Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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Every spring, as the end of the school year approaches, I start losing sleep. I’m a D.C. public high school teacher, so it should be the most rewarding time of the year, full of pomp and circumstance. Instead, I’m haunted by an agonizing question: Are my students ready for the next level? And its corollary for each student: to pass or to fail?

Our city and country are currently in the midst of an epidemic of passing. Our high schoolers are graduating at increasing rates, while measures of proficiency remain stagnant—we are passing kids who haven’t learned. It’s a problem with roots in the very design of our educational system, but it’s also one we can solve. 

The author, Rob Barnett Credit: Darrow Montgomery

So, imagine you’re me. It’s the last day of the year, and final grades are due.

Most of your students did fine. They attended class, paid attention, completed the assigned work, and learned. Some students struggled, others excelled. That’s life. You’re comfortable passing them on to next year’s courses.

But there’s at least one student who gives you pause. “Robert” is a sweet kid with a lot of potential, but he missed a lot of class. Some of his absences were for health reasons (although he never completed the make-up work you provided). Other times, you heard he was just cutting class. Even when he was present, he was often distracted: his eyes on his phone or his head on his desk. He entered your room three grade levels behind, and his work, when he completed it, showed major gaps in understanding. You’re pretty sure his performance on the state test will fall short of grade-level expectations, though neither you nor he will know his score until next fall. His final project for your class was due three days ago, and he still hasn’t submitted anything.

You’ve tried to help Robert catch up, but to no avail—there’s a lot going on in his life. You’ve offered to stay after school, but Robert has to pick up his younger sister, drop her off, then go to work. You’ve tried calling his mother, but her number changes frequently, and even when you leave a message, she doesn’t call back. You’ve reached out to counselors and administrators and social workers. They may have time for a quick conversation with Robert, but each of them is responsible for 250 other students too. (You, by comparison, only teach 125.) You’ve given up your lunch period and bought Robert snacks and encouraged him in every way you know how. Sometimes, it has worked. More often, it hasn’t.

It’s clear to you that Robert hasn’t truly mastered the content of your course. So what should you do?

Red pill: Give him a failing grade and have him repeat the course next year. Is that best for him?  He knows some of the course content—won’t he be bored re-learning that? His life will still be messy, so will a second time through your course be any different? Or will he be in exactly the same precarious position next spring?

Blue pill: Give him a passing grade, which means he’ll go on to more advanced courses next year. Is that best for him? He knows some of the course content, but will that be enough of a foundation for him to master what’s next? Or will he be in exactly the same precarious position next spring?

The Matrix, and the reason you’re losing sleep: You’re under tremendous pressure to see Robert pass.

It’s the last day of the year, and final grades are due. What do you do?

***

Robert’s case is not unique. Nor, for that matter, is the dilemma which I, a math teacher in D.C. Public Schools, face not only every year but every day: What should I do with students whose learning doesn’t fit neatly into the scope and sequence of my curriculum? It isn’t just Robert who causes me to lose sleep. It’s Maria, whose brilliance on stage earns her a free pass during play season. It’s William, whose sunny demeanor and B average mask the fact that he really doesn’t understand what x in an equation represents. It’s Destiny, whose jokes dull the boredom she feels when she masters new concepts immediately and must wait for her peers to catch on.  

Yet each year, these students—these brilliant, unique sparks of potential—will all receive the same thing: a year-long course covering certain material in a certain amount of time, resulting in a single, binary outcome: pass or fail? Blue pill or red pill?

Increasingly, both nationally and here in D.C. Public Schools, that outcome has been the blue pill of “pass.” Nationwide, the class of 2015’s high school graduation rate of 83 percent is an all-time high. In the District, graduation rates reached a record 69 percent for the class of 2016, a five-point increase from the previous year and the largest such gain compared to any state in the country. In October 2016, then-President Obama visited Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, which graduated 100 percent of its students, to hold up the District as an example of the tremendous progress that American students are making.

But other statistics tell a much grimmer story. On 2015’s National Assessment of Progress, the national average reading score for twelfth-grade students was lower than the average score on the test’s first administration in 1992. The average mathematics score was not significantly different from that test’s first administration in 2005. Just 37 percent of twelfth-grade students were judged proficient or better in reading, and only 25 percent achieved that level in math; 28 percent of students were below the basic level in reading while 38 percent were below basic in math. Meanwhile, 83 percent of students graduated.

