a failing school is a school that refuses to fail
As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends. Three of us were housemates junior and senior years, and we knew all three of our spouses then too. We’ve stayed in touch—weddings helped for a number of years—and always talked about renting a house one summer, but never did.
In March, we went to the bat mitzvah of the oldest of our (collective) six kids. And realized that if we were going to do this, time was actually not unlimited. So here we are. It’s been a great week. There is something special about seeing your kids playing with the kids of people who knew you when you were young and unformed.
This post is about the recent experience of one of my friends, who I will call Mike because that is not his name. Mike left the practice of law last year to teach in a failing urban school—think “The Wire,” season four. He changed careers because he found law soul-sucking, not because he wanted to save the world, but was pretty comfortable with the prospect of teaching in the inner city. Mike made it four months, until he was fired a week before the school year ended—not because of trouble with the kids, but with the administration. His experience highlights some very particular ways organizations can fail—maybe idiosyncratic, certainly not generalizable, but worth thinking about nonetheless.
Mike was placed in February into a 9th-grade English classroom. The regular teacher had left in November, and the kids had been subjected to a rotation of subs since then. When Mike arrived, there were no instructions, no guidance, no books, no grades, no curriculum. Most of his (non-remedial) class read on a 3rd-grade level. He spent the first week keeping his students occupied while frantically trying to acquire some suitable books, as only a few students could read the 9th-grade textbook he was supplied with. This took many visits to many offices, until he finally found a book about space disasters written at a fourth-grade level. He took it.
There were lots of challenges. Kids didn’t come to class. Sometimes the ones who came infrequently had good reasons, like that they had been evicted and were living on someone’s couch. Only one parent in his class showed up for parent-teacher conferences. Mike suggested to one stronger student that she talk to her mother about applying to a charter school. The student reported back that her mother had nixed the idea. A couple of weeks later the student denied to Mike that she and Mike had ever had a conversation about charter schools.
But it is not surprising that kids in an impoverished community had a lot of challenges, or that school might not be the first thing on their minds. What was perhaps sadder, or at least frustrating, was that the school had basically given up.
A year earlier, the school had been taken over by the state as a “failing school.” The superintendent had been replaced, and a state board gained some say over school decisions. But the staff was largely the same, and Mike couldn’t see that it had made much difference.
The primary goal of the school seemed to be warehousing—keeping enough kids enrolled and not failing, so that it could maintain funding. The school went to extraordinary, unethical lengths to do this.
For example, state rules said a student who missed 18 days of homeroom would automatically fail all her classes. Too many students were failing because of homeroom absences. So the school placed homeroom after first period. This reduced the number of students missing 18 days of homeroom, but no one came to first period anymore. The first 40 minutes of the day was effectively thrown away.
Students skipped huge numbers of classes, facilitated by the school. Mike estimated that in his class of 16 (class size was not the problem), a quarter never came. Another quarter came erratically. Often these students were at the school, but not in class. Lots of kids came to homeroom then wandered the halls all day with their friends. Security guards told the kids to move along, but no one made them return to class.
The school was entirely focused on preventing failure—in the assigning an “F” sense. Before the state took over, the school had a rule. For assignments that were not turned in, or tests not taken, teachers were told to give a score of 50, so that students would have a chance to pull their grade up. The state takeover ended that rule, but the commitment to not giving Fs remained. Teachers were told that if they gave an F, it meant not that the student had failed, but that they had failed the student.
At the end of the year, it was this, finally, that got Mike in trouble. He had given half his students warnings that they were at risk of failing. He expected to fail about a quarter of them. His bar for passing a student was very, very low—he wasn’t going to fail any student who had completed at least one assignment. That’s it. Not “did well on at least one assignment,” or “completed most assignments.” Completed at least one assignment.
It was still too high. A week before the end of classes, Mike was called into the office. Was he planning to fail any students? Yes, he said. What evidence did he have that they should fail the class? Grades, assignments, nonattendance—Mike had plenty of evidence. But had he completed the three bureaucratic steps required before you could fail a student? There had been no indication that there were specific hoops that had to be jumped through. The principal couldn’t point to anywhere these requirements had been written down. But no, Mike had not done these three things.
Over the weekend, Mike received an automated call that his assignment had ended. Another sub was brought for the last week, to give final grades. No one failed the class.
It is hard to know what to do about such a system. From Mike’s point of view, charter schools clearly did better for those who got into them. But they also reinforced the downward spiral at the public high school, and the students stuck in it, as the charter schools took the more motivated and returned the more troubled students. Mike thought that the students who attended his class actually learned something—the classroom experience wasn’t a waste of time. But the school wasn’t willing to uphold any expectations for students.
He came out of the experience both more pro-union—had he had tenure, he couldn’t have been let go for upholding a very modest standard—and less sympathetic to teachers’ complaints about their working conditions. Maybe the job just suits him, but despite the environment he thought it was easier and more enjoyable than being a lawyer, even though he wasn’t in a crazy big-law environment.
Mike will do okay. He’ll likely have a new assignment this month, probably in a better—read “less poor”—school. But for the students he left behind, this is their one shot at high school. Surely they deserve something better than what they’re getting.