Can’t fail 

New York City gave me a ­diploma I didn’t deserve,” 18-year-old Melissa Mejia told the New York Post.

She frequently cut her first-period government class at a Queens high school, didn’t turn in homework and skipped the final. To her surprise, she earned a passing grade and a diploma.

Teachers are under pressure to pass students and keep up their school’s graduation rate, said Andrea McHale, who taught Mejia at Bryant High in Queens.  “If we don’t meet our academic goals, we are deemed failures as teachers. . . . I thought it was in her best interest and the school’s best interest to pass her.”

A Virginia mother in an affluent Virginia suburb is complaining that her chronically truant daughter passed English, reports Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. The girl skipped the final exam,  but earned an A for the fourth quarter, bringing her F average up to a D.

The teacher admitted the girl hadn’t earned an A, but said she “participated in several class discussions and demonstrated that she understood the bulk of the material throughout the year,” despite poor attendance and lack of effort. The final counts only if it raises the student’s grade.

“I complained recently about D.C. schools’ giving D’s for no work to get as many uncooperative students as possible graduated so the schools wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore,” writes Mathews. It’s an issue in the suburbs too.

The Fairfax student was delighted with the results, telling her parents she might hold the world record for getting passing grades despite doing nothing. Her parents want her to grow up. They wonder why the school system won’t help.

“If she still hasn’t mastered the skills or tackled the assumed requirements for a high school diploma — such as writing a paper, exploring historical periods, reading the classics and presenting a project — she will never succeed in college,” the mother said.

The mother is planning to send this kid to college? The girl sounds like a good candidate for a competency-based alternative program. If she’s so smart that she already knows it all, let her prove it. Or she could try to get a job that doesn’t require showing up.

A dropout’s story

Cornelius loved reading in kindergarten. Math was easy in first grade. “You could say two numbers, and I would subtract ‘em and multiply ‘em and add ‘em in my head, give you three answers in a matter of seconds.”

Why did he drop out of high school? In Butterflies in the Hallway, part of the Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series, Brooke Haycock uses interviews and school records to tell Cornelius’ story of failure, disengagement and more failure.

Cornelius had trouble reading “bigger books” in fourth grade. He was too embarrassed to ask for help. By fifth grade, he was getting in trouble with a friend who also was struggling. It “felt better than feeling stupid alone,” he told Haycock 

At a middle school where violence was common, Cornelius began cutting gym class to avoid older boys who he feared would beat him up.

“He never skipped math, the class where he always felt smart,” but he started cutting classes that required reading.

His friends, other “lost boys,” would “just run around the school.” Sometimes he got detention, but nobody tried to find out why he was skipping.

The youngest of nine children, Cornelius was raised by his grandmother. The summer after sixth grade, she died. “I just stopped caring. I felt like there was no one there to enforce rules on me or to make me sit down and do my homework. No one to care.”

He lived with his aunt and two brothers for several years.

Recognizing Cornelius’ artistic talent, a new principal invited the seventh grader to lead the school’s mural painting team at a district competition. Cornelius was thrilled.

But he couldn’t read well enough to do school work. “I started getting further and further behind. And I just lost interest. I felt like I was too far behind.”

He got into fights, which led to suspensions.

In high school, he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed and placed in special ed classes. Then he was suspended for cutting class.

Some of Cornelius’ teachers tried to help, but he’d given up.

He moved to a group home and a new school for his second try at ninth grade. He failed again. At 17, still in ninth grade, Cornelius dropped out.

If he’d received help with his reading skills in third or fourth grade, could Cornelius have been saved?

Tennessee bill cuts welfare if kid fails

Welfare parents could lose up to 30 percent of their aid if their child fails in school, under a bill in the Tennessee legislature, reports Ed Week. Special-education students would be exempt.

Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield wants to penalize parents whose child is held back for poor performance — unless parents enroll the child in tutoring, attend a parenting course or attend “multiple” parent-teacher conferences. “It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” Campfield told the Tennessean. “We have to do something.”

Tennessee already docks welfare parents up to 25 percent of aid if their child is truant.

Honor student jailed for truancy

A Texas honor student was sentenced to 24 hours in jail for truancy and fined $100. Diane Tran, 17, works two jobs to support herself and her siblings. Her parents divorced and moved away.

Tran said she works a full-time job, a part-time job and takes advanced placement and dual credit college level courses.  She said she is often too exhausted to wake up in time for school.  Sometimes she misses the entire day, she said.  Sometimes she arrives after attendance has been taken.

