It is a scenario that I just don’t want to believe because it affirms my (our!) worst impressions of public education for the poor in America. This post has everything you would expect from a massively flawed and inertial monolith: a system failed, a bureaucracy corrupted, teachers subverted, and young people disserved. It has all the makings of a tragedy for students, teachers, and the public education system as a whole.
Let me begin with a disclaimer that the information in this post comes from just a few sources and that it may not represent a complete or balanced picture of what is happening. Nonetheless, the flagrant abuses that I describe provide, at a minimum, a glaring illustration of the massive problems that stand in the way of meaningful reform of public education for the poor. Also, except for one key player, I have kept all other parties anonymous to protect the innocent (and, unfortunately, also protect those who may be guilty).
Let me introduce you to Leonard Isenberg, a veteran teacher of 23 years who possesses not only a master’s degree in Education and a teaching certificate, but also a law degree. After a career in the motion-picture and real estate industries, he gave up the income and trappings of success to pursue a career in teaching, first as a university professor and, for the last 15 years, as a teacher in Los Angeles-area high schools that serve disadvantaged children. Sounds like one of those unsung heroes of public education to me.
Here’s where the tragedy begins. In the fall of 2009, Mr. Isenberg filed a formal complaint with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) challenging the validity of high school diplomas that students at the high school at which he taught received the previous June based on his review of students’ Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) reading test scores. The STAR is a state-wide, computer-based assessment given by teachers several times during the school year, the purpose of which is to evaluate students’ initial reading level upon entry into class and their progress through the school year. Mr. Isenberg found that almost 50% of the graduates who had STAR scores on record were reading at an elementary school level, with some as low as 2nd grade proficiency. The response from the high school’s and LAUSD’s administrations was uniform: students just blew off the test because they were already guaranteed their diploma. One LAUSD official formally determined that Mr. Isenberg’s allegations were without merit without ever interviewing him or reviewing the evidence he had collected. By the way, having this particular official, who is just two steps removed from teachers in the same school district food chain, investigate Mr. Isenberg’s allegations is like asking the fox to investigate who stole the hens from the chicken coop.
Though the “blew it off” explanation is, I suppose, possible, it hardly seems probable. If students didn’t take the test seriously, what is the point of giving it at all? As this test is a statewide requirement and is used in evaluating the quality of the schools, wouldn’t this same problem have arisen throughout the state and wouldn’t alarms have gone off if the problem was truly endemic? Additionally, the STAR, which takes only ten minutes to complete, is administered individually by teachers on the teacher’s computer, so “blowing it off” would seem difficult.
The tragedy of this episode is that it is just one of several injustices suffered by poor students that not only ignore the mission of public education, but also leave students thoroughly unprepared for future academic and job success. As I researched this post, I learned of several other practices that are so absurd as to be laughable if they weren’t so appalling.
One practice that is used in LAUSD schools and many other urban and minority school districts is “social promotion,” which involves promoting students to the next grade even though they haven’t met the mandated standards to warrant advancement. The argument is that the alternative, “grade retention,” requiring students to repeat a grade until they meet the standards, inhibits their social-emotional development, hurts their self-esteem, and, as the data indicate, actually increases their chances of dropping out of school. But what is the message that students get from social promotion? How about that there is no incentive to learn. To be fair, the research on this issue indicates that neither social promotion nor grade retention is effective, so the reality is that there is no good option. But social promotion is certainly the most expedient way for schools to deal with difficult students.
A second practice involves teachers doing students’ work for them just so students can pass the class and progress through the education system. In my investigations, I uncovered admissions by teachers and students alike attesting to the frequency of this practice. In a Bizarro world, this practice would be win-win; students get a diploma and teachers keep their jobs. In the real world, it is a lose-lose; students fail to receive a quality education and unethical or threatened (by the school and district administrators) teachers are not fired.
A third practice is grade inflation, in which teachers lower the grading curve, for example, changing a grade of C from 70% to 50% correct, so more students get a passing grade. The implications of grade inflation are obvious in an underperforming school where both the administrators and the teachers want to keep their school open and their jobs intact. Grade fraud, in which teachers simply give passing grades to failing students (often under pressure from school administrators) is also common.
A final practice is one that I can only suggest is happening because there is no hard evidence. Mr. Isenberg told me that, as a proctor for Periodic Assessments (state-mandated subject tests administered several times per school year), he was given the answers and detailed explanations of the questions as part of the testing materials. Why would the school administration give the answers to the proctors when their responsibilities are limited to handing out, monitoring, and collecting the tests, which are then scored by others electronically? Sounds pretty fishy to me.
What seems to be the over-all goals of these practices? To fill as many seats in school as possible for as long as possible, thereby ensuring maximum state funding and job security for administrators and teachers. To push disadvantaged and difficult students through school as effortlessly as possible, thus making life easier for everyone involved except, of course, the students when they have to dive into the sea of adulthood without knowing how to swim or in possession of a life preserver. To give these students a high-school diploma regardless of whether they actually earned it, allowing schools to maintain the appearance of educating young people while, in reality, utterly failing at that mission.
And what is the result of these astonishing practices? I’m going to assume that these five practices are not specific to LAUSD, but rather an inbred part of public education for the poor throughout America. If my assumption is correct, the result is a tragedy of national proportion in which a large segment of our student population that already faces daunting challenges falls victim to an education system that is, at best, dysfunctional and, at worst, corrupt.