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When School Practices Go Bad

It's not often that the effects of a collection of controversial issues are on display all at once in one school. But that's the case at Theater Arts Production Company School in New York City ("City Opens Inquiry on Grading Practices at a Top-Scoring Bronx School," New York Times, Jan. 20). Regardless of the outcome of the investigation into how grades were awarded, it is instructive to take a closer look so that other schools can learn from the missteps.

First, the pressure to meet demands for student progress based on course credits earned by students not surprisingly triggered Campbell's Law at TAPCS. The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor. When the school reported that 94 percent of seniors graduated, that figure alone should have raised eyebrows because it was more than 30 points above the citywide average. But when rumors circulated that credit was given for classes TPCS does not even offer, it should have been the last straw.

Second, the failure of the teachers union to protect teachers who lacked tenure from retaliation from the TAPCS administration for speaking out about wrongdoing was appalling. One Advanced Placement calculus teacher caved into demands to pass many students who did not deserve credit. The teacher finally quit after receiving an unsatisfactory rating. But he requested anonymity because he wants to teach in another school. Where was the United Federation of Teachers when there was a legitimate need for its intervention? And why is this whistleblower afraid to reveal his name if UFT is doing its job?

Third, the demand by the principal for stipulated outcomes corrupted the well intentioned mission of the school. The principal ordered that all teachers grade their students in the same way so that a set percentage would receive A's, B's,C's and D's. However, no student was allowed to be given an F, no matter how poor the work. This policy makes a mockery of efforts to establish standards.

Finally, the entire story creates skepticism about claims made by other so-called high-flying schools. Without peer review, it is extremely difficult to know with certainty if these schools, which serve disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged students, are doing as well as they claim. Perhaps they are. But until disinterested parties are permitted to examine the evidence, it is premature to assume that high-flying schools are models.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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