Why Johnny Can't Fail

How the "floating standard" has destroyed public education

I confess. I am a grade-inflating teacher guilty of "social promotion." I have given passing grades to students who failed all of their tests, to students who refused to read their assignments, to students who were absent as often as not, to students who were not even functionally literate. I have turned a blind eye to cheating and outright plagiarism and have given A's and B's to students whose performance was at best mediocre. Like others of my ilk, I have sent students to higher grades, to higher education, and to the workplace unprepared for the demands that would be made of them.

I am, in short, a servant of the force that thwarts nearly every effort to reform American education. I am a servant of the floating standard.

It does not matter what changes we make in curricula. The floating standard shields the status quo and guarantees the reign of mediocrity. If standards are set high but students lack the skills or motivation to meet them, the standards will inevitably drop. If many students in a given class take part-time jobs, homework will be reduced. If drugs sweep through a school, lower standards will compensate for the lack of mental clarity. Americans want quality education, but when lower grades and higher failure rates reach their own children's classes, they rebel and schools relent. Americans hate public education because standards are low but love their local schools because their children perform so well there.

Schools have their own reasons to play along. Flexible standards mean fewer complaints. When parents are happy, there are fewer lawsuits; when students are happy, there are fewer discipline problems. What's more, schools that fail students who have not met the stated standards have the expensive and unpopular obligation to retain them.

In the short term, floating standards make everybody a winner. Students build self-esteem, parents gain peace of mind, and schools save money. When the payback comes, time and distance keep the student and the school well separated. Teachers who are willing to drop standards, especially those who manage to do so while boasting of raising them, win the enthusiastic support of students, parents, and administrators, while those who genuinely attempt to challenge their charges are harassed, proselytized, or purged.

The Initiation

I was introduced to the floating standard in 1979, while teaching for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on a reservation in western South Dakota. My predecessor had been forced to resign after failing nearly half his students. In his absence, the failing grades were changed and his students were promoted to the next grade. His former students and peers considered him a capable, if imprudent, instructor. It was because of him that my students were willing and able to read grade-appropriate novels, a rarity at BIA schools.

Even though I knew my predecessor's fate, I gave some failing grades for the first grading period. After a few warnings, however, I fell into line. There was no point in doing otherwise. The students already knew that failing grades would mysteriously change over the summer and that they would advance to the next grade. I opted for self-preservation.

A few years later I moved to Texas' lower Rio Grande Valley. Since I was now an experienced teacher and was reasonably fluent in Spanish, I felt that my position would be stronger than it had been at my former school. Besides, at my interview my future principal spoke movingly about the need to push our students to their limits. In the first grading period I boldly flunked a number of students, including the daughter of an administrator of a local elementary school and a star fullback who was also the nephew of a school board member.

Shortly thereafter I was called in to meet with my principal and the aggrieved parents. Such was my naiveté that I actually bothered to bring evidence. I showed the elementary administrator her daughter's plagiarized book report and the book from which it had been copied, and I showed the fullback's father homework bearing his son's name but written in another person's handwriting. The parents offered weak apologies but maintained that I had not treated their children fairly.

My principal suddenly discovered a number of problems with my teaching. For the next few weeks he was in my class almost daily. Every spitball, every chattering student, every bit of graffiti was noted. When there were discipline problems, my superiors sided with the offending students. Teaching became impossible.

So I learned to turn a blind eye to cheating and plagiarism and to give students, especially athletes, extra credit for everything from reading orally in class to remembering to bring their pencils. In this way, I gained the cooperation of my students and the respect and support of my superiors. I gritted my teeth, toughed out the year, and sought employment elsewhere.

It wasn't until after my fifth year of teaching that I finally gave up and accepted that my only choices were either to accept the floating standard or to abandon public education. That year my assignment was to teach beginning English as a Second Language (ESL I) and Plan III (low-group) language arts. My principal was particularly adamant about having all the students pass. After issuing the first round of grades, I found myself in his office more often than my worst-behaved students. He informed me that, since our school offered "ability grouping," there was no reason for any student to fail.

He recommended a few grading techniques to help me help my students pass. All ESL students were to receive passing grades. We could promote even those who failed to learn English to the next grade without promoting them out of ESL I. In language arts, no test was to be graded below "50," even one that was turned in blank. Daily assignments were to be graded according to the number of questions answered, even if all of the answers were wrong. If eight of 10 questions were answered, the grade was to be "80," regardless of the quality of the answers. Those who still were failing at the end of the grading period were to be offered the opportunity to do reports or projects for extra credit. My neighbor, another low-group teacher who was held up to me as a mentor, boasted that he left the week's spelling words on the blackboard during spelling tests and recommended that I do the same.

I pulled in my horns too late to save myself that year. When I sent students to the office for discipline, the referral forms were placed in my file as evidence that I could not handle my classes. Failing grades were taken as proof that I was not motivating my students. Even chronic truants and habitual drug abusers would presumably have been passing had I been doing a better job of teaching. Besides, my neighbor had the same sort of students as I, and their grades were fine.

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