The gap between proficiency and graduation rates in D.C. reflects this nationwide trend. In 2016, results on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Career and College (PARCC) rated 21 percent of DCPS students as “college and career ready” in tenth-grade English, and 11 percent as “college and career ready” in Geometry. But 69 percent of twelfth-graders (who do not take the PARCC test) graduated. At my own school, 18 percent of students were proficient in reading, 1 percent were proficient in math, and nearly 80 percent crossed the stage.

Tests are crude instruments—even the best have their flaws and limitations. Both the NAEP and PARCC exams have been heavily scrutinized: Many critics believe the NAEP’s standard of proficiency is unnaturally high, while the PARCC has proved so controversial that many states have abandoned it altogether. Yet, in D.C. at least, they are the metric by which the District has chosen to assess its students. When 69 percent of students graduate in a school system where only 11 percent of students are rated as proficient in tenth-grade math, the conclusion is inescapable. We are graduating students we have failed to educate.

***

Given all of this, how in the world are these kids graduating?

The answer lies in lower standards, both nationally and in D.C. Alabama, for instance, saw the nation’s second-highest graduation-rate increase in 2014—the same year that the state removed its required high-school exit exam. Arizona now offers a “Grand Canyon Diploma,” which requires students to complete only two courses in English, math, and science—approximately half the number of credits required for a traditional diploma and fewer than the admission requirements for many colleges. Almost 90 percent of school districts now offer “credit recovery” classes, which attempt to cram a year’s worth of learning into abbreviated summer or after-school sessions. Is it any wonder that graduation rates are on the rise?

Not in D.C. In the same year that D.C. saw the nation’s largest increase in graduation rates, our public schools implemented a new grading policy designed explicitly to soften the impact of failing grades.  Under the old system, a student received no credit for earning an F; under the new system, a failing grade in any marking period was automatically weighted as a 59 percent in the calculation of a student’s year-end grade.  A student’s year-end average needed to be above 64 percent in any course to pass.

This change was technical, but its effect was significant.  By giving students an automatic score of 59 percent for failing in any marking period, it also dramatically lowered the bar for passing a class: a single grade of B- or higher in any marking period would suffice in order for a student to pass an entire course. Robert could earn a B in the first quarter, skip every single class for the rest of the year, and pass. 

To its credit, DCPS dropped this grading policy after one year, although it replaced it with a policy that still allows a student to pass based on a strong grade in a single marking period.  (Depending on the structure of a course, the current policy allows a student to pass for the year with a single grade of a B, B+, or A-). Yet the shifting grading policies illustrate the sometimes subtle ways the system can be manipulated to increase graduation rates without enhancing learning.

The grading policy has been changed, but a system in motion remains in motion. As graduation rates increase, and such increases become the standard by which growth in DCPS is measured, the pressure to “get students across the stage” flows downstream. High school principals and assistant principals are evaluated based on their students’ graduation and promotion rates. A principal whose school’s rates do not increase is considered “ineffective.”  Teachers, meanwhile, are evaluated based on the percentage of students who pass their teacher-created final exams. To earn the highest possible rating at my school, a teacher must give passing grades on 90 percent of final exams. At my school, talk of graduation rates and “getting kids across that stage” dominates faculty meetings from August to June.

The intense pressure to graduate students has fueled the development of an array of structures to ensure that students do not fail. In addition to extra-credit assignments at the end of each term, nine-week credit recovery classes, summer school, etc., the DCPS Secondary School Grading and Reporting Policy mandates that:

“Instructional support plans must be developed for all failing students. These plans should identify what each student needs to do to improve his/her grade. … All plans should be documented and approved by teachers; however, students can be given the opportunity to draft their own plans. … Teachers must maintain written documentation of all efforts taken to communicate the plan with the student and parent/guardian.”

That policy seems reasonable, but consider its implications. When a student like Robert starts to fail, his or her teacher must develop, document, and communicate a written plan for grade improvement—a significant administrative burden that teachers receive no additional time to complete. While this directs teachers’ attention to students who may need the most support, it also sends a clear message to teachers and students alike: the teacher’s job is to find a way for the student to pass.  And once Robert’s grade reaches the magic threshold of a D, such attention is no longer required.

