March 27, 2012 10:27 PM

Ex-teacher on our failing schools

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student's pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student's competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to "grade engineering": the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here's how:

Ÿ They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A's; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don't want to deal with angry parents? Because a student's grade depends largely on his teacher's philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

Ÿ They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher's life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

Ÿ They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students' homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

Ÿ They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may "coach" the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.


Posted in Homeschooling, Public schools | Permalink


"many students have learned to exploit their special ed status"

Mr. Knight apparently does not understand special education rights, responsibilities, and regulations. Being found eligible is a thorough process. The supports, accommodations, and modifications required by the IEP are determined by the IEP Team, not solely by the student or the parent. They are determined based on the impact of the disability in the classroom. His remarks are insensitive to the disability community and demonstrate disdain for the access that students with disabilities are provided in order to have a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Posted by: Lisa G. | March 28, 2012 9:06 AM

This seemed like a reasonable response to what is going on in our schools until it got to the end where he promoted his book based on gaming this same system. In other words, I think the system is rotten clear through, but I am going to make as much profit as I can by teaching students how to exploit it. I checked out his book, and was disgusted by his encouragement of students to only do what it takes to get in to college and get scholarships while avoiding doing any real learning or committing yourself to any volunteer work you do.

Posted by: melissa | March 28, 2012 10:14 PM

WOW. This is a stunning letter. Thank you for posting this.

Posted by: MamaS | March 28, 2012 10:43 PM

My husband has been a science teacher in the public schools for 22 years. In the last 4 years he has experienced more friction due to his high grading standards than all previous years combined. Twenty years ago parents in our community would request that their students be placed in his class because they knew of his high expectations, creative teaching methods, and the overall rich educational environment of his classroom. No More. He is now to be avoided because of these very same traits. He is not an "easy A" and students, parents and administrators all know it. Administration has called him in multiple times over the last 4 years outright commanding him to lower his grading standards. From what we can tell there are two driving forces behind the lowering of standards: 1)Parent complaints and 2)The concern over the harming the student's self-esteem. Neither of which is effective in ensuring the formation of a productive learner, but rather merely self-absorbed whiners. A passing grade now means "some level of understanding"--and that often means a very small level indeed. The public school system is in dire straits.

Posted by: Tari | March 29, 2012 1:05 PM

I would agree that the public school system is in dire straits, however, to suggest that the lower standards are about just parents complaints or concern over self-esteem I think is short sighted. In the end you need to ask why do parents want their kids to have high get into college and for scholarship money seems to me the most likely answer. Parents are trying to get any advantage they can for their child to get into top schools to help them get a leg up in life. In the old days this was done the old fashioned way by having students study harder and those who succeeded got the fruits of their labor. I would further suggest that back in the day those with learning disabilities had to learn to figure out how to succeed or perish without a lot of special accommodations. I would suggest that the rise of these special accommodations has led to other parents increasing their complaints to schools for their child's benefit and the unintended consequence maybe the increase of grade inflation.

Posted by: Diane | March 29, 2012 3:53 PM

Students with learning disabilities do not have access to the curriculum without the accommodations. They have a disability and it is not "fixed" by learning "how to figure out how to succeed or perish without a lot of special accommodations." Through the accommodations, the student learns how to use supports in order to be successful and access the curriculum. No student or parent uses special education as a leg up to compete and succeed. These supports are necessary provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Posted by: Lisa G. | March 30, 2012 9:36 AM

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