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Mastering Mediocrity: Are we really passing kids?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Kristin Graham, The Inquirer’s education reporter, has recently written articles about the pressures of passing underperforming or de facto, failing students in the school district of Philadelphia. In her most recent June 21st article, Graham notes “the pressure to pass students- even those who rarely go to class or can’t read – is pervasive… So I beg to ask, are we really passing students?”

If we could really be honest with ourselves, most people live in a state of mediocrity. Mediocrity is as close to the bottom as it is the top. This is reflective in the School District grading structure where a 65 is considered passing. Grades of 64-60 can’t even be entered into the report card online grading system.

At my son’s KG’s school, Mastery Charter, they make a deliberate attempt to push students above mediocrity. Students have to master the subject with a grade of 76 or above. Any grade below 76 is considered incomplete and the student has to repeat the class. KG balked at this standard. When he was in the 10th grade he received a 71 in his Algebra I class; he had to repeat the class and not move on with his cohort.

He protested, “Dad, if I was at a regular public school I wouldn’t have to repeat this class… I hate this stupid school”.

I am glad Mastery Charter sets high standards. KG is not atypical of most school age students, or most people for that, matter. We want to do enough, to just get by. To pass. But how do we move students beyond from just wanting to pass to working to exceed. How do you set higher standards for achievement?

Paul Tough, in a New York Times article “What It Takes to Make a Student” describes the failures of many public schools, “the evidence is now overwhelming that if you take a average low-income child into an average American public school, he was almost certainly come out poorly educated."

Raising standards alone is not the answer. I have pointed out in professional development session(s), that we need to figure a way to get students to meet us half way in the teaching and learning process. We can raise standards all we want but if we do not get student and parent buy-in, it will be an uphill battle. In Graham’s piece “Teachers cite intense push to promote" she points out how the responsibility of learning has shifted more on teachers. “Students use to be responsible for showing up prepared, learning the material and passing. Now, teachers say it’s their responsibility to make sure students pass.”

At the time when KG had to repeat his Algebra 1 class and not move up with his cohort, he thought he was the most unlucky kid in the world. I said, to myself it’s better that he learn to deal with failure now, when it‘s cheaper, than go to college unable to deal with the academic challenges and drop out. -I won’t talk about my older sons’ college smorgasbord experiences.-

Now KG is entering his 5th year at Mastery Charter as a senior. He has matured and I believe benefited from not passing his Algebra I class. He will be taking 2 Advanced Placement courses next year. This summer he will be saving his money -this might be news to him- from his cool summer job at the Constitution Center, for college expenses.