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Tough Calls About Graduation

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Now that we're into the second half of May, most schools are leaving standardized testing season behind and moving into graduation season. This is standardly a time for celebration of past accomplishments and anticipation of exciting futures ahead. But in the urban middle schools I taught in, and in many under-resourced schools serving struggling students and families, it can also be a time for agonizing decisions about whom to graduate and whom to retain that seem to admit no good practical or ethical answer. What follows is the first case study I wrote about a dilemma of justice in schools. A work of fiction reflective of dozens of tough calls my colleagues and I faced, I wrote it to facilitate conversation about responsibility, merit, equity, compassion, justice, care, and other values in our everyday work as teachers and school leaders:

On a sweltering afternoon in June, the eighth grade team at Innovation Academy was gathered to make the tough decisions about who actually would graduate the following week. The team's most challenging case was Adahuaris Soto, a mouthy but charming 15 year-old. By any objective measure, Ada had to be retained.  She was reading at a fifth grade level.  She was failing both social studies and science. She had been absent 17 days this spring, meaning she had missed over three weeks of school. Innovation Academy's graduation criteria were clear, and Ada equally clearly did not meet them.

On the other hand, Ada's low achievement obscured some amazing accomplishments. Thanks to working after school every day with Ms. Castro, the English teacher, Ada had made two years' reading growth in a single year, skyrocketing from third to fifth grade level on the May tests. She accomplished this despite having watched her brother die from a gunshot wound on their front porch on Halloween night, and despite being shuttled around the foster system through a series of ever-more dysfunctional homes. The 17 absences? Those were mostly due to housing disruptions, and difficulties navigating new bus routes to school. 

Her grades also could be tweaked. Her 55 average in social studies was low, but possible to increase to a D- with some last-minute extra credit. It was hard to blame her entirely for her failing science grade, which was thanks in part to the science teacher's going on maternity leave; the long-term sub couldn't help Ada make up work she had missed while moving among foster homes. 

On the other hand, Ada also hadn't kept up with her science assignments even when she was in school. The sub had offered to let Ada retake a test she had bombed, and she hadn't done so. "What's the point, Mr. B?" Ada responded when he pressed her. "We both know I ain't gonna do no better the second time round. And, no offense, but it's not like you going to become Mr. Science now, neither." Mr. Beecher couldn't dispute that. Although he had been working twelve-hour days, for less than half the pay of regular teachers and no benefits, he still found teaching science challenging—no small surprise for a French and theater major. He had taken the sub job at Innovation Academy to add some teaching experience to his resume, not because he had any aspiration to become "Mr. Science." 

The teachers knew that Ada had been planning to go to summer school for credit recovery. But budget troubles had led to the district's deciding in April to eliminate summer school for middle school students. This struck many as unfair. On the other hand, other students at risk of failure had taken this as a wake-up call, worked their tails off, and earned final quarter grades that were high enough to give them a passing average for the year. Ada hadn't.

Mr. Beecher shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and finally spoke. "What about the alternative school?  Could Ada go there in the fall and then maybe start high school in the spring?" His voice trailed off as Mr. Rodriguez stared at him.

"Have you ever visited there?" Mr. Rodriguez asked. "It's the express bus on the school to prison pipeline. Adahuaris would get eaten alive there. We care about her, at least, and we want to show her the right way forward. Those teachers? They're lucky if they keep the stabbings under control. Even if she survives, she wouldn't learn anything there."

Ms. Castro concurred. "I didn't spend every day after school with Ada to watch her get fed to the lions.  She has potential. She's a good kid. No way we're sending her to that crazy house."

The principal's voice boomed out over the PA. "Eighth grade teachers, I'm waiting on grade sheets and graduation lists from a number of you. Respect the deadline, please. I expect you to bring them down to the office in the next ten minutes."

Stricken, the eighth grade team looked at one another. What should they do?

I've now used versions of this case with educators, parents, district leaders, masters and doctoral students, and general audiences in a variety of settings. What strikes me is how many different values, relevant pieces of research evidence, and approaches to wise ethical decisionmakingwhat I discussed on Monday as phronesisare generated even by a quite short and even quotidian case. We include a longer version of the case in Dilemmas of Educational Ethics, and the six commentators approach the case from stunningly different angles, ranging from the UN's Declaration on the Rights of the Child to competency-based education to systemic leadership.

I'd be very curious to hear what "Rick Hess Straight Up" readers think about the case. What issues do you think are most salient?  What should the teachers decide in this case? What should they do in the future to prevent more such cases from arising? How does thinking about this case inform other ethical dilemmas in education? I look forward to reading your comments.

--Meira Levinson

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