∆ Jackson

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 28 2014

We are Failing our kids by not allowing them to Fail.

Last year nearly 30 students earned failing grades in my class.  And they all failed Physical Science and will need to retake it in order to graduate.  Some of them are in my classes again this year.  Most of them are doing better.  I have watched closely and I don’t think they are doing better because this is their second time hearing the information (although it can’t hurt).  The ones who are doing better this year are the ones who are working a whole lot harder than they did last year.

I bring all this up because I think failure is an important part of learning.  When students are given a passing grade that they did not earn, they DO learn (although not the content of your class, obviously).  They learn that it is okay to do less than the absolute minimum.  They learn that if they don’t put in the effort, it is not a big deal because they will end up getting what they want/need in the end anyway.  They learn that school is a joke, no more than a silly process you must go through in order to get a piece of paper.

Maybe what is more important to note is what students do NOT learn when they are given a passing grade simply because the teacher wants them out of their class, or maybe because sometimes it’s just easier to pass a student than to fail them.  When students are given a passing grade they did not earn, they do not learn that hard work pays off.  They do not learn that they have to earn success in life; it will not be handed to them.  They do not learn a respect for the importance of our education system.

I love my students very much.  And for that reason, I refuse to pass them on them if they did not earn the passing grade.  I had a handful of students with 57%, 58%, 59% last year that I called to my room and gave them as much as possible to try to bring their grade up.  These were students who I had seen working hard, but struggled regardless.  Some struggled because of illness or other reasons that had kept them out of school too many days.  Some struggled because of a learning disability or just general testing anxiety that caused them to do really well on class work and really poorly on tests.  Even knowing the reasons for their struggles, I would not change that 59% to a 60% without them sitting there and knowing they had to work for it and earn it.

Most students did their work, earned their grade, and passed Physical Science.  One young lady did not.  She was given the same extra work as other students as well as great deal of make up work that she had simply not done the first time around (I think I was being pretty generous).  Of ALL the work I gave her, she turned in ONE thing.  It brought her from a 57% to a 58%.  I told her she needed to turn in the other stuff as well and she said she understood, but she never did turn it in to me.  At the beginning of this year, she was really angry with me for her failing grade.  The guidance counselor even came to check that the grade was correct and I explained the situation.

About a week into the school year, she came up to me in the hall and said, “Ms Keefer, you failed me and now I have to take Physical Science as an online class.”  I replied calmly, “I didn’t fail you, you failed yourself.  I gave you the work you needed to do and you didn’t do it.”  She thought about it for a moment and then she looked up and said to me, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  Then she smiled and walked away.  Any time I see this young lady in the hall, she says hello to me and sometimes she even stops by my classroom to say hello or ask me a question about her online Physical Science class.  You cannot tell me that this young lady did not learn an important lesson.  A lesson she would have missed out on had I simply given up on her and changed that 58% to a 60%.

Our district has a history of passing kids on through middle school because they are too old to be there.  Although they do not earn those passing grades and they are completely unprepared for high school, the kids show up at our doors as Freshmen who do not understand that getting an education does require hard work.  Please do not take offense to this, middle school employees of JPS.  I am not saying every middle school teacher, or even every middle school does this, but I do know that it happens and it is a problem.

What prompted me to write this blog is another action the district has taken, which is contributing to this problem.

This year, any student who earns a failing grade of below 50% will have a 50% printed on their report card.  No student in the Jackson Public School system can earn below a 50%.  Take a minute to let that sink in.  Maybe it doesn’t sound like a big deal to you.  It is.  That means that a child who earns a 12% (yeah, I have one or two of those this year) and needs work 48% harder to pass will look at his/her report card and believe that he/she only needs to work 10% harder in order to pass.

Originally, the district told us that they were only going to this for the first term (marking period).  They assured us that for the remainder of the year, students would receive the actual grade they earned, but for the first report card, they did not want students to feel discouraged and give up too early in the year.  They wanted to them to see that they were failing, but that they had the potential to pass for the year if they stepped it up a bit.  Okay.  I don’t agree, but I’ll buy it.  I still think students and parents deserved to know what their actual grade was, so that they could understand what they needed to do in order to pass for the rest of the year.  So, I printed out all the actual grades and called the parent/guardian of EVERY failing child with a grade below a 50% and informed them of the actual grade their child earned and what they could do to bring that grade up second term.

Then, back in December there were rumors that the second term grades would be rounded up to a 50% as well.  An anonymous employee of JPS reported this to the local news station and they did a segment on it.  As a part of their research for the segment, they contacted JPS and asked them about this policy.  The Jackson Public School system responded that they have not heard of this going on and had no idea what the employee was talking about.  I could not be more outraged when I heard this.   Literally two days before, our principal had reported to us that at his principal meeting, the district had confirmed the rumor and grades would continue to be rounded to 50%.  He explained that the district’s reasoning was, ‘a 50 is still a failing grade, so it doesn’t matter.’

