Zero for Conduct

Teacher Joseph C'de Baca says Denver's public schools are failing Hispanic students--by passing those who don't deserve it.

"I said, 'How do I give a whole semester's worth of work in one day and evaluate this kid?' He said, 'See what you can do.' The kid graduated, but I didn't give him any credit. You have to assume it was waived."

Apel says he fielded more eleventh-hour credit requests last year than before, but that may have been because he was working in a special program for seniors to help them catch up on credits and graduate. Jim Trevino, who was the principal at Lincoln last year and is now at Horace Mann Middle School, says teachers may not realize that what appear to be credit waivers could actually involve substituting credit for independent study or comparable courses. Trevino says that he made a few such substitutions last year--for example, giving credit for an advanced foreign-language class instead of an English class or granting math credit for a business class--but that none of the substitutions reduced the total number of hours required for graduation.

"It shouldn't be done for students who are trying to take the easy way out," he says.

Yet the controversy over what may be isolated cases of credit waivers begs the larger question of whether a DPS diploma guarantees a certain proficiency in basic skills. The continuing poor performance of Hispanic high-school students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, coupled with the fact that fewer than two-thirds of those students receive satisfactory grades (C or better) in their courses, suggests that it does not.

"I think what we're seeing is not an outright conspiracy but a survival mechanism," says Kathy Escamilla, a University of Colorado at Denver education professor who's been a staunch critic of DPS's bilingual program. "These principals are between a rock and a hard place. They're under enormous pressure to reduce the dropout rate and to graduate more students."

The problem, everyone agrees, begins in elementary school. Superintendent Moskowitz is so dissatisfied with the achievement levels of DPS elementary students that he's promised to "blow up" entire school staffs that don't turn things around. Yet the latest efforts to raise standards--which includes an influx of special reading assistants, increased testing and a mandatory summer literacy program for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders who are lagging behind--appears to be on a collision course with a widespread belief within DPS that teachers should try to avoid flunking students, no matter how richly they might deserve it.

Last fall an idealistic young teacher began her first year at one of the Denver elementary schools targeted for reform. Naively, perhaps, she handed out Fs in the first grading period to students who didn't do their homework or didn't show up for class. Her principal, she says, made her change all the Fs to Cs. "I was told that it would be bad for their self-esteem for these kids to get Fs," she says.

It's a familiar viewpoint, advanced not only by administrators but by teachers themselves. Students who get a steady diet of Fs, the reasoning goes, quickly become discouraged and drop out of school. "Some teachers are into this thinking that the kids are so deprived, we're going to pass them because they've had failures all their life," says one teacher who was at West last year.

But C'de Baca considers such a feel-good approach to education to be disastrously shortsighted, an exercise in victim-mongering that only compounds the dropout rate once the students enter high school.

"They get passed on through elementary school, and they come into ninth grade with sixth-grade reading skills," he says. "They can't catch up, and that's one reason the dropout rate is so high. We're trying to repair all this stuff that should have been done years before. We relabel the remedial and say it's reform."

In some cases, he charges, high-school principals have sought to perpetuate the grade inflation by putting pressure on teachers who've given an exceptional number of failing grades--by, say, calling them into the office for frequent consultations and dispatching observers to sit in their classrooms and evaluate their teaching methods. The message soon spreads around the building, he says, that adhering to high standards could get a teacher into trouble.

C'de Baca maintains that the push to control teacher's grading policies comes from DPS top officials, but he has yet to produce any evidence to support that assertion. Assistant superintendent Seick says it's not true. The district sends out a computerized summary of grade percentages for every course to high-school principals, she explains, but principals decide what, if anything, they do with the information.

"It's not a directive from this office," she says. "But if I'm a principal and I see that you're failing three-fourths of the kids in your class, that brings up a definite red flag. We need to get together and figure out what we can do to see more students succeed. This is what principals do."

North principal Joe Sandoval says he's never called a teacher on the carpet for giving Fs. "If the teacher has a high absentee rate in a particular class and the failure rate is going up, so what?" he asks. "The reason most kids fail is because they don't attend."

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