LAUSD Teacher: I Failed My Kids By Passing Them

As a new school year begins, and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King celebrates the district’s record-breaking 75 percent student graduation rate, I simply have to shake my head. As a teacher at a low-income LAUSD high school, one of the things that shocked me most was the fact that teachers were expected to give students passing grades, whether or not they demonstrated sufficient abilities or completed the assigned work. While I can only speak from my own experience, conversations with other district employees lead me to believe that I'm certainly not alone.  

I didn't become a teacher for the paycheck or the glory. I chose to dedicate what I thought would be my life to working with students -- particularly low-income, under-resourced students -- because I have a deep belief that we all are capable of doing great things, if only we are given the support to fully realize our potential. I wanted to bring the opportunities that abound for privileged students to low-income schools like the one where I decided to teach. I naively thought that as a hard-working, well-intentioned teacher, I would be able to make a real difference not only in students' lives, but also in the system as a whole. I soon realized, however, how deep the issues are that plague LAUSD, and how little control I had as a teacher.  

My first hint of the dysfunction I was to experience came in an early conversation with a curriculum coach, who told me that the best advice he could provide was simply to avoid being noticed by administration. When I asked him how to do that, he told me it was simple: Keep quiet and pass the kids.

He couldn't give me an exact number of fails that would cause me to attract unwanted attention, but through conversation with more veteran teachers, I settled on a passage rate of no less than 75 percent. Dipping below that, I was told, had the potential to get me in serious trouble. (While administration technically has no control over a teacher's grades and is not allowed to threaten them into making changes, principals have at their disposal myriad creative ways to make their teachers' lives miserable -- say, assigning them to teach unpopular classes, giving poor evaluations or, in extreme cases, not renewing the contract of a probationary teacher.)

The problem, of course, is that grading on a curve doesn't really work when there is a simultaneous expectation that only students at or above grade level should pass the class -- especially when the majority of students came into my class far below grade level at the start of the year. There simply wasn't time to help students grow as much as they needed to during the year, but the administration expected that if students had at least shown up to class and attempted work, they would pass. Year after year, rather than closing the achievement gap, the unwritten rules at my school helped to widen it. 

In addition to encouraging teachers to pass students along, the school subscribed to a theory of "multiple opportunities to succeed." This meant that students were allowed to demonstrate their mastery of concepts at any time, and graded not on completion of work at strict intervals, but overall understanding of skills and ideas. While the theory sounded good, its execution was less than perfect. Basically, teachers were required to accept work from students at any time. If a failing student came to me the day before grades were due and asked to make up his or her grade, I had to provide the student with a way to do so. This consistently undermined daily instruction, as students knew they could goof off during class and simply make up the work later. Additionally, students became accustomed to flexible deadlines, leaving them totally unprepared for college and careers in which failure to complete work in a timely manner would have serious consequences.  

The negative results of these low expectations were clearest to me at the end of my first year teaching. I had a few seniors in my 11th grade class, and in order to graduate, they needed to pass. One particular senior had rarely attended class, and completed little work when he did. I wasn't surprised when a week before graduation, he came to me and asked what he could do to pass the class. Though the counselors were aware of his poor attendance and work ethic, they told me that, yes, I needed to provide him with enough work to raise his grade from 17 percent to at least a passing 70 percent. He completed it by working up until 10 minutes before graduation. As I watched him cross the stage, tears ran down my face. I cried not because I was proud, but because I knew that ultimately, in allowing him to pass the class, I had failed him.  

-- The piece was written by an LAUSD high school teacher who recently decided to leave the profession.