Why Tough Teachers Often Have a Tough Time – part 1

Private schools can be the hardest places for tough teachers. I know of a teacher, lets call him Mr. White, who taught science and math at a religious private school (that will go unnamed to protect the reputation of the school – this is a true story). He came to the school worn down by some of the typical trials of a public school (unmotivated students, regular behavior disruptions, etc.), expecting things to be different. And they were. With involved parents (most of them) in mostly stable family situations, the students were much more respectful and studious than those in the public school from which he came.

He also expected that these students would achieve more academically, be more diligent and embrace a higher level of rigor. A private school, after all, was free from the shackles of AYP (annual yearly progress), which measures a high school’s success by such metrics as graduation rate, which at his public school had led to persistent pressure not to fail students in classes required for graduation. There would be a freedom to evaluate students more honestly by the criteria set by the school, and fewer failures because the parents were directly paying for the education.

Some of these expectations turned out to be wrong. While the private school students did, on average, work harder, and while fewer failed, there was even more scrutiny of the grades, but by parents more than administrators, and more complaining by the students. The scrutiny was not focused on failures but whether the children were making As and Bs. Cs, and sometimes even Bs, were regarded as unacceptable grades by many, and teachers often had to defend these marks to parents in the presence of administrators. The complaining was not only about the grades, but also about methods of instruction. “She’s not teaching us!” was the common refrain. They said this because the teacher was employing novel, pedagogically sound methods when the students were used to being spoonfed facts which they would then regurgitate on tests. By the middle of the year, the exhausted teacher was spending hours each week in parent-teacher conferences and in consultations with administration.

Mr.White drew inspiration, though, from the many students that were flourishing because they were responding to the challenges set before them with a persevering attitude. These students quietly brought Cs up to Bs and Bs up to As, and were building confidence in their ability to master difficult subjects. Meanwhile, he was struggling with her 2nd year advanced chemistry students who could not master higher level chemistry because their foundation was so weak. These were among the top students and had earned As in first year chemistry under the previous teacher. He was confident that the students earning As in her first year course were acquiring a much stronger foundation.

This proved to be the case the following year. In spite of the trouble with parent and student complaints, Mr. White returned for a 2nd year, enjoying strong support from the principal. Her advanced, 2nd year students were far more capable, and he was excited to build on this foundation with them so that they could earn college credit for Chemistry (last year’s advanced students earned no credit). Unfortunately, midway through the year, he was fired, even though he was under contract (private schools have more freedom to do that). The reasons were not made plain to him, except that students continued to complain (though not the advanced chemistry students) and certain, influential parents wanted him gone. The decision had nothing to do with the demonstrable academic results her students were achieving. On the Monday after Thanksgiving break, he was told to move his things by the next day; he would not be allowed to finish the year.

Private schools, especially newer ones that are not well established and therefore are not financially secure, can become hostile places for tough, demanding teachers to work for the simple reasons that grades are influenced by money. Administrators are anxious to lose students because of the resulting loss of revenues, so there is financial pressure to give students the grades they and their parents expect. So the relationship is not direct, e.g. parents paying more for their students to get better grades, but the possibility for administrator’s judgment of teachers to become biased by dollar signs is very real.

This story raises the question: are public schools different from private schools concerning the impact of money on grades? Theoretically, they should be free from such influence because parents are not paying directly for the education. But are there ways that public funding and other factors can corrupt grading and make things difficult for tough teachers in public schools? These are questions I will explore in subsequent posts.

Cheating in Atlanta Schools: Extending our Moral Outrage over Grading Deception – part 1

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote when this scandal first broke in 2011.  Earlier this month, dozens of educators implicated in the report were indicted on a litany of crimes.

