Teachers cite intense push to promote
Many say pressure continued from their principals despite an Ackerman e-mail.
The pressure to pass students - even those who rarely go to class or can't read - is pervasive in the Philadelphia School District, teachers around the city say.
The push comes in memos, in meetings, and in talks about failure rates that are too high, the teachers say. It comes through mountains of paperwork and justification for failing any student. It comes in ways subtle and overt, according to more than a dozen teachers from nine of the city's 62 high schools.
"We have to give fake grades," said a teacher at Mastbaum High in Kensington. "The pressure is very real."
A teacher at University City High described getting pressure from the school's administrators to pass a student who had 89 absences over a half-year.
Social promotion - moving along students with their same-age classmates whether they deserve it or not - has plagued the district for decades despite efforts to stop it.
The reasons for its persistence are unclear, but teachers suggest that the push to pass is especially great now because of increased scrutiny from Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Schools are now judged on many criteria, including the number of students who pass.
The Inquirer interviewed 15 teachers who spoke on condition that their names not be reported for fear of reprisal.
Since The Inquirer first reported June 7 on alleged pressure to pass at South Philadelphia High School, Ackerman has disavowed the practice and ordered an investigation into the complaints.
Teachers from around the city have now come forward to say pressure to pass students is prevalent at their schools, too.
The teachers say the pressure continued from their principals despite an e-mail Monday from Ackerman directing them to report the grades students earned. High school grades were due that week, and school ends Tuesday.
Teachers also blasted a district policy that requires them to give every student at least a 50 even if he or she didn't attend class or do the work. At some schools, teachers said, the minimum grade is 60. Passing is 65.
Late Friday, Ackerman issued a statement abolishing the 50 minimum starting in the fall for all 167,000 students, saying it conflicted with her "long-held philosophy."
Jerry Jordan, president of the teachers' union, condemned the push to pass, saying it undermined his teachers' professionalism.
But the practice is prevalent throughout the system, he said. "Absolutely. No doubt. At every level."
Jordan also said the union could push only for contract language protecting teachers from pressure.
Michael Silverman, a regional superintendent who oversees the neighborhood high schools, acknowledged that the district had asked principals to do more to prevent failures this year.
Teachers might interpret the new controls differently, but they should not, he said.
Principals now track the percentage of students failing courses so they can offer adequate supports, he said. A failure in a major subject could trigger a student's failing the grade.
Ackerman declined to be interviewed for this article, directing questions to Silverman.
"The goal of none of this is intimidation or to inflate grades," Silverman said. "It's really to look at the instructional practices necessary for our kids to be successful."
He would not say whether teachers had complained to his office, but vowed to investigate if they do and to discipline anyone who pressures teachers to pass students.
A University City teacher provided The Inquirer with a March 27 memo from principal Anthony Irvin that decried the 46 percent of students who were failing one or more classes.
"This statistic is unacceptable, particularly since this is a reflection of the delivery and quality of our core or elective subject offerings," Irvin wrote of the 1,350-student school. "It is essential that every staff member immediately address this issue."
He and other principals were all contacted for this article but declined to comment.
Two teachers at Gratz High School in North Philadelphia said principal Vera White required teachers to submit lists of students in danger of failing, then told some teachers their "numbers are too high."
A teacher quoted White as saying, "This is not from me. This is from the superintendent's office." The teacher ultimately passed seven students who earned F's, the teacher said.
Michael Lerner, head of the district's principals' union, said his members had not told him of any directives that they pass students.
But "many principals today feel terribly micromanaged," he said. "Principals are walking a tightrope right now. They feel like any mistake they make is going to be held against them."
Several teachers said pressure to pass was particularly acute in the neighborhood high schools, which often lag state standards and have higher-than-average dropout rates.
"The thing is, we're not asked to educate our kids. We're asked to pass them," the Gratz teacher said.
At Olney West, a teacher said she had received warning calls after failing students.
"I'll get a phone call saying, 'Are you sure he earned a 58? Are you sure it wasn't a 65?' " the teacher said. "To me, if a student has 80 absences, the question should be, 'Why did they pass?' and not, 'What are you doing so they don't fail?' "
Olney West's principal, Barbara Wells, "let us know our failure rate was too high," the teacher said. "She said, 'We need to do something about that.' "
The teacher, who failed every student who earned an F, said preventing failures at any cost was a way of life at 930-student Olney West.
"When I entered the building, there was an understanding that this is the way things work," the teacher said. "We talk about it, but there's this sense of inevitability."
No lasting remedies
The roots of the practice go deep.
When Constance E. Clayton became superintendent in 1982, she vowed to end a 37-year-old unwritten policy of social promotion.
But despite the district's many attempts to tackle the problem, teachers say, there were no lasting changes.
"Every time a new superintendent comes in, they say, 'We are not going to have social promotion,' " said Lorna Bearn, a veteran reading specialist who retired in 2004 after 30 years with the district. "That lasts about a year."
Clayton, superintendent for 11 years, said she was incredulous when she read in The Inquirer that some teachers were contending that social promotion had been the norm in city schools for 40 years.
"We took definitive action," Clayton said. "We tried to deal with this. . . . Social promotion is untenable.
"This has not been going on for decades," she said Friday, adding that Ackerman should know that her predecessors had worked to stop the practice.
Clayton's new policy called for students in grades first through eighth to pass subject areas before they could pass the grade.
Promoting students who are not competent, she said, shortchanges them, the city, and the nation.
"People said, 'They will be damaged when they don't move forward,' " Clayton recalled. "But then you find ways in which they can succeed. . . . Children do not all learn in the same way or at the same rate."