To me, teaching in DCPS today means teaching in a setting where students’ failures become teachers’ responsibilities, where no stone is left unturned in pursuit of Ds, and where students who make little effort require teachers to go many extra miles. A teacher who teaches 125 students is expected to pass as many of those students as humanly possible, even when those students enter unprepared or attend infrequently. When students do fail, it becomes the teacher—always the teacher—who bears the burden of conducting, and documenting, repeated interventions. Simply passing students, regardless of proficiency, becomes the goal and the default.  Real learning becomes a desirable side effect.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Policies like these obviously serve politicians and school districts, who claim ample credit for higher graduation rates. Graduation rates are easy to track, easy to understand, and, apparently, easy to inflate. Measuring learning is much harder. Yet if a high school diploma is to mean anything, it is learning, and not graduating, that must be the goal of high school. A focus on graduation and promotion creates perverse incentives for teachers and administrators alike, which impede this sacred goal.  As a teacher I have earned high ratings, pleased administrators, and bolstered my school by passing along students who have not mastered my courses.  Passing these young people has cost me sleep, but I’ve done it.

And what about the students themselves? What is it like to be Robert at a school where a D average is seen as sufficient, where a failing grade is a teacher’s responsibility, and where passing —not learning —is the ultimate goal?

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The educators I know are deeply divided on the effects of policies that facilitate passing: Some feel that these policies keep struggling students engaged, while others argue that they lower the standards for everyone else. Leave no child behind, versus the soft bigotry of low expectations. Both sides, I think, want what’s best for Robert. The road to low proficiency is paved with good intentions.

But from where I sit as a teacher, it’s very hard for me to feel that policies like these, which prioritize promotion over learning, prepare my students for the world ahead of them. College and the working world require competence (not 64 percent grades), initiative (not hand-holding), and accountability (not partial credit for showing up). These are the values our policies should instill.  Anything less, and we set our students up for rude—and expensive—awakenings in college and beyond. Anything less, and we have failed. It is our students who will pay the price.

***

Put aside inflated graduation rates, and the truth remains: the majority of our high-school graduates are not prepared for college.  Why? What problems or obstacles keep our young people from learning, even as they continue to pass? And what can we do to fix that?

Explanations of our schools’ struggles tend to fall into two buckets. The first set are what I call structural: persistent poverty, funding formulas, institutional racism, etc. The basic message: Under current conditions, poor kids can’t learn. The second set is personal: bad teachers, lazy administrators, negligent parents, etc. The basic message: We can’t help.

Neither is satisfactory. Yes, structural factors are real—it’s hard to learn when you’re hungry—and I know every teacher has at times felt personally inadequate. But I’ve seen enough poor students succeed to know that every student is capable of real learning, whatever the challenges. The vast majority of educators and parents I know are doing their absolute best to help students succeed. What I wonder is this: With so many well-meaning people working so hard to educate such brilliant young people, how is it that we can be doing so badly?  

It’s the design of our entire entire school system. Specifically, it is a system in which year-long, pass-or-fail courses, whose students are grouped largely by age, create incentives that allow students to pass through high school without ever being required to learn anything. As a result, many don’t.

Say you drop into an average high school class one day. You’ll see 25 completely different students—each unique in terms of innate ability, background knowledge, mindset, motivation, interests, life circumstances, etc.—expected to learn at one uniform pace. Regardless of absences, prior experiences, anything and everything that makes students different from one another, every student is expected to learn the exact same things in the exact same amount of time.  Students, of course, don’t. Sal Khan, founder of the online learning platform Khan Academy, compares our system to building a house on a strict timeline, without checking to see whether the foundation or first floor is properly constructed—a process that “pretty much ensur[es] a variable outcome.” By the end of the year, it’s inevitable that students will have achieved different levels of content understanding.  

But for the most part, each student faces the same two paths at the end of the year. Repeat the entire course to fill in gaps in understanding, or move on to a more advanced course where gaps continue to widen? The teacher faces a similar choice: produce the documentation required to hold a student back, or let the student advance by default?  Red pill, or blue? 

The year-long course is a convenient method of education.  Teachers teach one lesson at a time, students move along with their peers, the school year runs neatly from August to June, and the cycle repeats itself every year. But think of the individual students: those who learn fast and those who need more time; those who have perfect attendance and those who miss weeks; those who want to be doctors, athletes, cosmetologists, lawyers, and everything in between. Is this really the best way to help each student reach his or her unique potential? And is there any feasible alternative?