This week Georgia governor Nathan Deal released an investigative report into allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools (including both elementary and middle schools).  The “cheaters” in this case, though, were not the children in the building, but the adults:  teachers and administrators who erased students’ wrong answers and penciled in the correct ones.  Altogether, 178 educators across 44 schools were indicted in the report, which described the school system’s culture as one where cheating was encouraged and whistle-blowers punished.  The scandal is all the more stinging since Superintendent Beverly Hall has received national accolades for her success in turning Atlanta’s schools around

Perhaps the most egregious instance of strategic cheating took place at Parks Middle School where the principal (hailed as a “miracle worker”) was held up by Hall as a model leader because of the dramatic increases in test scores under his tenure.  Teachers at the school describe him as being obsessed with numbers to the point of pressuring his subordinates to engage in cheating.  An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on Parks depicts the kind of co-dependent relationship between the principle and Supt. Hall that made the school system culture so conducive to cheating:  “Hall wanted high test scores, Waller produced them, and Hall rewarded and protected him” (Judd, July 6 2011).  This protection took the form of Hall overlooking serious accusations of fraud against the principle and insisting that criticism against him would go nowhere.

The public outcry against APS has been fierce.  Parents are rightly concerned about the quality of their children’s education being compromised and the damage such practices to do children.  Gov. Deal summarizes these moral concerns in the report:  “Students are harmed, parents lose sight of the child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

These concerns should not be limited to such scandalous instances of academic fraud, however.  It is common practice for teachers throughout all grade levels and school systems to manipulate students grades by curving test scores, “rubber stamping” assignments with A’s for just turning work in, not penalizing students for missing work, and giving bogus “extra credit” work that adds points to grades without expecting students to demonstrate achievement.

When I taught science at a metro Atlanta public school I was told  by my immediate supervisor to “curve” final exam grades by taking the square root of their raw score and multiplying it by ten (so, for instance, a score of a 36 would be raised to a 60, a 49 a 70).  There was no justification for this method except that it would cause more students to pass the course.  There were students in my class that had not passed a test all semester, but had a barely passing grade (above a 69) going into the final exam.  In my view, if they performed poorly on the final exam that revealed a serious lack of understanding of the subject and I believed they did not deserve credit for the class.  But as a consequence of this manipulative grading scheme, students who had a 71 average could make a 36 on the final exam and still pass the class (the final exam was already weighted so low as to not have a major impact on their overall grade, another way grades are manipulated to produce higher scores).  Giving students credit for a course in which they did not truly learn so troubled my conscience that I refused to change the grades.  Angry school administrators responded by demanding that the department chair secretly change my grades so that more students would pass.

In case you are wondering if my story is merely an isolated incident of manipulating grades to produce higher marks, there was a grade inflation report released in 2008 under then governor Sonny Purdue that showed enormous disparities between the passing rate of high school courses and the passing rate of corresponding standardized end-of-course tests, which are designed to measure student achievement of curriculum standards:  in most Georgia counties, students were passing the courses at a much higher rate than these exams.  This happens because teachers are often pressured by parents and administrators not to give failing grades to students even if they do not achieve.  Even C’s are discouraged in many educational circles.

This practice of manipulating classroom grades to inflate students report cards is in many ways morally equivalent to what these Atlanta school teachers are guilty of.  The motive is similar:  higher grades make the teacher and the school look good.  The consequences on the families involved are the same:  both students and parents are deceived into thinking that the children are learning more than they actually are.  And both practices waste taxpayer money.  The United States spends more taxpayer money per child than any country in the world yet our educational outcomes have been in decline for decades.

The kind of moral outcry against APS for blatant cheating on standardized tests should be echoed throughout the state (and nation) in response to policies that reward children with grades that deceive them, their parents, and society about what children are really learning.  Sadly, saying that one’s child is an all A/B student means little in this educational climate beyond that they showed up to class, were not disruptive, and did most of their homework.  Our children will typically accomplish as little as our educational system rewards them for.  Is this all we expect from our kids?

