Due to a series of revelations in DC-area media, the administrators of DCPS have finally pledged to act on what WTU members had been saying for years: there is pressure on DCPS administrators, principals and teachers to change student grades and attendance records in order to present a rosier picture than actually exists.

The revelations were first about the practices and policies at Ballou High School, but it soon became evident that padding grades and allowing students who have poor attendance records to graduate are widespread.

To help identify the cause of and solutions to the problem, the WTU conducted a survey among members. Results were presented at a packed press conference. They showed that what is needed to solve the problem is overhauling school culture and policies through genuine collaboration between teachers and school administrators. EmpowerEd, which includes WTU members, contributed to the wording of the survey questions.

The findings revealed two pervasive problems: administrators pressuring or coercing teachers to change grades and attendance records through threatening to give them poor evaluations and someone other than teachers changing recorded grades or attendance records.

Chief among the recommendations coming out of the study is an overhaul of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system and the establishment of true collaboration between teachers and administrators so that teacher voice is included when policies are being developed and implemented. Teacher voice at the front end would create a real check to prevent the kinds of problems that have been occurring.

A total of 616 teachers responded to the survey.

In addition to answering questions, teachers were given the opportunity to write comments. All survey responses and comments were anonymous, but respondents did identify their schools.

“I have been pressured to change grades at both high schools I worked at,” commented one teacher.

“As far as attendance,” said another teacher, “the attendance report I receive nightly in my email does not accurately reflect the attendance I input during the day.”

“Pressures are put on us daily to change any grade below 50% to a 50% if a student ‘attempts.’ An attempt can be just writing their name,” another teacher commented.

WTU President Elizabeth Davis said that since the inception of mayoral control of District of Columbia Public Schools a decade ago, there has been a hard-charging effort to show school and student performance improvement. Yet DCPS teachers have consistently raised questions about the effectiveness of reform policies and the validity of publicized improvements.

“Dishonest data hides reality and tragically hurts students who need help. We need an overhauled system that honestly reports student performance and uses the data constructively to provide the remedial help kids need to progress to the next grade, college and career,” Davis said. “Teachers are being pressured to make the changes or else their evaluations will be affected. Educators and administrators together need to redesign the evaluation system so that it isn’t being used to distort teachers’ efforts and ignore the progress that they make with students who are behind one or more grade levels.”

Highlights of the survey results:

  • Nearly half of respondents, or 46.5 percent, said they felt pressured or coerced by a school administrator either to pass a student who didn’t meet the expectations for passing or to change a grade. The pressure is especially acute in high-poverty schools (so-called 40/40 schools—the district’s 40 lowest-performing schools, which were targeted by the former chancellor for a 40 percent increase in proficiency rates), where 50 percent felt pressured. Of the high school teachers who responded, 60 percent said they felt pressured.
  • “At my former school,” said one teacher, “I was pressured by emails, [in] conferences with my administrators and during staff meetings to pass students who were not completing work or coming to class and to mark students absent who were not reporting to class.”
  • Calling it social promotion, a teacher wrote, “It’s no wonder students get to 12th grade and cannot read, they know they are going to pass no matter what effort they put forth from elementary through high school.”
  • Almost half, or 47 percent, including 61 percent of high school teachers, said their school set up barriers, such as excessive documentation, to prevent teachers from failing a student.
  • “The amount of work and documentation that is required for a student to fail (even if they never come to class) is overwhelming. There is no way it can all be done, therefore I feel pressure to pass all of my students,” a teacher wrote, adding, “It’s unfair to the teacher and the students who come every day ready to work and learn. It makes me want to leave education. It needs to stop.”
  • Nearly one-quarter, or 22.2 percent, said they submitted grades or attendance records that had been changed by someone else at the school.
    • One teacher commented: “I remember inputting grades and then logging back into the system to notice that they had been changed by someone else.”
  • Just over half, or 55.1 percent, said their school’s graduation percentage is not an accurate reflection of student performance.
    • “I saw at least three students graduate in June 2017 and they didn’t even show up for 20 days and didn’t take my final exam,” a teacher wrote.
    • Another teacher commented: “There have been seniors to fail my core class and still graduate. I have also felt pressure to change grades or provide students with frivolous assignments to make up a school year’s worth of work.”
  • Just over one-quarter, or 26.4 percent, felt school administrators do not trust their professional judgment regarding student achievement. For high school teachers, 34 percent felt mistrusted.

The results of the survey demonstrate the need for systemic solutions to address systemic problems. These recommendations include:

  • Overhauling the teacher and principal evaluation systems so that their chief purpose is to help improve educator and student performance. Under the current IMPACT teacher evaluation system, teachers and principals face high stakes and unacceptable pressure to show improved student performance, which has put teachers in a terrible position.
  • Instituting real collaboration between teachers and school administrators. Teacher voice and trust must be embedded in the system so that educators are part of the team that identifies problems and develops district policies. The chancellor’s suggestion of an ombudsman is not enough. Teachers need to be at the table and their voices heard and respected.
  • Analyzing and developing student interventions early in students’ education must be a product of whole-team collaboration, rather than placed exclusively on individual teachers’ plates, so that social promotion in early grades does not become chronic student absenteeism in later grades.
  • Collaboratively, analyzing and finding solutions to the chronic high rates of teacher and principal turnover. This high churn rate has affected schools’ professional culture, the lack of teacher voice and the drive to hit numeric targets.

DCPS leadership has pledged to work closely with the WTU to build trust, teacher leadership and increased teacher voice, in order to shift the school culture from fear, deceit and mistrust to true partnership focused on fixing, in a collaborative manner, the serious problems raised in the survey.