There is. Over the years, many educational thinkers have suggested that we adopt an approach generally known as “mastery learning,” which requires each student to master one topic before moving on to the next and gives each student as much (or as little) time as she needs to master each topic. Fast learners don’t become bored and slower learners don’t become overwhelmed.  Every student learns every skill.

***

I’ve become convinced that mastery learning is the right model for my students and, with the full support of my school’s caring and devoted administrators, have spent the past three years trying to bring mastery-based practices into my classroom. I no longer lecture. Instead, I record all of my lessons and put my videos online. Students move through these lessons at their own pace, and they must show they understand one topic before advancing to the next. I think of myself not so much as a teacher but as a facilitator of inquiry.

This approach can be painful for students—most are not used to taking responsibility for their own learning. At the start of the year many students fall behind: They mistake my hands-off approach for leniency and spend more time in class watching YouTube than learning math. Yet over time, most students—none of whom likes being behind the curve—start to learn not only the content, but something more important: They discover HOW to learn. They learn to assess their own understanding, to ask for help when they need it, and to teach themselves and their peers without my guidance. By the end of the year, my classes run smoothly and efficiently.

Yet even this approach is limited by the traditional structure of my courses. I have 10 months, spread over four grading periods, to teach a given subject. I must also give mid-term and final exams in predetermined windows. Imagine a student who falls behind during the first quarter of the year. When the second quarter starts, should that student still be required to complete all first-quarter material? Red pill, or blue?

Try as I have to bring real, mastery learning into my classroom, I still face the dilemma of students like Robert—every year, every quarter, in some ways every day. As long as students take pass/fail, year-long classes, the impossible choice will continue to arise.

We need to dispense with traditional courses altogether.

***

Imagine if we divided each academic discipline into a series of topics and skills, arranged them in a logical sequence, and defined an end goal for each. For high school math, for instance, we might start with basic number operations and properties, then introduce algebra, use algebra to explore geometry and statistics, and end with the applications of calculus. We could follow the existing sequence of high school math, or create something completely different. Let veteran teachers and content experts sort that out. What matters is that each discipline has a logical, step-by-step sequence of topics and skills to be learned.

Next, we define the criteria for mastery. A student can show that he or she understands linear equations, or poetry, or chemical reactions, or the Civil War, in many different ways. Students can take rigorous tests, produce final projects, give oral presentations or anything in between—witness AP and IB courses that have both exam and project components. Again, let content experts write these assessments. What matters is that there is a clear way for each student to demonstrate his or her mastery for each topic or skill. Students would no longer have to worry about completion-based homework grades, or make-up work, or subjective participation grades that do little more than reflect teacher biases. (All of these are hallmarks of current grading schemes.) Students would only have to focus on demonstrating that they have actually learned.

Finally, we overhaul the structure of a traditional high school by assigning classroom teachers to topics or skills, and not to courses. My colleague and I would no longer each teach the same, year-long Probability & Statistics course. I might teach data collection and analysis while he teaches probability and decision-making. Classrooms would become places of specialized, targeted instruction, focusing on depth instead of breadth.

How do students learn at such a school? Simple: They work in Room A until they achieve mastery, then do the same in Rooms B, C, D, and so on. Students would learn at their own paces and move at their own paces as well. No student would move to more advanced material before he or she has demonstrated authentic mastery of prerequisite knowledge. Robert could no longer skate by with a 64 percent understanding (a D average), nor would he have to repeat an entire year’s work with a 63 percent (F). Instead, he would just have to learn.

Logistical challenges would abound—especially compared to the brutal efficiency of our current system. Would some students fly through the curriculum in two years, rather than the traditional four? Absolutely. Would other students lag behind, taking six months to learn a topic designed to be learned in two? Absolutely. We replace the red pill and the blue pill altogether. We stop worrying about how long it takes to teach a given discipline, and start focusing on how well students learn it.  Isn’t that the point?

***

A system like this would surely create new challenges for teaching and learning: At any time in any given classroom, students of different ages would inevitably be learning different sub-topics or sub-skills at the same time. In a traditional classroom, where a teacher lectures and students take notes, this is impossible. Yet with the aid of technology—online videos for each sub-skill, adaptive practice problems that adjust to a student’s level and explain correct answers, discussion boards for students to share knowledge—it becomes easy. Such a classroom, where a teacher facilitates but does not direct learning, might also encourage students to teach, and learn from, each other.

