remain in a classroom and the teachers change. Imagine what a difference that might make in the US, where we are institutionalized to accept chaos every 42 minutes. Also think how many barriers we might face in an American high school trying to implement such a change.

    The respect is one that I usually shy away from, simply because it is always interpreted as “students are disrespectful” in some inherent, genetic or other unfathomably untouchable way. Or, that they are taught this disrespect at home, by their parents. I have always known some adults, including teachers, who have the ability to “command respect.” It’s a difficult set of skills to acquire–although some seem to come by it naturally. It takes a fairly heroic effort to reclaim lost respect, however it can be done, and should be done. But it first involves a willingness to assume responsibility for claiming it, and learning it. But, I have watched teachers unwittingly throw it away. Again, this is a school-wide problem that requires a common effort. A lucky few can obtain, and keep it on their own. But it must be widespread to be effective.

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    My wife is a teacher and has her classroom set up to support her teaching. To wheel a short version of that around (“cart lady”) is counterproductive.
    I have a friend whose daughter recently graduated from a pretty good mid-high SES school (actually only mid, but the ethnic makeup is pretty traditionally Dick&Jane and so they win big in science olympiads and so forth) and said his daughter’s classmates included a bunch from good, prosperous families. They didn’t graduate because, all along, they had not done the work.
    Simply didn’t care to.
    I asked my friend what these people expected to do in life. Their families were not so prosperous as to support them in idleness indefinitely.
    He had no idea.
    Neither, apparently, has anyone else.

  27. Margo/Mom: I agree that schools can do a great deal to change their climates and engage more students in school. Part of that process involves explicitly pushing responsibility down to the student, not just to the teacher. Many charter schools hailed for their climates do just that. But all too often, they suffer from high attrition rates: The students who don’t do their work just return to their old schools, because they don’t adhere to the contract. What’s more, it’s the more motivated families who enroll their children in the lotteries. So I’m not sure if your Detroit comparison is entirely fair. (More research would be in order!) The point here, of course, is that many stakeholders in schools and communities share responsibility for student success and motivation.

    I sometimes worry that much of the rhetoric about teachers failing their students actually makes it down to the students and undermines teachers’ authority. I’ve known a couple of kids myself who ascribed their own lack of motivation to their teachers’ ostensible failures. The theme of personal responsibility does have to be central to our discussions of school improvement–and that need not weaken teacher accountability.

  28. European schools can require teachers to change classes because they run schools segregated by ability. We could do the same thing too, if we were willing to erect math magnet and science magnet schools, and limit access by dint of testing. If you track a high school class into 6 groups, the teachers could move from classroom to classroom.

    It would do away with administrators’ desire to see attractive/defined posters on the walls. How much teacher time is sucked into pleasing administrators’ changing demands vis-a-vis classroom decor?

    Attrition rates mean that failure has consequences. If students don’t expect to attend college, and don’t want to, what negative consequences do Fs have? If they’re retained, they’ll be the older students in the room. Teachers are less likely to expect anything from them. Win/win.

  29. One thing that I haven’t seem addressed yet is how unfair it is to subsequent teachers to pass students who haven’t mastered the work. I once had an elementary school special ed teacher tell me that it was too cruel to fail the cute little kids.

    While I agree with different requirements for special ed kids, I found myself wondering if she really thought it was easier to fail a sobbing 20 year old who was taking my CC class for the 2nd time. I know middle and high school teachers who complain of kids who can barely read, and I wonder how they’re supposed to teach history to them. I know that as a CC instructor I am definitely not trained in how to help students learn to write sentences or do basic division, but they can’t write lab reports or calculate reaction rates if I don’t.

  30. Funny thing: back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in school, failing to do the work and pass the tests meant failing and no two ways about it. This whole discussion would have been surreal to the teachers back then, because they always failed those who deserved it.

    What has changed? More than anything, I think it’s the restraints we place on teachers maintaining discipline in their classrooms. I’m not a teacher, though, so maybe that’s just wrong…

  31. It’s not wrong.

  32. As a parent, looking at the debate, especially the debate about what’s termed the “achievement gap,” I think the emphasis on advancing students based on their age is wrong. By high school, how many of the “slackers” can’t multiply? How many are skipping classes they don’t have the skills to understand? How many entered the public school system with deficits in vocabulary and understanding, and were passed forward on the basis of age?