Cheating in Atlanta Schools: Extending our Moral Outrage over Grading Deception – part 1

This week Georgia governor Nathan Deal released an investigative report into allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools (including both elementary and middle schools).  The “cheaters” in this case, though, were not the children in the building, but the adults:  teachers and administrators who erased students’ wrong answers and penciled in the correct ones.  Altogether, 178 educators across 44 schools were indicted in the report, which described the school system’s culture as one where cheating was encouraged and whistle-blowers punished.  The scandal is all the more stinging since Superintendent Beverly Hall has received national accolades for her success in turning Atlanta’s schools around

Perhaps the most egregious instance of strategic cheating took place at Parks Middle School where the principal (hailed as a “miracle worker”) was held up by Hall as a model leader because of the dramatic increases in test scores under his tenure.  Teachers at the school describe him as being obsessed with numbers to the point of pressuring his subordinates to engage in cheating.  An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on Parks depicts the kind of co-dependent relationship between the principle and Supt. Hall that made the school system culture so conducive to cheating:  “Hall wanted high test scores, Waller produced them, and Hall rewarded and protected him” (Judd, July 6 2011).  This protection took the form of Hall overlooking serious accusations of fraud against the principle and insisting that criticism against him would go nowhere.

The public outcry against APS has been fierce.  Parents are rightly concerned about the quality of their children’s education being compromised and the damage such practices to do children.  Gov. Deal summarizes these moral concerns in the report:  “Students are harmed, parents lose sight of the child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

These concerns should not be limited to such scandalous instances of academic fraud, however.  It is common practice for teachers throughout all grade levels and school systems to manipulate students grades by curving test scores, “rubber stamping” assignments with A’s for just turning work in, not penalizing students for missing work, and giving bogus “extra credit” work that adds points to grades without expecting students to demonstrate achievement.

When I taught science at a metro Atlanta public school I was told  by my immediate supervisor to “curve” final exam grades by taking the square root of their raw score and multiplying it by ten (so, for instance, a score of a 36 would be raised to a 60, a 49 a 70).  There was no justification for this method except that it would cause more students to pass the course.  There were students in my class that had not passed a test all semester, but had a barely passing grade (above a 69) going into the final exam.  In my view, if they performed poorly on the final exam that revealed a serious lack of understanding of the subject and I believed they did not deserve credit for the class.  But as a consequence of this manipulative grading scheme, students who had a 71 average could make a 36 on the final exam and still pass the class (the final exam was already weighted so low as to not have a major impact on their overall grade, another way grades are manipulated to produce higher scores).  Giving students credit for a course in which they did not truly learn so troubled my conscience that I refused to change the grades.  Angry school administrators responded by demanding that the department chair secretly change my grades so that more students would pass.

In case you are wondering if my story is merely an isolated incident of manipulating grades to produce higher marks, there was a grade inflation report released in 2008 under then governor Sonny Purdue that showed enormous disparities between the passing rate of high school courses and the passing rate of corresponding standardized end-of-course tests, which are designed to measure student achievement of curriculum standards:  in most Georgia counties, students were passing the courses at a much higher rate than these exams.  This happens because teachers are often pressured by parents and administrators not to give failing grades to students even if they do not achieve.  Even C’s are discouraged in many educational circles.

This practice of manipulating classroom grades to inflate students report cards is in many ways morally equivalent to what these Atlanta school teachers are guilty of.  The motive is similar:  higher grades make the teacher and the school look good.  The consequences on the families involved are the same:  both students and parents are deceived into thinking that the children are learning more than they actually are.  And both practices waste taxpayer money.  The United States spends more taxpayer money per child than any country in the world yet our educational outcomes have been in decline for decades.

The kind of moral outcry against APS for blatant cheating on standardized tests should be echoed throughout the state (and nation) in response to policies that reward children with grades that deceive them, their parents, and society about what children are really learning.  Sadly, saying that one’s child is an all A/B student means little in this educational climate beyond that they showed up to class, were not disruptive, and did most of their homework.  Our children will typically accomplish as little as our educational system rewards them for.  Is this all we expect from our kids?

Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 4

One of the consequences of grade inflation in the U.S. is low performance on standardized tests.  When teachers give students easy grades in the classroom they do not prepare students well for standardized tests that are referenced to objective criteria because these high grades leave students with the false impression that they know more than they actually do.  Because of their objectivity, standardized tests are the most frequently used metric for measuring student progress and are thus what education researchers often look at when evaluating the effectiveness of proposed educational reforms.

