Dallas, TX –
The Dallas ISD teachers who challenged their school board to eliminate the district policy of granting failing students a minimum grade of 50 for a term were heroic. I hoped they would succeed, but, in truth, I knew they wouldn't. Texas school districts have too much at stake to kill that policy. The only true beneficiaries of minimum failure grades are school districts who must fulfill the state's accountability criteria to limit failures every year or risk losing some part of their funding.
I came to understand this peculiar policy slowly, first as an education reporter then as a high school English and journalism teacher.
Basically, the minimum 50 policy means no student ever receives a report card grade lower than a 50, regardless of their true classroom performance. This is a little-known element of window dressing in public schools, an artificial and futile way of derailing the inevitable. Under this policy, the only alternative was to give students a grade they didn't earn under the delusion that it might turn them around. In the end it only taught the destructive lesson that you aren't necessarily responsible for your own actions, or inactions, as the case may be.
In all my classroom experience, no student ever benefited from raising his grade to 50 because no student who earned an honest, unmotivated 20, yet received a 50, turned his performance around and passed for the year. Those kids needed something different. Not necessarily harder or easier, just different. And we didn't have it.
The general curriculum in public education is a one-trick pony, a process built to benefit college-bound students. It neglects all the others who, for whatever reason, are not equipped for college. Instead of serving those students - and by extension American society - we've woven a safety net of minimum grades that, at best, just gets students out of the school system.
In the old days, vocational education was the safety net. Students learned a trade or skill, both blue- and white-collar skills, that gave them the capacity to earn a living. The economy and the education system were, to some extent, in sync. But the industrial economy that absorbed many of those students is long gone.
As economic realities changed and desegregation altered the system and our expectations of it, "accountability" became a reform catchphrase. Students were increasingly viewed not as individuals but as social groups in a complex, comparative matrix. District performance became the standard of measure. To show progress, schools began cooking their books. Standards did change despite what administrators told us at the newspapers. Minimum failing grades, fuzzy math, and senseless formulas for figuring dropout rates became state-sanctioned tools to shore up a district's performance.
The artificial 50 is a critical weakness in the school accountability system. The system makes teachers, not students, accountable for learning. All teachers - even weak ones - are able to teach their students something. Not all students, however, are predisposed to learn what they're taught for a whole assortment of social and personal reasons. But the one thing students do learn under the current system is that they are not responsible for either what they learn or how they learn it. That even no effort at all will receive some recognition which, on a grading scale of 100 points, means their complete lack of effort is actually half perfect.
So more power to those DISD teachers pushing to eliminate the artificial 50 as well as all teachers in all districts with the same goal. They may be the last people among us who really have the students' best interests at heart.
Michael Tate is a writer and former teacher from Dallas.
If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.