The can’t-fail school

New York City’s top-ranked school is under investigation for cooking the books, reports the New York Times. Theater Arts Production Company School, a middle and high school located in a low-income Bronx neighborhood,  graduated 94 percent of seniors, more than 30 points above the citywide average. The school earned a near-perfect score in “student progress,” based partly on course credits earned by students.  The school’s no-failure policy requires teachers to pass all students who attend class, regardless of their performance; no more than 5 percent of students can get D’s.

In practice, some teachers said, even students who missed most of the school days earned credits. They also said students were promoted with over 100 absences a year; the principal, rather than a teacher, granted class credits needed for graduation; and credit was awarded for classes the school does not even offer.

The school’s former Advanced Placement calculus teacher said he was pressured to pass students who didn’t deserve it.

Last year, every student passed the class even though each received a 1 — the lowest score — on the Advanced Placement test, in part because they had not taken precalculus, he said. Only one had passed the Math B Regents, a minimal standard.

Even some students complained to the Times about the no-failure policy.

Some said that it sometimes hurt their motivation to know that a classmate would pass even if he did not come to class. One said that his current average was a 30 — but that he could bring it up to a 95 with a few days of work — and that teachers sometimes handed out examples of student work that he copied from.

“You would have to be an epic failure to fail at this school,” said Deja Sawyers, a 10th grader. When students do not do their work, “there’s no consequences,” she said, adding that she did not get homework.

Another student, Luisa Cruz, said, “Everybody always passes; it’s really rare to fail.”

“It makes no sense,” she said. “You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”

The college acceptance rate for graduates is 100 percent, but students’ SAT scores are low and many end up in remedial classes in college.

College acceptance is meaningless: It includes students who go to open-admissions or not-very-selective colleges, take a few remedial classes and drop out.  Sending graduates to college to retake eighth-grade English and math is nothing to brag about.

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Comments

  1. The most shocking thing to me about this story is that it doesn’t shock me a bit. This is just a more blatant example of things I see in the district in which my husband works. In his district no student can get a grade lower than 50 and “social promotion” (moving kids ahead despite them not having the grades to do so) still exists despite being officially banned.

  2. This sort of pressure is placed on all administrators in large districts. It’s very easy to see pass/fail numbers and much harder to see whether or not the students are actually learning anything. Most of the parents and students I encountered are far more concerned with grades than learning. As a result, most of the kids I get have absolutely no business being anywhere near the grade level they are in.

  3. I second your comments, Dr. Nic and Obi. In most schools I’ve worked in, failing a student often means that board members, administrators, parents and/or students get on your case. Passing students pacifies everyone. So is it any wonder that many of our graduates are uneducated?

    Policy wonks’ fixation on graduation rates and similar stats contributes to this sorry state of affairs.

    How I would love to see a principal stand up to the superintendent and say, “We need to restore integrity to this system. We are not going to give passing grades to kids who don’t learn the material. We’ve got to stop issuing meaningless diplomas.”

    Most superintendents, I suspect, would respond something like, “it’s not the material that matters. It’s using one’s thinking skills, developing emotionally, learning to love learning –surely enough of that is happening with these kids to justify promotion.”

    Or, “It’s the teachers’ fault. They’re failing to motivate the kid. A good teacher ensures that no kid fails.”

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Let’s see…since when is government education all about the adults? First, tons of waste. Second, tons of ineffective teachers but have life time employment. Third, waste..oh yeah, already said that.

    I thought all education include lowly government education was about preparing the kids to make something of their lives…to hopefully improve upon their current circumstances…

    My goof…education is all about letting kids skate so the adults can get paid. Something is seriously wrong with this approach and it is truly hurting this country…FIX IT NOW…

  5. Does this school use any of the Mastery Learning theories. The theory is that students should be given as many chances to master the material as possible. Basically students should be able to take a test as many times as needed because that is how the “real world” works. I once read an article justifying this method describing how an airplane pilot can make a second attempt at a landing if he is not coming in correctly or a doctor can go back and correct a mistake if something was left in surgery. I am not kinding.

    The idea is that it doesn’t matter how long it takes teachers should be focused on students mastering the content. This was pushed extremely hard where I was teaching, but the practicality of trying to keep track of everything was so difficult it became easier to find ways for students to get enough points to get credit.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    “It’s using one’s thinking skills, developing emotionally, learning to love learning –surely enough of that is happening with these kids to justify promotion.”

    Yeah, sure. Right. And does anyone here think *any*significant thinking, emotional development or love of learning is happening at this ridiculous school and others like it? I thought not.

  7. Timber,

    It seems to me that if school boards hired no-nonsense superintendents, a lot could change quickly. The problem is that schools boards seems to be made up of softies who want to coddle kids more than they want to instill rigor. Our school board has essentially banned retention, even for kids who don’t make a bit of effort. They view suspensions and expulsions as signs of failure. And they seem prone to hiring superintendents who promise happy schools, not rigorous schools.

  8. CarolineSF says:

    So, I agree with this:

    “College acceptance is meaningless: It includes students who go to open-admissions or not-very-selective colleges, take a few remedial classes and drop out. Sending graduates to college to retake eighth-grade English and math is nothing to brag about.”

    …but there are charters all over the place hyping their college admissions rate. Some of them have APIs in the toilet but claim high college admissions to cover that up — the Envision Schools charter chain is a standout in that area, and the press falls for it over and over and over. (The Chronicle is a serial patsy for hype from Envision Schools — they never learn.)

    So, yes, “college admissions is meaningless.”

