This excerpt is drawn from “Confessions of a Bad Teacher,” a book published this month by John Owens, a publishing executive who went to graduate school to become a teacher. Hired at Latinate Institute in the Bronx — a barely veiled version of Eximius College Preparatory Academy, where the principal was removed in 2011 for giving students credit for courses they had not taken — Owens quickly confronted many of the challenges and indignities that city teachers can face, including vindictive administrators, unfulfillable edicts, and insufficient resources.
In this excerpt, Owens describes the pressure that he and other teachers were under to prop up students’ grades.
At Latinate, as well as throughout the New York City system, the minimum grade any student could get was 55. The idea is to make failure quite difficult to achieve. So even if a kid spent the test period — or every period — wadding up bits of paper in his mouth and fast-balling them at his peers while muttering the words “F— you!” and handed in an answer sheet that was blank except for his name, his score would be no lower than 55. Failing, but still within striking distance of a passing 65. And pretty much guaranteed to pass if the teacher adhered to [Principal] P’s non-negotiable policy that was imparted at the orientation in August:
We must ensure that every failing mark for each marking period is reversed to a passing mark via make-up work (independent study, packets, etc.) for the students in our advisory groups.
Take, for instance, Africah’s sometime boyfriend, Santiago. He rarely came to class. He never did classwork, homework, or any sort of work, though he often could sit quietly. The lowest grade he could receive on his report card was 55. But if I didn’t ensure that he did make-up work to pass, I wasn’t doing my job.
A failing grade for Santiago could bite me in other ways, too. With report cards coming six times every school year, a half-dozen grades of 55 would fail him for the year. And a few students like Santiago could sink a teacher like me by bringing down the overall passing rate of my class.
Every one of my classes had kids who did nothing. Ms. P assigned several simultaneous ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders such as Shaneblane to even my best ninth-grade classes. The idea was “credit recovery” — giving these kids another (and often another and another) shot at getting credit for a class they had failed previously. Most of these students were determined to do even less work and pay less attention than they had in earlier incarnations of the course, and I found it impossible to engage them in many of my lessons.
To give them something to do — and keep them from disrupting the class — I bought a bunch of word-search books at a dollar store and tore out pages that I gave to the do-nothing kids on a daily basis. This was work they would do. They enjoyed it. And if it exposed them to new words, so much the better. But when the lead teacher saw this, her eyes got wide and she said to never give the kids puzzles or word searches; it’s not academic work.
“But they won’t do anything else…” I cut myself off. “Okay. No more puzzles or word searches.”
Ms. P required that we administer a test at least every other week, and the assistant principal asked that I present one test a week that was in the same format as the state Regents Exam to prepare the students for that. On top of this, I was to put into the SnapGrades online grading system scores for homework, classwork, notebook, and core values (academic excellence, community citizenship, unity of being, reflective living, self-determination, compassion, and integrity). Along with attendance, it worked out to more than 2,000 entries per week … if I kept up with the data input. But I could barely find the time to accurately gather so much data, let alone manually input all of it.
In all, the evaluation system for the kids was a lot like Ms. P’s sixty-six-point teacher evaluation system — there were so many elements and so many variables and so many subjective grades that anything good or bad could be “proven.” And it could be “proven” with the weight of online reporting systems, spreadsheets, and other “data.” The trouble was, some of the kids had no positive data at all. No work, no quizzes, not much of anything except maybe showing up.
“If a child attends class at least twice a week, you should be able to have an impact,” the assistant principal told the teachers at a staff meeting. Ms. P stood nearby, nodding in affirmation with a deep, serious scowl. Nobody said a word. We knew better than to challenge this assertion and suggest it was a delusional fantasy. The administrators would have immediately countered that if a kid who ever came to class was failing, it was still simply because the teacher was ineffective. So at report-card time, I had more than a dozen students with averages at or close to single digits. They were instantly boosted to 55.
But that wasn’t enough. In order for me to be considered an effective teacher, at least 80 percent of my students had to pass. That meant a grade of 65. If less than 80 percent of any class was passing, the city’s Department of Education might see the data as an indication of not only an ineffective teacher, but also of an ineffective school. And with the administration of these small schools so intimately intertwined with the principal’s visionary leadership, it might signal an ineffective principal. Which of course, was a near-impossibility, a virtual oxymoron in the principal-centric system.
At Latinate, any teacher who failed more than 20 percent of a class had to immediately come up with an action plan to remedy the situation by the next marking period. The school’s teacher’s handbook had a couple of pages of suitable action-plan actions:
- Create a chart of missing work on the wall.
- Confer with students, parents, guidance counselors, and other teachers.
- Celebrate student work on the wall; call or email parent whenever a child achieves something notable.
- Pull students out during lunch and tutor.
- Provide parents with a weekly printout of SnapGrades, and request that parents sign the printout or give you a call to confirm receipt.
- Contact parent to come to school after a child misses three homework submissions.
- Provide students with differentiated materials, quizzes, tests, etc.
- Appoint peer tutors.
- Organize after-school study hall with teacher and parent vol- unteers to oversee students completing homework.
- Give students a lot of work so that even if they complete only half of it, there is still a basis for a passing grade.
… And so on. I would have happily set to work on these steps if anyone honestly believed they would get results. These are all reasonable approaches for students who are trying and not quite making it. But for Shaneblane, Santiago, Natasha and her posse, and a dozen others who did nothing? C’mon. It was laughable. Instead, the best action-plan advice I received was from another teacher at Latinate:
“Don’t fail more than 20 percent of the class,” the teacher said. “Do the math.”
“Wow!” I said. “I have never seen any organization where corruption was encouraged at such a low level.”
My colleague just shrugged. I realized I was working in the education equivalent of a Mexican police department—corruption throughout the ranks.
With this advice in mind, in the first marking period, at least 80 percent of all the students in every class I taught passed. And the failures — though many deserved zeros — received no lower than 55. Thanks to six marking periods, even a kid with a couple of 55s could — with a 70 or two thrown in, as well as some creative rounding — pass for the year.
For me, it was a distasteful exercise in statistics. Though I never heard it discussed openly, I’m sure that “do-the-math” grading is a far more standard operating procedure across the public school system. It could be argued that a teacher is simply grading on a curve, and curving the class grades so that 80 percent pass. Unfortunately, that means students who aren’t really being students at all, but merely using the school as a waiting room for either graduation or adulthood, will pass … or it’s the teacher’s fault.
I felt a tinge of that “Run away! Really, run away!” panic as I saw how quickly my mission of helping kids had been transformed into the role of an accomplice in a crazy and corrupt system bent on achieving statistical results, rather than helping students.
The Scholarship Reports prepared on the Department of Education computers showed an impressive amount of data, with passing rates carried to the second decimal point. The idea is that this kind of number-crunching indicates a very effective educational system. And my 81.82 percent pass rate even may have signaled the makings of an effective pedagogue. In fact, soon after the first marking period I received a commendation, a letter from the assistant principal congratulating me for passing enough students to keep the school in the Department of Education’s “safe harbor.” It was the only positive material I can recall that may have made its way to my personnel file.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from SourceBooks, which published “Confessions of a Bad Teacher.”