This style of learning might also help students develop something much more valuable than any particular skill or content knowledge: a sense of personal agency. Schools as currently structured breed helplessness. Students miss fundamental skills early on, lack the tools and confidence to tackle more complex assignments, and rely heavily on teacher assistance to complete assignments. Students learn quickly that they can get extra help and support by giving up. When it is a teacher’s responsibility to pass their students, it is no longer a student’s responsibility to learn.  

But what if it were? What if students had to teach themselves in order to advance through school? Success would breed success—a student who has authentically mastered skill A would feel (and actually be) capable of learning skills B, C, D, and so on. A classroom like this would create a virtuous cycle, in which real learning builds confidence, self-esteem, and perseverance. Who doesn’t take satisfaction in learning something new? The words “I can’t” would disappear from students’ vocabularies.

Finally, students in such a school would learn HOW to learn.  (Easier said than done.) One student might learn fractions by reading a textbook, another by watching a video, a third by playing with different-colored blocks, and a fourth by questioning her classmates. In a traditional classroom, students are expected to learn the same things in the same ways. A truly skilled teacher might find two ways to teach a concept. In a self-directed classroom, students become masters of their own learning. What matters is simply that they learn.

The sort of customized learning inherent to a student-directed classroom opens up one of the most exciting possibilities for this style of school: the possibility for students to design their own paths through high school. An alternative, college-style approach, which would set a minimum required standard of mastery in each subject and let students chart their own courses after that, would allow and encourage students to pursue their specific passions. William might attain a basic level of competence in social studies while taking college-level calculus classes. Maria might master the fundamentals of math and spend her free time painting. Destiny might achieve proficiency and focus on an internship. At graduation, every single one of them would be ready for his or her unique future.

***

I am not the first person to suggest such an approach to learning.  In fact, several schools have tried it. At Desert View Middle and High School, a public charter school in Yuma, Arizona, students sit at cubicles and work through online modules in all subjects, which are supported by daily, subject-specific, small-group sessions. The school’s test scores outpace state averages despite per-student funding that is roughly 20 percent less than traditional public school funding. At Chicago International Charter School West Belden, students learn from individualized “playlists” in multi-age classrooms. In 2015, West Belden students “learned as much in one year as the average U.S. student learns in two.” 

These schools represent important and valuable attempts to prioritize mastery. Yet each is limited. Charter schools like Desert View and West Belden reach small, self-selecting groups of students. We need to open schools like these up to students like mine.

Would schools like this be challenging for students? Absolutely. True learning is hard. Might some students fail to reach a basic level of proficiency before they decide to leave? Probably. But we do students no favors by letting them pass easily. Stopping the automatic social promotion of students who struggle to learn may seem callous, but unlike our current approach, a mastery-based approach grounded in the belief that these students CAN learn at a high level—even if it takes a little longer. Every student just needs the chance.

Finally, the idea of a mastery-based school opens up tantalizing prospects for the reform of our entire educational apparatus. Why offer a two-month summer break when lessons are online and learning is individualized? Why hold school only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.? Why limit classrooms to students under the age of 18, when the criteria for each classroom are based on understanding?  The possibilities, like our students’ potentials, are endless.

***

Think back to Robert. He, and you his teacher, are facing an unenviable choice. But what if there were another way? What if, instead of making him repeat your course, you identified his specific areas of weakness and helped him master those? What if, instead of sending him along to material for which he is unprepared, you made him prove his readiness—with true mastery, not a D? What if, instead of having to choose between two inadequate options, you could actually help him learn?

The technology to do this exists. The online content, at least for math, exists; what doesn’t can be created. The need of our students, the passion of our educators, and the limitless ability of both, are most certainly there. We just need to summon the courage, the political willpower, and the humility to make the change.

Because “Robert” is real. He graduated—I chose the blue pill—and last winter I ran into him near school. He was working at a local pizza chain and planning to start taking classes at UDC soon. We had a nice conversation, save for my troubling realization that, if he ever takes a college statistics class, he’ll be nowhere close to ready. Yet I admire his ambition despite his challenges, and I wish Robert a life of academic and professional success. I just wonder: Have we really prepared him for it?