Teachers give grading policy an 'F' 2 Baltimore County instructors quit over pressure to promote

August 25, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Holly Coates and Kristi Zittle are the sort of teachers needed if public education is going to have a future: 20-something, sharp, enthusiastic, if a bit idealistic.

But this year, they said goodbye to teaching -- burned out, they say, by a system that pressures teachers to pass children who deserve to fail.

"If that's the way they want to conduct education, they should say it, not have a sign in the lobby saying 'Committed to Excellence,' " Coates says of a banner at Woodlawn Middle School.

"They should have a sign that says: 'We're going to pass you even if you do nothing.' "

The complaint is repeated throughout Baltimore County and the nation as educators wrestle with dueling pressures: to raise academic standards and, at the same time, to advance poorly performing students because of age -- a practice called social promotion.

One-third of the teachers polled nationwide by the American Federation of Teachers last year said that at least 20 percent of their students should not have advanced to their classrooms. Among urban teachers, about half reported the problem.

With political winds favoring personal responsibility, President Clinton and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley recently called for an end to unearned promotion. Five states now require students to pass tests before advancing; in coming years, Maryland plans to make high school students pass final exams in key subjects to graduate. Still, pressure to manipulate grades is a persistent complaint among local teachers, says Terry D. Zahren, spokesman for the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. And recent reforms have intensified the heat, he says, as officials turn up their scrutiny of school performance data.

"Principals get tremendous pressure to have 'passing scores' for their schools," Zahren says. "It goes directly to the teachers. The implication is that your school is on the line."

Woodlawn Principal Lucille Bergman disputes that notion. She says no one is leaning on her to enhance grades, and she doesn't believe that social promotion exists in her school. If children are failing, the teacher must figure out what makes each succeed.

But as Coates and Zittle found, Maryland's bid to boost standards is no simple matter.

The issue has driven a wedge between staff members at Woodlawn, where a high poverty rate, low test scores and racial isolation make it one of the county's more challenging teaching assignments.

One camp argues that teachers must meet children at their level: When a sixth-grader shows up with the skills of a third-grader, as many do, any progress should be rewarded with a passing grade because retaining students only fosters anger and alienation. In fact, some studies suggest that holding students back is less likely to improve achievement than promoting them to the next grade.

The other camp -- including Coates and Zittle -- says that many children do poorly because no one holds them accountable. These children learn as early as elementary school that they can put forth minimal effort and still pass.

Coates, 27, a magna cum laude graduate of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, began her teaching career at Woodlawn four years ago with seventh-grade math. Zittle, 26, a cum laude graduate of Towson State, started two years ago as a sixth-grade language arts and literature teacher.

Students not pushed

Both say they encountered students who were capable but had not been pushed. Many were raised by single parents with bad memories of school, who lacked the time or money to prod their children forward. The job fell on teachers.

By the first quarter of the 1994-1995 school year, Coates was handing out D's or flunking grades to nearly half of her students. In that same quarter -- Zittle's first in the classroom -- 35 percent of her students got D's or failing grades.

Administrators questioned teaching methods and demanded explanations.

"I was told I was unprepared for what I was getting myself into, meaning there were going to be repercussions," Coates recalls.

"At that point I was torn between dealing with the hassle of being called in or just passing the kids like other people do. It would have been much easier for me if I had collected my paycheck every two weeks and gone home."

Both teachers began scrutinizing their own styles, a process they acknowledge was helpful. They spent hours each week calling parents, sending home letters detailing expectations and warning parents whose children were failing. They offered children the chance to make up work.

Artificial boosting

But in the second quarter of the 1994-1995 year, Zittle buckled, as many do, and artificially boosted grades, bringing her failure rate down to 15 percent to 20 percent.

"I tried to justify it," she recalls. "Maybe they just had a bad quarter; they're good kids with good hearts. I did it again the third quarter, but I started feeling guilty because these kids weren't learning -- they weren't doing any homework and were doing the bare minimum in class."

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