Her administration brought back summer school. "Instead of leaving children behind," she said, "it gave them an opportunity to catch up."
She said she had no idea when the district moved away from her policies.
Despite Clayton's efforts and those of her successor, David Hornbeck, social promotion was still in practice when Paul Vallas arrived in 2002 from Chicago.
"It was not as ingrained in Philadelphia as it was in Chicago," recalled Vallas, who left Philadelphia in 2007 and now heads the Recovery School District in New Orleans.
He said the threat of being retained in grade helped persuade most students to attend class and complete assignments.
"It raises standards and puts everybody under pressure to work harder," he said, adding that special interventions were needed to help the others.
In addition to implementing new promotion standards, the district under Vallas expanded alternative-learning programs to help older students who were years behind.
"When I came to Philadelphia, we had 3,000 kids who had reached the age of 16 and had not graduated from eighth grade," he said. "You need to provide special avenues for advancement for kids who otherwise would not make it in a traditional environment."
But former teachers said they still were pressured to pass.
"They just stopped using the words social promotion," said one former teacher who taught a variety of subjects during his 36-year career with the district. "No matter what school it was, the administrators would come around in June and say, 'Could you pass this student?' "
Bearn, the former reading specialist, said that during the early 1980s, she had been directed to pass a middle school student who never arrived at school in time to attend her first-period class.
"The vice principal told me to give him extra work, and I was told to pass him," she said. "I'm sure I was not alone."
Current teachers say there has been a subtle but definite shift in recent years. Students used to be responsible for showing up prepared, learning the material, and passing. Now, the teachers say, it's their responsibility to make sure students pass.
"Even with principals who are reasonable and not on a witch-hunt and not calling you on the carpet for everything, it's just the system now," said Lisa Haver, a sixth-grade teacher at Harding Middle School in Frankford. "If you're having too many kids who fail, the question is, 'What are you doing wrong?' "
Failing students are offered an array of ways to pass classes, including summer school, packets of makeup work, and "credit recovery," an abbreviated after-school program.
Teachers also must fill out paperwork for each failing student - a dozen pages, at least - under the district's Comprehensive Student Assistance Program (CSAP), which also requires calls to parents and meetings with other school staff.
Silverman said that while he realized that change was difficult, the new measures were crucial.
"You need to ask, 'What do I as the educator need to change in my classroom to successfully educate kids?' " he said.
But if every effort has been made to give students help and they still fail, Silverman said, then they should receive an F.
At 3,300-student Northeast High, teachers received a memo this spring informing them that they could not fail students who earned a 63 or 64 - a student passes a course with a D at 65 - unless they had an administrator's signature.
If no administrative signature is secured? "You must override the final mark to a 65," read the memo, from principal Linda Carroll and other leaders.
The Gratz teachers said they had to submit lists of failing students before grades went in. At Bartram High in Southwest Philadelphia, teachers were told they needed to fill out separate forms - in addition to CSAP documentation - for each student they planned to fail, a teacher said.
Some teachers said that when a student's grade was 60 or higher, the pressure was most acute to give that student a 65.
A Northeast High teacher reported having three students who should have failed with 63s and 64s, but that was not what their report cards reflected.
"I bumped them up to a 65," the teacher said. "It's not worth the fight. I passed them, and they don't deserve it."
Teachers say students often game the system. For instance, if they receive an 80 for the first two marking periods, they could skip the rest of the year and still squeak by with a D.
"I've had kids who've told me in the fourth marking period, 'Based on my first three marking periods, I don't have to show up at all, and I'll still pass,' " the Gratz teacher said.
It's infuriating, the teacher said.
"It's not that subtle an educational issue that the kids who work should get higher grades than the kids who don't," said the Gratz teacher.
A Strawberry Mansion High teacher also said there was increased pressure in the 540-student school to halt failures at any cost.
Like the other teachers interviewed, the Strawberry Mansion teacher supports giving students who work and are close to passing extra chances. But giving free passes to those who put forth little effort is galling, the teacher said.
"I feel pretty crappy about passing somebody that has only been in my class five or six times," said the teacher, who passed 10 failing students.
The University City teacher failed a handful of seniors, the teacher said, and has heard about it.
"They all had excessive absences. They didn't do work. They blew off the course. I've had several meetings now," the teacher said, "and my grade records have been requested."
When the teacher turned in a list of students failing one marking period, it was suggested that the grades of 59 percent of them be changed. Ultimately, the teacher said, only one student who did not deserve to pass did so.
Students flaunt the ease of passing, a Mastbaum teacher said. "I've had an 11th grader say, 'I can fail your class. I'll go to summer school for a little while and do a little work and pass there.' They get a little piece of the curriculum that gives them the grade, and they're free."
Those ultimately hurt by passing students who don't earn it, the teachers said, are the students, who after years of easy D's might drop out or turn 18 and still struggle to read.
The Mastbaum teacher passed six students who earned failing grades.
"I feel like it's a disservice to pass them when they don't deserve to be passed," the Bartram teacher said. "The kids lose out in the end, and that's the saddest thing."
Passing In Philadelphia
The current grading system in public high schools:
A: 100-90 B: 89-80 C: 79-70 D: 65-70 F: 50-64
(no grades below 50 are accepted)
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has ordered that there be no minimum grades starting next fall. Here are the promotion standards:
Promotion to 10th grade: 5 credits.
Promotion to 11th grade: 11 credits.
Promotion to 12th grade: 17.5 credits, or enough to reach 23.5 by the end of 12th grade.