One such reform that has received much coverage lately is offering students financial incentives for learning.  The cover story of this week’s edition of Time magazine is about new research on this idea (“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” April 8th, 2010).  The study shows that it some situations these financial incentives, such as paying 2nd graders $2 for every book they read, really work.  What “works” is judged according to improvement on standardized test scores versus control groups, i.e. groups of students who do not participate in the incentive program.

My first thought about this article was “so what if it works?”  Just because an educational program increases students’ test scores does not mean that the program should be implemented.  Even though the goal or the end is valuable, the means may not be appropriate.  Inappropriate means have long-term, unintended negative consequences that are not worth the short-term gains. In this case, the long-term adverse consequences may be in the character and mindset of children raised with such incentives.

Making good choices only in response to external incentives is a mark of immature character.  Many of my high school students (who are soon to be adults) will not do their homework unless they know it will be collected and graded.  I typically do not collect every single homework assignment and do not announce when I will collect it.  I constantly urge my students to do their homework not because they will get a bad grade if they do not, but because their homework is necessary to their learning.  I want them to make simple causal links between doing their homework, learning the curriculum, and making a good grade in the course.  When they complain about not getting a grade for something, I have at times shared with them about using stickers with my young children as rewards for going to the restroom while we were potty training. I ask them if their parents still give them rewards for using the bathroom on their own.   Then I ask rhetorically why then do they use the bathroom.  I want them to see that they do not need a reward for using the bathroom because they have learned that doing so is in their best interest (and the interest of the people they live with – the common good!).  In the same way they should be motivated to do their homework: not for an immediate reward because it is in their and their family’s best interest to learn as much as they can.

Learning what behaviors are in one’s long-term self-interest and in harmony with the common good, and developing the self-discipline to practice these behaviors, is an essential aspect of growing in virtue, which is “the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong” (wordnetweb.princeton.edu).  In biblical terms, virtue is being conformed into the likeness of Christ, so that our lives are increasingly lived according to God’s standards of righteousness.  A virtuous person’s heart is trained to do what is right, and shun what is wrong, for righteousness sake, even if doing so results not in pleasurable rewards but in suffering.

One of the major deficiencies in public education is the absence of any kind of coherent, stable view of morality by which to teach students virtue.  Consequently, schools must rely solely on systems of punishments and rewards to control student behavior.  Sadly, with the decline of the family in our culture, the teaching of virtue is absent from many homes.  I believe it is the decline of the family that is the heart of the problem with education in the U.S.  In my next education post I will expound this claim.

Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 3

Example of High School Graduation Test Results

I heard a story in the news in the last year or so about California’s swelling prison population and the enormous strain a mammoth penal system places on a state budget that is perennially in crisis.  One of the major causes of this problem is the number of arrests due to minor drug possession and trafficking charges.  These arrests have increased, one report claimed, because the number of arrests in a year is one of the primary metrics used to evaluate the performance of police departments and officers.  An unintended negative consequence of this metric has been to decrease the number of officers committed to detective work in more serious cases such as murder and rape, a path that results in fewer arrests because of the time required for such investigations.  This trend, as well as other social trends like grade inflation, I believe, is a result of the pragmatism that has come to dominate the American mind.

Pragmatism is a philosophy of life that judges the truth or goodness of a belief or action based on how well it works, or in other words, “The end justifies the means.”  If an action produces a desirable result, then the action is good; if it fails to produce the desired result, it is not good.  This preoccupation with results necessitates methods to quantify them so that the effect of actions can be measured, tracked, and compared.  These numerical results then become the primary criteria for the evaluation of individuals, organizations, and institutions.

