Teachers Can’t Hold Students Accountable. It’s Making the Job Miserable.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how America’s teacher pipeline is drying up. According to education researchers, the proportion of college graduates who go into teaching is at a 50-year low. Yes, there are still college graduates and young professionals willing to commit to a challenging career that frequently comes with low pay, but that pool shrinks when you factor in mountainous student debt, declining respect for teachers and the reality that schools are ground zero for the culture wars.

I included a questionnaire at the end of that newsletter, asking teachers and parents what they think has changed about teaching and the perception of the job in their communities. I mostly heard back from teachers, and one of their consistent themes was that they felt they could no longer hold students accountable academically or behaviorally because of pressure from snowplow parents and bad district policies.

The current teachers quoted in this newsletter asked not to go on the record with their full names in order to avoid potential repercussions in their workplaces. A typical response came from Russell, a public high school teacher on the East Coast. He said that when a big chunk of the graduating class “has a 4.0, grades are meaningless,” adding:

Part of the issue is grade inflation. As Chalkbeat reported last year, “Even as students have taken higher-level courses, their G.P.A.s have steadily risen — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009 and 3.11 in 2019.” At the same time, test scores on national exams have dropped or remained unchanged, which suggests that students aren’t actually better prepared in math, English or science than they were 20 years ago. The lack of basic skills has been evident for a while: Many two- and four-year colleges devote significant resources to remedial education.

This overall state of play has become more alarming since 2020, given how far behind schoolchildren are now. What’s not helping? The policies many school districts are adopting that make it nearly impossible for low-performing students to fail — they have a grading floor under them, they know it, and that allows them to game the system.

Several teachers whom I spoke with or who responded to my questionnaire mentioned policies stating that students cannot get lower than a 50 percent on any assignment, even if the work was never done, in some cases. A teacher from Chapel Hill, N.C., who filled in the questionnaire’s “name” field with “No, no, no,” said the 50 percent floor and “NO attendance enforcement” leads to a scenario where “we get students who skip over 100 days, have a 50 percent, complete a couple of assignments to tip over into 59.5 percent and then pass.”

It’s hard to find national data about how widespread this kind of 50 percent rule is (and the experts I spoke with said they didn’t know of anyone who was systematically collecting this information). But policies like this have been adopted by districts from Washington, D.C., to Boise, Idaho. Jay Matthews, The Washington Post’s education columnist, has written about the trend toward easing grading and assignments, calling it “the most divisive educational issue in the country” that we’re not hearing enough about.

When I followed up with Russell, the high school teacher, over the phone, he said of his students, “Even if they plagiarize or cheat on something, well, it’s a 50 percent.” If they get two out of 10 on a quiz, he said, that’s automatically bumped up to a five out of 10. He said grades are no longer tied to attendance, and that grading quarters are merged, so some students “quickly found that if they could have a passing grade in the first one or two quarters, they could just stop coming to school.”

Laura Warren is a middle-school reading specialist who taught in rural Virginia and suburban Massachusetts before she retired in June. In Massachusetts, she said, her school had adopted a 50 percent policy. Over the phone she told me, “I see the good in it because you want a kid to be able to dig themself out of a hole, but then again, you didn’t do an assignment. You didn’t do a whole assignment. And should you be getting a 50 for that?”

Warren also told me that in her relatively affluent Massachusetts district, parents were hyper-focused on grades and frequently pushed back when they weren’t happy, which led to many teachers playing it safe because they didn’t want the agita, including possible escalation to the principal. “Tests could be retaken and assignments perfected. No failing grades. If teachers are conscientious, this creates an enormous amount of work. If teachers are not conscientious, kids are just sliding by,” she wrote in the questionnaire. “Teachers know it and kids know it.”

I reached out to Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s graduate school of education, to ask if people in his line of work know how widespread these policies are, if there has been any large-scale research into whether they really produce any overall benefit, and if there’s any data about student outcomes. In an email, he said that he’s been hearing similar things about how much teachers dislike feeling that they can’t hold kids accountable, and “as is often the case, we don’t have sufficiently detailed and current data to guide us.”

But Dee drew my attention to what he believes is a relevant measure that suggests that standards aren’t being rigorously enforced in the post-2020 universe: High school graduation rates have increased in some districts where chronic absentee rates are sky-high (students are categorized as chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of school).

As he put it:

Indeed, The Los Angeles Times reported in August that the school district’s chronic absentee rate doubled to just over 40 percent in 2021-2022.

When you compare Dee’s research on the increased levels of chronic absenteeism in the 2021-2022 school year to the graduation rates in many places, something doesn’t seem to add up. Take the District of Columbia, where the chronic absentee rate jumped 18 percentage points to 48 percent from the 2018-19 to the 2021-22 school year. Over that same period, the high school graduation rate in the district rose to 74.9 percent, from 68.2 percent.

“There is something enigmatic in the contradiction between increased high-school graduation and the many indicators that our students are struggling to re-engage in school. One candidate explanation involves the claims of shifting, post-pandemic norms around grade inflation, classroom discipline and academic standards,” Dee said.

Just passing students on without ensuring that they’ve learned what they need to learn is obviously not just demoralizing for teachers, but potentially has devastating consequences for our society. A Georgia middle-school teacher recently went viral on TikTok for discussing the stakes of this lack of accountability for kids. “I teach seventh grade. They are still performing on the fourth-grade level,” he says in the video. “I can probably count on one hand how many kids are actually performing on their grade level.” He feels that no one is talking about it and that parents lack awareness, and says no matter how many zeros he puts in the grade book, the children will be passed along to eighth grade.

I talked to him over the phone. He’s relatively new on the job, and he told me that every day he deals with a class of about 30 students, among whom there is a wide range of ability levels. He pointed to a number of things that are hampering his ability to get through to his students, including struggles with literacy — noting that if kids can’t read well, they won’t be able to read the word problems in the math lessons he’s trying to teach.

I asked if he had expected his video to get such a strong response — it has over four million views and countless replies from other teachers who empathize. He said he didn’t expect it, but he’s glad to have advanced the conversation, and hopes to get more people interested in big picture fixes, not just finger-pointing. “This is something that is affecting our future because these are supposed to be our future leaders,” he said. “These are our babies, these are our children. Why would we not want to put them in a position to succeed? Why would we not want to put them in a position to put their best foot forward? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

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