DCPS fails students when it refuses to fail students

Duval County fails student when it refuses to fail students
I went to summer school twice growing up, once in fourth grade and the other in sixth and both times for math. I just wasn’t that in to it and if I didn’t do it at school it didn’t get done and back then they would fail you for things like bad grades that came of the result of dozens of missed homework assignments. That wouldn’t happen today and not just because fewer and fewer teachers give homework, nope it’s because DCPS has created a near zero tolerance policy for failing students, which ultimately fails students.
We should all understand that one of the goals of education should be not to fail student. Teachers and schools should do all they can to see students develop the skills they need to be successful at the next grade and friends that is what is going on. That being said, despite the best efforts of their teachers, some students may not be ready for promotion at the end of the year (even sadder is we know longer have money for things like summer school) and at this point the district has to options, retain them in an effort to have them get the skills they need or to promote them unprepared. The district seems to have unilaterally decided the second option is the preferred one.  
One teacher told me, “I have a XX student who failed every quarter last year but made enough growth on IReady (a computer program the district is relying on more and more, much to the chagrin of many teachers) that they passed him up. This year he has failed every quarter of XX grade, but will make the growth score again. He has made improvement but he is nowhere near where he needs to be for XX grade, but he will be promoted.
Imagine that a student not ready for the next grade struggles when pushed ahead. Professional educators like the superintendent and her administration should know this is what will happen but that hasn’t stopped them from implementing their pass at all costs plan. All across the district during early release days and during professional development, teachers are being instructed by their principals and district administrators not to fail any students regardless of grades or skills and that if the student doesn’t have the grades they will be administratively promoted.    
Several teachers told me that if they believe a student should be retained because of what they have done in class, they the teacher would have to have both reams of paperwork and then defend the decision to area administrators and perhaps the superintendent herself. Since this is the case, at this point I think we should ask ourselves if the district believes teachers are professionals or not.
I believe they are but when downtown questions every decision they make and overrides many of them despite the fact it is the teacher and not the superintendent or some other administrator who was been working with the child, they have just told that teacher and all the others that they are not professionals. One teacher asked me, when speaking on the condition of anonymity as they all did because they feared retribution, what does it matter what I do all year long if some admin can come in and just summarily override all the work I have put in? The answer is it doesn’t and them doing so diminishes the teaching profession.
Now principals and administrators might argue they aren’t forcing teachers to do anything, Area superintendent Cagle wrote in her memo in all caps that she NEVER told any teacher to change grades, but what choice do teachers on one year contracts that can be let go for any or no reason really have but to comply?
When people complained about tenure, they would pound their fists and say, but it protects bad teachers. The thing is it never did, for you see bad teachers don’t usually last long. No tenure was there to protect the teachers, who questioned and pushed back. The ones who would say, hey passing a student to inflate the districts numbers, or ones who won’t be successful is wrong. Tenure was there for the teachers who said, no, when they were asked to do something they knew they shouldn’t. Well who is going to say no, now? I submit that if a person, a teacher or even a principal knows they can be fired for saying no, even if they know saying no, is the right thing to do, then the chances of them saying no aren’t that great. So maybe the district didn’t tell any particular teacher to change their grades but teacher after teacher told me the implication of them not doing so was loud and clear.   
The district might likewise defend their stance by saying children who are retained are more likely to drop out and face hardships in lives. They might say the evidence says that passing them along actually benefits them.  This reminds me about how algebra 2 was a requirement for graduation for a couple years and because of it a lot of students graduated with certificates of completions rather than diplomas.
Somewhere along the line somebody read that students who take and pass algebra 2 achieve this or that, and because of that every student regardless of ability, desire or aptitude then had to take it. Now this may have been an earnest and sincere attempt to improve student’s futures but it didn’t work out that way for all of them. After hundreds perhaps thousands of students had their futures hindered as they finished school with a certificate of completion rather than a high school diploma, by this seemingly innocent policy choice the state stopped having algebra 2 be a requirement for graduation.
So what’s the point? We can’t make unilateral policy decisions, based on limited data points that have nothing to do with the child. Instead we have to look at what we know about them specifically and make the best decision we can based on it. I.E. we can’t worry that little Johnny might drop out in five years, or little Suzie might live her entire life in the bottom socioeconomic quartile and instead we should worry about them getting the skills they need now.
Furthermore teachers are being encouraged to inflate grades as well. One teacher told me her department was encouraged to give more grade recovery options, so students could raise their grades from Ds and F to Cs and Bs. At first they thought they were being singled out but after talking to peers around the district they found other departments were being encouraged to do the same.   
They said to me, We try hard to safety net our students so they wouldn’t earn poor grades as well as documenting and documenting but is the state of Florida aware that Duval County is bullying teachers everywhere to not grade with integrity, to just pass children on, and to only accept a 3 letter grading scale?