In the case of law enforcement, pragmatism does not judge a police department by how well it promotes good and punishes evil, or according any principles of justice and the rule of law, but by quantifiable criteria like the number of arrests.  In the case of education, pragmatism does not judge a school by the soundness of its teaching practices or the integrity of its grades, but by percentages (grades, graduation rates, etc.).  The problem with pragmatism is that it is arrogant. It pridefully assumes that we can know all the causal links between human actions and consequences, and that we can manipulate outcomes to our liking.  This thinking fosters a short-term mindset because it cannot accurately judge and demonstrate the long-term consequences of actions.  And short-term thinking tends to be self-centered, focusing on immediate and temporary benefits to the actor.

Short-term, self-centered thinking characteristic of pragmatism underlies the demise of education in America and drives grade inflation in particular.  Much criticism has been rightly leveled against the widespread practice, a corollary of grade inflation, of advancing children to the next grade level who have not demonstrated the requisite knowledge and abilities.  In high school, the parallel focus is the graduation rate, which is a major success criteria under No Child Left Behind.  The administration at the public school where I taught seemed much more concerned about the graduation rate than ensuring that the children were educated  to flourish in 21st century society.  By overlooking and concealing students’ intellectual, academic, and moral deficiencies by inflating grades, schools benefit in the short-term by having higher graduation rates, but at the expense of the long-term good of the student, their family and ultimately society.  It is much more difficult in the short-term to deal with the problems revealed by grades that tell the truth about what students are learning than to pass these problems on for future educators or employers to deal with later.

What is needed in place of short-sighted pragmatism is a principled approach to education based on a time-tested philosophy of education informed by biblical revelation.  My aim in upcoming posts will be to articulate such a philosophy and suggest some implications for educational policy and practice.

Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 2

Grade Inflation Data from 30 colleges from 1968-2001

When I was an engineering student at Georgia Tech, the first question every student wanted to know after a test was graded was “What was the class average?”  The class average was our foremost concern because we knew that the average determined the “curve” – the upward adjustment that would be given to our test score based on this average.  If the class average was a 35 (which sadly was not uncommon), you knew you were alright if you made a 55 because the average would be adjusted, to say a 65 (which was a D at the time), giving you a solid 85 score.  If you were below the class average, though, you knew you were in trouble because that meant an F.  In spite of this practice, failure always seemed like an immanent possibility, and students often “flunked out” of Georgia Tech. I’m sure the class average is still a common obsession at Georgia Tech and among college students throughout the country.

Now as a teacher I realize that when the majority of your students to poorly on a test you should reexamine the test and your teaching strategy carefully to make sure the all the test questions were fair and thus consistent with the curriculum you taught.  Sometimes adjustments to the “raw scores” should be made for the sake of fairness.  But it is highly problematic when test scores are regularly adjusted for the sole reason of bringing scores up so that the grade distribution looks healthier.

This approach to grading in which student learning is evaluated, and grades given, relative to the performance of their peers  is called “norm-referenced assessment.”  I see a number of problems with such assessments.  First, they do not accurately communicate to the student and to “stakeholders” (parents, prospective employers, future educational institutions) what the student actually has learned and is able to do.  The grade only shows that the person performed better than his peers.  Second, the meaning of grades changes over time, typically in a downward direction.  For example, what if students who took Chemistry at Georgia Tech in 1995 learned more chemistry and made a 65 average on the final exam, which the professor adjusted to a 70.  In 2010, the chemistry students at Tech learned less chemistry and made a 50 average on the final exam, which was also adjusted to a 70.  In this scenario the student who made a 70 in 2010 knows less Chemistry than the student who made a 70 in 1995 because there is no fixed reference point by which to interpret these grades: they both made a 70 because they were no better or worse than their peers in that particular year.

The widespread practice of norm-reference grading has put our society in a situation where grades cannot be trusted because their meaning is ambiguous.  I have heard administrators say that colleges hardly consider GPA anymore as a meaningful criterion for admission and that they even have little regard for performance in “honors” courses.  This is why I relate grade inflation to the ethical problem of lying or, using biblical terminology, “bearing false witness against your neighbor.”  Grades are a witness or a public, official testimony to others about what a person has accomplished education.  When grades to not convey this accurately, their testimony is false and thus the grades lie.  So accuracy in grading really is an ethical matter, and not just when it comes to being upright in the administration of standardized tests.

