Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Teacher Grows Disillusioned After a ‘Fail’ Becomes a ‘Pass’


Several weeks into his first year of teaching math at the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan, Austin Lampros received a copy of the school’s grading policy. He took particular note of the stipulation that a student who attended class even once during a semester, who did absolutely nothing else, was to be given 45 points on the 100-point scale, just 20 short of a passing mark.

Mr. Lampros’s introduction to the high school’s academic standards proved a fitting preamble to a disastrous year. It reached its low point in late June, when Arts and Technology’s principal, Anne Geiger, overruled Mr. Lampros and passed a senior whom he had failed in a required math course.

That student... had missed dozens of class sessions and failed to turn in numerous homework assignments, according to Mr. Lampros’s meticulous records, which he provided to The New York Times. She had not even shown up to take the final exam. She did, however, attend the senior prom....

Ms. Geiger ...characterized her actions as part of a “standard procedure” of “encouraging teachers to support students’ efforts to achieve academic success.”...

No, the issue is more what this episode may say about the Department of Education’s vaunted increase in graduation rates. It is possible, of course, that the confrontation ... was an aberration. It is possible, too, that Mr. Lampros is the rare teacher willing to speak on the record about the pressures from administrators to pass marginal students, pressures that countless colleagues throughout the city privately grumble about but ultimately cave in to, fearful of losing their jobs if they object....

“It’s almost as if you stick to your morals and your ethics, you’ll end up without a job,” Mr. Lampros said in an interview. “I don’t think every school is like that. But in my case, it was.”...

According to Mr. Lampros’s records, she missed one-third of the classes, arrived late for 20 sessions, turned in half the required homework assignments, failed 11 of 14 tests and quizzes, and never took the final exam.

...[The student's] mother spoke on her behalf. “My daughter earned everything she got,” she said. Of Mr. Lampros, she said, “He needs to grow up and be a man.”

From Michigan [following his resignation], Mr. Lampros recalled one comment that [the student's mother] made during their meeting about why it was important for [her daughter] to graduate. She couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend another senior prom in another senior year [which would have been her third].

Every lawyer learns (in my case, during my judicial clerkship) not to draw firm conclusions after hearing only one side of a case. But Samuel Freedman, a journalist I am inclined to trust, provides extraordinary detail on the specifics. It is a sad tale.

If we are to attract highly qualified teachers to the profession, and to retain them (without deadening them), we need to pay some heed to their academic standards and sense of integrity.

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