    The US public system seems to want to find a one-size-fits-all model for educating children, although all the data points to huge differences in academic skills among high school students.

    The lunatic fringe is the insistence on judging high schools by their new ESL students, some of whom haven’t been in the school, or the country, for a week.

  33. Margo/Mom says:

    “I sometimes worry that much of the rhetoric about teachers failing their students actually makes it down to the students and undermines teachers’ authority.”

    You know I have often thought the same thing about the rhetoric about parents failing their children undermining parents authority.

    Bottom line is somebody(s) have to take responsibility. While it is reasonable to expect that more responsibility be loaded onto the back of a high school senior than a kindergarten student, I don’t know that we are very good at differentiating in this way. The first time I heard the “he just doesn’t want to learn” story applied to my son he was in kindergarten. We have pushed inappropriate consequences lower and lower in the grades with the result that they have no meaning at all. A kindergarten or first grade student simply cannot make the connection between a day of suspension and some lost opportunity to learn that will impact their later earning ability. What they can understand is that the adults have made some decision that there be no school on a particular day. Now–I can just hear the “but you don’t understand” voices in the background. The ones that talk about “some of our kids…” and the terrible things that they do. And how many of these terrible kids some schools have.

    We have to move away from the misunderstanding that the only way to maintain order in schools is to get rid of the bad kids. We have to look at other schools with greater levels of success–including charters and international school–without the bias that says that if they are succeeding they just can’t be working with kids like ours. In fact, few of the countries where students succeed in large numbers use tracking systems any more–and particularly at lower grade levels. They are focusing instead on ways to identify problems early and provide intervention as close to the classroom as possible.

    I have been in schools in the US that were able, through careful scheduling, to minimize class changes with tremendous impact on hallway chaos and losing kids. It doesn’t matter how good the classroom environment is if we are losing kids before they get there. That may not be the only solution to the problem. But, as the saying goes, first you have to admit you have a problem. Then you have to make choices about where to focus energies. Perhaps the barrier is not the “cart lady” but the fact that sharing classrooms requires teachers to collaborate in a way that they are not comfortable with.

  34. We’re setting the bar too low for high school students if we assume that they can’t behave in between classes in the hallways. And how on earth can you keep all the students in one room all day if some are taking Spanish and some are taking European History and some are taking Band? High School students are going to be in the hallways, period.

    Agreed that the problems we encounter in High Schools are created at Elementary Schools and Middle Schools — mostly by passing children along when they’re not ready for the next level — but they’re still teens and can’t be treated like young children.

  35. Miller Smith says:

    Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland (17 or 11th largest school system in the USA, can’t remember which), has what amounts to a mandantory pass policy for all classes.

    I teach chemistry and the breakdown of grading policy as mandated by the system is 45% for tests and 55% for class and homework. The class and homework can only be graded less than 100% if is was not turned in on time, was incomplete, and was not a “good Faith effort.” At no time on the 55% of this grade may a teacher cut the grade a student “earns” on class and homework below 100% due to being incorrect.

    For those of you good at math, students who “earn” the 55% only have to have a test average of 11% to “earn a D, a 33% to ‘earn a C, a 55% to ‘earn’ a B, and a 77% to ‘earn’ an A for the year in chemistry.

    Students may also have unlimited absences and still pass every class if the teacher does not fill out the paperwork to fail a student for absences alone-for which the teacher is blamed. At my high school, 40% of the graduating seniors have 20 or more days unexcused absence for the year. Yes, of course they were graduated and god help the teachers that tried to fail them.

    My system rewards the slackers and demands that teachers accomidate the slackers. Guess what the new graduating GPA is? 0.6. Yeah. You read that correctly. 0.6. And if a student gets a single B in one quarter of your class and fails the other three AND never returns to your class after ‘earning’ that B-THEY PASS FOR THE YEAR! I kid you not.

  36. Miller Smith –

    That is tremendously sad. The worst thing is, each and every one of those kids knows exactly how poorly they’re regarded under a system like that.


  1. […] if I'd been able to give them the structure and support they needed. How many? Who knows.A post on Joanne Jacobs' blog addressed this issue recently. It's really tough to figure out how to assign grades fairly in […]