Part of the solution to this problem lies in the practice of “criteria-referenced assessment” in which student learning is evaluated with reference to pre-specified criteria or standards.  The push for “Standards-based” classrooms is, fortunately, common in education these days, but it is uncommon to find it consistently and rigorously practiced.  It is tempting to not uphold standards when grading when it is in a teacher’s self-interest for the grades to have “pretty” grade distributions.

A professor at Georgia Tech of over 25 years, when I was in graduate school, once confided in me that “we just do not fail students anymore.”  I asked why.  He explained, “It is just too much trouble for us to fail students; it is much easier for us just to pass them.”  That same year another veteran professor told me that the new graduate students in chemical engineering had a very weak understanding of the fundamentals of the discipline.  He related this situation to an observation that his colleagues give more A’s and B’s on undergraduate tests than they used to because they did not want to have to deal with struggling students and wanted to be left alone.  Unfortunately, it was not in their self-interest that their students were actually learning chemical engineering.

Bearing False Witness in Education: the Problem with Grade Inflation – part 1

If you live in Georgia like I do, you have probably heard of the statewide cheating scandal in the public schools.  The controversy centers on allegations that administrators and/or teachers in many different schools (10% of Georgia’s public elementary and middle schools are being investigated – 69% in the city of Atlanta) changed students’ answer choices on a standardized test known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). This test is used to help determine whether schools satisfy federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind act.  The evidence for cheating is a statistically abnormal number of erasure marks to correct wrong answers on students’ answer sheets.  Schools under investigation had 25% or more of their classrooms with suspicious erasures.

Such egregious manipulation of students’ grades gains major attention from politicians and the media because of the high-stakes nature of these tests.  Yet perhaps more pervasive, and more damaging, is the inflation of classroom grades that teachers engage in without anyone looking, knowing, and asking questions.  I define “grade inflation” simply as a trend in education for standards to be lowered and grades to reflect more than what students have actually achieved.  In 2009, a study commissioned by the state of Georgia was released that showed major inconsistencies between high school students’ standardized End-of-Course Test (EOCT) scores and their course grades:  in many counties the failure rate on the EOCTs was much higher than the failure rates in the course.  These findings imply that the grades assigned by the teacher in the classroom were not based on students’ achievement of the state curriculum standards, which the EOCTs measure.

As a teacher who has faced pressure to “cook the books,” I have reflected on the social, political and cultural conditions that promote grade inflation and understand well some of the causes.  Fundamentally, apart from any external pressure, it is more difficult for a teacher to teach and evaluate students according to higher standards than according to lower standards.  Simply put, the more you demand of students the more they, and their parents, demand of you: more requests for help, more parent conferences, more complaints, etc.  Teaching complex, difficult concepts and problem-solving strategies also requires more work in designing instruction and grading student work.  Most people in any occupation would rather make their work easier than harder and take the “path of least resistance,” so I would argue that without a strong commitment to high academic standards and a deep ethical conviction to uphold academic integrity, the de facto mode of teachers is to lower standards and thus “inflate” grades.

This natural tendency to lower standards implies that teachers need external support from administrators, politicians, and parents to maintain high standards.  However, what teachers typically face is the contrary – pressure to lower the standards.  This pressure has a political source and a cultural source.  The political source is the expectation by the federal government that schools satisfy Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements.  The metrics for AYP include graduation rates, attendance, standardized test scores, etc.  Not meeting AYP can result in public humiliation for the school, reduction in funding for the school, and job loss for administrators.  The cultural source is the emphasis on the primacy of students’ self-esteem, which basically means that we do not want children to feel bad about themselves by exposing their deficiencies and lack of achievement through their grades.  To build-up their self-esteem, teachers give students higher grades than their performance deserves.

I could write volumes about this topic but I am going to make myself stop for now.  In the future I will write more about the spiritual and ethical problems related to grade inflation and share my ideas of how to combat this trend.