Is Monday the new Wednesday? Is zero dollars in your bank account the new $70? Are level 1’s and 2’s now level 3? Is needs improvement the new highly effective? I think not.
It’s also not just teachers that are having their decisions questioned but parents too. Several teachers told me that they had parents who were in favor of retention and they were likewise being told no.
All this is even more troubling because of what happened in Manatee County while Green was the superintendent there. There the state found that several administers had worked to inflate the graduation rates.
This was reported in the Sarasota Herald,
Diana Greene allegedly withheld information in a report from the Office of the Inspector General that concluded Saunders inflated graduation rates by ordering school administrators to creatively re-categorize students who were dropping out so they would not count against the district. Greene also disregarded the OIG’s recommendation that a copy of the investigation be placed in Saunders’ personnel file.
Is that what we are doing now, “creatively re-categorizing” students and if we do so are we doing it to make the district seem better or are we doing it to actually help the students?
I reached out to the district on three separate occasions to see if perhaps the policy had been misconstrued, to see if something was lost in translation, when I didn’t get a response I went directly to the superintendent and six of the board members and only Elizabeth Anderson, one of two current board members who was a former teacher responded.


“It is my understanding that the district is working to raise awareness of the high number of students being retained. The new directives are an effort to review students who are in danger of failing in order to provide the appropriate supports needed to assist students with being successful in promoting to the next grade level.


As we work to create a culture of meeting students at the individual level, there may be situations where a retention becomes a serious consideration, and we must be certain that all appropriate instructional interventions have been exhausted prior to making this final determination. We must become diligent in creating early warning monitoring systems to safeguard student success.


It is my hope that as our respected teachers and administrators work to identify children at risk of retention, they are able to present these cases to review committees, to share interventions and differentiation strategies, in order to work toward a more comprehensive support system for students, teachers, and leaders. In the past this may have looked like “defending” ones professional competence. It is my belief that this is not the case now.


I am aware that many of our current staff- teachers, administrators, and district personnel, are coming out of an era of isolation, fear, and retribution. As we move forward toward finding new solutions, it may take time to trust that the intentions of new leadership are to identify systemic problems and seek solutions. We must do this together for the good of our children and the future of our communities.”


The next day, May 2nd, some 19 days after I started asking questions the Superintendent sent out an email to her principals that was forwarded to me, that I have included and it’s very reasonable and nuanced and I don’t believe it for a second and in fact it is what happened. In fact it sounded like something that Superintendent Vitti would routinely write when he was questioned. Now Greene did not blame middle management like Vitti would do and instead attempted to justify her decision.


I showed the letter which was not forwarded to the staff, to several teachers, and they stood by their assertions that they were being pressured to change grades and not being treated like professionals.


If we are going to be as successful as we can be, we can’t continue to marginalize teachers and we must treat them like the professionals they are and support them, even if they decide a student, a decision which I am sure they agonize over, should be retained.


Then if our students are going to succeed we need to put them in situations where they can do so, and promoting a student without the skills they need isn’t going to do so. It’s a sad fact but it is a fact that many of our students start school behind and more than a few need more time to master material. Instead of rushing and forcing them through we should meet them where they are at and develop systems to help them.