Maybe it is just me, but I think that every child deserves to know exactly what they earned from the amount of work they have put in.  Otherwise, they are missing out on important life lessons.

Last year, a young man earned a 1% in my class first term.  I mean, literally he earned that.  I think he turned in one assignment, and even that was incomplete.  Each term his grade got progressively higher, but he never earned a passing grade.  At the end of the year, he told me he regretted how he had not done any work in my class that year.  He told me that he was 17 and in the 10th grade and that if he did not pass his other classes that year, he would probably just drop out.  He did not pass my class, but with hard work, he did pass his other classes and this year has enough credits to be a senior.  Yes, he is a senior taking Physical Science for the second time, but I know he has learned from his failure, because this year he is in my class again and working hard.  He is not just passing, but passing with C’s and B’s.  And if he works hard in his other classes, too, he will graduate in May.  Hopefully, he will graduate knowing the value of hard work and education.

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UPDATE 5/20/2014

Due to the 50% policy, I have personally witnessed students who simply gave up.  We are worried about students giving up because they earned too low of a grade first term?  How about a student who earned okay grades the first two or three terms and then stopped coming to school the third and fourth term?  Isn’t that also giving up?  This is multiple students of mine.  Sure, they passed.  Although their real 4th term grade was a 25%, they received a 50% and will pass.  But what have they learned?  I stood in the hallway while a students literally told his teacher, “I have an 80% average the first three terms, I don’t need to do work in your class anymore.”

This 50% policy is hurting our students.  They are learning.  But they are not learning the content.  They are not learning to value education.  They are learning how much…or how little… they can get away with.

6 Responses

  1. Veronica

    T, I understand why the 50% policy is in place. The real problems I see with it with it are: 1. It is not fair to the student in that it does not give them a true picture of where they stand and how much harder they work. And 2. It should not have been continued past the first term. By that point if a student has not pulled themself together, they really need that wake up call!
    Also, I cannot speak for other teachers, but I personally am willing to work with students who do poorly in the beginning and then get their act together and show me they are willing to work hard. Last year I had a student do very poorly first two terms and then did well third term. He came to me concerned about his grade and we came to agreement that if he maintained an 80% fourth term I would give him the work he needed to pull his first semester grade up to a 50% so he could pass for year. My main thing is that when we coddle students they don’t learn the lesson of hard work. If they are going to get a 50, they should earn it, even if that means going back and working double as hard fourth term.

  2. Emily

    I was surprised as a beginning teacher when I learned of our district’s policy that students could make up any assignment, at any time, for full credit and that it was the teacher’s responsibility to document multiple home contacts, student acknowledgments, tutoring sessions offered, etc. to students earning a failing grade. I think this policy has both strength and weakness from the perspective of student accountability for education and home-school connection. Nonetheless, a student with less than a 50 percent grade in our district wouldn’t really be in a no-pass position — would just have a lot of make-up work to do depending on the stick-to-it-ness of the teacher. Good for you for holding your students accountable for their learning…it is not easy as a teacher but is in my opinion the best long-range life lesson you can create for students.

  3. T

    I was 100% with you until the 50% minimum policy. I actually do understand the policy, and here is why: let’s say a student does minimal work and receives a 20% for the first semester. The student was going through something, but is now ready and willing to try hard. That student earns an 80% for the next semester. The student still can’t pass the class. However, if the student had a 50% for the first semester, he can pass the class. Also, think of this: if the student gets the 20%, he knows there is not way to raise his grade to passing for the rest of the year. He gives up. However, if the student gets a 50%, he still has a shot. He is less likely to give up.

  4. Meghank

    I really want one of you TFA people on this blog to write a post on sexism in education — how the current culture of blaming teachers can be entirely explained by the fact that most teachers are female. Another TFAer (whose blog doesn’t allow comments like yours does) wrote a post about this same issue but concluded that it’s her fault. No one would even suggest blaming teachers for these things if the majority of teachers were male.

  5. Meghank

    I really want one of you TFA people on this blog to write a post on sexism in education — how the current culture of blaming teachers can be entirely explained by the fact that most teachers are female. Another TFAer (whose blog doesn’t allow comments like yours does) wrote a post about this same issue but concluded that its her fault. No one would even suggest blaming teachers for these things if the majority of teachers were male.

  6. THIS –> “I didn’t fail you, you failed yourself.” Amen because if we truly believe our kids can do great things (which, duh of course they can) then we need to actually ask them to do those things. Thank you for loving your kids / families enough to be honest with them. We need our kids to succeed for themselves, and that happens when they choose not to fail themselves. Just thank you so much for saying so.

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