Judge Lanny Moriarty said he was making an example of Tran. “If you let one (truant student) run loose, what are you gonna’ do with the rest of ‘em? Let them go too?”

An 11th grader, Tran works full time at a dry cleaners and weekends at a wedding venue. She lives with the family that owns the wedding site. Her brother is in college; a younger sister lives with relatives. Why isn’t Tran living with relatives? My guess is she didn’t want to switch high schools.

The judge is under pressure to clear Tran’s record.

$100 to go to school for 5 weeks

To combat truancy in Camden, New Jersey, 66 students will get $100 if they come to school for five weeks and attend after-school sessions three days a week. Students will get $100 on Sept. 30 “if they attend most anti-truancy sessions and school days.”  Most?

A $63,000 grant — which expires in five weeks — will fund the program. (Someone must be making a lot more than $100.) The program was organized in a hurry: Only 25 percent of students enrolled are chronically truant; the rest are borderline truant or attending school regularly but doing poorly.

(Ramona) Pearson-Hunter who has been in charge of the district’s truancy efforts for the last year said some of the truants cite boredom.

“We know we have to keep them active,” she said, adding that she suggests students ask teachers for extra-credit activities to remain engaged.

They’re bored because they don’t have enough assignments? Or is it possible they’re bored because they don’t understand the classwork?

After Sept. 30, the students will be asked to promise to attend regularly.

On the other coast: Told to pull up his sagging pants, a San Francisco student became belligerent, according to his teacher, who called the police. The student was not arrested.

Rhee’s record

The case against Michelle Rhee is full of holes, writes Paul Peterson of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance in the Washington Times. Ed Next has his full analysis.

Rhee was more effective than her predecessors, he writes, contradicting a recent study (pdf) by Alan Ginsburg, a former director of Policy and Program Studies in the U.S. Department of Education.  And, contrary to a National Research Council (NRC)  committee’s preliminary analysis, which downplays progress, there’s reason to believe Rhee’s reforms made a difference.  

Like Ginsburg and the NRC committee, Peterson looks at NAEP data, since it’s a low-stakes test with no incentive to cheat. He excludes the scores of charter schools beyond Rhee’s control, which caused a blip in the data in 2007, inflating pre-Rhee progress. He finds progress accelerated after Rhee took over as chancellor.

 Once the data are corrected and adjusted for national trends, it becomes evident that during the Rhee years, fourth-grade students gained at a pace twice that seen under her predecessors in both reading and math. The gains in math by eighth-grade students were nearly as much, although no eighth-grade reading gains are detected.

Gains are not enormous in any one year, but over time, they add up. In 2000, the gap between the District and the nation in fourth-grade math was 34 points. Had students gained as much every year between 2000 and 2009 as they did during the Rhee era, that gap would have been just 7 points in 2009. Three more years of Rhee-like progress and the gap would have been closed. In eighth-grade math, the gap in 2000 was 38 points. Had Rhee-like progress been made over the next nine years, the gap in 2009 would have been just 14 points, with near closure in 2012. In fourth-grade reading, the gap was 30 points in 2003; if Rhee-like gains had taken place over the next six years, the gap in 2009 would have been cut in half.

The NRC committee claims that District gains “were similar” to those in 10 “other urban districts” for which comparable data is available.

In fact, D.C. students gained 6 points between 2007 and 2009 in both math and reading, while the average gain for the other 10 cities was just 1 point in reading and 2 points in math. In eighth-grade math, D.C. gains were 7 points, as compared to an average of three points for 10 other cities. Only in eighth-grade reading did the District lag behind, dropping a point while elsewhere, students gained 2 points.

The committee also admits that student and teacher attendance improved significantly during Rhee’s tenure, but questions the significance of the change.

Rhee said she wanted to change the culture, Peterson notes.  When students show up to learn and teachers show up to teach, that’s considered a very good sign. But Rhee’s enemies don’t want to give her credit for anything.

Principal in the bedroom

Hoping to get two brothers  to go to school, Principal Ernest Jackson and a school psychologist walked uninvited into a home in Chester, New York to rouse the boys, 12 and 16 years old.  Jackson faces trespass charges.

A criminal complaint alleges Chester Academy Principal Ernest Jackson entered the home without permission when the two boys didn’t come to school in late September, and actually tried to coax them out of their beds.

You don’t walk into someone’s house,” Melanie Hunter said. “I could’ve been coming out of the shower.”

The mother wasn’t home. The father, who filed a complaint, doesn’t live with the family.

