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Can You Read Your Diploma?

January 30, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By MIKE MANNO

Several years ago, while still teaching college, I usually tried to arrange the semester schedule to include at least three tests, and if the subject lent itself to it, a research paper. That should be enough, I reasoned, to evaluate each student’s understanding of the material.
Not wanting to be an overly demanding professor, and since my students were mostly non-traditional and held jobs and supported families, my tests were usually multiple choice and the questions were taken right from the textbook; sometimes I would intersperse the test with a few short answer questions, but by and large, they were designed so that any student who read the textbook could answer them.
Thus students with extensive family or job considerations who could not make all the classes were not seriously disadvantaged.
One of my teaching tools was to go over each test with each class after the tests were corrected. I would start at one corner of the room, ask the student to read question one, give his answer and why. We would usually take an entire class period for that and I found it to be an extremely helpful teaching tool, since every student had the opportunity to challenge the “correct” answer, and, at times, I found a question misleading and would adjust scores accordingly.
At one point I was offered a job teaching a business law class at a local community college. It was first thing in the morning three days a week, and, unlike my “adult” students, this was populated with younger students, most of whom had just graduated from high school within the last year.
Things went smoothly until the first test. We had good classroom discussions; they laughed at my jokes, and many would stay after class with questions. Well, most of them. Many had done well, but a significant number only barely earned a passing grade, and much of that was due to a very lenient curve. I was baffled as to how a number of the students didn’t seem to be catching on.
Then I found out. It came when we were going over the test.
I started at one corner, asked the first student to read the first question so we could discuss the answer. He couldn’t read the question. Oh, he tried and came close to some of the words, but it was clear to me that he could not read at college level and I wondered how he had passed out of high school. And he wasn’t alone; a number of the students — those with the lowest grades — had the same difficulty.
It taught me something that day. While my adult students had, in one way or another, achieved a reading proficiency for college, a significant number of my morning students had not. I considered the matter, came to no earthshaking conclusions, but adjusted the class a bit to help the poorer students catch up and referred some to the reading lab for individual tutoring.
Since that time I’ve visited with numerous other college instructors who had come across the same or similar problems, but we all seemed to find a way to get the students through the rough time and on to a hopefully more successful academic career. So with the foregoing in mind, I was immediately attracted to news reports about the Washington, D.C., schools.
Townhall, The Washington Post, OneNewsNow, and NPR, among others, are all reporting on a continuing scandal gripping the D.C. school district. There, the mayor, chancellor of schools, and other local officials are feigning outrage that District high schools are graduating seniors who are functionally illiterate, unable to read, and have missed up to half their high school classes.
It was only a few months ago that the school system was trumpeting that every one of the seniors at Ballou High School, a notoriously underperforming school, had a 100 percent graduation rate and — get this — every student had been accepted to college. Now, however, the true story is emerging.
NPR reported that half the “graduates” missed more than three months of school and that one out of five students was absent more than present. One teacher quoted said that while students were chronically absent, the gym was always full — of students skipping classes. NPR and WAMU also reported that in April, just two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, yet in June 164 students crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.
The culprit at Ballou, and other schools in the District, seems to be a permissive attitude of school administrators who pressure teachers to provide passing grades to students, regardless of whether or not they are earned, and to ignore school policy that requires teachers to fail students who miss class 30 times; and students missing 15 or more days without an excuse were to be referred to court services for possible truancy.
Last year Ballou only referred 25 seniors to court services and, according to the NPR report, all but 11 of the 164 graduates should have been so referred.
There was also a financial incentive for teachers to cooperate with these high jinks. Under district policy, teachers were graded on student evaluation scores and could receive bonuses of between $15,000 and $30,000, according to the NPR report. Additionally, teachers who complained were often given bad performance reviews that led to their termination, and hindered them from finding a new teaching position.
Needless to say, these problems were not limited to Ballou. Townhall reported that “students across the city graduated despite having missed more than 30 days of school in a single course, findings from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent investigation found.”
Of course excuses abound. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, head of the District’s school system, says that schools can’t ignore other things going on in student lives such as family responsibilities, jobs, and the “effects of trauma.”
And D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser was “shocked” that students were given the lesson that they can move on without effort. She told Townhall, “Our biggest responsibility is knowing that showing up half the time doesn’t work anywhere in life. The huge investments we have made in our schools only work if students are sitting in the seats.”
Adding, “I hold the chancellor accountable.”
This is not new in the D.C. system. Less than a decade ago it was found that teachers were caught helping students on standardized tests, since a financial incentive was also available to teachers when students did well on the tests. And more recently, it was reported that the mayor herself had manipulated the school placement lottery, which awards coveted placement in the public schools, so that her deputy mayor, Courtney Snowden, could enroll her child by jumping the waiting list of over 1,000 names.
The bottom line is that this represents more civic corruption that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and is only benefiting a small number of — do we call them cronies? In this case teachers and administrators who will do as they are told, collect their bonuses, and go on with their lives while condemning the next generation to ignorance and illiteracy, much as the public pension planners I wrote about two weeks ago (“Taxation Migration,” January 18) who have cheated both pensioners and taxpayers but have made out well themselves.
As I mentioned before: Voters need to pay attention to these offices. If not, we’ll sadly find that their rosy promises will come with all too many thorns.

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