One of the great ironies of our educational system is the use of graduation rates as a way to measure learning. Schools are held accountable for these rates. We expect schools to get students graduated. The paradigm is that students spend twelve years in schools with the expectation that they should get a diploma. Students feel entitled to their graduation. Legislatures evaluate schools based on their graduation rate. Schools with higher graduation rates are seen as more effective and legislative policies reward schools financially for high graduation rates. Schools and districts have a clear motive to make sure that students graduate in large number.
These values create school policies that actually decrease academic achievement. An example of such is a policy is the idea that only a certain number of students can be failed in a class. Teachers must not fail more than twenty five percent of their students. This policy distorts instruction because creates a barrier to teacher rigor. Instead of teacher setting an academic standard that challenge students to higher achievement, teachers are pressured to pass students to bring up that graduation rate. Many times, these policies are informal, not official but maintained an “understandings” of how we operate in our school.
These informal rules are not based on improving student performance or student effort but a bureaucratic desire to boost the graduation rate at the expense of academic excellence. Remedial classes are treated the same way that honors classes are evaluated. So, if a remedial math class is passing fifty five percent of its students because they are simply not understanding the material, the teacher has a conversation with the principal who reminds the teacher that graduation rates are important to the our school. The message is received, pass more students, and get that pass rate up so we can improve our graduation rate. Parents use a similar logic when pressuring teachers to pass their child. They will say it is unfair to hold their child back because it will make our school look bad on graduation rates. Their child is a good kid and is not a discipline problem. This insidious argument is that you are just passing one more child. That won’t hurt your academic standards. Or they will pull out the tried and true argument that you are being unfair to their child or make some other excuse as to why the teacher should not hold their child to same standards that apply to the other students.
We have created a patchwork of excuses and crutches for parents and administrators to use for the purpose of pressuring teachers to lower their standards for that one student. Once you dilute the standard for one student, it becomes easier for you to reduce the requirements for the next student. Teachers, over time, gradually slip into the entitlement mindset and just pass the kid as the line of least resistance.
Those teachers that remain stubborn about maintaining high standards are labeled as malcontents. Administrators want to avoid angry parents so they create a culture that favors passing students, except in the most extreme circumstances.
The message is clear to the teachers. Our task is to get children passed. We should not be concerned if they don’t know the material. They can pick it up later. Students don’t work that hard to make the grade because they know that the teacher can only fail a particular number, so they do the minimum to get above that seventy percent level. It reduces learning to a game. It hardly sends the message that learning is valuable and important.
Isn’t this problem the teacher’s fault? Why don’t they just say no? If academic rigor is so vital, they must hold that line. The teacher should be there to demand that students perform. The truth is teachers do not have that kind of power. A teacher that consistently refuses to pass students will not have a job for long. The incentives to pass students are so strong that teachers really have to choose between their job and passing a student. We are putting quantity before quality. When parents, legislators, business people, and administrators create a system that encourages and demands that we pass students when they do not know the material, the teacher has no chance to stand up against that kind of pressure. Stop using graduation rates as a way to evaluate schools. Reward schools based on academic achievement not on how many students graduate from a particular schools.
Establishing a new culture that rewards academic achievement is the way to improve classroom rigor. Teachers need the ability to fail students when they do not know the material. Making this change would chip away at the entitlement culture so pervasive in education. Consequences are central to learning. We must be honest with our children. When they fail to learn the material, they should pay the consequences. We must move away from this entitlement culture to a learning culture. Evaluative tools must encourage academic achievement not subvert the learning process.