    To shift away from charter skepticism, college admissions should NOT be viewed as the only successful outcome after high school. We need to restore and respect vocational/career/technical education in high school and stop treating any outcome except four-year college as a failure.

  9. If government schools are so bad (and they are), then quit suggesting how to fix government schools.

    In the US, most people agree that conflating religion with government is bad because government will harm religion. (Yes, I know that the opposite could also happen.) Prior to say, the 60s, most people agreed that conflating education with government is bad because government would hurt education. In fact, government involvement at all levels has made the American education system a failure. Why try to fix education as it currently exists? The problem is systemic because education is a government system. It cannot be fixed as long as there is government involvement. The situation reported in NY at a so-called “top ranked school” is just a consequence of systemic failure flowing from government involvement.

  10. Anon,

    How do you explain the fact that excellent foreign school systems are government-run? How do you explain that many excellent domestic districts (e.g. Milburn, NJ) are government-run? How do explain the fact that many excellent public universities are government run? What will it take for you to realize “government-run” is not synonymous with “bad”?

  11. Ben F. I just want to mention the reason why Milburn, NJ, has an excellent school system (as do many of the burbs nearby). MIlburn is a wealthy community with mostly college educated residents. Is the school excellent because it’s an excellent system, or its excellence based upon the demographics of its population? Maybe it’s excellent despite being government run. Maybe the demographics ameliorate the affects of government involvement.
    Maybe government isn’t synonymous with bad only under specific circumstances. I’m just saying…..

  12. Stacy, point taken. But how about Europe’s solid government run systems? Really, when will you folks stop your rabid, irrational government-bashing? It’s as if you think the moment a citizen enters the employ of government, he becomes a feckless bungler incapable and unwilling to do any good work. Don’t you see how unfair and wrongheaded this is? Governments aren’t perfect, but they can and have done many, many good things.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quoth Stacy:

    Is the school excellent because it’s an excellent system, or its excellence based upon the demographics of its population?

    Does it matter? What makes for an excellent school? I mean that in a purely descriptive sense without trying to be predictive or normative at all. What is the indication of an excellent school?

    I rather suppose it depends on what we think the function of a school is supposed to be.

    If it’s a sorting mechanism, then an excellent school is going to be the school that provides the most accurate and useful indicia for its students. If a school is supposed to be a training ground, then an excellent school will be that school whose graduates are best able to perform the tasks for which they were trained. If a school is supposed to be a harmless-seeming holding pen, then that school which best keeps its students distracted and content will be the most excellent.

    So what do we think makes for an excellent school? Are the schools in rich suburbs really excellent? Why? Because their students go on to rule the world? Is that what a school is supposed to do?

    I suppose the answer could be yes. Maybe that is what makes for an excellent school. I suppose, in the final analysis, an excellent school is, from a parent’s perspective, whatever makes for the best life for the child. And if that means being on the right “track” for some sort of success, then we should be explicit about that — and we should recognize that only a few schools are going to be excellent under that definition.

  14. Ben F.

    I wouldn’t call myself anti-government, only government skeptical. Just another point to consider: none of those wonderful Eurpean schools have elected school boards. The European systems are less democratic in their structure. Our schools, along with so many other institutions, are vulnerable to manipulation by special interests because of their democratic nature. They are frequently co-opted to serve interests other than their stated purpose. This can be a significant weakness. To be successful our schools need to be both more and less authoritarian. They need strong, focused leadership with specific expectation and the authority to enforce those expectations (like European schools). Do you really think our culture will tolerate this type of authoritarian structure without opt-out options? Nope, it won’t. This leads to a loosely structured, many optioned educational system with the option of several differing highly structured components within it.

    My problem with the “government can fix it crowd” is that you have a very limited idea of what government is and should be, a very 1930′s idea of what it is. Those ideas are generated from a largely failed social model.

    Here’s a great essay by Walter Russel Mead that explains better than I ever could:
    http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2010/01/28/american-challenges-the-blue-model-breaks-down/

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ann saith:

    Basically students should be able to take a test as many times as needed because that is how the “real world” works. I once read an article justifying this method describing how an airplane pilot can make a second attempt at a landing if he is not coming in correctly or a doctor can go back and correct a mistake if something was left in surgery.

    I’m afraid you’ve been led astray by bulls***. The “real” world (by which I take it you mean the world outside of school) doesn’t often give second chances. If you screw up, you get fired, dropped, or sued.

    Leaving something in during surgery is pretty much per se malpractice. Yeah, you get to go back in and fix things, but you get sued and your malpractice rates go through the roof.

    You only get a second try landing the plane if you don’t crash. And even if you do get a second try, you jam up the traffic lanes for everyone else.

    There are margins for safely repeatable failure, and margins for non-safely-repeatable failure. There are ways to screw up where you get a do-over, and ways where you don’t. MOST of your professional activities are of the second type, however: the possibility for non-reparable error is omnipresent. Your bosses, clients, and customers do not want someone who is learning. They want someone who knows what they are doing and who will get the job done right the first time. Students want teachers who know their subjects. Couples want bakers who will deliver the cake on-time and properly decorated. Corporations want attorneys who won’t blow filing deadlines or overlook important authorities. Managers want secretaries and accountants who don’t need a second chance to get a report right. The list goes on and on and on and on.

    I’m not saying that there’s not value in letting students take second and third and fourth bites at the apple. There is. But the reason that’s a good idea is because IT’S SCHOOL AND THEY ARE LEARNING, not because of the blatantly false notion that this is how the “real” world works.