The principal, now on leave, shouldn’t have walked into the house. As for the mother who can’t get her sons to wake up and go to school, you’ll be able to live with your boys for years to come.  They won’t be able to finish high school, get jobs and move out of the house.

Update:  Principal Jackson and the psychologist were reinstated after witnesses confirmed they were invited into the house by a the students’ 20-year-old cousin. “The state has now cleared Jackson and Kavenagh of misconduct and the Village of Chester police have dropped their investigation for trespassing for lack of evidence.” reports the Times Herald-Record.

Short-term mentors don’t help kids

Mentors can help students’ succeed — or harm their chances, reports Education Week. Long-term mentoring relationships benefit children. Students with short-term mentors — less than six months — do worse than those with no mentor at all, concludes David L. DuBois, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher and a co-author of a study in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report.

“You could actually see studies where the youth in the treated group end up showing more negative change to things like self-esteem, propensity to get involved in risky behavior” than the control group, Mr. DuBois said in a panel on the studies earlier this month. “So obviously, it’s a handle-with-care intervention.”

Low-performing schools often try to recruit volunteers to serve as mentors. Federal funding for school-based programs peaked at more than $100 million in 2006. But most school-based programs don’t create lasting mentor-student relationships. In three studies, researchers found the mentor-student relationship averaged less than six months.

. . . The Social Policy Report meta-analysis found school mentoring programs improved students’ sense of academic efficacy, the level of peer support they had, and relationships with adults outside the family, while reducing truancy and school misconduct, provided the students remained in the program for a year. Still, the researchers noted that the results suggested those improvements could be lost if the students’ mentoring did not continue.

Most school-based mentoring programs last a semester or an academic year and include only campus activities. But  “41 percent of students in the Big Brothers Big Sisters study continued to meet with their mentor, both in school and out, into a second year.” The “bigs” spent more time with their ”littles” and developed a closer bond.

I just volunteered to be tutor two elementary students in reading. Since I travel quite a bit, I enlisted my sister to fill in when I’m out of town. I don’t want the kids thinking they’ve been forgotten. Of course, Peggy and I no longer pass for identical twins.

The right way to assess teachers

Laid off after her first year of teaching algebra, geometry and humanities at a California high school, Michele Kerr is open to judging teachers on performance rather than seniority. But she’s only willing to be judged on her students’ success under certain conditions, she writes in a Washington Post op-ed.

First, she proposes that teachers be judged on the students with 90 percent or higher attendance. “Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.”

Second, teachers should be allowed to remove disruptive students.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Administrators can decide “what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them,” she writes.

Third, Kerr would forbid students to move on to the next course if they score below “basic” proficiency in a state test.  Teachers wouldn’t be blamed if students who don’t know algebra can’t learn geometry or those who can’t read at a ninth-grade level can’t keep up in sophomore English, history or science.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

Finally, teachers should be judged on student improvement rather than meeting an absolute standard. That sort of “value-added” measure is what’s proposed in performance plans, so it’s her easiest condition to meet.

No one’s willing to admit how many students “are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality,” Kerr writes. It’s easier to write tests that nearly everyone can pass and blame teachers if they can’t get semi-literate students through a college-prep English class or teach algebra to students who never learned arithmetic.

Is this doable? Letting teachers kick out disruptive students would be very useful, I think. Holding back students who lack basic skills would be painful, but it would force an intense effort to teach them what they need to know. I think that would help students more than dumping them in classes they can’t understand and hoping for the Clue Fairy to touch them with her magic wand.

I’d bet many teachers would be willing to be judged on the progress of on-track, in-class students.

Felony forgery of excuses

Prosecuting parents for forging doctors’ notes? The DA must have too much money and an acute shortage of crime, writes Instapundit.

A mother in Tehama County, California faces eight felony counts of truancy-related forgery.

Prosecutors accuse (Kari Shannon) Brandt of forging signatures and creating doctors’ notes on 12 occasions between December 2009 and April. The reported notes were written for three of Brandt’s children, ages 6, 7 and 8 . . .

In nearby Glenn County, two couples were charged with felony forgery of excuses.

William and Shannon Anderson were accused of altering the date of a doctor’s note in January, but Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter B. Twede said the penal code section cited by Glenn County authorities — the same cited by Tehama County prosecutors — did not apply because the note in question was handed to a teacher and not an investigative body.

Another local couple still face the same charges.

In my day, a note from the parent — or from a student with adult handwriting and diction — was enough for an excused absence. I used my writing skills only for good — to help out my sister when she forgot to ask Mom for a note. I didn’t realize it was a felony.