Campbell’s Law Meets Graduation Rates: The Ballou High Edition

Recently, D.C.’s often-troubled Ballou High School made the national news, as everyone of its 164 seniors graduated and was accepted to college. Unfortunately, this is yet another case of Campbell’s Law colliding with human nature. Here are some of the problems at Ballou (boldface mine):

An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. WAMU and NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a DCPS employee shared the private documents. The documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.

According to DCPS policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out…

I’ve never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write,” said Butcher, who has more than two decades of teaching experience in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw students like that at Ballou — and it wasn’t just one or two.

Another internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows that two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation requirements, community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

So Campbell’s Law kicked in:

…teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation…

Near the end of a term, Williams says students would appear, asking for make-up work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse, saying that there are policies, and if students don’t meet the attendance policy, there’s nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would ask how she could help students pass…

“[They said]’Just give him a D,’ because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn’t do the make-up packet,” Williams said.

Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. The school also required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.

Many teachers interviewed say they also were encouraged to follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn’t complete instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the work they missed or failed, it would likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than than 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.

During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren’t on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held for a few weeks after school. DCPS policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, however, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice — sometimes with two different teachers.

Credit recovery is increasingly used to prevent students from dropping out, but critics argue that credit recovery courses rarely have the same educational value as the original course and are often less rigorous. At Ballou, teachers said, the credit recovery content was not intensive and students rarely showed up for credit recovery classes.

So, of course, once teachers brought these problems to light, the administration supported them and moved swiftly to correct the problem. HA! WE MAKE THE FUNNY!

If teachers pushed back against these practices, they say the administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations. Last year, DCPS put school administrators entirely in control of teacher evaluations, including classroom observations, instead of involving a third party. Many teachers said they believe this change gives too much power to administrators. A low evaluation rating two years in a row is grounds for dismissal. Just one bad rating can make it tough to find another job. Teachers said that if they questioned the administration, they were painted as “haters” who don’t care about students…

Said one teacher who asked for anonymity to protect her job: “Either you want your professional career on paper to look like you don’t know what you’re doing, or you just skate by, play by the game.”

Playing by the game can have financial benefits. If an evaluation score is high enough to reach the “highly effective” status, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses…

Butcher, Brokenborough and Williams no longer work at Ballou. They received low teacher evaluations after the 2016-17 school year ended and were let go for various reasons. They believe they were unfairly targeted and have filed complaints through the local teachers union. Butcher and Williams found new teaching jobs outside D.C.; Brokenborough is waiting to resolve her grievance with DCPS.

But everyone blame the teachers unions, and not the management! Cuz America.

Snark aside, this is really tragic:

The teachers interviewed, however, said they feel the system ultimately reduces academic rigor, serving no one in the end. When these students leave Ballou and go off to college or the workplace, teachers feel they aren’t prepared to work hard.

One current teacher says that as a black teacher teaching predominantly black students, graduating these students is an injustice.

“This is [the] biggest way to keep a community down. To graduate students who aren’t qualified, send them off to college unprepared, so they return to the community to continue the cycle,” the teacher said.

As one teacher noted, these students enter high school unprepared. Increasingly, I find myself agreeing with Marc Caleb Rossiter’s Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothing: we need a strong remedial track, akin to the Israeli ulpan, but for other subjects as well.

Update: Ballou High’s principal has been reassigned.

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2 Responses to Campbell’s Law Meets Graduation Rates: The Ballou High Edition

  1. afeman says:

    Reassigned, in the manner of a priest

  2. John Magoun says:

    The situation sounds quite similar to the high school I taught at in the Bronx in the late 2000s. The principal felt pressure from the city to raise the graduation rate, and the teachers received the same pressure in turn. Grades were inflated, schoolwork simplified to be accessible, credit recovery was available, make-up “projects” at a semester’s end replaced work undone due to absences, etc.

    The note at the end, that many of these students are unprepared for high school work in the first place, is important. It’s hard to teach 12th grade economics when no one in the room can figure out 10% of 70 (“can we use our phones?”). There were, certainly, many kids who worked hard and were capable students, but they were a distinct minority and even they were not as ready for advanced (i.e., college) work as they may have thought, since they were comparing themselves to artificially lowered standards.

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