If we can’t do those two things, the most obvious two things in the world, then we will never meet our potential.
Below is the superintendent’s letter to her principals, two things you be the judge and notice it says, share if you want, not hey if anybody has some misconceptions lets try and clear them up.
Team Duval Principals
I have received questions recently about our policy and practice related to student retention. This note is to clarify my philosophy on this issue with you. Please feel free to share this with your teachers and schedule your own staff conversation on this. This is an important topic for collective dialog.
While there is no directive to completely eliminate retentions in our schools, there has been an effort throughout the district to raise awareness of the high number of students beingretained.  Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to review the progress of students who are in danger of failing and provide the appropriate supports to help our students promote to the next grade level.

This review is not intended to diminish professional judgement of teachers in any way.  Retention is built into the system, through state assessments for third grade students, credit requirements for students to enter high school, and graduation requirements that provide additional hurdles that can delay on-time graduation.  As with any profession, there is a time when it becomes necessary to examine systems to ensure effectiveness.  Our current data suggest retention is one area in which our systems may need further refinement.  I do hope these efforts, along with the actions already taken by our teachers each day to meet individual student academic needs, will improve our promotion rate compared to previous years. We see evidence of teachers working on this goal in our classrooms each day.

The increased emphasis on student retention is a result of some particularly concerning district data. Approximately 16% of all current Duval County Public School students have been retained at least once during their educational careers. Among those retained, 58% are African Americans, which is more than all other subgroups combined.  Across the district, we have ten year olds sitting in second grade classrooms and sixteen year olds enrolled in our middle schools. We have individual cases where children were retained as many as six times during their experience in school. This has contributed to a rise in our state dropout rate, reported at 5.3% (2016-17).

  
Retentions are also having a significant impact on student graduation and other important social metrics. When analyzing the 2017-18 graduating class, 79% of the students who did not graduate had one or more retentions while enrolled in our school district. This impacts Jacksonville on a larger scale.  A recent analysis revealed that 72 percent of former students arrested under the age of 21 (between August 2017 to July 2018) did not complete their high school diploma. Of those former students, 62% were retained at least once.
As we create a culture of meeting individual student needs in a district of our size, I recognize there are situations where retention becomes a serious consideration.  In those cases, we must strongly consider the known negative effects of retention, and we must be certain that appropriate instructional interventions have been provided prior to making this final determination.  In other words, we must be confident that we have done all we can do, and retention should be carefully determined as the best remaining educational strategy for that student.
Research indicates that retention as early as elementary school puts a child at a higher risk of failing to achieve a high school diploma and dropping out of school.  For this reason, we need to continue to monitor our students through early warning systems to safeguard student success. These systems will improve our capability to identify students who may be at risk for failure and make sound strategic decisions regarding instructional practice.  Through close monitoring of individual student progress, we are better able to provide the appropriate support, and in the end, more children will be successful in moving to the next grade level. 
As we raise awareness regarding this issue and begin to look carefully at individual students who are at risk for failure, we may find multiple paths to achievement. For some, the many intervention strategies and methods of providing tiered support have and will continue to be successful in helping struggling students succeed.  For others, a deeper review may reveal that mental health or other wrap-around services are needed to ensure their academic success.  Our district has made a substantial investment in academic coaches, interventionists, mental health resources, and other supports to ensure each child receives the high quality education that I know our district is capable of making happen each and every day. 
I hope that this clarifies not only the notion that this is not a directive, but the start of a collaborative conversation with our teachers and support staff to ensure we create a culture of success for the children who enter our classrooms. As school leaders, please assure your instructional staff that we value their professional judgment and are committed to continuing this dialog as we prepare for an outstanding launch to our 2019-20 school year.
Kind regards,
Dr. Diana Greene
Superintendent of Schools

One Reply to “DCPS fails students when it refuses to fail students”

  1. Ms. Anderson is mistaken if she thinks that we are "coming out of an era of isolation, fear and retribution." It is an epoch. I was threatened with progressive discipline if I refused to change all failing ESE grades to passing. They decided to use the evaluation to punish me instead. Chris is correct when he refers to "bullies masquerading as administrators."

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